As I’ve mentioned before, I have for some time been a member of a group of UCLA faculty (of diverse religious and disciplinary backgrounds) that has met once a week for the past ten years to read the book of Deuteronomy. For the past few months I’ve been the note-taker, substituting for Jack Hirshleifer.
Having finally finished Deuteronomy, we have turned our attention to Samuel. A friend who is a both a member of the group and a reader of this weblog suggested that I start posting the weekly notes. Below is a somewhat edited version of the first two weeks’ work on Samuel; moving at our usual deliberate pace, that has taken us about halfway through Chapter 1.
Here’s the JPS text, for those who don’t have it handy:
1:1 NOW THERE was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim, of the hill-country of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.
1:2 And he had two wives: the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah; and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
1:3 And this man went up out of his city from year to year to worship and to sacrifice unto the Lord of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there priests unto the Lord.
1:4 And it came to pass upon a day, when Elkanah sacrificed, that he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions;
1:5 but unto Hannah he gave a double portion; for he loved Hannah, but the Lord had shut up her womb.
1:6 And her rival vexed her sore, to make her fret, because the Lord had shut up her womb.
1:7 And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, so she vexed her; therefore she wept, and would not eat.
1:8 And Elkanah her husband said unto her: ‘Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?’
Our translations differed radically on the source of Hannah’s suffering. She was childless, and her fertile co-wife Peninnah threw that fact in her face. So much is clear. What wasn’t clear was how this related to the sacrifices at Shiloh.
When Elkanah went to sacrifice, he gave portions to Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. Either (according to one set of translations) he gave Hannah only a single portion, despite her being his favorite, or (according to others) he gave her a “double” or “a worthy” portion, because she was his favorite. (The text says, ki “because.”)
The former interpretation seems to fit better into the succeeding verse, which says “and” Peninnah vexed Hannah, and the verse after, which says the vexation arose every time Elkanah “went up to the house of HaShem.” On this reading, Elkanah was giving out portions per capita, as ritually required, but the result was that he was forced to slight his favorite wife each time, and that his other wife liked to rub Hannah’s nose in it.
But the alternative is also a plausible reading: Elkanah expressed his favor toward the childless Hannah by giving her a double portion, and whenever he did so Peninnah got back at both of them by reminding Hannah that, however ample her supply of sacrificial meat, she had no children with whom to share it.
In verses verses 9-11, Hannah prays for a son, and offers a bargain.
1:9 So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk–now Eli the priest sat upon his seat by the door-post of the temple of the Lord;
1:10 and she was in bitterness of soul–and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore.
1:11 And she vowed a vow, and said: ‘O the Lord of hosts, if Thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of Thy handmaid, and remember me, and not forget Thy handmaid, but wilt give unto Thy handmaid a man-child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.’
This apparently simple passage set off several sets of questions: about Hannah’s bargain, about the nature of the nazir vow, and about the Jewish approach to asceticism.
Though the word nazir is not used, either in this passage or elsewhere, to describe Samuel, the reference to not cutting the hair engages one of three prongs of the nazir vow as defined in Numbers 6: not cutting the hair, not drinking wine or eating grapes, and not coming into contact with corpses. (Was John the Baptist a nazir? The question was raised, but not answered. The Gospels don’t use the word.)
There is no suggestion in Numbers that the nazir vow could be taken vicariously by a parent for a child, but if children are regarded as “belonging” to their parents then the idea of sanctifying a prized possession as a thank-offering seems quite orthodox.
The nazir vow, if we consider it as the Jewish version of ascetic or monastic practice, seems remarkably moderate: no solitude, no silence, no celibacy, not even any prohibition on work and money-handling. Moreover, the vow is usually for a limited period only. And other than the nazir vow, vows of abstinence are largely discountenanced by halakah: Maimonides quotes a rabbinic source as demanding of someone who takes such a vow whether he regards the mitzvot of the Torah as inadequate, so that he needs to invent new mitzvot of his own. (But, as a good Aristotelian, the Rambam praises those who vow to abstain from things which tempt them to immoderate behavior.) On the other hand, by the 18th Century extended fasting was a recognized practice in Eastern European Judaism, and (according to Buber) was one of the targets of Hasidic criticism.
Other than Samson (and the doubtful case of Samuel) no nazir is mentioned in the Tanakh, and Samson is not portrayed favorably. Perhaps, we speculated, the kohanim regarded the nazirim as a threateningly competitive locus of apparent holiness. What social role they actually occupied we don’t know, although the practice is not entirely extinct; apparently one of the recent Sephardic Chief Rabbis of Israel was the son of a nazir.
According to Chronicles, both Elkanah and Hannah were Levites, whose son would in any case be consecrated to serve as a Levite from the age of 25 to the age of 60. Thus the vow of perpetual service made by Hannah on behalf of her yet unconceived son would be only an accentuation of that requirement.
But Samuel is never called a Levite in our text; on the contrary, Elkanah is referred to twice as an Ephraimite, though that might mean, according to the commenters, a dweller in Ephraim rather than a member of the tribe of Ephraim.
Perhaps, we speculated, the Chronicler, as a loyalist of the House of David, was unwilling to associate Samuel with Ephraim, the tribe that supplied the kings of the northern kingdom Israel. On the other hand, Samuel is described as serving in the Temple in ways permitted only to Leviim.