Samson is the last and most famous of the judges mentioned in the book, and he is given more space than any other. He is perhaps the most perplexing too. From his miraculous birth to his victorious death we see the clearest hints of the Saviour to come, and yet in sync with the downward spiral that marks the whole book he is at the same time the most worldly and un-Christ-like of leaders. He seems to personify all that’s wrong with Israel. He, like Israel, was called to a life of separation and devotion to God, but fails to live it out. He was drawn inexorably to foreign women, just as Israel was drawn to foreign gods. Both experienced bondage from their enemies and seemed to be abandoned by God.
Whereas Gideon was a weak man made strong, Samson is a strong man made weak, but we see God working in and through both weakness and strength. And the writer of Hebrews includes him as a hero of faith. In this initial study, the focus is more on Samson’s parents, and we can learn from them, but especially we are to notice what God is doing – his gracious initiative.
Verse 1 is wearyingly familiar by this stage in the book. The final verse of the book will say (literally) “everyone did as was right in his own eyes” – it seemed good to them, but to the LORD it was evil. There is a striking omission though between verses 1 and 2: there is no mention of their crying out to the LORD for help or mercy. That has been the pattern – Rebellion, then Retribution, then Repentance (or at least Remorse), then Rescue. It seems though that Israel is content to be under the Philistine yoke, so accommodated to the world have they become. They are not even wanting to be rescued. God’s grace therefore shines all the more brightly.
Manoah’s wife is un-named, strikingly, despite being a wonderful example of faith (not least when compared to all the other women in Samson’s life). She is unable to have children, but into this obscure and seemingly hopeless situation God speaks a word of marvellous hope. The choice of a barren woman as the agent through whom the deliverer would come magnifies the power and grace of God. This miraculous birth heralds a new and significant work of God (something we need to keep in mind as we read on in the story, because in the next few chapters it can seem as though God is not doing a great deal, rather Samson is simply a kind of Rambo on heat).
A Nazirite vow (see Numbers 6) was usually a temporary vow of consecration to God for those who weren’t priests, symbolised by the abstaining from wine, barbers, and dead bodies. Samson’s vow though is to be life-long, even from conception (which is why his mother cannot drink any wine or alcohol or eat anything unclean). His is to be a life of holiness and consecration to God. It is not in the first place a vow he or his parents make, but one imposed on them; this is God’s initiative. And his work would be to “begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines” – notice, he would only begin it, the fulfilment lies in the future; it would be completed under David, and what that deliverance foreshadows would be fulfilled by great David’s greater Son.
Manoah’s wife’s response seems godly and faithful, as is Manoah’s – praying to God for help to raise this son rightly. When he meets the Angel, he shows that he trusts the promise (“When your words are fulfilled”), but he is given no direction beyond what they have already been told. [Is there a lesson there? – that what we have been told in Scripture is enough?] The fact that the Angel reappears first to Manoah’s wife rather than to Manoah might suggest his wife is still the chief actor, Manoah seems to be deliberately marginalised (note for instance the Angel’s reply in vv.13,14 and the fact that in v.24 she not her husband names the child).
Manoah seems not have twigged who the messenger is, for his offer of hospitality is such as one might offer to any stranger. The Angel’s refusal of this offer and request instead for a burnt offering to the LORD should have given an important clue to his identity, hence his mild rebuke to the request for his name. Their response to the Angel’s disappearance (prostration) and Manoah’s terrified exclamation (“We are doomed to die!”) is right in attitude; but Manoah’s wife is right to underline God’s gracious initiative, which should give them cause for faith.
Quite why the woman’s role is made prominent is not clear. Maybe to emphasise God’s grace –she is nameless and hopeless, and her husband’s attempts to take some control of the situation are to no avail. As the chapter draws to a close God’s action is again brought to the fore. The next chapter might well make us feel Samson is an unworthy man for this mantle of deliverer, but we are to be clear that God is choosing to work through him.