Tuesday of Week 1 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:9-20

Today we find Hannah, the barren wife of Elkanah, still at the Lord’s central sanctuary in Shiloh. The sanctuary is also referred to in 1 Samuel as the “the temple of the Lord”, “the house of the Lord”, “the Tent of Meeting” and “my dwelling”. The references to the sanctuary as a “house” and a “temple” as well as mention of “sleeping quarters” and “doors” suggests that at this time the sanctuary or ‘tabernacle’ was a larger, more permanent building.

While Eli the priest sat near the door, Hannah prayed in tears to God begging to have her shame removed. She asks the Lord to “remember” her. This is not simply to be aware of her existence, but to go into action on her behalf.

She was making a vow that, if God gave her a male child, she would dedicate him entirely to God’s service for the whole of his life. This was in contrast to the normal period of service for Levites, which was from the ages of 25 to 50. Her offer of her son to Yahweh is similar to promises made with Isaac, Samson and John the Baptist, where God was seen to intervene in the birth. Hannah’s child, Samuel, born of a barren mother would – like them – be dedicated to service in the sanctuary. As with Samson, too, leaving the hair uncut would be a sign of dedication to the Lord, although there is no mention of Samson as a ‘nazirite’. The nazirite vow was normally taken for a limited time rather than for life, as is happening here. Also, the son that Hannah seeks will, like Samson, drink neither wine nor liquor.

Hannah prayed in this way for a long time in silence, though her lips moved. Since people usually prayed out loud, Eli thought she was drunk. Heavy drinking was apparently not unusual on the occasion of big feasts. He told her severely to sober up and stop making a show of herself. She asked him not to think badly of her; she was not drunk, only deeply unhappy as she begged the Lord to hear her prayer. Eli, seeing the situation, then sent her off with a lovely blessing:

Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.

She only asked him in return to think more kindly of her.

After going back home, she ate with her husband and experienced a kind of peace. The next day they went once more to the sanctuary to pray and then returned to their home in Ramah. And now, when Elkanah was intimate with Hannah, “the Lord remembered her”, as she had asked him. She conceived and gave birth to a boy and:

She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

A derivation from the root sha’al (to ask) would give sha’ul from which one gets the name Saul. However, biblical etymology was often, as here, content with an approximate similarity of sound. The actual derivation of ‘Samuel’ is from Shem-El, meaning ‘the name of God’ or ‘(God’s) name is El’.

This story is one of a number in the Bible where barren women are given children by God’s intervention. In every case, the child has a calling to serve God in a very special way. Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah was one of these as was Samson, who helped God’s people defeat the Philistines. Much later, Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist although well past child-bearing age. He too will be dedicated to God in a special way.

Mary, too, under special circumstances will give birth to Jesus through God’s intervention. We will see later how Samuel will become a prophet of the Lord and be involved with the career of David as king.

Perhaps our birth has not been accompanied by such special circumstances, yet each one of us is, in a special kind of way, a gift from God to our parents, and each one of us has a calling, a vocation, to serve him and our brothers and sisters in a unique way. Let us identify with that call and, with God’s help, try to respond to it as well as we can.

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