Judges 13 The Birth and Calling of Samson

The Sacrifice of Manoah (1640–50) by Eustache Le Sueur

Judges 13

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.

2 There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. 3 And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. 4 Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, 5 for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6 Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; 7 but he said to me, ‘You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.'”

8 Then Manoah entreated the LORD, and said, “O, LORD, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.” 9 God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10 So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, “The man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.” 11 Manoah got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” And he said, “I am.” 12 Then Manoah said, “Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s rule of life; what is he to do?” 13 The angel of the LORD said to Manoah, “Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her. 14 She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. She is to observe everything that I commanded her.”

15 Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, “Allow us to detain you, and prepare a kid for you.” 16 The angel of the LORD said to Manoah, “If you detain me, I will not eat your food; but if you want to prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the LORD.” (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the LORD.) 17 Then Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, “What is your name, so that we may honor you when your words come true?” 18 But the angel of the LORD said to him, “Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful.”

19 So Manoah took the kid with the grain offering, and offered it on the rock to the LORD, to him who work wonders. 20 When the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground. 21 The angel of the LORD did not appear again to Manoah and his wife. Then Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD. 22 And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” 23 But his wife said to him, “If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.”

24 The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the LORD blessed him. 25 The spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

At this point in the book of Judges the situation for Israel is perilous. The pernicious cycle of disobedience has continued and escalated, the quality of the judges has declined, and intertribal conflict has already proved to be as dangerous as the surrounding nations. Yet, the LORD continues to provide a way for the people to be delivered from their oppression. This unusual announcement of Samson’s birth and calling provides an opportunity for hope in the midst of the despair but in the midst of an ascendent Philistine threat and a disunified and disobedient Israel there is also significant cause for concern.

The Philistines were first mentioned in Judges 3:31 when the minor judge Shamgar kills six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad, and we see evidence of their presence being a threat to Israel in Judges 10:7. Now the Philistines are the primary military threat the Israelites face and they will continue to be a military threat until King David vanquishes them one hundred and fifty years later. The Philistines were a sea faring people that likely originated in the Greek islands and came to Canaan. They had settled in the coastal plain with a confederation of five cities (Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath) and were a militaristic people who had the ability extract iron from its ore for use in weaponry. Their seafaring culture also made them heavily engaged in trading from Anatolia (modern day Turkey) to Egypt. This militaristic people with advanced metallurgical knowledge and extensive trade and mercantile connections formed a sharp contrast with these divided tribes of “agrarian homesteaders with inferior bronze implements and no martial tradition of which to speak.” (Hattin, 2020, p. 145)

The forty years which the Israelites suffer under the hand of the Philistines is twice as long as any previous time period which an enemy had oppressed the people.[1] As Barry Webb can state,

By the time Samson is born the Philistine dominance over Israel is so complete, and the morale of Israel so low, that even the hope that Yahweh might save them has been extinguished.” (Webb, 2012, p. 350)

It is possible that the idolatry of the people has become so pervasive that there is not even the cultural memory of calling upon the LORD remains because they have forgotten their God. The plight of this exhausted people is dire as they exist oppressed by the Philistines and alienated from the LORD their God.

It is into this dire situation that the angel of God approaches this unnamed wife on Manoah with an incredible calling and commission for her future son. Manoah’s wife stands in a tradition of barren women who receive a message from God about her future child/children[2] and with this announcement we are encouraged to wonder about this child to be born. The Danites were one of the weakest tribes and were unable to claim their portion of Canaan at the beginning of Judges (1: 34-35) and it is telling that the Hebrew uses the word for family or clan (mishpahat) instead of the usual word for tribe (sebet).  This messenger from God has appeared in two previous places in the narrative of Judges: at Bochim to rebuke the people (2:1) and at the commissioning of Gideon (6: 11-12).

The setting aside of an individual as a nazirite is described in Number 6: 1-21 and is usually for a designated period, but Samson is designated before his birth to take on this identity for his life. Samson’s life as a nazirite is divinely ordained rather than chosen by himself, and in some respects this reflects the language of the call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1: 5). Yet this calling also requires the mother to observe the characteristics of a nazirite while she is pregnant with Samson. Even in the womb Samson is to live under the rules that make him set aside as special and holy.

Another reason for hope in this passage is that the angel of the LORD approaches the wife of Manoah. I have mentioned throughout these reflections that the role and safety of women in the book of Judges is a measure of the security and faithfulness of the people. Even though the woman is not named she has an important role in enabling the future judge to live faithfully into his calling. She may not have as much authority as Achsah or Deborah or end the oppression of a foreign king like Jael, but her role has more hope than Jephthah’s unnamed daughter. Manoah’s role in the story can be read as faithful or as trying to reassert power within the relationship. Manoah, unlike the rest of Israel at this point, does ask the LORD for guidance and this may be an attempt at faithfulness to ensure that the wife and child are brought up the way the LORD desires. Yet, it may also be an attempt to have the emissary of the LORD deal with him and to assert his power in the household. Ultimately both may together form Manoah’s motivation since most ancient families assumed a patriarchal authority in determining how both the spouse and children would live. Yet, the angel of the LORD again approaches the wife of Manoah and she summons her husband to meet this messenger.

When asked by Manoah if this is the same messenger who previously spoke to his wife, his simple response of “I am”[3] and then reiterates the instruction he previously gave to Manoah’s wife. Manoah receives no additional instruction how to guide the boy’s life and it remains the mother and not the father who remains in the foreground of this initial stage of the narrative. As Barry Webb can state “The implication seems to be that Manoah will never “own” the boy as a normal father might; he will be a Nazirite of God (v.7), and it is God, not Manoah, who will shape his life.” (Webb, 2012, p. 355)

Manoah belatedly remembers to offer hospitality to this strange messenger who has come to his wife. His wife has previously had some insight into the character of the messenger when she describes him, ‘like and angel of God, most awe-inspiring’ but Manoah seems oblivious. He is convinced that the child will be born but he treats this messenger like a prophet instead of an angel. Yet, Manoah obediently prepares the offering and then asks for the name of the messenger. The angel of the LORD stating his name is ‘too wonderful’ and the offering to the God who “works wonders[4] do draw a closer connection between the messenger and God. When the angelic messenger ascends in the flames Manoah finally ascertains a portion of the truth yet his wife continues to remain one step ahead of him realizing that the visit of the angel of the LORD is not going to cause their death since their offering was accepted and their death would make the announced birth impossible.

Yet, in the midst of all the hope engendered by the announcement of the future child set apart from birth there is an ominous word. In verse five the angel announces that, “he will begin to save Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” Unlike the Moabites, the Ammonites and the other threats in the book of Judges the Philistines are different and it will be a longer struggle to be free of this opponent. Samson can only begin what will be a long struggle between Israel and the Philistines. As mentioned above it will be one hundred fifty years when the Israelites are united under King David when the Philistines are no longer a feared oppressor. Yet, this provision by God to a people who no longer ask for God’s assistance gives some hope in the midst of the oppression by this external opponent. It remains to be seen if this hoped for child can turn Israel from its practice of ‘doing evil in the sight of the LORD.’

[1] Eight years under Kushan-rishathaim (3:8), eighteen years under Moab (3: 14), twenty years under King Jabin of Canaan (4:3), seven years under Midian (6: 1), and eighteen years under the Ammonites (10: 8)

[2] Sarah (Genesis 21: 1-3), Rebecca (Genesis 25: 19-21),  Rachel (Genesis 29:31, 30: 22), Hannah (1 Samuel 1:2), and the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4: 8-17)

[3] The Hebrew ‘ani does not have any formal correspondence to the name of God ‘YHWH’ from Exodus 3:14 and so it is unlikely this is an allusion to the identity of the angel of the LORD and the LORD the God of Israel being the same. (Webb, 2012, p. 354) Yet, see below on the use of ‘wonder’ and ‘wonderful’.

[4] Wonderful pieli’y and wonder pele’ are the adjective and noun form of the same word and pele’ in its thirteen uses in the scriptures is always used for God. (Webb, 2012, p. 356)

1 thought on “Judges 13 The Birth and Calling of Samson

  1. Pingback: The Book of Judges | Sign of the Rose

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