Hannah was a woman who, for her time, faced impossible circumstances. She was barren while her husband’s other wife, Peninah, was not (I Samuel 1:2). Peninah tormented Hannah by flaunting her fecundity (I Samuel 1:6). Hannah was a single-minded woman. Unfortunately, she wanted the one thing she did not have and seemingly could not have - a son (I Samuel 1:10-11). Strikingly, Hannah’s problems did not distance her from God but rather drew her closer, a fact that speak volumes of her. On a pilgrimage to the religious epicenter, Shiloh (Israel had not yet centralized in Jerusalem), Hannah prayed and wept bitterly (I Samuel 1:10).
Hannah poured her heart out in one of the few women’s prayers recorded in the Old Testament (I Samuel 1:10-11). She offered a simple, transactional prayer. It was also an unverbalized prayer as her lips moved but nothing came out (I Samuel 1:12-13). Hannah prayed silently because “she was speaking in her heart (I Samuel 1:13 NASB),” or read literally “to her heart”.
Miki Raver (b. 1945) notes the irregularity of this moment:
“In Hannah’s days, the sanctuary was primarily used for blood sacrifice. Hannah offered her rage as her burnt offering, her tears as her sacrificial lamb, her bitterness as her guilt offering. Hannah’s prayer marked the first time that heartfelt spontaneous prayer...replaced animal sacrifice as the central act of Jewish worship.” (Raver, Listen to Her Voice: Women of the Hebrew Bible , 110)Unfortunately, Eli, the priest at Shiloh, failed to distinguish between wordless prayer and drunken mumbling and read her symptoms as inebriation (I Samuel 1:14).
Then Eli said to her, “How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you.” (I Samuel 1:14 NASB)Joseph B. Meszler (b. 1972) explains, “Hannah was so lost in the expression of her heart that an outside observer mistook the situation and thought she was drunk (Meszler, Facing Illness, Finding God: How Judaism Can Help You and Caregivers Cope When Body or Spirit Fails, 125).” Ironically, the offer that Hannah makes to God is that she will dedicate her son as a Nazirite (I Samuel 1:11), a religious vow that abided by several prohibitions including abstaining from alcohol (Numbers 6:1-12). Not only was Hannah sober, she was vowing that her unborn son would never drink.
Eli accused Hannah of pouring out the wine while in reality, she was pouring out her soul. The priest who should have been sympathetic to her needs adds insult to injury. Unfortunately, this was not the last time this would happen in the course of human history.
The priest accuses her of being drunk in the ancient equivalent of church. Sadly, in those troubled times, drunkenness may have been more common than sincere prayer. Drinking was customary at sacrificial meals (I Samuel 1:9, 18) and Eli may have had more experience with drunkards than praying people. Eli may even be projecting. John Woodhouse (b. 1949) concludes, “In the light of what we will learn in chapter 2, it is likely that Eli’s misunderstanding was based on too many experiences of improper conduct at the Shiloh temple (see I Samuel 2:12-17) (Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader (Preaching the Word), 32).”
One aim of this story is to illuminate Eli’s inadequacy. In fact, it will be the child that Hannah prays for, Samuel, that will replace Eli as Israel’s spiritual leader. Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) characterizes Eli as “a man who watched lips instead of perceiving hearts, who judged profound spirituality to be profligate indulgence in spirits, who heard nothing when the Lord spoke (I Samuel 3:4, 6), and who criticized his sons for abusing the sacrificial system yet grew fat from their take (I Samuel 2:22-24, 4:18). Fittingly, in the end his powerful career was surpassed by those who were ‘nothing’–a socially powerless rural woman and a child (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary: Vol. 7), 69).”
To Eli’s credit, he quickly realized his misjudgment of Hannah and blessed her (I Samuel 1:17-18). Her prayer was answered (I Samuel 1:19-20) and as promised, she dedicated her first son, Samuel, to God (I Samuel 1:19-28). God also answered her prayer more abundantly than she could have imagined (Ephesians 3:20) as she later birthed five more children (I Samuel 2:21).
Do your problems lead you closer or farther from God? What problems do you need to take to God? Had Hannah been drunk, would it have made her prayer any less valid? What does it say of Eli that he instinctively assumed the worst? Why does Eli make his assumption?
On the surface, the two states - prayer and drunkenness- seem to be as divergent as possible. Yet they are confused more than once in Scripture. At Pentecost, the same accusation will be made as the onlookers mistake deep communion with God for drunkenness (Acts 2:13). Both of these incidents occurred at critical junctures as Samuel ushered in the era of kings and Pentecost welcomed the coming of the Holy Spirit. Both were christened with worship mistaken for intoxication.
Jim Cymbala (b.1943) feels Eli’s misclaculation is exemplary of a broader spiritual pattern: “Fortunately, Hannah didn’t react with anger or lose the spirit of prayer. Her experience at this moment points to an important lesson about prayer: If you pray, you will certainly become a target of Satan, who will immediately attack you with spiritual opposition and discouragement (Cymbala, Breakthrough Prayer , 149).”
Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert (1780-1860) also relates Eli’s confusion to a what he sees as a widespread trend - the phenomenon of people mistaking the sacred for the profane, and the profane for the sacred (Schubert, Ansichten von der Nachtseite der Naturwissenschaft), 93). People often fail to distinguish what is and is not of God. Even clergy.
Part of Eli’s problem is that Hannah’s prayer was groundbreaking in many ways. Jeffrey M. Cohen (b. 1940) explains:
“It was assumed at the time that one really required a prophet or priest to act as intermediary for private petitions (see I Samuel 12:19, 23)...It was probably not just the rarity of an individual offering up a private prayer, but also its protracted nature (I Samuel 12:12) that aroused his suspicion...Lengthy private prayers were...new to Eli...He preferred formal sacrifice–yet another reason for his harsh treatment of Hannah.” (Cohen, Blessed Are You: A Comprehensive Guide to Jewish Prayer, 18-19)Hannah was ahead of her time as her model of prayer would become the norm. Steven Steinbock (b. 1958) writes, “This example of heartfelt prayer has had such an effect on subsequent generations of Jews that it has become the accepted model of traditional davening. This is why, particularly during the Amidah, it is traditional to mouth the blessings silently (Steinbock, The Gift of Wisdom: The Books of Prophets and Writings, 26).” Hannah poured out her heart and her prayer was answered. In the process, this humble woman changed the way prayer was done.
Have you ever mistaken someone’s act of piety for evil? Is the line between sacred and profane as pronounced as most want to believe? Compare and contrast the symptoms of prayer and drunkenness. Have you ever worshiped so fervently that you were accused of drunkenness? If not, should you?
“Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” - Dom John Chapman (1865-1933)