Hannah stood weeping in the Tabernacle.
“Her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard.” (I Samuel 1:13)
Eli the priest when he saw her like this, became angry and rebuked her. He even accused her of being drunk!
Generations of commentators have tried to interpret Eli’s accusation, to understand why he thought Hannah was drunk. How could he not understand that she was praying? That she was whispering to God? The common interpretation is that Eli did not think her whispers were a prayer, because in biblical times people were accustomed to praying aloud.
The rabbinical commentator Rashi says:
“And he thought she was drunk in that they were not used to praying in a whisper.”
This may sound logical. There are always accepted customs, and for the most part the usual behavior among the majority is what is considered logical. But this story can also be interpreted differently.
Surely most of the biblical prayers were cried out aloud.
However, a perusal of the Book of Psalms reveals that weeping emanates from the depths of the heart, and can certainly be a form of prayer.
- God hears even if you do not shout.
- He hears even if you only whisper.
- And He even hears the intention of the heart which is not said aloud at all.
So we ask again: Why did Eli not understand that Hannah was praying?
And the answer is incredibly simple – because Hannah was a woman!
Eli had never seen a woman pray, certainly not in the Tabernacle!
This conclusion seems strange and puzzling, but if you read through the Hebrew Bible you will not find one woman praying except Hannah.
True, there are prophetesses in the Bible, but prophecy and prayer are two different things. A prophet is one whom God speaks to. And prayer is a person speaking to God.
Even when we find other biblical women who wanted to pray, they needed to find a man to speak on their behalf.
Here are some examples:
Isaac prays to God in Rebekah’s stead:
And Isaac petitioned the LORD on behalf of his wife, for she was barren; and the LORD granted the petition.
Moses prays for his sister Miriam’s healing:
And Moses cried out to the LORD saying, “God please heal.”
And even though God is attentive to Rachel’s voice, she does not speak to God directly, but directs her cry to Jacob:
And she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die.”
Hannah is the only woman in the Hebrew Bible who prays to God herself, without any mediators – directly and in the Holy Tabernacle no less. No woman before her and no woman after in the Hebrew scriptures did so.
That’s why Eli sees Hannah and cannot believe his eyes.
A woman is standing alone in the Tabernacle and whispering.
And according to his worldview only drunkenness could explain such puzzling behavior. Therefore, Eli demands of the eccentric woman who seems to mutter to herself, that she reform her drinking habits. But Hannah explains to Eli that she was simply praying.
“Not so, sir,” Hannah replied. “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” (I Samuel 1:15-16 NIV)
Likely, every man who is part of the establishment, back then and also today, would surely remove such an “unorthodox” woman from the holy place which she is “defiling.”
Take a look at what happens today, to the “Women of the Wall” who dare to approach the Western Wall in Jerusalem and pray in their manner.
Crowds of ultra-Orthodox oppose them, and “protect” the Western Wall from these women lest they desecrate its sanctity. And the question arises of whether a woman who stands in front of the Western Wall and prays in an alternative manner is truly sacrilegious.
Lots of sparks have gone “flying” around this issue, lots of fighting and inflexibility.
People have not been able to see the “other” and accept her or him in spite of differences – in this case, women’s prayer customs at the Western Wall.
Let’s go back to Eli, who could have behaved like that, like a bully. He could have called his two bullying sons to remove the rude woman daring to ignore the customs of the place.
But the beauty of this story is that the priest Eli is willing to listen, to hear her explanation. Eli is ready to step out of his fixed traditions and be flexible. Eli behaves like a humane and compassionate person. He comes to fully understand Hannah’s pain, from the bottom of his heart. When Eli hears her response, his heart opens in empathy. Instead of continuing to rebuke her, or expel her from the Tabernacle, he wholeheartedly wishes her that her prayer be answered.
And Eli answered, and said, “Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant the request you have asked of Him.” (I Samuel 1:17)
This prayer, and Eli’s capacity for inclusion and compassion, brought us the prophet Samuel, who was soon born to the once-barren Hannah.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sages decided to formulate a standard prayer style for the people of Israel. They searched the scriptures for examples of one wanting to pray, for coming generations to imitate. The amazing thing is that these Jewish sages did NOT choose Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Jonah, etc.
Rather they chose Hannah, the only female praying in the Hebrew scriptures, whose prayer gushed up from a moving heart of pain and honesty. And thus she managed to open the gates of heaven. Her prayer forms the basis of Jewish prayer customs to this day.
“O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son…” (I Samuel 1:11)