Turning to God When a Fertility Ritual Fails
The Festival at Shiloh
Both Judges 21 and 1 Samuel 1 mention an annual feast to YHWH at Shiloh:
יט וַיֹּאמְר֡וּ הִנֵּה֩ חַג־יְ-הֹוָ֨ה בְּשִׁל֜וֹ מִיָּמִ֣ים׀ יָמִ֗ימָה...
19 They said, “The annual feast of Yhwh is now being held at Shiloh.”
ג וְעָלָה֩ הָאִ֨ישׁ הַה֤וּא מֵֽעִירוֹ֙ מִיָּמִ֣ים׀ יָמִ֔ימָה לְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֹ֧ת וְלִזְבֹּ֛חַ לַי-הֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת בְּשִׁלֹ֑ה...
3 This man used to go up from his town every year to worship and to offer sacrifice to Yhwh of Hosts at Shiloh.
Judges describes a yearly festive where young women came out to dance during the annual festival. The account in Samuel, which is the haftara for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, describes the annual pilgrimage of one family in particular to Shiloh, that of Elkanah and his two wives, Channah and Peninnah.
The Nature of Elkanah’s Feast: 1 Samuel 1
The family comes to offer annual sacrifices (לזבח לי-הוה את זבח הימים) and votive sacrifices/vows (ואת־נדרו), and to worship (להשתחות). But the nature of this annual event is not made explicit, though it may be reconstructed from hints in the text.
In verses 4-5 we learn that as part of his yearly sacrifice, Elkanah gave portions (מנות) to his second wife Peninnah and her children. But to his primary wife, Channah, he gave אפים אחת מנה, because YHWH had closed her womb. The Hebrew has been translated many ways, “one portion only” (JPS), “a double portion” (NRSV), “a worthy portion” (KJV), or “a choice portion” (Targum).
What was the significance of this extra portion, and why did he keep giving it to her? If it was simply a matter of showing his favor, did he not notice how badly it kept backfiring:
ו וְכִֽעֲסַ֤תָּה צָֽרָתָהּ֙ גַּם־כַּ֔עַס בַּעֲב֖וּר הַרְּעִמָ֑הּ כִּֽי־סָגַ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה בְּעַ֥ד רַחְמָֽהּ: ז וְכֵ֨ן יַעֲשֶׂ֜ה שָׁנָ֣ה בְשָׁנָ֗ה מִדֵּ֤י עֲלֹתָהּ֙ בְּבֵ֣ית יְ-הֹוָ֔ה כֵּ֖ן תַּכְעִסֶ֑נָּה וַתִּבְכֶּ֖ה וְלֹ֥א תֹאכַֽל:
6 And her rival/tormenter [Peninnah], to make her miserable, would taunt her [Channah] that Yhwh had closed her womb. 7This happened year after year: Every time she went up to the House of Yhwh, the other would taunt her, so that she wept and would not eat.
And why does Peninnah torment Channah specifically during this festival each year? I would like to suggest that it is associated with the nature of the feast.
A Failed Mesopotamian-Style Fertility Ritual
Without a child, a woman in the ancient Near East was in a tough situation. Her domestic life would be abnormal. No child also meant no security in old age, and that the family name and inheritance would be carried on through other children.
The text is clear that Elkanah loved Channah deeply (v. 8). If there were something he could do to help her have children, it is reasonable that, like Isaac who prayed on behalf of Rebekah (Gen 25:21), he would do so. I suggest that the feast presented here may have been part of a fertility ritual aimed at currying God’s favor for Channah and granting her a child.
According to a Mesopotamian ritual, a pious man might throw a private qarêtu, a small banquet or party in a temple as a means of obtaining children. The banquets are described in modest terms; they were not elaborate like public feasts. The ritual prescribes that “the giver of the party, assisted by a priest, was expected to offer a relatively limited inventory of food and drinks to the god(s) of a single temple and to perform a sheep sacrifice; in return he was promised ‘life, a name, and seed [i.e. children]’.”
Understanding the Taunt
It seems possible that the mysterious extra (?) portion allotted to Channah might have been part of a similar ritual, especially if we consider that YHWH also functioned as the god of fertility. Channah’s barren state would then seem to Peninnah a silent commentary by YHWH about Channah’s character.
Just as Hagar mocked Sarah when she found herself pregnant and her mistress barren, Peninnah put on airs and taunts Channah. Peninnah’s point is not only that Channah was childless, but that YHWH would not respond positively to Elkanah’s yearly ritual on her behalf – a taunt indeed worthy of losing one’s appetite and bursting into tears.
That rituals sometimes fail was a given in Ancient Near Eastern society. Neo-Assyrian texts attest that the gods did not always answer the prayers of the pious in a timely fashion and that people became quite upset with a non-response. In one text, a man even bemoans the fact that the banquet he gave and his request for a child has not been granted:
I have visited the Kidmuru temple [in Nineveh] and arranged a banquet, (yet) my wife has troubled me; for five years (she has been) neither dead nor alive [i.e. her womb is barren], and I have no son.
Channah’s Unwillingness to Accept Failure
Elkanah reacts to YHWH’s silent answer with patience and love for Channah. He tries to calm her by pointing to the good she has in her life (ironically, the good he points to is himself; v. 8). Channah, on the other hand, reacts differently. She, like the Mesopotamian man, is full of despair. It is at this point we see Channah do something no other barren woman in the Bible has ever done: she enters the House of God and talks directly to YHWH (I Sam 1:9-18).
Susan Ackerman notes that in all other barren women narratives, such as Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Mrs. Manoah, and the Shunammite woman, God—or God’s representative—speaks to the barren women outside of the sanctuary. It is as if barren women, like barren men, cannot enter the sanctuary. Ackerman concludes that Channah’s narrative in which we see a barren women in a sanctuary talking to a priest, preserves a countervailing tradition, and was meant as a deliberate contrast to an unspoken law that barren women were not allowed in sacred places.
For example, God appears to Abraham first (Gen 17:16), and then allows Sarah to overhear the reversal of her barren state (Gen 18:1-15). When Rebekah cannot have children, Isaac prays on her behalf (Gen 25:21). Only after she conceives can Rebekah seek YHWH (Gen 25:22). When Rachel pleads with Jacob to give her children, she is recalling Isaac’s intervention on behalf of Rebekah. She cannot go to seek God herself. Manoah’s wife, also barren, meets a divine being outside, in a field (Judg 13:2-25). Likewise, a messenger of YHWH, the prophet Elisha, visits the barren woman of Shunmen in a non-sanctified space, her very own house (2 Kgs 4:8-37). In each case, YHWH or YHWH’s male representative takes notice of the barren woman and comes to her, not the other way around.
I believe that her violation of this behavioral norm also emphasizes the depth of despair into which Channah had sunk. Channah, a pious woman who goes yearly to attend the festival of YHWH, breaks the law. She enters the temple, prays to YHWH, and vows that if he gives her זֶרַע אֲנָשִׁים, a “seed of man,” she will dedicate the child as a nazirite (nazir) to YHWH.
It is striking that she does not ask for a child using the expected words, of בן (son) or ילד (child), rather, she uses the same language seen in the Mesopotamian ritual; she asks for זרע, seed. Channah’s prayer calls YHWH’s attention to the fact that He has not responded to Elkanah’s entreaties—so she prays herself, facing YHWH directly. This woman has chutzpah!
Eli’s Reaction: A Sympathetic Reading
Building on Ackerman’s analysis, Eli’s reaction to Channah’s presence in the sanctuary may be understood in a new light (1 Sam 1:9-14). Eli sees Channah’s lips moving and assumes she is drunk. If Channah’s family situation is known to Eli (Elkanah offered a special banquet asking for her womb to be opened for years), then perhaps Eli jumps to this conclusion because he can only assume that a barren woman from a pious family would break the law and pray in the temple if she were drunk!
Once Channah explains her reasons, Eli’s demeanor changes. He does not have her punished or even throw her out of the tent. Instead, he tells her to go in peace and that God will answer her prayers. From this it seems that Channah’s decision to take her fate into her own hands, and to pray directly to God in God’s tent, instead of relying on her husband and the fertility offering, wins the approval of YHWH’s own chief priest.
Festivals, Feasting and Fertility: The Local Cult
The ancient Israelite festivals are often reconstructed only through the prism of the later pilgrimage festival laws, and imagined as a centralized celebration of the holidays of Pesach/Matzot, Shavuot, and Sukkot at the Temple in Jerusalem. But Israelites and Judahites celebrated holidays for centuries before the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Archaeological realia and biblical texts like the one analyzed here attest to pre-centralization Israelites going to various local shrines to worship YHWH, such as Bethel, Mizpah, and Tel Dan. Shiloh too enjoyed longstanding importance among Israelite worshipers of YHWH, and the Channah story is one of the two main descriptions we have of its yearly festival.
Note what the Channah narrative does not include. The story is silent about the name of the festival or its date. It does not hint to any of the three pilgrimage festivals, but implies that during this period, there was only a single, annual festival to YHWH. At this festival, it is easy to imagine that a wide variety of ritual activities would have taken place, while the worshippers imagined themselves in close proximity to YHWH.
The story never describes specific required sacrifices, like those familiar from Parashat Pinchas. In fact, if my interpretation is correct, the sacrifices brought to YHWH during this holiday were less a matter of uniform legal prescription and more a matter of each supplicant communicating his or her own needs to YHWH during the yearly festival in His honor.
This may be the closest biblical parallel to the modern day feeling during the high holidays, where each supplicant brings his or her own needs and experiences into the prayer experience. It is fitting, then, that this story was chosen as the haftara for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which kicks off the High Holiday season.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 9, 2015
June 18, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Kristine Henrikson Garroway is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Bible at the HUC-JIR. She received her doctorate in Hebrew Bible and Cognate Studies at HUC-JIR. Garroway is the author of Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household.
Essays on Related Topics: