[TW: fertility grief]
1 Samuel 1:4 – 17
4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” [continue reading…]
I want to talk about girl hate.
Girl hate is when a woman gets a promotion and instead of her fellow womyn and gender minorities celebrating her hard work, they see her as a threat.
Girl hate is when facebook is plastered with womyn making a mockery of all those ‘dumb girls’ who just got engaged because instead of celebrating another’s happiness, pseudo-feminist bitterness is seen is clever and cool.
Girl hate is tearing down other womyn so that we can buffer our own insecurities and jealousies with a line of fire sure to hurt other womyn worse than their success scares us.
Girl hate is (at least partially to blame) when mothers say a child deserves to be body slammed at school for speaking her mind.
Girl hate is not the only expression of patriarchy, or racism, or injustice – but it is an engine that drives patriarchy forward. And girl hate is not solely perpetuated by womyn. Girl hate reinforces the idea that womyn are each other’s competition, girl hate instantiates that a woman’s worth is in relation to men or to masculine power, and girl hate keeps us fighting each other instead of standing in solidarity.
In the text today I see a classic example of girl hate.
Penninah has children. Hannah does not.
Hannah and Penninah’s worth are defined by their relationship to men. Who their father was. Who they were married to. How many sons they have produced. Penninah has won the motherload with, well, being a mother – she has reached the highest rung on a short ladder to power and she is determined that she, and she alone, will keep her position at the top.
It’s easy for us to say this is a remnant of those bygone patriarchal times – to laugh at the ludicrousness of womyn lamenting over their inability to conceive.
This would be a mistake. Fertility grief is still very real and is about far more than a longing for power. Fertility may have been a means of power, but I am not saying that Hannah’s desire for children was only a lust for power. Hannah’s pain is multi-faceted.
And the patriarchal context of womyn tearing down other womyn from spaces of limited or marginal power is – as i’ve said – still an incredibly real phenomenon.
And girl hate hurts.
Hannah is blistered by Penninah’s cruelty. She feels worthless. Elkanah loves her – and this is a treasure, perhaps the treasure that fuels Penninah’s jealousy. Elkanah does not shame his wife, nor blame her for their shared infertility – and in this, he is a good and faithful husband. But he is also a man with two wives who does nothing to intervene on Hannah’s behalf. For all his love, Hannah still does not feel heard.
So she takes her sorrow to God.
“O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, do not forget me – and give me a male child!”
Hannah may feel the deep, acute ache of longing for a child but finding nothing but barriers. Hannah may know the boundlessness of the love she has to give but the sorrow that stretches wider when that love has nowhere to go.
And Hannah prays because she sees her infertility as inadequacy.
Hannah laments because feels worthless.
And all the while Hannah is praying, the priest Eli has been watching her from the doorway.
Eli stood in the doorway.
Eli is the clergyman who stands in the door, thinking he or she can stand between someone and their access to God in God’s house. Eli is so preoccupied with holiness, with appropriate worship that he does not see the holiness in Hannah’s wild sorrow.
The text says Hannah is praying in her heart, but her lips are moving – and because of this, her voice is not heard.
Her voice is not heard.
While being silent and not being heard may look like the same thing, Eli clearly does not hear Hannah. No one but God, it seems, hears Hannah.
And because she laments in a forced silence Eli thinks she is drunk.
Eli thinks she is a spectacle, something to be laughed at, sneered at, mocked –
A spectacle is something done for public consumption.
And when Eli, full of his own self-righteousness, tells Hannah she is a drunken spectacle, Hannah will not have it.
Somewhere in her lamentations – maybe the author was too busy writing down Eli’s stupidity to record the exact moment – somewhere, Hannah had a revelation.
“Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman,” she tells Eli.
Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman.
Hannah came to the temple feeling worthless. By the standards of her girl-world, of the patriarchal obsession with womyn as vessels for production – Hannah was worthless.
“Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman!”
Somewhere, somewhere in her prayers, Hannah has realized something – Hannah’s worth is not bound up in what Eli thinks. Hannah’s worth is not bound up in her genitalia, in her womb, in her capacity for reproduction. In her lament, Hannah saw herself stripped bare –
and she saw how beautiful she really is.
“for I have been speaking out of my anxiety and vexation all this time.”
All this time, I have been naming my fears and my sisters did not hear me – instead, they jeered at me, mocked me because their inch of power was more precious than our solidarity.
All this time I have been naming to God what I need because no one around me will hear what I have to say
And all this time you have been laughing at my suffering like my desire to be with God in God’s house is nothing more than a spectacle.
Bumbling, Eli clambers for the higher ground – he clears his throat, he draws up taller, maybe straightens his stole or thumbs his collar. Better yet if he throws in a paternalistic wink to remind Hannah that she’s just a girl, anyways – “God grant your request.” He says.
Like Eli can tell God what to do.
Like patronizing one-liners – “just pray harder,” or, “it happened for a reason” or “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle” – are all the pastor needs to do in the face of grief.
But Hannah is no long willing to not be heard. So she looks at Eli and says “Let your servant find favor in your sight.”
Hannah has fallen to her knees before God, begging God to remember her.
And somewhere in that conversation with God, Hannah found her worth. She is no longer willing to let Eli continue to mock her pain by not taking her seriously.
We can and we should bring our lamentations to God, as Hannah does. Hannah straight up tells God that God has forgotten her – and God can handle Hannah’s anger.
But sometimes, we do well to remember God’s answers to our prayers can be empowering us to be bold. Sometimes, our actions are the answers to our prayers. Sometimes, it is up to us to remind Eli that this is God’s house, not his.
Sometimes we need reminding that this is God’s house, not ours alone.
“Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank, and was not sad any longer.”
Hannah is not given a promise by God. Unlike Sarah, whose barrenness is always countered by the promise that God will give her a son – Hannah is not given anything
Eventually, yes, Hannah is remembered by God and gives birth to a son.
But if we read as Hannah having a boy as her “happy ending,” than we are doing her a serious disservice. Because the text doesn’t say, “Hannah went home and was sad until she learned she was pregnant.” The text says ,
“Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank, and was not sad any longer.”
This isn’t to say that knowing our worth necessitates happiness – sometimes, knowing our worth helps us grieve more deeply. But Hannah chooses to let her grief empower her.
She leaves her sadness behind when she gets up and swaggers out of the temple,
Because she leaves behind her sadness when she realizes it does not matter that God has not promised her a male heir. It does not matter that Penninah will keep mocking her.
Hannah leaves her sadness behind her when she realizes she has worth.
Her worth is in being a bold, audacious daughter of God. And nothing – no barrenness, no fertility grief, no girl hate, no patriarchy, will take that from her. Nothing can take her worth – not being barred from the pulpit, not bad biblical hermeneutics, not submission doctrines, not purity pledges, not permanent placements in associate pastor roles, not a lower salary, not an attempt to take away her right to her body, not being bodyslammed in a school desk for speaking her mind –
None of these evils, no matter how much they try, none of these can take away the worth of a child of God.
Because Hannah – lamenting, barren, womanly, wild Hannah – she, too, is made in God’s image.