I’ve been stuck on the story of Hannah for a while – her longing for a child, her suffering through the taunts of a sister-wife and the callousness of her husband. At times, I wish she were alive so I could sit at her feet and beg her to teach me. Then my pendulum swings towards pure, mystified anger at her seeming naiveté. Her song of praise to God in chapter 2 seems more like outrageous stupidity than faithful devotion since we’re told in chapter 1 that it was God who’d closed her womb. All of Hannah’s grief – the sorrow she praises God for delivering her from – started with God Himself. A possibly irreverent question forms in my mind. Isn’t praising the one who hurt you when they finally stop causing you pain – only after you’ve cajoled and begged – a sign of an abusive relationship?
When I confessed to my spiritual director that Hannah’s situation felt like abuse by divine power, she challenged me not to move on. To stay with Hannah a little longer and dig into why I so often see God as – at best – emotionally distant and the author of misery at worst. As Hannah and I have sat together, I’ve bgun to mentally rewrite her story.
What if, instead of a sister-wife who taunted Hannah about her barrenness at every opportunity, her husband’s second wife had shared her children with Hannah? What if they’d mothered together and Hannah’s frustrated maternal longings had found a partial release through the children of the household?
What if instead of a husband who didn’t take her suffering seriously, Hannah had a husband who wept with her? Who mourned their loss together? Who didn’t use his right to take a second wife when his first was found to be barren? In short – what if Hannah had been surrounded by a community of support, love, and understanding instead of a community that tore her to shreds?
I think her story would’ve been completely different.
Why do we human beings like to pile on when someone else is suffering? We wonder aloud with Job’s friends if their illness wasn’t caused by a secret sin. Ignoring injustices that press them down, we tell the poor if they’d only work harder or make better decisions they wouldn’t be in their situation. We refuse to respond with understanding to those whose bodies or minds work differently. We parade out our successes, not caring whose failures we amplify by our boasting.
If I take out the human causes of Hannah’s suffering, her story reads differently, with much less pain. God closes Hannah’s womb, yes, but it’s much less traumatic without the heckling of her family. She seeks God and asks to be given a child – anticipating the joy of that child, she promises to give him back fully to God. God responds and gives her a son, who becomes the key spiritual leader of Israel. Hannah receives more children, but her pride and joy is the boy who’s known over the entire country as a man of God.
Of the children of Hannah’s sister-wife, we hear no more. Her taunts are silenced by the abundant blessing given to Hannah. Hannah’s callous husband seems blind to the end about what God is doing and the gift that’s been given to his wife. Hannah’s God-seeking legacy is passed on to a boy who “grows up with God” and hears His voice from a young age. Hannah seems to know God better than even Eli the old priest.
Sitting with Hannah has taught me this: God is busy giving us Himself. Sometimes that is in wondrous gifts, sometimes it is in painful situations – but both circumstances have the same end goal: a deepened understanding of God. This means I can rejoice in both because both, in their own way, are meant to lead me to seek God.
When blessing comes into the life of another, there’s no need for jealousy. When suffering comes into the life of another, I dare not ridicule. God is in both, waiting to be found in both. We can help one another find Him, or we can obscure Him. But while we are busy shaming or encouraging or resenting, know this: God is busy giving us Himself.