Exegetical Exercise (Judges 13:1-7, 24-25)

Tintoretto painting of annunciation to Manoah's wife

Tintoretto appears to be unique in having depicted Manoah’s wife alone with the angel of YHWH; other artists like to include Manoah, or the couple’s sacrifice.

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, June 25, is Judges 13:1-7, 24-25, which we might describe as the “call of Samson,” but which in a way is more precisely the “call of Samson’s mother/Manoah’s wife/Zlelponi (by tradition).”

The text (in the NRSV with slight modification) is:

13:1/ The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, and YHWH 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 YHWH 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.” …

24/ The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and YHWH blessed him. 25/ The spirit of YHWH began to stir him in Mahaneh-Dan [alt.: the camp/encampment of Dan], between Zorah and Eshtaol.

Here are my notes on the text:

First impressions: The short text we’re looking at is a small fraction of the longer Samson cycle, that takes up all of chapters 13-16. “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of YHWH” – we’ve heard that before. What comes next is really a story about a woman who sees an angel who makes promises about a child. This is a very positive beginning – too bad I’ve already read the whole story of Samson, and think of it as full of foolishness and woe. If I were Manoah, I think I might be a little jealous, or at least feel a little left out, if my wife came and told me she had seen a super-bright prophet. Did she not say “angel of YHWH” to him so he wouldn’t need to feel so bad? Or is she actually hesitant to identify what she saw for what it was? Or is she in some doubt?

Related/background texts: On the “woman meets an angel” plot, compare this story to Genesis 16:7-15, pregnant Hagar; Genesis 18:1-15 & 21:1-2, barren Sarah will have a child – Sarah sees the angels, although technically they appear to Abraham; Genesis 21:14-21, Hagar again, at Zamzam; in 1 Samuel 1:1-18 Hannah, who is in some ways especially similar to Manoah’s wife – her child is also vowed to be a nazirite from birth to death – doesn’t see an angel, though she receives a blessing/assurance from the priest Eli at Shiloh; in the New Testament, Luke 1:26-37, Mary sees an angel, Gabriel, and there are several specific parallels to the story of Manoah’s wife: the angel calls Mary, the pregnancy is impossible, the child to be born is special, and will deliver his people. As a “call story,” Manoah’s wife/Samson’s mother, unlike others in these narratives (cf. Sarah, Mary) does not object that the announcement is impossible; unlike other men who are called, she does not raise objections to the instructions or ask to be let off the assignment because of her disqualifications. Does this reinforce the notion that Manoah’s wife is exceptionally righteous or accepting?

On the question of the “nazirite,” the rules for the nazirite vow are in Numbers 6:1-21; no grape products or any kind of vinegar, no cutting the hair, no touching corpses (or presumably dead bodies; this is going to be a challenge for Samson, who starts out by killing a lion, and ends up by killing thousands of Philistines; he is surrounded by corpses more than once). The angel of YHWH reviews the grape prohibition, and the hair cutting prohibition, but doesn’t mention the dead body clause – is this significant? Foreshadowing? Usually rules suggest that the vow will be for a limited time, and its end will be marked by making burnt offerings to YHWH. Samson is to be a nazirite from birth; similarly, Hannah vows Samuel to be a nazirite from birth for life. There is a reference to nazirites in Amos 2:11-12, where the Israelites are accused of undermining the nazirites in keeping their vows. Jeremiah’s conversation with the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35) is not strictly speaking a conversation with nazirites, but the vowed way of life of the Rechabites is similar to that of the nazirites in the element of avoiding grape products, and then also includes living in tents; they are used as an example of obedience to instructions.

Some analysis of the text: v. 1 gives the opening formula of Israelite misbehavior, divine consequence – this time, giving them into the hand of the Philistines for 40 years. Is this 40 years in addition to the years mentioned in 10:7 and 8? Or does it include those years?

In v. 2, Manoah is identified; by place (Zorah), family/tribe (Dan), and personal name. The name Manoah means, literally, “rest” or “quiet.” Rabbinical commentary regards him as an ignoramous – possibly why he is not the one visited by the angel. Zorah is a place where the territory of Dan and Judah overlap; Rabbis also deduced from this that while Manoah was from the tribe of Dan, his wife was from the tribe of Judah, linking her son to that tribe as well.

Manoah’s wife is identified by the formula “barren, having borne no children,” which will be repeated twice. Later, the angel will announce that she “will conceive and bear a son,” and this phrase will be repeated two more times. Maybe the 3 repetitions of “conceive and bear a son” cancel out the 2 mentions of “barren not having borne children” leaving one “conceive and bear” left over to predominate.

The angel does two things: appears, and “says” to “the woman”; the angel’s speech starts with the mention of reproduction, and then continues by laying down instructions: no wine or strong drink, “for you will conceive and bear a son,” (women receive this instruction today, without having to be nazirites …), no cutting his hair “for he will be a nazirite to God from birth.” Being a nazirite from birth would be unusual. The angel’s instructions in effect also require Manoah’s wife to satisfy the requirements of a nazirite, at least for the duration of her pregnancy, it seems. Whether this includes hair cutting or being in the proximity of dead bodies is not made explicit. The son “will begin” to deliver Israel from the Philistines. Just the beginning – as we know, because there will be still be plenty of Philistine wars in 1 and 2 Samuel.

Manoah’s wife is not reported to say anything to the angel. She does not agree verbally (as Mary does in the NT) to this announcement – which actually makes her similar to Moses & Gideon, who also never actually say the words “OK” or anything to that effect.

Manoah’s wife “comes” and “tells” her husband that she has seen “a man of God” – the term for a prophet, not a “messenger of YHWH” which is the term used in v. 3 – and describes his appearance as being “like an angel of God [Elohim, not YHWH],” NRSV translates “awe-inspiring,” it would be possible to understand “fearsome.” She mentions that she didn’t ask where he came from, and he didn’t tell her his name; both statements might be hints that she knew better than to ask, that she was at least somewhat aware that this visitor was extraordinary. She passes on to her husband the information that she will conceive and bear a son, is to drink neither wine nor strong drink, omitting the instruction about hair cutting (why?), says that the boy is to be a nazirite from birth, adding the comment “to the day of his death.” Rabbinical commentary considers this a foreshadowing of Samson’s conflictual life and early death.

She might be telling Manoah this not only because she and her husband have good communications, but because husbands and fathers have the opportunity to nullify their wives’/daughters’ vows once they hear of them. (See Numbers 30.) She is in effect announcing to him that she will be taking on the vow of a nazirite, at least for the duration of this promised pregnancy; she would need him to go along with it to be able to comply. This also might have something to do with his request that YHWH send the man back to confirm the instructions (v. 8). I wonder whether Manoah wonders whether he needs to participate in the nazirite thing, or if it will just be his wife, and later his son.

Skipping ahead to vv. 24-25, the woman has the promised son, names him Samson (derived from the noun shemesh, “sun”), and we are told explicitly that YHWH blesses him and that the spirit of YHWH begins to influence him possibly in an encampment in the territory of Dan, or possibly  a place with that name, with an implication that he has come of an age to participate in military activity.

The Rabbis assigned Manoah’s wife/Samson’s mother a name, Zlelponi or Zlelponith, a name that links her to the tribe of Judah, and also to seeing the angel twice (see https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/wife-of-manoach-samsons-mother-midrash-and-aggadah). She is identified by that source as one of the twenty-three truly righteous women, and also one of the seven righteous barren women who become the happy mothers of children (namely, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, Zion). So the tradition has it that she is a really worthy person. It doesn’t seem accurate, however, to say that “the Bible relates” that she follows all the instructions; although we don’t have any reason to think she didn’t, there’s no textual statement that she “followed all the angel’s instruction” or anything like that, just as there is no text that records her assent to the announcement.

Questions: Nazirites are understood to be consecrated to the service of YHWH. In the case of Samson’s mother, the service seems to have been being Samson’s mother. In Samson’s case, it might be a little less clear; his exploits vs. the Philistines are all a little random, not exactly war, more like assault. He does, however, also act as a judge (Judges 15:20). So what does this tell us about the nature of service to God?

What does Zlelponi think of all this? If she is as righteous as her reputation has it, and worthy of the blessing of an angelic visitation, presumably she does embrace the opportunity to serve God; from a social standpoint, she presumably also embraces the opportunity to become a mother. But what would it be like to be Samson’s mother? She has to raise him to appreciate the importance of his consecration – which is imposed on him from his birth, not something he volunteers for, and not something it looks like will end short of his death. Not an easy task. (How does Samson himself feel about this? We get some hints from his behavior later in the cycle … that he might be … ambivalent about it, to say the least.)

Does she have a choice? In the NT, the fact that Mary explicitly assents to the angel’s announcement is often stressed; that isn’t the case here. Furthermore, unlike Hannah, who volunteers her own hoped-for son to be a nazirite, Zlelponi does not volunteer; we might want to say, she’s conscripted. However, she also never offers any objection, at least none is recorded, and since others’ objections are recorded in call narratives, we should probably conclude that she really doesn’t object – conclude that she, too, assents. This would be consistent with her reputation for faithfulness and righteousness.

But is she the happy mother of children? (Consider Proverbs 10:1 A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother’s grief; and Proverbs 15:20 A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers. And consider Samson’s well-documented foolishness when it comes to getting involved with Philistine/foreign women.)

The focus statement from the Committee on the Uniform Series seems particularly apt this time:

“Preparation for leadership may involve life circumstances not of one’s own choosing. How do we respond when we find ourselves in such circumstances? Even before birth, Samson’s call was assured as shown by the instructions the Lord’s angel gave to his mother.”

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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2 Responses to Exegetical Exercise (Judges 13:1-7, 24-25)

  1. HAT says:

    Someone ELSE who was a nazirite from birth – or at least, who was told not to “drink wine or strong drink” – was John the Baptist. See Luke 1:15. His father, not his mother, was the one to see the instruction-giving angel.

    Like

  2. HAT says:

    Another addition: Hazzelelponi is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:3 as one of the descendants of Judah by way of Etam and Hur.

    Like

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