Is abuse deliberate?

This is a very important question for both victims and their supporters in response to abusive behaviour.

Drs John and Julie Gottman, founders of the Gottman Institute, distinguish between “situational” and “characterological” abuse. In characterological abuse, the abuser takes no responsibility for their behaviour and prefers to continue to abuse. No one has found a treatment that stops it.1 But telling the difference between these two types of abuse can be difficult. It’s best to get specific advice from an abuse-informed professional about individual cases.2 It can be complex.

However, it seems quite clear that in the story of Hannah, Peninnah, and Elkanah, Peninnah’s abuse of Hannah was deliberate. This story gives us a few helpful questions to ask in weighing up what’s happening in other situations.

1 Samuel opens with a distressing story of domestic violence that went on for years. The book ends with the death of Saul – another abusive person. And while Hannah’s story is brief, the narrator is quite specific about Peninnah’s behaviour, which is vile, and the impact on Hannah, which is horrific.

 

So is abuse deliberate? Penninah’s was.

Even the idea that Penninah abused Hannah might be news to many. But it becomes clear if we slow down with the text and look at Peninnah’s behaviour and the way she affected Hannah.

Hannah and Peninnah were Elkanah’s co-wives. There is a possibility Elkanah took a second wife because Hannah was not having children – it’s hard to know for sure. What must that have been like for Hannah? She lived every day with a woman whose presence alone was a reminder of her distress. Peninnah’s abuse turned it into a nightmare.

The text is crystal clear. Peninnah’s abusive behaviour is deliberate:

Because Yahweh had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.3

The Bible tells us Peninnah’s goal. It wasn’t accidental behaviour or lack of awareness. This was goal-oriented behaviour designed to get a response.

It is a classic abusive tactic to provoke the victim – “pressing their buttons” – until they react. Then the abuser can use the victim’s reaction to achieve further goals. (Such as discredit them, or use their reaction as leverage to excuse future abusive behaviour.) There is no sign in the text that Hannah reacts with anger or retaliation. Instead, she is deeply distressed.

Peninnah’s deliberateness is further illustrated by her commitment to continuing to attack Hannah in this way.

This went on year after year.4

 

Peninnah’s abuse seriously affected Hannah’s health

In the limited amount we hear of her story, it is clear the abuse is affecting Hannah’s mental and physical health:

“Her rival provoked her until she wept and would not eat.”5

“In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to Yahweh.”6

This deep emotional distress and loss of appetite are worrying signs – red flags that help us see the harm Peninnah is causing. Peninnah could see the impact of her behaviour, which suited her goals.

 

What does this mean for us?

It becomes very clear in this story that God is on Hannah’s side here, against Peninnah. Deliberately manipulating and harming people like this is not ok.

Some commentators suggest that either Hannah was too sensitive,7 or shared the blame for the “discord”8 or “enmity”9 between the two women. However, the text itself records no sin of Hannah’s, making her unique in this story. The text does not support the idea that “it always takes two.”

And what about the question of whether abuse is intentional? Some therapists, (and pastors or others), quickly gravitate to the idea that abuse is not intentional. That assumption might pressure a person to stay in a dangerous situation. However, the narrator in this story clearly tells us Peninnah hurt Hannah on purpose. An assumption that Peninnah enjoyed harming Hannah makes the most sense of her ongoing targeting of Hannah’s most vulnerable sore spot. Peninnah’s will was inclined towards evil.

It can be hard for a decent person to imagine how someone could deliberately cause such harm. Such behaviour is almost unfathomable. It’s easier just to assume the harm is not deliberate. Coming to terms with the fact that many abusers prefer to abuse is a tragic, perhaps difficult, but necessary step for us in creating safer spaces in our communities.

Steve Wade

The Bible is crystal clear Peninnah’s abuse of Hannah is deliberate: “because Yahweh had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” (1 Sam 1:6) Share on X

 


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Footnotes

  1. https://www.gottman.com/blog/a-review-of-the-research-on-domestic-violence/
  2. A call to 1800RESPECT can be a good starting point
  3. 1 Samuel 1:6
  4. 1 Samuel 1:7
  5. 1 Samuel 1:7
  6. 1 Samuel 1:10
  7. Matthew Henry
  8. the Pulpit Commentary
  9. John Gill

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