The tent flap peeled back, and Hannah peeked out. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but it would soon. The hills glowed in a dull orange color, and somewhere the goats still snored away the early morning. Elkanah had already gathered up sacks for each of them the night before. They sat in a neat row beside the tent pole.
She sighed and hugged her arms close, rubbing both elbows to keep the chill at bay. A tent sat across from her, and gentle snores echoed across the small yard between them. Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, and her children rested inside. Peninnah would probably sleep until the last moment, wake right as everything was prepared, and then yawn lazily in Hannah’s face as she sent her children marching to the front of the procession.
It was only a few hour journey to Shiloh, but it would be a long few hours. Hannah took a deep breath, closed her eyes, felt the chill from the earliest morning breezes, and then turned to go about the day.
With quick work, she had a meager breakfast prepared for them consisting of some flat bread, and a few leftover pourings of lentil stew heated up over the fire. Smoke wafted above the tents, and by the time Hannah had readied portions for each of them, Peninnah and her two dark-haired sons had emerged and sat by the fire. The two boys smiled up at Hannah as she handed them small bowls of stew and a piece of bread.
“Here. Eat, young ones.”
Peninnah snatched a bowl from Hannah. “Feeding other people’s children because you don’t have your own?”
Before Hannah could respond, Elkanah, their husband, walked up behind them, smiling at each of them and giving a kiss to their foreheads. “Good morning. We’ll leave as soon as we’ve eaten Hannah’s meal.”
“Father!” the two boys cried, setting their bowls aside and rushing to the older man, throwing both arms around his waist.
He patted their heads, tousling their curls and then shooing them off to finish readying for their trip. Elkanah sat and scratched at the graying hair on both sides of his head. Hannah had noticed the gray coming in last season. He seemed more and more worried — especially about her. But every time he asked her, she would shrug and say nothing was wrong. Everything was simply fine. As always.
But she knew the truth: she was not fine. There was an emptiness in her life, and she saw it every time he glanced sideways at her. Every time he smiled at Peninnah’s boys and yet noticed the complete absence of young laughter in Hannah’s tent.
She had never had children.
And she probably never would.
They all ate quickly and quietly and then set off, Elkanah taking the two young boys in the front of their small procession and pointing out the hills on every side, naming their names and explaining the deep things Yahweh had accomplished on each one.
Peninnah strode along right ahead of Hannah, glancing back at her every few steps along the rocky path. “Oh, Hannah. You must look up more often. Isn’t it a glorious day?” She spread her hands wide and took a deep breath through both nostrils. “Simply, simply beautiful. Another day we’ve been blessed.”
Hannah bit her lip and fingered the strand of dark hair that had fallen over her shoulder. She tucked it back. “Hmm,” she mumbled. Her gaze followed the rocks along the path, jumping from one to the next, one foot, next foot, one step, next step.
“Stop being so sad.” Peninnah held back until Hannah walked along beside her. Peninnah threw an arm around her shoulders and gave her a light squeeze. “It’s not like Yahweh completely despises you. Sure, he hasn’t given you any children, or heirs, or sons, or daughters, or joy to our husband, but then he hasn’t… struck you dead with a plague.”
Hannah wrestled away. “Leave me alone.”
Peninnah smirked. “Leave you alone? Like Yahweh does?”
Hannah marched a couple steps ahead, watching the backs of the two boys as they hurried to crouch and stare at an orange lizard sprawled on a rock. They laughed and poked the lizard with their grubby fingers.
“Or…” Peninnah said, catching up to Hannah. “Maybe if you pray hard enough this year, Yahweh will grant you a child. Time remains in your womb, I’m sure. Then again, if I was him, I wouldn’t glance your direction even once.” She gave a short laugh and then strolled ahead to walk alongside Elkanah and the boys.
Hannah swallowed, saw a cloud drift across the otherwise blue sky, and felt the first tear slip down her face. The first tear. But it would not be the last.
They reached Shiloh after only two breaks and a small lunch of bread Hannah had prepared the night before. They passed through the city and came to the Tabernacle. It had a fence set up all the way around it, and over the top of the fence, Hannah could see the Tabernacle itself, covered in all colors of fabric. The very tent brought from the wilderness to the land so long ago. A fire blazed at the altar before the tent, and Hannah could smell the burning meat even from where she stood.
Elkanah had prepared portions for each of them, and as night fell, their small family sat and ate together. Elkanah gave Peninnah portions of meat for her and the two boys and then walked to Hannah to give her one portion.
She took it into her hands. “Thank you,” she whispered. Tears slipped down her face. If she had children, they would be enjoying this just as much as Peninnah’s boys were. She knew how people looked at her back in Ramah. She knew the rumors. The whisperings. The behind the back glares of anger at her existence. To be barren was to be a disgrace. If she did not give Elkanah any children, she was most of all to be pitied.
Elkanah reached out a finger and caught one of her tears. “Why are you crying, Hannah?”
More tears came. How could a man understand this? She shook her head and stared at the meat in her hands.
“Eat,” Elkanah whispered.
“I… I can’t,” she said. “I… why do you keep me?” She looked up at him, watching his brown eyes. They glanced down.
“Because I love you, Hannah. Don’t be sad. Please. You have me. Isn’t that better than all the sons in the world?” Elkanah tried to smile, but Hannah turned away.
She ran, knowing Peninnah was laughing at her backside, enjoying the company of her children over the meal and the small fire they had built. Hannah kept running until she stood near the Tabernacle entrance. Stars peppered the sky above, and she stared up at them, wondering where Yahweh was. Why had he left her? Why had he kept her from being a mother? What evil had she done to deserve this path?
A sharp sting wrenched across her chest, poking right into her heart. She would always be alone. No matter what happened around her. No matter who came into her life. The emptiness would remain.
An old man, fat, with a ring of chins under his nose sat by the Tabernacle entrance, his eyes closed, rough breaths escaping past his weathered lips every few seconds. He had his hands folded across his large stomach. It was a marvel the stool beneath him didn’t shatter and send him rolling to the dusty ground below.
Hannah took another deep breath and slowly fell to her knees. She let another sob take her shoulders, shaking her. And then, she did something. She sat up a bit straight and prayed. Her lips whispered the words carefully: “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, if You look, and see my pain and then answer this prayer and give me a son, then I… I promise I will return him to You. He can be Yours for every year of his life, and as a sign of his dedication, I will ensure his hair is never cut.”
She waited in the silence for a moment and then repeated her prayer. Still, silence met her ears.
A heavy sigh escaped the fat man. “Are you really coming over here drunk, woman?” He jabbed a pudgy finger in her direction. “If you throw away your wines you seem to enjoy so much, you’d be happier. And more in the graces.”
Hannah wiped at her face. “Oh no, no sir. You don’t understand. I promise I haven’t been… drinking wine or anything like that. I… I’m just… discouraged. And so, I thought I would pour out my heart to the Lord since this is His Tabernacle.”
The man squinted at her.
“I’m not wicked. I’ve… just been crying. And praying.”
The man gave her a sad smile. “Then, if that’s the truth, go in peace, my daughter. And may the Lord of Israel grant you everything you’ve asked Him for.”
“Oh, thank you, sir!” Hannah stood, and as her feet planted on the ground beneath her, peace washed through her bones — through every piece of her being. The sadness slipped away to the dust, washing away with her tears. And for the first time in a long time, she smiled. And hurried back to eat.
Three years passed, and in that time, Yahweh answered Hannah’s prayer. She gave birth to a son, and as soon as he had been weaned, Hannah took him back to the Tabernacle in Shiloh. Elkanah brought along a three-year-old bull, a basket of flour, and some wine to leave as a sacrifice for Yahweh. To thank Him for all He had done for them.
Hannah held her son’s hand as she walked up to the Tabernacle entrance. And there, sitting on the stool like he had never gotten up was the fat man. He glanced up at them as they approached, and she saw the flash of recognition in his eyes.
“Sir,” Hannah said. “Do you remember me? I’m the same woman who stood here several years ago praying to Yahweh asking Him for a son, and…” She gently placed both hands on her son’s shoulders. His dark, straight hair had already grown to his ears, and she brushed it to the side. “Here he is. The boy Yahweh gave. And now I’m giving him back so he can belong to Yahweh his whole life.”
The man smiled, stood up from his stool with a creak from his back, and dipped his head to her.
Elkanah stood beside Hannah, with one arm slipping around her shoulder. And together, the little family gave their thanks to Yahweh, watching the fat priest take the sacrifices from them and offer them up on the altar. Flames engulfed the bull.
Her heart had never been more full. As she watched her son gaze at the flames with wide eyes, she knew this was the moment she had prayed for all her life: to be full. And she was.
(c) 2016 by Shaun Stevenson.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright (c) 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.