Heart of the Story: Elkanah married two women, Hannah and Peninnah. Because Elkanah showed that he loved Hannah more than her, Peninnah became bitter and deliberately provoked Hannah.
Real Story: Most of us can recite the story of Hannah being barren. We know Hannah prayed for a son. We rejoice with Hannah at the birth of Samuel and admire Hannah for giving Samuel as a precious gift to God. The darker side to this poignant story is that Hannah’s husband was a polygamist who favored one wife over the other. Elkanah was a Levite who lived in one of the towns assigned to the Levites in the tribal lands of Ephraim. The Bible recorded that Elkanah’s first wife was Hannah. Elkanah loved Hannah, but she was barren. Elkanah took a second wife, Peninnah. Peninnah bore Elkanah both sons and daughters.
When Elkanah went to Shiloh to sacrifice, he took both wives and the children with him. Each year during the sacrifice, Elkanah gave portions of meat to Peninnah and her sons and daughters. Because Elkanah loved Hannah and God closed her womb, he gave Hannah a double portion of meat.
Analysis of Elkanah’s relationship with Peninnah: Peninnah’s status as second and least-preferred wife must have been difficult for her. Despite Peninnah giving Elkanah both sons and daughters, Elkanah still showed a preference for Hannah. At no point in the Bible narrative of Elkanah and Peninnah do we read that Elkanah treated Peninnah with any favor or special regard because of the children she gave him.
Not surprisingly, Peninnah was jealous of Hannah. The Bible named Peninnah as Hannah’s “rival.” A rival is two or more individuals striving for something that only one can possess (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 2005). Peninnah wanted from Elkanah the love and regard that he showed Hannah. Because Peninnah saw Hannah as her adversary, she deliberately irritated Hannah. The Bible does not specify how Peninnah irritated Hannah. Likely Peninnah focused on Hannah’s inability to have children.
Elkanah was a devout man. Faithfully, he attended the annual feast at Shiloh, taking his family with him. Apparently, Elkanah overlooked the bad character of Hophni and Phinehas who were priests at Shiloh at the time. Similarly, Elkanah seems to have overlooked the bad behavior of Peninnah toward Hannah and the simmering distress in his family.
Elkanah and Hannah shared a deep faith in God which creates a spiritual bond between husband and wife. There is no indication that Peninnah was spiritual or took her distress to God. After Samuel’s birth, Hannah had three sons and two daughters (1 Samuel 2:21). At that point, Peninnah did not even have the solace of being the only wife who gave Elkanah children.
Conclusion: God’s original plan was that a man leaves his parents and establishes a family unit with a wife. The husband and wife were to be one flesh (Genesis 2:24). When Elkanah took a second wife, he moved beyond God’s plan for forming a husband-wife relationship characterized by one flesh. The result was disharmony in the marriage, just the opposite of what God planned for the husband-wife relationship.