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Category Archives: Hannah

Of a mother and her child

The Creator definitely had a master plan when He put all the elements needed for growth and success in place. He created two beings—a man and a woman, each made in His image—and told them to become one, and to multiply. He gave them guidelines for happiness, a beautiful place in which to live, and the ability to produce offspring, also in their own image.

The miracle of reproduction is still amazing these thousands of years later. The fact that an infant is not only born with its parents’ likenesses, but that its mother can continue to sustain it with life-giving nourishment from her own body is awesome. From its very first cry, she is there to hold her baby close, to suckle it, and establish a bond meant to last a lifetime.

Janis Rozentals - Mother and Child

Janis Rozentals – Mother and Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mother who laughed

The first reference in the Bible to nursing is in Genesis 21:6-7, when Sarah rejoiced at the birth of her miracle-son, Isaac:  “And Sarah said, ‘God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me.’ She also said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Treacherous times

The next episode of note involves the birth of a beautiful baby boy during treacherous times. Moses, Jochebed and Amram’s third child, was born under a death sentence. Pharaoh’s maniacal efforts to curb the growing numbers of Israelites resulted in a chilling edict: All newborn baby boys must be thrown in the river and drowned!

It is possible Jochebed delivered Moses without the aid of midwives in the interest of secrecy; for three months she succeeded in hiding him. No doubt worried about informers or the risk of discovery by palace troops, she embarked on a courageous plan to save her precious boy.

Taking an ark of bulrushes, she waterproofed it with a coating of asphalt and pitch. Then she secreted it among water plants fringing the river’s shore. How heartbreaking it must have been to nurse her tiny son one last time, place him securely in his miniature vessel, and then walk away!

Would he stay safe, and warm, and dry? His sister stood a silent sentinel, watching from afar.

It could not have been long before Pharaoh’s daughter heard cries of a tiny infant as she neared the water. When she discovered Moses she immediately called for a nurse. The Hebrew phrase is literally “a woman causing to be breastfed” (‘ishah meyneqet); some translations have “a wet-nurse.” Miriam was there to suggest just such a person—his own mother, Jochebed.

Lent to the Lord


Another incident concerns a certain woman named Hannah. Hers is a well-known story. Unable to bear children for years, Hannah begged God to hear her pleas, promising that if He should grant her desire for a son, she would give him back to His service. God heard, and Samuel was born. Scripture says, “…The woman stayed and nursed her son until she had weaned him” (1 Samuel 1:23). Then she took him to the house of Lord along with sacrifices, saying,  “For this child I prayed, and the LORD has granted me my petition which I asked of Him. Therefore I also have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives he shall be lent to the LORD” (vs 27-28).

Weaning

While suckling an infant promotes early bonding, there comes a point when it is no longer possible or practical to do so. The child is weaned, and depends predominantly on other forms of nourishment.

There is some discussion about the age when weaning took place. Burton Scott Easton, in his explanation in The International Bible Standard Encyclopedia, remarks that the Hebrew word for “wean,” gamal, “covers the whole period of nursing and care until the weaning is complete (1 Kings 11:20). This period in ancient Israel extended to about 3 years, and when it was finished the child was mature enough to be intrusted [sic] to strangers (1 Sam 1:24).” He continues that the “completion of the period marked the end of the most critical stage of the child’s life, [and] it was celebrated with a feast (Gen 21:8), a custom still observed in the Orient” (from International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc.).

On the other hand, Adam Clarke in his commentary on Genesis 21:8 presents different opinions: “The time that children were weaned among the ancients is a disputed point. Jerome says there were two opinions on this subject. Some hold that children were always weaned at five years of age; others, that they were not weaned till they were twelve” (from Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc.). The practicality of either of these ages can easily be disputed.

Conventional wisdom seems satisfied that the age for weaning was between two and three years of age, when a child could walk and chew solid food.

The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Bible Commentary furnishes the following regarding the celebration when Isaac was weaned (Genesis 21:8): “In Eastern countries this is always a season of domestic festivity, and the newly weaned child is formally brought, in presence of the assembled relatives and friends, to partake of some simple viands. Isaac, attired in the symbolic robe, the badge of birthright, was then admitted heir of the tribe [Rosenmuller].”

Wet nurses and nursemaids

When Moses was rescued by Pharoah’s daughter, the fact that she called for a nursing woman indicates such services were available should the need arise. Sometimes these women would stay on past the weaning stage, and become a nursemaid or, more modernly, a nanny, to the developing child.

Jochebed may have continued with Moses for some time before bringing him to the Egyptian princess—likely due to a grander plan of a higher power at work. It would not be out of the realm of possibility, in my opinion, that she began teaching him about his heritage as well as simply caring for his physical needs in those formative years. However, the Bible does not directly say.

In New Testament times

Among the Roman elite, it was not uncommon for a new mother to rely on the services of a lactating slave or a professional wet nurse. However a certain respect and symbolism existed for the mother who suckled her own young. Lynn H. Cohick, in her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (2009), writes, “Reflecting commonly held sentiments, Favorinus (ca. AD 85-165) attacks matrons who refuse to nurse their own infants as consumed by concerns for beauty” (p 145). She continues, “Plutarch, writing from the early second century AD, laments the emotional distance between mother and infant resulting from employing a wet nurse” (p 146).

To this day

Whether or not to nurse one’s baby when it is physically possible continues to be a controversial subject. Although wet nurses are still common in some parts of the developing world, scientific and nutritional advances have provided much of the world with additional means for proper nourishment for infants. There is however a rigorous movement advocating breastfeeding. The only thing missing, at least in this country, is the grand celebration when a child is finally weaned.

Hannah’s Song

Prelude

Hannah’s story is a tale of good and evil. For thousands of years it has appealed to our desire for fairness, for good to be rewarded and evil punished.  The story occurs at a bad time in Israel’s history, and it begins with conflict. The author skillfully described the characters—a suffering wife, a jealous rival, an appeasing husband, a failing priest and his reckless sons.

A key factor in the story is Hannah’s inability to have children. It was a shameful condition—she couldn’t produce an heir. As a consequence, her husband took a second wife. Adding to Hannah’s despair was the belief that God closed wombs as punishment for something sinful.

To be barren “was more than a physical or social problem. Deep religious meanings were attached…whether temporary or permanent, barrenness was thought to be the curse of God. It is hard for us to imagine how devastating these events would have been for the childless wife. She was spiritually ruined, socially disgraced, and psychologically depressed. She was married to a husband who wanted a child to assure the continuation of his family line. That husband might continue to love her, but she felt that was small consolation.”[1]

But God reversed things. He answered Hannah’s prayer for a son. In time she returned him to the LORD’s service in the temple. At the time of Samuel’s presentation to the high priest, Hannah stated, “I am the woman who prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the LORD. For his whole life he will be given over to the LORD” (I Samuel 1:27-28).

Hannah’s song of praise

For the occasion she composed a poem (song, prayer, ode) of praise. Whether she sang the words or recited them is not known. But I picture her confident, composed, reverent and buoyed in spirit as she presented Samuel to One who would “guard the feet of his saints” and dedicated him to One who owns “the foundations of the earth” (I Samuel 2:8-9).

Hannah’s hymn is a classic praise song, and scholars have written extensively about it. My observations barely touch the surface. I see in Hannah’s praise/song four truths about God:

  • He is the Source of joy.
  • He is holy.
  • He corrects injustice.
  • He satisfies hunger.

God is the Source of joy

Hannah attributed her joy to the LORD. Essentially it flowed from His greatness. Samuel was a joy. Motherhood was a joy. Her improved status was a joy. But God was first in her heart—before husband, children and circumstances. Her praise/song begins where joy begins.

Hannah:  My heart rejoices in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.

God is Holy

During the period of the Judges, Israel had fallen away from God. Without godly leadership, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Even Hannah’s marriage with the husband she loved was an arrangement that seemed the right way to “get children.” Polygamous marriages violate God’s pattern of “holy” matrimony (Genesis 2:24-25).

That God is “holy” means He is morally perfect and absolutely separated from evil.[2] Hannah’s world was enmeshed in evil. Nothing was perfect and sinless. Nothing on earth was like God.

No one is holy like the LORD, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God.

God corrects injustice

Even the temple was corrupt. Eli did not deal with his wicked sons. They slept with women in the temple and commandeered food from the altar. People in Shiloh for the holy days came to temple in a drunken state. Eli lost a sense of proportion. He made unjust accusations. The sins of the priests in particular were “very great in the LORD’s sight” (I Samuel 2:17).

In her hymn Hannah praises God for setting things right between strong and weak, rich and poor. He brings down the mighty and lifts the fallen. She prophesied that God would give power to His king, His anointed, the Messiah.

The bows of the mighty men are broken, and those who stumbled are girded with strength…He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory…He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness…the LORD will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His King, and exalt the horn of His anointed.

God satisfies hunger

Famine and hunger are mentioned over ninety times in the Old Testament. Hannah’s story does not mention a famine, but she would have been familiar with Israel’s droughts and weather-related history.  She would have known about the famine in Joseph’s day and Egyptians indenturing themselves for food.

She praises God for ending physical hunger and satisfying the longings for children, judgment and strength.

Those who have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry have ceased to hunger. Even the barren has borne seven…The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.

Living her song

In what we know of the rest of her life, Hannah lives her song. She was blessed with three more sons and two daughters. She saw her son become a righteous judge in Israel. In her lifetime Eli died and his sons were slain. ♦ Mary Hendren


[1] “Birth and Infancy, The Childless Couple,” Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible

[2] Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, pp. 337-338

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