Women of the Bible – Hannah

The Bible is notoriously hard on women as it is a book, or rather a collection of books, shaped through and through by the patriarchal culture from which it sprang, a culture which silenced and oppressed women, at least in the public realm. However, if we look more closely, what emerges is a much more subtle picture as we encounter women who changed the course of Israel’s history or whose influence was of paramount importance in the early Christian church. In the next few issues of this monthly bi-blog, I will therefore be looking in more detail at several of these women, some very well- known, some more obscure. So we start today with a woman which I think deserves to be better known: Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel.

Hannah appears at the very start of the book of 1 Samuel, a book which (along with 2 Samuel) is primarily concerned with the lives of three very important men, Samuel, Saul and of course David. Hannah’s story begins with a pithy piece of information: the tragedy of her infertility:

“There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphiten from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.2 He had two wives; the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children but Hannah had no children”. (1Sam.1:1-2).

Note that neither of the two women are introduced as individuals in their own right, but as “wives”. We are told nothing of their ancestry, character, physical traits or ethnic origin, just that one had fulfilled the essential role which was expected of women in that culture and the other had not. The barrenness of women is a recurring and highly significant motif in biblical narratives: remember Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and the unnamed wife of Manoah. All of them eventually bear sons so the reader may have high expectations for Hannah, but the beginning of the story is not encouraging:

“Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give a portion to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters, but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because she was the one he loved, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to taunt her severely to hurt her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So, it went on year by year; Therefore, Hannah wept and would not eat”.(1Sam. 1: 3-7)

We cannot miss here the strong echoes of the story of Jacob’s two wives: Rachel, the barren wife who is loved and Leah, the fertile one who is not. For Hannah, the love of her husband is no compensation for the suffering and the bullying she endures year after year from her co-wife, Penninah. Penninah disappears very quickly from the narrative but she is the catalyst without whom Hannah’s story would not exist, as it is Penninah’s cruelty that drives Hannah to make a desperate vow to God that will, when finally fulfilled, bring Samuel her long-awaited son to Shiloh as the servant of God, the one who will become one of Israel’s greatest prophets:

As she was deeply distressed, she prayed to the Lord,  wept bitterly and made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants and no razor shall touch his head.” (1Sam 1:10-11)

This vow, as Trevor Dennis notes, “represents Hannah’s first speech in the narrative and breaks her silence not just for the time of its utterance but for the rest of the story. After this, we will find her more vocal, indeed she will have far more to say than anyone else.[1]” However, Hannah’s prayer receives no immediate answer from God. Clearly, this is NOT another annunciation type-scene that is so common in the Bible. In any case, God does not get the chance to answer as he is interrupted by Eli: Seeing her lips moving, the high priest of Shiloh thinks Hannah is drunk. His judgement appears quite rash and offensive, but we must remember that pilgrimages to holy places in Israel were one of the few occasions people had to drink wine freely and many got very merry and intoxicated. Rather prematurely, Eli thought that it was the case here.

These attenuating circumstances apart, here is yet another man showing great insensitivity towards Hannah. Earlier on, her husband Elkanah had said to her “Why are you crying, why are you not eating, why are you so upset? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1Sam.1.7b-8). This is an extraordinary crass thing to say to a woman who is profoundly distressed as she is unable to fulfil her longing for a child… The only thing he can find to say is “You have me, isn’t that sufficient.” …Really?!!! Eli does not fare much better as his judgement is inept at best and lacks the most elementary kindness and compassion. In fact the moral high ground that he takes towards Hannah, is especially distasteful if you compare it to his lax attitude towards his two sons’ much worse and repeated transgressions. To her husband she gives no answer but to Eli, she has found her voice:

 “Not so, my lord, I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” (1Sam. 1:15-16)

There is in Hannah’s dignified response two very interesting elements: first, in the most polite and subtle way, she rebukes Eli and his sons by saying she is not a “wicked woman” the very words that are used 3 times in Hebrew to describe Eli’s sons: The use of words and repetitions in the Bible are never haphazard coincidences as they are always used with a specific purpose. Secondly, in a great ironic twist, Eli, who does not know what Hannah’s vow is, asks God to grant her petition, therefore unwittingly spelling his own demise as it will be Hannah’s son, Samuel, who will bring about God’s judgment against Eli and his family. As Trevor Dennis remarks, “the narrator’s skill resides in showing Eli as a bit of a fool: he has mistaken Hannah’s distress for drunkenness, he has not spotted her veiled rebuke and has greatly contributed to the fulfilment of a vow which will bring about his own downfall.”  The high priest of Shiloh has been duped by a mere woman!

This encounter with Eli marks the most dramatic turn in Hannah’s life, a turn which is however expressed by the narrator in the starkest of ways. No feeling, no comment, no judgement, just the facts as the Bible often describes the most important events:

“Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and went back to Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah and the Lord remembered her: Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, “because I asked the Lord for him.” (1Sam 1:19-20)

Note that not only she is the one who names her son which was generally a male prerogative but when later she tells her husband that she will offer their son to God, she presents it as a fait accompli and does not ask for his permission which would have been the cultural norm. Hannah has not only found her voice but her personal authority too! And when she meets Eli again to dedicate the child, she is the one who speaks while Eli does not utter a word… She also sings, and some song it is: “A vigorous shout of triumph, enough to make Penninah and Eli tremble” as Trevor Dennis remarks. It is indeed a song of battle fought and won and of triumph over the enemy, which is surprising in a woman’s mouth. No more distress at being taunted by Penninah, no more reverence or veiled rebuke of Eli, she just sings, addressing only God. (1Sam. 2:1-10)

Hannah’s story is a great example of a “simple woman” finding her voice, being empowered and no longer accepting to be bullied, demeaned or crushed by cultural expectations or by conforming rivals. She could be a great inspiration for many women around the world!

[1] Trevor Dennis, Sarah laughed: Women’s Voices in the Old Testament, (SPCK, London, 1994)