Re-post 1: Rereading Samson

During Advent, I’m going to be writing fewer new posts and re-posting some old ones from my earliest days as a blogger. There were many posts that didn’t make it into this blog when I switched to a new blog host a few years ago, thanks to the tedious process I had to go through of manually cutting and pasting individual posts. (Part of the reason I switched hosts is that my old one didn’t meet the technical requirements of WordPress, so when it came time to transport the blog to a new host, it wasn’t able to handle all of it.) But many of these old posts are backed up in an MSWord file on my hard drive, and this seems like a good season to revisit and rethink, to see where my views have changed and where they haven’t.

This post was originally published January 8, 2008:

Salomon de Bray, The Sacrifice of Manoah (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In the midst of the Old Testament, where the way women are treated often bugs me, I fell headlong into the reality that God is always way ahead of culture.

Being the dense kind of person that will drive past the same breathtaking view obliviously every day for a month before nearly driving off the road gaping at it, it wasn’t until the third reading of the story of Samson in Judges 13 that I noticed how graciously God treats Samson’s mother, and how much He honors her with respect and favor.

We never even learn the woman’s name. The writer of Judges must not have thought it was important enough. But we know she’s Manoah’s wife, and we know that an angel appears to her, by herself, and tells her that though she’s sterile, she’s going to have a son. The angel instructs her not to drink wine, ingest anything unclean, or cut the child’s hair, because he’s to be “a Nazirite set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines.”

She tells her husband about it: “A man of God appeared and told me such and such. He sure looked like an angel – very awesome.” Manoah wants more information, and prays that God will send the ”man of God” again, apparently so he can have a personal audience with him.

So God does send the angel – once again, to Manoah’s wife, alone. The text is scrupulous on this point: “her husband Manoah was not with her.” So she runs and gets him.

All of Manoah’s instincts are to appropriate the terms of relationship with the angel, but the angel politely refuses to play. When Manoah asks, “How should we bring the child up?” The angel answers, “Your wife must do all that I have told her,” and repeats the same simple instructions. “She must do everything I have commanded her.” The angel doesn’t transfer the responsibility to her husband, or redirect the instructions to him. He reinforces the legitimacy of his first conversation with her, and confirms her competency in reporting it.

Manoah continues trying to control the dialogue, asking the angel to have a bite to eat. The angel refuses, suggesting a burnt offering to God instead. Manoah asks him his name; the angel says, “Why ask that? You wouldn’t understand it anyway.” So Manoah proceeds with the offering, and the angel “ascends in the flame.”

And that’s that. He doesn’t reappear. Only then does Manoah realize this is an angel he’s been dealing with. “We are doomed to die!” he tells his wife. “We have seen God.” So once again, with the discernment that has marked her all through the story, she shows that her understanding of all that’s happened is more trustworthy: “If He meant to kill us, He wouldn’t have accepted our offering, or shown and told us any of this.”

God didn’t abide by the cultural customs of the time at all. The story anticipates Jesus with the woman at the well in John, where He too breaks – or perhaps more accurately, ignores – the man-made gender rules of that time and place.

I can’t help noticing that Samson’s mother is the only non-manipulative woman in the story. She’s humble, submissive. All the others seem to deal with the constraints of their lives by manipulating and deceiving, by trying like Manoah to control those around them. But this humblest of women is honored with a direct visit from an angel, a compliment confirmed in her husband’s presence. It’s a reassuring reminder that though God is eternally patient with the human race at every stage of our development, He doesn’t applaud all the cultural mores of the Old Testament.