1 Sam 1-2
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By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice: May 2004)
Many of us know the account of the child Samuel from children's Bible stories. We probably still have a mental picture of a small boy sleeping, hearing the call of the Lord, or standing before Eli, the High Priest, saying "Here am I, for thou didst call me." (! Sam 3) The whole of Samuel's life, his birth, his prophecies, his rule over Israel, his anointing of the first two kings of Israel, shows what the Lord can bring out of a seemingly hopeless situation.
The hopeless situation was that of his mother Hannah. We read that the Lord had shut up her womb. Her husband had another wife, who had born him children, but Hannah was barren. Peninnah, the other wife, was constantly winding Hannah up about her childless state. Her name means 'coral' and she seems to have the hard-edged beauty of the reef. Hannah means 'gracious' and we have no record of her being spiteful back, but although gracious, Hannah was not fatalistic. Her husband said the most comforting things to her, but it was of no avail. She wanted a child.
This is the background to a vow which seems to us quite extreme. But she was desperate. Her husband's name, Elkanah, means 'Whom the Lord possesses.' A child of his should also be one whom the Lord possesses, and Hannah picked up on this vital point. She pleaded with the Lord for a baby boy, saying that if the Lord will grant her petition, she will give the child up to service to the Lord in the temple all his life, as a Nazarite. That, in any event, is what we interpret from her words:
And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head. (1 Sam. 1:11)
LAW OF A NAZARITE
The law of a Nazarite is set out in Numbers chapter 6. A man - or a woman - vowing to be a Nazarite (the word means 'separated') could make the vow for a certain length of time. It did not have to be for life. The outward characteristic was the long hair. No razor could come on his head during the the time of his vow. (The word for razor means a sharp implement such as a razor, knife or sword - the people of the Old Testament were civilised and sophisticated, but they had not yet invented scissors.) He had to be ritually clean the whole time, and could not touch a dead body, not even one of his immediate family. If he accidentally made himself unclean, he had to make atonement with a sacrifice of sin offering, burnt offering and trespass offering, shave his head and start the vow all over again. It would be a great sin to give up half-way through. The Bible says it would be better not to vow at all than to make a vow to the Lord and then break it. (Numb 30:2; Eccl 5:4-5)
In case any man thinks that being a Nazarite is a good way of getting round the New Testament injunction against men having long hair (1 Cor 11:14), he should be warned that this is a life of austerity. Not that there is anything wrong with the life of John the Baptist, another Nazirite from birth, born to another previously barren woman, Elizabeth. But the Nazirite is totally dedicated - 24/7 as one might say - to prayer, service and ministry. Because of that, he may drink neither wine nor what the KJV refers to as 'strong drink'.
Some Bible versions translate the latter Hebrew word shekar as 'beer', but that adds to scripture, and implies the Nazarite can drink mead, made from honey. The Hebrew expression for wine means 'out of fermentation'. Grape juice naturally ferments because of the wild yeasts which are attracted to the fruit, hence the word means 'wine'. In fact, the Nazarite may not even eat grapes or drink grape juice, because the fermentation starts imperceptibly immediately the grapes are harvested. But the word shekar just means 'an intoxicant', so it naturally means any other intoxicating liquor: beer, cider, mead, or spirits (distillation was possibly known to the ancients).
FROM THE WOMB
In Judges 13, we read that Samson's mother was barren just like Samuel's and John's. An angel of the Lord appeared to her and promised her a son. From that moment, said the angel, she was not to drink wine or intoxicating liquor or eat any unclean thing: "For the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb."
This is an extraordinary Biblical confirmation of present-day medical knowledge. We know that the child in the womb is a unique human being, with his own separate blood supply and a distinct genetic make-up from that of his mother. Contrary to what a young woman in black told us on the pavement outside the BPAS abortion agency in Cardiff, he is not 'part of the woman's body.' However, he receives all his nutrients through the placenta, a wonderfully-designed interface between the blood-streams of mother and child. The ancients did not know all about that, but they knew that a child, whether born or pre-born, needs food to grow, and so a baby growing in the womb must get his food from his mother.
The writer of Judges would therefore agree with a present-day obstetrician that whatever the mother eats, the baby eats in essence. So if the mother eats an unclean thing, as the angel warned Samson's mother, the child effectively eats it. If she takes a drug, be it paracetamol or thalidomide, nicotine or cocaine, the child takes it. And if she drinks an intoxicant, the child also drinks it. It is a well-known, but carefully-concealed piece of knowledge amongst midwives, that if a baby is causing his mother contractions at an inconvenient time, a glass of wine will make him drowsy and delay the process. So if the child Samson was to be a Nazarite 'from the womb,' his mother must eat and drink as if she were on the vow herself.
So it was with Samuel's mother Hannah: "I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink," she told Eli. (1 Sam 1:15) She was already trusting that God would fill her womb, so she had already decided not to drink alcohol. Eli, for his part, not knowing what her prayer was, but realising her grief was real and her petition Godly, graciously took her burden upon himself and endorsed her silent prayer with a prayer of his own (vs 17).
HANNAH'S PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
The Bible goes out of its way to stress that Hannah's prayer and Eli's were answered by a conception which occurred in the usual manner (vs 19). In due course Hannah gave birth, and called her baby boy Samuel, which means 'Asked of God'. She weaned him and when he was just old enough to make himself useful, took him in gratitude to the temple, returning him, as she had promised, to be Lord's possession.
Hannah's prayer of thanksgiving in 1 Samuel Chapter 2 is one of the most beautiful in the Bible. One verse says: He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and he hath set the world upon them. 1 Sam. 2:8
There are distinct parallels with the prayer of Mary the mother of the Lord (commonly called the Magnificat), particularly in the references to God turning things upside down. Just compare:
The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength. 1 Sam. 2:4
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. Luke 1:52
They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased: 1 Sam. 2:5a ... The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. 1 Sam. 2:7
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. Luke 1:53
There is even a messianic prophecy in Hannah's prayer:
The LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed. 1 Sam. 2:10b
A LITTLE COAT
Hannah said that before there was ever a king in Israel. This short piece would have to return to the subject of Messiah Jesus as King of kings over the whole earth eventually. But every year, so we read in 1 Sam 2:19, Hannah would make a little coat and take it up for Samuel when she went up with Elkanah to offer sacrifice. We can imagine her pride each year in taking up that coat, every year bringing her son Samuel a larger coat than the year before. She was so faithful at a time when Israel was not - all the males should go up three times a year, at Passover, First Fruits and Tabernacles (Deut 16:16). These folk are only going up once a year. But the responsibility for that lies with the High Priest, Eli, and He is a Godly but weak man to whom I shall return in due course.
Elkanah and Hannah were doing their best in the situation in which they found themselves, and Hannah's massive vow is a lesson to all of us. If God is the creator of all that is, then all children are His possession. Surely God has entrusted them to their parents (and certainly not to the State) and indeed He has said the first-born are His (Exod 13:12-15) but previously-barren Hannah raised that principle to another level, by promising the Lord that her first-born would not just be the Lord's but totally dedicated to the Lord. As is so often the case, once she had her first child, the Lord gave her more children, in response to Eli's prayer. (1 Sam 2:20-21).
Perhaps there are lessons in all of this for all of us. We should trust God to answer our prayer before we even pray it, as Hannah did. We can pray, petition, ask others to share the burden with us, and know the peace of God, that He will do according to His purpose. I wish all of us were as selfless before God about our children as that dear woman was. It is all a matter of perspective, but what is better than to know that our children, in their various ways, are serving the Lord God Almighty?