The Story of Hannah’s Song
Elkanah had two wives. The first wife, Peninnah, had given him several children, but the second of his wives, Hannah, was barren. Elkanah, however, loved Hannah more than he loved Peninnah. Knowing that this was so, Peninnah would often taunt Hannah, gloating about her children, relishing the power this gave her over Hannah. Elkanah would try to comfort Hannah; Aren’t I worth as much as seven sons to you? he would ask. And Hannah would not reply. Much as she loved her husband, nothing in their relationship could make up for the daily pain of Peninnah flaunting her many children in front of her.
Sometimes Hannah’s mind would drift back to the stories of her ancestors – stories of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who had a child well into her old age, and stories of Hagar, the servant girl, who had taunted the barren Sarah with her son Ishmael; of Leah, the unloved sister with weak eyes, and Rachel, the loved one who was barren for much of her life as a punishment, it seemed, for being more loved. At times the stories comforted her; at times they did not. Which of these women, she would wonder, was she most like – Rachel or Sarah, Leah or Hagar? Was she beloved or oppressed, blessed or rejected? She had her husband’s love; but her womb was a dry, unyielding field. She cried out to heaven, but her cries fell flat. There was no reply, just a taunting vacuum.
When the time came for the family to offer their sacrifices at the temple, and eat a meal together, as the tradition went, Elkanah made his sacrifice and then served portions to all of his family – to Peninnah and her children, and then to Hannah; and, as usual, he gave Hannah an extra portion as a sign of his love for her. Peninnah no doubt saw it and scowled; perhaps she turned to Hannah and snapped at her, as she often did – some failure, perhaps, on Hannah’s part to prepare properly for the meal; some reason (there were many) why Hannah could do nothing right.
Perhaps it was this she had in mind – the taunts of Peninnah, the unloved wife – and took with her into the temple when she prayed, rocking back and forth, arms held up in desperation, lips moving wildly but voice silent. Inwardly she cried: Lord, have mercy; Lord, show kindness; Lord, take away my crushing shame. But outwardly, nothing – just the mad movements of one on the brink, the edge of what can or cannot be handled. And as she prayed, she wrestled and writhed and bargained in her mind. Lord, if you hear my prayer then I swear I will give him to you. The child shall be yours. And on and on she prayed, shaking and bribing, whispering and crying.
To Eli, the priest who stood by and watched, she was clearly drunk, or out of her mind. Sometimes it happened; some celebrated too wildly, too extravagantly. Looking at Hannah, he made up his mind that she was such a one.
Will you stop, woman? he said to her. Stop making such a display of yourself. Go home and sleep; sober yourself. This is no place for drunken displays.
Please, she said to him, her voice begging him. I am not drunk; I’m just desperate. I’ve been praying and praying; can’t you see that?
Eli relented, his heart drawn to her. Her cheeks, he saw, were stained with tears. Her eyes were shot through with lines of red.
Go, my child, he said to her. May the Lord grant your request.
Hannah stopped crying, not quite appeased but no longer frantic. She left the temple and went home with her family, and though Peninnah said to her, What was all your fuss about? and How nice of you to leave all the work to me, she did not react. It was as if her ears were immune to the sound of her words.
And that night Elkanah and Hannah went to bed together, and soon Hannah began to feel that something was different. Before long it was clear – her prayer had been answered. And though she knew in her heart that she would have to keep her bargain, she rejoiced to know that her shame would be gone.
Hannah kept the child with her – a boy called Samuel, whose name declared that she had been heard by God – until she had weaned him. And when the time came for her to give him up she went to the temple with her son, and with flour and wine and a bull to sacrifice, and there she killed the bull and gave her son to the priest Eli to raise him.
Did Hannah cry when she gave up her son? No doubt, she did, though we are not told. What she saw, in her mind, that day in the temple, is all that we know – the song that she sang. For somewhere inside her spirit there now was music, and the words to a song that took her through time: to the felling of empires, the reversal of pride, kings brought down low, paupers raised up, grace to the scrap-heap of human refuse. And there, on the scrap-heap, she saw now herself, glowing bright, shining – the end of her shame.
The words hit Alana with unexpected impact; they sound to her like a song, rhythmic and fluid, yet they cut deep like swords. She does not remember when she starts to cry, but when Peter looks at her, her eyes are red and flowing, and he does not know what to say.
They stay back longer after church this time, Alana seemingly wanting to linger and talk. Peter gets himself a coffee while a man about his age starts a casual conversation with him. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Alana talking with Emma. They are seated towards the front of the church. Alana is saying, “But what about Peninnah? I never thought about her…” It looks as if she has tears in her eyes still but it is hard to tell from this distance. Peter watches her, forgetting that there is someone talking to him, waiting for a reply. Then, returning, he says, “Sorry – what was that?”
“What are you doing for Christmas?” the young man asks.
Peter pauses and glances again at Alana. “Um…I’ll spend it with my wife’s family,” he replies, Alana still in the corner of his eye, her voice sounding somewhere faintly in the noise around him.
Go to Day Twenty-One