When we slow down and look at what is happening in Hannah’s relationships, it becomes clear how much she is suffering. But what about other people in her family?

We know kids are vulnerable to domestic violence. Just watching it makes them victims of child abuse. Adults are affected too. Abuse can be deeply terrifying, even to watch. The abuser’s behaviour indicates what they are willing to do to people: fear might be wise.

Hannah is a victim of abuse. But so are Peninnah’s children, and so, I believe, is Elkanah.

How we interpret Elkanah’s behaviour depends on what we make of the Bible’s statement that he loved her1 and his later support of her decisions about Samuel.2 Do these verses describe a healthy, other-focused kind of love, or something else? The text does give us some clues, although it is difficult to be certain.

Abusers tend to abuse anyone close to them. However, they will try to create a social system that gives them the most freedom to continue to abuse. They might hide the abuse from most people, including some who are close. An abusive church leader, an employee, or a family member might turn on the charm and other positive seeming behaviour around those they aren’t specifically seeking to harm. That tactic can help them be more effective in reaching their abusive goals. Many victims might be very familiar with well-intentioned responses from third parties like, “they never treat me that way.”

However, we know from Hannah’s story Elkanah was aware of her distress, and of the reason for it. That’s not at all to say his response to her was helpful. It wasn’t. But when he says,

Why are you weeping. Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted?3

it is obvious her distress is not hidden. When he says,

Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?4

it is clear he knows Peninnah’s line of attack.

The backdrop of Peninnah’s abuse makes it reasonable to believe Elkanah is afraid of her.

The pressure does not excuse Elkanah’s behaviour, but it does invite us to have mercy and compassion for him as a person in a dangerous environment. He had an opportunity to be Hannah’s best friend in her need, and he failed her. Peninnah’s commitment to harming others in her household broke her marriage vows. The law allowed for Elkanah to leave her. Even if he was under pressure and afraid, he could have said,

“I don’t know what to do. She terrifies me. But I hate how she treats you. We are in this together.”

Instead, his responses distance him from Hannah and her world.

How many abuse victims have heard words like, “Why are you so upset?” It’s not a bad question from someone who is honestly seeking to have empathy. But it’s a silencer when asked rhetorically. When Elkanah questions Hannah’s love for him, he places a further burden on her and shifts the focus onto himself. That’s a manipulative response.

The Gottman Institute refers to a difference between characterological and situational abuse5. Situational abusers can respond well to the right kind of help, but Drs John and Julie Gottman state no one has found a treatment that stops characterological abuse. While we have a limited view of Hannah’s situation in this story, it is possible Elkanah is affected by the domestic violence, and not responding helpfully. We don’t know if the brief snapshot we see of Elkanah here is normal for him. It could be that with the right kind of support, his responses could have improved, perhaps enough to get himself and his household away from Peninnah.

It is possible Hannah’s situation highlights the difference between a person who is intentionally evil, and someone who is basically decent but not functioning well in a toxic environment.

This story is only a snapshot, but it can help us ask questions about current situations, and prompt us to seek help from competent professionals.

Steve Wade


How many abuse victims have heard words like, “Why are you so upset?” It’s not a bad question from someone who is honestly seeking to have empathy. But it’s a silencer when asked rhetorically. Share on X


  1. 1 Samuel 1:5
  2. 1 Samuel 1:23
  3. 1 Samuel 1:8
  4. 1 Samuel 1:8
  5. Gottman Institute: A Review of the Research on Domestic Violence


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other articles you might like:

Why didn’t Jonathan believe David?

Why didn’t Jonathan believe David?

Why didn’t Jonathan believe David, his trusted friend who came to him for help?

In our series on apologies, we’ve been looking at Saul and Jonathan as a way of exploring the difference between authentic apologies and non-apologies.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!