Spendlove reframes the biblical story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and Peninnah, who is alleged to have tormented Hannah for her infertility. He argues that the Hebrew noun tsaratah in 1 Samuel 1:6 should be translated as “adversity” rather than “adversary”, leaving no reason to interpret Peninnah as the story’s villain.
In this article, Loren Spendlove discusses the figure of Peninnah in the Old Testament, in connection with the story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, both of whom were polygamous wives to Elkanah. Most translations and commentaries frame Peninnah as a villain who torments Hannah to tears on account of Hannah’s years of infertility. This framing is based on a reference in 1 Samuel 1:6 to an “adversary” who provokes Hannah, in the context of Peninnah herself being described as having several children.
Though scholars take issue with much of that passage’s translation, most important is the underlying Hebrew word, tsaratah, and the word it’s derived from, which generally refer to adverse situations rather than people acting as adversaries. Spendlove thus argues that it’s Hannah’s situation—her adversity–that’s causing her to grieve rather than Peninnah herself—a concept that happens to allow for a better conceptual (and chiastic) link with Hannah’s subsequent grief. This more neutral cast to Peninnah aligns with how the passage is treated in the Septuagint, and by other Jewish and Christian writers before the 5th century CE.
Spendlove reviews a number of such historical treatments, including from Josephus, Cyprian, Gregory Nazianzen, and Augustine, all of whom seem unaware of Peninnah’s adversarial intentions. It isn’t until later midrashic commentaries, such as those of Pseudo Philo, Bava Batra, and Rashi, and the production of the Latin Vulgate (which drew heavily on midrashic tradition, and itself influenced future English translations) that we see Peninnah come to the fore as an active tormentor and adversary. Spendlove suggests that these Hebrew commentors were attempting to elevate Hannah in keeping with other ancient matriarchs, which might have led them to highlight Peninnah as a key rival. As Spendlove indicates in his conclusion:
“Peninnah and her children seem to play the role of counterweight to Hannah’s barrenness. Seeing Peninnah with her children every day must have been excruciating for Hannah in light of her inability to conceive. But, that is no reason to villainize Peninnah…If we feel the need to point a finger of blame, then let us point at Hannah’s closed womb, her real source of depression and grief…It is time to rehabilitate Peninnah from the defamation to which she has been subjected for centuries!”
It’s more than a little heartbreaking to think that Peninnah, who, for all we know, was a good and faithful mother and wife, could have her name unjustly drug through the mud for centuries by some of the most illustrious names in biblical commentary. The very possibility should lead us to be a bit more careful with how we treat biblical and historical figures, or even those in the modern day, when our understanding of their lives is so incomplete and filtered through the opinions of others. Our inclination should lean toward charity, and if exceptions are warranted, it should be based on something stronger than a vague implication of grammar and context. I appreciate Spendlove calling this particular case to our attention, and I’ll look forward to seeing what other ways biblical Hebrew can help rescue us from our ignorance.