RAMAH TO SHILOH
Across the world in six hours.
(1 Samuel 1 verses 1 – 9)
In the twenty first century with unleaded petrol as the norm, power steering, and all mod cons in even the average car, and with speedometers that suggest to the driver that the normal car could cruise at 80 kilometres per hour, a fourteen mile trip on a modern motorway cut through a few hills and with flyovers in the valleys is neither here nor there. A fifteen-minute comfort cruise in an air-conditioned modern saloon. Quite a pleasant thought really. I have a friend who used to take his baby son for just such a drive 2 or 3 times a day just in order to help the child sleep in his comfortable baby seat in the back of his vehicle. Not a problem.
In the biblical days we are about to negotiate, the fastest travel available to the masses was a well-fed donkey with an attitude. The “sports model” of the donkey was an animal called the “horse” (No Israelite owned a horse until Solomon’s time, and that was about 120 years later than the time we are thinking of). It is true that some of the upper classes, or the wealthy, may have had camels, but asses and donkeys were the normal, “family saloon model,” notwithstanding the more commonly used, “Shank’s pony.”
Roads were definitely not cut through hills in the days we are travelling to. In fact, most journeys had no roads at all. It was simply a matter of pointing one’s donkey in the direction of the required destination, then keeping him moving toward the same compass point, until one arrived where one was expected. The Bible does indeed talk about, “Highways,” at the time, but each occasion one reads of such a phenomena, more often than not, especially in preDavidic times, such terminology simply refers to a well-worn track that was just easy to follow.
So, imagine yourself on a sweltering day in the footsteps of our man of the moment: Elkanah, Samuel’s “father to be.” Travelling fourteen miles accompanied by two women and at least four children, would have made such a six to eight hour trip a little pressured for any husband. Food, personal hygiene, diapers and travel sickness, as well as toileting needs, would have creased the brow of the hardiest family man. Landau Forte had not started their chain of hotels yet. Refreshment oases, apart from stopping at other towns and cities, were just not in existence, and one could not depend upon a warm welcome, even from an Israeli town, for another Israeli.
This is the scene where our inquiry commences. Time wise we are somewhere between 1080 and 1050 B.C. Biblically, we are at the opening verses of the ninth book of the Old Testament. Geographically we are in the depths of the Ephraim hills, in the territory of Benjamin, about five miles north of the city we now know as Jerusalem, in those days, known as Jebus. We see this man and his family leaving a place called Ramathaim–Zophim, it is called Ramah for short. ( Modern Ramallah?). It is swelteringly hot. The journey raises dust that sticks on the face and in the throat.
We suggest that there were at least two donkeys for the wives to mount, and possibly others, depending on the age and maturity of the children. This was the full count of the family of Elkanah as at this moment. The full-blown opening statement of First Samuel’s opening two verses tells us all this – and more.
The family detailed situation is best theorised in this way: Having married early for love of a woman named Hannah, Elkanah discovered through the passing of time that no children were forthcoming. His wife just would not become pregnant. It was inconceivable, pardon the pun, for him to think that it was his male incapability that prevented issue. As heirs were all essential for the sake of property and future wealth, and as the years were passing, Elkanah took for himself a second wife, probably chosen from a particularly fertile familial tree, or even the widow of a relative that had died. His end was achieved. Voile! Children again and again, via wife number two.
On this family outing, a journey he had vowed to take annually, there were both sons and daughters of this second wife. Peninnah was her name. (This Hebrew word carries a similar meaning to the English word “Margaret”) We are not told of the names of her offspring.
The tension between the brace of spouses was a bitter thing. Peninnah is specifically listed as Hannah’s, “adversary.” The journey must have been a silent one for the ladies; apart from interaction with the children of course. To put it mildly, these two women were not the best of friends.
There were other social issues, ripened fruits contributing to the stew of contemporary circumstances that would have deterred many from a trip such as Elkanah was taking. Foreign and volatile powers occupied the land. For one, Canaan was not rid of wild beasts, for another Wolves and Hyenas prowled about at night. Even Lions had their lairs in the forest cum jungle, which lined part of the course of the Jordan. There was also the omnipresent danger of robbers and thieves in the fastnesses of the hills.
To encourage them on their way, there would have been other families making the same pilgrimage. Numbers? Think of any! We can all but guess.
Then there was the main driving force that would carry some through thick or thin to get to the place called Shiloh, namely faith in God, and the desire to worship at the annual feasts as commanded by the Law of Moses.
In the days of the Judges, there were several neighbouring societies and cultures with religious beliefs and practices that made the average God fearing Israelite cringe with horror. The weak in mind among the children of Israel actually joined their heathen neighbours. Idolatry, human sacrifice, rampant hedonism and a love of war, together with raping, pillaging and general sacking of enemy nations was the absolute norm for national self-esteem. The Canaanites, Hivites, Amorites and all the other “ites,” as well as the Philistines were a godless lot by modern perspectives. From another viewpoint, one could say that the problem was that they all had too many gods.
Jehovah simply wanted Israel to settle in the land that he had given them, and to live happily ever after on a true worshipful lifestyle. The previous inhabitants were not on the Divine agenda for longevity. He had promised to help Israel chase out the seven evil inspired cultures, and demonically ravaged nations. They could have had the Land all to themselves, but they would not. God rescinded the commitment to drive out the Canaanites before them because of their unbelief (see Judges 2:1-6). They were, therefore, through lack of faith and character, forced to be like the other nations, if not worse. These were definitely days when, “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” And that attitude was the very rot of the nation.
This is the cosmos into which Samuel first became a proverbial, “Twinkle in his mother’s eye.” The picture we are etching while Elkanah rambles up to Shiloh was probably similar to the very moment when the first “twinkling” of Hannah’s eyes began.
Hannah wanted children with a longing and a yearning that is reserved for those “mother like hearts” in like circumstances to hers. Our story will explain how the “first wife’s” most sensitive and agonising deprivation became the seed of her own, as well as the nation of Israel’s greatest asset since Moses.
She was chosen. Abraham and Sarah at one elongated point of time had no children. Isaac and Rebekah new the same deprivation over a twenty-year period. Manoah likewise. So with the Shunamite woman, and not omitting Zacharias and Elizabeth in the New Testament. And here also, we read that Hannah had no children. In this light, it comes to nothing short of a mark of special election and high calling. In fact, it seems to my mind to be a very special calling of servanthood for God, to have no legitimate children at a certain point of prolonged married life. The Divine choice, of course, for this process is beyond human manipulation or bias.
Hannah’s determination to overcome sadness and emotional devastation, and how she achieved to climb such a sheer rock face of character challenge, is the very fulcrum of our observations concerning Samuel’s family roots. Hannah’s deep, “gut- ache,” is where this story truly begins. Samuel was longed for by his mother, before he was even conceived. I seriously doubt that Elkanah ever understood Hannah. As character goes, she was priceless. Her deprivation made her better, as opposed to bitter. Hannah’s husband came from stock that one would have thought had the insight to see her pain. Unfortunately it was not so with him.
Elkanah Was a Levite derived from a branch of the Levitical family known as the clan of Kohath. The Kohathites were scattered all across Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, Ephraim, Dan and Manasseh. In the opening stanza of First Samuel, Elkanah is referred to as an “Ephrathite,” which, amongst other things, meant that he was born in Ephraim, somewhere near to Bethlehem. According to the family tree offered to us in 1 Chronicles 6:22 – 33, Elkanah was the nineteenth direct descendant from the Patriarch Jacob, via Levi. Levites were the priestly clan. All Levites were intended by God to run the entire worship system that revolved around the Tabernacle. That was a system that was outlined in considerable detail in the books of Moses. In times of spiritual decline, of course, there was never enough work to go around, and so Levites had to take up other professions. It would seem that secular employment was Elkanah’s lot in life. More than likely, he was probably a farmer.
Though the people of Israel as a whole were tainted with unbelief and/or idolatry, including the priestly ranks, with all those vices most hateful to the prescribed law of God, there must have been many, like Elkanah, who were God fearing and held family life in strict reverence. The vast majority of religious and political guides of the time were weakly fragmented in purpose, and godless in heart. At least, by the account we have, we are assured of committed spirituality of this particular husband and his first wife.
Because of the contemporary dangers of travelling as explained from above, a lot of families only chose to go to one feast a year. They did not have a choice to go elsewhere. Elkanah lived nearer than most. Fourteen miles and six hours still seemed like the other side of the world to a man with two wives and a quiver full of offspring.
In the Bible, there are many names given to God, and the book of Samuel here in the first chapter, 3rd verse uses a certain name here for the first time. It is a name that was quite commonly used in later generations. It says that Elkanah went to worship, “The Lord of hosts.” “Yahweh Sabaoth. For the uninitiated it simply means that God had (and certainly still has) an army. Some are human, yes, but he also has a few battalions and divisions, if not quite a few full armies that are not human. We are talking about Angels.
The Ark of the Covenant that was kept in the now ever-darkened room at Shiloh, was only ever lit up when God chose to appear there. When He did appear, it was over the top of the lid of this Ark, between a golden effigy of two cherubim (Cherubim is plural for Cherub). We do not mean the cuddly little naked baby type, “cherub,” that western culture caricatures on valentine cards every year. We mean the real thing. Six wings, four faces, hands of a man and feet of an animal. We are talking awe-inspiring splendour and glory. They surround His throne in heaven. Ezekiel saw four of them. Isaiah and John saw the same four also. Here, on the ark, was the likeness of two of them carved in gold.
To say that I would like to know exactly what the Ark of the Covenant and its “Mercy Seat” looked like is a gross understatement. Does a human being desire to breathe? This Ark was the very crux of worship for Israel and the Israelite. It was never seen by any but the High Priest, but was so famously treasured, that God was actually known and referred to as “The Lord that dwells between the cherubim.” Jehovah actually appeared there, at that very spot. The entire concept is truly breathtaking. In moses day it would have been the brightest spot on the face of the earth. These days it was merely a box kept in the darkness, providing a form of godliness and somehow, because of the people, it was denying the power of Yahweh and their faith in Him.
There are twin stories told throughout the early chapters of First Samuel. If it was filmed the same as the story reads, the scene would keep flitting from Elkanah and his wife Hannah, to two of the most unsavoury fellows in the whole of Israelite history. These two men were so evil, and so influential in their evil, that we are actually told that God had made up his mind to kill them.
Hophni and Phinehas were the two sons of the acting High Priest. They were the equivalent of both the atheistic, sensual lager louts of the late twenty first century, and the disaffected, delinquent “Hooray Henry’s” of the privileged classes. In the context of the spiritual heritage of Israel, they were a “dreadful Armageddon type judgement” just waiting to happen. And how they would “happen!”
As the story progresses over the years, one realises how impossible it is to fully tell Samuel’s story without bringing in these two apostle’s of evil. Hophni and Phinehas were so evil and so bad that God just had to kill them. To take the drama and tension away from their death, God arranged for the sacred Ark to be stolen on the very day they died. The acting High Priest Eli also passed away to his reward when he heard the news. Shortly afterwards (I think, on the same day as the Israeli army retreated from battle) Shiloh was razed to the ground. The theft of the Ark, and its later return to the outer perimeter of Israeli life, caused the maturing Samuel to ask God about how future worship was to be arranged. That is the very issue, which caused the genius of the man to arouse itself from latent and dormant purposes.
In another line of dominoes, it was the evil of these two real sons that, I believe, made Eli determine to make an excellent job of parenting Samuel. Their continued evangelical godlessness was being perpetrated simultaneously to the growth of the lovely little lad, being brought up with Eli in “the nurture of the Lord”. The Godly Samuel developed in the environment of the wicked.
That is just how it works folks! Environment may oppress and depress. But environment is only one issue in a macro of things that causes people to stand or fall. Adam and Eve fell in a perfect environment. Samuel grows and stands in Godliness and purity in an environment that no parent of today would dream of subjecting their child to, especially in their absence. Modern Social Services policy would undoubtedly have forbidden Hannah from leaving Samuel with Eli. How great and marvelous is God’s grace.
The fact that only these two priests are mentioned is not to lead us to think that the Tabernacle needed only Eli and his two sons to function. Far from it. The congregation would have undoubtedly been considerable in size, yet only a small percentage of the thirteen tribes would have utilised the old tent of worship. These were Godless days after all.
We picture the people dancing and merrymaking, though not in, or near the Tabernacle. They used to dance in the Vineyards around Shiloh away from the sacred tent. Dance means music, gaiety, laughter. We know also that there was lots of eating and drinking. In part of the ceremony of offering one’s sacrifice, some of the cooked sacrificial meat was returned to the offerer for eating, and was passed from the husband as the family priest, on to the family. Whatever the measure of meat to feed his wives and children, Elkanah did something here that was, sociologically speaking, a catastrophe. Elkanah had two wives. That is bad enough. But fasten your seat belts as I tell you something much much worse. Elkanah had favourites. Actually, only one favourite wife. One is all that is needed to bring catastrophe. In whatever way the husband sliced up the joint for feasting, he gave “one” slice to Peninnah, and one to all her children. He probably had just one slice for himself. Then, in open view of all, he gave “double” to Hannah. I read it, and I read it, over and over again, and I find it so hard to believe. Was Elkanah in his right mind? How on earth could he vex Peninnah so?
Annually Elkanah came. Annually Hannah was abused by Peninnah. Annually he gave his “favourite wife” the double portion. In the vicinity of the Tabernacle, just near to the spot where Joshua had thrown the Lots for the tribal inheritance, Peninnah chose this moment and place of dedication to taunt Hannah “adversarially.” Was Elkanah simple? Was he deranged? Was he so ignorant of human nature? Was he so crass as to not know anything about the two human beings he had married? There you have one woman who would make the perfect mother. A woman with character and piety, yet utterly distraught through her childlessness. And then we have the woman who had the children (four in fact), yet, as the story will reveal as we proceed, no character. The point is that people too often home in on what they don’t have rather than what they do have. So we have Hannah longing for children, and, oh, dreadful picture that it is, we have Peninnah craving the love and primary place in her husband’s heart that Hannah obviously had. “I have given him 4 children! She has given him none! Why doesn’t he love me?” Was ever a domestic earthquake easier to foretell than this?
Things happen to us in life, good bad and ugly. We respond. Our response trains us, and sets us up as to the way we handle blessings, curses and tragedies later on in life. Those with character handle the bad and still grow into greatness. Those with deepset negative responses find it difficult to count even their blessings, but to be sure they will list the details of what they consider to be curses. These two ladies, in the same household, epitomise the two polarised extremes of these trained responses.
What happens while Elkanah plays the fool in handing out the meat? Any five year old could write the script. Hannah says, “Thank you!” for the extra food, while the hunger for the food of motherhood keeps her pale and wan. Peninnah acts happily, “normal,” while simple, undiscerning Elkanah is watching. But the moment the man of the house leaves to go to the bathroom, the lovely doctor Jekyll of Peninnah, turns into the monstrous Mrs Hyde and taunts Hannah where the pain is at its worst possible threshold. “At least I have the children! You can’t even satisfy your husband with heirs! He only gives you extra food because he feels sorry for you!”
She no doubt taunted Hannah that she was under God’s curse, Gods anger and even God’s punishment. What on earth could Peninnah be thinking of, approaching the altar of God with a temper full of malice and envy, as well as a tongue, “set on fire of hell.” In her heart of hearts, Hannah perceived the extra portion of food as for the child, as yet unborn – as yet not conceived. To her it was as if Elkanah was saying, “You are as precious to me as if you had a child. Here is an extra portion of meat for the son you desire.”
After reading the story over and over again there are certain images in my mind that I feel compelled to hold on to, and the more I read, the clearer these images become.
The first image is that Elkanah genuinely and honestly treasured Hannah for who and what she was. Hannah WAS a charactered, Godly woman. I think she was probably a Hebrew beauty too, but to be factual, nothing at all is mentioned of her outward appearance, as per the biblical norm – generally. It was his outright preference of love for Hannah that drove her enemy so strongly against her. I don’t think Elkanah could hide it. The look of his eyes, the tone of his voice, his gentle manner when he addressed Hannah. Peninnah would have seen it and ached for it, as much as Hannah ached for a child. Peninnah wanted those looks and gentle words so much, she ached with the knife twisting realisation that those expressions were just not there when he approached her. Character is not always displayed by trials, but it very much results from them. Both prosperity and adversity are states of acknowledged temptation. Peninnah fell here on this hard rock. Hannah stepped upward to heaven with her trial.
Oh, the anomalies of present and perceived providence. We talk of people being blessed or cursed. But here – which is which? First a woman eminently fitted to bring up children, yet having none. On the other hand we have a woman whose temper and ways are fitted to ruin children, entrusted with the rearing of a quiver full of offspring. Surely, such unsettled and unresolved anomalies of life point to a future judgement, where the God of absolute and perfect justice will reconcile all issues of this world.
Some anomalies, however, are reconciled here in this life in our time/space world.
The second image I see is a video of the very moment that Elkanah says to Hannah, “Am I not worth ten sons to you?” If I was writing the screenplay to the film, I would have Elkanah whispering the words gently to his childless lover, whilst in the blurred background, out of focus, but in colours striking enough for the audience not to miss, Peninnah is standing in the doorway of their tent hearing every word. I believe this, because only an educationally sub normal man would speak such words to one wife knowing that he was being overheard by his other spouse. No one could really be that crass . . . could they? Nevertheless Peninnah overheard his words.
Hannah’s adversary was peculiarly unprincipled and ill-disposed. There is a considerable difference between the feeling and the expression of partiality. The one is much more under our power and control than the other. The display of it in human relationships is often prejudicial to the object.
The third image, I cannot help but fasten on to, is one of the, “male chauvinist pig,” mentality of Elkanah. Why did he ask such a question? Was he genuinely not aware that a woman’s desire for children could assert itself to be the most consuming passion of most wives? Was he not perceptive enough to understand the basic bottom line of his first wife’s needs? Could he not comprehend that no matter how many times he made love to Hannah, for her the aim of being impregnated was the principle of her goals, rather than his arms around her in physical union? Sadly, I believe the answer to all these questions is an emphatic, “No!” I see in Elkanah, a clear “no!” written on Elkanah’s forehead concerning all these fundamental marital understandings. I believe that the strongly impressed culture that demanded that the women bare children, and “stay in the kitchen,” robbed Elkanah, along with the vast majority of his contemporary male clones, of insight into basic human understanding and male-female relationships.
The same cultural demand also heightened Hannah’s grief. Their, “culture implanted mind sets,” screamed that Hannah was, “not a proper wife,” that she had, “let her husband down.” She felt herself as a, “woman without respect.” She could not party and dance, and lose herself in trivial chit chat as the rest of the crowd were doing here at Shiloh. She felt herself almost as a social non-entity.
The emotional pressure was too much. She could take it no longer. Leaving the party, and the celebratory cries of dancing and “whooping it up”, unnoticed by husband, wifely rival and brood, Hannah retires. The fact that she was unnoticed in her discreet departure only served as proof to her of her uselessness. She must get away.
The crux of life to anybody who has the slightest parallel to Hannah’s agony is the answer to this question: What do you do when you get away from them all? The woman is at her most vulnerable. She hurts to the point where she is not acting “normally.” She is beside herself with grief. She is fearful of her future. She is afraid of her present predicament. She despises her home life. She feels utterly trapped in her woeful misery. What on earth will she do? Suicide? Seek Counselling? Run away? Take a lover? Seek Divorce? Slit her wrists for attention? What does this woman escape to?
Her answer to these questions changed her life, and truly secured Israel’s prosperity and future at the time when the tribes, as a single national unit, were hanging on by their fingernails to their existence and destiny.
This woman’s self discovery, and God discovery, is a monumental appeal for others to follow the footprints Hannah laid in the sand of her life. We shall in these pages tread in the heat and depressed sand of that same footprint.
- 1 Samuel 1 (sisterspray4me.com)
- 1 Samuel 1:1-2:11 – A Mother Named Hannah (genebrooks.blogspot.com)
- Good Morning Love: Barrenness (dentreciablanchette.com)