Ruby Namdar on the much-ignored tragic elements of Hannah’s story

“Tear” by  Gideon van der Stelt

Tradition reads the tale of Hannah, which includes her struggle with rival-wife Peninah and the miraculous birth of her son Samuel, as a victorious tale, celebrating the triumph of piety and faith. Few commentators, ancient or modern, pay attention to the strong tragic element of this story.

The story begins as a domestic drama: one husband, two rival wives. One wife, Peninah, is fertile while the other, Hannah, is barren. As tragedies go, this tension is further accentuated by yet another imbalance: Hannah, the barren wife, is also the loved one. The story takes us to the temple at Shiloh, where the unhappy little family travels every year to worship, sacrifice and feast. Like every other year Peninah, the fertile-yet-unloved wife finds a way to ruin the meal for her hated rival-wife by rubbing the fact of her barrenness in her face. Hannah, hurt and agitated leaves the table and runs to the tent where the old priest Eli is guarding the Arc of Covenant while everybody else feasts and makes merry. There, the bitter-hearted Hannah prays is silent despair and fury. While praying she strikes a deal with God: “Give me a son, and I will give it back to you”. She promises to lend the child back to god by dedicating him as a young priest.

Hannah’s fervent whispering awakens the old priest from his contemplations. Unaccustomed to seeing women at prayer he assumes her to be insane, or perhaps drunken: “How long wilt thou be drunken?” he scolds her, not too gently “put away thy wine from thee!” But the old priest’s heart softens as he hears Hannah’s touching reply: “No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I poured out my soul before the LORD. 16 Count not thy handmaid for a wicked woman: for out of the abundance of my complaint and my vexation have I spoken hitherto.” He sends her back to the holiday table, promising to pray for her.

The old man’s, or perhaps it is the young woman’s, prayers work. A year later, Hannah is blessed with a pregnancy and gives birth to a fine baby boy. She prolongs the breastfeeding as long as she can, knowing that upon weaning the child she will have to keep her word and part with him forever – bringing him back to Shiloh and leaving him there as a apprentice to the priests. The deal she struck with God seems suddenly like a dark diabolic one: receiving a pined-for child, just in order to give it back to the LORD.

Perhaps, while she was barren, she could not see past the immediate goal of conception and birth? Perhaps she could foresee the depth of the attachment that she will form to her first born son? In the end Elkanah, her husband, has to remind her that she can no longer hide from her duty: “Do what seemeth thee good; tarry until thou have weaned him; only the LORD establish His word.”

So Hannah tarried and gave her son suck, until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she made a little coat for him, sinking her love and despair into every stich, and she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and a bushel of grain, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the LORD in Shiloh. And the Bible, making sure we don’t sugar-coat the tragedy emphasizes: “and the child was young.”

This big parade, with these enormous and impressive gifts to the priests of Shiloh is perhaps an effort to silence the inner screams of her soul as she parts with her beloved child and leaves him with these strangers. He will live amongst the holy men, let his hair grow long and wear the priestly linens all his life.

Hannah returns home.

The Bible compensates her with three more sons and two daughters. She will soon be too busy to brood over her loss. But the young boy, Samuel, whose name means “He who was asked for” or “He who was borrowed from the LORD” remains alone in Shiloh, abandoned by his loving mother who bargained for more that she could have realized. He grows up to be an important, holy figure – a quarrelsome and unforgiving zealot. He will wear the tattered little coat that his mother made for him until his last day.