Category Archives: Character Studies

Joseph’s Significance in Matthew’s Nativity Narrative

Joseph’s Significance in Matthew’s Nativity Narrative

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus

Choosing a title for this post has proven to be a challenge. If I say it is about Joseph, many would assume I was writing about the famous figure from the Book of Genesis who was sold into slavery by his brothers, and who later delivered Egypt, as well as his family, from a severe famine. The Joseph I am talking about, however, needs a further tag placed on his name. If I speak about Joseph and Mary, then it is obvious who I mean. If I say, “Joseph, the husband of Mary,” or “Joseph the adoptive father of Jesus,” or “Joseph, the step-father of Jesus,” then it is equally clear who I have in mind. All of this suggests that Joseph is a relatively obscure figure in the Bible. His significance is based on his relationship to other important characters, especially Jesus. This is actually not a bad position to find oneself in. After all, I, and every Christian I know, finds their ultimate significance in their relationship to Jesus as well. Of course Joseph has a special kind of relationship that none of us can claim, and yet that relationship often seems to diminish his value in the eyes of some. After all, Joseph is not the real father of Jesus; he is only the adoptive father, or perhaps worse, the step-father.

In the Jewish world of the first century A.D., it was believed that you could know a lot about a person based on the character of his/her parents. If the parents were honourable people, then the child was probably honourable. If, however, the parents had a shameful reputation, or the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child were suspect or shameful, then the child would be considered a shameful individual.

Order Craig Keener's commentary from Amazon USA / UK
Order from Amazon USA / UK

The Gospels address the question of Jesus’ parentage in different ways, but all seek to demonstrate that he came from an honourable background. Although Joseph is mentioned in all of the Gospels, only the Gospel of Matthew gives us any kind of character portrait. One of the purposes of Matthew’s portrayal of Joseph is to demonstrate that Joseph is a man of exceptional character. Matthew pictures Joseph as a righteous, compassionate, and obedient person. These qualities are displayed in at least 4 different ways. In what follows, I adopt an outline on Joseph’s character, based on Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew. Keener uses his knowledge of New Testament Backgrounds to illuminate Matthew’s portrait of Joseph.

Matthew Portrays Joseph and Mary as a Model of Sexual Restraint

Whether living in ancient or modern times, there are only 3 known ways that an unmarried woman can normally become pregnant: 1) rape; 2) unfaithfulness; or 3) by a boyfriend or fiancée. The circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus would certainly have raised the suspicions of many. Matthew not only seeks to explain the unusual nature of Mary’s conception, but he also seeks to show the exemplary self-control exercised by this couple. Jewish couples were normally betrothed for the period of one year. During this year, the commitment was considered so legally binding that a divorce was necessary to break it. However, the couple was forbidden to have sexual relations until after the marriage. Any breach of the conduct expected would bring shame on the couple. Matthew seeks to demonstrate that neither Mary nor Joseph had transgressed in this matter. Mary’s conception was totally unique; it was of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18, 20). Although Joseph was instructed by an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife, out of reverence for this unique occurrence, he did not have sexual relations with her until after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25).

This verse testifies to Joseph's remarkable self-control.
This verse testifies to Joseph’s remarkable self-control.

This statement is remarkable in at least two respects. First, Joseph and Mary appear to have been poor (compare Luke 2:24 with Lev. 12:8). This would most likely mean, not only sleeping in the same room, but also sleeping in the same bed! It is remarkable to think that a married couple could show such self-restraint. This is an important point that Matthew wants to make. Self-control was considered one of the great virtues of the first-century Roman world. A person who could control their desires and passions was considered honourable. The rest of the New Testament has a lot to say about the power of evil desires and passions (e.g., Rom. 1:24-32; 6:13; 7:5), and Paul extolls self-control as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). Therefore, far from being immoral, Matthew shows that Joseph and Mary are an example of exceptional self-control. Second, by waiting until after the birth of Jesus to have intercourse, neither Joseph nor Mary could produce evidence of her virginity on their wedding night (see Deut. 22:15). I will explore the significance of this later.

The Josephs of Genesis and Matthew share several similarities.
The Josephs of Genesis and Matthew share several similarities.

Joseph’s ability to resist temptation and practice self-control suggests a characteristic he shares with his namesake from the Book of Genesis. Genesis 39:7-10 highlights the virtue of this other Joseph who refuses to have sexual relations with his master’s wife. Upon closer examination, we also note that the Joseph in the Book of Matthew shares other similarities with the Joseph of Genesis: 1) the fathers of both Josephs are named Jacob (Gen. 37:2-3; Matt. 1:16); 2) both Josephs receive dreams through which God communicates to them (Gen. 37:6-10; Matt. 1:20; 2:13, 19, 22); 3) both are righteous men (Joseph in Genesis forgives his brothers and seeks their welfare; Matt. 1:19); and both bring their families down to Egypt (Gen. 45:9-13; Matt. 2:13-15). All of these parallels between the two Josephs are another way in which Matthew demonstrates the uprightness of Joseph, the husband of Mary.

If Joseph Wanted to Maintain His Honor, He was Obligated to Divorce Mary

Matthew tells us that before the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, Joseph was contemplating how he should divorce Mary (Matt. 1:19). It is important to remember that since a betrothal was legally binding, a divorce was necessary to break it. It should also be noted that Joseph was not contemplating if he should divorce Mary, but how. “Jewish, Greek, and Roman law all demanded that a man divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery” (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 91). Even Jesus allows for divorce in the case of adultery (Matt. 5:32). If Joseph does not divorce Mary, he faces one of two possible dilemmas. Keener states, “Mediterranean society viewed with contempt the weakness of a man who let his love for his wife outweigh his appropriate honor in repudiating her” (Keener, p. 91). The other possibility is that, if Joseph followed through with the wedding, then it would be an admission that he had slept with her. Either way, Joseph would experience the shame and contempt of his society. For Joseph to be considered a “just” man (Matt. 1:19), he must divorce Mary, and this is what he would have done had God not revealed himself in a dream.

Joseph Tempers Justice with Mercy

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

Although still contemplating divorce, Matthew tells us that Joseph desired to put Mary away “secretly” or “privately” (Matt. 1:19). The fact that Joseph is willing to put Mary away privately suggests that he is a man who puts compassion above his own hurt and shame. It is also important that the modern reader understands that the primary foundation for ancient marriages was not love but financial considerations. Parents usually contracted the marriage of their children and this was done with a view of what would mutually benefit each family. Inheritance was an important issue and no family wanted to make a poor financial arrangement through marriage that would harm them. Part of the betrothal included the prospective groom giving the bride’s family a bride price. This consisted of gifts given to the bride and her family. It was a way of showing the value of the bride and that she would be provided for. An example of this can be found in Genesis 24:53 when Abraham’s servant contracts a marriage for Isaac. We are told, “Then the servant brought out jewelry of silver, jewelry of gold and clothing, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave precious things to her brother and to her mother.” The family of the bride would reciprocate by giving the bride a dowry. This would be her portion of the family inheritance meant to help her in the start of her new life with her husband. Dowrys and bride prices varied depending on the wealth of a family. They might consist of animals (sheep and goats), jewelry, household items, servants, and even land (For further information on bride prices and dowrys, see K.C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts, p. 37ff. Pictured in the box to the right.).

The point of all this is that there would have been a financial investment of some kind on Joseph’s part. By means of a public divorce he could have recouped the bride price, and possibly been justified in keeping Mary’s dowry as well. The fact that Joseph is willing to divorce Mary privately demonstrates that he is not concerned with financial gain or loss, or in exacting revenge on her. Rather, his concern is for her reputation (and possibly her family’s as well). This kind of compassion reflects the very attitude that Jesus will later say is pleasing to God. When questioned about eating with sinners, Jesus says that it is the sick who need a physician. He then challenges the Pharisees to “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice‘” (Matt. 9:12-13). My colleague, Richard Tamburro, has suggested to me that Joseph’s compassion shows him to be a man with a heart like God’s, and that this is precisely why God chose Joseph to be an earthly father for Jesus. Indeed, Joseph’s ability to temper righteousness with compassion is truly a characteristic of God.

Joseph is an Obedient Man

Joseph flees to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.
Joseph flees to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.

Matthew goes to great lengths to emphasize the obedience of Joseph.  Each time God commands Joseph to do something (take Mary as his wife, flee to Egypt, return from Egypt, don’t go back to Judea), Joseph faithfully obeys (Matt. 1:24; 2:13-14, 19-21, 22). The same “command and obedience” language that is found here in Matthew is reminiscent of many of the saints of the Old Testament. Noah, Moses, Elijah, and others receive commands from God and faithfully carry them out. This obedience is described in two ways: 1) A command is given and then we read in identical language how the command is obeyed. For example, Elijah is told “Get away from here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan” (1 Kgs. 17:3). We are then informed, “So he went and did according to the word of the Lord, for he went and stayed by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan” (1 Kgs. 17:5). 2) After receiving a command, the statement is frequently made that that person “did all that the Lord commanded.” An example of this is found in Genesis 6:22 which states, “Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did.” Joseph, therefore, like the saints of old, is faithful and obedient.

Recalling a point made earlier, Joseph’s obedience to God was costly. First, as noted earlier, to not have intercourse until after the birth of Jesus meant giving up the opportunity to prove that Mary was indeed a virgin. Furthermore, for Joseph to move ahead and take Mary as his wife was tantamount to an admission that he had slept with her. Speaking of the dream that reveals Mary’s innocence, Keener writes, “Because Joseph alone received this revelation, outsiders in the story world would still think that he had gotten Mary pregnant before the wedding. He would remain an object of shame in a society dominated by the value of honor. Joseph’s obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation” (Keener, pp. 94-95).

When one summarizes the portrait of Joseph according to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph is seen as a righteous man, who tempers that righteousness with mercy. He is also a man who willingly lays his own reputation on the line for the sake of being obedient to God. Like the Joseph of Genesis, the Joseph of Matthew provides a pattern of life worthy of imitating. Perhaps, most importantly, he foreshadows his greater adopted son Jesus, the ultimate picture of One who made Himself of no reputation and who was the perfect depiction of righteousness, mercy, and obedience.

2 Samuel 2–Asahel:Running into Trouble

2 Samuel 2–Asahel:Running into Trouble

Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow press.com
Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow press.com

Many people are unfamiliar with Asahel. He was the youngest brother of the more famous Joab, David’s army commander. Asahel only appears in one narrative, found in 2 Samuel 2. The story is about his vain pursuit of Abner, commander of Saul’s army, during the civil war between David and the house of Saul, resulting in his premature death. Asahel’s death is told in gruesome detail in 2 Samuel 2 and often leaves readers wondering why this story was related by the writer in the first place. The following post is an excerpt from chapter 20 of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. In this chapter, I look at 3 men who shared several similarities: 1) they were all nephews of David and thus cousins; 2) they were all warriors; and 3) they all appear in limited roles in 2 Samuel. Although a first reading of Asahel’s death may leave the reader puzzled, a more careful examination reveals some important truths for all of us. I hope you enjoy this excerpt and consider purchasing a copy of Family Portraits for yourself or a friend. (For another excerpt from Family Portraits click here to read about Peninnah).

Asahel: Running into Trouble (2 Samuel 2:18–23, 30–32)

When the initial contest between 12 soldiers from Israel and Judah resulted in the death of all, a full-scale battle erupted resulting in a great victory for David's men, but at the expense of Asahel
In 2 Samuel 2:14-17, when an initial contest between 12 soldiers from Israel and Judah resulted in the death of all, a full-scale battle erupted resulting in a great victory for David’s men, but at the expense of Asahel (painting by James J. Tissot, 1896-1902).

“Brave, impetuous, and ready to kill,” are the words we used to describe Abishai’s introduction in 1 Samuel. These same words are perhaps even truer of Asahel, proving him to be Abishai’s brother and a genuine son of Zeruiah. Together with Joab, all three brothers appear in 2 Samuel 2:18 in the midst of a conflict between Israel and Judah. The conflict was precipitated by Abner, who had marched his troops to Gibeon where he was met by Joab and “the servants of David” (2 Samuel 2:12–13). When an initial competition, also proposed by Abner, failed to produce a victor, the confrontation erupted into a full-scale battle, with Abner’s troops experiencing a sound defeat at the hands of David’s men (2 Samuel 2:14–17).
The victory, however, was not without great cost to the men of Judah. In a flashback of the battle, the author follows Asahel as he pursues Abner. The outcome of this altercation not only results in the death of Asahel one of Judah’s valiant warriors, it also sets the stage for a blood feud between Abner and the two remaining brothers (Joab and Abishai), culminating in the murder of Abner (2 Samuel 3:27, 30).

<img class=”size-full wp-image-1194″ src=”http://www.biblestudywithrandy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/gazelle.jpg” alt=”Asahel was said to be “as fleet of foot as a wild gazelle” (2 Samuel 2:18).” width=”265″ height=”190″ /> Asahel was said to be “as fleet of foot as a wild gazelle” (2 Samuel 2:18).

Asahel is described as one who is “as fleet of foot as a wild gazelle” (2 Samuel 2:18). It is Asahel’s running ability that provides the setting for the chase scene described in verses 19–23. However, Asahel’s greatest asset will prove to be his greatest liability––a liability perhaps hinted at in his description as a “gazelle.” While gazelles are fast and nimble, they are not known for their strength or predatory nature. Gazelles are not usually “pursuers” (v. 19): they use their speed to flee from danger, not to run towards it! What chance does a gazelle have if it pursues a battle-hardened warrior like Abner?

Furthermore, the word “gazelle” sounds a note of familiarity with a statement found in the previous chapter: “The beauty (gazelle) of Israel is slain on your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19). The gazelle that David laments is probably Jonathan (see 2 Samuel 1:25) but could also include Saul. While Asahel’s equation with Jonathan may seem complimentary, it has an ominous ring to it. The previous gazelle (Jonathan) had been slain and had fallen in battle; likewise, Asahel the gazelle will soon be slain and “fall” in battle (2 Samuel 2:23).

The chase begins in earnest in verse 19. Two expressions characterize the dogged determination of Asahel. The first expression, “he did not turn to the right hand or to the left (vv. 19, 21), is language frequently used in Deuteronomy–2 Kings in reference to not deviating from the path of the Lord (Deut. 5:32; 17:11, 20; 28:14; Josh. 1:7; 23:6; 2 Kings 22:2). The second term is ʾaḥarē, occurring seven times in verses 19–23 and variously translated as “after,” “behind,” or “back.” It is also used frequently to express following “after” the Lord, or not following “after” other gods (Deut. 4:3; 6:14; 13:4; 1 Kings 14:8; 18:21; 2 Kings 23:3). Thus, Asahel’s pursuit of Abner uses language that articulates the resolve Israel should have in following the Lord. While pursuing the Lord leads to life (Deut. 5:32–33), Asahel’s single-minded pursuit of Abner ironically leads to his death (v. 23). An outline of 2 Samuel 2:19–23 demonstrates Asahel’s determination as it alternates between his pursuit and Abner’s warnings: Asahel pursues (v. 19); Abner turns and speaks (20–21d); Asahel continues his pursuit (21e); Abner speaks and cautions (22); Asahel continues (23a); Abner finally strikes (23b–d).

<img class=”wp-image-1196″ src=”http://www.biblestudywithrandy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/james-tissot-abner-and-asahel.jpg” alt=”Abner warns Asahel several times to stop pursuing him (2 Samuel 2:19-22–painting by Tissot)” width=”222″ height=”296″ /> Abner warns Asahel several times to stop pursuing him (2 Samuel 2:19-22–painting by Tissot)

Still at some distance, Abner turns “behind him” to see Asahel hot on his trail (2 Samuel 2:20). Wishing to confirm the pursuer’s identity Abner calls out, “Are you Asahel?” to which Asahel responds with one breathless word, “I.” It is the only word he speaks in the entire narrative, highlighting his resolute focus on pursuing his prey. He is not interested in conversation; he is interested in catching Abner. As his name implies, Asahel is all about “doing” (“God has done,” or “made”) rather than talking. The doing, however, seems to have little to do with God and more to do with Asahel himself. Hence, Asahel’s answer, “I,” takes on a deeper significance.
Although the language is reminiscent of one pursuing God, the fact is that Asahel is in pursuit of his own glory. What could bring greater honor to a soldier than to kill the commander of the enemy’s army? This quest not only makes Asahel mute, but also deaf to the sound advice Abner tries to dispense. Using language that parallels the narrator’s, Abner says, “Turn aside to your right hand or to your left, and lay hold on one of the young men and take his armor for yourself ” (2 Samuel 2:21). This is Abner’s way of telling Asahel to pick on someone his own size, or, in other words, to take on someone of his own skill level and not to tangle with a more experienced soldier like himself. Asahel is undeterred.

Next, Abner is more direct and makes Asahel aware of the deadly consequences he will face if he does not cease his pursuit: “Why should I strike you to the ground? How then could I face your brother Joab?” (2 Samuel 2:22). Abner interjects an emotional element into his plea (“your brother Joab”), hoping it will slow down the fleet-footed Asahel. The advice, threats, and emotional pleas are all to no avail, however, as the narrator reports, “He refused to turn aside” (2 Samuel 2:23a). It is the last decision he will ever make, and it is a deadly one.

Winding Up on the Wrong End of the Stick!

<img class=”size-full wp-image-1198″ src=”http://www.biblestudywithrandy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Abner_kills_Asahel.jpg” alt=”When Asahel refuses to stop, Abner stops him with the back end of his spear (2 Samuel 2:23–painting by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695).” width=”189″ height=”245″ /> When Asahel refuses to stop, Abner stops him with the back end of his spear (2 Samuel 2:23–painting by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695).

Asahel will not stop himself, so Abner must stop him. So far, Abner’s rhetoric has not caused his thick-headed opponent to “get the point.” Ironically, he will also not get the point of Abner’s weapon. Instead, with a thrust of the back end of his spear, Abner brings Asahel’s pursuit to an abrupt halt as the spear travels through his abdomen and proceeds out of his back (2 Samuel 2:23). It is ironic that with one blow of his spear, Abner did to Abishai’s brother what Abishai had wanted to do to Saul (1 Sam. 26:8). Asahel’s pursuit of glory causes him to “wind up on the wrong end of the stick.” Abner’s military prowess is so superior that it is not even necessary for him to assume the normal fighting posture of facing his adversary. This accords Asahel no respect. His death appears foolish and needless. Indeed, David’s lament over Abner in the next chapter (2 Samuel 3:33) could well have been sung over Asahel: “Should [Asahel] die as a fool dies?”
Asahel is the first of four characters to be stabbed in the abdomen in 2 Samuel. The first and the last (Amasa) to experience this fate are of the house of David, while the middle two (Abner and Ish-bosheth) are of the house of Saul, forming a deadly chiasm within 2 Samuel. Later in this chapter we will notice that the wording of Amasa’s death evokes images of Asahel’s, adding irony to the gruesome inclusio formed by their demise.

The conclusion of the battle underscores an important difference between Asahel and his brother Joab. After Abner pleads with Joab to, “return from following after his brothers” (2 Samuel 2:26—my translation), verse 30 informs the reader, “Then Joab returned from following after Abner.” The use of “after” reminds us of Asahel’s pursuit of Abner, and highlights Joab’s wisdom. Joab knows when to stop pursuing; he will wait for a more convenient opportunity. The contrast between the two brothers is stark. The body count for Judah says it all: nineteen men plus Asahel—the man who did not know when to quit. Asahel’s pursuit leads to a tomb in Bethlehem, while the wiser Joab lives to fight another day (2 Samuel 2:32).

Conclusion: Stop and Listen

The honor paid to Asahel by listing him first among David’s Thirty mighty men (2 Sam. 23:24) does not diminish the unnecessary tragedy of his death. Asahel proves himself to be much like his brothers: impetuous, hard, stubborn, and preferring violence to diplomacy. The one valuable quality of his brothers that he desperately lacks is discernment. McCarter rightly observes of Asahel that, “[He] appears in the present story as one so headstrong that he will not listen to reason even to save his own life.”
Stop-And-ListenThe Hebrew Scriptures frequently associate the act of listening with following the Lord. They are full of exhortations to listen, hear, heed, etc.; and the Scriptures record the consequences of those who do not (e.g., Exod. 15:26; Lev. 26:14–39; Judg. 2:17; 1 Sam. 15:22). Although Asahel’s story is not directly about listening to the Lord, the formulaic language used in the story recalls the frequent exhortation in Scripture to follow the Lord. Asahel’s wrong-headed pursuit took him down the enemy’s path and far from the safety of his comrades. Likewise, our pursuit of our own selfish goals can take us down the wrong path and lead us far from the safety of God’s people.

In one sense Asahel’s real-life tragedy becomes an analogy and warning to the nation of Israel, who often stubbornly chose to follow their own way (2 Kings 17:13–14) and closed their ears to God’s word and the way of wisdom (Isa. 6:10; Jer. 5:21). The same attitude is vividly portrayed in the New Testament, when members of the Sanhedrin refused to listen any longer to Stephen’s words. Luke reports: “Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord” (Acts 7:57).

Of course the story of Asahel is not just a warning to Israel, but to anyone who stubbornly pursues their own agenda while ignoring the wisdom of God and others. The grisly account of his death demonstrates how vain the all-out pursuit of glory is. If Asahel had stopped to consider Abner’s warnings, then he would not have been stopped by Abner’s spear. The message is clear: a stubborn refusal to stop and listen to good advice may have deadly consequences.

Peninnah: The Other Woman

Family-Portraits-CoverThe following article is an excerpt from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. It is taken from chapter 2 which is a character study on Peninnah, one of the wives of Elkanah, the father of Samuel. I chose this excerpt because the study on Peninnah is the shortest in the book. The article is essentially the same as the book with a few editorial comments added to help the reader who doesn’t have access to the book (the photos are not original to the book but are also added). If you enjoy this excerpt please consider purchasing a copy of Family Portraits. Clicking on the book icon (on the right or in the left margin below) or on the links at the end of the article will connect you to sites where the book can be purchased.

Peninnah: The Other Woman (Samuel’s Stepmother)

And her rival also provoked her severely, to make her miserable (1 Sam. 1:6) 

How Would You Want to Be Remembered?

thoughtfulPeninnah only appears in four verses in 1 Samuel chapter 1. It is hardly enough to gain a true portrait of the woman herself, but is enough to give us a negative impression of her. The writer of 1 and 2 Samuel cannot possibly develop fully the story of every person he mentions, but the question comes to mind, “If you were going to be remembered for only one thing, what would you want that to be?” Unfortunately for Peninnah, our only memory of her is that of a bitter and spiteful person. She is described as Hannah’s “rival” (1 Sam. 1:6). Birch notes that this is “a term seldom used in describing family relationships and often translated as ‘enemy’ or ‘adversary’ in describing relationships between peoples or nations.” (Bruce Birch, The First and Second Books of Samuel, The New Intepreter’s Bible, p. 975) In a book where family rivalries will sometimes turn into deadly national conflicts, perhaps this word intentionally suggests a “preview of coming attractions.” If it had been possible to take a photograph of Peninnah, like any good rival, she would have had a frown on her face and a scowl on her lips.

“Facing” the Facts: Peninnah’s Name (1 Sam. 1:2)

faceThe meaning of Peninnah’s name is obscure. It may be related to the word “ruby” or “pearl.” Fokkelman (Vow and Desire, p. 17) writes it “is a name which suggests a beautiful exterior,” which in the present context would be ironic (that is, beautiful on the outside but jealous and spiteful on the inside). It has also been suggested that her name means “prolific” which would correspond to her role as the childbearing wife in this story (Ralph Kline, 1 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 6). However, I would suggest the significance of Peninnah’s name lies more in its sound than in its meaning. Several of the names mentioned in chapters 1 and 2 have the letters “peni ” (or, “pheni ”) in them. In addition to Peninnah, these letters are also found in the names Hophni and Phinehas. While this easily goes unnoticed in English, it is more obvious in the original language. The word peni (or, pheni — the same consonant can be pronounced as a hard or soft “p”) in Hebrew means “face,” or “before” (ESV “in the presence of”); and is used frequently throughout the first and second chapters (1 Sam. 1:12, 15, 18, 19, 22; 2:11, 17, 18, 21).

This puts a spotlight on the word “face,” or “before.” It is important to note that this word is always connected with the Lord in this story. Perhaps the story is highlighting the importance of seeking the Lord’s “face” (or “presence”), or perhaps we are being reminded that all we do is done “before” the “face” of the Lord.

Seeking the Lord’s face is certainly important in understanding the change in Hannah’s countenance (1:12, 15, and 18). But the sin of Hophni and Phinehas is also done “before the LORD” (2:17), and so we may be justified in saying that this story is reminding us that all we do, whether good or evil, is done “before the LORD.” We have all experienced that the presence of certain people can be an encouragement to do what is right. This is one of the important aspects of Christian fellowship. If we are constantly aware of God’s presence in our life, setting our minds on heavenly things (Col. 3:2), and having fellowship with him (1 John 1:3), then we will act and think in a Christ-like way. An awareness that we are always “before the face” of the Lord is a great deterrent to sin.

Family Worship or “War”ship? (1 Sam. 1:4–7)

Peninnah hassled Hannah each year they went to the feast at Shiloh
Peninnah hassled Hannah each year they went to the feast at Shiloh

Would Peninnah’s actions have been different if she had been conscious of the fact that all she did was “before the LORD”? The only thing we know about Peninnah, besides the fact that she had several sons and daughters, is that she continually rubbed Hannah’s nose in this fact. Peninnah’s timing makes her actions even more reprehensible. She chooses the time of the yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh to hound Hannah about being barren. What should be a joyous time of celebrating and worshipping the Lord becomes a miserable family fiasco. It is interesting how everything can be alright until it is time to go to church. All of a sudden, husbands and wives have a fight, or the kids start fighting with one another, or mom and dad are yelling at the kids to behave. In the car, on the way to church, an otherwise godly family can become screaming lunatics!

Each year the pilgrimage to Shiloh for Elkanah’s family was the holiday from hell. Our admiration for Elkanah grows (Elkanah faces a number of challenges that I elaborate on in his character study in chapter 1). The easy thing to do would be to cancel the trip and save everyone the pain and misery. But Elkanah, this “God-bought” man (one of the possible meanings of Elkanah’s name, also discussed in chapter 1), knows the importance of worshipping the Lord together as a family.

When one considers the family obstacle, along with going to a sanctuary presided over by a corrupt priesthood, Elkanah’s commitment is quite extraordinary. Satan still uses the same methods of discouragement today.  He whispers, “If it is this much hassle for your family, you are better off not going to church.” Or he says, “Look at the mess your family is in. Who do you think you are, to be going to church!” If he can’t persuade us this way, he will turn our eyes to the leaders or other members of the church and say, “You are better off staying at home, look at those hypocrites. Do you really want to worship with them!” Elkanah’s response needs to be our response as well.

Worshipping God naturally leads to loving others! (This photos is from a worship service at Calvary Chapel York)
Worshipping God naturally leads to loving others! (This photos is from a worship service at Calvary Chapel York)

This painful scene portrays an important truth. 1 Samuel 1:7 states, “So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the LORD, that she provoked her.” Peninnah fails to make the connection between worshipping the Lord and her treatment of others. It is while she is on her way to worship that she treats Hannah so spitefully! How is it that we can sit in a worship service and praise the Lord, yet immediately think or speak so cruelly of others made in God’s image? Speaking of the tongue, James writes, “With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9–10).  Or as John writes,  “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).

Conclusion: Should We Pity Peninnah?

helenIt is tempting to feel sorry for Peninnah. After all, she is Elkanah’s second choice and she knows it. The reason for her bitterness and spite is because she is not loved with the same measure as Hannah, if at all (1 Sam. 1:5). Elkanah was doubtless guilty of open favoritism, which in a family can be devastating—just ask Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob, who were guilty of the same thing (Gen. 27 and 37). There are two lessons here. First, Elkanah is ultimately responsible for the pain he and his family experienced. If he had trusted God in the first place, he would never have married Peninnah and thus they all would have been spared the grief caused by this less-than-ideal situation (This is further discussed in Elkanah’s character study in chapter 1). Despite the mistake of bigamy, if he had treated his wives more equitably there would have been less room for jealousy.

Second, Peninnah also bears responsibility for her actions. She was clearly seeking her security in the love of her husband rather than in the Lord she was supposedly worshipping. This is not to ignore her very real pain of being loved less; it is only to say that she still had a responsibility for the way she responded. We will not always be loved by others the way we would like to be. Sometimes the circumstances are of our own making, but sometimes they are not. Circumstances may influence attitudes, but they are not the only determining factor. God has given us an ability to choose. We choose to grow bitter or we choose to grow in grace. Circumstances may help or hinder, but the choice is still ours. Today’s society is quick to absolve people of responsibility. “It is my parents’ fault” or “my spouse’s fault” that I am the way I am. This kind of reasoning is foreign to the Bible. It is right to have empathy for people who are in difficult situations with much pain and suffering, but it is wrong for the person in that situation to allow those circumstances to mold their character in a negative way. God is the Potter and he can take any circumstance and use it for good, but we must yield our lives to his gracious, omnipotent hands.

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