Beyond the Lectionary Text: Judges 13:1-16
by Heidi De Jonge
In its introduction to the book of Judges, my NIV Study Bible summarizes Samson’s life this way: “a lone hero from the tribe of Dan who delivers Israel from oppression from the west” (p. 324). The book of Judges is sometimes seen as a book of heroes, with Samson in all of his strength, standing out as one of the most amazing heroes. The judges were certainly God’s provision of leaders for the Israelites, during a time when their national identity in the Promised Land was in its fledgling stages. There are times when the judges were quite faithful and, you could say, heroic.
The story of Samson’s foretold conception and birth, recorded in Judges 13, sounds like the beginning of a hero story – the hero story that everyone wants to read. The story includes the barrenness of Manoah’s wife and the promise of a son. Hmmm… where have we heard that before? Manoah’s wife stands in a line of barren women (Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah, Elizabeth) who gave birth to some pretty amazing men (Jacob, Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist). The promise of this son comes complete with a messenger of the Lord. The story is pregnant with hope and divine provision.
The fact that the promised boy is to be a Nazirite adds fuel to the fire of hope. These people need a pure hero, a set-aside hero, a dedicated hero. “You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines” (v. 5).
The stipulations of the Nazirite vow are outlined most clearly in Number 6:1-21. And when you line up these requirements with the life of Samson, you see that Judges 13 is a bit of a set-up. We are set up to believe that this promised child is a solution. The rest of the story shows how time and again, Samson broke the Nazirite vow. From his wanders through the vineyards to his feasting from carcasses, from his women to his hair, Samson broke the rules.
Though the newest NIV translation (2011) translates verse 5 to say that Samson would “take the lead in delivering Israel”, there might be good reason to go with another translation of the Hebrew text: “and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (NIV 1984, emphasis mine). Samson had some good origins – some good beginnings (see also verse 25 for more ‘beginning’ language), but what he did with those beginnings amounted more to disobedience and revenge than to faithfulness and trust.
Samson is a mirror held up to the people of Israel. Like Samson, Israel had been set apart. Like Samson, Israel had been given all the instruction they needed to live that set apart life. And, like Samson, Israel failed to live up to the expectation.
But Manoah, Samson’s father, also seems to be a reflection of the Israelite people. Whereas Israel blows it in Samson-like ways when she breaks all of the rules, Israel also blows it in Manoah-like ways when she is insensitive to the will and word of the Lord in her life.
Manoah just had a really hard time getting it. The angel of the Lord comes to his wife, tells her about her son and how she should treat her pregnancy and then raise him (vv. 3-5). When she tells Manoah (vv. 6-7), he prays to God that the messenger be sent again to tell him exactly what his wife had just told him (v. 8). And then, when the messenger comes back and appears to his wife, she recognizes him, goes to get her husband and tells him that the messenger is back (v. 10). And then Manoah asks, “Are you the man that appeared to my wife” (v. 11)? When Manoah asks how to raise the boy, the angel of the Lord tells Manoah exactly what he has already said to his wife and what she has already said to him (v. 14). And our section ends in verse 16 with the parenthetical that Manoah didn’t realize that this was an angel of the Lord (though this is what his wife had told him).
You could certainly read Manoah more sympathetically. Maybe he just really wanted to make sure that he got all the details right. Maybe he didn’t trust his wife! But, I couldn’t help but notice the parallel between Manoah’s spiritual insensitivity, and the insensitivity of the Israelites to the word and guidance of the Lord.
The Israelites had been saved from Egypt, given the law, provided for in the wilderness, and successfully brought into the Promised Land. The possessed all that they needed to live obediently and faithfully in the land. But they didn’t do it. They got caught up in a cycle of depravity, punishment, outcry, and deliverance. Instead of learning from that cycle and moving toward a deeper obedience, they went through the cycle time after time after time, until, in Judges 13, the cycle misses a step. The Israelites did evil and the Lord handed them over to the Philistines. Period. Stop. There is no cry out to the Lord. The Israelites appear content, or at least resigned to their bondage to the people of the land. They had become spiritually insensitive.
One of my favorite scriptural metaphors for spiritual insensitivity is the calloused heart – the heart that is wrapped in so many layers of dead skin, the heart that refuses to give up evil practices and stubborn ways (see Judges 2:19). This is the heart that needs to be circumcised (Deuteronomy 10:16, Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4), in order that the word and way of the Lord can get through to the inmost being and transform from the inside out.
Judges 13 does contain a spiritually sensitive heart. It is the heart of Samson’s unnamed mother – the heart of Manoah’s unnamed wife. “Of all the characters in Judges 13-16, an unnamed woman bears the closest relationship to God and models the behavior that God wills for God’s people throughout the book of Judges—attentiveness to God’s word and a distinctive lifestyle that sets one apart from other nations and their destructive ways” (Clinton McCann, Judges, p. 96).
The Spirit of God did indeed stir in Samson, and came upon him at many crucial moments in his life. But, as we read in verse 5, the work of God in and through Samson’s life was only a beginning. There is an incompleteness in Samson’s story and an incompleteness in the book of Judges. According to McCann, this incompleteness
is an invitation to hear the book of Judges in its larger canonical context, especially the context of the prophetic canon… that a God who fervently wills faithfulness, justice, and peace remains unfailingly committed to people whose persistent unfaithfulness and disobedience regularly result in chaos and destruction. In a word, of course, it is the riddle of grace. (pp. 93-4)
God begins good works in and among his people. God also completes his works. Didn’t Paul say in Philippians 1:6 that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus? How does he do that? God completes his work in and through Jesus Christ.
There are many ways to preach Christ from the story of Samson. Samson is a type of Christ, from his angelically foretold birth to his being set apart to his death. He “was bound by the leaders of His own people and handed over to the Gentile oppressors. Like Samson, too, Jesus was mocked as helpless; not blinded, to be sure, but blindfolded; he was made the sport of His captors. Jesus willingly gave up His life. In His death He wrought a deliverance that exceeded the deliverances of His life (Ed Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament, p. 135-142).” And, of course, the incompleteness of Samson’s life and the incompleteness of his deliverance leaves God’s people longing for the completeness that Christ offers – the true hero whose strongest act was the submission to death, even death on a cross.
I found myself returning to a book I read in seminary: The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, by J. Budziszewski. The calloused heart, for Budziszewski, is a heart that wills not to remember the truth of good and evil. Our human problem is “volitional, not cognitive; it has little to do with knowledge. By and large we do know right from wrong, but wish we did not” (p. 25). “Our main task,” he argues, “is to remove the mask from such self-deceptions and bring to the surface what people really know” (p. 140).
McCann, Clinton. Judges: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Interpretation, 2011.
Budziszewski, J. The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, Spence Pub., 1999.
Rev. Heidi De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Kingston, Ontario.