Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hannah’s Birth Story: “My Horn is Exalted in the Lord”

"For This Child I Prayed" by Elspeth Young
Most of us are familiar with Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel 1-2, Hannah is barren, she goes to the tabernacle and prays earnestly for a child, she promises the Lord that if He will bless her with a child she will consecrate him to the Lord, she is praying so passionately that Eli the priest thinks she is drunk, she explains herself to him, Eli blesses her, she later conceives Samuel, and after weaning him she presents him to the Lord and Samuel is raised in the temple and becomes a great prophet. Hannah’s story is so rich and while there so many different aspects her story to talk about the thing that impresses me most about her story is her desire and willingness to conceive, bear, and love a child she knew she wasn’t going to get to keep.

In Hannah’s day women who were unable to bear children occupied a lower social status that women who had children and were viewed to be “cursed” or “afflicted”. They were also a woman’s “social security” in her old age. In view of these things one can imagine that Hannah may have wanted a child in order to gain more social status in her house hold, to secure her own comfort in the future, or she may have wanted to “show up” her husband’s other wife, Peninnah (who had children) and who often “…provoked her [Hannah] sore, for to make her fret, because the Lord had shut up her womb.”

Yet it is interesting to me that in her prayer to the Lord Hannah didn’t mention any of those motives as her reason for wanting a child. In 1 Samuel 1:11 we read about how Hannah, “in bitterness of soul” went to the tabernacle in Shiloh and “vowed a vow” to the Lord that “… if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life…” Hannah had gotten to a point in her life where she was ready and willing to surrender her will completely to the Lord. She doesn’t ask for a child for selfish reasons, all she asks for is the blessing of being a vessel to bring a child to earth. She knew from the very start that she wasn’t going to get to raise Samuel, she knew that he wouldn’t be there to take care of her in her old age, she knew that she wouldn’t get to dress him up and parade him in front of Peninnah or the other women. In fact, she knew she would have to face one of the hardest tasks any woman could face-- turning her child completely over to the Lord. She knew all this before she even conceived Samuel and yet she still wanted him.

In vs. 24 of 1 Samuel 1 we read more about her sacrifice and the condition of her heart, “And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the Lord in Shiloh: and the child was young. And she said… I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord. And he worshiped the Lord there. ”

We don’t know for sure how old Samuel was but women in Hannah’s culture often breastfed their children into their toddler hood and didn’t wean them until they were around 3 or 4 years old. My little son is turning three soon and as I think about Hannah and her little Samuel my heart aches for what she must have felt during those years she nursed him. I wonder if she had a constant battle going on in her head and heart about whether or not to honor her vow to the Lord. She easily could she could have kept Samuel and no one, except the Lord, would ever have known. It is such an example to me of her faith and integrity that Hannah honored her vow to the Lord and gave her little son to the Lord like she had promised. I can only imagine her pain as she walked away from the tabernacle leaving behind her little son, knowing that from that point on that she would only see him once a year when her family would bring their offering to the tabernacle. Did Samuel cry for her as she left? My heart aches as I imagine her weeping that night as she rode back to her tent, still filled with Peninnah’s passel of children, empty handed.

Yet despite the sorrow she must have felt she still found voice to praise God. In chapter 2 of 1 Samuel is Hannah’s psalm in which she sings “ My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord… There is none holy as the Lord; for there is none beside thee… for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed… The Lord killeth, and makest alive; he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up… the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and he hath set the world upon them.” (vs. 1,2,6,8).

I love the phrase she uses “mine horn is exalted in the Lord”. ‘Horn” in Hebrew is a figurative way of saying “power” or “capacity” and exalted can mean either “elevated” or “ joyful”. So another way to interpret what Hannah is saying in her psalm is that her “power, or capacity” has been “elevated” by the Lord. I don’t believe Hannah is talking about worldly power but rather rejoicing in God’s power and in the great miracle that he had allowed her to participate in. God had given her power to create and she recognized that it was not her own power, but that she had been a vessel through which the power of God had flown.

Hannah’s story has meant a lot to me in my life because at the beginning of my marriage I had some health problems and at one point was faced with the possibility that I might not be able to have children. Up until that point in my life I’d never really wanted to become a mother. My life plans included a Ph.D., traveling, and doing important things- which in my mind meant working for the UN fighting AIDS and world hunger. Children were not a priority in my life and I figured they would come someday when I had started all the "important" things I wanted to do with my life. Then, when I was faced with the fact that I might never be able to have children and suddenly ALL I wanted in the whole world was to be a mother-- desperately. I spent hours on my knees pleading with God, telling him that my heart had changed and begged Him, like Hannah, to “not forget thine handmaid”.

The year I struggled with infertility (I know that sounds pathetic compared to what some women experience) completely changed the direction of my life. I came to understand the hunger and desperation that Hannah must have felt when she went up to the house of the Lord and “was in the bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore.” I felt like that trial had awakened a part of my soul that I had tried to silence for most of my life. I felt my “mother heart” awaken; it was powerful, overwhelming, and completely soul changing. I still don’t know why I had that short, yet hard, trial of infertility. What I do know is that during that year I discovered the seeds of creation within my soul; I watered them with my tears, fed them with the insatiable hunger of my soul and I felt them grow and expand. I knew, as surely as I could know anything, that those seed would one day sprout—in this life or the next.

I know there are people who will disagree with me but I feel that within every woman is a mothering heart—the divine seeds of love that yearn for continuing life. I realize that there are women who say they aren’t “natural” mothers, they don’t like children, or they have never had those sort of desires. I understand that, completely, because for a long time that was what I said about myself. Yet I firmly believe that we have been created in the image of God, male and female, and that like him we find out greatest joy in creation. When we participate in any sort of creation -- whether it be creating a new life, a piece of art, music, writing, the construction of a building, or the nurturing of a garden-- we get to be an instrument in God’s hand and vessels for his power. They are the times we see, like Hannah did, that we are nothing without Him and they cause us to exclaim, “My horn is exalted in the Lord.” They are the experiences our souls hunger for.


Questions to Think About:

  • I realize that not all men and women have the opportunity to use their procreative powers on this earth. What ways do you exercise your creative power?
  • Do you think that there is something within men and women’s eternal soul that desires children? Why or why not?
  • Why are women willing to make such sacrifices, including risking their lives, to bring children into the world?
  • Could you dedicate your child to the Lord like Hannah did?
  • What other women in the scriptures does Hannah’s story remind you of?
  • Why are women so quick to judge each other unkindly and “provoke each other sore”, especially in relation to the experiences of child bearing, pregnancy, labor and mothering?

7 comments:

  1. •Why are women so quick to judge each other unkindly and “provoke each other sore”, especially in relation to the experiences of child bearing, pregnancy, labor and mothering?

    When joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I did not realize that there was an "unofficial" dictate that all women must be married, and have an abundance of children.
    I am 50 years old and I know that 50 is the new 30-35. And with all of the technology and hormone injections and this and that, sure I could have a baby. I did not consciously make the decision not to have a child. When I was in my 20's and in my first marriage I wanted to have a baby and tried and tried to no avail. Got divorced and decided that I didn't want to have a baby without a husband. So I got married again at 40.
    Ten years later, I joined a church where it seemed to me that women judge each other by their fertility rate.

    There have been sisters who were approximately 20-25 years old, who would come up to me and demand to know when my husband and I are planning on having babies. I thought, how rude, how insensitive.

    An Elder Missionary (from France no less), challenged me in front of a group of other missionary's and church members and loudly proclaimed "It's not too late for you and your husband to have children. Out of the blue, I had never met the man. I suppose he thought he was uttering a word of prophecy.

    For a almost a year, a good friend of mine would email me and close with this statement; You are a mother, and you will be forever. Ok

    Two of my husband's and I best friends,whenever we are together, would ask us, "So when are you two going to start having kids?"

    I am usually invited to just about everyone's Baby Shower, and I may be 1 of 2 who doesn't have any kids. So I can't join in the many multi-leveled conversations concerning baby care and the difference betweens Bubba's Butt Balm and Desenex. (Seriously)

    So I have never experienced this in my non church life. I work in an office where all of the women (7) are mothers except me. I came to their baby showers and I was appreciated. They let me hold their babies and even gave me pictures. I offered my baby sitting services. They have not made me feel like a freak.

    I don't have an attitude about this. I have struggled with my own problems and given them over to the Lord. He has answered my prayers; He has promised me an opportunity for children, in this world and the next. So I believe Him. This week end I had an opportunity to hang out with a good friend who has a 1 year old. For some reason this little boy had a crush on me. He would walk up to me and reach up for me to pick him up. He fell asleep and while I was holding him I experienced the most amazing and powerful feeling of love. So much love, my husband said that he saw us and we both were glowing. My friend was so gracious to allow me to interact with her baby. So, how's that for a mother heart.

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    1. God had many ways to use a mother's heart :) I have never given birth either due to physical problems but God has given me the privilege of loving three stepchildren, two adoptive children, grandchildren, as well as 'mommamel' children. Keep on loving His kids!

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  2. A mother heart is very important. I am very touched by the previous comment and the power she carries in her feelings of having a mother heart. Being a daughter of God, I believe we are given that as part of our divinity. For some it is stronger than for others but we all have a touch of that divinity within us.

    The infertility resonates for me also. Similar to Heatherlady when my little baby turned three, I was grateful for the strength and power that Hannah must of had. She gave her son to the Lord to the priest Eli who wasn't the best example of virtue and strength. She is a powerful woman who must have trusted the Lord over all. Much more than I do at times. How powerful an example for her faith, prayers, and follow through.

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  3. RGG, Thank you for that beautiful comment. I think you are a beautiful example of what it means to have a "mother heart." What a blessing you must be to those around you!

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  4. Heather
    Thanks for this post, as always I enjoy reading your blog.

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  5. I read the story of Hannah today and knew that you must have posted a blog on it. You didn't disappoint.

    I also had to look at the footnote when I ran across the phrase "mine horn is exalted in the Lord". The meanings of "power" and "capacity" just didn't seem to fit the context, although I knew the word horn is often used in this way in scripture. This part of the story heavily reminded me of what is called the "Song of Mary" found in the New Testament. It reads as follows:

    "And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever."
    (Luke 1:46-55)

    Again we see the word "exalted" being used. After pondering the use of horn for awhile I've come to conclude it probably does imply power. Recall that men and women are called to become Kings and Queens of God. If we be kings or queens this implies that we are called to govern kingdoms. Who would be our subjects? Our children of course or more specifically, our sons and their wives and children (since daughters join other men's kingdoms). Thus not only do temple sealings involve sealing men and women as husbands and wives, but there is also an ordinance for sealing sons to fathers. Posterity gives a man and a woman a kingdom and that is why it is so highly prized in scripture.

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  6. I read this a few years ago and have come back here and there to read your insights of one of my favorite stories. It just dawned on me today, horn is also a medical term for part of the uterus. I can't believe I haven't remembered that until now. I thought it interesting enough to comment...a few years later.

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