I was never one of those girls who dreamt of becoming a mother. I had had a difficult childhood, and I was afraid of duplicating some of what I’d experienced. But the day my Dad told me he thought I’d be a good mom was the day I changed my mind. Verbal affirmation had never been high on my Dad’s list of love languages. That’s probably why the memory of him telling me that is so vivid, some thirty years after he said it. I had never longed to be a mom, but I had always longed for my father’s approval. So from that day forward, motherhood became a much more important goal.
That desire only intensified after I enrolled at a Christian college. The ethos of my college placed marriage and motherhood at the pinnacle of God’s calling for women, so we were steered toward and away from fields of study accordingly. Sonstead of pursuing the Business degree I had initially wanted to complete, I majored in English. That was considered a far more relevant field for women who would inevitably be marrying and then staying home to raise their children.
But after I graduated, a series of providences (and serious lack of marriage prospects) lead me into the world of business anyway. I was surprised by how much I loved my work, and how much it “loved” me back in the form of affirmations, promotions, and a generous salary. But endless rounds of bridal showers and wedding invitations, marriage and singleness sermon series, and what I know now was the nagging voice of Satan, drained my heart of contentment and filled it with insecurity.
I had been taught that women who God loved the most, the ones with whom He was most pleased, were the ones to whom He gave husbands and children. I wanted my Heavenly Father’s approval even more than my earthly father’s. With every wedding I attended, as I watched each bride stroll down the aisle past me towards her groom and her new life, the weight of feeling unloved grew steadily heavier. I would come home from the celebrations to the quiet of my apartment, and cry myself to sleep on the twin bed I had slept on since my freshman year, the one I didn’t have the will to replace.
That’s why the Old Testament story of Hannah is one of my favorites.
To the women of Hannah’s day, the “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage” playground rhyme of my childhood would have sounded even more unusual back then. In the Old Testament era, love didn’t come first – family did.
Marriages were arranged by fathers (albeit sometimes with a daughter’s consent), with the goal to strengthening family ties and extending the family line. A wife’s greatest contribution to her family was the production of children, and especially sons. The firstborn son was raised with the expectation that he would inherit the largest portion of his father’s wealth, and with that inheritance he would provide for his mother and the rest of the family after his father died. Thus, sons represented long term security and provision for families, and for wives in particular. They were an Old Testament form of life insurance in an era when women were precluded from providing for themselves.
Women who produced many children, and sons in particular, were believed to be favored by God; women who were infertile were considered to be under God’s judgement.
Husbands whose wives were suffering from infertility usually chose one of two paths – both culturally permissible, but inherently problematic. Husband could have children by one of their wive’s servants, whose offspring would be considered the legal progeny of the infertile wife. The second option was to marry a second wife and hope to have children by her.
Women who were married solely for their procreative potential would have been vulnerable to mistreatment, so the law of Moses made particular provision for them. It required that if a man had children by multiple wives, he was to recognize his firstborn son as his heir, regardless of his feelings for the woman who bore him.
These were the dynamics in which Hannah found herself. Hannah’s protracted infertility was the probable reason Elkanah had married his second wife, Peninnah. Peninnah had given Elkanah the sons and daughters Hannah could not, but that had done nothing to elevate her standing in Elkanah’s eyes, at least in comparison with Hannah.
If the common translation of 1 Sam. 1:5 is accurate, Elkanah’s insistence on giving childless Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice, instead of Peninnah’s son, telegraphed his favoritism loud and clear. Anyone who’s ever experienced the heartbreak of a lack of affection from a spouse, or the righteous indignation of a son or daughter being denied something they’re rightfully owed, (let alone both at the same time!) can understand how Peninnah was stumbled into bitterness over her “rival’s” place in her husband’s affections, and why she succumbed to the temptation to fight back.
Conventional wisdom argues that men are the sex more prone to fighting and aggression. I’ve got one sister, and four years of experience attending a private girls’ high school as a charity case amongst the daughters of the rich and powerful that argues otherwise. Peninah’s behavior reminds us that men may fight with their fists, but women fight with words. Ask me, or any of the girls I grew up around, which hurts more, and which scars last longer.
Peninnah perhaps wept privately over her position as the unloved wife. But in public, she could surround herself with tiny towheaded symbols of God’s love and provision for her, and wage war on her rival’s heart. Hannah was having her day now, but one day, when Elkanah died, Peninnah would have hers. Peninnah wasn’t going to let Hannah forget it.
That Peninnah times her verbal assaults to coincide with family’s annual pilgrimage to Shiloh to worship and offer sacrifices to God, speaks to how determined she is to blister her rival’s heart with the blowtorch of her tongue. Hannah’s response show how well she succeeded. The language of 1 Samuel 1, especially when read in multiple translations, depicts a woman who is wrestling in both body and soul to bear up under the weight of deep emotional pain.
There is a tragic irony in the fact that the two men most accountable to God for Hannah’s welfare, demonstrate an inability to see or understand her distress, let alone seek to mitigate it.
Elkanah’s leading his family to the temple regularly to offer sacrifices indicates a measure of spiritual faithfulness, and his expressions of love for Hannah seem sincere. But both are belied by his obliviousness to the legal and cultural dynamics which are both the reason for Hannah’s distress, and the means by which it could be alleviated. Elkanah has apparently declined to try to have children with one of Hannah’s servants, children who would have been considered her own. He flouts the spirit of inheritance laws (and escalates the friction between the two women) by giving a double portion of sacrifice to Hannah instead of to Peninnah’s son. And when God finally does give Hannah a son, and Hannah tells Elkanah about her vow, Elkanah fails to avail himself of his legal right as her husband to nullify it, so that Hannah could keep her son with her- a visible, symbolic assurance of God’s favor and promise of provision.
Elkanah may have loved Hannah, but his love didn’t extend far beyond himself.
Eli’s regard seems similarly shallow.
Eli’s sons were the kind of PKs that give PKs a bad name – literal good for nothings who spent their days misappropriating temple sacrifices and messing around with women. Eli had voiced his disapproval, but other passages make clear his words weren’t much more than spiritual lip service. Eli’s sons’ wickedness warranted swift intervention, not just words.
There are parallels in his conversation with Hannah. Eli observes the impassioned manner of Hannah’s prayer and decides that she’s been drinking too much. (This is hardly the first time he’s observed worshippers behaving badly in God’s house of worship!) Hannah gives him an explanation, but a notably incomplete one. She describes with poignant eloquence the troubled state of her heart, but she doesn’t disclose the reason.
Eli doesn’t apologize for his mistake. He doesn’t ask any probing questions about the cause of Hannah’s “great anxiety and vexation”. He doesn’t offer her any tangible help. He simply wishes her well and invokes God’s generic name to offer what reads like a “good for all occasions” blessing.
For years, Hannah has borne up under the weight of circumstantial suffering and abuse alone, with her sorrow exacerbated as those God has given for her care and protection observe her pain, but do nothing to alleviate it.
What then, of Hannah’s response?
1 Samuel 1 records no returning of verbal evil for Peninnah’s evil, no words of reproach to her husband. And when she leaves Eli’s presence, she’s at peace.
The answer begins in the first verse of 1 Samuel 2.
Women, Words, and the Word of God