The treatment that the barren Hannah received from her rival Peninnah was very abusive. She tolerated this harsh treatment year after year until it became unbearable. But Hannah did not retaliate but wept bitterly and did not eat or sleep. Elkanah, her husband, had a deep fondness for Hannah even though she bore him no children. He saw the hurt and pain in her life and addressed her. In 1 Samuel 1:8, we read, “And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’” Elkanah didn’t have the pleasure of a joyful wife at the great celebration. He wanted to cheer her up and help her look at the positive aspects of her life. He wanted her to see him as a sufficient replacement for not having children. Most commentators take this as a revelation of what a great husband Elkanah was. The reference to being better than “ten” sons may look back to Jacob’s experience, referring to his love for the Barren Rachel, while Leah and the two concubines gave him ten sons, but his love for Rachel never paled. Elkanah might be suggesting that his love for Hannah was parallel to Jacob’s love for Rachel. No doubt, Elkanah was hoping that this would comfort Hannah.

I think it might take a woman’s point of view to understand this situation more fully. Mary Evans writes, “As for Elkanah, he could observe the pain but did not really understand it. Because Peninnah had many children, including several sons, Hannah’s childlessness, to her an unbearable tragedy, was for him simply a minor inconvenience. It did not matter to him that she was childless, so why should it matter so much to her? He loved her, and he did not mind that she did not have children. Surely, that was enough? For Hannah, daily reminded by Peninnah’s very existence, that for him, love without children most certainly had not been enough. His attitude might even have rubbed salt in the wound. Perhaps if he had said, ‘Don’t you mean more to me than ten sons?’ rather than ‘Don’t I mean more to you?’, Hannah might have been a little more convinced. Elkanah seems to have been incapable of seeing Hannah’s position from anything other than his own perspective. It is tremendously encouraging to all who feel their misery is not understood, not just women, to know that the account itself and, more especially, the Lord who stands behind the account do not share Elkanah’s limitations. It is a challenge to all of us to try to get beyond our own perspective and see through the eyes of those loved ones that we would seek to comfort.”[1]

It is extremely difficult to move out of ourselves and focus on the pain of others from their perspective. Elkanah had this problem also. He only saw Hannah’s pain from his own perspective. Empathy is a truly difficult trait to cultivate. It is simply the ability to identify with another person so much that you feel what he or she feels. It’s seeing the world from their eyes. It’s understanding others’ situations and pains as they experience them. I think this is impossible because of our sinful natures. But there is one person who did this perfectly. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that God became man in order to show us that He understands our pain and struggles and feels for us taking our pain on himself.  It says, speaking of Jesus, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.”

[1] Evans, Mary J. 2004. The Message of Samuel: Personalities, Potential, Politics and Power. Edited by Alec Motyer and Derek Tidball. The Bible Speaks Today. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press.