One mother in the Bible and one mother in modern times gave birth to her first child, weaned him, and then gave him over to another to rear. Today, we’ll consider both.
The story of Hannah’s sacrificial love and her firstborn son unfolds in the book of 1 and 2 Samuel. Hannah is introduced in another one of those Old Testament stories where a man has two wives. It may have been the norm in that culture, but from a woman’s perspective I can’t think of anything more devastating to a wife’s heart.
I don’t know if Hannah was wife number one or wife number two. In that culture, the first wife often held the most clout. Sometimes, spouses received the “wife” title, and sometimes they received the title of “concubine,” which can mean “second wife.” If this proverb, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” holds any merit, can you imagine the competition-cooking in that marriage? Elkanah was probably one weighty dude.
Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had children by him, but Hannah remained barren. A woman’s infertility was sometimes judged by a community as a punishment sent from God. Hannah ached to have a child. Besides the emptiness of her arms, the other wife, Peninnah, irritated Hannah on purpose so we’re told. Peninnah “provoked [Hannah] till she wept and would not eat” (1 Samuel 1:5-8).
On an annual trek to worship God at Shiloh, Hannah’s grief had multiplied and she poured out her heart to God in silent prayer and vows. She told God that if he would give her a son, she would consecrate him to the Lord’s service. She eventually had a son and named him Samuel “because I asked the Lord for him” (2:20).
When he was weaned and still very young, Hannah made good on her vow, and her little boy began living in Shiloh and helped the priest Eli. Each year, Hannah made a new coat and took it to her son, and since Elkanah and Hannah lived a short distance away, it’s possible they visited Samuel more than once a year.
Hannah’s story takes place during the time of the Judges of Israel, and when Samuel became an adult, he was the last judge before the Israelites clamored to have a king like the nations around them. Hannah’s faithful prayers, sacrificial love, and keeping of her vows brought a large group of people their last godly judge.
In more recent times Rees Howells (1879-1950) and his wife, Hannah, gave up their son. Back in the days before modern medicine, missionary couples knew that they risked their children’s health and lives by living in malaria ridden lands. The Howells had vowed to serve in Africa before they had children. When Hannah became pregnant, they felt God leading them to also name their unborn child, Samuel. They both had premonitions, knowing that they might have to give him up to fulfill their vows as missionaries. An aunt and uncle with the last name of Rees met the child and adored him, offering to rear him as their own. Howells’ sister came into that family as a nursemaid, and all the pieces fell into place, similar to Miriam’s and Moses’ story.
Even though this modern Hannah’s heart shattered into tiny fragments at giving up her child, she didn’t want to break her vow to God to serve as a missionary. Howells recalls the morning his sister came to fetch their son: “I think in eternity, we shall look back on what we went through then, giving our best back to the Lord.” Howells continues, “We knew what it was to give money, health, and many other things, but this was the hardest test.”
If you think either of these women named Hannah hardhearted, then please read chapter 22 in “Rees Howells Intercessor: The Story of A Life Lived for God,” by Norman Grubb. Hannah Howells remembrance of that day, her lived-out-faith gives me courage to keep my lesser vows to God. Years later after their son’s formal education, he went to work alongside his birth father in the mission field. The son returned -- a gift from God’s own hand.
God notices when we sacrifice. He notices the causes for which we sacrifice. The biblical boy Samuel once heard God calling to him in the night. He finally figured out with the help and guidance of the priest, that God was calling him by name. May we each learn the value of awaking and greeting our days with little boy Samuel’s reply on our lips.
Index Card Scripture for Week Nine: “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).