The book of Samuel opens during a period of spiritual darkness. As we will see a bit later, this time is marked by priestly ineptitude, priestly sin, and disobedience by the people. In the midst of this, God raises up Samuel to return the hearts of the people back to God and to anoint the first two kings.
The first chapter introduces us to Samuel family. Three individuals: Elkanah, Hannah, and Peninnah.
The opening verse of chapter 1 tells us about Samuel’s father, Elkanah. He is provides a unique picture to Samuel’s family background.
The Bible tells us that he was from the mountains of Ephraim, and he is called an Ephraimite. However, in 1 Chronicles 6:22-28; 33-38, we are told he is a Levite, specifically from the family of Kohath.
How exactly do we understand this? This is the importance of the genealogical lists recorded in the Bible, those brutally boring sections we tend to glance over during our daily Bible reading.
Joshua 24:33 tells us the Levites lived in the hill region of Ephraim, so Samuel’s family is geographically an Ephramite, however genealogically a Levite.
Elkanah is described as a godly man. It is clear he has a deep devotion to the Lord as he makes trips to Shiloh to worship at the Tabernacle. However, he had a problem.
Elkanah’s wife, Hannah, was barren. In fact, the note in verse 2 says rather bluntly, “Hannah had no children.” To the reader of Scripture, there is a reason she is barren: It’s by divine decree. Verse 5 says, The LORD had shut her womb.”
Modern readers tend to overlook the direness of her situation, because being childless was a great stigma in her society.
First, if a woman was barren, she could not strengthen her clan, or family, which would mean, secondly, that she would be unable to pass the inheritance along to any descendants. In Hannah’s mind, she believes she is unfavored by the Lord, or even cursed.
But verse 2 tells us Elkanah had two wives: Hannah and a second woman, Penninah. But why is that? If Hannah is said to be barren, how exactly then did Elkanah take it upon himself to get children? He took a second wife, Penninah.
Hannah was his first wife; his first true love. We can see this in the way he treated Hannah (verse 5). Penninah, however, was there to simply produce the babies.
Some would think the Bible condones polygamy, but it doesn’t. No where does God approve of this arrangement. Elkanah took a sinful, fleshly approach to fixing a situation, rather than praying and asking the Lord for help to begin with.
One can note the sinful impact polygamy has on the family. A rivalry is made in which Hannah is mocked and provoked and her relationship made miserable (verse 6). I would imagine Penninah even invoked God’s sovereignty against Hannah but reminding her that God is the one who gives babies and He must not love her, or He would give her one.
What then does Hannah do? She does what all believers should do when their souls are vexed: She prays. She pours out her heart to the LORD and vows a vow that if God will give her a child, she in turn will consecrate him before the Lord.