Nestled in the beginning pages of 1 Samuel, we meet her. Not many details are given about her life. We don’t know if she had siblings, who her parents were, or what she liked to do in her spare time. We don’t know how old she was or what she looked like. Though many details are missing, we are given insight into two very personal matters of her heart: she was loved deeply by her husband, and she was barren. Her name was Hannah.
Seven years ago, I found this desire for children awakening within the depths of my heart. As I have told in previous posts, pregnancy did not come easily for us. A miscarriage and many months of waiting before we became pregnant with our firstborn gave us an early taste of the unexplained, difficult years of infertility we would later experience as we hoped for a second child. It was a bitter season, indeed, desperately wanting children and not being able to make that happen. In the course of that time, I, like many before me, found solace and companionship in the story of Hannah.
Hannah wanted nothing less than to give her husband Elkanah a son. Anyone who has ever longed for children can relate to the great suffering Hannah endured. The months of an empty womb passed her by just as they do a barren woman today. Yet none of us can identify fully with just how greatly she suffered, because Hannah was not Elkanah’s only wife. It’s not that she simply found herself in a polygamous relationship, for it was the custom in her day that a man take a second wife if his first wife could not bear children. Thus, the fact that Elkanah had a second wife only added insult to injury, since Hannah’s barrenness was most likely the cause for his additional spouse (source).
No matter the reassurance and love she found in Elkanah, Hannah carried with her the bittersweet longing for children (1Sam.1:1-5). The maternal desire was there, but it was a hope unfulfilled. While scripture does not expound upon how long Hannah suffered in her infertility, it gives us a clue through six simple words: “So it went on year by year” (vs.7a). Every women who has walked the painful road of infertility can read into this short sentence the immense heartache and loneliness that takes residence when there is a barren womb.
The pinnacle of Hannah’s story comes when she prayed a desperate, broken prayer. As she prayed and “wept bitterly,” the priest Eli observed her demeanor and thought her drunk. After first reprimanding her, he then learned the reason for her weeping: barren Hannah had asked God for a son. “Go in peace,” he told her, “and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” Blessing her with his spoken words, they parted ways. But now, Hannah was changed. Filled with hope, Hannah “went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad” (vs.9-18).
What had changed in Hannah? Why were things different this time? I would venture to say that this was not the first time Hannah had prayed for a son or even wept bitterly as she petitioned the Lord. Maybe she knew in her heart that this time, God would grant her request. Maybe she simply felt heard, and the painful ache of barrenness had been lifted. Whatever had changed, Hannah’s hope was renewed, and scripture reveals that “…in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son” (vs.19-20).
It has always been up to this point that I have identified with and rejoiced in the story of Hannah. Her story of barrenness has been my story, too. For the infertile woman, Hannah’s story is one of hope and comfort.
However, a curious thing happens in Hannah’s story, as it doesn’t end with verse 20. Tucked into the earlier verses of her journey, Hannah had made a vow to God when she asked Him for a child:
“O Lord…if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me…[and] will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (vs.11).
And so it was that after Samuel was born, Hannah nursed her son for the first three or so years of his life, then she weaned him and gave him completely to God.
I must confess, this part of Hannah’s journey has always made me uncomfortable. For most of my life, I’ve considered the conclusion of Hannah’s legacy in scripture to be rather anti-climactic. After all of her waiting, her longing and suffering, Hannah only enjoyed her son’s physical closeness for a brief time before she handed him over to serve the Lord in the temple (vs.21-28).
How could that be a satisfying end to her journey?
But Hannah’s story is not only a story of a barren woman becoming a mom, and we miss the great wisdom of Hannah if we limit her appearance in scripture to that. Hannah’s story is one for every woman, no matter if she is waiting to be a mother or is currently a mother.
When my first child, Kate, was born, I clung to her as if my life depended on it. I knew intimately every fear a mother can know as I cradled her vulnerable, tiny body. Those crippling fears visited me in my waking and in my sleeping, as the memory of our lonely wait for Kate was fresh on my mind. Once she was in our lives, I couldn’t imagine losing her.
But then my firstborn baby became a crawler. She became a toddler. She shed her baby fat and took on the form of a little girl. As she has, I have seen clearly in her blossoming life the reality of things: Kate’s heart is open to be shaped. This child I so desperately prayed for is finally in my arms, but the affections of her heart are up for grabs. The same is true for her siblings.
As I return to Hannah’s story now, seven years removed from the beginning of my journey to becoming a mother, I see her wisdom. I read about how she fulfilled her vow to the Lord, and from one mother to another, I get it. Although our culture is much different from Hannah’s, the reality is that my journey did not end when I finally became a mom, just as Hannah’s didn’t, either. Having children, being called “mom,” that is not solely what motherhood is about.
The prize is not having children. Motherhood is so much more than this.
Like Hannah, my greatest mission as a mom is to give my children back to the Lord. These little ones I love so fiercely have a war waging around them, and not every pursuit or passion that calls after them has their best interest in mind. Like Hannah, the most loving thing I can do for my children is to always draw their hearts to the ways of God. And like Hannah, the way I keep my children closest to my heart is by holding them high for the Lord to redeem.
As we celebrate Mother's Day, I pray that our hearts can reflect on our greatest purpose as moms, which is to raise our children to know and follow the One True God. We remember women in every part of the journey of motherhood — some of us are longing to be moms, some of us are young moms, and some of us are moms of moms. But all of us have this one great mission of reflecting Christ to the children in our lives.
No matter where you are in the journey, I honor you today and rejoice with you in our mission. We have the greatest of privileges as we guard the hearts of these children for whom we’ve prayed. May we, like Hannah, always be lifting them back up to the Father.
“For this child I have prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.” (1 Sam.1:28)