Wil Gafney: The Other Woman

Today’s Scripture reading is 1 Samuel 1:1–6 in part [1 Samuel 1:1–2, 4–6], from the reading for Proper 7, Year A in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, the source of the translation.

1 Samuel 1:1 Now there was a particular man of Ramathaim of Tzophim from the hill [country] of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah ben Yerocham ben Elihu ben Tohu ben Tzuph, an Ephraimite. 2And he had two women; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the second was Peninnah. And it was that Peninnah had children, but for Hannah there were no children… 4Now, it was the day on which Elkanah would offer-sacrifice and he gave portions to Peninnah his woman and to all her daughters and sons, 5but to Hannah he gave an additional portion, because he loved her, because the Holy One of Old had closed her womb. 6Now her rival vexed her; vexation for the sake of producing contention because the Holy One had closed her womb.

May the spoken word draw us into the written word where we may encounter the living Word. Amen.

The Other Woman.

A familiar story can become too familiar. If you know the story, just a couple of words are enough for you to know where it is going, what happens, who is the heroine and who is the villain. Some stories tell us how to read them. Today’s passage in 1 Samuel is one of those. Set in the man-centered world of the Hebrew Scriptures, it begins with a man even though it is going to be about one woman and another woman – the other woman – presented as her rival. Though, if we tell the truth, the whole thing is a setup to tell the story of a man who will be responsible for getting yet another man on the throne of Israel. But this is not that story. Today the story is about two women and, more particularly, the woman we have been taught to see as the other woman.

As it is written, the women’s story is about Hannah. She is named first and the story is told from her perspective, though not in her voice. Peninnah, the other woman, is presented as her, Hannah’s, rival. But what about Peninnah’s story? Who speaks for her? What would she say were she allowed to speak in her own voice, tell her own story, and not just as a character in Hannah’s story? What happens to the story when we hear it from the woman we’ve been trained to categorize as “the other woman”? Would it be the same story, perhaps just from a different perspective? Or would it be an entirely different story? And would we, in hearing that story, discover a word that leads to life, love, liberation - a word that we would have missed if we had continued to tell the old story the old way?

The rabbinic practice of midrash is a story-telling practice. It is a series of literary and linguistic techniques rooted in the study of the Hebrew text of a passage and in the interpretative practices of the rabbis in the first few centuries of the Common Era. With these tools in their tool kit, the rabbis ask questions of the text and their characters that others might have missed. They give voice to and sometimes names to characters who are on the margins of the scriptures. They provide a model for reading between the lines of a text and staying faithful to its interpretive tradition. Following in their footsteps while making a few of my own, I ask Peninnah to tell us her story even if it isn’t in the text.

Peninnah tells us a story of the pain of a loveless marriage. She tells us of the degradation of being used for her body and then left for the woman she considers the other woman. She tells of the humiliation of welcoming her husband back each time on his terms knowing he is going to leave again. She tells a story of unanswered prayer. Peninnah tells a story of being trapped in a patriarchal system with people who have the power to overturn it but are too busy enjoying its benefits.

“That’s just the way it was; everybody did it.” That’s what they said about slavery too. “They just didn’t see it back then like we do now.” But you know who always knew that slavery was wrong? The enslaved. The ones who are never asked or accounted for when people say that’s just the way it was. It’s easy to say polygamy was the norm in those days. But that is never true and I almost never speak or preach in absolutes.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob put the patriarch in patriarchy, yet Isaac did not follow in his father’s polygamous footsteps. He did not force enslaved women to bear his children. Perhaps because he grew up in a family where that was the norm and he saw it all - all the ugliness of it - up close and personal. He decided to go another way. Then his sons had two models from which to choose: they had his model of a lifelong monogamous love, and they had his father’s model of sister-wives in bitter competition using the bodies of enslaved women to score points with him in a baby-making contest. And they chose the option that put women in competition with each other for love and security.

Hannah’s husband Elkanah also chose polygamy. He chose to take another woman because being without children, being without a son, was a great shame in his culture and he refused to accept it. And because he lived in a system that gave him options even though it limited those of other people – women – he embraced them. He made a choice, and from that moment he had the responsibility to live as justly as he could in an unjust system. To do justice by the two women he brought into his household. And for that matter, to do right by Peninnah’s children, his children, who saw him slight their mother in public. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Elkanah loved Hannah, but he seems to have had no love for Peninnah. He commiserated with Hannah over the pain in her heart from the emptiness of her womb, and he demonstrated his love for her publicly but, more than that, he demonstrated his partiality and preference for her and her love, her hurts and her hopes in Peninnah’s face before God and everyone else when they went to worship. In biblical language, he put Peninnah to shame when she had done nothing wrong and everything right according to their shared cultural values and the patriarchal system she found herself trapped in.

And so, she acted out. She acted out against the one who symbolized her hurt, but not against the one whose power hurt her and kept her in her hurt. That’s how patriarchy and other systems of power work: they keep the people at the bottom fighting each other rather than joining together and fighting the systems that trap us, as the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems taught us in her analysis of Sarah and Hagar.

The text makes it sound like it was because of his love for Hannah that Elkanah disregarded Peninnah. That’s a mighty thin love. I’m not talking about a love that binds two people together closer than to anyone else in their lives. I’m talking about calling something love that is used to hurt someone else and hurt them publicly where everyone can see. That’s not love, at least not a mature love. For there is enough room and grace in a full-grown, well-rounded love that it spills over to folk not inside its inner circle.

If you ask Peninnah, she might’ve told you that she was willing to get by on the crumbs of love that fell from the table of Hannah and Elkanah’s love. In fact, the gospel lesson with which this lesson is paired is the story of a woman begging Jesus for crumbs of healing like a dog begging for scraps under the master’s table. In that story, what looks like a stingy love for some soon becomes a full-throated, open-hearted love embracing everyone and welcoming them to the table.

Peninnah’s story is a story of hard truths that looks more like the world in which we live today than Hannah’s story. She teaches us that you can do what’s right as far as you know how and still get your heart broken. She teaches that people with power will almost always choose power and use that power to get what they want no matter who they hurt. And she teaches that no system of domination survives on the power of the powerful alone. Rather, patriarchy survives because patriarchal women embrace its bankrupt promises in order to get a little privilege, just as some Black people and people of many colors embrace white supremacist cultural values and biases in hope of being granted the perilous protections of being counted as “one of the good ones.”

Though the biblical narrator’s intent was to tell a glorious story of David’s rise and fall starting the long way around beginning with Samuel, they left us an entirely different story in the words of Peninnah, even though she doesn’t open her mouth or say a mumbling word, syllable, or letter credited to her in the text. Yet, she speaks volumes. She speaks of the love of power, hierarchy and domination that endures today. She speaks of those who use whatever privilege they have to grind someone else down rather than lift them up. And she speaks of the idolization of romantic love in a world that is starving for true love, love that never fails, love that is wide enough and deep enough to feed every hungry heart.

The love of God surrounds us though it can be hard to see when we focus on our bitterness and brokenness. It can be even harder to recognize when our litmus test for God’s love is the one thing we’ve been praying and aching for that has never come to pass and perhaps never will. Even so, the love of God is still there. Yet, the love of God can be hard to feel when the people who are supposed to be ambassadors of God’s love are too busy networking in the systems of power to love one another as God loves us.

The good news to Peninnah – and she is still in the world today – is that the love of God is with us and will never leave or forsake us. God has always been Emmanuel, God with us. Through fire and through flood, through exodus and through exile, through slavery and liberation, through war and peace, though conquered or conquering, through want and plenty, in sickness and health, in and out of love.

And now, the love of God has come into the world in warm brown human skin. Jesus is the Love of God incarnate. And with the love of Jesus come the ability and the responsibility to tear down the systems that dominate and subjugate, that we might truly be the love of God in the world as the sisters and siblings, brothers and mothers, fathers and friends of Jesus, who loved us to death and then into life that we might never stop loving.

In the name of God, who is love; Jesus, the love that is stronger than death; and the Holy Spirit, who covers us and fills us with her love, Amen.