Hannah’s Apostrophe

I Samuel 1:4-20 – The 25th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, November 15, 2015

“Then she made this promise: ‘Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life . . .’” (I Samuel 1:11)

Hannah prays*
Hannah prays*

Tell me about Hannah’s place or time of birth. Tell me how or when she died. Tell me what happened to the woman also known as Samuel’s mother between her first and last breaths.

No response? Are you word-searching your digital Bible? Perhaps desperately Googling?

Indeed, my brief opening paragraph summarized the scant Biblical verses on Samuel’s mother. Punctuation-wise, the apostrophe between the “l” and the lower case “s” defined Hannah.

Not fair, you might protest. There are more apostrophes and details to her credit: Elkanah’s barren wife, Peninnah’s rival, believer, pray-er, promise-maker and a woman whose name means grace.

And yet, like so many within the vast Biblical landscape, Hannah arrived like a whim and vanished in a heartbeat. She’s like the college roommate who departed before the semester ended or the temp worker with the nice smile whose name you can’t recall by the next day. It’s especially like that for Biblical women. What do we know about Miriam? She’s mostly an apostrophe: Moses’ sister. What do we know about Bathsheba? Another, slightly more elaborate apostrophe: Uriah’s wife, David’s stupidity, Solomon’s mother. There are many women, and of course men, children and even angels and demons appearing and then disappearing on the pages of the “Good Book.”

And so with Hannah, we glimpse her and wave farewell. But, at least for me, the glimpse lingers.

The Biblical Hannah bargained with God. As a polite, professional pastor I’ve always cautioned parishioners about human-Holy bargaining.

Please, please God, give me a bike and I’ll be a good boy. Bad prayer!

Please, please God, help me find a parking place and I’ll treat everyone nice for the rest of the day. Bad prayer!

Many bargains are more serious. We barter health, happiness, and money. For ourselves. For others. For life itself.

Barren Hannah bargained. As Elkanah’s other wife, who may love her husband “more than ten sons,” nonetheless bargained for a child. Oh, it’s not a bargain? Pardon me. Let’s label it with an appropriately faithful word . . . she vowed that if she birthed a child—male and not female, thank you very much—she’d give him back to the Lord.

My mother did that.

One of my favorite pictures of Mom and me . . .
One of my favorite pictures of Mom and me . . .

She made a Hannah-like vow. There, I’ve said it. I tell folks never to bargain. But, in our family legends, my mother apparently did. My parents were married in the early months of World War II. As with so many, they lived with stress, experienced separation, and moved repeatedly as my father—in the Army Air Corps—went from assignment to assignment. They had it easier than some, harder than others. And they were childless. Apparently, at some point (secretly, faithfully, foolishly or all three), Mom vowed to God that if she could have just one child, she would give it back to the Lord. Years passed. Eventually, my parents had three children. Thrice blessed, they would’ve proclaimed on most days!

One became ordained: me, the middle child. Was I “given back to God?” Was I the fulfilled vow? How dare I think that way! Or, how dare I not? Mom mentioned her vow only a few times. My two sisters and I didn’t have childhoods burdened with unrealistic future expectations. My path to ordination was not superior or inferior to my siblings’ unique journeys. Indeed, I believe all three of us were “given back to God.” All children are. Parents raise children, not to keep them, but to eventually (hopefully, lovingly) point them along their own way.

*      *      *


Elkanah’s wife.

Samuel’s mother.

We read the terse account in I Samuel and smile when a priest spied Hannah praying—silently, only her lips moving—and accused her of drunkenness. We may also smile—a bittersweet smile—when Elkanah wondered if he’s not worth ten sons. Aren’t we saddened with and for her? Hannah was childless, like Abram’s Sarai in Genesis, like Zechariah’s Elizabeth in Matthew, but oh how she longed to have her womb filled with a new life.

So Hannah prayed. Hannah vowed. Hannah hoped. Her story weaved into my life, for I’m grateful that Mom, at most once or twice, whispered to me that she vowed a child would be given back to God. I suspect most days I don’t live up to my mother’s long-ago vow. I suspect Samuel may have also shared those self-critical sentiments.

But I read and relish the briefest of Biblical stories. Hannah, barely an apostrophe, who disappeared after a smattering of verses, continues praying in and through my life.

And what about you?

What vow—made by you or for you—brought you to this point and will carry you into God’s next promise?


*Image from the book (Die Bibel in Bildern) by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Strange! I wonder how many of us were bargained for when we were being born? After about 30 years of my ministry my father told me this story.

    My birth took place in my grandfathers hospital, Doctors often owned hospitals where they and others centered their practice, Jackson Lake, in Oakland near Lake Merritt. My grandfather, Dr. John, (yes I was named for him) came out of the delivery room and told my Dad, “Sam, it appears your son is breach and stuck in the canal. Helen’s life is at stake and we are at a critical junction. It maybe one life or another.” Dr John went back into the delivery room. My father fell on his knees and prayed to God, promising if God would let me live, he would dedicate my life to God.

    Dr John went back in the delivery room determined to not let either patient die. He plunged his hands into the canal and pushed his way until he had a hold of me and turned me to a correct delivery position. The birth proceeded without any problem. It maybe significant that my mother choose not to have my grandfather attend her in subsequent deliveries.

    When my father told me, in a period after we had become more colleagues than opposing forces, what had happened I didn’t know whether to be ashamed or joyful. To be subject to such a bargain and then in a sense to have it already fulfilled created a conflict in me. But when I looked around at what had actually happened in my life I was able to find some peace. My life was exactly what I had always wanted. I looked at the challenges that were mine over the years, the opportunities, the joy I had in ministry, the places and people I had built relationships with over the years and realized I had the life I wanted and would not change a thing. From that day forward my father and I began I real relationship.

    I still don’t know what to make of promises made or not made. It is a mystery to me and I am happy to let it remain so.

    1. Wow, John. Thanks for sharing this memory. How I enjoy your closing sentences, with their recognition of accepting the mysteries of our lives without analyzing them. We may want to “understand” everything, certainly including the whys and hows and hopes and promises and presence or absence of a “Holy hand” at our birth . . . but sometimes we just tell the stories. Thanks again for your story, John.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.