To skip back and start at part one, click here.
In the last post I started talking about the importance of stories, and why I'm so glad the Bible includes tons of them. Here's a story that illuminates Psalm 34:18 for me. It lives in 1 Samuel 1, and it's about a family of Israel who lived near the end of the time of the judges. A man named Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah and Hannah, and Peninnah had children, but Hannah did not.
I think we have hardly any idea how hard this state of affairs was for a woman of ancient Israel or any of the surrounding cultures. Those societies saw childbearing (incorrectly, but nonetheless) as the primary function and place of a woman. A childless wife was a failure, in the most basic possible way. She was unblessed, seen as disregarded or under the wrath of God, and so human people scorned her too.
1 Samuel 1 shows us the effect of barrenness on Hannah. Every year the family would travel to Shiloh, the place where God's Tabernacle was located, to worship and sacrifice. This meant the family would enjoy a feast together -- part of the sacrifice was burned on the altar, but most of it was taken back by the family and eaten as an act of worship and thankfulness for God's gifts. As head of the family, Elkanah presided over this feast, and so it was his job to give portions of the meat to everyone. But the story says that he always gave Hannah a double portion, because he wanted her to know that he loved her, despite her lack of children.
I kind of want to give Elkanah points for this. He was at least trying to make things better for his beloved, struggling wife. But he went about it in a bad way. I bet you can imagine, without thinking about it too hard, how his constant favoritism of Hannah made his other wife, Peninnah, feel.
The Bible is very clear that polygamy is always a bad scene. It never goes well, and Elkanah's three-spouse family is no exception. Though Elkanah tries to comfort Hannah, Peninnah needles her so badly Hannah weeps and gets so upset she can't eat -- she can't even enjoy the double portion her husband gives her, the double portion that fans the flames of his second wife's jealousy, causing her to abuse Hannah even more, making her more upset. It is a truly awful cycle to imagine, one that could only negatively affect everyone involved -- including, quite probably, Peninnah's children. They are not mentioned, but this is clearly not the picture of a happy, nurturing family home.
Talk about a picture of brokenheartedness.
One year, for a reason the scripture doesn't explain, Hannah does something different. 1 Samuel 1:9 says Hannah got up; this is not just saying that she stood up from the meal, it indicates that she rose up into action, that she chose to do something. Hannah went out from her family, up to the front of the sanctuary and prayed, so deeply and passionately that she wept and wept. And this is the part of the story that shows us what Psalm 34:18 means, that the LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
We don't get to see the full content of Hannah's prayer. The Bible doesn't tell us all her words. But it does tell us this: Hannah makes a vow to God, saying that if he gives her a son, she will give that son back to God. She will dedicate him to the service of the LORD for his whole life, which means that she will give him up to God's service at the Tabernacle, rather than keep him with her.
Why does Hannah do this, and what does it mean? How does all of this illuminate Psalm 34:18? Come on back next time, and we'll talk about it.