Every ancient kingdom has records and legends of how it came into existence, from Babylon and Assyria to Persia and Greece, but none of their founding stories give as much deference and dignity to women than the founding story of Israel’s monarchy.
In the Old Testament, the books of 1 and 2 Samuel chronicle the rise of Israel’s first kings and the establishment of the Davidic monarchy. This is where we see the boy, David, anointed as king; his son, Solomon, builds the temple in Jerusalem; and it is also where we see the rise of Israel’s first monarchial prophets, beginning with Samuel himself. These are huge milestones in the history of ancient Israel, and if you haven’t read these two books, we highly encourage you do so!
But what is most intriguing about this monarchial account is that it begins with the story of an ordinary woman named Hannah. In the first few verses of 1 Samuel, we learn that she is the wife of Elkanah, an Ephrathite (v. 1), and that she has no children (v. 2). To be motherless in the ancient Near East was a deep pain for women, but to make things worse, Elkanah had a second wife named Peninnah, who had many children and who taunted Hannah for her lack (v. 6).
This might sound like a mundane introduction at first to the book of 1 Samuel, but it is really quite incredible! At the Art of Taleh, we talk a lot about frames in stories because they are always intentional and they always serve a purpose. Here, we have the story of Israel’s great kings and prophets framed by a woman’s daily experiences of marriage and motherhood. Now, why would the author of 1 Samuel do that? What role does Hannah play in the future narrative of Israel’s monarchy?
We see later in this first chapter that Hannah becomes the mother of Samuel, Israel’s first royal prophet (v. 19-20). More importantly, what we see in the verses that follow (v. 21-28) is a godly woman who loves, teaches and dedicates her child in the service of the Lord. Samuel is a godly prophet, but behind Samuel is the godly woman who raised him…and this what 1 Samuel declares to be the pivotal foundation to the subsequent rise of Israel’s monarchy!
Hannah is not treated as a minor character within this political narrative. She is neither passed over nor omitted. This is important because in other ancient legends, if a woman is mentioned, she normally serves the purpose of martyr, i.e., a mere tool to be used, abused and pawned by men. Think of, for example, the story of Lucretia in the founding story of the Roman Republic. This woman is raped, shamed and then forced to kill herself and, later, the father of her attacker, uses her experience to justify an uprising that leads to what we eventually called Rome.
Hannah is not Lucretia. She is not abused by men, but rather honored before both man and God. She is not a martyr. It is her life, not her death that is celebrated. Her body is not a pawn, but rather a dignified vessel. Most importantly, the account of her experiences, emotions and actions sets the tone for the treatment and interpretation of other women in the monarchial records of 1 Samuel, including Abigail who we read about in Chapter 25.
If there was ever a question about how Israel’s account of its kings and monarchial history differs from the other nations around it, their treatment of women is certainly one of major differences, and we have much to be grateful for that!
Want to learn more about kings in the Bible? Check out our study of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, in Daniel 4 here.