Hannah Shows Up
…the Lord had closed her womb…And Hannah’s rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. (1 Samuel 5-7 ESV)
Every year, Elkanah took his family to worship and sacrifice at Shiloh out of obedience to God’s call to go to the tabernacle for annual worship:
You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake. (Deuteronomy 12:17-18 ESV)
Note the purpose of these celebrations was for worshipers to rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake. I imagine that anticipation of this twenty-mile trip created an atmosphere in Elkanah’s family that is similar to how we anticipate Christmas.
Yet there were reasons why a dark cloud hovered over their anticipated praise and worship. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas were priests and they were well known for their corruption and immorality. Their public sins eroded the corporate joy of worshipers. On a personal level, how could Hannah continue to worship and praise the very One who closed her womb? Twice in the first six verses of 1 Samuel we read the Lord closed her womb. Samuel, the writer of Hannah’s story, wants readers to recognize that God’s fingerprints are all over these details, and to understand that Hannah’s main sorrow was not the grievous irritation of her sister-wife. How did the sovereignty of God in Hannah’s infertility challenge her to wrestle with God’s love for her? Was she comforted by God’s sovereignty or was she hurt that her God refused to give her a child?
It’s possible that Hannah was able to avoid Peninnah throughout the year because the writer identifies this annual pilgrimage as the time when Peninnah grievously tormented Hannah. Year after year Hannah knew Peninnah would take advantage of this intimate family worship experience to drive the sword of bitterness into her soul. My heart aches for Hannah! It also aches for Peninnah.
So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. (1 Samuel 1:7)
It’s important to note in spite of the corrupt spiritual leadership and the sure torment of her sister-wife, year after year Hannah shows up. I can imagine Hannah’s first experiences of this trip, and then looking forward to these annual special worship celebrations where God seemed closer and more tangible. Here she was able to join in the covenant community praise of her God. Maybe at first Peninnah’s digs hurt, but Hannah trusted one day God would give her a child and she trusted His timing. Eventually, perhaps she went hoping that, in spite of her empty womb and Peninnah’s vile words, she could somehow recapture the joy of those first years of praise and worship. Maybe her prayers would take on more meaning and depth with God. Yet year after year, God kept her womb closed and Peninnah turned up the heat. Did Hannah travel with her family because of tradition or because Elkanah told her he wanted her with him? Perhaps there were years when she went through the motions out of obedience, but returned home with the same wounded heart, inflamed even more by her sister-wife’s venom, leaving Hannah emotionally and spiritually emptier than before.
This annual trip to sacrifice and worship confronted Hannah not only with her mean spirited sister wife, but also to the reality of God’s sovereignty over the one thing she desired most, a baby. Yet she did not stop. I am personally stunned her hunger for corporate worship trumped the emotional provocation she knew Peninnah would throw at her. Take Hannah with you today and think about her pilgrimage. How would you react to similar unending conflict and disappointment? What is your default mode when attacked or longing for something that seems unattainable? Once more, don’t miss this opportunity to ask the Lord to make your heart soft and open to the possibility you are Peninnah, the one who hurls venomous words and intentional hurt toward another. Let the Holy Spirit open your eyes and heart to the possibility it’s time to exchange a life-taking auto response for life-giving encouragement.