How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Biblical Namesake

This is based on a talk I gave in my ward in February 2016. 

I don’t think I’m giving away too much of my identity on the internet when I tell you that my name is Hannah. Growing up, I liked my name: it’s a palindrome, and, for someone of my age, it was relatively unusual. (I mostly only met Jewish girls my age with the name.) I also liked that, like my brothers, I was named after a Biblical figure; I liked the feeling of being part of history, a long chain of tributary Hannahs, and the sense of weight and importance it gave to the name.

I didn’t much like that Biblical figure, though. The lessons I got about her in Primary and even Young Women’s were always lessons about Samuel that framed her only as the faithful mother of someone important, not someone important in her own right. Moreover, every time her story was referenced the other kids looked at me, more or less surreptitiously, and teased me: “Ha, ha, you want to have a baby!” In Primary I did NOT want to have a baby, and this teasing oddly stung, to the point that I dreaded Hannah references in church. (From this I also learned that kids can tease you about anything; kids, don’t do this.)

I’m ashamed to admit that for years I accepted that shallow, tidy story, and only saw Hannah as yet another story of a woman reduced to her biology, only important for her role as a wife and mother. When I returned to the story with deeper scripture study, though, I’ve come to understand why my mother–a feminist well-versed in the scriptures–would name her first and only daughter after this woman. I’m yet to be a mother myself, but with more years of reading and thinking about her story, Hannah has become one of my favorite scriptural role models.

  1. Hannah asks for what she wants.

One thing that has struck me more and more when I read the story is the role of Elkanah, Hannah’s husband. Hannah was understandably upset at having no children, in a society where a woman’s role depended mostly on her fertility, and particularly in a situation where her rival wife had children. Her husband tries to comfort her, in 1 Samuel 8:

Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? Am not I better to thee than ten sons?

Part of me is touched at this Biblical example of tenderness between a husband and wife, where we don’t get many other examples. Another part of me, though, wants to point out to Elkanah that this is easy to interpret as emotional manipulation rather than true comfort (look at that guilt trip!), and he might do better to validate his wife’s sadness and mourn with those that mourn.

Hannah’s response in the moment is unknown, but as the story continues Hannah doesn’t give in to manipulative aspects of Elkanah’s comfort, encouraging her to settle with what she has; instead, she goes to the Lord in prayer and asks for her righteous desires.

I wish I could make this post fully multimedia, but instead I’m going to tell you about one of my favorite recent SNL sketches. In it, a bearded white man walks through a small and poor village in a developing country, asking the camera for donations of 39 cents a day, less than a small cup of coffee. One of the villagers he passes looks up from his washing and says, in a stage whisper, “Ask for more money! Why are you starting so low?” The situation escalates, until all the villagers are discussing it: “he’s only asking for the bare minimum to keep us alive!”

I’ve started using this as a sort of motivational mantra for myself. (I can’t take anything seriously, so it’s fitting that a very serious mantra for me would come from comedy.) If you know what you want, don’t settle. Don’t manipulate. Don’t silently wish that those around you will read your mind and give you what you want without your having to ask. You have a brain, and a voice: use them, and ask for more.

This is more nuanced than I’m making it sound, of course: sometimes what we want isn’t possible, or isn’t in God’s plan for us, and, if we’re going to ask, we have to be prepared and practiced at hearing “no.” However, where our desires are righteous, God wants us to ask for more:

“And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you.” (3 Ne. 18:20)

The Restoration itself came from someone considering carefully what they wanted, and asking for it. Joseph Smith could have been manipulated into settling–isn’t the Methodist church better to thee than ten revelations?–but he, like Hannah, stood up for his righteous desires and asked for more.

  1. Hannah stands up for herself.

As Hannah is praying in the temple for a son, she prays silently instead of out loud. (As a side note, some scholarship notes this as one of the first recorded Biblical instances of silent personal prayer, rather than vocalized ritual public prayer.) The high priest, Eli, sees her silent but with lips moving, and, thinking she’s drunk, tells her to ‘put away thy wine from thee.’

And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto.

Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him. (1 Samuel 1:15-16)  

This must have hurt Hannah: here she was, faithfully petitioning the Lord, and someone in authority, someone I’m sure she respected, misjudges her and wrongly accuses her. Hannah’s response, though, isn’t one, in the text, of hurt or anger, but also isn’t passive: instead of slinking away and quailing to Eli’s judgment, accepting his authority, she pushes back against him. Her response is polite but firm: he doesn’t know her life, and therefore shouldn’t judge her.

At work I’m constantly interviewing people, and as the hiring manager I’ve invented a section of the interview loop aimed at assessing character and grit. One of the questions I ask is for someone to tell me a time they disagree with someone in authority, and how they acted in this scenario. What I’m looking for is someone just like Hannah: can they articulate their disagreements, keep the tone respectful, and be brave enough to push back.

Note that Eli doesn’t apologize to Hannah, and he’s the high priest she has to hand her child over to just a few years later. Ouch. I don’t list it separately here, but the degree of forgiveness Hannah shows here is also something we should all strive to emulate.

  1. Hannah makes covenants and sacrifices for them

Often achieving our greatest desires requires our greatest sacrifices. This is true in a secular sense: I stayed up way too late last night watching Under Armor commercials, and on the basis of that expertise I think I can say that athletes don’t reach the top without significant sacrifices, and of course high-performance spandex.

But it’s true in a religious sense as well: God wants to bless us, wants us to ask, but He also expects sacrifices from us. Sometimes these are literal sacrifices, as in the Old Testament’s sacrificial economy, and in Hannah’s case, where she acted as a type of God, giving up her firstborn son. To be honest, I struggle with this part of the story, because the object of the sacrifice in this case is a person too, and Samuel didn’t get a choice whether or not he’d be sacrificed like that.

Hannah stayed true to herself and her promises, though. It would have been far easier, once she had the child she desired, to try to renege on her promise to God, or to pretend like it wasn’t a binding commitment, or to creatively reinterpret the covenant in some way more convenient to herself: maybe Samuel could serve as an ordinary boy, or maybe his very existence would be in service to the Lord, am I right?

Lent is one of my favorite borrowed spiritual practices. I’ve practiced Lent for 15 years now and I get a lot out of it every year; even when it’s something trivial I’m giving up, the very act of the sacrifice calls Christ to mind for me. I feel the temptation, every year, to start reinterpreting whatever I’m doing, about 10 days in, to make it easier for myself: maybe when I said I’d give up sugar, I actually just meant candy, and this piece of chocolate cake is fine. Maybe when I said I’d give up anger, I actually meant just rage, and so being mildly annoyed at this slow driver ahead of me is fine. Hannah’s example is a reproach to me: when she said she’d give her son to the Lord, she did it, even as her habit of making and delivering a beautiful coat for him every year showed exactly how difficult that covenant was to keep.

  1. Hannah brings all her emotions to the Lord.

Hannah takes her sorrow to the temple, where she prays, but she also brings her joy there; in 1 Samuel 2, she praises the Lord in the temple after dropping off her son, in a prophetic psalm that presages Mary’s magnificat in Luke 1. This is a beautiful example of the fulfillment of Joel 2:28, that the Lord would pour out his spirit and sons and daughters will prophesy, but I also admire Hannah’s follow-through: she doesn’t just go to the Lord with asking, she goes to the Lord with praising. She knows to say thank you, and she seeks out the same sacred space to do it in.

For Hannah the sacred space was the temple, and though our temples today are different, some may find a sacred space there. Personally, I find more connection to the divine in spaces like a beautiful forest, a medieval cathedral, or even a really good pair of noise-canceling headphones. In fact, I think we can create sacred spaces wherever we are just by having the right relationship with the Lord, one where we express all parts of ourselves, one in which God is treated like a loving father or friend rather than a vending or venting machine.

I was jet lagged out of my mind on a work trip last week, and apparently that brings all my anxieties to the fore. One night, full of middle-of-the-night stress about my life, I tried calming myself by listing out what I was grateful for, as specifically as possible, presaged as a prayer only of gratitude, no asking allowed. I wish I could tell you that this prayer brought me the sleep I needed–nothing could, apparently–but it calmed me, and brought peace.

I could go on for much longer about this story with some of the other things I learned:

  • express your love however you can (as she makes coats for Samuel on their annual visit)
  • seek personal revelation and personal covenants, not just community revelation and covenants
  • turn your hearts to your ancestors (as Hannah’s story directly mirrors that of her own Biblical foremother, Samson’s mother)

but my time is limited. I’m grateful, now, for my name: grateful for a long legacy of women with the name; grateful for the scriptures it connects me to, and for their depths, even when the stories are difficult; and grateful, most of all, for Hannah’s example of the strength and character of a woman of God.

4 comments

  1. This is excellent, Petra, er, Hannah! I particularly love that you ask job candidates you’re interviewing about how they handled disagreeing with authority. Also, the idea of God as not being a machine for “vending or venting” is a delightful turn of phrase!




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  2. Absolutely beautiful, Petra/Hannah. I love this. I only wish I could have heard you give this talk in person.




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  3. Thank you for this. So many lovely, and challenging, thoughts. I’ve never made it through on a Lent challenge, I’m ashamed to say. I’d forgotten how Hannah made a coat every year, and it makes me realize how very little I give up in my religious life.




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