The books of Samuel begin by describing Hannah’s dysfunctional family for all to see. We quickly discover Hannah’s condition: she cannot bear children. We know this to be a painful situation. In our day, when families confront the devastating diagnosis of infertility, they often spend vast amounts of time, energy, and money seeking medical solutions. But Hannah and Elkanah lived when Israel was just a confederacy of tribes living under the judges, and according to the end of Judges, they had just endured a horrendous civil war.1 Not only was their existence precarious, their Ephramite tribe in particular saw themselves as having a special mandate to bear children (Gen. 48:16b, 19b–20), the one thing Hannah could not do.2 Elkanah addressed this problem as would any man in Ancient Near Eastern culture: he married a second wife, Peninnah, who was fertile.
When Scripture describes marriages that have more than one wife, a relational mess ensues (think of Sarah and Hagar, or Rachel and Leah). Hannah’s situation was no different. First Samuel describes Elkanah and his family annually traveling to Shiloh, to offer sacrifices to the Lord of hosts. And during these times Peninnah did as the reader expects:
[Hannah’s] rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. (1 Sam. 1:6–7 NRSV).
The Hebrew word that describes Peninnah as a rival is tzara. This word describes nations at war, as adversaries, and rarely describes individual people.3 Hannah was not enduring low-level interpersonal problems. No, the Hebrew emphasizes her endurance of war-like abuse. Beaten down year after year, Hannah demonstrated classic signs of depression—weeping and refusing to eat.
Co-Dependency in Abuse
Scripture states that her husband, Elkanah, loved Hannah. But when he approached his weeping wife to comfort her, his words betray either overt cluelessness to the warlike dynamics in his own family, or judgment requiring justification: “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad?” (1 Sam. 1:8a). He did not wait for her reply but went on to ask an impossible question, demonstrating that he was not interested in hearing her. Instead, he asked, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8b). Considering the era in which they lived, this question is tone deaf. Women had no property or inheritance rights. Not only would ten sons save her reputation and stop the abuse, but ten sons also would ensure that she would not be destitute when Elkanah died. Further, the question displays Elkanah’s own self-absorption as “he places himself, and not the plight of Hannah, in the central focus. He significantly does not tell Hannah that she is worth more to him than ten sons.”4 If she answered no, she dishonored him, if she answered yes, she denied the reality of her destitute future.5
These questions reveal Elkanah’s refusal to acknowledge the abuse happening in his home and furthermore demonstrate that he would do nothing to stop the abuse. In modern terminology, we would say Elkanah was a co-dependent character to the abuse. Elkanah’s questions seem to be the “lightbulb moment” for Hannah. Her actions and voice from this point forward demonstrate her understanding of Genesis 3:16, where God tells Eve that the consequences of sin will be evident in her turning her attention toward man, enabling him to rule over her.6 With Hannah’s focus on her husband rather than God, she had no tools to escape abuse. So she turned her head back toward God, the way God originally created women. And that made all the difference for Hannah, for their family, and for the nation of Israel.
Practical Steps Toward Healing
With a change of focus came a change in behavior toward health. Hannah ate. Then she stepped away from her abusive family to go pray alone at the temple. Separation from abuse indicates a good, strong, healing movement. She then poured her soul out to God, releasing her pain of abuse, specifically using a Hebrew word that means oppression, abuse, affliction, and misery.7 She was telling God the truth and begging God not to forget her! In fact her prayer was very similar to the cries of the afflicted Hebrews suffering under slavery in Egypt. And then in simple language she asked God, not her husband, to solve her problem. If God would hear her prayers and allow her to bear a son, Hannah would dedicate her son to God’s service.
Hannah’s prayers continued and were so deep from within her soul that only her lips moved, causing the priest, Eli, to mistake her for a drunk. But instead of silence at another accusation slung at her, Hannah defended herself. In 1 Samuel 1:16, Hannah told Eli that she was mourning her situation, using a Hebrew word that means lament, which is a prominent form of prayer we see in Psalms where people tell God in all honesty the pain they are suffering (Psa. 55:35, 62:2, 102:1, 142:3). Likewise, Hannah brought her anguish before God, the one with ultimate authority.
Rather than condemning her, Eli blessed her. Though no outward situation changed, Hannah changed, transformed as she shifted her attention from being powerless to an active agent who honestly laid her oppression before God. When she returned to her family, she was not the same person who left. Hannah reversed the consequences of sin that God explained in Genesis 3:16. She became the ezer, strong rescue, that was God’s original intent at creation. Genesis 2 describes God’s reaction to Adam’s situation after God asked him to govern the garden. God saw it was too much for man alone. So God created woman and called her an ezer, a strong rescue (Gen. 2:18). Interestingly, through Hannah’s transformation the situation in her family transformed. First Samuel 1:19 notes the change: now they all worshipped together as a family, Elkanah knew his wife, and God remembered her, giving her a child.
Family leadership dynamics changed as well. Rather than submitting to Elkanah’s yearly trip to Shiloh, where Hannah had been abused year after year, Hannah defined the terms for herself and her child going forward. She informed Elkanah that she would remain home and raise Samuel until his time of weaning, which could have been anywhere between four to six years old. She would decide when to return to Shiloh, and when she did, she would dedicate her son to God’s service. Rather than Hannah’s assertiveness earning Elkanah’s rebuke, it instead earned her husband’s approval. Although Mosaic law allowed husbands to nullify their wives’ vows before God, Elkanah encouraged Hannah, saying, “Do what seems best to you; wait until you have weaned him; only, may the Lord establish your word” 8 (1 Sam. 1:23a).
Child Abandonment or A New Future?
Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to the Lord and then leaving him at the temple with Eli looks harsh in our modern eyes. Some scholars claim that Hannah exploited Samuel to increase her own ranking in the family and then abandoned him.9 But Scripture provides evidence that Hannah maintained a close relationship with her son, sewing and bringing him clothes as he grew (1 Sam. 2:19). Scripture indicates that Samuel maintained a strong relationship with his family and clan from Ramah, for as an adult after completing a judicial circuit within Israel, “he would come back to Ramah, for his home was there,” (1 Sam. 7:17a). Rather than abandonment, Hannah ensured her son’s future, independent and free from his older half-siblings. And based on the description of Peninnah’s war-like treatment of Hannah, that future may have been precarious. Unknowingly, Hannah’s actions to ensure Samuel’s future ensured that Israel too had a future.
In a beautiful hymn that begins 1 Samuel 2, Hannah describes the God she experienced, the one who rescues the abused and makes the barren woman fertile. And truly, she went on to have five more children. Like the songwriters Miriam and Deborah before her, Hannah explains that God sees, hears, and responds to the poor, the oppressed, and the downcast. The high and mighty oppressors will be brought down. Her song of hope testifies to her own experience, that the almighty God is on the side of the abused and that God transforms individuals, families, and nations. The tiny and threatened people of Israel recognized their own situation in her words, and her theology became the theology that set the standard for her son and the coming monarchy.
- Bruce Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 957.
- Tracey Stringer, “Hannah: More Than a Mother,” Priscilla Papers 33, no. 1 (Winter 2019), 3.
- Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 975.
- Yairah Amit, “Am I Not More Devoted to You than Ten Sons? (1 Samuel 1:8): Male and Female Interpretations,” in A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings, ed. A. Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffiled Academic, 1994), 68–76. Quoted by Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 975.
- John Peterson, Reading Women’s Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 44.
- First wave Christian feminist, Katharine Bushnell makes a detailed study of the Hebrew word teshuqa commonly interpreted “desire” in Genesis 3:16, discovering that the earliest translations were “to turn towards” and more in keeping with the intent of the passage. I find her argument convincing. Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word for Women (Minneapolis: CBE International, 2003), 57–66.
- HALOT, עָנִי ‘ani, 856.
- Some translations say, “May the Lord establish his word” rather than “your word.” The different translations are due to differences in ancient texts. The ancient Hebrew Masoretic Text reads “his,” but the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls and Syriac read “your.”
- Naomi Steinberg, “Children in the Hebrew Bible and the Case of Samuel from Personal Experience to Analysis,” Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, edited by Athalya Brenner-Idan and Archie C. C. Lee (Bloomsbury Publishing Place, 2016), 197. Proquest EBook Central. Accessed September 30, 2022.