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Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel who grows up to anoint the kings Saul and David, transforms the traditionally passive role of the barren wife by talking to God and thus shaping her destiny.


Hannah’s appearance in scripture is confined to 1Sam 1-2:21, the text that depicts the birth and early years of her illustrious son, the prophet Samuel. Nevertheless, Hannah has a role that is all but marginal. It is as though her voice breaks through the patriarchal frame of the story taking it to new levels of human sensitivity and narrative art.

What makes the story of Hannah unique among writings of its kind?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah, “from Ramathaim Zuphim in the hill country of Ephraim” (1Sam 1:1). Elkanah’s lineage (“son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu,” etc.) is followed by the wives’ names and an important distinction between them: “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children” (1Sam 1:2). The barren wife theme is shared by several birth stories of Israel’s ancestors and heroes. Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, and Samson are all born to women who are labeled “barren,” but with God’s grace finally become mothers. The story of Hannah is special in its concern with the anguish of the barren wife, but it is unique in the direct communication it allows her with God, who “closed her womb” (1Sam 1:5).

Hannah’s anguish becomes most poignant in the family’s yearly pilgrimages to the shrine of Shiloh. Here the sacrificial feast exposes the rivalry between the wives: Hannah, more beloved by Elkanah, suffers the envious scorn of Peninnah who has a tableful of children. Hannah expresses her misery by crying and not eating. Elkanah tries to encourage her, suggesting that he is better to her than ten sons (1Sam 1:8). Elkanah is more empathetic to his wife’s distress than Jacob is to Rachel’s in similar circumstances (Gen 30:2), but both self-centered retorts have earned the arguable title “failed dialogues” (M. Gruber, 1998). In one sense however, they do not fail: moving the lonely, humiliated wife to independent action. Rachel offers her maid Bilhah to Jacob so that she “may have children through her.” Hannah’s struggle against barrenness goes further. Steadfast in her wish to become a mother she uses her voice, unheard so far, directly addressing the only one who can turn her fortune: “O Lord of hosts …” Following this is a vow in which Hannah requests the Lord’s attention to her misery, offering him a deal that can hardly be refused: “if only you will look on the misery of your servant and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head” (1Sam 1:11 NRSV).

Strangely, Hannah’s first use of her voice amounts to a voiceless prayer that is mistaken for drunkenness by Eli, the priest of Shiloh. God nevertheless hears her, granting her the child of her desire: 1Sam 1:19-20. Hannah then fulfills her part of the deal, devoting Samuel to God: 1Sam 1:21-28. She is later blessed with three more sons and two daughters: 1Sam 2:21.

The entire story thus revolves around Hannah’s vow and its fulfillment, its various parts defined by her speeches: (1) her prayer and vow: 1Sam 1:11; (2) her defense against Eli’s charge of drunkenness: 1Sam 1:15-16; (3) her naming of Samuel: 1Sam 1:20; (4) her announcement of her intentions to Elkanah: 1Sam 1:22; (5) her dedication of Samuel to God referring back to her prayer: 1Sam 1:26-28.

In her short presence in the Hebrew Bible Hannah turns out a game changer: a strong willed woman of faith, she rises above her pain to act towards her goal of becoming a mother.


  • fidler-ruth

    Ruth Fidler is a senior lecturer in the Bible Studies Department at Gordon Academic College, Haifa, Israel. She is the author of Dreams Speak Falsely? Dream Theophanies in the Bible: Their Place in Ancient Israelite Faith and Traditions [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005) and of “A Wife’s Vow—The Husband’s Woe? (1 Samuel 1,21.23): The Case of Hannah and Elkanah,” ZAW 118 (2006): 374–88.