What Happened To The Family Of Elkanah?

The Family Of ElkanahIn today’s blog post we are going to read about Elkanah in 1 Samuel. Verse 2 explains that this man Elkanah had two wives, P’ninah and Hannah (pronounced not like ha-naw but more like cha-naw).


And this means that Elkanah was reasonably well to do; by this time in Hebrew history a man with more than one wife, more often than not, had two wives for as much as a status symbol as anything else.


Since in the Middle East having an heir was essential, a man might marry a second woman if his first wife couldn’t seem to produce him a son quick enough, and indeed it was that P’ninah produced an heir for Elkanah when Hannah couldn’t seem to do that.


The story set-up continues with the information that this religious family went up every year to Shiloh to observe some annual festival and to make a sacrifice.


There is lots of conjecture as to just what that festival might have been; was it one of the three great pilgrimage festivals as ordained by God in Leviticus (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), or was it something else entirely?


In fact, the evidence is that there were traditional private family and clan festivals held at Shiloh that had nothing to do with these Levitical feast days, and that is probably the case here.


Shiloh was the location of the Wilderness Tabernacle and was about 20 miles north of Jerusalem. The Tent Shrine of the Israelites had been there since the days of Joshua and remained as the dwelling place of the Ark of the Covenant. Thus the High Priest was also there.


Eli was the High Priest at this time, and his two sons were undoubtedly the chief priests directly underneath him.


It is interesting that Phinehas and Hophni are both Egyptian names and not Hebrew.


However I doubt we should make too much out of this as it was traditional to name some of each succeeding generation after folks from the previous generation, and we read about a man named Phinehas, a Levite, during the days of Israel wandering in the wilderness. So I’m fairly sure no inference to Egyptian loyalties is intended here.


Lord of HostsWe are told that Elkanah and his family went up to Shiloh annually to worship Yehoveh Tzava’ot, a phrase that is usually rendered in English as “the Lord of Hosts.”


Now, this is a brand new title for the God of Israel, and the first time in the Bible it is discovered. There is no evidence that before Samuel’s time that it was in use.


We’ll find it employed in 3 different combinations from here forward in Holy Scripture: Elohim Tzava’ot  (GOD of hosts), Adonai Tzava’ot (LORD of hosts), and YHWH Tzava’ot (YEHOVEH of hosts).


What does that title, Lord of Hosts, really mean? What is it trying to get across? Well in Genesis the term “hosts” is used in conjunction with two things: angels and stars.


Notice in both cases Tzava’ot (hosts, plural) is speaking of heavenly hosts, or better, heavenly bodies. A “host” of something means it is a multitude, or it’s a countless number (it is virtually synonymous with the biblical expression, ‘as many as the sands of the sea’).


So at times, the Bible will speak of a “host” of angels or a “host” of stars, but when it does, the Hebrew word is not tzava’ot but rather tzava. When the Bible uses the term tzava, it is used as an adjective; that is, a tzava (a host) of stars.


But we’ll also find the Bible using a kind of shorthand form of the phrase that means the same thing. Rather than say, for instance, tzava malachim (host of angels), at times the Bible will just say tzava’ot, meaning “hosts” (plural). That is the word tzava’ot just stands by itself, and you won’t see the entire phrase “host of angels.”


So when we see the word “hosts” (plural) just used by itself, then it MEANS a vast army of stars or a massive army of angels (depending on the context).


Tzava is an adjective that explains a noun (like stars or angels); Tzava’ot is a noun that is a shorthand meaning for a host of stars or host of angels. Another common translation of Tzava’ot is “heavenly hosts” (and again, depending on the context, can be referring to angels, or stars, or both).


Thus when we see the three forms of Elohim Tzava’otAdonai Tzava’ot, or YHWH Tzava’ot they are all alluding to the God who is the God of BOTH the stars and the angels; each of them innumerable in quantity.


And of course, there is an unusual characteristic of stars and angels that we need to consider: stars are physical objects, while angels are spiritual beings. Stars are visible; angels are invisible.


So this title for God that is expressed in 3 slightly different ways is a majestic expression meant to speak of the King and Master of all the seen and the unseen, and God’s created creatures and God’s created objects from any dimension. There’s a lot of those small Hebrew words that are not so easy to bring across with a simple transliteration.


Verse 4 explains that Elkanah was up in Shiloh making his annual sacrifice, and he gave a portion of the sacrifice to his wife P’ninah, but he gave a “double” portion to his wife Hannah “because he loved her.”


And the sense of this (at least in the English) is that he showed additional love to Hannah because she was unable to have children; that is, Elkanah felt sorry for her, and his heart went out to her.


Further, that it was the Lord who was KEEPING Hannah from having children. Interesting, more and more we’re seeing that the mindset is that whatever happens (good or bad) to the worshipper of Yehoveh this is of the Lord.


The Hebrews (rightfully) had no problem with the idea that the Lord could send catastrophe or He could send blessing to one of His own according to His will.


Thus it wasn’t with a “blaming” attitude that Hannah was saying that God “shut up her womb,” it was just a matter of fact; it was with the simple understanding that nothing happens without the Lord’s approval so at the very least God approved of her barrenness.


Now I made this last point (before we dissect the first part of this verse) because it is common Christian-eze to say that the Lord is in control of everything, and nothing happens without the Lord allowing it.


On the other hand, the rather standard evangelical doctrine is that nothing but good comes from the Lord, and He would never send something “bad” our way. So if something bad happens, it’s the devil.


Therefore a lot of modern Believers paint a picture of God that has Him actively sending blessings, but passively standing aside and allowing calamities to happen. The Hebrews sure don’t see it that way, and this is because that is not what the Bible says about God.


Here’s how Hannah understands the nature of her problem (as most Hebrew women of her time would have, or should have, seen it): the Lord actively and purposely affected her body and thus made it so she could not have children.


The reason for such Hannah might not have known a harsh choice, but she was entirely comfortable that it’s God’s unassailable right to do it.


And by the way, do you recall that Naomi, the aged and childless widow from the book of Ruth, made just such a statement expressing that same attitude that it was the LORD who put her in such a bitter condition of poverty and hopelessness?


To Hannah’s thinking two main reasons might have accounted for her barren state:


  1. She had sinned, and this curse of childlessness was her punishment, or
  2. She had NOT sinned, but the Lord had His undisclosed purpose for closing up her womb.


While I can’t be 100% sure of which it was (although there seems to be no hint that sin was involved). Hannah also seems to be uncertain and soon when we untangle a couple of more verses we’ll see that Hannah suspects that she may have sinned and is being punished, but would like divine restoration if that is the case.


I’m not sure I have the ability to paint the scope of the humiliation and the pain for Hannah; not being able to give birth practically negated her role as a human female. She wasn’t a whole woman.


It was apparently the norm for the village women (at least some of them) in that era to poke fun or make outright disparaging remarks, at a barren woman because she was unable to perform the very thing she was born to do, and that made her a lesser person.


If that woman’s husband weren’t wealthy enough to be able to marry a 2nd wife, then he wouldn’t have an heir, which means that his life essence would end at the grave and his family line would cease.


And to the ancient mind, this was all the fault of the woman. These disastrous consequences lay solely at her feet. One can only imagine the terrible state of mind a woman like Hannah endured.


Now back to the top of verse 4 and the sacrifice Elkanah was making. It had to have been a distinct class of sacrifice called a Zevah Shelamim because it was one of the few kinds that a worshipper could eat a portion of it.


In fact, with this sort of sacrifice, the Law gave the bulk of the sacrificial animal to the worshipper for food. But it also means that this wasn’t the ONLY kind of sacrifice that Elkanah would have performed. An ‘Olah and Minchah were required before a Zevah Shelamim could occur.


But there are some other interesting aspects of verse 5: where our bibles say that Elkanah gave Hannah the double portion “because he loved her,” that’s not entirely correct.


Rather it should read, “It was Hannah whom he loved.” That is completely different, and it immediately says that he had a love for Hannah and something less for P’ninah (which will explain what comes a bit later).


Thus it is NOT that Elkanah felt sorry for Hannah and thus gave her an extra portion of meat from the sacrifice to make her feel better; rather it is that he had a great love for Hannah and little for P’ninah. It was outright favoritism and preference by Elkanah, much like we saw between Jacob and Rachel, versus Jacob and Leah.


In nearly every situation we’ll read about in Scripture where a man has more than one wife (or concubine) we find trouble. Because it is simply not in the human nature of women to accept being but one of several in a man’s household, and it is not in the human nature of men to love several women equally.


Verses 6 and 7 tell us that P’ninah taunted Hannah for not having children, and this made Hannah feel bad. And every year this whole nasty scene was replayed because they would all go up together to Shiloh for the family feast.


Elkanah would sacrifice and give Hannah an additional portion, and then P’ninah would retaliate by slinging stinging words of derision towards Hannah for being childless.


This particular year it so upset Hannah that she couldn’t eat her festive meal and instead just wept and wept. It was a kind of an ironic situation that I’m sure P’ninah delighted in that Hannah couldn’t enjoy the additional portion that her husband had given to her.


I can only imagine what a difficult living situation it must have been for those two women, both legal wives. It would have been natural for jealousy to be front and center at all times; and for them to spar over getting their share of their husband’s attention and affections.


Thus we see that verse 6 even calls P’ninah “Hannah’s rival”; let’s look at that for a moment.


To translate the first part of verse 6 as saying that P’ninah was Hannah’s rival is on course but stops short. The Hebrew word is sara, and more modern understanding of the Ugarit language (an early Semitic cousin of Hebrew) shows us that this is an informal name for a kind of wife that was quite usual in ancient Middle Eastern society. It means “rival wife,” or “co-wife.”


In a larger sense it can mean 2nd wife, but not in the sense that one of the two wives was first and the other the 2nd.  In this usage both P’ninah and Hannah were sara; co-wives, legally equal wives, of Elkanah.


So although on the surface it seems as though the English text is telling us that the taunting was occurring because they behaved as “rivals.” In fact, the Hebrew explains that it’s more akin to merely saying, “the other wife” without characterizing her behavior or attitude as right or wrong, thoughtful or thoughtless.


Elkanah because he greatly loved Hannah (but not so much P’ninah) tenderly tried to soothe Hannah and rhetorically asked her why she was crying (he knew full well the matter).


So he tried to get her to see the bright side that even though she could give him no sons, he treated her as wonderfully as a man would have treated a wife that had given him ten sons (which of course is one reason P’ninah who had given Elkanah an heir was constantly miffed).


Hannah was, of course, still despondent. But this time she was going to take matters into her own hands. She was going to seek out the One who was causing her grief and see if something couldn’t be done about it.


In my next blog post, we will read about Hannah’s vow.





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