Thursday, August 23, 2007

Elkanah and Hannah: Fulfilling a Vow

It would seem at first that the story of Hannah and Elkanah is just one more tale about a barren woman, for we have encountered barren women before in this quarter’s studies: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and the wife of Manoah. Then, too, this is a situation of a polygamous marriage which automatically sets the stage for trouble. But Hannah’s story is unique for several reasons.

The first three verses of this week’s lesson give us an accounting of all the characters (except Samuel) that will appear in the narrative through chapter three. Elkanah’s genealogy carries us back to his great-great-grandfather to show us that he is a Levite assigned to the tribe of Ephraim (1 Chron. 6:16-34). Next we’re told that this Levite had two wives, a permissible option, but one which God discouraged. Hannah is obviously the first wife since she is mentioned first. Infertility may cue us as to why Elkanah took a second wife. And the narrative also informs us that Elkanah is a devout worshiper of Jehovah.

After setting the stage, the author speeds on into the actual story where we’re told that there is serious friction between the two wives, which comes to a boil each year when the family makes their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh to worship before the Lord. From the narrative we discover that, like other barren women we’ve studied about, Hannah is the husband’s favorite wife. The fact that he shows his favoritism at this feast does nothing to assuage Hannah’s pain, and in actuality, may increase the taunts from Peninnah.

We are not told which festival the family attended each year, but from the narrative we gather that the offering brought by Elkanah is a thank or peace offering because he received back a portion of the meat to share with his family at the feast (Lev. 7:1-38). Elkanah’s attempt to console his beloved wife indicates that he really does not understand the depth of her pain and grief. He has children by Peninnah; Hannah not only has no children but must bear the curse of the community, viewed as a woman upon whom God has turned His back.

As the meal progressed, Peninnah’s taunts increase to the point where Hannah can endure no more and she is driven from the table in tears. She takes her pain to the only source of comfort—the Lord of Hosts. Fleeing the scene of pain, she runs to the tabernacle where she falls down before the presence of the Lord and prays an earnest petition for relief. In her desperation she decided to make a vow to God. She will bargain with Him: if He will give her a son, then she will dedicate that son back to Him as a lifelong Nazarite. Interestingly, God made no response to her vow. We cannot assume that Eli speaks for God since Eli had no idea what Hannah had just asked of the Lord, so his prayer of blessing was spoken blindly. He spoke using his authority as high priest, but he had no idea what he was signing off on.

Knowing that people would make rash vows, God provided means by which these vows could be redeemed, and even provided that a wife’s vow could be overturned by her husband (see Leviticus 27 and Numbers 30). However, later when Hannah finally informs her husband of what she has done, he does nothing to challenge her decision (1:22-23).

Another significant point to this story is that Elkanah and Hannah were contemporaries of Samson. They lived “next door” to the tribe of Dan and were well aware of Samson’s exploits against the Philistines. In the biblical narrative we find the counsel concerning the Nazarite (Num. 6:1-12), but until Samson the record is blank regarding anyone taking such a responsibility upon themselves. In the case of Samson it was God-preordained. Now, in the same historical timeframe, we find a barren mother who is willing to dedicate her longed-for son to God. She knows her son will be a Levite by inheritance, now she promises to make him a life-long defender of Jehovah. Samson had failed in keeping his Nazarite vow, but he did begin the war against the Philistines that would come to a head during the lifetime of Samuel.

So in this lesson during a time when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” we find at least one family who are still dedicated to the true God of Israel. Elkanah’s family is a direct contrast even to the high priest’s family. When Eli witnessed Hannah’s anguished prayer, he accused of her being drunk, a woman of wickedness (“daughter of Belial”). It was not only his physical eyesight that failed him. He had lost his spiritual eyesight also in that he could not distinguish between a true worshiper and his own sons’ wickedness (cf. 2:12).

Though Eli does not apologize for his gross misjudgment of Hannah’s character, he bids her to go in peace, praying that God would give her the desires of her heart. Unwittingly, through this blessing Eli passed judgment upon himself and his family. Within three years, a “man of God” came to Eli and prophesied of his downfall (2:27-36). A “faithful priest” would be raised right in Eli’s own household. Eli and his sons were an enacted parable of the fall of Israel. Due to their continued apostasy and spiritual blindness, they would cry for a king to rule over them so they could be like heathen nations around them. National apostasy leads to national ruin.

God never abandons His church, but raises from within it men with a message of correction. He always sends His message of redemption and call for repentance through specially selected men—“teachers of righteousness” (see A. T. Jones, 1893 General Conference Bulletin, sermon # 11; pp. 243-246; pagination of original text). Samuel was such a man. So were A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner. Their message of Christ and His righteousness was sent by God to correct the legalism that had clouded the spiritual eyesight of God’s remnant church’s leadership. Due to resentment and preconceived opinions, this message was “in great measure” kept away from the church and the world. The “light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted.”(Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 234-235).

God’s voice is speaking to His remnant church now through the Faithful Witness (Rev. 3:14-22). When that voice is heeded, then we can sing a song of triumph as Hannah did. Though feeble in her barrenness, Hannah girded on her faith, took hold of the promise of God and overcame her enemies. God is a God of justice. Even when all seems out of control and a lost cause, He has power to turn things upside down. In her song of triumph, Hannah draws the attention of the people to the covenant-keeping God who has power to deliver on His promise of redemption from slavery to sin. He has power to give that rest which is a fulfillment of the inheritance promised to all mankind (see The Everlasting Covenant, pp. 283-295; Glad Tidings 2002 edition).

—Ann Walper

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(Note: A series of CDs on these lessons recorded by this Robert J. Wieland is available from the office of the 1888 Message Study Committee: 269-473-1888.) Listen to the audio recording for Lesson 8 now in MP3 format. To listen as an podcast click here.