This excerpt from Beginnings: The First Seven Days of the Rest of Your Life is taken from Day Four, which represents the seasons of our life–Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.
The story of Hannah begins in the soul-crushing season of winter.
Hannah was the wife of Elkanah, but she wasn’t his only wife. As was the custom in those days, Elkanah had two wives: Hannah and Peninnah. By the end of verse two, the snow has started falling, piling up without stopping. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
Peninnah means “pearl”: beautiful to gaze upon, but hard, cold, and closed. Hannah means “grace”: an enduring gift, open and free. But in this story, everything is upside down, because it is the Pearl who bears children, while Grace bears nothing but pain and emptiness. And Peninnah wasn’t modest about it; she provoked Hannah, irritating her until she wept and would not eat.
Can you imagine being infertile and also sharing your husband with a woman who wasn’t? Can you imagine enduring her taunts? Could you even stand when you saw your husband playing with her children?
Crushed in soul, Hannah prayed to God and cried and cried—inconsolably. (1 Samuel 1:10)
The prayer that Hannah had been pouring out was as bold as it is raw:
If you’ll take a good, hard look at my pain,
If you’ll quit neglecting me and go into action for me
By giving me a son,
I’ll give him completely, unreservedly to you.
I’ll set him apart for a life of holy discipline. (1 Samuel 1:11)
In the English, Hannah’s prayer looks like she’s trying to bargain with God. But in the Hebrew, it gets far more interesting. What is simply translated in the English as “a son” is zera (seed) anashim (for the people) in Hebrew. Hannah is asking for “a seed for the people.”
Zera (seed) is first used in Genesis 1:11. Seeds are embedded within the vegetation that springs forth from the ground (Day Three in Beginnings). The seeds represent the future. Hannah is embarking on a new beginning with this prayer. She is naming that which will be embedded within her by God, which will affect the future for the people. It’s breathtaking. It’s good.
Does hope come when you realize your place in the story?
Hope is not like standing on dry ground after the snow melts. Hope arrives as the snow is still on the ground. Hope is lifting your eyes up and seeing the bigger story in which you live, the one that includes the whole wide world, and your place within it. Does hope come when you leave the small story that is centered on you, and you enter the bigger story of what God can accomplish through you? What does it mean to eat and be nourished by entering into the bigger story of what God is doing in the world?
Hannah finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, and she names him Samuel, which means “Because I asked the Lord for him.” Can you see the emerging intimacy that is growing between Hannah and God? Imagine Hannah nursing Samuel, and gazing at his ruddy, satisfied face as he drifted off to sleep. Imagine the pet names she called him, which only she knew. Imagine her wiping his bottom, burping him, even in the eyes-burning-in-the-middle-of-the-night reality of raising a baby.
She stayed home and nursed her son until she had weaned him. Then she took him up to Shiloh, bringing also the makings of a generous sacrificial meal—a prize bull, flour, and wine. The child was so young to be sent off! (1 Samuel 1:24)
Hannah teaches us to stand up in the long season of winter, pouring out everything inside of us, as ugly as it is, to God. She teaches us to eat what is good and offer our tov to the world, in the drip-drip-dripping of spring, even before what we hope for has come to pass.