Prayer, or something like it, begins early in biblical history.
Genesis 4:26 reports that while Adam and Eve were still alive and having children that men ‘began to call on the name of the Lord’—a vague but evocative statement that could be interpreted as referring to prayer.
The Hebrew word for prayer, palal (pronounced: paw-lal’), does not appear until sometime later, in Genesis 20:7. The word is spoken by God in a dream to Abimelech urging him to return Abraham’s wife so that Abraham might pray for him. Abimelech does this and Abraham prays as prophesied 10 verses later.
But it is not until much later that we get the first description of someone actually praying. Surprisingly the word is not used too often in the context of Abraham’s story. In Exodus, we get something of a description in Moses’ brief firsthand account of how he interceded for the Israelites in Deuteronomy 9. But this is not prayer in the conventional sense—Moses is in the midst of a mystical encounter with God on Mount Sinai. It is not until the beginning of Samuel that we get a full description of an ancient Israelite praying.
Hannah rose after one such meal at Shiloh, and presented herself before the LORD; at the time Eli the priest was sitting on a chair near the doorpost of the LORD’s temple. In her bitterness she prayed to the LORD, weeping freely, and made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if you look with pity on the hardship of your servant, if you remember me and do not forget me, if you give your handmaid a male child, I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life. No razor shall ever touch his head.” As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth, for Hannah was praying silently; though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. Eli, thinking she was drunk, said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up from your wine!” “No, my lord!” Hannah answered. “I am an unhappy woman. I have had neither wine nor liquor; I was only pouring out my heart to the LORD. Do not think your servant a worthless woman; my prayer has been prompted by my deep sorrow and misery.” Eli said, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have requested.” She replied, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes,” and left. She went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and no longer appeared downhearted (1 Samuel: 9-18).
In the Old Testament, this is a pivotal moment. Hannah will become the mother of Samuel, the prophet who oversees Israel’s transition to a nation with a king, first Saul, then David. In terms of typology it’s also a crucially important moment, as Samuel foreshadows Christ, making Hannah a forerunner of Mary. The whole scene, in fact, also is a sort of Old Testament prefiguring of the Annunciation scene.
The historical and theological context indicates that this is a turning point. There is also the simple fact that this is the first true story of prayer in the Bible. Little wonder than that the rabbinical commentators in the Talmud viewed Hannah’s prayer as a paradigm for all prayer (see here and here).
What does this story teach us about how to pray? There are, it seems, at least ten lessons for us:
1. The value of fasting.
Before the above passage, we see Hannah at a meal, weeping and unable to eat. It is after one of these meals that she prayers. Although Hannah was not intentionally fasting it is worth noting that she did pray on an empty stomach. Physical hunger seems to go hand in hand with spiritual hunger.
2. The urgency of prayer.
There is a subtle tone of urgency to this whole story. Hannah’s moment of prayer seems somewhat spontaneous: she has been going up to Shiloh with her husband and his other wife every year and every year his other wife ‘would torment her constantly.’ This time seems different: Hannah seems to have reached a breaking point and in that moment of crisis cried out to God. (This is a reasonable inference from the story: had Hannah been repeatedly praying for a son the story would take on a whole different color.)
3. Pray in the presence of God.
If you read St. Francis de Sales classic work, Introduction to the Devout Life, his instructions for prayer constantly include the stipulation that one should prepare for prayer be placing oneself in the presence of God. That’s exactly what we see Hannah doing here, by coming to the tabernacle, which was a precursor to the temple.
4. Prayer as sacrifice.
Being in the presence of God in the later history of ancient Israel meant being near the altar, the place of sacrifice. For later rabbinic commentators, it legitimized prayer’s connection with sacrifice. This was vital for post-temple Judaism, which had to develop a spirituality in the absence of a sacrificial system. For us too, the story reinforces the bond between prayer and sacrifice. Indeed prayer really is a sort of sacrifice—a sacrifice of the will. This is at the core of the most basic Christian prayer: Thy will be done. For us the ultimate model is Christ, whose agonizing prayer ended with the affirmation that ‘not my will but yours be done.’
5. The role of a mediator.
It is quite interesting that this moment of deeply interior prayer is not entirely a private affair. The text notes that the priest Eli is also present as a witness to the event. It does so in a gratuitous way before it is narratively necessary. Eli, after all, does not really enter the story until the second part. But the author makes a point of mentioning that he is there at the beginning. Here, perhaps, we have a lesson that prayer is enhanced rather than diminished through the participation of others—priests, saints, and other intercessors.
6. Hannah is emotionally honest and open.
She weeps profusely, baring her soul before God. Talking to God doesn’t mean closing off part of yourself. Bring the bitterness, the tears, the distress to Him. Prayer is not a transactional communication but a true communion.
7. Her prayer comes from the heart.
Such vulnerability before God means that Hannah’s prayer is coming from the heart, the commentators of the Talmud note. Her heartfelt prayer exhibits what the Talmudic rabbis considered an essential aspect of prayer, kavvana, which one contemporary writer defines as “the intentionality and attention with which a fully aware and situated self orients itself toward God and performs a holy act.”
This is confirmed by one detail: Hannah was praying silently, moving her lips but making no audible sounds. As St. Augustine said in a letter on prayer, “[I]n most cases prayer consists more in groaning than in speaking, in tears rather than in words. But He sets our tears in His sight, and our groaning is not hidden from Him who made all things by the word, and does not need human words.”
8. Prayer is internal and external.
This is something suggested in the Talmud. Note that even though the drama is largely an interior one its outward visible signs are unmistakable. Though she was silent, she was moving her lips. She was visibly crying. Prayer should shake us body and soul.
9. Service to God.
As one writer points out, while Hannah is asking something of God, what she is really asking for is the opportunity to serve God more fully by being a mother to Samuel, whom she promises to consecrate to Him. “For Hannah, having a child was the ultimate expression of her relationship with God. It was as a mother, she felt, that she could serve God best. Therefore, her bitterness was a spiritual distress, an expression of spiritual loss. This prayer, then, was not merely about her own needs, but about her ability to serve God,” writes Holly Pavlov, author of Mirrors of Our Lives: Reflections of Women in Tanach (cited here; the Tanach is the Jewish name for the Old Testament).
10. Sober drunkenness.
At first this seems like a misunderstanding and Eli comes off clumsy and insensitive. But something deeper might be at work here. Recall that at Pentecost the apostles were so filled with the Holy Spirit that bystanders thought they were drunk? In a way, someone deep in the ecstasy of prayer should come off as drunk to those who don’t know any better. For St. Gregory of Nyssa, a Church Father, this paradoxical state of being both inebriated but not drunk is an important feature of the spiritual life, especially in the context of the sacraments. Gregory simply called it ‘sober drunkenness.’