The 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?
Peninnah 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)
The 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)
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.
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?
It 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.