Samuel begins at the end of the days of the judges. As the last judge of Israel, Samuel, is the bridge between the period of the judges and the period of the kings. He is the man who will shepherd Israel from its old, disunified, dark period of the judges to the unified (though often dark) period of the kings. Israel went from being a loosely bound, tribal people, often at war with one another, to a unified nation under Saul (the man Samuel anointed).
We start the tale of Samuel with the tale of his parents. Like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Samson’s mom before her, we have another story of a barren woman: Hannah. Like Leah and Rachel before them, Hannah and her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, didn’t get along. Elkanah showed favoritism to the childless Hannah, while Peninnah despised and taunted her (vs 5-6). Though this probably happened at other times, it would come to a head every year during one of the sacred feasts (probably Passover), when they’d go up to Jerusalem to sacrifice. It got so severe that Hannah would become hysterical to the point of refusing to eat.
I think it’s worth pausing here to think a little bit about what the Bible says about polygamy. It was written in a vastly different cultural context than ours, especially the Old Testament, where polygamy was the norm for wealthier men. Such cultures still exist in places like the middle east and Africa. So, when we see references to Polygamy with anyone from Abraham to David, rather than cringing, we should see it from their context and remember that this was normal back then.
OK, but what does the Bible as a whole actually say about polygamy? Well, in the OT, there are no bans on it, though there are certain regulations, such as that the king of Israel was not to take many wives, lest his heart be led astray (Deut. 17:17). We can look to the created order of Adam and Eve, one man and one wife, as an example, but that again is not a prohibition. In the NT, deacons and bishops were to be men of “but one wife” (I Tim. 3:2,12). But for all the passages on marriage, but again we see no prohibition of polygamy. Our strong cringe at any reference to the practice is probably more cultural than Biblical.
However, without a ban on polygamy, the Bible gives us great examples of why it’s a bad idea. These examples come through stories such as the war between Leah and Rachel and this chapter of I Samuel. It shows the tendency of the men for favoritism, and all the strife is can produce in a household. Look at what these women are called in verse 6: “rivals” (a word often translated as “trouble”). Is this the type of dynamic you want in your household? In the story of Leah and Rachel, we can take see a sample of how objectified women can become when there is more than one wife, and it’s hard to “love your wife as Christ the church” when there is more than one wife. These are the best reasons we have to reject polygamy, I personally think. Rather than arguing that the Bible explicitly bans it, I’d rather argue that it’s just a really bad idea. Besides, it’s not much of an issue in our culture, anyways.
Families and children
Another interesting thing comes up here, and that’s the statement “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” To the women of that day, if they could not bear children, it was one of life’s greatest shames. In a culture like that one, marriage and children are a part of life, just as getting a job is a part of life in America. I imagine that to not have a child would be, in a modern equivalent, like never once working a job in your entire life. It was just something you were supposed to do.
So, Hannah was under much shame from a cultural context, but I think that part of who she was as a woman was related to bearing children. I theorize that there is something inside of women that is satisfied and gains great contentment in childrearing. Even in the garden, God told the first couple to be fruitful and increase in number. It’s my opinion that there are certain things like this that are hardwired into us as men and woman as an important part of our identity (working and providing for the family is one such thing for a man). When we can’t do these things and get depressed, it’s not that there is something wrong with us that we need to “get over,” like Elkanah told Hannah to do. These things are deep in our hearts, and they are real hurts, as real as any physical wound.
In such a case (bareness, inability for a man to provide for his family, etc), we need great comfort and tenderness. It really is a big deal. Perhaps I was too hard on Elkanah, and when he spoke to Hannah it was with tenderness, reminding her of what she did have. Either way, in our modern, genderless, career-focused world, let’s not forget how much these things can hurt. Nor, as we progress through this story, should we forget God’s power to heal.
God really seems to like healing barren women. Whether he grants her children or not (which He does often in the OT), we see His heart for her in the pages of scripture. Modern America doesn’t think much of this aspect of life. We focus so much on the sexual act that we forget the joy of children and how people long to have them. We’ve also solved barrenness in many cases through modern science. But that longing for kids, sometimes delayed or never fulfilled is real and powerful and good. Being a barren woman is a broken, hard situation. Perhaps the reason God put so many barren women in the scriptures is to show His caring heart to comfort them and to show the barren women of today that He can use their suffering for His greater good.
Perhaps we could also extend this to those who wish to marry but are single. In a sense, this is a barrenness. As we read this story, we see how God used Hannah’s barrenness for His glory and ultimately gave her children. This is a comfort to us lonely singles out there that God hears our prayers and will provide both marriage and children when His timing has come to completion. And if it does not, we praise Him anyways, for His plans for us are better than we can imagine, even if they are hard. Our hearts are on the heavenly pilgrimage, not on earthly contentment.
In addition, a word of warning to couples who would say, “I’m never having children.” The desire to procreate is hardwired into us and is actually commanded in scripture (Genesis 2, 9:1). To go against that is to go against your human nature. Beware. This can lead to great depression and anxiety. I know that changing a diaper at 3 AM and paying for college doesn’t sound fun, but it’s how we are created as human beings, and it is with great caution that we should go against that. Because for some reason, people find happiness in children, even with all the stress they provide. Our nature simply is to find joy in them, but it’s an intangible joy, unlike the vacation to Europe that their college tuition could have paid for.
A friend of mine used to wake up at 4:30 AM every morning because his 2-year-old always got up with the sun (or earlier). Having three kids closely together, he went through eight years straight, without a break, of diapers. He was also pretty short on cash, as he lived in Japan through most of that time, where kids are not cheap. But he told me once (though his exhaustion-clouded eyes) that kids are the greatest joy in the world and that he would not trade them for anything. You just can’t escape your own nature.
Because of this hard-wiring towards families, I believe that it causes us to realize the even more the great sacrifice made by those who choose singleness for the gospel, like Paul did. This nature need not force us to insist on marriage for those chosen for radical missionary service. Rather, it should give us a greater perspective on just how great the sacrifice is.
This should also give us a perspective on just how great the loneliness of singles can be. Moms, dads in the church, I can say this as a lonely single man: can you let us into your families? In a culture where we marry so late, can you imagine adopting an uncle or aunt into your family to play with your kids, be a big brother to them, and (most importantly) get a free dinner? Some of my happiest moments have been with such families. College students, would you consider the great impact you can have on the lives of children even as you wait to have your own?
Our culture does not value this, but there are things like this that are simple, primal, and very real that hold an immeasurable power.