Nobodies of the Bible: Manoah and his wife, Samson's parents
Almost everybody knows about Samson and Delilah. Samson had superhuman strength. He seems not to have had even normal human intelligence, because Delilah tried to wheedle the secret of his strength three times before he broke down and told her. Of course, she made sure he got a haircut and lost everything. What people may not recognize is that Samson started life with greater spiritual advantages than almost anyone in Scripture--and spectacularly failed to live up to them. No one can blame his sorry fate on his parents, Manoah and his unnamed wife. They did everything right.
Like most Old Testament stories, information about Samson's life was probably passed down orally for generations before anyone wrote anything down. Oral tradition can remain accurate over remarkably long periods of time, but by the time Samson's story was written, no one had seen fit to preserve the name of his mother. God, however, clearly considered her more important for his purposes than Manoah.
Israel's habitual corruption
The story of Samson's conception and birth--and therefore his parents--is told in Judges 13. It begins with the statement that Israel again did what God considered evil. Actually, Judges 2:11-23 summarizes the entire book--especially verse 19: "And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. the did not seas from their own doings nor from their stubborn way" (emphasis added).
Here are the judges and deliverers mentioned that God raised up to deliver Israel from various oppressors: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon. Each of these delivered Israel, kept the people more or less in line and preserved peace for the rest of their lives, and then died. In between, the people sank lower into depravity than before, and then cried out to the Lord for deliverance.
By Samson's time, they had lived under Philistine domination for 40 years. An entire generation of people became so complacent about living under oppression that they didn't even bother to cry out to God. God chose not to wait any longer than that and decided to prepare a special judge for a special mission.
The angel of the Lord appeared to a barren woman identified only as Manoah's wife and told her she would have a son. That son would begin to deliver Israel, whose situation had become so dire than one superhero's lifetime would not be enough to finish the task. Right away, discerning readers will remember Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth, barren women whose sons became giants of the faith.
Manoah and his wife
The angel gave Manoah's wife special instructions. Her son was supposed to live as a nazirite his entire life, from the moment of conception. Therefore, she had to live as a nazirite from that moment until her son was born. In an ordinary nazirite vow, a person voluntarily set him or herself apart from the rest of society for a limited period of time. During that time, the nazirite gave up grapes and everything made from them: not only wine, but wine vinegar and raisins. Nazirites could not cut their hair during the time of their vow and could not make themselves unclean by handling a dead body. Even if their parents or siblings or children died during the time of the vow, they were forbidden to assist in preparing them for burial or even caressing their bodies one last time.
The woman ran to tell Manoah the news. Manoah immediately prayed that God would send the same man (neither had any idea that she had spoken with the angel of the Lord) to teach them in more detail how to raise this special son. In answer to that prayer, the angel again appeared to the woman, but not when Manoah was with her. So she ran to get him. The angel told Manoah everything he had already told his wife. He was to make sure that she followed those instructions in detail.
As was the custom, Manoah invited the visitor to stay for supper. The angel declined the invitation and suggested that Manoah offer a burnt offering to the Lord. Manoah immediately did so, and as the flame rose to the sky, the angel merged with the flame and ascended into heaven. Samson was born on schedule, and God greatly blessed him. Eventually the Spirit of God began to move on him, meaning that he began to show his super-human strength. Let's not imagine Samson as someone whose picture could grace the cover of modern body-building magazines. If he had looked like that, no one would have wondered where his great strength came from. He was a perfectly ordinary looking man who could do freakishly impossible deeds of strength when the Spirit moved on him.
Samson turned out to be a bust. He showed no interest in delivering Israel from the Philistines. He performed most of his recorded feats either as a practical joke or to seek personal revenge. Although he obviously never forsook God to worship Philistine deities, he had a dangerous attraction to Philistine women. He never displayed his parents' faith, piety, or faithfulness to God. As judges go, Samson came closer to mirroring the corruption of his people than any of the others. Concerning his mission in life, Samson appears an abject failure. And yet by God's grace, Scripture forbids us to consider his a wasted life.
Lessons from Samson's parents
Manoah and his wife actually make much better role models than their famous son. We need to take note of the implications of their lives.
- In a time of utter social corruption and decay, they remained faithful to God. In a time when the behavior of church people in general is not noticeably different from that of society as a whole, we need as many Christians as possible to live faithful, pious, and humble lives.
- The wife's anonymity demonstrates how much more important ordinary, anonymous people are to God than to their fellow humans. If you feel like you don't matter to anyone, in fact you matter very much to God. He knows your name even if no one else does.
- She very much wanted a son and had probably prayed about it all her adult life. She never thought of accepting out of the ordinary responsibilities along with the answer to her prayer, but God frequently answers prayer by giving more than people bargain for. Whatever burden comes with answered prayer is as much a gift of grace as whatever it is we want in the first place.
- Nazirite vows were generally voluntary. To be told that she must observe it and raise a son to observe it all his life must have been unnerving. Yet Manoah's wife accepted her responsibility without hesitation.
- After she received the good news from the angel, she immediately went to tell her husband. That ought to be a normal pattern. Whenever we receive any kind of grace from God, we ought to share it with someone else.
- Manoah's wife came to him with a fantastic tale. Mary Magdalene had her own fantastic tale for the disciples, too, but what a difference. Manoah took her at her word.
- He realized that her story of a son with a life-long nazirite vow and a divine calling on his life had important implications for himself as a father. He did not shy away.
- Therefore he immediately turned from listening to his wife to praying for guidance. How many of us today turn to prayer only after heading out on our own and running into trouble? For that matter, how many turn to prayer only as an absolutely last resort?
- The angel's repetition of instructions about the nazirite vow does not mean that Manoah was not worthy to hear anything new. He probably did get a more detailed understanding. As far as literary structure is concerned, though, the three-fold repetition underscores how important revelation knowledge is and how important it is to act on it.
- When the angel ascended on the flame, Manoah and his wife fell on the ground face down in worship--certainly an appropriate response to such a miraculous occurrence. Throughout biblical times, it appears that the various social orders all assumed that men were more spiritually mature and discerning than women. Manoah was immediately afraid they would both die from seeing God, and there seems to be good historical precedent in the stories passed down from Moses' time to justify his fear. It was the wife who pointed out that they couldn't die for seeing the manifestation of God. If they did, his words could not come true. In our society, "religion" seems most suited for women. That imbalance is as seriously wrong as the older one.
- We all need the fellowship of sharing in order to fully understand whatever revelations come our way. In this case, the woman corrected her husband's misunderstanding. Undoubtedly he performed the same service for her on other occasions.
- From all appearances, Manoah and his wife did all the right things as parents, but Samson turned out to disappoint them anyway. Granted that there has been an unbroken chain of parental failure to one degree or another since Adam and Eve raised Cain, children are responsible for their own mistakes once they grow up. Take responsibility for whatever mistakes you know you made, but don't accept any blame (or credit for that matter) from anyone for how your children turned out.