September 15, 2005
More Love and Lust From the Bible
"The Song of Hannah" by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (Plume, $14).
Biblical fiction is enjoying a renaissance. Some say it began in 1998, with Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent" -- a fictionalized account from Jacob's daughter, Dinah, of daily life with her aunt Rachel and mother Leah. For the last few years, writers have started mining the Bible for similar stories -- that they could rewrite into a Harlequin-type romance, replete with heaving bosoms and burning loins. The stories of Queen Esther and matriarchs Sarah and Rebecca, to name a few, have been rewritten in this manner.
The latest addition is "The Song of Hannah," Eva Etzioni-Halevy's debut novel about the mother of Samuel the prophet, the man who anointed both King Saul and King David. Hannah earned her own place in Jewish history through the power of her prayer. Bereft at not conceiving children, Hannah went to God's tabernacle in Shiloh and prayed for a son, promising God that if He would grant her a son, she would give him up to serve God for all the days of his life.
The presence of Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, in the biblical text is brief -- the account is written in 28 sentences in Chapter 1 of Samuel I, while her famous "song of joy" is 10 sentences in Chapter 2.
"The Song of Hannah" as imagined by Etzioni-Halevy, tells the story of two women -- Hannah and Peninah, Elkanah's other wife -- and its chapters alternate between their two voices. It is essentially the tale of two young women who find themselves wedded to a faithless husband, in a community where women have few rights. Although both women are scribes, their status depends on Elkanah, who is portrayed as a cruel, polygamous beast and expects servile obedience, while he sleeps with and impregnates his many maids. The only reason he marries Peninah (in the novel) is because he has impregnated her out of wedlock. And at their wedding, he spies out Hannah and starts wooing her. Soon after he marries Peninah -- once she is pregnant with their child -- he tells her that there will soon be three in the family, and no, he is not referring to the fetus she carries. He means Hannah, who is Peninah's childhood friend.
He marries Hannah, giving her a far more beautiful bedroom than Peninah, and his relationship with his wives, and their relationship with each other, is forever tinged with jealousy and some bitterness. Peninah satisfies Elkanah's lust, but he loves Hannah. Yet his love for her doesn't stop him from sleeping with the maids (whom he admits mean nothing to him) or from spending most nights of the week in Peninah's room.
The book has some feminist points: As many characters point out -- it's unfair that ancient Israel was a polygamous society but not a polyandrous one. Of course, what the author does not say is that had that society been polyandrous, a person's paternity could never have been established.
But Elkanah is not the only character who needs to repent. The book is full of sex -- and purple prose. Perhaps the best pick-up line is by a priest to Hannah: "Come with me and I will show you how beneficial my priestly blessing, my triple priestly blessing, can be."
Peninah takes a lover of her own, and Hannah helps her keep the secret from Elkanah. Meanwhile, Hannah's son, the prophet Samuel, grows up and marries a woman whom he impregnated before their wedding, and then falls in love with Peninah. In this ancient Israel, all the men, it seems, lust after women who are not their wives, while the idol trade does good business among the sinning multitudes.
Etzioni-Halevy, a professor emeritus of political sociology at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, admits that there is no evidence in the Torah for Samuel's attraction to Peninah (nor is there evidence of him getting his wife pregnant before he married her), and the description of Elkanah as an imperious, lustful cad is at odds with the Elkanah of Samuel I. Traditional commentators note that Hannah was Elkanah's first wife, not his second, and it was only at Hannah's urging -- because she saw that she was barren, that Elkanah took a second wife. Elkanah was, according to tradition, kind to Hannah and a God-fearing man, who bought his children to God's tabernacle in Shiloh because he wanted to instill in them fear of God.
"The Song of Hannah" might inspire readers to study the source, but as biblically inspired material, such books can come across as either religiously superficial or so filled with melodramatic guesswork that their value as something more than light entertainment is open to question. Taken seriously, it's a fairly dispiriting look at the origins of Judaism -- presenting our forefathers and mothers as adulterers and worse. Perhaps the next wave of biblical fiction will have something deeper and better to offer.
Eva Etzioni-Halevy will be appearing Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Library, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Free, but reservations required at (323) 761-8644 or firstname.lastname@example.org.