“There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, and Ephrathite. He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. And Penninah had children, but Hannah had no children” (1 Samuel 1:1-2, ESV).
Names are important in the historical records of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. I’m just doing some rough searches on the internet at this point. Elkanah means “Created by God,” and maybe that name went to his head a little, as we’ll soon see. As for the “hill country of Ephraim,” Ephraim was located just north of Judah, and is where a large bulk of the action takes place in the history of Israel. It’s like starting a Western movie in the desert. The perfect setting for something important that’s about to take place.
As for Elkanah’s wives, Hannah means “favor” and Peninnah means “pearl, or precious stone.” We have here a parallel story to that of Rachel and Leah from the book of Genesis: Two women: one barren, one not. Both married to a relatively clueless man. Unlike Jacob, Elkanah has enough sense to give Hannah a double-portion of the sacrificial offering, rather than favoring Peninnah. Peninnah undercuts these efforts by provoking Hannah and irritating her (v. 6). When Hannah refuses to eat because of her grief, Elkanah tries one last effort to encourage her with the line “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
I’ve tried this line before with my own wife, (if not out loud, at least in my head): “Am I not more to you than which side of the sink to use to wash the dishes? Am I not more to you than laundry folded properly in the closet?” Yeah… no. I’m really not. And neither was Elkanah to Hannah. Truth be told I’d be more valuable to my wife if I actually listened to her on more occasions than not, and so would Elkanah.
It’s really too bad we don’t get more narrative commentary here. I wish we had more of Hannah’s perspective. So much is left to be read between the lines. Hannah sits outside the temple, more despondent than ever we can imagine. She prays and offers her firstborn to the Lord if He will only make her pregnant. Eli wanders over and mistakes her for a drunk. Finally, he manages to listen to her request, and he gives her a blessing: “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him” (v. 17). The history begins with a very lonely woman whom no one will listen to. Her name means favor or grace, and I wonder about the intention of this. God listens to her, even though none of these other men did, and she has the baby she had waited so long for. She names him Samuel “called by God, the name of God, or God has heard.”
In other words, God listens, and he’s now going to put a man on the earth who will also listen, both to God and to the people of Israel.
Hannah obeys her oath, even though she got what she wanted with no promise of having future children. She dedicates Samuel to the Lord, which means that Samuel will grow up and live the rest of his life serving in the temple. I’m sure the day she had to give away her only child thus far was very difficult. Her shame (under the cultural paradigm of the day) at not having children had been taken away, but now so was the child. Yet Hannah obeyed God even when it was hard. Even when she probably did not want to.
God, grant us grace to do the same.