‘And Many Other Women’ Part VII

I’m thinking about Hannah today.

This is one story about a woman that does get quite a bit of play among LDS. Unfortunately, it is generally used solely as a ‘motherhood’ story. That’s fine, but there’s a lot of other things going on here. There’s a tight structure to the text:

A Hannah takes her sorrow to the Temple (1.10)
B Hannah makes a covenant (1.11)
C Hannah has a potentially contentious interaction with a male (1.12-16)
D Her desire is granted (1.17-20)
C’ Hannah has a potentially contentious interaction with a male (1.27-28)
B’ Hannah keeps her vow (1.27-28)
A’ Hannah takes her joy to the Temple (2.1-10)

You’ll note that the Temple binds and links the entire narrative; the extremes of her emotion find their place in the Temple. Still today people head to the Temple both in the pit of their sorrow and the fulness of their joy. Happily, Hannah’s progression is from sorrow to joy, and the Temple is a part of transforming her (and our) sorrows to joy. Her first trip to the Temple is interesting because of the problem that arises: Eli notices that she is praying aloud and confuses her for a drunk because vocal praying wasn’t the custom. There’s an obvious parallel to Joseph’s prayer here. Hannah has faith that God will hear her prayer.

Back to the structure: notice that the covenant (B and B’) is the intermediary link between the Temple (A and A’) and Hannah’s personal experiences (C, C’, and D). I’m not sure that I give enough thought to the role of covenants as covenants as opposed to the content of the covenants. I do know that covenants have power, and we see that in this story.

I read the C and C’ lines as a test of Hannah’s character, related to the vow that she has made. In both cases, she has an interaction with a male (the high priest, her husband) that could be contentious. How will she handle it? In both cases, Hannah passes the test: in the difficult situation, she is respectful, but firm. She states her position, stands by her position, but isn’t deceitful, passive-aggressive, etc. (You’ll notice that in both cases she gets what she wants ;) ).

And, in its rightful place as the center of the story, her desire is fulfilled. This is the part we usually focus on. This is the one section, however, that raises the most questions for me. Hannah’s experience of motherhood is so very different from mine; I can hardly imagine what it would be like to turn my first born son over to temple workers (unrighteous male ones, at that) to raise when I weaned him (one note: this was probably at age 4-7). To me, consecrating my children to the Lord (the highest definition, in my opinion, of motherhood) means something very, very different than it did to Hannah. What did motherhood mean to Hannah? Can I appropriate that? Should I appropriate that?

A few other thoughts:

(1) 1 Samuel 1:8 is a gem. Not only does Elkanah see that his marriage has value to himself and to Hannah independent of her childrearing capacities, but he is willing to meet her emotional needs by trying to comfort her. We usually focus on what a super mom Samuel had; his dad wasn’t too bad, either.

(2) 1:10 is powerful. I get a little weary of sanitized, happy-faced stories. I appreciate the depth of human emotion in this passage.

(3) I can only imagine Hannah’s feelings at turning her son over; I imagine she had a hint that all was not well in Zion, based on her previous experience with Eli (1:14), but could she anticipate what would be revealed in 2:12? She displayed powerful faith by keeping her covenant. I know that I would have been sorely tempted to plead that I didn’t know Eli’s house was fallen as an excuse to break my covenant. But Hannah didn’t.

(4) 1:22-24 suggest the importance of the breastfeeding relationship between mother and son. (This image is frequently used in the scriptures.) Was this just a convenient time marker for Hannah, a logical time at which to send her son to the temple, or is their some other significance here?

(5) Hannah’s praise song in chapter 2 fits into a long tradition (from Miriam to Mary, also Deborah) of women’s songs recorded in the scriptures. Her themes are similar to theirs: the idea of the power of the Lord and the Lord’s control over the reversals of fortune that will eventually ‘raise up the poor.’

(6) Read Acts 2. I believe that Hannah is a type for Peter’s role on the day of Pentecost. You’ll notice that he, too, is wrongfully accused of public drunkeness when he is in fact having a spiritual experience with some similarities to Hannah’s. His quotation of Joel 2:28 (“your daughters shall prophesy”) completes the circle to Hannah’s praise song.

I love this story.

12 comments for “‘And Many Other Women’ Part VII

  1. Amazing what close reading and comparisons can reveal. Thank you for sharing these insights, Julie.

  2. This has long been one of my favorite scripture stories, and not for the motherhood aspects. Hannah doesn’t even get to raise Samuel.

    Thanks for pointing out so many other interesting parallels.

  3. A wonderful post! Highly useful, even though it won’t generate an endless passionate discussion thread like “Powerful Women”. ;)

  4. Not to mention the kaiasmus (sp?) demonstrated in the overall story. Repetition in the form of an hour glass is a great way of teaching gospel truths.

  5. Julie, thanks very much for these posts. I don’t have much to say in response–nothing to add, nothing to criticize–but I enjoy them very much. Keep ’em coming.

  6. Julie, you’re so good at this kind of reading of the scriptures. You and my mother are the best I’ve read (and that’s a very high compliment, in my book!). I love how you’ve structured the story narratively–so elegant, and brings out a number of valuable parallels.

    So I hope you’ll indulge my obtuse questions, chalking it up entirely to my boneheadedness and not to deliberate obstinacy… This story confounds me on a number of levels. As you say, Hannah’s understanding of meaning of conception and motherhood is significantly–almost absolutely–different from mine. For me, tutored primarily in LDS maternity culture, motherhood is a lifelong obligation, a teaching relationship, a source (the greatest source) of personal fulfillment, and an entitlement either here or in the eternities; there is admittedly a bit of social prestige that comes from motherhood, as well, but, frankly, in most of my social circles, not much. For Hannah, motherhood is clearly about power and about proving her worth as a woman and wife–there’s no sense that the *relationship* with her son will bring personal fulfillment, but rather that the physical capacity and fact of (male) childbirth with validate her existence as a woman. I think most contemporary women would find this attitude deeply troubling–and indeed, the church’s emphasis on “motherhood does not equal maternity” (in its attempt to make motherhood *the* defining quality of womanhood) explicitly contradicts this.

    Hannah complains to the Lord at the temple, as you suggest. But I just can’t see this as parallel to the LDS social practice of temple worship. We don’t attend the temple for the same reasons that Elkanah did, as a yearly obligatory celebration of holy festivals; our purposes in going there are largely devotional and optional. Hannah’s bargain with the Lord, which is legitimized by Eli, scarcely resembles my transactions with the Lord and priesthood representatives.

    I found your linking of the episodes with Eli and Elkanah (via the chiastic structure) very insightful, and very meaningful. But with so little social context, and with so little understanding of the relationships that obtained between husband-wife and priest-penitent, I’m not sure that we can draw normative principles from her behavior. There’s just not enough contextual information for me to feel confident that, in those situations, Hannah was being “respectful but firm.”

    Again, I greatly enjoyed yoru reading; I think you do this kind of reading exceptionally skillfully. am I forever ruined for scripture reading by the combination of my historicist background and my lack of OT historical knowledge?

  7. One question I have is how we read the meaning of Hannah’s “barrenness” in a modern culture in which we understand infertility as an unfortunate medical problem, not as the sign of God’s disfavor. If barrenness is understood as a curse, then there’s an interesting parallel with Eve’s covenant to mitigate the cursing that befell her for taking the forbidden fruit, that parallel doesn’t hold, and it’s much harder to understand Hannah’s bargaining. I think many women can relate to the pain of childlessness, and imagine asking God to heal them and bless them with a child, but that has a different (lesser?) sort of potency than it would if you and everyone around you understood infertility as a mark of some divine displeasure.

  8. Thanks for the compliment, Rosalynde! To be compared to Julie is high praise (and probably undeserved). I love the insights Julie has — as many times as I have taught this amazing story, I have never noticed the chiasm… so much for my scholarly reputation. One thing I question, not to be too hard on poor Elkanah (with two ornery wives to manage, he has his hands full), but I read 1:8 VERY differently from Julie. Supportive and sympathetic??? I don’t think so! To me, he’s saying, “What’s the big deal, Hannah?? Why do you need a baby when you have me — (he already had his heir — he wasn’t overly anxious to get yet one more mouth to feed) Honey, I’m all you need!” To me, this is the height of insensitivity — he’s sick and tired of HAnnah’s grief and wants her to cheer up NOW and be a better wife to him. I use this as an example of how NOT to “mourn with those who mourn.” Hannah had been harrassed by her sister-wife and now was dealing with her husband’s selfish insensitivity — she had every reason to be hurt and angry and bitter. But she chose not to be — just as she chose not to be offended at Eli’s accusation –THIS is what qualifies her for her great blessing. What would have happened to her faith and spiritual power if she had gotten mad and bitter? She is “not easily provoked” — doesn’t take offense even when offense was given! Her obedience in keeping her covenant is astonishing to all of us mothers who cannot imagine being able to do that, not to mention her trust in the Lord to care for her son since Eli sure won’t be up to the task! And can you imagine her eagerness to make the long arduous trip to the tabernacle every year (actually three annual pilgrimmages are prescribed by the Law of Moses) — her chance to see her boy and bring him the new clothing she has made for him (see 2:18-19) — no complaints about the long trip from HAnnah!
    This story has always been a very personal one for me. In fact, I do believe it was written just for me — after having 4 children very easily, I was unexpectedly infertile for four years. I poured my heart out to the Lord, bargained everything I had to offer, finally was pregnant — and miraculously, it was with twins! (well, clomid helped with the miracle…) I always considered my twins to be very special gifts from the Lord — “on loan” as Hannah expressed it. When the twins were 3, one of them, Jacob, was stricken with cancer and died 18 months later. In my grief, a strong impression came to me that if I was ever to see my little boy again, it would be in the temple –that sacred place where our two worlds intersect. I have always loved going to the temple, but as you can imagine, I love it even more now. You won’t hear any complaints from me about the terrible traffic we have to endure to get there. I’ve never actually seen Jacob, but I never fail to feel him especially close to me in the temple. The story of Hannah lives today.
    One last remark — don’t you LOVE how the Lord compensates us for our sacrifices! Look how He blessed Hannah — 3 more sons and 2 more daughters — Hannah’s reward for her faith and obedience. The Lord knows how to bless abundantly.

  9. Oops–my kids are helping me blog, too, and I lost a line somehow. That should have been:

    “If barrenness is understood as a curse, then there’s an interesting parallel with Eve’s covenant to mitigate the cursing that befell her for taking the forbidden fruit. With a scientific rather than religious view of infertility (or with a scientific as well as religious view?), that parallel doesn’t hold, and it’s much harder to understand Hannah’s bargaining.

  10. Dang. I typed a huge a huge response and it fled. Briefly:

    Rosalynde–I have no real idea how to reconcile Hannah’s view of motherhood with mine.

    As for the Temple, while the ordinances would have been radically different, I see Hannah using it as a place where she can make a special connection with God, something that hasn’t changed.

    As for the Eli/Elkanah thing, I think she does provide a model for handling tough situations, where she is (1) falsley accused by a p’hood leader and (2) told to do something she doesn’t want to do by her husband. I agree with you that historical nuances are lost, but she desn’t, for example, say ‘yes, honey’ and go (note that the Lord isn’t rewarding her for obedienxe to her husband and she doesn’t poison the camel so they can’t go (what we call passive aggression, and a familar theme in the trickster narratives, which often involve women, in Genesis), she tells him in plain English (Hebrew, whatever), how she feels, and he consents.

    Kristine-I have wondered about that, too, and I don’t have any great answers, except for the thought that Luke 1:6-7 uncouples the OT link between barrenness and disfavor.

    Christie–I am fascinated by your reading of Elkanah’s comments. I think, looking solely at verse 8, your interp. is just as possible as mine. The one tiny weight in my favor might be his respect for Hannah shown in v23. Of course, he might be a jerk one day and kind the next, so who knows.

    And thank you for sharing your experience with your son. As the owner of a three year old, my heart weeps for you, while I am so happy that you find solace in the Temple. Again, that joy and sorrow theme . . .

    Kristine–now that you clarified, I have no idea what you meant :) Help?

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