While praying one New Year with a church elder, at one point he called on God for their community to grow through new birth in the year ahead. He misquoted childless Hannah ‘who,’ he told the Lord, ‘pleaded with you, “Give me children, or I die.” And if we don’t have spiritual children, Lord, this church will die.’ Caught up in the fervour of his intercession, I concurred with a series of zealous Amens. But then my lifelong familiarity with Old Testament narratives kicked in. When our prayer session ended I remarked to him, ‘In the interest of accuracy, let me ask you two questions: What did Hannah actually say? And who was it who demanded, “Give me children, or I shall die”?’
A valuable rule in Bible study and biblical preaching is: always honour the text.
In answer to my first question, it was Rachel who demanded children, and her frustration was directed at her husband Jacob who already had four sons by his first wife, Leah, Rachel’s older sister. But she did so in God’s hearing and he read her underlying motivation – envy. ‘When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”’ (Genesis 30:1). Had she simply asked for one son, in order to remove the social stigma of her barrenness, she would still have been blessed to become the mother of history-changing Joseph. But she expressed her demand in the plural – ‘children’. Later, in giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, she did die! (See Genesis 35:16-20).
In complete contrast, broken-hearted Hannah asked for one male child, promising to nurse him until weaned and then lend him to the Lord permanently – ‘as long as he lives’ – a vow she faithfully kept. ‘She was deeply disturbed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed … give your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (1 Samuel 1:11; in verse 1 Samuel 1:28 she says twice that he was ‘lent to the Lord’)
And God saw to it that interest was paid to her for this precious loan, giving her at least 400% profit, for in all ‘she … bore three sons and two daughters’ (1 Samuel 2:21). Perhaps this godly soul had learned a salutary lesson from Rachel’s petulant demand.
Zechariah’s persistent yearning
All of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had barren marriages and only became fathers at a ripe old age. God thus showed he was in complete control of his people’s ancestral roots. And significantly Luke starts his Gospel with this same theme – the long childless marriage of John the Baptist’s parents. Then he tells us of the conception of the future Messiah and Saviour. The foundations of the kingdom of God are truly supernatural as expressed in the stark poetic statement of Psalm 24:1-2: ‘You founded [the earth] on the seas and established it on the rivers’. How precarious does that sound?
* Nil desperandum – don’t despair, but ‘through faith and patience inherit the promises’ (Hebrews 6:12).