Chapter: Samson (Judges 13)
An enigmatic judge
If Samson would have lived today, the sports teams would be at his heels and willing to pay him millions of dollars. As a defence in rugby, no one would be able to pass him; as an offense player, the best defence would fail. In wrestling, boxing or judo, Olympic titles would be his by default. On the other hand, governments would do anything to have his services as a presidential bodyguard or as a member of an elite troop used to penetrate the enemy’s front lines. Samson is unique. There was never a man as strong as he. He tears a roaring lion apart with his bare hands; he kills a thousand men with the jaw of an ass; he tears out the gates of a city and carries them to the top of a mountain 60 kilometres away; he breaks the most solid chains as if they were “flax that is burned with fire”; things which are only possible in our dreams. Many wrongly want to place him in the realm of mythological beings: they find it impossible that such a superman could have existed. For the Bible, there can be no doubt. Samson was a man of flesh and blood bestowed by God with exceptional strength.
Samson’s strength is not the judge’s only speciality. His dedication to the ministry is also unique. For a start, his birth is exceptional, because just like for the greatest of God’s men, an angel announces his miraculous conception and his consecration to the ministry at his mother’s breast. Afterwards, the signs of consecration are unusual. Particularly the connection between his strength and his hair cannot fail to astound us. Finally, his ministry is marked by a fourfold filling by the Spirit of the Lord (13:24; 14:6, 19; 15:14), more references to the Spirit than for all of the other judges put together.
Samson’s strength and dedication make this judge a unique person. No man was ever like him, but the admiration for this elect of God turns into sadness and criticism when one looks at the other side of the coin. This champion of God from whom one expects wonders and marvels is incapable of delivering his people. At his death, the Philistines still dominate the region. Samson fails where the other judges succeeded, even when they often had quite limited means at their disposal to fight the enemy. On the personal level, Samson ends miserably: his eyes gouged out, condemned to forced labour, exposed to public ridicule.
Samson is a man of contrasts. The strongest judge becomes the weakest; the most blessed ends up as the most miserable; the most dedicated trusts a contemptible woman. The judge’s dedication and strength, which could rout an entire army, disappear when he comes into contact with Delilah. After falling asleep on this woman’s knees, no chains are needed to keep him under control. The whole world stumbles with Samson, all hopes melt away.
The man fascinates us with his contrasts. He also intrigues us with his words and deeds. Why challenge the wedding guests with a riddle? Why attach combustible bundles to three hundred foxes’ tails and burn entire fields? Why tear out the gates of Gaza and carry them to the top of a mountain? Samson also puzzles his contemporaries with his riddles. One fifth of the cycle is dedicated to the riddle mentioned at the wedding (14:1-18); a further fifth is dedicated to Delilah’s efforts to find out the secret of his strength (16:4-21).
Samson gives his contemporaries just as much cause for reflection as he does the readers of his story. This judge is certainly more than just a mass of muscles. The challenge he launches to thirty men during seven days reminds us of a chess champion who plays several games simultaneously with his eyes closed. Samson is sure of himself and of the superiority of his intelligence. The subtlety of his riddle assures him of victory in advance. Samson seems ready to rise to all challenges, and yet he is incapable of discerning Delilah’s game. This woman shamelessly deceives him three times, but Samson continues to trust her. Samson’s blindness is almost as incredible as his strength. How can he not realise that Delilah wishes his downfall? Yet this spiritual blindness precedes his physical blindness (16:21). It contrasts Samson’s name, which derives from the Hebrew word for sun. Although full of light at the start, Samson ends up with his eyes gouged, in the darkness of a prison.
This child of the sun illuminates and blinds us at the same time. Both in the past as well as today, his ministry is misunderstood. His contemporaries do not follow him and the men of Judah even betray him to the enemy after after accusing him of being a troublemaker (15:11-13). His parents do not understand his wish to marry a Philistine, even though this idea comes from the Lord (14:4). Most of the modern commentators criticise him unconditionally. Nothing but reproaches and mockery have rained down upon this man. Cundall (p. 155) speaks of an uncontrollable juvenile delinquent who lacks discipline and true dedication. For J.J. Davis (p. 141-142), the story of Samson is a study of contrasts; the dedication and sensitivity of the parents are the contrary of the son’s arrogance, an example of the type of uncontrolled power which passions and pride can produce.
Samson is nevertheless a remarkable man. We shall try to prove that this judge embodies the greatest moral and spiritual qualities: there is no sexual immorality; he is no egoist nor is he enticed by personal profit; there is no nastiness, but a profound sense of the ministry and a spirit which is sensitive to divine justice. His spirituality is pointed out on four occasions, and the author takes advantage of this to warn us about understanding the judge’s actions in a negative manner (13:24; 14:6, 19; 15:14). The New Testament also lists him among the heroes of the faith (Heb 11:32). Of course, Samson ends up falling in defeat. His sin with Delilah is unquestionable because he loses his strength and the Lord withdraws from him (16:20). The critics pounce on our hero once again, but are they on target? As we will see, the sin is minor, despite the dramatic consequences (Samson reveals the source of his strength: see commentary 16:15-21). In the past as well as today, Samson is one of the least understood Biblical personae.
A hardened people
A correct understanding of Samson starts with a study of the context. Here, just as for the other cycles, the problem of Israel lies not with the judge but in the people. This cycle is special because the people’s attitude is unique. Contrary to the other cycles, revolt and ruin are not followed by a return to God. There is no repentance. During the same period in Transjordan, the people had returned to the Lord after 18 years of oppression, but in Cisjordan, the people are still as rebellious as before, even after 40 years of ruin. Contrary to the previous situations, the punishment inflicted by the Lord does not produce any repentance at all, even after a domination which is twice as long as any other oppression during the time of the judges (20 years at Debora’s time: 4.3). Without so much as blinking an eye, the people continue to march doggedly into rebellion.
God’s judgement no longer appears to have any effect. Humiliation by enemies is accepted, for twenty years, even forty years. Israel does not react. The chosen people seem to be resigned to their fate. On behalf of this generation it must be said that the Philistine domination is different than the others. This people does not systematically devastate the country the way the Midianites did, but are content with a more or less peaceful cohabitation with Israel. They do not oppose inter-ethnic marriages if other peoples integrate themselves into their customs and obey their authorities. Israel accepts this submission (15:9-13). The compromise of cohabitation seems preferable to war. For Israel, a peaceful life is priceless.
Life is dear to the Jews, but are they still alive? Physically perhaps, but for how long? Spiritually there is nothing left. Like an EKG which has stopped oscillating, the people’s apathy reveals the situation. The flame of spirituality is extinguished. This hardening of the people explains the judge’s solitude, even his being abandoned to the enemy. God must intervene in a radical way to reanimate what is moribund.
A ministry of symbolic instruction
The angel of the Lord reveals the nature of Samson’s particular ministry: he “shall begin to deliver Israel” (13:5). Because the people have not repented as the preceding generations have done, the ministry of Manoah’s son will not consist of delivering Israel, but only of beginning to do so. Samson’s primary task is not to release his brothers from the Philistines’ hands, but to free them from themselves, e.g. from their sins.
Samson (whose name derives from the word for sun) must seek to enlighten his contemporaries on their situation, their sin, their unbelief, the dangers of compromise and religious syncretism, but also about the strength of the faithful and the certitude of their victory. Samson must instruct Israel to lead it to repentance, but how can one address a hardened people? With a speech? Better to do so with vivid lessons. Jotham had captivated the inhabitants of Shechem with a fable (9:7-15) and Nathan copies David by using a parable (2 Sam 12:1-9), just like other prophets and Jesus will do for their contemporaries when they use images and lessons to communicate the divine message to a hardened people. Samson also uses images to reach his contemporaries, who have closed their ears to preaching. But rather than tell stories he will act them out himself, just as Hosea will be called to do later on. The marriage with a Philistine will illustrate the dangers of a bad alliance, the foxes with their tails tied together express the ravages of an unnatural alliance, the death of the Philistines predicts the fate of evil people.
Samson serves as a messenger, even at his own expense. His error with Delilah reminds Israel of the strength which the people have lost for having trusted those who are unworthy of trust. Even Samson’s prayer of supplication is a message for Israel. If the people implore the Lord as Samson has done, they will also receive divine support.
The message which Samson embodies is so profound that it even goes beyond the period of Judges. When God uses an barren woman to beget new life, he wants to show that when faced with the sterility and death engendered by sin, only a new creation can bring salvation. We must note here that the giving of birth by an barren woman appears in Scripture each time that God wants to mark an important step of his redemption. Isaac is the son of promise; Samuel is a priest divinely mandated to anoint the first kings of Israel; John the Baptist announces the Messiah. Christ himself is born of a virgin. In his case, the miracle which symbolises new creation is even more obvious, because Jesus is truly the new Adam (Rom 5:12-21). The miracle thus marks the rupture with the (corrupt) order of the past. With Samson, the Lord creates something new. Being different from other men, he is the sign of a new humanity, the bearer of all promises, as much on the physical and intellectual level as on the spiritual. Because the traditional men have failed, God must do something radically different, and in this sense Samson prefigures the full redemption which the Messiah will carry out.
The main characteristic of the new being is not his strength, but his dedication. The account of Samson’s birth covers the theme of dedication three times (13:4-5, 7, 14), whereas the judge’s strength is indicated only once: “He shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hands of Philistines” (13:5). The dedication is fundamental, strength is secondary. In fact, the dedication leads to strength. Whoever is attached to God is invincible, because God is with him. Samson is strong because he is dedicated. Just as in the past, when the chosen people were invincible in their days of faithfulness, Samson is invincible. The judge of strength must remind Israel of its past strength.
Position within the development of the book
The Samson cycle is the seventh and last cycle. It is also one of the longest. The most complete and increasingly detailed development culminates here. No other cycle provides as much information on a judge. Samson is the best known judge, despite the fact that–paradoxically–he is the least understood.
The cycle also presents some special cases (Judges 9-16): Abimelech the anti-judge, Jephthah the deliverer of Transjordan, and now, Samson the preacher who embodies his message in his life. The Abimelech cycle developed the phase of rebellion and ruin, the Jephthah cycle was based on redemption of a border region, and Samson concludes the detailed presentation of the cycle’s phases with a report on repentance.
The absence of all redemption is the sign of sin’s progression. The abyss appears to be reached, because despite the gift of such a remarkable judge, no repentance can be perceived. The end of the cycle calls powerfully for a new work of God (which will be the case at the end of the book). Samuel’s ministry, which introduces the covenant with the house of David (from which the Messiah originates), shall be God’s reply to this need. True salvation can never take place without the most profound redemption. Transitory judges as extraordinary as Samson do not suffice. God must come in person to solve the basic problem of evil.
Contrast to Jephthah
The section on special cases (Judges 9-16) is full of contrasts. Each judge is different from the previous one. The first details on Samson (chapter 13) clearly set him apart from the major judge before him.
1. Samson and Jephthah are the only judges whose birth the author mentions. But Samson’s mother is a remarkable woman, totally devoted to the Lord, whereas Jephthah’s mother is a prostitute.
2. Samson’s calling is clear as from his birth, which the angel of the Lord personally announces to his parents, whereas Jephthah’s calling appears to be linked so closely to the choice of men that the reader could question a divine calling.
3. Samson is a Nazirite, set aside from birth, completely pure, whereas Jephthah is a bastard, condemned to exile, surrounded by men whom one could consider as good-for-nothings.
Chapters 14-16 show a complete reversal:
1. The boy who had all of the advantages becomes an isolated man, without the support of his brothers, whereas the bastard is always surrounded by men, even when he must leave the country (11:3). Jephthah’s rejection by his brothers is only momentary, because when they are faced with the pagan threats, his compatriots recognise him as their leader, and are even prepared to defend him against personal attacks by the men of Ephraim (12:1-4).
2. Samson is betrayed by the Israelites, but he does them no harm (15:12-13), whereas Jephthah fights against the people of Ephraim and kills 42,000 men.
3. Finally, Samson does not chase out the Philistines who are settled on the Mediterranean shore, whereas Jephthah liberates Israel from Ammonite oppression in Transjordan.
The Nazirite rules
Samson’s ministry is characterised by his permanent calling as a Nazirite. The regulations regarding this status are given in Numbers 6:1-21. Three elements characterise this commitment: (1) prohibition to consume the fruit of the vine (Num 6:3-4), (2) prohibition to cut one’s hair (Num 6:5), (3) prohibition to approach the dead (Num 6:6-7). The three regulations are related to the body: the wine to that which enters the body (a drink), hair which comes out from the body (hair growth is mentioned) and that which touches the dead body (preparation of the deceased and mourning). Obviously, these regulations had no other value except in the measure that they reflected a life which was dedicated to the Lord.
1. The prohibition related to fruit of the vine is not limited to alcoholic beverages, but also includes fresh grapes, dried raisins, pips and skin (Num 6:3-4). Wine was not an impure beverage. On the contrary, the Israelites consumed it freely. Especially during certain celebrations, one part of the tithe was consumed before the house of the Lord in the form of wine, liquors and different types of choice food together with the extended family (Deut 14:26-27). For the people, the only prohibition connected to wine and all of the fruit of the vine was linked to the sabbatical year. Because the Jew was not to do any work, the vine (just like any other cultivation) was left to waste and the harvest was left to God. Only the poor and animals could use it (Exod 23:11). Thus, for the Nazirites, the prohibition linked to fruit of the vine was not restricted to the sabbatical year only, but extended over the entire period which was dedicated to the Lord. Giving one seventh to the Lord was not sufficient. Complete dedication required a full gift. The Nazirite’s commitment also barred him from indulging in celebrations where wine or spirits flowed freely. His life no longer belonged to him. Rest, relaxation and festivities were spurned until the end of his commitment. Abstinence from alcoholic beverages (wine and strong spirits) is particularly emphasised (13:4, 7, 14), as the dedicated servant must keep a clear mind. Just as a policeman must abstain from all alcohol, the Nazarite must do the same during his time of service. Of course, the prohibition covered all fruit of the vine (including the pips, the skin and dried raisins), its purpose being to better emphasise the absoluteness of this law. Nowadays, people are sometimes exhorted to abstain from any drop of alcohol.
2. The prohibitions regarding hair are linked to the symbolism of the sabbatical year. Not cutting one’s hair recalls the earth’s time of rest. Uncut vines and uncut hair resemble each other, mainly because the latter flow freely in the wind. Furthermore, like the growth of plants, the growth of hair is a symbol of fertility. If the product of the earth (the harvest) must be left to the Lord, then the same shall be done to the product of the head (hair). By offering his hair to the Lord, the Nazirite symbolically expresses his desire to dedicate his thoughts to him (because the head’s main activity is cerebral). To carry one’s hair to the Lord means to commit to him the entire product of one’s reflections. The New Testament also exhorts the faithful to reject all impure thoughts and to be renewed in one’s intelligence (Rom 12:1-2; Eph 4:20-24). Long hair also carries the idea of submission, as 1 Cor 11:2-16 teaches us. By keeping for the Lord that which resembles a crown on his head, the Nazirite abandons all desire for independence. During his Nazirite period he will be the servant of the Lord only. Thus, if the dedication is linked to strength (Israel and Samson are all-powerful as long as they are completely dedicated to the Lord), it is also linked to intelligence. As it produces the former, is also produces the latter. Whoever is dedicated will fill his mind with thoughts of the Lord. In doing so, he cannot help surpassing the dulled intelligence of sinners with his wisdom.
3. The prohibition of contact with cadavers is often misunderstood. It concerns the mourning of deceased relatives. Like the high priest (Lev 21:10-12), the Nazirite cannot dwell upon the death of his close relations, because death is the symbol of impurity. This is why the Lord had prohibited Aaron from taking part in the mourning of his two sons (Lev 10:6-7). The prohibition linked to cadavers has nothing to do with the killing of an animal for sacrifice (which was the main task of the high priests) nor the execution of an individual guilty of a capital crime. The executioner who executes a murderer does not make himself impure by that act. Thus Phinehas, son of Eleazar, receives the most sacred ministry, that of the high priest, for having killed a man and a woman (Num 25:7-13). In the same way, the holy war commanded by the Lord for the occupation of the Promised Land does not make anyone impure, quite on the contrary. During the period of the judges, it is the absence of war which makes the people unclean. By fighting the Philistines, Samson does not break his Nazirite vows; he carries them out.
Samson is a special person. The divine presence unleashes his strengths and transforms his gestures into symbolic acts. Because his ministry is orientated toward teaching and the future (cf. “he shall begin to deliver Israel”), we feel it would be wise to mention certain elements of Messianic typology:
1. His dedication and his calling prior to conception, just like his miraculous conception, make him comparable to John the Baptist and Jesus.
2. The angel of the Lord’s announcement to Samson’s mother recall Gabriel’s visit to Mary.
3. The prodigal strength which Samson uses to fight the enemy can be likened to Jesus’s power to chase out demons.
4. The fight against the lion, who is the guardian of the land of darkness (see commentary 14:5-9) could illustrate Jesus’ fight against Satan.
5. The leading tribe’s betrayal reminds us of the sin of the Jewish religious leaders who betrayed Jesus to the Romans.
6. Delilah’s insistence to trap Samson recalls the same perseverance of the Jews to betray the Messiah, as well as Judas Iscariot’s efforts to find an occasion to deliver Jesus for money (Matt 26:15-16; Mark 14:11; Luke 22:3-6).
7. Samson’s passiveness when his brothers tie him to deliver him to the Philistines (15:12-13) and his last sacrifice in the temple of Dagon, which will result in the greatest victory of his ministry, evoke the expiatory sacrifice on the cross.
8. Samson lived a solitary life, without being understood by his brothers and compatriots, just as Jesus was excluded by the people and abandoned by his loved ones (Es 53).
Of course, Samson is not the Messiah, and his life cannot be perfect because all men sin with the exception of Jesus (Rom 3:9-10, 20; Heb 4:15). Samson ends up sinning, whereas Jesus lives a life without sin. Samson loses his strength; Jesus kept his until the very last, but refrains from using it (cf. Matt 26:53). These differences between the Messiah and his precursor should not let us forget all of the above-mentioned analogies. God’s plan for Samson is one of the most surprising.
Only three of the cycle’s five phases are present here. The two first ones are explained in the first verse (revolt and ruin: 13:1), whereas repentance forms the remainder of the development. Moreover, this phase comes to an end with the repentance of the judge himself (16:28).
A second structure follows the chronological dimension, which is divided into three sections: (1) birth (13:1-24), (2) beginning of ministry, divided into two parts: the time of the wedding (13:25-14:20) and the time of harvest (15), (3) the end of the ministry (16).
The most interesting structure is the most thematic. It is based on a chiasm and recalls the book’s general structure 2–7–2: double introduction (birth and first contacts with the Philistines), seven episodes about the conflicts with the Philistines, double conclusion (loss of strength and death). We note that the only reference to the people (aside from the introductory verse) lies in the centre of the chiasm.
Samson’s conception (13:1-24)£
The marriage riddle (13:25-14:19)
Seven minor episodes
Visit and theft at Ashkalon (14:19-20)
Country destroyed by fire (15:1-5)
Philistine attack on Samson’s family (15:6-8)
Judah’s betrayal (15:9-13)
Philistine attack against Samson (15:14-17)
Samson’s thirst quenched by a rock (15:18-20)
Visit and theft at Gaza (16:1-3)
The riddle of Samson’s strength (16:4-21)
Samson’s death (16:22-31)
The remarks on the chiasm are provided in the footnote below.
General remarks on chapter 13
The first of the four chapters dedicated to Samson recount the events related to the announcement of his birth. This preoccupation with the judge’s birth seems a bit overdone at first when compared to the other judges, where only the ministry is reported. This stems from the author’s interest in the judge’s calling. The calling reflects God’s plan for this man and for his people. Just like a flower’s genes are already contained in the seed, or like an architect’s plan contains the main characteristics of a construction, the divine calling contains the basic information on Samson’s ministry.
Samson is set apart as from the start of his life, because his dedication must be absolute. The Nazirite regulations must be applied as from the first moments of life, e.g. as from conception. His mother must thus abstain from certain foods during her pregnancy, to prevent the young Samson whom she bears within her from consuming forbidden food through her. Samson’s dedication is exceptional.
The type of ministry is also presented: “he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” (13:5). Several commentators connect this word with Israel’s history, because the war against the Philistines lasted until David’s time. It seems preferable to link this to the immediate context. As there is no repentance, God indicates that there can be no military or political liberation before a return to God.
The personal presence of the angel of the Lord enhances Samson’s exceptional situation and underscores the divine interest: the Lord is directly engaged in this judge’s favour.
Links and contrasts to Gideon’s calling
Samson’s calling recalls that of Gideon. These two divine callings are the only ones which the author reports, and they resemble each other considerably:
1. The angel of the Lord comes in person to announce the judge’s ministry.
2. A dialogue takes place between the angel and the men after their questions (Gideon and Manoah).
3. Despite rather deceptive replies, the two Israelites wish to offer the angel a meal.
4. The angel gives instructions so that the meal is transformed into an offering (6:20; 13:16).
5. When everything is ready, a miracle occurs which terrifies the men, because they are now convinced that they are in God’s very presence.
The accounts are so close that one could have a tendency to confuse them. The nuances are nevertheless important. Compared to the first account, the divine revelation of the second is more obvious:
1. At Samson’s calling, the angel appears twice and to two people (the mother and the father), whereas Gideon is the only witness of a sole apparition.
2. The angel’s apparition to Manoah’s wife allows him to immediately recognise a divine messenger (“A Man of God came to me, and His countenance was like the countenance of the Angel of God, very awesome” 13:6), whereas Gideon’s doubt about the divine messenger’s origin is not dispelled until the end, when the miracle takes place.
3. The angel tells Manoah his name, but says nothing of the kind to Gideon.
4. The miracle of the angel rising in a flame is more spectacular than that of an angel burning Gideon’s offering.
5. Lastly, one can mention that Samson’s calling takes place before his birth, even prior to conception, and not only because the need for a deliverer is felt. This underscores the decisiveness of the divine plan and Samson’s ministry.
Parallel to this more obvious divine revelation, Manoah (who is the main interlocutor with the angel in this account) seems to be more distant from the Lord than Gideon:
1. When the miracle takes place, Manoah’s (unjustified) expression of fear is more apparent than Gideon’s (cf. Manoah thinks he is going to die).
2. The meal offered by Manoah is refused and must be replaced by a burnt offering, whereas Gideon can offer a communion sacrifice.
3. Gideon’s offering is obviously accepted, as the angel touches it with his staff, whereas Manoah’s burnt offering seems to be replaced (or completed) by the sacrifice of the angel, who rises in a flame like a burnt offering.
4. During the entire dialogue with the angel, Manoah is less sharp-witted than his wife and does not seem to understand what is happening.
These remarks about the two callings permit the reader to expect a more dazzling divine action under Samson than under Gideon, but perhaps also a more manifest rigidity (e.g. opposition) of the people towards the divine messenger.
Detailed analysis of chapter 13
Revolt and ruin (13:1)
Again the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.
As soon as he has finished the account of Transjordan’s domination, the author returns to the oppression in Cisjordan which was already mentioned at the beginning of the Jephthah cycle (10:6-7).
The chronological link between the 40 years of oppression on the one hand and Samson’s calling to the ministry on the other hand is not obvious. Does the angel announce the judge’s ministry at the end, in the middle or at the start of the 40 years of oppression? If at the end, the Philistine domination would have lasted 80 years or more (40 years prior to his birth, 20 years to let Samson grow up, 20 years of ministry without liberation: 15:20; 16:31). If it were in the middle, Samson would have commenced his ministry after 40 years of Philistine oppression and the domination would have lasted for 60 years or more. If at the beginning, Samson’s ministry would have begun after 20 years of domination, and would have ended after 40 years of domination. Once the the sum of the periods of oppression, rest and reigns surpass the total duration of the period of Judges, commentators are tempted to choose the third solution. We prefer the second. Samson’s ministry can be situated between Aphek’s defeat and Eben-Ezer’s victory (1 Sam 4:1-11; 7:2, 7-13; see table p. 57).
Revelation to the mother (13:2-7)
2Now there was a certain man from Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and had no children. 3And the Angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Indeed now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. 4Now therefore, please be careful not to drink wine or similar drink, and not to eat anything unclean. 5For behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. And no razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” 6So the woman came and told her husband, saying, “A Man of God came to me, and His countenance was like the countenance of the Angel of God, very awesome; but I did not ask Him where He was from, and He did not tell me His name. 7And He said to me, ‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now drink no wine or similar drink, nor eat anything unclean, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.’”.
Although the reader expects to hear something about the people’s repentance, the author confronts him with a story of barrenness. Infertility and the absence of repentance have something in common: the absence of life. Despite forty years of oppression, the people refuse to turn to the Creator of life. God must intervene in a manner which is radical and different. The miracle of Samson’s birth is a redemptive act with which God gives hope to Manoah’s family and to all of Israel. The angel of the Lord is personally entrusted with announcing the divine plan.
Four pieces of information are transmitted to Manoah’s wife: (1) she will bear a son, (2) she must abstain from certain foods, (3) her son shall be dedicated to the Lord during his lifetime, (4) this son’s ministry shall be directed towards the people’s liberation. The astounding element comes neither from the judge’s ministry nor from the order not to cut his hair, but from the permanence of his dedication. As from the first days of his life, e.g. at conception, the child must respect the Nazirite rules. Consequently, his mother must obey the same alimentary regulations during her pregnancy.
The woman runs to her husband to repeat the information (13:6-7). The author also repeats it (he could have simply stated that the woman repeated the information without doing it himself) to better anchor the message in the reader’s mind (he will do the same thing a third time when the angel repeats the same information to the father: 13:13-14). The author does not provide all of the elements in his repetition; only that which is surprising, e.g. the birth of a son and his permanent dedication (“to the day of his death” 13:7).
The woman is convinced by the message, because for her, the messenger obviously comes from God (“A Man of God came to me, and His countenance was like the countenance of the Angel of God, very awesome” 13:6). The word awesome (nôrâ') often describes divinity (Ps 66:5; 76:12).
Samson comes from a family which did not emigrate to the north (cf. Judges 17-18). In fact, Tsorea, located 23 kilometres west of Jerusalem, had been granted to Dan (Jos 19:41).
The father’s questions (13:8-14)
8Then Manoah prayed to the Lord, and said, “O my Lord, please let the Man of God whom You sent come to us again and teach us what we shall do for the child who will be born.” 9And God listened to the voice of Manoah, and the Angel of God came to the woman again as she was sitting in the field; but Manoah her husband was not with her. 10Then the woman ran in haste and told her husband, and said to him, “Look, the Man who came to me the other day has just now appeared to me!” 11So Manoah arose and followed his wife. When he came to the Man, he said to Him, “Are You the Man who spoke to this woman?” And He said, “I am.” 12Manoah said, “Now let Your words come to pass! What will be the boy’s rule of life, and his work?” 13So the Angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “Of all that I said to the woman let her be careful. 14She may not eat anything that comes from the vine, nor may she drink wine or similar drink, nor eat anything unclean. All that I commanded her let her observe.”
Manoah is an enigmatic person. Should we see him as a man dedicated to God who wishes to be informed of the best way to educate his very special child? Doesn’t his answered prayer mean divine approval? Several elements weigh against an altogether positive view of the man:
1. The angel certainly comes to speak to him, but he merely repeats the previous message without adding anything extra.
2. The angel turns to the woman first, before the man, which suggests a certain scorn towards the head of the family.
3. The contrast between the woman’s reaction to the miracle and that of the man is hardly in favour of Manoah. The mother expresses the discernment which the father lacks.
4. The angel’s replies to Manoah’s questions are brief, almost curt, and sometimes negative. The angel replies to the first question (“Are You the Man who spoke to this woman?” 13:11), with two words: I am ('anî). He responds to the second question (“What will be the boy’s rule of life, and his work?” 13:12), by (partly) repeating the message he has confided to the woman. He answers the third question (“What is your name?” 13:17), with a reproach and a riddle. The invitation to a meal is categorically refused (13:15-16).
5. The second question (13:12) could reflect doubt : “If your word come to pass” (French translation Segond), rather then “Now let Your words come to pass!”(NKJV) or “When your words are fulfilled” (NIV).
Manoah doubts, whereas his wife believes. An entire generation is illustrated by this couple. Thus, when hard-hearted leaders obstruct the divine plan, God must use lower-ranking persons to carry out his work: a wife instead of a husband; a stranger from Dan rather than a magistrate of Judah. Overstepping hierarchic structures is evidence of the leaders’ blindness; they can obviously no longer serve as guides.
The father's offering (13:15-23)
15Then Manoah said to the Angel of the Lord, “Please let us detain You, and we will prepare a young goat for You.” 16And the Angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “Though you detain Me, I will not eat your food. But if you offer a burnt offering, you must offer it to the Lord.” (For Manoah did not know He was the Angel of the Lord.) 17Then Manoah said to the Angel of the Lord, “What is Your name, that when Your words come to pass we may honour You?” 18And the Angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask My name, seeing it is wonderful?” 19So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering, and offered it upon the rock to the Lord. And He did a wondrous thing while Manoah and his wife looked on-- 20it happened as the flame went up toward heaven from the altar--the Angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar! When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground. 21When the Angel of the Lord appeared no more to Manoah and his wife, then Manoah knew that He was the Angel of the Lord. 22And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, because we have seen God!” 23But his wife said to him, “If the Lord had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have told us such things as these at this time.”
The author obviously wants us to compare Samson and Gideon. Since the angel had agreed to Gideon’s meal, his firm refusal of Manoah’s offering might be surprising to some people. The angel nevertheless proposes to replace the meal with a burnt offering. As the people live in sin and have not repented (contrary to Gideon’s generation), communion with God is impossible. Atonement must precede communion. The burnt offering comes first, then the shared meal.
Manoah asks the angel his name. The husband does what the wife did not dare. Not realising that the angel is God, does he wish to honour the messenger? To be able to do so, he must know his identity. The angel’s reply is curt: “Why do you ask my name?” Thus, in contrast, the wife’s prudence is emphasised. The angel finally does reply, but his answer is baffling: “it is wonderful” or “mysterious”. On the one hand, the angel refuses to say his name: the question receives no reply, because the angel’s name is mysterious. On the other hand, it is an answer, because the angel does not reply with silence, but rather with a word that emphasises God’s greatness. With this word, the angel confirms the godliness which the woman has sensed (13:6).
The miracle carried out for the future parents of Samson is more spectacular than the one for Gideon: “the Angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar”. This event makes us forget the burnt offering, because the miracle is about the messenger. As we have already indicated for Jephthah’s vow, the expression “burnt offering” already implies the idea of rising. So the angel rises in the flame of the rock (tsûr: 13:19) which has become an altar (mizbêahi: 13:20). Thus, the angel literally takes the place of the burnt offering. In New Testament terms, we would say that God offers himself as a sacrifice for the people’s sins.
Manoah’s fear after he realises the angel’s identity shows that he still does not understand (13:21-22). He sees without comprehending. The angel’s identity cannot escape him, but he does not grasp the meaning of the act. It is as if Manoah is always lagging one step behind. He illustrates his generation, which sees Samson’s signs without understanding their meaning. His wife, on the other hand, understands and explains the divine grace to her husband (13:23). In addition to her words, we could also add that if God takes the trouble to die for us, it does not mean that we will die also (John 3:16).
Samson’s birth and the start of his ministry (13:24–25)
24So the woman bore a son and called his name Samson; and the child grew, and the Lord blessed him. 25And the Spirit of the Lord began to move upon him at Mahaneh Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol.
The name Samson, as already mentioned, comes from the Hebrew word for sun. His mother may have given him the name because God, like the sun, had brought light into the couple’s life. The name could express the parents’ hope that with this child the hour of Israel’s deliverance has come. Without excluding either possibility, Samson’s name primarily announces his ministry of enlightenment and instruction.
Samson’s childhood is summarised in a few words, just as is the case for John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:80; 2:40, 52). The importance lies in the divine action, not in the education of men, even if God has chosen dedicated mothers for his chosen men.
The last verse of chapter 13 is already part of the following section and shall be taken up in the analysis of the following chapter.