The first member of the Sons of Korah to have an illustrious and extended introduction in the Bible is Elkanah, in the opening chapters of 1 Samuel. Elkanah is notable in the Bible for three things: first, for the disagreement about Bible scholars over his ancestry, second, for his contribution to the Bible’s implicit condemnation of the effects of polygamy, and third, for his being the father of one of the Bible’s most illustrious personages, Samuel, the last judge of Israel and the prophet who anointed Israel’s first two legitimate kings, Saul and David. Let us briefly examine these three contributions Elkanah has made to the study of the Bible.
1 Chronicles 6:33-38, in giving the genealogy of Heman, shows Elkanah (one among several Elkanahs in his lineage; it was apparently a popular name in that family, which means “God has purchased,” “God has created,” or “God has possessed”) as being descended from Korah. However, as 1 Samuel 1:1 states that he was an Ephraimite, some scholars have viewed this as an apparent discrepancy and have therefore cast aspersions on the reliability of the genealogical data of 1 Chronicles. A more sensible conclusion is to comment that the two accounts preserve different aspects of Elkanah’s identity. 1 Chronicles gives the account of his ancestral lineage, showing him to be among the Sons of Korah, and therefore a Levite of the tabernacle service. 1 Samuel, though, states his political identity as residing in Ramah, one of the towns in the tribal territories of Ephraim, without there being any contradiction whatsoever between the two accounts.
Elkanah’s second contribution to the study of the Bible consists in the disastrous consequences of his polygamy on the emotional state of his beloved wife Hannah. 1 Samuel 1:2-8 gives the following revealing information about the consequences of Elkanah’s polygamy: “And he [Elkanah] had two wives: the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. This man went up from his city yearly to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of Hosts in Shiloh. Also, the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, the priests of the Lord, were there. And whenever the time came for Elkanah to make an offering, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he would give a double portion, although the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival also provoked her severely, to make her miserable, because the Lord had closed up her womb. So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her, therefore she wept and did not eat. Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”
Let us examine this situation and the poisonous family atmosphere it created. Elkanah had married Hannah, a woman whom he deeply loved. Seeing as God had made her barren, he married a second wife in order to father children, despite not feeling any less love than before for his barren wife. Unfortunately, his clear favoritism for his first wife antagonized his second wife, who might have resented merely being a fertile womb and an unloved wife (much like the rivalry between Leah and Rachel, it would seem), and provoked the beloved Hannah by taunting her about her barren state, driving the unhappy Hannah to make a very serious vow to God. This particular aspect of the story of Elkanah shows just how destructive polygamy was even for ancient Israel, because of the jealousy of favoritism and the constant fight for love and respect among the women for a husband whose affections and concern had to be divided between two wives and two sets of children.
Elkanah As The Father of Samuel
It is in the role of the father of Samuel, though, that Elkanah is perhaps best known. Let us examine his contribution to Samuel’s upbringing, such as it was. For one, when Hannah made her vow that her son Samuel would be a Nazirite for life (much like the judge Samson), a vow that could have been contradicted by Elkanah, the love that Elkanah had for his wife is demonstrated by the fact that he did not cancel her oath. This gracious act, and Eli’s gracious words to Hannah after realizing that she was only sorrowful and not drunken, allowed God to bless Hannah with a son whom she gave and devoted to lifelong service of God and of His people.
1 Samuel 1:19-23 provides the story of what happened next: “Then they rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord, and returned and came to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. So it came to pass in the process of time that Hannah conceived and bore a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, “Because I have asked for him from the Lord.” Now the man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice and his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “Not until the child is weaned; then I will take him, that he may appear before the Lord and remain there forever.” So Elkanah her husband said to her, “Do what seems best to you; wait until you have weaned him. Only let the Lord establish His word.” Then the woman stayed and nursed her son until she had weaned him.” After Hannah’s eloquent prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, the Bible says the following about Elkanah in 1 Samuel 2:11: “Then Elkanah went to his house at Ramah. But the child ministered to the Lord before Eli the priest.”
We see a few things from these verses. First, we see that Elkanah did not neglect his conjugal duties to his beloved wife Hannah despite her infertility, and this allowed God to open her womb fairly quickly. Likewise, we see Elkanah’s love for Hannah by graciously allowing her to stay home and nurse her infant son instead of traveling with them to the annual feasts as was their tradition, though it remains unclear why she would wish not to travel to the feasts, unless the memories were too painful for her or unless the sins of Eli’s sons were such that she felt her child would be endangered until it was time to make her vow.
Additionally, we see something implied in 1 Samuel. As the adult Samuel made his home in Ramah (1 Samuel 7:17), it would appear that despite his lifelong vow of service to God that Samuel always kept in touch with and remained fond of his father and (especially, his mother), a subject that will be further explored when we examine the role of Samuel in the Bible. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy to comment that Samuel made his home in Ramah just as his father did, which would indicate the positive relationship that remained between the two of them despite Samuel residing in Shiloh at the tabernacle during his youth.
The Biblical Verdict on Elkanah
Despite the fact that the Bible does not go into great deal about the life of Elkanah, enough is shown about his life to demonstrate that he was a godly and loving husband, despite his practice of polygamy, and that he maintained a good relationship with his family. However, the corrupt practices of the time meant there was a lot of stress in his household, despite his attempts to serve God faithfully. Elkanah serves as an example of a faithful and loving, if flawed, servant of God, but overall is shown in a highly sympathetic light as an example of faithfulness and love in very dark and wicked times. As such, this son of Korah stands as a notable, if moderately obscure, hero of the faith.