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THE FEMININE SOULSurprising Ways the Bible Speaks to Women
By JANET DAVIS
NAVPRESSCopyright © 2006 Janet Davis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGiving Up Silence, Daring to Speak
Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2
As women, we encounter many painful elements in the world around us and within us that seek to silence us. We often surrender our voices early in our lives, choosing the safety of silence over the strength of personal integrity. In Hannah's story, we see God move this influential woman toward finding her own voice. Like Hannah, we can rediscover our voices by first naming who we are most truly and then daring to speak our unique messages of good news into the world.
To Consider ...
Complex in design as we are, there is generally much more going on within our minds and hearts than we consciously recognize. For many of us, in times of stillness we can hear a stream of thoughts just below the surface. Take a few moments to be still. Then simply write what comes to mind, seeking to be open to whatever is going on inside you right now.
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WHAT adult does not have painful stories from junior high or middle school in his or her memory bank? For me, the worst day came near the beginning of my eighth grade year.
Seventh grade had been rough: a new, larger school; shuffling from class to class all day long; dressing out in black stretchy shorts and a stiff white blouse for gym. All these strange dynamics were hugechallenges to a shy, bookish, adolescent girl/woman, but they were nothing compared to the difficulty of finding a place of belonging among young teenage females.
The social strata seas for girls at Woodlawn Junior high were wild and woolly. This was the South in every exclusive sense of the word, and these girls were well trained. Growing up as the daughter of two "Yankees" and without any sisters, I wanted to be a part of a group of females more than anything. I desperately wanted someone to train me, instruct me, and affirm my place in the larger world of women.
In time, I found a good friend, Margaret. We quickly became life preservers for one another, saved repeatedly from the shifting seas of gossip, giggles, and ridicule that routinely drown other less fortunate souls. Not exactly what I had in mind, but at least I felt safe.
Tragically, sometime during the summer between my seventh and eighth grade years, a group of unthinking bureaucrats who had no idea what they were doing to my life redrew school district lines. You guessed it: My friend no longer attended my school. Once again, I was tossed into the sea alone and unprotected.
On the last day of the first week of eighth grade, I boldly entered the cafeteria with a strategy in mind. I headed for the sixth row of tables - long, peach-colored, pebbly Formica tables - noticing how sunlight from the window in front of me bathed my targeted spot. No one was sitting there yet, but I knew who would be. With uncharacteristic boldness I took a seat.
The first one out of the cafeteria line was charlotte, the captain of this social ship. As a naïve fourteen-year-old girl, there were not many social moments I could read clearly, but this was one of the few. Even before she got to the table, I knew I was in trouble. Though I cannot recall what she said, I will never forget the look of contempt and superiority radiating from her face. The messages were clear: Who are you that you would dare try to be included with us? Who are you to think you have anything to offer us? You have nothing to offer. You are not included. Go away.
Quickly and ever so quietly, I moved to a table near the door, in the shadows facing the wall. I finished my lunch alone and in silence, full of shame for even daring to want to be part of a group of females.
Fast forward to age forty. In graduate school, a professor invited me to speak to our class about some of my personal insights into the story of Ruth. He allowed me to determine the extent of my contribution and how long I would speak. I prepared well, excited about the opportunity. Yet when the moment to speak arrived, I simply remained in my chair and offered only a few sentences to my classmates.
Curious about my own choice, I began to wonder what was going on inside me to sabotage and shortcut my voice. It did not take long to uncover the stifling echo: Who are you to think you have anything to offer us? For more than twenty years, the originating story of shame remained buried in my mind as the concluding message played on just below the surface. The pain of that eighth grade moment, experienced with magnified intensity in adolescence, began a long season of silence for me. Not silence in the literal sense of not speaking words but in the sense of carefully hiding the most creative, tender, and feminine parts of my soul. I denied voice to the truest parts of who I am.
As I continue to grow, I find that rediscovering and recovering my voice is one of the greatest challenges I face. Choosing to give up my silence has been a difficult call to repentance for me. Yet there has been help along the way. In recent years as I've begun to reexamine these early stories of my life and the long-held messages connected with them, I have discovered that many women, including ancient women, have been silenced in similar ways.
AN ANCIENT WOMAN'S SOUL
At different points of need in my life, the stories of women in Scripture have come to me like newfound, timely met friends. Hannah is one such friend. Her story in 1 Samuel 1-2 offered me wisdom about how to discover my voice at a time when I was first beginning to recognize and grapple with my silence. Her life offers us insight into uniquely feminine patterns of repentance and growth.
Hannah lived in a time of transition for the nation of Israel. Her son Samuel was the first prophet to anoint a king. As do most stories of new birth, this one begins with a woman in pain.
The Pain of Infertility
There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. (1:1-2)
Though the description was simple - "Hannah had none" - the implications were not. Hannah lived those words out socially, religiously, and deeply personally. In Jewish culture, infertility was viewed as a curse. With no understanding of biology, it was always seen as the woman's fault and limitation. Though women were generally devalued by society, infertility diminished social status even further.
Religiously, the absence of children was interpreted as personal punishment for sin. As if that shame were not enough, being childless meant that a woman had no place in the ongoing work of God. The Jews understood their primary task to be that of growing a holy people, a nation set apart for God. A woman's part in that larger story of life was to bear children. If there were no children, she had no part.
The more internally personal implications seem obvious: a deeply experienced inadequacy, a feeling of being overlooked by God, a life-defining mantle of shame. Great, great pain. All these internal dynamics would naturally drive a woman deeper and deeper into hiding. I imagine Hannah walking through her days trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. The idea of living out the glory of her feminine soul, living a life of grace, beauty, and personal dignity, must have seemed unimaginable to her.
Unwise love and Raging Jealousy
Year after year this man [Elkanah] went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. (verses 3-7)
Hannah was unusually fortunate in her day - her husband loved her in spite of her infertility. As a devout Jew, he sought to communicate that love to her in a concrete way: greater portions for sacrifice. Yet in the midst of his good intentions, it appears as if Elkanah's unwise choice of expression may have caused Hannah more pain. The favoritism meant to bless Hannah seems to have enraged her fellow wife, Peninnah, the one on the "less loved" end of that tipped scale. Year after year, not to mention infertile month after infertile month, Hannah's shame was before her. Verbal abuse and public ridicule multiplied the pain of her barrenness. No wonder she would not eat.
It is important to note that weeping and not eating are the only recorded responses we have of her - no words, no movement, no initiative of any kind in relationship with others. Her great pain seems to have silenced and paralyzed her. Like many women in similar circumstances, she shut down and turned inward.
Elkanah her husband would say to her, "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?" (verse 8)
It is hard to imagine that Elkanah did not know why she was weeping, refusing to eat, and feeling downhearted. He saw her pain, undoubtedly felt it alongside her. He was not really seeking information about the state of her soul. So what was he trying to say?
Imagine for a moment what it must have felt like to be on the receiving end of these words. The logic seems sane, the reasoning sound: "Why keep torturing yourself wanting something you can never have? Why not simply decide to be content with what you do have?" Hard reasoning to counter, especially in a moment of conversation with a man who loves you and wants your pain (and his) to stop.
Look again at Elkanah's questions. What else was communicated? Hannah's well-meaning husband was seeking to diminish or dismiss Hannah's pain by putting it on a scale of his own creation: weighing her desire for a child against the goodness of his love for her. He subtly shamed her deeply held desire for a child even as he sought to elevate the power of his love in her life. He assumed his masculine perspective could resolve her feminine soul's anguish. He did not understand that hearts and desires have little regard for logic or for scales.
How could Hannah possibly respond? Should she deny her pain and desire? Or tell him his love was not enough? In his lack of wisdom, Elkanah once again accomplished the opposite of what he intended. Rather than offering true comfort to his wife, his subtle shaming let her know that her pain was no longer welcome in her relationship with him.
Subtly shaming messages like this one are a part of all of our lives. Consider the overweight woman whose friends grow weary of her pain and struggle to remain on a diet and say to her, "Oh, honey, why bother? We like you chunky, and no one else matters, right?" Or the daughter who is thrilled to find a pair of fancy pink sandals just right for the prom whose mother says, "Oh, no, dear, you don't want those. You already have those other beautiful shoes at home, remember?" Or the woman who chooses to go back to work whose husband says, "Isn't what I provide enough? I'd kill to not have to go to work every day." All are seemingly supportive messages that subtly shame a vulnerably expressed desire.
As women, we are often uniquely susceptible to this kind of less than noble persuasion. We too easily doubt the goodness of our feminine desires, especially in the face of seeming support and convincing logic, simply because our desires are connected so deeply with our hearts and emotions. The fact that these painful dynamics are written within these ancient stories can be very healing. God knows our pain and cares about the ways we hurt and struggle.
Silenced from Within
Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. (verse 9)
Again, we are not told of any verbal response from Hannah. A clearer translation is found in the NASB: "Then Hannah rose after eating and drinking in Shiloh." The language of verse 9 indicates that Hannah was finally eating and drinking again with her family or community. With that choice, she began to actively silence, even "stuff," her grief and pain. She began to pretend. Maybe she had unthinkingly chosen in this moment to "go along to get along." Let's face it. Shame usually works, at least for a while.
Just as no one else can stop our physical expression of voice, short of killing us, the same is also true of voice in the larger sense. Hannah chose silence. She had become silenced from within. Maybe all those messages she had heard and replayed from her long season of infertility now echoed in her head, reinforcing the words of Elkanah. For whatever reason, she opted for silence and elected pretense: She began to eat and drink. Hannah began to hide the truest parts of her feminine soul.
It is critical that we own the choosing of our silence so we can recognize that we have the power to choose differently. The fact that we opt for silence in times of pain or perhaps for the sake of sheer survival, physical or emotional, does not mean we are forever destined to that choice. Hannah chose silence. But not for long.
From somewhere deep inside her soul, grace met her, and she stood up. Hannah's first act of initiative is a very powerful nonverbal clue for us as readers. Transformation was happening. In the midst of unspeakable pain, Hannah's voice was born.
Many of us have grown up in the church with a rather linear idea of the spiritual growth process, often taken from 2 Timothy 3:16-17: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." Teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training. These ideas and patterns are notably absent in this ancient woman's story. Hannah's change in life direction seems instead like a natural birthing process. We have certainly noted the presence of pain. As her story unfolds, observe the gradual birthing of this transformed feminine soul.
Expressing Heartfelt Desire
Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the Lord's temple. In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. And she made a vow, saying, "O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head." (verses 9-11)
In her first recorded act after standing up, Hannah sought the presence of God. With nothing else to bring, she went to the temple accompanied only by her pain and unquenchable desire for a child. Note her wise and honest self-awareness. She felt utterly empty, forgotten, and probably invisible to the one she sought. My guess is that she thought little and felt intensely as she prayed.
Perhaps Hannah realized for the first time that a child was not the greatest object of her desire. In her prayer, even as she asked for a child, she surrendered the same. Her words seem to reflect a new and rare wisdom: What she wanted most of all was to be seen and not forgotten by God. Such vulnerable desires as these speak to the core of our feminine souls. Though the child was important, he was more importantly a sign, a tangible symbol, of God's love for her.
Learning to Speak
As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine." (verses 12-14)
Excerpted from THE FEMININE SOUL by JANET DAVIS Copyright © 2006 by Janet Davis. Excerpted by permission.
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