The Old Testament readings set for Morning Prayer on Monday and Tuesday this week (1 Samuel 1:1-2:11) tell the story of Hannah. She is an amazing woman, and an incredible exemplar of faith.
When we meet Hannah, she is longing for a child she has never been able to conceive.
Her husband, Elkanah, loves her, and is distressed at her distress; but he does not fully inhabit the covenant relationship between husband and wife. As much as he loves her, his ego is wounded that he is not enough for her, that she wants a child. He seems unwilling or unable to put himself in her position, or see through her eyes. Indeed, he cannot, for Elkanah has children by another wife, which further adds to Hannah’s pain.
Eli, the priest, sees Hannah praying in anguish, and assumes that she is drunk. He chastises her for being drunk in God’s house. He does not fully inhabit the covenant relationship between priest and people. Perhaps his ego is also wounded by this unseemly behaviour on his watch; but he is, at least initially, unable to see through Hannah’s tear-washed eyes.
With the best will in the world, Elkanah fails as a husband (as I fail as a husband). With the best will in the world, Eli fails as a priest (as I fail as a priest) (neither failure need be the final word). In contrast, Hannah understands and fully inhabits the covenant relationship between Yahweh and the Israelites.
If we see her prayer, in which she asks God for a son and promises that she will give him back to God, as an attempt to persuade God to act as she wants, we utterly misunderstand what is taking place. However familiar this approach is—"God, if you will only spare my life, or save my child, I will go to church for the rest of my days!”—this is not it. Hannah is not hoping to persuade a reluctant god, or give herself grounds to believe with more certainty. She could not be more sure, in evoking the covenant relationship between them; a relationship in which God is greater—able to do what she cannot—but in which both parties have agency. She calls on Yahweh to act in accordance with the covenant between them, to deliver her from barrenness; and reaffirms her side of the covenant, that, in response, she will dedicate her first-born son to the Lord.
As I said, an incredible exemplar of faith.
Sometimes, God may give us the benefit of the doubt when we try to win divine favour. In fact—and for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish—that favour has already been held out to us. Hannah knew it. You can know it, too.