Caught between the time that Joshua led the people of God into the land of promise and before the time when Saul became the first king over all of Israel lies a period of salvation history called the period of the judges. It was indeed a dark time for God’s people. They had failed to obey the Lord and were living out the consequences. They refused to conquer all of the Promised Land, and just like the Lord had told them, they were captivated by their way of life and their gods. The very people who walked across the dry ground of the Red Sea and ate the miracle food each morning walked away from the One True God and worshiped the gods of the Canaanites.
God’s righteous anger was aroused, and He handed them over to raiders who plundered them and oppressed them. When they finally cried out to the Living God for help, he would raise up a deliverer who, through the power of God, would deliver the people from oppression and return them to the worship of the one true God. These deliverers were called judges, and include great figures like Deborah and Gideon. They became the bright lights in a dim world, but even their lights weren’t all that bright. Far from perfect, their stories are often a mixture of highs and lows. And no single judge is more of an enigma than Samson.
It is hard to read the story of Samson without the contamination of Sunday School, and I really mean that with no disrespect. Since I am not a childhood education expert, I trust those who write children’s curriculum to know which concepts a child can grasp and which ones are beyond their developmental scope. But all in all, the versions of Old Testament stories that make it to the curriculum are highly sanitized. We almost forget that outside of the cute little ark with all of the fuzzy little animals are thousands of dead bodies floating in the waters. David’s defeat of Goliath loses a little of the warm and fuzzy element when David decapitates the giant.
Our familiarity with the story of Samson causes us to arrive at the story predisposed to think of Samson as a failure, a fool who was caught in the glare of love’s headlight. But the story of Samson is more complex than that, and when we really begin to read the un-sanitized version, we are forced to wrestle with the particulars of another dim watt bulb.
Before Samson Was Born…
Samson’s life take place in the seventh period of oppression as told in the book of Judges. His nemesis are the famous Philistines, otherwise known as the Sea Peoples. The Philistines were a group of people forced out of their homeland in Greece around 1200 BC. They set out to sea looking for a new land. After failing to gain entry into Egypt, they arrived at the southern coast of Palestine where they gained a foothold in five major cities: Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath.
The Philistines were not to be trifled with, primarily because their military was technologically advanced in comparison to the Israelites. They had learned to smelt iron, and their weapons of iron gave them great military strength. But their most powerful weapons were trade, intermarriage, and assimilation. By the time Samson was on the scene, the influence of the Philistines was great and their oppression was vast, but it was willingly chosen. As the writer tells the story, no where are we told that the people were groaning under the oppression of the Philistines. They never repented and never cried out, and so God’s response was quite different than in the days of Gideon or Deborah.
The Birth Narrative
The birth narrative of Samson is the most extensive of any other judge, and one of the most extensive in all of the Bible.
1Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, so the LORD delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.
2A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. 3The angel of the LORD appeared to her and said, “You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. 4Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, 5because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” (Judges 13.1-5)
The story of Samson begins with another barren woman. This time, we are not even told her name; she is simply known to us as “Manoah’s wife.” Sterile and childless, she received a visitor.
As we have already noted in our study of Gideon, “the angel of the Lord” is no other than the pre-incarnate Christ. Samson joins Isaac as the only two children in all of Scripture whose birth was announced by the second person of the Trinity!
The Nazirite Vow
The call upon this child’s life is to live out the vow of a Nazarite. In Numbers 6, the Nazirite vow is explained in detail.
1The LORD said to Moses, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the LORD as a Nazirite, 3he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or from other fermented drink. He must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. 4As long as he is a Nazirite, he must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins.
5“‘During the entire period of his vow of separation no razor may be used on his head. He must be holy until the period of his separation to the LORD is over; he must let the hair of his head grow long. 6Throughout the period of his separation to the LORD he must not go near a dead body. 7Even if his own father or mother or brother or sister dies, he must not make himself ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of his separation to God is on his head. 8Throughout the period of his separation he is consecrated to the LORD. (Numbers 6.1-8)
The Nazirite vow was a voluntary vow, a special vow that one would make for a period of separation unto the Lord. The vow was marked by three key abstentions: (1) the person must not consume any part of the vine, either in the form of wine or grape or raisin, (2) the person must not use a razor on his head, and (3) the person must not touch a dead body.
When the angel of the Lord describes this vow to Manoah’s wife, he emphasizes two and adds a third: Samson (and his mother) must not partake of anything from the vine, he (and his mother) should not eat anything unclean, and no razor must touch his head. The call of Samson is different than the average Nazirite vow: it was not voluntary (it was thrust upon Samson and not chosen by Samson), it was not for a season (it was for all of Samson’s life from birth), and it included the instructions to not eat anything unclean.
But there was a most important element of the Nazirite vow that never struck a chord in Samson’s soul.
He will begin the Deliverance…
The angel of the Lord told Manoah’s wife that the child would “begin the deliverance of Israel” (13.5). Samson’s call was not to “deliver Israel” but only to “begin the deliverance.” Samson was called to begin the process, not to bring the process to completion. His lifelong work was to plant the three, but he would never get to eat of the fruit.
But even more important than that is that his mother failed to catch the description of his calling. Notice what happens next in the birth narrative:
6Then the woman went to her husband and told him, “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name. 7But he said to me, ‘You will conceive and give birth to a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from birth until the day of his death.’” (Numbers 13.6-7)
While we can give her high marks for her faith, her memory doesn’t earn the same grade. She received the man of God “like an angel” who was very awesome, but she left out a few details of the angel’s words.
She did not mention that the boy should not have his hair cut (nor any razor touch his head), but I guess we could assume that this was included in the Nazirite vow. Of course, this might be quite an assumption considering the absence of the Law in this time period and the failure of the priests to teach the law to the people. However, the glaring omission concerns the lifelong, divine calling of the child: he will begin the deliverance of Israel. Manoah’s wife failed to communicate that to him. As far as he knows, this child will just be a special gift set apart to God from the day of his birth to the day of his death.
The Boy’s Life and Work
Manoah’s faith shines through, too. Not only did he receive his wife’s testimony about the man of God and of his future son, but he prayed to God himself.
8Then Manoah prayed to the LORD: “O Lord, I beg you, let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born.”
9God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10The woman hurried to tell her husband, “He’s here! The man who appeared to me the other day!”
11Manoah got up and followed his wife. When he came to the man, he said, “Are you the one who talked to my wife?”
“I am,” he said.
12So Manoah asked him, “When your words are fulfilled, what is to be the rule for the boy’s life and work?”
13The angel of the LORD answered, “Your wife must do all that I have told her. 14She must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, nor drink any wine or other fermented drink nor eat anything unclean. She must do everything I have commanded her.” (Numbers 13.8-13)
Manoah prays to God and asks for instruction about how “to bring up the boy who is to be born.” Evidently, he did not feel that the instructions given to his wife (as reported to him) were complete or in enough detail.
God is gracious and the angel of the Lord returns, but he only tells Manoah that “she must do everything that I have commanded her” to do. In short, he offers no new information but only says that his wife has all the information that she needs.
What is curious is that Manoah specifically asks what the boy’s “life and work” are to be, but the angel of the Lord does not clarify that. He only points Manoah to the words he already spoke to his wife.
Which makes the reader wonder, “Did Samson grow up knowing his calling?” If his mother never told his father of his role to “begin the deliverance,” did she ever tell him? Is this the reason that Samson never seemed to grasped his role as a deliverer? In all that Samson does, in all of his might acts, he always acts alone and he always acts in revenge. Unlike Gideon or Deborah, Samson never gets another person to join him in his battles, and what motivates him the most is the wrongs done to him personally. Perhaps he never lived into his role as deliverer because he was never told of his divine calling. It is important to remember that when the Lord speaks, every word that He speaks is important.
Compare the failure of Manoah’s wife to tell her husband of the divine calling upon their son with the attitude of Samuel, the last judge.
19The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. 21The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. (1 Samuel 3.19-21)
Part of Samuel’s greatness was that he let none of the words God spoke to Him fall to the ground. Instead, he captured them and acted upon them.
Before we judge Samson too harshly, perhaps we need to remember that the divine calling upon his life may have never been shared with him. As a result, his Nazirite vow, a vow of separation “to the Lord” was never fully embraced. He thought nothing of taking honey from the dead body of a lion (1 Samuel 14.9) and giving away the secret of his strength even though it meant the razor touching his head (1 Samuel 16.19). Samson never seemed to get the fact that he was set apart “to the Lord” and not just “set apart.”
He had a divine calling, but he may have never known about it.