by Yannis Ng (University of Leeds, UK)
Yannis Ng is PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Formerly, she studied Bible and theology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her PhD research focuses on Hebrew Bible wisdom literature (primarily, Ecclesiastes and Job) and trauma-informed and bystander approaches.
A version of this paper was presented at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Theology on Wednesday, 19 April 2023.
The story of Elkanah and his wives Peninnah and Hannah is in 1 Samuel 1. Here Peninnah, a mother, provokes Hannah, who has no child and yearns for one, year by year when the household go to an annual sacrifice. Upon such provocation, Hannah weeps and will not eat. Elkanah then asks Hannah four questions in response to her pain. He asks: ‘Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?’
This paper focuses on how Elkanah and Hannah are described, and on how these descriptions are disputable. After that, I introduce controlling and coercive behaviour. Then I re-read the story and illustrate how Elkanah’s questions relate to tactics of coercive control. Finally, I talk about how Hannah’s response demonstrates self-empowerment in the face of coercive control.
ELKANAH AND HANNAH
The relationship between Elkanah and Hannah is regularly described by commentators as sweet and supportive. Elkanah gives a (double) portion to Hannah because he loves her ‘even though’ she is ‘barren’ (1:5). (The word ‘barren’ occurs in many English translations. It is a harsh word referring to the pain that is involuntary childlessness.) Elkanah, so it is widely accepted, loves Hannah. Then, Elkanah’s response to Hannah is appreciated as one of comfort and acceptance. He is described as a caring and compassionate husband. Hannah’s silence is sometimes criticised for being ungrateful towards Elkanah’s comfort. This couple presents an intimate partnership.
HOWEVER, THERE IS MORE TO IT THAN THAT…
- Doesn’t Elkanah know why Hannah weeps and refuses to eat?
The text tells us that Peninnah provokes Hannah severely year by year (vv.6–7). If Elkanah knows the reason, he seems to accept, even to justify Peninnah’s bullying behaviour and overlooks or mitigates the harm done to Hannah.
- He finds her heart is ‘sad’, or rather, ‘bad’
Though this question velameh yera levavekh is commonly translated as asking why Hannah has a sad, or aggrieved mood, the Hebrew text states her heart is yera (bad). This is contrasted with Elkanah himself who is tov (good) to Hannah in the consecutive question.
In verses 17–18, Eli answers Hannah that the God of Israel will grant her petition. Then, the English translation has, ‘her countenance was sad no longer’. This seems to support that Hannah’s heart was sad; however, the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain here. There are no words descriptive of sadness; the Hebrew reads, literally, ‘her face was not anymore’—with no mood adjective.
McCarter, in his commentary, interprets Elkanah’s question differently as, ‘why are you so wretched?’,i because, in Deuteronomy 15:10, yera levavekh refers to a grudging heart (NRSV, ESV). In this case, Elkanah’s question does not show regard for Hannah’s sadness. Moreover, the Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament suggests a translation for yera in this verse of ‘discontented’.ii The question would be, ‘why is your heart discontented?’.
- The final question is a trick question, or maybe a rhetorical question.
After three why-questions, Elkanah asks ‘Am I not better to you than ten sons?’ He offers Hannah two options: either, to opt for him; or, for ten sons. But she does not have ten sons; she does not have even one. Having ten sons is probably an unachievable target. Between Elkanah and ten sons, her only choice is Elkanah.
- He is not prepared to listen to her answers.
Elkanah asks multiple questions without leaving time for her to answer. This is unlikely to be an expression of caring or comfort, but rather, exposes his annoyance at Hannah’s weeping, and her ‘bad’ mood.
Therefore, Elkanah’s response maybe does not reflect any comfort or acceptance of Hannah’s infertility. Instead, he blames Hannah’s heart and is not taking care of her or showing compassion. The partnership between this couple may be complicated and not one of reciprocal love and care.
CONTROLLING AND COERCIVE BEHAVIOURS
Before re-reading the story, let me introduce the concept of controlling and coercive behaviour. This is a well-documented and common type of domestic abuse.
According to the Statutory guidance framework: controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship from Home Office,
Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape, and regulating their everyday behaviour.
Coercive behaviour is: a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.iii
Since this guidance is aimed at police and criminal justice agencies involved in the investigation of offences, the descriptions are legalistic.
A description from the perspective of psychiatry tells us more practically about a feature of coercive control:
[…] it is a self-perpetuating form of abuse because so much of the controlling behaviour is about preparing and maintaining the internal environment of the relationship so that the controlee has no power to question it and/or feels he or she has no credibility in order to reach out to outsiders for help.iv
This description tells us of the controlling and coercive behaviours situated in and maintaining an intimate partnership. Here the perpetrator and the victim are confined, and the victim has no agency to seek help.
An expert in coercive control studies, Evan Stark, highlights that the aim of coercive control is, ‘to usurp and master a partner’s subjectivity’.v
RE-READING ELKANAH’S BEHAVIOURS WITH CONTROL AND COERCIVE BEHAVIOUR
Let us now re-read Elkanah’s questions with the perspective of controlling or coercive behaviours. I am not going to prove that Elkanah is a coercive perpetrator, but I would like to sensitise readers to consider the possibility and to note the tactics that coercive perpetrators use to control and confuse their partners. According to the Controlling or Coercive Behaviour: Statutory Guidance Framework recently published by the Home Office, perpetrator tactics can be categorised into four categories: 1) Threats and intimidation, 2) manipulation, 3) exploitation, and 4) sabotage.vi The categorisations may vary across different disciplines. I adopt this categorisation from the Statutory Guidance Framework because it aims to provide information for identifying offences and reducing risk to victims.vii I position myself and readers among the general public, who may or may not have experienced coercive control (consciously or otherwise).
Questions 1 and 2: Threats and Intimidation
- Before Elkanah asks, ‘Why do you weep? Why do you not eat?’, Elkanah has already given his wives a portion (or portions) in verses 4 to 5. He may expect Hannah to eat and drink at the feast, expressing joy and gratitude. When she does not, the question ‘why do you not eat?’ could connote threat: Hannah is falling short of Elkanah’s expectation.
- Threats to remove care, or not to undertake caring responsibilities that the victim relies on, is a tactic of intimidation. This may escalate to exploitation because Elkanah could use his power to refrain from supplying food altogether.
- Asking ‘why do you weep?’ may also reflect Hannah’s helplessness. These questions further humiliate her: weeping and not eating are useless for resisting controlling or coercive behaviours.
Question 3: Manipulation and Sabotage
- Elkanah asks, ‘why is your heart discontented?’ This question blames Hannah, the victim, and suggests she is ungrateful.
- This kind of blaming can be a manipulative tactic: making false allegations against victims, pretending their controlling tactics are for the victim’s own safety. The depiction of Hannah as an ungrateful wife renders Elkanah as a kind and generous husband.
- The depiction of Hannah’s discontented heart also harms her image in the public sphere. It demeans and devalues Hannah and puts guilt and shame on her.
- This kind of depiction can be sabotaging. A tactic that perpetrators deploy to interfere in victims’ personal or professional opportunities or to frustrate a police investigation. This includes claiming victims are mentally ill, so their statements are not trustworthy.
- Elkanah, in contrast, is depicted as a good husband. Hannah’s weeping and not eating are due to her discontentment with his love. Therefore, he himself can remain innocent in the conflict between his wives.
Question 4: Intimidation and Manipulation
- When Elkanah asks whether he is better than ten sons, Hannah cannot reply that having ten sons is better to her than Elkanah. Otherwise, she may make him angry or lose his protection because Elkanah has the power to abandon her.
- He also has control over whether she can possibly conceive ten, or any sons. Both options offered are actually under Elkanah’s control. He knows her vulnerabilities, that she has no other support and protection. He also understands her deepest desire of having a son. The dependence on physical needs and protection puts a vulnerable person at greater risk of intimidation, because a perpetrator has control over all their needs.
- Hannah could have more choices, besides either Elkanah’s love, or ten sons. He decides for her that staying with him is the only way she can go. Meanwhile, he permits Peninnah’s provocation. Indeed, his ‘love’ for Hannah makes the relationship between Peninnah and Hannah worse.
- The options offered devalue all Hannah’s other relationships, isolate her from any support network, and hinder potential solutions. Elkanah has decided for her that being his wife is the only option. This question renders her a person who does not know what is good for herself.
- So, this yes-no question not only limits her options, it can also be a tactic of manipulation. This manipulation tactic obscures the facts and creates doubt. This question together with the previous questions creates confusion and instils doubt about her feelings. These doubts can make a victim forget why she responds as she does in the first place, direct her to query her responses and render her vulnerable to trusting a perpetrator’s ‘comforting’ decision.
RE-READING HANNAH’S RESPONSE WITH COERCIVE CONTROL BEHAVIOUR
Reading the text with the perspective of controlling and coercive behaviours can illustrate how power can be used by a perpetrator on their victim, but we can also see how a victim can empower herself in the face of abuse. After her husband asks her those controlling and coercive questions, Hannah neither responds directly nor endures helplessly. Hannah looks for an opportunity to get away from the immediate pressures.
- She seeks alternatives and breaks old patterns
Not giving a reply to Elkanah’s questions, she goes to pray to her God (vv.9–11). Hannah recognises her identity, not only as the wife of Elkanah, but also as a servant of the LORD. She makes her vow to the LORD as an alternative to Elkanah’s ‘choices’ of either having Elkanah or ten sons. Her action is a form of resistance.
After she has borne Samuel, Hannah does not go up together with Elkanah and all his household to the yearly sacrifice (vv.20–22). Though she still belongs to him, she does not stick with the pattern. The pattern is most likely set up by her husband, but she again demonstrates agency and resistance and opts out.
- She speaks up.
Having built up her own identity, Hannah now speaks up for herself. She resists Elkanah’s request of going up to the yearly sacrifice (v.21) and voices that her determination is to wait until she has weaned her son, and then to offer him as a Nazirite and let him remain at the sanctuary forever (v.22).
Her vow is from her own volition using ‘I’ (vv.26–28) and reflects her self-identity and autonomy to do what is best for herself. As she has decided to offer Samuel to the LORD, she vows, ‘I have lent him to the LORD’ rather than ‘we have lent’.
- She protects herself and her son
Having a son may release Hannah from Peninnah’s provocation. She asks for a son, not a child, or a daughter. In that time, a woman needed male protection.
However, it is odd to ask for a child from God, then offering the child to God. Having a relationship with a controlling and coercive abuser, the custody of the child might entail further harms and threats to her, as well as to the child. Offering her son to the LORD may be a way to protect the son from becoming a tool for manipulation. This also limits Elkanah’s power to deploy his controlling and coercive tactics through Samuel, the son.
Rereading the first book of Samuel chapter 1 verse 8, Elkanah’s four questions escalate in terms of exertion of control. My rereading demonstrates how a veneer of care can hide cajoling and controlling behaviour within an intimate relationship where there is power imbalance. This rereading is not judging Elkanah as perpetrator but seeks to sensitise readers to the means and tactics of coercive control. The reading of Hannah’ response may illustrate how controlees can empower themselves to reduce risk of harm to them and their loved ones.
At the presentation at the SST conference, members of the audience asked me how the narration of the LORD’s closing Hannah’s womb relates to my reading. They also asked how other people relate to the relationship between Elkanah and Hannah. These questions reflect the complicated power dynamics in the story and how other people can be involved in and affected by coercive control in different ways. Due to time constraints, my paper focused only on Elkanah as potentially coercive – not on God, or Peninnah, or Eli, as well. There is definitely potential for further research.
Another question proposed that Peninnah also suffers from Elkanah’s coercive control and that she directs her own pain towards Hannah. I am reminded of a contextual Bible reading of this passage, which I conducted with domestic workers in Hong Kong. One of them identified with Peninnah. She had children with her husband, but her husband also had an extra-marital relationship with another woman and provided financial support to this woman. This, in turn, made the wife feel deprived of resources and resentful towards the other woman. This perspective would again direct us to feeling differently – both towards the ‘good’ husband Elkanah, and towards his less favoured wife Peninnah.
The power dynamics among the biblical figures in 1 Samuel 1 are significant and worthy of more study. The perspective of coercive control can, I argue, shed some light on this story, as well as open up questions for present-day predicaments and situations.