Hannah, wife of Elkanah, a Kohathite of the tribe of Levi, must have felt a great sense of despair when, month after month, she remained barren. Hannah might have felt that by not bearing a child with Elkanah, she lacked status and merit in his eyes. Author and professor Dr. Noreen Jacks wrote of the stigma of barrenness: “Barren women were habitually taunted and ridiculed, made to feel like second class citizens, and were considered a public embarrassment to their husbands. The shame of barrenness was always on the minds of infertile couples. In some societies, husbands were free to acquire secondary wives or concubines to fulfill their need for progeny, preferably a male heir.”
A childless couple faced an uncertain future with no offspring to work the fields, tend the herds, and assist with the daily chores in the home. Even worse, who would care for the couple in old age, mourn their passing, bury them with dignity, memorialize them annually, and carry the family name to the next generation and beyond? Such were the time-honored duties of one’s loyal children. With critical needs of this magnitude, it is not surprising that desperate people in the ancient world were obsessed with reproduction of the species.
It must have been emotionally draining for both Hannah and her husband that she had failed to present him with a child from their union. Being from the tribe of Levi, Elkanah was likely among those responsible for leading praise and worship in the tabernacle at Shiloh. Each year he was summoned for several weeks to serve Jehovah. As a faithful and devout wife, Hannah often accompanied him. While Elkanah fulfilled his duties in the tabernacle, Hannah would slip away to a quiet place in the tabernacle to petition for Jehovah’s favor and for an end to her infertility.
One day as she prayed fervently, she was in such despair that her lips moved silently as tears rained unchecked down her cheeks. Only a barren woman can totally understand Hannah’s sense of frustration and unhappiness and her petition for a son in her despair. When Eli, the high priest, saw her he came to the erroneous conclusion that the woman was drunk and had no place in the vicinity of the tabernacle. He marched over to where Hannah bowed beneath her burden of hopelessness, reprimanded her, and then shamed her drunken state.
Aghast at his rebuke, Hannah responded: “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:15, ESV). Eli then blessed her and sent her on her way with the inexplicable sense of peace and hope that Jehovah had heard her prayer. Assuredly He had; soon Hannah was able to reveal to Elkanah that she was with child, and not many months later, she presented Elkanah with a child that she had named Samuel, which means “God heard.”