Although Hannah's story belongs with those of other ancient biblical tales about women, it has modern resonance. She was a woman who deeply wanted a child, but could not conceive. The Old Testament expression for a barren woman is that God had “shut up her womb” (1 Samuel 1:5). Hebrew women during Hannah's lifetime had a sacred duty to bear children; it was considered an honor and blessing from God to have sons and daughters. The identity of many women was tied to being a wife and mother; to remain barren equated with being cursed. For many such women, life had no purpose. In Hannah's case, her barrenness was made worse by the fact that she was one of two wives of Elkanah, a Levite from Ramahthaim-zophim near Mount Ephraim. Elkanah's other wife, Peninnah, produced many children and cruelly ridiculed Hannah (1 Samuel 1:2, 6).
Hannah's name derives from the Hebrew words for “grace” and “favor.” She was faithful and diligent in her love for God, praying to the Lord often to bless her with children. Hannah was so desperate to have a baby that she promised God that if she could conceive and bear a child, she would give the child to the service of the Lord as a Nazarite. The child would remain the rest of his life in the tabernacle. Hannah vowed that “…there shall no razor come upon his head” (1 Samuel 1:11), a symbol of a life of dedication.
The Law of Separation and Consecration, found in Chapter 6 in the Old Testament's Book of Numbers, presents guidelines for the children of Israel who took vows to become Nazarites. For example, when they separated themselves from the general populace to become servants of the Lord, they could not cut their hair, drink vinegar, wine, or strong beverages, or eat grapes, whether moist or dried.
Hannah felt deep misery and sadness over her barrenness, and went to pray at the tabernacle. The Hebrews believed that the tabernacle was the holy dwelling place of God on earth, and that it was originally established by Moses following precise geometric criteria. At the tabernacle Hannah poured out her heart to God. On a seat near one of the posts of the temple, the priest Eli saw her and noted that her lips were not moving in prayer. As she continued to pray, Hannah spoke words to God in her heart, but not through her mouth. Eli thought that she had been drinking and asked her, “How long wilt thou be drunken? Put away thy wine from thee” (1 Samuel 1:14). But Hannah explained to the priest that she was of a sorrowful spirit, and had not been drinking. Eli, believing her, took pity and prayed on her behalf.
Hannah and Elkanah rose the next day, went out before the Lord to say their prayers, and then returned home and were intimate. God had heard the prayers of Hannah and Eli, the priest; soon she was pregnant with a baby boy, which she named Samuel. True to her word, Hannah returned Samuel to God upon weaning him. She took him to the tabernacle and left him there to be raised as a Nazarite. He grew up to become an important Old Testament leader and prophet.
How did Eli, the priest, treat Samuel?
Eli treated Samuel as a loving foster father. Eli's own sons were priests, but they were wicked and corrupt and lay with women who congregated near the tabernacle. Eli was permissive and unable to discipline his own sons, but Samuel “grew before the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:21).
Every year after that, Hannah went to the tabernacle at Shiloh with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice and leave Samuel the little coat she had made for him. The Lord was pleased with Hannah and blessed her with three sons and two daughters (1 Samuel 2:21). These children were to bring her joy in place of Samuel, who lived with Eli at the tabernacle at Shiloh.
Hannah's story, in some ways, parallels the stories of other biblical women who were barren, including Sarah (Abraham's wife), Rebekah (wife of Isaac), Rachel (wife of Jacob), Samson's mother, Michal (first wife of David), and Elizabeth (wife of Zacharias). Some believe that God may have had a special purpose for each of these women, making them fertile in order that they might conceive and bear sons who, in turn, rendered important service to individual tribes of the Hebrews and their nation.