The Strange Song of Hannah

The Book of Samuel begins by describing the plight of Hannah, one of the wives of Elkanah.[1] Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, tormented Hannah, and Elkanah’s misguided attempts at comfort – “Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”[2] – did not help either.  Hannah, in the manner of everyone in the Bible, dealt with her pain and sorrow  by going to the temple to pray.  She declared to God, “If you will…give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”[3] Now, it is important to note that Hannah had an unusual way of praying.  She was “speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard.”[4] This approach to praying was, apparently, unprecedented and bizarre.  Eli, the high priest (Kohen Gadol), observed Hannah praying and, confused by her silently moving lips, concluded that she must be drunk.  He berated the poor, pious woman for her drunkenness, at which point she explained her situation.  Eli assured Hannah that God would grant her prayer, and she left the temple comforted.  As predicted, she gave birth to a son, Samuel, and gave him to Eli to raise in the service of the temple.  Samuel, after answering God’s call,[5] became one of the Hebrew prophets.

Hannah lived in misery while she struggled to have a son.  Peninnah, not similarly afflicted, held her own ability to bear children over Hannah’s head.  And Elkanah, despite the fact that he loved Hannah even “though the Lord had closed her womb,”[6] failed to empathize with his wife’s pain.  But in order to see her most fervent dream fulfilled, Hannah had to promise to give the fruits (pardon the pun) of that very dream away.  God granted Hannah Samuel, but Hannah gave her son back to God shortly after his birth (later, Eli would bless Hannah again and she would have more children).  Even after having “lent” her precious Samuel to God, Hannah thanked him for the son she bore only to give away.[7] She prayed:

“The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.”[8]

Hannah expressed deep gratitude to God for a gift which he gave, but then, for all intents and purposes, took away.  As far as I understand it, Hannah barely ever saw Samuel – once a year, when she traveled to the temple to “offer the yearly sacrifice.”[9] Basically, she made Samuel a sweater.  And gave it to him.  Once a year.  And for that tiny scrap of parenting, Hannah declared, “My heart exults in the Lord;/my strength is exalted in the Lord.”[10] Almost every mention of Hannah in the Torah involves her praying, and her thanking God.  Even the name Hannah, which means “God has favored me,” or “grace of God,” lauds God’s positive involvement in her life.

Most people – in the Bible or otherwise – would not find strange the intense desire to have children.  We’re hardwired for it, naturally and culturally speaking.  Whether gay or straight, religious or not, rich or poor, (insert identity-based dichotomy here), etc., many people catch that baby bug at some point.  But, as the ultimate biological imperative, having kids is surprisingly hard to manage.  Perfectly healthy, heterosexual couples spend years banging their heads against walls trying to “get pregnant.”  Techniques such as in vitro, sperm donors and surrogate mothers have become more common for everyone (I think – I don’t really know the statistics).  Scientists in the UK have even begun experiments on mice to create “male eggs” and “female sperm” out of embryonic and bone marrow cells.[11] Now, we’re a long way from throwing out the turkey basters.  But that’s some crazy, crazy science.

I’ve never quite settled on a personal opinion for all of these breakthroughs.  Well, that’s not true: I have an opinion, but I always struggled to apply it to my own life.  On the one hand, there are incredible parents out there who  could never have had children without this technology.  And there is something exciting about the idea that I could – despite being, as some have so tactfully put it, “a freak” – have my own children with my own significant other.  On the other hand, the ethical issues that come along with these techniques are, frankly, staggering.  From questions of cloning and genetic manipulation to the environmental implications  and economic accessibility of the technology, the ethical lines become more and more blurred.  According to the statistics I could find, in 2008 there were about 436,000 in foster care in the United States.[12] Can we really afford to press the limits of science in order to bring new children into a world growing vastly too crowded, where human demand seems sure to outstrip dwindling resources?  Especially when so many children already live in this world without families?  Who has the right to have children?  How far can we go in order to achieve that dream?  How far should we go?

I think the most bitter sadness with which I have had to come to terms is the realization that I can never have children.  Whether before, when I called myself gay, or now, as I settle into my transgender identity, the hope of a little kid running around with my genes and the genes of my partner always seemed faint.  Science as it stands now cannot make up for the pieces missing from my biological puzzle.  But I have started to see it as an opportunity.  Why wrestle with this adoption vs. science problem when I can allow my transition to make the decision for me?  Why not commit to making the more responsible (in my opinion) decision?  Here and now, I can step out of Hannah’s shadow and choose not to beg God for that which seems impossible; or, even if possible, to carry too high a price.  Hannah may have needed more than her husband’s children through another wife – and I respect that need in her, as well as others who choose to pursue that dream.  But I am not Hannah.  Though I share that dream, I don’t think I can bear the cost.

[1] I believe the feminists of the world might get a kick out of Elkanah’s Wikipedia article, which is entitled, “Elkanah (husband of Hannah),”

[3] 1 Samuel 1:11.

[4] 1 Samuel 1:13.

[5] Interestingly, the name Samuel means (according to Wikipedia) “Heard of God,” or “God has heard,” in reference to Hannah’s prayer, but Samuel himself literally heard God calling to him.

[6] 1 Samuel 1:5.

[7] The “Song of Hannah,” as this prayer is called, “is regarded as the prime role model for how to pray, and is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah,” (, one of Judaism’s High Holy Days (“Days of Awe”).  I find it striking that the method of one so derided has become the golden standard for prayer in an entire religion.

[8] 1 Samuel 2:4-2:8.

[9] 1 Samuel 2:19.

[10] 1 Samuel 2:1.

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2 Responses to The Strange Song of Hannah

  1. Lily says:

    Yet another wonderful and insightful blog post. I just wanted to drop you a line and let you know that even if it feels like you’re talking to yourself or posting something that gets swallowed up by the vastness of the internet, people are reading this and I find what you’re writing very moving.

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