In the ninth book in the Old Testament of the Bible, we find a relatively popular story about a woman named Hannah. Hannah’s narrative has been well discussed by womanist theological scholars and Jewish feminist scholars (Brenner 1994
; Burgh 2010
; Newsom and Ringe 1998
) and serves as a complex narrative of differential consciousness and the reclamation of one’s own power, by using her voice. Much of the scholarship has only been from the religious or exegetical standpoint as it pertains to the social world. In this article, I attempt to build on their work by discussing Sölle’s liberatory theory of suffering, but also to introduce a non-religious perspective via Sandoval’s theory of oppositional consciousness which makes room for those who are not religiously located in the social world. Differential or oppositional consciousness is best described as the power reclaimed and built by marginalized people despite their minoritized status. The audacity of Hannah to correct a prophet, fight for her valid desire of motherhood, and determine her own happiness is evidence of an empowerment ethic that is necessary for present-day minoritized women in a climate that seeks to suppress and erase all forms of difference and agency.
After engaging other studies of Hannah’s story and reviewing the biblical story of Hannah, I will outline the theories of suffering by Dorothee Sölle and oppositional consciousness by Chela Sandoval. Finally, I will demonstrate how Hannah’s use of her voice illustrates the components of suffering and oppositional consciousness, and how these theories, along with Audre Lorde’s “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” can inform specifically minoritized women’s resistance and struggle towards liberation.
The Hebrew Bible, according to Cook, serves as a larger narrative about the divine intervention of God in Israel, and Hannah’s story is just one example of this divine intervention as she moves from a grief-stricken and barren sister wife to a joyous mother of six children by the end of the second chapter in I Samuel (Cook 1999
; The Holy Bible 2011
). In this case, the focus of divine intervention in this story is through Hannah’s first son, Samuel, who grows up to be a prophet. Generally, because Samuel is the focus, much of Hannah’s role in the story is overlooked, or as Gafney notes about many Old Testament women, Hannah is not typically seen as anything more than a “womb pressed into service” (Gafney 2021
Hannah’s story is set in a time that is not wholly the same but not entirely dissimilar from present-day society (You 2019
). It is still sexist in that men are prioritized no matter their age or position, often over women who are the obvious focus or protagonists of the narrative or experience. While some scholars de-emphasize some of the Hebrew Bible’s patriarchal presentations of women (Fentress-Williams and Knowles 2018
), they do acknowledge that Hannah’s story is set in an era where the value of a marriage and personhood was heavily decided by the number and gender of the children born to the family (Breyfogle 1910
Scholars have also argued that Hannah’s story is a rare narrative in which we get to witness a woman in the Old Testament participating in religious customs and acts. Further, because she is marginally positioned, her narrative offers a perfect opportunity for transformation in the story (Kim 2008
). Of the nine female characters featured in the Old Testament, Spangler notes that Hannah is considered one of the good girls in the bible (Murphy 2020
), likely because at a quick glance, Hannah desires to fit in with the social norms of her environment in asking for a child. For the purpose of this essay, I am paying explicit attention to Hannah’s transformation in alignment with the womanist tradition of centering the most marginalized people first (You 2019
After a brief review of Hannah’s story, I will apply Sölle’s theory of suffering and Sandoval’s theory of oppositional consciousness to further extend Lorde’s call to minoritized women to speak and not remain silent in their own oppression.
Hannah is the first of two wives to a wealthy husband. Hannah is barren, yet her sister wife (Peninnah) has several children. Per the Jewish custom, families made an annual visit to the temple where they offered sacrifices to God, if they could afford to make the trip. Hannah and her family made this pilgrimage every year. In one particular year after the sacrifice was complete and the family was eating dinner, Hannah’s sister wife was particularly irritating. The story tells us that she regularly boasted about her fertility, knowing it was hurtful to Hannah. As a result, Hannah would not eat and left the table weeping. However, before she left, the text mentions that Hannah’s husband “loved her”, and during dinner he inquired, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons”? (Holy Bible, 1 Sam. 1:5, 8). Hannah leaves the house and walks to the temple, praying fervently. She prayed so hard that eventually, no words were audible. The text says that the temple prophet, Eli, noticed her, assumed that she was drunk, and yelled at her, asking, “How long are you going to stay drunk?”, commanding her to “put away [her] wine” (Holy Bible, 1 Sam. 1:14).
Quickly, she corrects him, saying that she is grief-stricken and “deeply troubled”; she is not drunk. The prophet then tells her to “Go in peace” and he hopes that her prayers are answered (Holy Bible, 1 Sam 1:15). Afterwards, Hannah was soon pregnant with a son who she named Samuel, because she “asked the Lord for him”, and the text paints a picture of a biblical happily ever after for Hannah, one and all (Holy Bible, 1 Sam. 1:27).
Kim writes that Hannah’s transformation from embodying nothingness to and empowered agent allows us to believe in infinite possibility and the relief of her suffering . Minoritized women can use Hannah’s narrative as a road map to aid in relieving their own suffering. Hannah’s story can also be used to explore new insight into liberatory suffering, as discussed by Dorothee Sölle which will be discussed in the next section.
Sölle’s theory of suffering and Sandoval’s theory of opposition offer language to Hannah’s narrative that operationalizes the impact the story can have in women’s liberation movements if we unpack the different theories and elements of both theories. In Hannah’s story, we find each phase of Sölle’s suffering. She begins in the first phase when she finds herself solemn and enduring ridicule by her sister wife. She is surrounded by the structures of marriage and the expectation of motherhood and a husband who asks why she is crying, but she does not have language to express her experience. Many minoritized women experience this as well, being surrounded by difficult and suffocating structures and expectations of womanhood. These women, who may not have language like Hannah, often just know there is a void that they want filled.
Hannah is in Phase 2 when she leaves the house and begins praying. She has accepted the structure and custom of her faith and in this example, her decision to pray represents exploring the structures to fully understand their bounds. She asks for a child because she can at least verbalize the area in which she feels suffering. For minoritized women, this may look like initiating discussions with other women who are similarly situated and finding the courage to explore the structural reach into their lives, ultimately reconciling the all-encompassing nature of the systems surrounding them. Lastly, Hannah is in Phase 3 when she corrects the prophet and speaks for herself. Her power is in using her voice to ask for what she wants from God. I believe that these phases overlap, operate simultaneously and still reach the final phase, even though Sölle does not mention this as a part of theoretical suffering. This becomes complicated because Hannah uses the surrounding structure and custom of prayer to empower her to speak truth to power in the form of the prophet. For marginalized women, this third phase can look like setting boundaries around work–life responsibilities and instilling balance within the family unit. It could also look like increasing or changing activist behaviors, such as attending protests or voter registration drives or seeking redress for policies against minoritized populations in their district. There is more than one way to develop a liberatory approach to eradicate collective suffering. Individual progression still contributes to the collective liberatory potential.
Similarly, Hannah moves through some of the elements of oppositional consciousness because in each part of her story, she grapples with hope and despair and has a desire for something different. Inherent in Sandoval’s theory is a belief of validity. Hannah’s desire for motherhood is valid, although we understand and acknowledge that socialization has assigned value to womanhood based upon the norms of motherhood. This serves as a reminder for minoritized women that their desires are also important and can inform and motivate their approach to building oppositional consciousness.
Hannah demonstrates oppositional consciousness in that she names her suffering to God and acknowledges the system that is creating and causing her suffering. This can also happen when marginalized women talk to each other as it is the building block for developing oppositional consciousness. When she encounters the prophet, Hannah exhibits the ability to deconstruct the externalized sign or symbol of drunkenness for herself and to the prophet. As Sandoval mentioned, the deconstruction of internalized myths via signs and symbols that benefit both the marginalized and the dominant must be carefully approached. Coalition-building often gains the attention of other similarly situated minoritized people, as well as those who benefit from their marginalization. In Hannah’s case, she is careful in a way that does not fully empower herself. She is also in a unique position in that she still uses deference that positions the prophet above her. Again, Enrique Dussel
) offers some insight into how the sufferer navigates oppressive spaces in ways that do not always seem sensical or aligned with oppositional consciousness. In a present-day context, this is described as “playing the game”, pushing boundaries in a way that the dominant group does not readily perceive. Just as in Hannah’s narrative and per Sandoval’s warning, this can work in one’s favor or it can deter progress, so minoritized women should utilize this tactic with caution.
To an extent, surrendering raises questions about suffering and language—specifically, how the constant state of normalized suffering drains on the spirit of a person, diminishing their ability or desire to fight against suffering for themselves or others. Lorde uses the racialized understanding and her own lived experience as a call to minoritized women to speak and rid themselves of the belief that their silence will prevent suffering.
Suffering and Language
Suffering and language work in tandem. The greater the suffering, usually the more silent the sufferer, and yet, silence does not prevent the suffering. Lorde’s
) speech-turned-essay illustrates this. For context, it is 1977 and Lorde is speaking to a predominantly white female audience and has been battling breast cancer. Using her journey with breast cancer, she discusses her great epiphany: that her silence has not saved her from any of her suffering. She posits to this audience:
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself—A Black woman warrior poet doing my work—come to ask you, are you doing yours?
As such, she vows for the remainder of her life that she will use her voice to speak for the issues that matter and for the systems that seek to abuse her and other minoritized people. She acknowledges the reality of fear in speaking one’s truth and speaking against the powers that be but reminds us that we will be afraid anyway, so we might as well say what we are so desperately afraid to say. Lorde says, “And of course, I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger” (Lorde 2007, p. 42
). Lastly, she mentions that what we are most afraid of is a visibility to which we feel cannot carry out. She notes that Black women are highly visible but ultimately rendered invisible through “the depersonalization of racism” (Lorde 2007, p. 42
While we do not excuse Hannah for showing deference in this moment with the prophet, Lorde gives us context about how language evolves on a similar scale as Sölle’s theory of suffering and Sandoval’s theory of oppositional consciousness. Fear is valid, but in the fight for liberation and to rid oneself or one’s community of suffering, fear cannot overrule the desire for liberation. Lorde instructs and encourages minoritized women everywhere to speak up for themselves and for their community. In the final section of this paper, I wish to conclude with how Hannah’s story and these theories can be useful to minoritized women, as they organize towards their own liberation.