“God Is Faithful” is the Uniform Series lesson theme for September. The five examples of God’s faithfulness are the rescue of Lot’s family, Hannah’s prayer for a son and three texts from the Exodus story. Chronologically, Hannah’s story comes last because it takes place in the 11th century BCE, 400 years after the Exodus account, and 700 to 1,000 years after Abraham and Lot. I get dizzy skipping around the timeline!
In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah is living in Palestine, on land now occupied by the Israelites. In these highly patriarchal eras, sons are necessary to carry on the family lineage. Hannah was probably the first wife of Elkanah. Since she did not conceive, he also married Penninah, who produced both sons and daughters. Although this created friction between the two wives, the text twice holds God responsible for closing Hannah’s womb.
In spite of this, Hannah won’t give up. With no options for an independent lifestyle, she takes on her God with an intensity of prayer few of us may have ever experienced. Hannah walks the 20 miles from her home to the shrine at Shiloh, over which the priest-prophet Eli presides. As Abraham bartered with God not to destroy Sodom, so Hannah cuts her own deal. If God will give her a son, she will give him back as a consecrated Nazirite.
Without a priestly intermediary, Hannah passionately whispers to God. But Eli, accustomed to more formal, audible prayers, insensitively accuses her of being drunk. Denying this, Hannah forcefully explains her predicament until Eli approves of her prayer and gives her his blessing.
Her mood changes, and Hannah goes home, conceives and bears a son, whom she names “Samu-el”— “he who is from God.” The “el” in his name is the name of God.
Hannah stays home from Shiloh until Samuel is weaned (around age 3), then delivers him and a large supply of food to Eli (1 Sam. 1:23-25). With far more confidence than I would have had, Hannah hands off her pre-schooler to an older man with little success in childrearing (see 1 Sam. 2:12-13).
Fortunately for the boy, things seem to work out. The text adds a happy postscript for our intrepid heroine: Hannah goes back home and gives birth to five more children!
This story follows the biblical trope of barren women — Sarah, Rachel, Elizabeth — who bear sons by divine intervention, sons like Samuel or Joseph who then figure prominently in the history of God’s people.
Just as important, Hannah models for all believers — but especially for women in male-dominated societies — dogged persistence, the courage to bargain with God, and, when necessary, stand up to God’s priestly representatives.
Our next lesson is titled “Bread from Heaven.” Is God faithful when we are part of a huge crowd of people —babies, loud teenagers, older people limping from arthritis — hobbling through a desert with no obvious sources of food or water? Is God faithful when no promised land is in sight, just sand and rocks and scraggly bushes?
Although Sunday school teachers are inclined to blame the Israelites for complaining, they have my sympathy. This past April I hiked the 40-mile Jesus Trail in the Galilee area of the “promised land” with plenty of food and water and guest houses to sleep in at night. Even so, it was challenging on blistered feet and occasional unclear trail markers. I would have complained in the desert, too.
The bread from heaven God provided did not look like bread. It lay on the ground, fine and flaky and white like frost, and it tasted like wafers made with coriander seed and honey. It came every day and lasted only that day, except on the sixth day of each week there was a double portion for the Sabbath (Ex. 16:27-30). The Hebrews called it “manna,” Aramaic for “what is it?”
The InterVarsity Press Bible Dictionary says: “In Sinai, certain insects produce honeydew excretions on tamarisk twigs . . . every June for some weeks. At night these drops fall from the trees to the ground . . . until the heat of the sun brings forth the ants, which remove them. These drops are small, sticky, light-colored, and sugary-sweet.” Was this the bread from heaven?
Has God ever been faithful to you in a seemingly hopeless situation — with a response not exactly what you expected?
Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.