People

Hannah by Ruth Fidler

Hannah’s appearance in scripture is confined to 1Sam 1-2:21, the text that depicts the birth and early years of her illustrious son, the prophet Samuel. Nevertheless, Hannah has a role that is all but marginal. It is as though her voice breaks through the patriarchal frame of the story taking it to new levels of human sensitivity and narrative art.

What makes the story of Hannah unique among writings of its kind?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah, “from Ramathaim Zuphim in the hill country of Ephraim” (1Sam 1:1). Elkanah’s lineage (“son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu,” etc.) is followed by the wives’ names and an important distinction between them: “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children” (1Sam 1:2). The barren wife theme is shared by several birth stories of Israel’s ancestors and heroes. Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, and Samson are all born to women who are labeled “barren,” but with God’s grace finally become mothers. The story of Hannah is special in its concern with the anguish of the barren wife, but it is unique in the direct communication it allows her with God, who “closed her womb” (1Sam 1:5).

Hannah’s anguish becomes most poignant in the family’s yearly pilgrimages to the shrine of Shiloh. Here the sacrificial feast exposes the rivalry between the wives: Hannah, more beloved by Elkanah, suffers the envious scorn of Peninnah who has a tableful of children. Hannah expresses her misery by crying and not eating. Elkanah tries to encourage her, suggesting that he is better to her than ten sons (1Sam 1:8). Elkanah is more empathetic to his wife’s distress than Jacob is to Rachel’s in similar circumstances (Gen 30:2), but both self-centered retorts have earned the arguable title “failed dialogues” (M. Gruber, 1998). In one sense however, they do not fail: moving the lonely, humiliated wife to independent action. Rachel offers her maid Bilhah to Jacob so that she “may have children through her.” Hannah’s struggle against barrenness goes further. Steadfast in her wish to become a mother she uses her voice, unheard so far, directly addressing the only one who can turn her fortune: “O Lord of hosts …” Following this is a vow in which Hannah requests the Lord’s attention to her misery, offering him a deal that can hardly be refused: “if only you will look on the misery of your servant and remember me, and not forget 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 1:11 NRSV).

Strangely, Hannah’s first use of her voice amounts to a voiceless prayer that is mistaken for drunkenness by Eli, the priest of Shiloh. God nevertheless hears her, granting her the child of her desire: 1Sam 1:19-20. Hannah then fulfills her part of the deal, devoting Samuel to God: 1Sam 1:21-28. She is later blessed with three more sons and two daughters: 1Sam 2:21.

The entire story thus revolves around Hannah’s vow and its fulfillment, its various parts defined by her speeches: (1) her prayer and vow: 1Sam 1:11; (2) her defense against Eli’s charge of drunkenness: 1Sam 1:15-16; (3) her naming of Samuel: 1Sam 1:20; (4) her announcement of her intentions to Elkanah: 1Sam 1:22; (5) her dedication of Samuel to God referring back to her prayer: 1Sam 1:26-28.

In her short presence in the Hebrew Bible Hannah turns out a game changer: a strong willed woman of faith, she rises above her pain to act towards her goal of becoming a mother.

Ruth Fidler, "Hannah", n.p. [cited 18 Nov 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/hannah

Contributors

fidler-ruth

Ruth Fidler
Senior Lecturer, Gordon Academic College

Ruth Fidler is a senior lecturer in the Bible Studies Department at Gordon Academic College, Haifa, Israel. She is the author of Dreams Speak Falsely? Dream Theophanies in the Bible: Their Place in Ancient Israelite Faith and Traditions [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005) and of “A Wife’s Vow—The Husband’s Woe? (1 Samuel 1,21.23): The Case of Hannah and Elkanah,” ZAW 118 (2006): 374–88.

Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel who grows up to anoint the kings Saul and David, transforms the traditionally passive role of the barren wife by talking to God and thus shaping her destiny.

Did you know…?

  • The name Hannah is derived from a Hebrew root (ḥnn -חנן ) that suggests (divine) grace.
  • Hannah and Peninnah are introduced by their names, after Elkanah is introduced with his lineage—a feature the Hebrew Bible usually reserves for its male protagonists. Still, in being mentioned by name, Hannah fares better than women in some comparable stories, who remain anonymous, e.g., the wife of Manoah and mother of Samson in Judg 13 and the great woman of Shunem in 2Kgs 4.
  • The adjective for an infertile person appears in the Hebrew Bible mostly in the feminine form (Hebrew ʽaqārâh - עקרה ). Its single masculine appearance co-occurs with the feminine form in a conditioned promise of divine protection from infertility (Deut 7:14). Thus all the biblical protagonists that are labeled infertile are wives: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Manoah’s wife.
  • The attribution of infertility to the wife (rather than to the husband) is understandable when the husband has children from another wife (Abraham, Jacob, Elkanah). Since this is not always the case (Isaac and Manoah), it seems that a potent narrative pattern stands behind stories on barren wives who became mothers.
  • Hannah’s quiet prayer—“only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard”—was later espoused by Talmud sages (B. Ber. 31:1) and became customary in Jewish and other religious contexts. Rashi suggests that Eli, unfamiliar with this style of prayer, therefore took it as a sign of drunkenness.
  • The parts in Hannah’s vow that declare her son’s nazirite status and abstinence from wine and intoxicants do not appear in the Hebrew text. They are restored in NRSV, following current scholarship, from the LXX version of the vow and a Qumran text of Hannah’s speech to Elkanah (parallel to 1Sam 1:22 in MT). The closest biblical parallel to prenatal nazirite consecration is the angel’s instruction to Samson’s mother in Judg 13:4-5.
  • Given the emphasis on Hannah’s prayer and vow it is surprising to find in this woman centered story a reference to a vow of Elkanah (1Sam 1:21: “his vow”) as a motive for the pilgrimage to Shiloh following the birth of Samuel. Since no vow of Elkanah is mentioned up to this point, it is possible that Hannah’s vow is intended here. Its attribution to Elkanah is in line with later legislation that holds fathers and husbands responsible for the vows made by their daughters and wives respectively (Num 30:6-15; cp. Jer 44:17, Jer 44:25) and allows a father—but not a mother—to make a Nazirite vow concerning his son (m. Naz. 4:6).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

1Sam 1-2:21

Samuel's Birth and Dedication
1There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of El ... View more

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

1Sam 1:1

Samuel's Birth and Dedication
1There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of El ... View more

1Sam 1:2

2He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

1Sam 1:5

5but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.

1Sam 1:8

8Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Gen 30:2

2Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”

1Sam 1:11

11She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your ... View more

1Sam 1:19-20

19They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remember ... View more

1Sam 1:21-28

21The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow.22But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her hu ... View more

1Sam 2:21

21And the Lord took note of Hannah; she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.

1Sam 1:11

11She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your ... View more

1Sam 1:15-16

15But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lo ... View more

1Sam 1:20

20In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

1Sam 1:22

22But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and ... View more

1Sam 1:26-28

26And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord.27For this child I prayed; and th ... View more

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Shorthand title for the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures fabled to have been completed by 70 translators (LXX is 70 rendered in roman numerals).

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

A collection of rabbinic writings, mostly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah (another rabbinic collection). There are two Talmuds, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, so called after the region in which each is believed to have been compiled. The Talmuds were likely composed between the third and the sixth centuries C.E.

Judg 13

The Birth of Samson
1The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.2There ... View more

2Kgs 4

Elisha and the Widow's Oil
1Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servan ... View more

Deut 7:14

14You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock.

1Sam 1:22

22But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and ... View more

Judg 13:4-5

4Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean,5for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the b ... View more

1Sam 1:21

21The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow.

Num 30:6-15

6If she marries, while obligated by her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself,7and her husband hears of it and says nothi ... View more

Jer 44:17

17Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our king ... View more

Jer 44:25

25Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: You and your wives have accomplished in deeds what you declared in words, saying, ‘We are determined to perfor ... View more

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