“but to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved Hannah, but the LORD had closed her womb.”1 Samuel 1:5
In the Biblical narrative, the barren womb of the favoured wife is a recurring theme. It repeats itself through the generations–from Rachel and Leah; to Sarah and Hagar; to Hannah and Peninnah. It is the story of women who are seeking to manifest their destiny and the difficulties they face along the way.
For these women, the destiny is to become mothers.
In traditional societies, the birth of a firstborn son was believed to create security in a woman’s life. The first step was marriage. The second step was having children. Male offspring would ‘inherit’ their father’s legacy. In the event that Hannah was unable to produce an heir, her entire future was at stake. Even though she was the favoured wife, she would have been bereft in the event that something happened to her husband.
At the same time, the story isn’t so simple, either.
In Genesis, Joseph–the favourite child of Jacob and Rachel–was sold into slavery by his half-brothers. His journey would keep him locked in a state of exile for many years. By the time he saw his half-brothers again, they didn’t recognise him.
The reality is that while infertility was and continues to be a significant issue for many couples, it has never been the sole source of suffering for women. Having a male child does not solve–and will not solve–all the problems that women face. We know this.
No matter how blessed we are, we will still need more blessings to be bestowed upon us in the future.
Nevertheless, when a wish is granted, a turning point occurs. It is a signal that something has changed. At the same time, the future continues to remain uncertain. For Hannah, the turning point comes when she decides to go to the sanctuary at Shiloh on her own to plead with God for a male child.
The Power of Prayer
As for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard.1 Samuel 1:13
Prayer is a dialogue that we have with God. We all have stories about the many times that God heeded our call. Our prayers not only take into account our present needs, but also have to take into account the needs of others–which in this case was Hannah’s unborn child.
To be in a place of prayer is to be in a state of humility and thanksgiving. It is when we are free to express our deepest woes, sorrows and desires.
In Hannah’s mind, it must have felt like a lost cause and a hopeless situation with a dead end. There was a great deal of uncertainty in her life, especially with regards to the future. At the point when all hope seemed lost, the tides announced the coming of a child. A child who would be the bearer of a great destiny.
For Hannah, Rachel and Sarah, it would be no accidental or planned birth; but a fortuitous one that came as a pleasant surprise.
At the same time, a birth is not ‘The End’ and neither is it ‘The Happily Ever After’.
Life does, indeed, go on.
The Late Bloomer
Polygamy was not uncommon in the ancient world. In Biblical literature, polygyny had no bearing on the affection that the husband had for his favoured wife. It is a difficult concept for modern readers to grasp, let alone accept. Some of us now dismiss these as stereotypical stories that cast women in outdated gender roles. But when we diminish the importance of stories such as these, we miss the deeper message.
Some women are late bloomers. It takes them–their minds and their bodies–time to mature. It takes time for the right place, the right circumstances and the right moment to all come together before the clock strikes and they can give birth.
However, in the interim–and during the long waiting period–the wife who is a late bloomer would experience and undergo an extended period where strong emotions such as sorrow, despair and jealousy wreck havoc within her being. Her sense of despair would be further exacerbated by the presence of a rival who had no problem bearing children. The ‘rival’ typically already had quite a few children–usually with a husband whom they both had to share.
Her rival, however, would provoke her bitterly to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.1 Samuel 1:6
The phrase ‘closed her womb’ is repeated twice. This suggests that periods of infertility–or a general lack of creativity–are not a permanent state of affairs. Neither is it ever too late to have a child. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was well past childbearing age when she gave birth to Isaac. She even thought it funny or comical that she may bear a child during her advanced years, but she did.
In choosing to see these Biblical stories through the lens of modernity and conclude that they are outdated; readers sometimes fail to see that the narrative is drawing our attention to women who experience the gift of motherhood later in life.
They were the late bloomers.
These days, getting married late or having children late does not come with the same stigma that it once did. Many women choose to stay unmarried and live perfectly prosperous lives. At the same time, the ageing population of our era is making it clear that this is not an ideal state of affairs. A nation’s immigration policies usually reflect whether or not the population is doing a good job of replacing themselves.
Nevertheless, even in this day and age, these stories stand tall as beacons of light–reminding us as women that it is our birthright to become mothers one day, if we so choose.
The presence of a rival and the way in which both women treat each other–either by gloating or by treating the less favoured wife unkindly–should serve as a cautionary tale to everyone.
In the Bible, the husbands are not oblivious to what is happening. At the same time, they do not want to get involved. But, the truth is, they are involved.
Their response is to stay aloof. It is not that they have no idea what is transpiring under their own roof. Rather, they expect the women in their lives to sort it out for themselves. The pain that the favoured wife is going through is not unapparent to the husband.
Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”1 Samuel 1:8
Elkanah sought to comfort her in her grief. At the same time, he doesn’t understand what she is going through. He understands that she is suffering. But what he cannot see is that his ‘favour’ is not enough for her to live on.
In the event that something were to happen to Elkanah, Hannah believes she might have to rely on the goodwill of Peninnah and her offspring. That is the source of the insecurity that she feels in her household. Hannah’s perception of her self-worth is at stake.
We cannot know if this is what she expressed when she prayed to God. But one thing is for sure, as we have children later in life; and have fewer children than what our foremothers did, the role of men has also evolved to include new possibilities.
The inability to have a child–or to provide for ourselves–can bring our physical insecurities to the fore. We may wonder what is ‘wrong’ with us and why others are given ‘blessings’ that we are not. We may sit and wonder, “When is it going to be my turn?” We may even begin to feel insecure about our age, especially as we get older and it seems that our ‘turn’ will never come.
We don’t know why Elkanah favoured Hannah. We don’t know why Hannah is unable to bear children. But scenarios such as these are common. We feel frustrated when we realise that we can never be in complete control of our lives. There are–as there always will be–those who possess gifts that we have not been privileged to receive.
We should rejoice and be happy for them. But we don’t seem to be wired that way. Instead, jealousy rears its ugly head. Those who possess privilege shouldn’t gloat, for we never know when the wheel of fortune may turn. For those who feel the desolation of lack, it is never a permanent state of affairs.
If life doesn’t fall into place in our younger years, does it mean that ‘it’ is never going to happen? For those who would like to have a child and are unable to–it isn’t the end of the world.
Timing is of the essence. We’ve all heard that cliche, “Right person, right time and right place.” Sometimes, when things are not working out and it seems that our prayers have gone unheard and unanswered, the real issue may well be the timing. At the same time, even after our prayers are answered; we will have to face new unforeseeable challenges.
In the end, Hannah receives the child she so desperately sought; as did Sarah and Rachel before her. There is nothing wrong with blooming late. And the problem–if you can call it that–was the timing.
And Elkanah had relations with Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her.1 Samuel 1:19
Hannah would go on to give birth to Samuel. He would play a key role in the transition from the period of the biblical judges to the institution of a kingdom. Imagine if he was born earlier–everything that needed to come together for him to fulfil his destiny would have been thrown off balance.
Insecurity regarding the future is something we all have to contend with. We are not told how Peninnah felt once Hannah welcomed a child into the world. But I think we all can guess…
It seems, then, that we can only ever be who we are meant to be.