“Because the LORD had closed Hannah’s 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.” 1 Samuel 1:6-7 NIV
It seems right to think about yesterday’s text from Peninnah’s point of view as well, since we might argue that being a bully is just as much a way of suffering in our human condition as being the victim of such behaviour. Bullies are suffering in a way that causes them to inflict pain. More often than not, I wonder if they feel disenfranchised or impotent in some way, so that they desire to gain power or a sense of belonging. Bullies often work in groups, as a gang of cruel girls did to me at school, and are also very ego-driven, building themselves up by bringing others down.
Peninnah feels threatened by Hannah’s piety, and by her husband’s clear preference for his other wife. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that she lashes out at her rival for his affections. Doubtless she is frustrated and feels powerless to change anything about her situation, so she uses the one thing she can lord over Hannah, the fact that she has had children. When we are hurting, and we feel the need to lash out, we use the weapons we have to hand, and the weaknesses that are in plain sight, rarely considering the pain we might inflict.
We also pass on traits from one generation to another, and I believe this fact of life is what the Bible calls curses “from generation to generation.” And we also learn behaviour from our parents and guardians. If we have been abused or bullied at home, whether by adults or siblings, we are far more likely to become bullies ourselves. We’ve learnt that this is the way to get what we want, or to feel empowered. As one of my favourite tv comedies, Blackadder, would have it, the Prince insults the butler, the butler kicks the cat, the cat chases the mouse, and the mouse bites Baldrick.
I remember that as a child when I was going through a phase of having spats with my elder brother, I used to take this out on the boys at school, karate chopping them at every opportunity in the style of Miss Piggy. It made me feel like I had some power in a situation where I didn’t, because my brother was much bigger than I was. Fortunately, I remember one of the boys sticking up for himself and asking me how I would like it, and then showing me how much it hurt! Perhaps if he hadn’t made me stop and think, I might still be being a Muppet.
Adult bullying of course is harder to change, since those opportunities for mind-changing are tougher to bring about, and the behaviour is ingrained. “I’m hurting,” says the ego, “and feeling small, so I’m going to take it out on other people and make myself seem bigger than I am.” Bullies do need to be held accountable. It’s the only thing that will help us, in the end, to see the error of our ways. Truth is our way to freedom. But they also need to be heard. Perhaps expressing themselves in a free and non-judgemental environment where anger and frustration are given space rather than immediately condemned, might be helpful. Of course not everyone wants to give that space, and not every bully would be able to take advantage of it, nor are many people prepared to change. But accountability done with love feels like the way forward. “What is this really about?” and “How are you feeling?” can be powerful breakthrough questions asked from a place of generous vulnerability and grace.
Perhaps if Elkanah’s two wives had sat down and had a real heart to heart, they might have discovered that their common enemy was the patriarchal system they were enduring, and helped one another somehow to bear their various pains. But injustices, like stones dropped in water, send out many ripples, and it is only grace that can truly heal such wounds.
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