We aren’t given much detail about the background of Hannah’s story, but it seems most likely her and her family were at Shiloh to celebrate the Passover.

It is common to associate the Passover with freedom from slavery, but less common to think about slavery in terms of abuse. However, slavery encompasses many forms of abuse, and in the Hebrews’ case we are certainly told of a few: financial, physical, spiritual, emotional, reproductive, racial. I’ve probably missed some. We are not told specifically about sexual abuse, although I would imagine that in the context of strong abuse of power that already had a physical component, sexual abuse would be likely.

God’s promise – Yahweh’s promise – to the Hebrews was to bring them up out of slavery, into the promised land: a place of sanctuary where they could thrive. And although the Songs of Ascents had not been composed or compiled in Hannah’s time, they echo the pilgrimage Hannah and her family would have travelled each year for Passover.

So it seems likely Hannah’s story is set in the context of the bigger story of God setting his people free from abuse. In that setting, every year, as she went to celebrate this incredible act of God, she remained under the yoke of slavery herself.

It’s not only Hannah’s domestic situation that is in view here: if we slow down and look at the surrounding context, it is clear her family would have experienced the abuse of power practiced by Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas.

What was it like for Hannah to celebrate Passover while being subject to this abuse, and witnessing the abuses Hophni and Phinehas practiced against all the people? How could she place her trust in Yahweh? Did he see her? Was she included in his promises? Had he abandoned his people altogether?

Meanwhile, Eli’s response to his sons mirrors Elkanah’s response to Peninnah. Both men failing to draw boundaries that would have blocked the abuse – for whatever reasons.

Many abuse victims will resonate with Hannah’s situation. Although the outcome of her story is wonderful, she spent many years not living with that outcome. Those years were torture. It is likely her anguished, weeping conversations with God also continued for many years, and may well have felt completely one-sided. We can skip to the happy outcome within a few minutes of reading. Hannah, however, did not write her song out of a glib brush with a difficult story. She wrote with long and painful experience of desperately crying out for help.

Every spiritual leader mentioned in this narrative fails her. Thankfully, Eli recovers, and in the end plays a key supporting role, although he is not recorded as apologising to Hannah. However, despite their position of religious and political leadership in the community, we are told Hophni and Phinehas did not know Yahweh: they were “sons of Belial”.1 It’s a description that reminds me of Jesus saying,

You belong to your father, the devil. 2

The role of a priest was to facilitate a person’s relationship with God. Yet here we see two senior priests who did not know God themselves, and who used their position to abuse the same people they were supposed to care for. It seems likely that abuse included sexual assault of the women who served at the temple, although it is hard to decipher exactly what was happening. What we are clearly told is the nature of their character, and God’s ultimate response.

But for Hannah here? The only safe haven is God, and she had an ongoing, deeply painful disagreement with him. She spent a long time in the wilderness.

There are people today who can relate, painfully, to many aspects of this story. They deserve our support.

Steve Wade

What was it like for Hannah to celebrate Passover while being subject to Peninnah's abuse, and witnessing the abuses Hophni and Phinehas practised against all the people? Share on X

Footnotes

  1. 1 Samuel 2:12
  2. John 8:44

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