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Hannah's Prayer (1 Sam. 2) by V. Phillips Long

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsHannah’s prayer in response to having given birth to a son (1 Sam. 2:1-10) is full of concepts reflecting the realities and beliefs of the ancient world. Phil Long in his Samuel commentary in ZIBBCOT clarifies a few of these below that deal with views of deity and, especially views of kingship.

The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up (2:6). The conviction that the fate of human beings is in the hands of God (or the gods) runs deep in ancient Near Eastern cultures. In the Akkadian creation epic known as the Enuma Elish, we read the following lines: "Thou, Marduk, art the most honored of the great gods, Thy decree is unrivaled, thy word is Anu [i.e., it has the authority of the sky-god Anu]. From this day unchangeable shall be thy pronouncement. To raise or bring low—these shall be (in) thy hand."1 From the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope comes the following: "He [the deity] tears down and builds up every day, he makes a thousand poor as he wishes, and makes a thousand people overseers, when he is in his hour of life."2

To this general notion of the sovereignty of the deity, Hannah adds the nuance that the true and living God acts compassionately toward the humble, arming with strength those who stumble (2:4), filling those who are hungry (2:5a), blessing the one who is barren with a full complement of children (seven being the number of perfection; 2:5b), and, conversely, abasing the proud. In short, Hannah knows and trusts the God who can reverse human fortune and bring blessing out of hardship.

He will thunder against them from heaven (2:10). Few displays of nature evoked such a sense of power and danger among ancient people as a severe thunderstorm. Not surprisingly, the ancients perceived booming thunder as evidence of the powerful presence and judgment of the deity. In the Akkadian flood stories, it is the weather god Adad who rumbles and thunders in the clouds.3 In Hittite mythology, Telipinu, also a weather god, comes raging with lightning and thunder.4 In Ugaritic texts, the Canaanite god Baal makes "his voice ring out in the clouds, by flashing his lightning to the earth"; he opens "a rift" in the clouds and makes "his holy voice" resound.5

The poets and psalmists of Israel use similar imagery in describing their God, both because they share the same cultural milieu as their neighbors and perhaps to express Yahweh’s superiority over the false gods of their neighbors. A prime example is Psalm 29, in which the bulk of the psalm (vv. 3–9) is a celebration of the powerful "voice" (thundering) of Yahweh.6

He will give strength to his king (2:10). That Hannah should refer to the Lord’s "king" may seem surprising, inasmuch as kingship has not yet been introduced in Israel. Kingship was certainly well known among Israel’s neighbors, and it was widely practiced in Egypt and Mesopotamia from at least the third millennium b.c.7

Israel itself had flirted with the idea of kingship in the days of Abimelech (Judg. 9). Jotham’s fabled response to Abimelech’s bid for power explicitly mentions anointing a king (9:8). Prior to Judges, numerous references in the Pentateuch make clear that God intended for Israel one day to have a king (e.g., Gen. 17:6; 49:10; Num. 24:7, 17–19; Deut. 17:6, 16; 35:11). Hannah’s anticipation that the time for a king draws nigh is, therefore, not so surprising. Her invocation of blessing on the Lord’s king makes clear that kingship per se need not be a problem in Israel—only kings who refuse to rule as vassals of the Great King.

Exalt the horn of his anointed (2:10). Anointing with oil was practiced in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East. Egyptian officials were anointed to high office, though it is unclear whether the Egyptian pharaoh himself was anointed. From the Amarna letters, it appears that local kings in Palestine were anointed as an expression of vassalage to their Egyptian suzerain. Among the Hittites, the suzerain commonly bound his vassals to him by formal rites undergirded by religious sanctions. Among these rites was the anointing of the vassal ruler. Hittite kings themselves were anointed with the "holy oil of kingship," and their titles sometimes referred to their anointed status (e.g., "Tabarna, the Anointed, the Great King").8

Similar practices are represented in the Old Testament. While both religious objects and religious personnel were anointed (Ex. 30:22–33), it was the king who ultimately held the title "the Lord’s anointed" or, in shortened form, "the anointed [one]." This title expressed the king’s vassal status as the Lord’s earthly representative and his consecration to and authorization for divine service (on vassal kingship, see also comments on 1 Sam. 8:7; 16:13; 24:6). The king’s status as "the anointed" implied his divine enabling and his inviolability.

Zibbcotsetbox Bible Backgrounds

is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by

John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


1 ANET, 66a.

2 W. Beyerlin, Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating to the Old Testament (OTL; London: SCM, 1978), 61 (abbrev. NERT).

3 Ibid., 93, 95.

4 Ibid., 163.

5 Ibid., 209, 211.

6 For the view that in Ps. 29 "elements of the ancient Near Eastern veneration of the god of thunderstorms … [are] taken up and transferred to Yahweh," see H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1–59, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 347. Cf. also Y. Avishur, Studies in Hebrew and Ugaritic Psalms (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1994), 88; A. R. W. Green, The Storm-God in the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2003).

7 See Saggs, Civilization, 25–26, 35–38.

8 See de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1:104 and Saggs, Civilization, 179; for more thorough treatments, see R. de Vaux, "The King of Israel, Vassal of Yahweh," in The Bible and the Ancient Near East (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972), 152–66; T. N. D. Mettinger, King and Messiah: The Civil and Sacral Legitimation of Israelite Kings (CB 8; Lund: Gleerup, 1976).

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