Women of History: Hannah the Promise Keeper

To recognize Women’s History Month, I am highlighting a woman from history every Wednesday during March. Many strong, intelligent women from the past have paved the way for us. However, I want to specifically look at the significant women from the Bible who are godly models for us today.

“Going to pray for a baby again? You really think God will answer this year?” the younger woman taunted as she brought her newborn close to her chest. 

Hannah fled the camp. Days of insults and humiliation were more than she could bear. Yes, her husband had been lovingly attentive and kind on this trip; he tried his best to understand. But every time they made this journey, it became more intolerable.

How she longed to experience pregnancy, childbirth and feeling a babe close to her breast! And to bless her beloved husband with a child.

And to be relieved from her shame.

Yes, she would go again to pray.

She found a quiet corner of the worship center. Her passionate prayer was for the same: a child. Desperate, she bargained with God.

She didn’t speak aloud as she prayed but mouthed the words to herself. Tears began to stream down her face. She thought she was all alone.

A man’s demanding voice shattered the silence. “Must you come to the Lord’s house drunk?” 

There once was a man from Ephraim. 

The first book of Samuel starts out with the story of a man from the hill country of Ephraim called Elkanah.

After we learn of his pedigree, verse two takes us immediately to family drama.   

He had two wives; the name of the first was Hannah, and the name of the second was Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

We sympathize with Hannah from the start. Listed first, Hannah was Elkanah’s first wife; however, she had yet to give him any children. And as it happened in ancient days, Elkanah married a second woman to bear his children.

This man would go up from his city year after year to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of Heaven’s Armies at Shiloh.

Elkanah was a faithful worshiper of the Lord at a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. (Judges 21:25) Annually, he journeyed to Shiloh (Joshua 1:18) with his family for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Shiloh was the location of Israel’s tabernacle or Tent of Meeting. It was precisely that – a large tent surrounded by linen curtain fencing, with an area inside for sacrifices and worship.  

God directed the Israelites to come to Shiloh for the annual feasts. The Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, held sometime in March or April, lasted for seven days. Families would travel to Shiloh and camp around the Tent of Meeting for the event’s duration. For Elkanah and his family, it was a 12-mile trip from their hometown of Ramah.

The day came, and Elkanah sacrificed. (Now, he used to give meat portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah, he would give a double portion because he loved Hannah, although the Lord had not enabled her to have children.)

After his sacrifice at the altar in the tabernacle courtyard, Elkanah could distribute some meat to his family. He gave Hannah a double or “honorable” portion, an amount typically given to the firstborn son (Deut. 21:17). This gift may have been a reminder to her of his love, and confidence that God would someday give her the son she desperately wanted.

We aren’t told how long Hannah was childless once she married Elkanah. Since Peninnah already had “children,” we can assume there were several years of infertility.

Her rival used to aggravate her to the point of exasperation just to irritate her since the Lord had not enabled her to have children.

We are again told about Hannah’s childlessness. Yet, it doesn’t say that she couldn’t have children but that “the Lord had not enabled her.”

God had a plan.

Our hearts break for Hannah when we read of Peninnah’s cruelty. (The wording here means that Peninnah didn’t just aggravate but tried to provoke Hannah to anger.) Did Elkanah realize what was going on? We read that he loved Hannah; we can see his kindness and loving care when he gave Hannah the double portion. Yet his efforts likely created jealousy within Peninnah, instigating more cruelty, especially if she knew she wasn’t the favored wife.   

This isn’t the only time polygamy caused drama between wives. In Genesis 29-30, we read about the sister-wife rivalry between Isaac’s wives, Rachel and Leah. So why was polygamy allowed when Genesis 2:24 refers to marriage as one man and one woman?

In Old Testament times, numerous children were a sign of wealth and an essential part of society’s economic structure. Children were necessary to help in the father’s work, ensure the continuation of the father’s family line, and care for the parents as they aged. Also, many young men could be lost in war, so polygamy was a way of supporting women who would otherwise remain unmarried. Provisions were also made in the law for widowed women.

In ancient culture, being childless was not just a failure by the wife but viewed as an embarrassment for the husband and a legitimate reason for divorce. Regardless of the years without children, Elkanah still showed tender loving care toward Hannah.  

This is how it would go year after year. As often as she went up to the Lord’s house, Peninnah would offend her in that way. So she cried and refused to eat.

This family trip to Shiloh was worse than usual for Hannah. At home in Ramah, there may have been some distance between the two wives, but at the camp, Hannah had to bear seven days of closeness and cruelty from Peninnah. This feast was a time of sacrifice, worship, and remembrance of God’s faithfulness to Israel. Still, Hannah didn’t have anything to celebrate. She became so upset that she couldn’t eat, and her husband noticed.

Then her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why are you crying and why won’t you eat? Why are you so upset? Am I not better to you than tensons?” So Hannah got up after they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh.

Dear Elkanah. Sometimes husbands don’t know what to say, but he cherished Hannah and did his best to encourage her.

There was only one thing that Hannah could do: go to the tabernacle to pray. Again. 

This time, she didn’t just ask for a child. She made a bargain with God.

As for Hannah, she was very distressed. She prayed to the Lord and was, in fact, weeping. She made a vow saying, “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, if you would truly look on the suffering of your servant, and would keep me in mind and not neglect your servant, and give your servant a male child, then I will dedicate him to the lord all the days of his life.”

Vows were taken seriously by God. He said that if someone makes a vow to Him, they must follow through on whatever was promised. (Numbers 30:2) But so many times she begged God for a child! Through her tears, she promises: if only a son, he would be dedicated to God’s service.  

. . . she did a great deal of praying before the Lord. Meanwhile, Eli [the priest] was watching her mouth. As for Hannah, she was speaking in her mind. Only her lips were moving; her voice could not be heard.

The New English Translations says that Hannah was “speaking her mind.” In a state of distress, Hannah was unafraid to tell God how she felt and what was on her heart! She was determined not to leave her place of prayer until she was assured that God had heard her plea. Yet as she prayed silently, her lips began to move. Eli, the priest, who kept watch at the door, decided it was time to intervene.

So Eli thought she was a drunkard. Then he said to her, “How much longer do you intend to get drunk? Put away your wine!”

Maybe he had never seen anyone pray silently yet move their lips. Maybe in her deep despair, Hannah had also become animated.

But Hannah replied, “Not so, my Lord! I am a woman under a great deal of stress. I haven’t drunk wine or beer. But I have poured out my soul before the Lord. Don’t consider your servant a wicked woman. It’s just that, to this point, I have spoken from my deep pain and anguish.”

And God was good. He gave Hannah the reassurance she needed through Eli. The Lord had heard her.

Eli replied, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant the request that you have asked of him.” She said, “May I, your servant, find favor in your sight.” So the woman went her way and got something to eat. Her face no longer looked sad.

Even though Hannah never told Eli what she prayed for in pain and anguish, God used Eli to comfort Hannah by telling her that her request would be granted. Hannah returned to camp with a glowing countenance and an appetite. (I wonder what Peninnah thought of Hannah’s change in expression and attitude!)

They got up early the next morning. Then they worshipped the Lord and returned to their home at [Ramah].

How different Hannah would have been this time in worship! She knew God had heard her and she was free of her burden at last.  

Elkanah was intimate with his wife Hannah, and the Lord called her to mind. Then Hannah became pregnant.

The Lord “called her to mind.” This is unique in the New English Translation. This doesn’t mean that God just happened to remember Hannah. Instead, it means “the decision to recall concerning her previous request.” The Hebrew verb is often used in the Old Testament for “considering the needs or desires of people with favor and kindness.” (NET notes)

And that is our God. Considerate, kind, and faithful. His timing is always perfect. Hannah’s son, Samuel, was born when, where and to whom God decided.

As we continue to read, we learn that when Samuel was weaned (somewhere between 3 to 5 years old), Hannah fulfilled her promise to God and brought her son to Eli at the tabernacle for God’s service. Our story could end there, but the best was yet to be revealed.

Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the Lord establish descendants for you from this woman in place of the one that she dedicated to the Lord.” Then they would go to their home. And -indeed, the Lord attended to Hannah. She got pregnant and gave birth to three sons and two daughters. But the boy Samuel grew up before the Lord.  

Hannah may have been happy to have this only child, but God blessed her with five more children! (It doesn’t say how many children Peninnah had, but I can bet it was less than five!) 

What we can learn from Hannah:

In our times of barrenness, especially when we feel our prayers are ineffective, Hannah can serve as encouragement. She found prayer opened the way for God to work and do something tremendous in her life.

She knew God wanted to hear her prayer.

Hannah had a powerful desire for a child. In her distress, Hannah knew to go to God about her situation because He wants us to approach Him with our requests. (James 1:5)

Even as her prayers went unanswered, she knew to keep praying. (1 Thess. 5:17). She had confidence that God would hear her prayer. (1 John 5:14-15)

In his letter to the Philippian church, the Apostle Paul wrote: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Phil. 4:6) That is what Hannah did.

She left her problems with God.

Paul continued in his letter, saying that after prayer, we can have a peace that “surpasses all understanding.” (Phil. 4:7) After that little misunderstanding in the tabernacle, Eli assured Hannah that God had heard her prayer and to go in peace. He didn’t even know her request but could encourage Hannah to have faith because God wants to give the desires of our hearts. (Psalm 37:4 NIV)

Do you know someone who is struggling? Give love and support, helping them to stay steadfast in their faith and be confident in God’s timing to bring fulfillment to their lives.

We know Hannah received that peace because of her transformation in countenance and attitude! 

She was confident in God’s control over her life.

Hannah approached God with her desire for a child because she knew God loved her and always worked things out for the best. (Romans 8:28) When she prayed, her honesty and vulnerability showed confidence that God would grant her petition. She never doubted God’s abilities and power.

Part of God’s plan was to postpone Hannah’s childbearing. When things don’t happen as we believe they should, we may assume that God has forgotten us or doesn’t want what’s best for us. But don’t doubt that God is able. He is always at work behind the scenes.

She honored her promise to God.

Hannah made a bargain with God, not knowing for sure what the outcome would be. After Samuel was born, the son she had wanted for years, she honored her vow to God. She returned the gift God gave her, knowing that He was loving and kind and that keeping the vow was not a sacrifice but a blessing.


Even though she was not yet pregnant, Hannah prayed for that child, dedicating him to God’s service. Doing so also committed her own life and future to God. She did not know then that her son Samuel would have a special calling. Not only would he be the last judge of Israel, but he would be a prophet and counselor to two kings, Saul and David. As a man of great faith, he is listed in the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11. However, Hannah’s story is included in the Bible because this mother’s faith in God birthed a ministry.  

The Bible Journey
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible
NIV Application Bible


Illustration by Frank William Warwick Topham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
All Scripture is taken from the New English Translation unless otherwise noted.
Scripture references are linked to BibleGateway for the reader’s convenience.

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