Her name was Peninnah. Have you heard of her? She is known for so little but I believe she was much more complex. Her limited biblical narrative can teach us a fundamental truth: no matter how much we might feel unloved by those around us, God loves us always.
She was Elkanah’s lesser known wife and just that title alone brings me to lend a certain pity to her. Although I’ve never been married to a polygamist, I unknowingly and unwillingly shared my previous husband with other women and it broke my heart. Due to the social paradigm of that time period, Peninnah was required to share her beloved Elkanah with another woman named Hannah, who was the woman who prayed for a child and in return devoted him (Samuel) to the Lord.
So why do we only hear of Peninnah in a couple of verses? As a matter of fact, her name is only written 3 times, then she is once referred to as Hannah’s “adversary.” (1 Samuel 1:6)
1 Samuel 1:1-8 tells us that Elkanah had two wives: Hannah and Peninnah. Hannah’s womb was closed but Peninnah had children. The entire family made one of their annual pilgrimages to Shiloh, the religious center, and during their worship and sacrifice, Elkanah gave single portions of his meat to Peninnah and her children but Hannah received double because “he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Samuel 1:5). Peninnah would provoke Hannah and torment her until Hannah’s emotions took over. Eventually Hannah did conceive and we never hear of Peninnah again, thus her status in this blog series on ‘Lesser Known Women of the Bible.’ How do we respond to those who are lesser known? Cautiously, of course, because by definition we must fill in some of the blanks.
Here are some things we DO know. First, she was in a polygamous marriage. Wow! I am so thankful that polygamy is illegal and morally wrong. It’s important to know that God did not establish polygamy, humans did:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NIV).
Second, we know that Hannah could not bear children and Peninnah could. It was frowned upon if a man’s wife could not bear children and thus, divorce was authorized; but in this case, Elkanah loved Hannah, and kept her. But he also had this additional wife, Peninnah, who could yield him offspring.
Third, we know that the ability to bear children (or not) was a source of tension between the two women in this story. It is interesting to note that socially, Hannah would have been the outcast; but the text indicates that inside the home, Peninnah was the less favored. That reminds us that what happens in public doesn’t always reflect what’s going on behind closed doors.
I suspect that from the beginning, Peninnah was second best. She may have been chosen only to fulfill childbearing needs and might not have received a significant amount of love or affection from Elkanah. The bitterness and loneliness that would have resided in her heart was likely revealed in her actions toward Hannah. I don’t know any wife who would not resent the “other woman.” No matter what the cultural norm of the time, people are still people. No woman likes to share her marriage bed. Because it was unheard of, Peninnah didn’t display her disgust and frustration toward Elkanah; so she turned to Hannah, the only other one she could attribute her agony to. As Hannah managed her own grief, so did Peninnah.
Maybe Peninnah did ask the Lord to change her husband’s heart and love her more; we don’t know. She may have felt she had no one to adore and appreciate her, even though she wore beautiful titles: mother, wife, and as a Hebrew, child of God.
We may have only read her name three times in scripture but the point is she had a name. I’m kind of in love with this truth right here:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1, NIV).
She was relevant and worthy and just as important as Hannah. She could’ve reacted differently to her perceived lack of regard and treated Hannah more fairly, for of course, this wasn’t Hannah’s fault. She also could have focused more on her abilities and blessings rather than on her rivalry with Hannah. If only she had been armed with Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:8, “ Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” I don’t know about you but I often have a hard time doing that. Sometimes our flesh takes over and our desires become more important than someone else’s. Our feelings are more prevalent for one simple reason- because they are OURS.
Just like Peninnah, I too, have felt disregarded and inadequate, and if I allowed him, the devil would still be feeding me those lies. I’ve also reacted to this pain in ways that didn’t serve Christ or me. Thankfully, I came to know a living God who set me free from destructive thoughts and paths, and set my feet on solid ground. Thank God we have a Savior, Jesus, who gives us hope and salvation so we don’t have to TRY so hard; we can just be, and rest at his feet while He feeds us truth and graciousness; so much so that we are full of His love and there’s no room for what the enemy is delivering.
We can learn from this woman barely mentioned: God loves us all more than any human can, and in those moments of feeling unloved, He is the one who will provide the ultimate affection we desire. So let’s have an understanding, non-judgmental heart that loves and prays above all other emotions or actions; and if we are Peninnah, may we have the spiritual maturity to speak to God about our dissatisfaction and trust He will listen.