Meditations in 1 Samuel: 1: The Harshness of Childlessness
1 Sam 1:1-2 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
When we delve into the Old Testament as people out of the twenty-first century West, we find ourselves so often in alien territory. In these studies or meditations (and we’ll do a little of both) we are using narrative text as against the direct teaching that we find in say the apostle Paul’s letters. Here we are dealing with a story, a history if you like, and within stories we find a whole raft of things about the human race that are as true today as they were then. 1 Samuel is essentially about the days in the life of Israel under the judgeship of Samuel, a prophet, that takes us on to see their first king, Saul, and then God’s dealings with a young shepherd boy, David, who was to become the next king.
But here in our opening verses we have a handful of unfamiliar names. Ramathaim, it is thought, is somewhere a few miles north of Jerusalem. The reference to this man being a Zuphite may be a reference to being a descendant of Zuph (1 Chron 6:32-34) but we don’t know for sure although the Chronicles names match those of his earlier family recorded here. Whatever else, the writer is wanting to make sure we are under no illusions: this is not a made up story, it is well grounded in history.
Now this man Elkanah, an Israelite, had two wives. Monogamy was God’s design (Gen 2:23,24) but polygamy was not uncommon, but as the story unfolds we see the downside of that. Verse 2 lays it out so simply: “He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.” Names in Israel were often significant. Hannah means ‘grace, but Peninnah, a concordance suggests means ‘coral’ or maybe ‘pearl’. That she thought herself a pearl in this marriage becomes clear and the way she expresses it seems to indicate the sharpness of coral. We could ponder on that some more as we go through the story.
A few verses on we find, “And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” (v.6) Interestingly the writer ascribes Hannah’s barrenness directly to God and we’ll ponder the providence of God in a later meditation. Peninnah isn’t content simply with the satisfaction of bearing children to Elkanah, we might say today she ‘rubbed her nose in it’, meaning she pointed out this fact again and again and made Hannah particularly upset, which we’ll consider some more in the next meditation.
There are, I suspect, fewer things in life more distressing than being unable to fulfil the desire that most women have, to be able to bear a child. Today we live in a society where often this is sublimated beneath the desire of self-fulfilment through a career which often leads women to put off having children until much later than that which was traditionally the years for child-bearing, which brings difficulties both in heath and in later years bringing up a child in older years.
Not only is there so often a frustration that turns into anguish in such situations but there are question marks that arise in the couple about their inability. What is there wrong in me that I am unable to conceive / father a child? In this case this is very one sided because Elkanah has shown he is quite capable of fathering children which makes it doubly difficult for Hannah. She clearly is the one at fault. But then, when you believe God involves Himself in our affairs, there might be the question, why hasn’t God allowed me to conceive, or even, why has He stopped me conceiving? What am I guilty of that this should happen to me? Hannah’s story tells us that we should declare loud and clear, it’s nothing to do with your sin or defectiveness, it’s just what happens in a fallen world where things go wrong. There is no indication that Hannah is a particular sinner (more than the rest of us) and that this is a punishment. It just happens!
If we think more widely in the Bible, we come to realise that this sort of thing is not that uncommon. In the story of Abram, we read of his wife, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” (Gen 11:30) Such hard, cold and definite words! The miracle of their story is that God enabled Sarah to conceive and have a son when Abraham was one hundred years old! Isaac is born, grows up, marries and then we read, “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren.” (Gen 25:21) Again such harsh and cold words: “she was barren”. When we look at the details of their story we find, “Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah,” (v.20) and “Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth.” (v.26) i.e. twenty years passed before the Lord answered Isaac’s prayers.
When we come into the New Testament we find a couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and we read, “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (Lk 1:7) There it is again in stark print: “Elizabeth was barren.” It is almost as if the Bible throws it at us to see how we will respond. Indifference or tears of empathy? In all four cases that we have just noted, the Lord turned up and enabled conception.
I think the most rewarding prophecy that I have ever brought to a couple was, “in a year’s time you will have a baby,” especially when I was told afterwards they had been told they could never have children. To my relief (because I hate the possibility of bringing false comfort) they had their child within the year. The same thing happened to my daughter with a word from a friendly prophet. In each case it was a declaration of God’s intent contrary to the expectations of man.
May I share a pastoral feeling that I have about these things. I believe today that if we have single people longing to be married or couples longing to conceive, as churches we should commit ourselves to praying for these people until God answers. I firmly believe He wants to provide marriage partners and He wants to enable couple to conceive. It may need some miraculous workings but that is easy stuff for God. It may need battling against unbelief or indifference or declarations of ‘experts’ but God is a life bringer. Until we clearly hear the words from God, “not yet” or “I want you to rest in what you are now,” I believe we should be praying our hearts out to bring God’s blessing to childless couples and singles who yearn for a partner in our congregations. (For those who actively don’t want children or actively want to be single, the Lord bless you as you are.) To sit back and just watch the months and years past without change, speaks of our indifference.
This story has elements in it that are hard to understand and we’ll struggle with some of them later on, but at the heart of it we find frustration and anguish that so often comes in this Fallen World where things just don’t work sometimes as they should do. That’s what life is like in such a world. The crucial things to observe are how we respond to it and what God wants to do about it, and that we’ll see as this story unfolds.
Now I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and that is add a poem that recently came my way, written by a single lady, an English poetry teacher, in honour of her and others like her who turn their energies into bringing blessing to others. She wrote this while invigilating an exam for her students, and I think you will agree it has a certain poignancy about it:
Now all my teaching comes to face the test
Why will I ask, did I do all I could?
I know I tried to do, I did, my best
With love, with patience, with the very blood
From my heart’s pulse of poetry I strove to give
Both fact and thought, ideas, instructed feeling,
That when this stress was past there still might live
A joy within their minds I showed them, stealing
At quiet hours upon them, a gift of mine.
This joy in growing minds is what I crave,
This hope I nourish with my oil and wine,
For this is all the life, my life, can have.
Then let none judge my barrenness a dearth.
Have I not laboured to achieve a birth?