Thursday, August 17, 2023

Manoah's wife hears it right (Judges 13:1-24)

What we learn about women:
  • God often communicates with women about their children directly, especially their conceptions and births. They are privileged to be the first to know about the lives of their children, sometimes directly from the mouths of angels. 
  • This kind of message is often personal, just for women, but sometimes God gives them the responsibility of sharing his messages with the men in their lives.
  • God is very concerned with the birth of new people and the effects they will bring in the world as well as the lives of their mothers and families.
What I'm wondering: (If you aren't familiar with these stories, read below first to make sense of the questions.)
  • Samson is called by God from before his birth to be holy and to rescue Israel. Why does God allow such chaos in the course of his life?
  • What does this relationship between Samson's parents mean for how women should explain to the skeptical men in their lives what God is calling them to do? 

Samson is a familiar biblical hero, at least in the sense of "hero" appropriate to the mythological mood of the book of Judges. But a part of his story you may be less familiar with is the visit to his parents from an angel of the Lord who announces he will be born. Samson's mother, the wife of Manoa, is another woman in a long line of biblical women who can't conceive until their prayers are answered by God in a specific message, and not infrequently in a personal visit! 

An angel visits Manoah's wife and explains to her that she will have a son who is to be dedicated to God as a Nazirite. Because of this, she must not have any alcohol or forbidden food, and her son's hair must never be cut. And the angel promises that this son will deliver Israel from the Philistines. 

It's a bit unwieldy to keep typing "Manoah's wife," but she's unnamed, even though she has the primary role in this story. This irony is part of an underlying comic mood throughout the episode related to the dynamic between Manoah and his wife, where He is continually trying to catch up with her in understanding of what is going on. I think it counts as another example of women in Judges being cast in an honored position, specifically in contrast with their corresponding men. 

After the angel's visit, Manoah's wife runs to tell her husband what has happened. His reaction is to politely ask God if he could please send the angel again to tell them how to raise the boy. He is clearly wanting to get some confirmation about this, maybe not fully trusting what his wife has said. To be fair, many of us might feel the same. 

God does send the angel again, but again, the angel comes to Manoah's wife when she is not with her husband. This is funny. God answers Manoah's prayer, but in a way that reiterates that his message is for Manoah's wife herself. She goes running off to get him to come see the angel as well this time. The angel waits.

Manoah feels the need to confirm, "Are you the man who talked to my wife?" "I am." replies the angel. Manoah then asks, "What is to be the rule that governs the boy's life and work?" And the angel replies, basically: what I just told your wife. I just love how the angel is patient with Manoah, but continually affirms that his wife has correctly received a genuine message.

Manoah's next move is to invite the angel to stay for a meal. It makes me think of Peter wanting to build shelters for Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration. Since you're here, can we all hang out?? The angel says he will not eat, but they can make an offering to the Lord. Manoah continues to try to direct the encounter, asking the angel's name. "It is beyond understanding." Manoah is not getting it. But he finally realizes who he's talking to and what is going on when the angel ascends in the flames that consume the offering they have prepared. At this point, we might say, he freaks out. "We are doomed to die! We have seen God!" Manoah's wife, still more in touch with the situation, says in a tone of voice I can hear across the ages, "If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this." 

And then, Samson is born. "And the Lord blessed him as he grew up." Samson's parents continue to figure into the story of his life. We hear more about them regarding his troubled first marriage, and you can tell he must have a fairly close relationship with them. The text makes several mentions of things happening to Samson and the fact that "he didn't tell his father or mother about it," as if this were unusual. 

I'll have more to say about Samson in another post, but I love the story of his mother's visits from the angel. I think it reflects a familiar pattern in the world where God interacts deeply and intimately with mothers, whose experience of this can be written off as unrelated to the world of men where the important things happen, and can too often be doubted until sanctioned by men. This story is told to a larger degree from the other side, the feminine perspective. In this instance, God was willing to offer the appearance of an angel to substantiate that perspective, and it feels satisfying. Though this doesn't always happen, to say the least, it does make me think of another situation where an angel first appeared to women to give them a very important message about the salvation of Israel and the world, and then substantiated it with follow-up angelic testimony to men. This happened at the resurrection of Christ.