Last week our study group discussed the beginning of the First Book of Samuel, Hannah’s suffering and vow. This week, we discussed her interaction with Eli the priest.
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.’
1:12 And it came to pass, as she prayed long before the Lord, that Eli watched her mouth.
1:13 Now Hannah, she spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard; therefore, Eli thought she had been drunken.
1:14 And Eli said unto her: ‘How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee.’
1:15 And Hannah answered and said: ‘No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I poured out my soul before the Lord.
1:16 Count not thy handmaid for a wicked woman: for out of the abundance of my complaint and my vexation have I spoken hitherto.’
1:17 Then Eli answered and said: ‘Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant thy petition that thou hast asked of Him.’
1:18 And she said: ‘Let thy servant find favour in thy sight.’ So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.
The Talmud, it turns out, makes a big deal of this passage; from it are derived some of the basic rules about prayer in general, and in particular for the daily recitation of the amidah. The irony that a woman’s prayer should create the norm for a prayer obligatory on men only was duly noted.
Hannah “spoke in her heart,” but with her lips moving. It was remarked that recent neurological research shows that doing so stimulates brain centers that are not activated by thinking of words without moving one’s lips.
It seems that there are four possibilities: to pray aloud, to pray as Hannah did with one’s lips moving but silently, to pray with words but entirely internally, or to pray without words (bordering on meditation, but perhaps not the same thing).
The text doesn’t make it clear how much of Hannah’s discourse was of the lips-moving-silently variety. Was her vow made in that way, or did she make the vow aloud and then continue in silent, fervent prayer?
That interpretation seems to be excluded by the fact that Eli was sitting by the doorpost the whole time; if her vow was made aloud, he would surely have known that she was not drunk, and would have known what she was praying for rather than having to say merely “the God of Israel grant thy petition that thou hast asked of Him.”
(Eli’s cluelessness throughout the passage helps set up his limp response to his sons’ misconduct and the consequent disestablishment of his house from the High Priesthood.)
We were unclear on the meaning of Hannah’s assertion that she had drunk “neither wine nor strong drink.” Had someone invented distillation back then? (We thought not.) Or perhaps the freezing process that converts mildly alcoholic apple cider into potent applejack? Or is the word translated as “strong drink” a reference to mead, or beer, or is it some sort of general term for alcoholic drinks not derived from the grape?
Another textual issue showed up in variant translations. Some versions, such as the JPS quoted above, have Hannah asking Eli not to take her for a wicked woman; others have her asking him not to expose her to the taunts of “that wicked woman” (presumably Peninnah). Apparently the Hebrew can be read either way.