My heart caught in my throat with every dusty step closer to Shiloh. It had been fourteen hard miles of walking. I hadn’t walked the familiar road in over three years. But today, landmarks passed all too quickly. The time had come.
My husband walked beside me, a child on his shoulders. His child. But not mine. He had several children before I ever did. Oh, I’d been at their births. I sometimes held them in the night as infants. I had cleaned them, cooked for them, cuddled them as toddlers. But I am not their mother; they neither truly love nor respect me.
I was at my husband’s wedding too. His. But not mine. We had already been married for years. But they were childless years. And, by tradition, he could break my heart without breaking his vows to me because I’d given him no children. He took another wife. Peninnah is younger than me, sensuous, voluptuous, and apparently vitally fertile. Almost as soon as she entered my house she was with his child. I watched her grow. I listened as she commiserated with all the neighboring mothers about pregnancy aches and cravings. They grew silent when I went by, but they shouldn’t have bothered. I’d never felt the twinge of a contraction, but I understood aches and cravings only too well.
What did God want from me anyway? I tried to be a good woman. I tried to be a big girl about everything, even though I felt like a too-small woman with too-big hips and a soul-breaking loneliness. I tried not to imagine I could be a better mother than those who so thoughtlessly bore growing broods. I tried to find a reason, physical or spiritual, why I was denied the good thing that I so wanted. I tried not to think it was all unfair.
It was at the annual feast several years ago that I thought of another woman engraved forever in the history of my family. Approximately five hundred years had passed between her heartache and mine, but the pain we shared was similar. Jochebed had birthed a child with a death sentence on his little head. Moses. The only way for him to live was for her to give him away. Because of her sacrifice, an entire nation was rescued from slavery and given a future. Of course she didn’t know that when she handed him to another to raise him. Maybe she would have preferred he grow up to be a nobody if it would have meant she could have kept him. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She gave him away.
Maybe that was what God was asking me.
The thought was at first too terrible. How could I give up the only thing I really wanted? Could God ask me to hand over my own child? I had the sinking feeling that what God wanted from me was the one thing I felt too dear to give Him. My marriage, my house, my very bedroom were not mine. Must I give up my hope of a child too?
It seems to me God rules a backwards kingdom. He uses the weak things to reveal His strength. He makes us poor to prepare us to accept real wealth. He kills first – then makes alive. I had nothing, but it was everything He wanted from me.
Yes. I finally answered Him, great sobs wracking my body as I bowed in the dust of the tabernacle. Yes. If You give me a child, I will give his life back to You. Forever.
Immediately, I felt a hand on my back. I looked up through a blur of tears. The high priest himself was standing over me with a frown. I knew I must look a sight.
“Are you drunk?” He asked sternly.
The thought made me start to giggle. I had never been more sober in my entire life! “No, sir!” I panted as I brushed at my wet cheeks. “No, I’ve just poured out my broken heart to God.” That’s all. I blubbered piteously.
The grandfatherly man stared hard at my face, as if seeing right into my soul. Then suddenly he patted my arm assuringly. “Then go in peace. And God give you what you asked.”
In that moment, suddenly, I just knew God had heard me. He had. The struggle was over. I nearly skipped home. I even smiled at Peninnah as we stepped on each other’s toes in the kitchen. I laughed with my husband. I enjoyed the kids’ antics as we packed up to go home after the feast. I was at peace.
And wouldn’t you know it, the woman everyone said couldn’t have a baby – she got pregnant! I got pregnant! Within weeks, I was sick as a dog every morning and a hormonal mess of emotions every night. It was wonderful. Before the year was over, I, of all people, had a son. Samuel. Because God had heard me.
Now, his dark hair fell in long ringlets across his forehead as I carried him the last mile to Shiloh. We’d never cut it, never would. It was a reminder to him – and me – that he was special to God. Set apart. Promised.
This special child, this promised child, a tired mess of three year old curiosity and dirt and noise and rebellion and laughter, this answer to prayer child – I brought him to the high priest, Eli, in Shiloh. I hadn’t seen the man since that momentous day about four years ago, tears streaking my desperate face. But apparently he remembered me. His grandfatherly smile of recognition faded into surprise as I haltingly explained my mission. The words hurt. “This is the child for whom I begged God. This is His child. But not mine…”
How I wanted that old man, Eli, the priest, to say no. No, this can’t be right. I’m too old to take the responsibility for raising a child. He’s too young to be trained as a priest. I couldn’t even train my own children to follow God. I can’t believe God would tell you to do this. How awkward. How difficult. How very backwards.
But he didn’t. I’d known he wouldn’t. God had prepared us both for this. Eli stood for a long minute, silently staring at me. Then, slowly, he bent down and looked as Samuel. The boy with dark hair stared back at him with big curious eyes. Eli reached out and gently took Samuel’s small grubby fingernails in his large, gnarled grip. “Come, Samuel.” He said simply. “I need your help.” Together the old man and the boy walked into the tabernacle. And away from me.
I took a shaky step backwards. My husband was there, silent through the whole exchange, but ready to catch me as I recoiled from my mission. Two big tears rolled down my cheeks. I had fully expected to lose it right there at the door of the tabernacle, for all of Israel to see. I expected to feel like a horrible failure of a parent, even though I knew this was the path I must take. But I didn’t. Peace enveloped me. Oh, I was sad. Intensely sad. I’d just given back the most precious treasure I’d ever been given. I had just handed over everything I’d ever wanted. And I had expected to feel empty.
But that’s the thing. In this backwards kingdom, when you give God everything, you are left with more than you had before. I was suddenly overwhelmed with awe that I had been entrusted to bear this most sacred of God’s treasures – the life of a child – simply in order to hand it back. A loan. All this child’s short life, I had known he was set apart. He was special.
I suppose all children are special. Miracles, really. But over years of dirty diapers and tantrums and mud baths and whining and testing and expenses and homework and hormones, it is easier for the miracle to fade into hindsight. With the short time I shared with Samuel, I never forgot he was a gift. I felt so rich to have known the value. Even for a little while.
I spent the rest of that week getting Samuel settled in with Eli and his wife. We all shed some tears, but we had been prepared for the transition as much as anyone can be. Finally, I went home. Samuel stayed. He grew there. I grew too. In fact, I got pregnant five more times. Every time, a miracle. I knew that very well. Over the next decade, I often got to bring a new brother or sister to meet Samuel when we went to Shiloh on feast days. I’d always bring him a new coat too. He grew fast. He became a man, he got married, he had my first grandchildren. He became the confidante of God Himself, a messenger to our people. He crowned the first and second kings of Israel. God calls him by name.
I am blessed among women. I realize now that God not only wanted all of my son – He wanted all of me. Those memories of aching that led me to make that desperate vow – they still sting. I’ve held the hands of many women since those dark days, women just as desperate and longing for a family. It hurts to feel forsaken, even by God. But I know now, I wasn’t forgotten. I wasn’t alone in that dark, silent place. I was wanted. I was loved. I was heard.