God Bless All Mamas: Mothers and the Divine

So far we’ve seen women use surrogates and women use political influence to affect the course of their children’s lives. Today we will look at women who experience divine aid in securing their children’s future.

 

Hannah (1 Sam 1:1-2:11, 18-21)

The first information we learn about Hannah is her husband’s name and that she is barren. Her fertile co-wife, Penninah, mocks Hannah’s infertility. Hannah falls into despair, and finally goes to a temple to pray to YHWH: “If only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death” (1 Sam 1:11). YHWH hears Hannah’s prayer, and Hannah gives birth to Samuel. When he is weaned, she takes him to the temple and gives him to the priest there, saying, “I have lent him to YHWH; as long as he lives, he is given to YHWH” (1:28). The priest blesses Hannah for her actions, and Hannah subsequently bears five more children. She returns to the temple every year to pray, and each year she brings a little hand made robe for Samuel (2:19).

 

Hannah’s bargain with YHWH is remarkable for a number of reasons. The first is that unlike the Biblical mothers before her, Hannah does not attempt to use human means to achieve a son, but rather goes straight to the source: YHWH. Her prayer also reveals an overwhelming desperation to achieve motherhood: she desires a son so much that she is willing to give him up, accepting the title of motherhood in place of actually mothering her child.

Her actions might seem counterintuitive, and perhaps even cruel to the child she apparently abandons. But Hannah’s consecration of Samuel fulfills a number of needs both divine and human. Samuel goes on to become an instrument of YHWH, and crucial to the creation of the Judean monarchy. In giving up her child, Hannah paradoxically ensures his future, and completes part of the divine plan.

Furthermore, her actions throughout the story reveal her to be a devout and righteous woman, which is as good a means as any to protect children. When Hannah brings Samuel to the temple, she sings a song of praise for YHWH—“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God” (2:1)—which emphasizes his supreme power in the creation and rule of all beings. As a reward for acknowledging YHWH’s control, especially over fertility, Hannah is granted five more children, thus truly validating her as a mother and woman, by Israelite standards. Hannah’s actions ultimately serve to advance her first child and ensure the lives of her next five. And lest we think harbor any bad feelings towards this righteous woman, the narrator’s closing comment about Hannah’s little robes for Samuel assures us that she continues to be a caring and protective mother, even while serving YHWH.

 

 

The Shunammite Woman (2 Kgs 4:8-37)

Every time the prophet Elisha passes through the town of Shunem, a wealthy [unnamed] woman offers him food, and eventually builds a room in her house for him to stay in. Wanting to reward her for her hospitality and righteousness, he finds out the woman is childless and declares she will have a son; the next year she gives birth. Later, the boy gets a headache and dies on his mother’s lap. She immediately rides to find Elisha, against the protests of her husband, and insists he come help her son. Elisha first tries to hand the job over to his servant, but at the woman’s insistence goes to her house and revives the boy.

 

The Shunnamite story, found in a series of similar miracles proving Elisha’s power, displays a remarkably strong woman. Her position is unusual both before and after she conceives. Interestingly, she neither asks the prophet for a child nor believes him when he promises her a son, saying, “No, my lord, O man of God; do not deceive your servant” (2 Kgs 4:16). This situation is uncommon, in that there appears to be no need or perhaps even desire for a child; the woman is prosperous on her own. Yet she clearly loves her son very much after he is born, and indeed seems to be the sole caretaker; when the boy falls ill, his father tells a servant to “Carry him to his mother” (4:19) rather than be involved in the solution himself. When the Shunnamite wishes to find Elisha to save her dead son, the husband does not understand why she would seek out the holy man when it isn’t a holiday (4:23)—seemingly he doesn’t realize his own son has died! Rather, the mother assumes the duties of protector for her child. This strong maternal bond, after first resisting the ‘reward’ of a son, makes his death all the more tragic—and unjust. Her anguished cry to Elisha when she finds him—“Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?” (4:28)—reminds the prophet of his culpability in beginning this situation. The unasked-for reward has now become a tragedy, one that Elisha must remedy. Although she acknowledges and respects Elisha as a “man of God,” she is not cowed by that knowledge; rather, she refuses to let him brush her off. Her combination of determination and faith in Elisha’s divine power saves her son’s life.

 

 

Both Hannah and the Shunnamite woman recognize YHWH’s divine power, and turn to it to guide their children’s lives. My next and final installment will discuss women who turn to very human methods of trickery to serve their children’s interests.

Comments

  1. Greg Callaghan says:

    So I just read through your entire project since I shared the class that inspired it. To begin, I really enjoyed it. However, this particular entry leaves me with some doubts. Particularly the analysis of Hannah. At first you had me convinced that she fits into the overall theme of your project, that by giving Samuel to the temple she ensured his future and used the divine to guide his life and empower herself by giving herself to YHWH. Yet, upon further reflection, I wonder if Hannah is really establishing any type of grounds for power. Yes, her giving robes to Samuel shows that she still cared for him, and she was rewarded with further children. However, as you pointed out, Samuel goes on to become a very important figure, politically and religiously. He is, as you said, an instrument of YHWH. So does that not mean that Hannah, in turn, was only an instrument of YHWH? Isn’t she, then, just another example of a woman being subjected to greater wills in the bible? I suppose there is a legitimate argument for mutual manipulation, but since–looking at the actual text–she never asked for more than the first son and the other children were an unasked-for reward, I’m just not sure that I am completely convinced one way or another.

  2. Rebecca Turner says:

    Thank you for commenting! It’s good to know someone is actually reading this.

    While you are correct in saying that Hannah is part of the divine plan leading up to Samuel and then the Davidic dynasty, I think the important point t is that she goes directly to YHWH, rather than being merely informed of her pending motherhood. To contrast, look at the Shunnamite woman: she never asks for a child, never expresses a feeling of inadequacy for not having a son, and doesn’t really accept that she will bear a son until it happens. She is practically uninvolved in becoming a mother, and serves, as you called Hannah, as an instrument of divine power. It is not until her son’s death that she acts on her own regarding the child.

    Hannah, on the other hand, acts completely of her own volition in praying to YHWH for a child. She, and not her husband or the priest or a divine messenger, is the agent in catching YHWH’s attention and thus being granted a child. I agree that she becomes part of the divine plan, but so do all the matriarchs and strong women: Rachel and Leah’s rivalry produces the twelve tribes of Israel, and even villainesses like Delilah or Jezebel serve to further YHWH’s design by presenting an obstacle. Hannah plays a crucial role in the beginnings of the monarchy, and whether or not that was preordained, the important thing is that she takes the active role.

    A final support is that Samuel’s birth doesn’t fit the traditional annunciation scenes, in which the women usually passively hear that they will give birth (for instance, look at Samson’s mother, who is fascinating and who I wish I could have wrangled into this theme).

    Does that provide more convincing evidence? Hannah is a very interesting character, and I’m not sure the text is 100% conclusive (but when is the Hebrew Bible ever 100% conclusive…).