Tag Archives: Nazirite

Judges 14 Samson and the Marriage at Timnah

Samson Slaying the Lion (1628) by Peter Paul Rubens

Judges 14

Once Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw a Philistine woman. 2 Then he came up, and told his father and mother, “I saw a Philistine woman at Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.” 3 But his father and mother said to him, “Is there not a woman among your kin, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, because she pleases me.” 4 His father and mother did not know that this was from the LORD; for he was seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.

5 Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah. When he came to the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion roared at him. 6 The spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done. 7 Then he went down and talked with the woman, and she pleased Samson. 8 After a while he returned to marry her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. 9 He scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went. When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them, and they ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the carcass of the lion.

10 His father went down to the woman, and Samson made a feast there as the young men were accustomed to do. 11 When the people saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him.12 Samson said to them, “Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can explain it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments. 13 But if you cannot explain it to me, then you shall give me thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments.” So they said to him, “Ask your riddle; let us hear it.” 14 He said to them,

“Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.”

But for three days they could not explain the riddle.15 On the fourth day they said to Samson’s wife, “Coax your husband to explain the riddle to us, or we will burn you and your father’s house with fire. Have you invited us here to impoverish us?” 16 So Samson’s wife wept before him, saying, “You hate me; you do not really love me. You have asked a riddle of my people, but you have not explained it to me.” He said to her, “Look, I have not told my father or my mother. Why should I tell you?” 17 She wept before him the seven days that their feast lasted; and because she nagged him, on the seventh day he told her. Then she explained the riddle to her people. 18 The men of the town said to him on the seventh day before the sun went down,

“What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?”

And he said to them,

“If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.”

19 Then the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house. 20 And Samson’s wife was given to his companion, who had been his best man.

The tragedy of the story of Samson in several ways parallels the larger tragedy of Israel as portrayed in the book of Judges. Both Samson and Israel have God call them in dramatic ways and both are given specific practices which are to set them apart from the surrounding people. Just as Samson seems unable to resist his attraction to Philistine women, the people of Israel have often not only intermarried with the Canaanites and the other nations but have also adopted the worship of their gods and their practices and life have become indistinguishable from their neighbors. Underneath the tragedy of Samson’s story is the wonder at what this promised child could have been if he had used his prodigious strength to carry the hopes of the people instead of acting like a petulant child who flaunts the boundaries and expectations that have been placed upon him.

Samson’s narrative follows a pattern where he becomes involved with a woman who betrays him (his Philistine ‘bride’ and a prostitute in Gaza) he is bound and handed over to the Philistines (by Judah in the next chapter and by Delilah in chapter sixteen) and he is then empowered by the LORD to kill his captors by brute force and violence. Samson as he is portrayed in the narrative is driven by his hunger and passion and quickly casts aside the expectations of a Nazirite or his obligations to his family’s wishes when it pleases him. Samson will do what it right in his own eyes, just as Israel will later be accused of doing as it quickly moves towards an internal conflict which poses a far greater threat than the Philistines. Samson’s individualistic hunger driven life which has no place to regard the covenant God has placed on him, the desires of his parents, and his calling within the community reflect the degradation of the covenant identity of Israel’s tribes as the devolve into warring factions.

The narrative of Samson we have in Judges has probably been condensed to be told efficiently but there are several minor gaps in the story which I’ll highlight as we journey through. Samson goes down to Timnah[1] and sees a Philistine woman and desires her. Throughout Judges intermarriage has been an issue with the Canaanites. It is likely that there had been intermarriage with the Philistines prior to Samson, but this is the first recorded instance in Judges and there seems to be an additional concern about the Philistines not practicing circumcision. The Philistines had come to the region of Canaan later, and it is known that Israel was not the only community that practiced circumcision. Yet, this difference in practices is a boundary that causes additional concerns for Manoah.[2] This also overturns the normal order of a family relationship since a father would normally decide who his sons (or daughters) would marry. The promised child who was to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines begins by breaking the religious and cultural boundaries of Israel and turning the family order on its head. All because the woman is ‘right in his eyes.’[3]

The perspective on God in this story is peculiar. God’s perspective as told in the story accepts the personality of Samson because God intends to use Samson’s bad behavior to incite conflict between him and the Philistines. Yet, if the Philistines were the oppressors they are portrayed as there should be multiple opportunities for an individual to rise up against that oppression. Perhaps it is that Israel has simply accommodated to the life under Philistine rule and that even Samson with his prodigious strength see no alternative or any injustice that needs to be opposed. Nevertheless, there is a tension in the narrative when the action of God steers Samson to violate the prohibitions against intermarriage God gave in the covenant to the people. While I don’t doubt that God can work through a chaotic and troublesome individual like Samson the suspicious part of me, especially when combined with Samson’s violation of the Nazirite vows below, wonders if this is an attribution of God’s approval on Samson’s action in order to bring him closer to the image of a paragon of faithfulness.

The famous story of Samson and the lion is critical to the narrative but like the riddle it inspires it is full of strange and unexpected things. Samson is walking with his parents but when he arrives at the vineyard of Timnah his parents are gone. This is likely a place where the story is condensed in telling and it is important to the later narrative that his parents are not there. The presence of Samson in a vineyard is troubling since as a Nazirite he is not to eat anything from the vine, but the unexpected presence of a lion in the vineyard is also troubling. Lions live in wilderness areas not in cultivated vineyards, and yet here in this vineyard a Nazirite meets a lion and kills it violently with his bare hands. The carcass of the lion remains undisturbed in the vineyard and perhaps it is too early for workers to be tending the vineyard but it is seasonally warm enough for bees to make a hive in the midst of the carcass. The Nazirite Samson again enters the vineyard and sticks his hands into the carcass harvesting honey and breaking the Nazirite vow not to touch a corpse. Like Adam and Eve, he has eaten something he is forbidden to eat and he shares it with his parents without letting them know the source, perhaps indicating he knows they would not approve.

The Philistine woman of Timnah is essentially passive in this story. She never is given a name or a choice, she is simply the object of Samson’s passion. She pleases Samson, she is right in his eyes, therefore his father is to arrange the wedding. The seven-day feast could be an Israelite observance since many Israelite festivals are seven days, but it is likely that the companions at the feast are Philistines and the celebration banquet is a normal practice among the Philistines. The word for ‘feast’ (misteh) suggests a drinking feast (NIB II: 850) and the presence of Samson in the vineyard and now his presence at the feast likely means that Samson has now violated two of the three primary provisions for a Nazirite.  The presence of riddles at a feast would be common but Samson’s riddle is almost unsolvable without knowing about the story of the lion in the vineyard. It is possible that someone could stumble upon this corpse infested with bees, but it is telling that prior to this no one had been in the vineyard and disposed of the rotting carcass. The wager is a costly one in the ancient world, thirty garments is too large a price for these ‘companions’ to willingly pay. The timeline of the feast is confused. For the first three days the companions are unable to explain the riddle, the Greek Septuagint (which the NRSV follows) has the companions come to his wife on the fourth day, while the Hebrew text states they come to her on the seventh day. Yet, Samson’s wife weeps before him the seven days of the feast and whether she is threatened on day four or day seven the narrative indicates that her weeping over a period of time causes Samson distress. Samson’s actions have placed her and her family under threat of these young men, but it is also possible that this woman who Samson decided would be his wife is not joyous about the match after seeing her husbands conduct at the festival.

The tears of Samson’s wife finally convince him to release the answer to the riddle and she passes it on to the men who give the answer at the conclusion of the seven days. Samson departs in a petulant rage towards Ashkelon, twenty-five miles away in the heart of the Philistine confederation of five cities, and his rage turns murderous. Thirty men of Ashkelon lose their lives to provide the garments he now owes the men of Timnah and once Samson pays this debts he abandons his wife and returns to his father’s home. The woman who was right in his eyes is no longer right in his ears after seven days of weeping. The woman is given a new husband, one of the companions from the feast as Samson lives with his hot anger in his parent’s household.

This initial story of Samson desiring a Philistine bride and the trouble that ensues due to his actions sets the stage for a growing conflict between Samson and the Philistines. Samson’s actions are already in sharp contrast to the hope of the previous chapter. Yet, in many ways the Samson mirrors the degradation of the life in Israel. Just as the people have intermarried with their neighbors and have turned aside from their way of life, Samson has chosen a Philistine bride and abandoned many of the Nazirite practices. Samson’s choices have left him fuming with anger in his father’s home and with the blood of a lion and thirty men already on his strong hands.

[1] Timnah is in the Valley of Sorek. The Danites at the beginning of Judges were confined to the hills in their territory (1:34). (Webb, 2012, p. 364) It is likely that under the Philistine domination of the area that the remaining Canaanites, Philistines, and Israelites all lived in close proximity.

[2] In the Hebrew the words of his father and mother are spoken as singular (my people-‘ammi) and I take this to be Manoah speaking for both himself and Samson’s mother. This is one place where the text may be condensed.

[3] Hayyasar beenayo this is the same term used in Judges 17:6 and 21: 25 of Israel.

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)