Many people incorrectly assume that women in ancient Israel had less value than our present-day status of “equality”. And while it is true that the potential for success in any realm (home, business, entertainment, etc.) was not as broad as it is in 2017, women in ancient Israel actually had greater rights than those in neighboring countries. The most prominent role for women in these times of course was motherhood, but across the pages of Scripture we see women in the role of leadership (Miriam: Ex. 15:20-21; Num. 12; Mic. 6:4; Deborah: Jud. 4-5) as well business (Lydia: Acts 16:14-15) and even politics (Damaris Acts 17:16-32). But as mentioned previously, motherhood was truly the highest level of achievement a woman could reach in Biblical times. Becoming the mother of a son was the highest of the high!
But in 1 Sam. 1:1-20 motherhood is in a have/have not situation. Hannah, Elkanah’s primary wife, is childless. Peninnah, his secondary wife has both sons and daughters- making Hannah’s childlessness even more painful. A common mindset back then was to believe that if a woman could not produce an heir, there must be some sort of sin issue that God was judging. Peninnah’s nasty behavior is indicative of this. And of course this makes Hannah even more miserable because she is fairly certain she has done nothing wrong. In desperation and at the brink of overwhelming sorrow Hannah begs the Lord for a child and after a mistaken judgment by Eli the priest she receives the promise that the Lord will indeed grant her request. What happens after that is even more admirable- so make sure you read it!
What is so interesting about this story is the contrast between the two mothers. We know A LOT about Hannah. We know virtually nothing about Peninnah. We know A LOT about Hannah’s son (the prophet Samuel). We know nothing about Peninnah’s children. All we know about Peninnah is that she existed and that she used her motherhood as a weapon to torment Hannah (1 Sam. 1:6). She particularly enjoyed doing this as the family traveled to the Tabernacle at Shiloh for worship. Unlike Hannah, God was never the focus of Peninnah’s life. Peninnah was a mother who faded into obscurity along with her children.
What can we learn from the behavior of these two mothers? Do we have to be a mother in order to learn something from them? Obviously not! In fact we don’t even have to be a female in order to learn something from their lives- but perhaps being a female may make it easier for us to understand the depth of Hannah’s emotions. So what lessons do we learn from Peninnah’s life? First and foremost, our blessings are never to be used as a means to one-up ourselves over others who may not have the same. Secondly, no matter what life brings to us (motherhood or not) God is to be at the center and He should be recognized as the source for all that we have. And lastly, if it is possible, we should be a support to others who may not be as blessed as we are thus leaving a positive impact on someone rather than humiliating them and then fading into obscurity.
How about Hannah’s life? What is there for us to learn from Hannah? First, every feeling, every situation can be brought to God. He hears and He answers. Secondly, for those of us who have been given the responsibility of motherhood, we are to raise children who have an impact for God, but, thirdly, if we have not been given the responsibility of raising children, or the days of raising our children have passed, in what ways can impact the children of our church or our extended families? I believe the role of motherhood is not limited to a biological event. As members of the body of Christ we have the opportunity to be a spiritual mother to any number of “children” (young or old). Remembering Hannah’s attitude and actions is a great directive for how we can fulfill that role with those who come within our sphere of influence. This kind of “motherhood” never stops unlike that of the biological kind. And the nurturing aspect of it is something that anyone, male or female can do.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 5/14/2017