Singing Women

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So far, I’ve seen little hints scattered through the text of women who seem to have once been far more important than the credit they are given in the book that has survived down to me. I summarized what I’ve noticed in my post on Judges 13, in the discussion of Samson’s unnamed mother:

There have been several times that I’ve sensed hints of older stories, stories that seem to have been about priestesses or perhaps even goddesses. God telling Sarah about Isaac, Sarah bedding with the kings of two nations (Pharaoh and Abimelech), Rebekah bedding with a third kingMiriam’s song of praiseZipporah’s circumcision of her sonDeborah’s song, etc. Here, we have another that I would put in the same category – though she is given no name, it is clear that it is through her that God wishes to communicate with Manoah’s family. I suspect that the latter portion of the chapter, where he switches to speaking directly to Manoah, may have been a later edit, because coming the second time to Manoah’s wife while she is alone just seems far too deliberate to me.

The Duet, by Sir Frank Dicksee

The Duet, by Sir Frank Dicksee

Most interesting of all – at least to me – is that we have had three “songs” so far in the text, and that all three have been sung by women. I’ve already mentioned Miriam’s song in Exodus 15 and Deborah’s in Judges 5, and now we can add Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2. And though our sample size is still quite small, I’ve been drumming up a few ideas about these songs that I’d like to throw out into the void of the internet.

Deborah’s song, though ostensibly sung by her, is clearly more about her. In Miriam and Hannah’s case, however, the two women seem to be given the voice of the nation – it falls to them to praise God and to express the people’s hope for the future. In Miriam’s case, she expresses the people’s (ideal) trust that God was leading them toward a land in which they could be planted (Exodus 15:16-18), a concern for obvious reasons at the time. Hannah also uses her look to the future to address present concerns; all through Judges, we were reminded that “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). So Hannah’s pressing concern is that rule be established, and that those who succeeded in a time of such higgeldy-piggeldy morals would soon find themselves at a disadvantage, and that there should be a king (1 Sam. 2:10).

So as we saw with Sarah and Rebekah, it seems that women are seen to be performing the roles of high priestess, in the later cases legitimizing monarchies, and in these cases interceding with God.

Which leaves us with three possibilities, that I can see. (1) My pattern-finding brain is finding patterns where they don’t exist, (2) these songs serve a literary purpose that was, at least at one time, seen to be feminine, or (3) these stories are remnants from cultic tradition in which women played a more central role.

1 Samuel 2: Political tunes and a bit of misbehaviour

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The opening of 1 Sam. 2 continues the story from the previous chapter. Hannah has given birth to her long-sought child, nursed him, weaned him, and given him over to the priests at Shiloh as promised. In this chapter, she sings a song of thanks/praise/hope/future prediction/other stuff that really isn’t connected to her situation very well. Mostly, it goes on about how “the bows of the mighty are broken, / but the feeble gird on strength” (1 Sam. 2:4) and other social reversals. Really, it’s the mighty vs meek stuff that a former “cultural Christian” like me associates with Jesus.

There are only really two parts (that I could identify) that make any kind of sense in relation to Hannah. One is the line about “the barren has borne seven, / but she who has many children is forlorn” (1 Sam. 2:5). The “borne seven” bit need not be literal. As Claude Mariottini writes, seven is just a significant number, so “seven sons” is really just a stand-in for “perfect number of children.” You will remember the same phrase used in Ruth 4:15, in praise of Ruth. So it’s not necessary for Hannah to have a literal seven sons for this passage to have been through applicable to her (she does come close, though, as she later has 3 more sons and 2 daughters). If we want to read into the text a bit, the second half of that stanza could be taken as a reference to Peninnah, if we want to imagine her embittered by Hannah’s fortune reversal for some reason.

Samuel learning from Eli, by John Singleton Copley, 1780

Samuel learning from Eli, by John Singleton Copley, 1780

The talk of a future monarch toward the end (1 Sam. 2:10) may also explain why the song was situated here, if we accept the interpretation that she is blessing Samuel, or perhaps foretelling his involvement in the future social change.

The stuff about how “not by might shall a man prevail” (1 Sam. 2:9) feels Deuteronomistic-y. In Deuteronomy itself, we had the curses and the blessings, which argued that Israel’s future fate rested not on its own political or military prowess, but rather on its adherence to God’s law. Through Joshua and Judges, we saw small armies defeat much larger armies by having God on their side. In Joshua 7, for example, the Israelite fails not because of any tactical failure, but because one man among them disobeyed a religious rule. Once that man (and his entire family) was punished, the Israelite army was able to defeat their enemy (albeit while also going into battle with a much larger number of soldiers, but we’re talking about the cause and effect that is explicitly stated, not the one that’s comically implied).

There’s also a bit in there about God killing people, bringing people to life, and raising the dead. While the obvious interpretation for me was that the point of this stanza was to illustrate how all-powerful God is (he can even bring people back from Sheol!), my study Bible disagrees:

Brings to life probably refers to birth rather than to resurrection from the dead; likewise the next line probably refers to deep trouble or desperate injuries and recover from them. Sheol, the place of the dead under the earth, like Hades among the Greeks (Is. 14:9-21); but the term is sometimes used of conditions near death (Pss. 86:13; 88:3-7).

Which seems poetically plausible, if not necessarily the Occam’s Razor explanation.

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has some interesting notes on the structure of the song (if you’re into that kind of thing, go read the whole post):

Enjambed 2:2 structures have generally gone unnoticed in the study of ancient Hebrew verse. I treat them as lines on a par with widely acknowledged non-enjambed 2:2 lines like Psalm 3:8a, 9. The result: 1 Sam 2:1-10 turns out to be an 18 line poem, a widely attested poem line length in ancient Hebrew literature. 1 Sam 2:9b and 10c turn out to be 2:2 lines which arrest the tempo of the material intake of the poem by virtue of their conciseness. They are crucial lines: “for not by strength / will man prevail,” and “YHWH judges / the ends of the earth.”

After Hannah’s song, we get a sample of the next story (which involves Eli and his sons), then a brief revisit with Hannah, then finally launch full on into Eli’s family troubles. But since following that structure messes with my heading use, I’ll just tell you right now that Hannah makes Samuel a new robe every year – bringing it to him when her family does their annual Shiloh visit – and has five more kids.

Family Drama

There appears to be evidence of some stitching together from different sources here. I mentioned above that the story of Eli’s family is separated by an update on Hannah’s doings. Prior to the interlude, Eli’s sons (unnamed) are bad priests because of something to do with how they take their portion from the sacrifice.

First, it seems that the issue is that they are dipping their forks into the cauldrons where the sacrificial meat is boiling, and keep for themselves whatever sticks. But then it seems that this is actually standard, accepted practice (or was at the time in Shiloh, anyway). Then, the issue seems to be that they are taking their portion from the raw sacrificial meat, before it has been burned. Which is either an issue because the raw meat hasn’t technically been through motions of being consecrated, or it’s an issue because they are then also taking their portion later on while the meat is boiling.

In other words, I came away unclear as to whether the issue is that they taking their portion at the wrong time, or that they are double-dipping.

A third possibility was brought up by Brant Clements, who accuses the sons of “filching the best parts of the sacrifices.”

Whatever their crime is here, it’s clearly compounded by the fact that Eli’s sons are threatening worshippers who refuse to give in to their demands.

After Hannah’s interjection, we get a very different passage. Eli’s sons are suddenly named (it’s Hophni and Phinehas, whom we met in 1 Sam. 1:3), and now their crime is that they “lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (1 Sam. 2:22).

Before we get to the obvious, I should point out that the reference to the “tent of meeting” here is also quite interesting. So far, the impression that’s been given is that there is a permanent structure – a temple – at Shiloh, and that we are no longer using the exodus tent that Joshua set up there in Josh. 18:1. My study Bible refers to the inclusion as “an error” (p.333).

But back to the temple women, Brant Clements sums up the questions to be asked about the reference to them:

Who are these women? Just what services do they perform? Is this temple prostitution (a common practice among Israel’s pagan neighbors)? Are the women rightfully there and wrongly used? Or is their presence another indication of just how bad things have gotten in Israel?

It looks to me like Eli was known as a reasonably decent priest, but it was a known historical fact that his line did not continue the priesthood. It seems that various stories sprang up independently of each other to explain this, including the two here in which his sons were just awful.

In the latter part of the chapter, an unnamed “man of God” (1 Sam. 2:27) comes to Eli and tells him that the priesthood that had been granted to his familial line is hereby revoked, and that his sons will both die on the same day. While the man is not named here, my study Bible claims that his name is Abiathar, citing 1 Sam. 22:18-23 and 1 Kg. 2:26-27. We’ll see when we get there!

1 Samuel 1: Another miraculous birth

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After the respite of Ruth, we are welcomed back into the Deuteronomist History with another genealogy. This time, it’s to situate Elkanah, an Ephraimite living in Ramathaim-zophim (apparently shortened to Ramah).

His genealogy runs: Elkanah > Jeroham > Elihu > Tohu > Zuph. This last name is, apparently, seen in the “zophim” portion of the place name.

Sister Wives

Elkanah has two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Unfortunately, Hannah appears to have been barren, which seems to have caused Peninnah to “provoke her sorely, to irritate her” (1 Sam. 1:6). We’re assuming that this means Peninnah is lording her fertility over her sister wife, but that’s not exactly clear, at least not in English. It would be just as easy to read Hannah as feeling irritated and provoked simply because Peninnah has had children while she has not.

Elkanah and his wives, Maciejowski Bible

Elkanah and his wives, Maciejowski Bible

We’ve seen this dynamic before, such as Gen. 16:4, when Hagar becomes pregnant and is said to have started flaunting herself before Sarah.

Every year, the family goes to Shiloh to make a sacrifice. At this point, it seems that Shiloh is the de facto capital of Israel and centre of worship (Josh. 18:1), since Jerusalem doesn’t seem to be available yet.

When Elkanah makes his sacrifice, he gives portions to Penninah and to all her children, but gives only one to Hannah, “because the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Sam. 1:5). This seems entirely reasonable – why should Hannah receive more than one portion when she is just one person?

My New Bible Commentary offers another possible reading:

The portions were of meat, part of a sacrificial meal. Hannah received only one, since she had no mouths but her own to feed, if RSV is correct; but a ‘worthy’ or ‘double’ portion is not impossible – the Hebrew text, though obscure, at least suggests it, and such an act by Elkanah would partly explain Peninnah’s conduct. (p.287)

If that’s the case, then perhaps the situation is less Sarah/Hagar and more Rachel/Leah – in that case, Jacob favoured Rachel and poor Leah kept pumping out babies, each time hoping that this one would finally make her husband love her (Gen. 29:21, 29:31, 29:33, 29:34, 30:20).

Unfortunately, the whole mess is not helped by Elkanah, who appears to be utterly clueless. When Hannah, in grief that she cannot have children, stops eating, Elkanah says to her: “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8).

No, dude. Just no. A husband is not the same as a child. Not only is the quality and tone of the relationship completely different, it’s doubly different in a society that views fertility as a divine blessing and barrenness as a curse.

A Misunderstanding

Hannah’s immediate reaction to her husband’s inept attempts at comforting is not recorded, but after dinner, Hannah leaves her family to Pray to God by the temple. She weeps and prays silently, moving her mouth but not speaking out loud. She also vows that if God gives her a son, she will promise him into temple service.

As she prays, she is seen by Eli, a priest along with his new sons, Hophni and Phinehas (apparently a different Phinehas from the one in Numbers 25). Seeing her weeping and moving her mouth without making a sound, he assumes that she must be a drunk, so he comes forward to chastise her.

This detail seems important, but I’m not sure why. Is it to set up the fact that Eli is a poor judge of character?

At least he relents when Hannah explains her situation, and he sends her away with a hope that “the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him” (1 Sam. 1: 17).

Hannah’s Son

Sure enough, when the family gets back to Ramah and “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife” (1 Sam. 1:19), God watches over them and Hannah gives birth to a son at the appropriate time after that. She names him Samuel, for “I have asked him of the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:20).

The next time the family is set to go back to Shiloh, Hannah hangs back, saying that she doesn’t want to return until Samuel is weaned. Elkanah tells her that it’s her call, and he and the rest of the family head to Shiloh without her.

When Samuel is weaned, she brings him up to Shiloh along with a three-year-old bull (according to my study Bible, the Hebrew text has it as three bulls instead), some flour, and some wine. After the sacrifice is made, Hannah presents her son to Eli to fulfil her vow.

Abbie over at Better Than Esdras explains that the birth story may have been appropriated for Samuel by a later editor. The evidence, she argues, is in Hannah’s justification for her choice of name.

She cites 1 Sam. 1:20 and 1 Sam. 1:28. In both cases, the words Hannah uses suggest a pun not on the name of Samuel, but on the name of Saul:

Isn’t this outrageous? Somebody took a birth legend for Saul, and simply changed the details to make it about Samuel. Interestingly, Saul was from a different tribe (Benjamin) and was never a priest. Samuel’s relationship with Eli continues in the next chapter, and eventually he meets Saul, so I’m not really sure how this all fits together. (It’s entirely possible other details were changed, such as the location and the identity of the priest, to match established stories about Samuel and Eli.)