Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Hannah: The woman who gives voice to suffering

November 18, 2012

Alternate First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Hannah: The woman who gives voice to suffering

When we think about the individuals in the biblical text who suffer, Jesus would likely top the list.  From the Garden of Gethsemane where an agitated Jesus tells his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death…”(Matthew 26:38), to his haunting words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (27:46).  Jesus suffers intensely and at many levels — physically, emotionally and even existentially.  With a broken body and a deep sense of abandonment, Jesus embodies what suffering is.

After Jesus, Job — the man who has come to be known as the “patient” sufferer — is a logical choice. There is David as Psalmist who eloquently expresses so many shades and textures of suffering and the suffering servant in the Book of Isaiah.  And then there is Elijah who, under the broom tree, utters, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life…” (1 Kings 19:4).

But even as the list grows, biblical women don’t generally make the cut (with the possible exception of Mary, the mother of Jesus).  Part of the problem has to do with the fact that there just aren’t as many women in the Bible to begin with, and those that do have roles aren’t generally associated with the complex, multi-layered suffering of their male counterparts. Instead, the suffering of women is confined almost exclusively to their reproductive capacities and the anxieties that arise from this state of affairs.

For the most part, this type of suffering is fairly easily resolved in the biblical text; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah, for example, all eventually give birth to baby boys when God decides to “open” their wombs.  The reality, however, is that while infertility is unquestionably a significant issue for many women, then and now, it has never been the only source of suffering for women and having babies does not solve all the problems that women face.

Turning to the passage in 1 Samuel, the opening verses of the first chapter inform us that Elkanah is from a distinguished family line and that he is a man of some means because he has two wives.  We know nothing about these wives, however, save their names and their respective reproductive statuses.  Peninah has children; Hannah does not.  From this brief sketch, we can deduce a number of things:  First, since barrenness (and it was always assumed that the problem was with the woman) was considered a source of disgrace in the ancient world, Hannah lived under a cloud of shame.  Those around her probably wondered what she had done to deserve such a punishment.  This seems to be the case with her co-wife Peninah, who “to make her miserable, would taunt her that the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Samuel 1:6).

Second, children, particularly sons were not just tiny humans to love and nurture.  They represented the future — life beyond the present generation — in a very real and concrete way.  Sometimes we forget that for ancient Israelites, the concept of life-after-death and heaven was nebulous, perhaps even non-existent.  Thus, during the time in which the Hebrew Bible was written, Israelites imagined “life-after-death” as unfolding in the lives of their descendants.  With this in mind, Elkanah’s future was assured through Peninah’s sons.  Hannah’s was not.

Finally, even though the text tells us that Hannah was Elkanah’s favorite and that he would give her a double-portion at the sacrifice at Shiloh, Hannah’s immediate future wasn’t secure either.  If Elkanah died suddenly, his sons through Peninah would have inherited everything, leaving Hannah dependent upon their goodwill (or lack of it).  She knew that without a child, and more specifically a son, she could end up on the street.  Hannah was dependent not only upon Elkanah’s kindness and generosity, but his life as well. 

As year after year passed, and Hannah would weep and refuse to eat during the family pilgrimage to the House of the Lord at Shiloh, we see Hannah’s ongoing suffering.  Given, the enormity of Hannah’s predicament, it should come as no surprise.  To add insult to injury, Hannah’s husband doesn’t get it either.  “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating?  Why are you so sad?” he would ask. 

While he might have been a “nice guy” who truly loved Hannah, he simply wasn’t paying attention to the reality of her life.  His love couldn’t remove either her shame or her vulnerability.  His obliviousness is clear when he asks, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” This statement says much more about him than it does about Hannah.  I would have been more reassured if he had said, “Hannah, YOU are more than ten sons to ME.” 

Hannah finally reaches the breaking point and decides to go to the sanctuary at Shiloh on her own to plead with God for a male child.  She is even further humiliated as she reaches out for help.  The priest Eli, however, assumes the worst and compounds her grief by saying, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” But once she explains herself, Eli listens and tells her to go in peace, sending her away with a blessing. 

The story then follows the pattern that we might expect — Hannah goes home, conceives, has a child, dedicates him to the service of the Lord, and lives happily ever after.  But is this woman’s grief and suffering so easily resolved by having a son?  Is it that simple? 

I wonder if Hannah’s suffering is not perhaps more complicated, more profound than the surface of the story suggests.  She is enmeshed in an unjust system that seems at every turn to be working against her desire for a better, more abundant life.  From God and her taunting co-wife to her naïve husband and the accusing priest, Hannah would appear to have very little agency.  Her only recourse, her only option within this system, is to return to the God who closed her womb in the first place.  Do we hear echoes of Job in Hannah’s story?

Is the author of this text aware of the acute injustice of a woman’s circumstances at that time?  Is he giving voice through Hannah to the deep, systemic injustice that has caused untold suffering for women throughout history?  While it may be wishful thinking on my part, it is possible — especially when we look ahead to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2. 

As scholars have aptly noted, this just doesn’t sound like the simple prayer of thanks we might expect from a new mother.  This is a song of revolution where the bows of the mighty are broken and the poor are raised from the dust.  Hannah’s song penetrates the surface, pointing to the pillars of injustice that must be pulled down.  Some of those pillars may be the very ones that put her in such a desperate situation in the first place.