Hannah is a Bible heroine. Her story is an inspiration to many women who suffer, whether from infertility, depression, or being misunderstood. Hannah is a popular girl’s name.
Peninnah, on the other hand, is a name you rarely hear today. No one wants to name their child after a bully, and a rival to a Biblical matriarch.
As we read through the story in 1 Samuel, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+1&version=NIV it seems hard enough that Hannah is barren. Especially as it is revealed that God is responsible for her condition. It seems unfair and harsh. But her trouble doesn’t end there. She has a rival–Elkanah’s other wife– who provokes, irritates, and taunts her, making her cry and keeping her in a state of anguish and stress. Peninnah has many children. She has reason to be joyful and proud. Yet she spends her time harassing and hurting Hannah, a woman who is already “beneath” her in society.
Rivalries tend to bring out the worst in us. Catfights, gossip, taunting, undermining others–books, movies, and even TV series have been built on such pettiness. Whether rivals at school, rivals in romantic relationships, rivals in business, or rivals in our own inflated egos, we allow our world to be narrowed to focus on two people who don’t even exist! We magnify our rival’s faults, twist her motives, and hold grudges over what she “probably” meant when she said “that.” And we justify our overreactions, our grievances, and our tendency to see ourselves as innocent victims.
In the case of Hannah and Peninnah, their world was already small. They were sharing a husband and a household, and likely somewhat isolated from the kind of society with which we are familiar. We live in societies where polygamy is illegal and wives do not (generally) live together. Our families tend to live in single units of husband, wife, and children. However, we also live in a society where fidelity is becoming more rare. Marriages break down, couple break up, and “sharing” a husband, if not a household, is more common than we might admit. Even in divorce and remarriage, we may find a rival in our husband’s ex-wife, or our ex-husband’s new partner, or our partner’s ex-mother-in-law (or our current mother-in-law) or among our step-children.
Elkanah is not an innocent bystander in all this. We don’t know why he has two wives, and the Bible doesn’t say that Elkanah did NOT love Peninnah, but it makes a point of saying that Elkanah DID love Hannah (suggesting that he might have been indifferent to his other wife). Also, the Bible is silent about whether or not Elkanah was aware of the rivalry going on under his roof. He seems totally oblivious and largely absent. Even though he loves Hannah, he doesn’t take care to protect her from Peninnah’s spite.
Once again, we find parallels in our own situations– husbands who feel overwhelmed or blind-sided by the rivalries going on around them; husbands who ignore the firestorms; even men who revel in being the focus of so much attention.
But, before we label Peninnah the great villain of this story (or turn our anger on Elkanah for letting their rivalry continue), let’s be careful not to rush to judgment. The Bible doesn’t call Peninnah a villain, merely a rival. It says that she provoked Hannah, and taunted her, and even made her cry. However, the story is focused on Hannah. Her reaction to this taunting was to do what so many of us do– to let it heap up on her and push her down into anguish. Hannah doesn’t fight back. But neither does she stand up to her rival. If Peninnah is trying to make Hannah feel worthless and depressed, she succeeds because Hannah allows herself to believe it.
I think there are several key lessons here, and I think God tells us the whole story because there He wants us to see these lessons.
- Rivalries and conflicts WILL arise in our lives. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise or refuse to deal with them. If you have a rival in your life at this moment, stop and think of ways you can seek peace. Pray, reach out, seek help. This is especially important where children are involved. If you have a rivalry with in-laws, ex-spouses, your children’s step-parents, it WILL impact all your relationships. It will be the way your children learn to relate to others. Whether you are the “bully” or the “middle man” or the “doormat”, you have a responsibility to make an effort to restore harmony. You cannot change the other person, but you can (with God’s help) change the way you build your legacy. And God can change everyone involved.
- While Hannah did well not to react to Peninnah with her own spite and malice, she let her rival “win” by saying and doing nothing. Jesus teaches us that we are not to ignore those who hate or despise us, but to love them and pray for them. Hannah could have offered to reach out to Peninnah and her children, but she remained isolated. Maybe that was because of Peninnah’s actions or bitterness, but the Bible doesn’t say that Hannah made any effort to end this rivalry, either. She didn’t seek help from her loving husband, and she didn’t seek help from her loving God until she was at the end of her rope.
- Spite, malice, bitterness, or even self-righteousness (or whatever else may have prompted Peninnah’s nastiness) not only hurts others, it hurts us and blinds us to the opportunity to do good. Peninnah had many children and lived in the same household with Hannah. Instead of taunting her and causing her grief, she could have opened up her heart to allow for a happy, unified family. Peninnah’s hurtful actions are her legacy to every generation that reads this story. She may have been a wonderful mom, a talented women, a real beauty– but she will always be known as the rival who made Hannah miserable. Our actions, even in our own household, have eternal consequences. Small acts of pettiness and spite can follow us for the rest of our lives, destroying our reputations, and blotting out all our “good works”.
- Our abilities, skills, talents, status, or fertility DO NOT define our worth. God closed Hannah’s womb– he never closed His heart toward her. He gave her a husband who loved her and provided for her. He kept his eyes on her until the time was right to bless her in a supernatural way. God had opened Peninnah’s womb, but she kept her heart closed, and bragged about her children as though she alone were responsible for them. God had provided Peninnah with a husband who provided for her and created a family with her. She had children and a secure home, and reason to sacrifice to God with thanksgiving, yet her focus, even during her visit to the tabernacle, stayed on destroying her rival.
- What makes Hannah a heroine in this story is NOT the way she bears up under bullying. Even though she didn’t get sucked into anger and malice, she fell victim to despair and depression. Hannah’s victory comes ONLY after she turns everything over to God in prayer. Peninnah’s pettiness is crushed by God’s miraculous provision.
May this be true in our lives, too– That we would turn to God, and replace bitterness, pettiness, pain and rivalry with His joy, fulfillment, and grace.