If you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2 of my First Reading of Judges series, go and have a look at those. Remember that when you read anything here entitled “First Reading,” it means that what you’re reading is my first thoughts and ideas from the first time I studied that piece of Scripture in adult life. I write these posts for you and for myself before I’ve consulted with my pastor, any commentaries, or biblical scholars of any other kind. I have no formal biblical training. I haven’t even finished a thorough study of the entire Bible, yet, so it is vital that you treat these posts as what they are: a beginner sharing her perspective after a “first reading.”
Now! Let’s get back into Judges. This one was super interesting (well, it was for me), so I hope you enjoy it, too.
Previously, in Judges
Jephthah, who you will remember from Chapters 11 & 12 as the judge who murdered his own daughter in a misguided and sinful sacrifice to God, went on from there to start a vicious civil war with the tribe of Ephraim over an insult. This bloody and totally avoidable conflict further demonstrates Jephthah’s lack of wisdom and moral leadership. He could have brought his people high, but instead, he led them into more violence, more sin.
After Jephthah’s death, three more judges ruled over Israel, and each has a very short mention at the end of chapter 12. Abdon was very rich and had many descendants. Elon apparently had no notable characteristics whatsoever. The 10th judge, however, was named Ibzan, and he caught my notice. I’ve included a photo of my margin note on him.
The Israelites have fallen into evil ways…again, and God has handed them over to an oppressive power…again. This time, the conquerors were the Philistines, and I’m going to stop here for a very brief history nerd break in order to clear up any confusion that may be happening with all the people and place names flying around at this point.
History Nerd Break: From Canaan to Philistia to Phoenicia to Palestine
I think it’s both very important and very helpful to know who we’re talking about, where they lived, and when the names and places we’re reading about existed. At this juncture in Scripture (Judges Chapter 13), some really big stuff has just gone down. The world around the Israelites has changed in a great upheaval and takeover. So let’s examine the Philistines and how they relate to the modern world to see if we can get a clearer picture. I’m going to give you all of this in generic terms that will be quite sufficient for you to get a mental picture in the context of Bible study. As with everything in ancient history, there are more specific, more detailed, and more nuanced explanations and lessons to be had, but for a basic rundown, this should be close enough.
The Philistines were a martial people who originated somewhere in the Aegean, and they liked to wage war from the sea. Pirates. They were conquering warrior pirates. After a failed attempt to invade Egypt, the Philistines conquered the coastal areas of what we now know as Palestine and established five major port cities called the Pentapolis. In so doing, they conquered what most history students know as Phoenicia (the later Greek name for Canaan) and what most Hebrew and Bible students know as Canaan (because Canaan is what the Semites who lived there called it).
Canaanites = Semitic people who lived in Canaan, ethnic ancestors of modern Arabs and Jews. They called themselves Canaanites and their land Canaan.
Philistines = What Canaanites called the warrior pirates from the Aegean who conquered coastal Canaan and occupied the region for about 400 years until the Assyrians came and wrecked shop over absolutely everyone. Once the Philistines were in charge, the Hebrew name for the area of Canaan around the Pentapolis was “Philistia.” The Canaanites of Judges are all smack in the middle of Philistine occupation, and the Philistines and the Israelites fought like honey badgers at any and every opportunity.
Still with me?
In roughly 500 BC (about 6 or 7 centuries after the time of Judges), the Greeks would come in and call those same native Canaanites “Phoenicians” from the land of Phoenicia. Confused, yet? It’s okay because we don’t see this Greek naming for Canaan until the New Testament, but I figured I may as well include this so you get a basic understanding of all the P-names.
Just remember that the Phoenicians were the same Semitic Canaanite race of folks we’ve all been reading about in Judges and the Philistines were a race of warrior pirates from the Aegean region.
Back before we met Abraham, Canaan was established by a race of Semitic people.
Semitic comes from the Hebrew for “Shemite,” or “descendent of Shem.” Shem was a son of Noah, and every person of Arab or Hebrew ethnic origin shares this title of Semite. Make sense? Canaan comes from the Hebrew for “lowlands.”
Eventually, the various clans and tribes and nations of Canaan expanded beyond the region, spreading west into the Mediterranean. They ended up all over the place, but mostly were concentrated in Palestine (the modern term for most of Canaan) and North Africa.
So. For our timetable in Bible study, just think about it this way: Prior to the 12th century BC (the time of Judges), the land was called Canaan. During the 12th century BC, the Philistines came in and took over. There were still Canaanite people, but the land around the Pentapolis would now be called Philistia by the Hebrews. It would be called Palestine by everyone else.
I mentioned Palestine, and that’s the last name I’m going to give you a little place-name history for. Just remember: coastal Canaan = Philistia = Palestine = Phoenicia …roughly speaking. There are differences, but for what we’re doing here, this is fine.
The Bronze Age Egyptians called the Philistines “Prst” or “Peleset.” This meant the land that had always been called Canaan would now be referred to by major powers as some version of the name Peleset. This clearly marked the handover of the region from Egyptian to Philistine/Peleset/warrior pirates from the Aegean rule.
We call the area Palestine today because it is a natural progression of the Egyptian term Peleset.
The Greeks who came in centuries later called the Semitic tribal lands of coastal Canaan, “Phoenicia,” because they were the Greeks and could do whatever they wanted. Instead of calling it by its name, they called the people and the place by the name of their major export, which was a uniquely purple cloth dye. The Romans followed suit, and so now most Western histories talk about the Canaanites from as far back as 1500BC as “Phoenicians,” even though the people never called themselves or their lands by that name.
Got it? I hope so. Because I love this stuff.
At the time of Judges chapter 13, all the lands and Semitic peoples of Canaan/Phoenicia/Palestine have fallen under the total domination of Philistine/Peleset rule.
The Only Hero is God
In Chapter 13, we come to the famous story of Samson. I remember listening as a child to the Sunday school version of the story. Wicked Delilah cuts his hair, Samson is captured, and he gets tied between two pillars praying while his hair slowly grows back. Then one day—BAM!—his strength returns and he breaks the pillars, and all the bad guys die.
But that isn’t his whole story. Not even close.
Like Gideon, Samson is often referred to in lists of “Heroes of the Bible.” What I’ve found to be universal so far is that “hero” isn’t really the right word to describe these folks. Gideon had serious issues. Samson had serious issues. Even Moses, who was the best of them all so far, had serious issues.
And that’s the point.
We have all got serious issues. Yep, even you. Even me. Even our sweet, sainted grandmothers who are “no longer whinnying with us.” Dirty sinners. Every single solitary last one of us is fallen and broken and unworthy of God’s glory. Tainted by sin, driven by self-interest, drawn in by material comforts, and greedy for the approval of society, we’ve all been epic failures since the day we got tossed out of Eden. Despite all of it, God uses us, anyway, and He always uses us for his glory. God is the hero; that is the point, and he uses very flawed people to execute his heroic and redemptive will for mankind. Samson is a gleaming Technicolor example of this.
Persistent Infertility Strikes Again
Like so many of the stories about “special” people in the Bible, Samson’s story begins with a mother and father who are unable to conceive. There are a lot of infertile women in the Old Testament to this point, and that cannot be a coincidence in a book this ingeniously designed. Whether you take this pattern of barren women giving birth to heroes of Scripture as literal truth (I see no reason not to) or whether you take this as a highlighting method/dramatic device of ancient literature (a perfectly reasonable conclusion), the point is that these children were yearned for, prayed for, and finally conceived in such a way that everyone around them would know their lives were meant to be special. They would see God’s hand in their births and in their lives’ events.
That so many of these protagonists in Scripture are born to parents who despaired of ever having any children only to finally conceive after prayers, laments, and tests of faith has to mean something. It is a consistent theme so far in my Old Testament reading, and it begins right at the beginning in Genesis.
Isaac was born to Sarah well past menopause after a lifetime of despair at being unable to give Abraham heirs (Gen: 18,21). Rebekah had trouble conceiving until Isaac prayed for her (Gen: 25). Rachel is unable to conceive until Joseph arrives (Gen: 29-30). It goes on and on, but the pattern is set right from the off in Genesis. The first three matriarchs of Israel listed in Scripture are barren or feared barren, and that pattern continues throughout the Old Testament.
Each time, the woman or the couple is asked by God to be patient until the appointed time for the appointed child through whom God is going to do His work, and this happens with Samson’s parents, as well. The story starts in the town of Zorah where we are told that Manoah and his unnamed wife have been unable to have children.
The Peculiar Pronouncement of Samson’s Nativity
Like several pivotal characters in the biblical saga, Samson’s conception is announced to his mother by “the angel of the Lord.” The poor woman finds the angel terrifying, and that is worthy of note. “Every angel is terrifying,” as Rilke says, and the Bible often refers to angelic beings striking absolute terror into the hearts of any person who meets with one. Angels are often referred to as “sons of God,” or in this case as “a man of God,” but Scripture makes it clear that we cannot mistake an angel for a man unless that angel wants us to.
Anyway, Samson’s mother runs home to Manoah to tell him what she has seen and heard. He instantly believes her and then prays to God for another visit from the angel. Perhaps he is worried that his wife didn’t take sufficient notes or something, but Manoah is clearly agitated and needs further instructions. The angel comes a second time, and again he appears only to the woman. Like a dutiful wife, she runs home to fetch her husband, and he comes back to the angel with her. They proceed to have a very odd encounter, but there are several things here that I find worthy of note:
1.) Manoah is a man of true faith in God. We know this because in v.12, he says to the angel, “When your words come true, what kind of rules should govern the boy’s life and work?” In Genesis, we see Abraham and Sarah doubt God’s word when he promises them a child. Here, Manoah doesn’t even question it. My wife and I, who have never been able to get pregnant, are about to conceive. Angel dude says so. Good enough for me. Total belief right from the off. “When your word comes true.” Not “If your word comes true,” but “when.” That’s a big deal.
2.) Manoah understands that this is a big deal and feels compelled to do things in the right way so that he and his wife will raise this special child in a way that pleases God. I’m paraphrasing v.12b here: “What rules should we follow to make sure we do this right?”
This one verse is so very important. It tells us a whole big lot about Samson’s parents. Whatever their failings before or afterward, they fully understood the importance of this son they were about to have, and they had a healthy reverence for the divine hand involved in his purpose.
3.) The angel tells Samson’s mother to dedicate him as a Nazirite for life. You can find all the laws governing the Nazirite vows in the Book of Numbers, chapter 6, but this command is really telling for a couple of reasons.
First, only the individual—not his parents—would typically make Nazirite vows, and such vows came with a temporary and predetermined timeline. They were not typically made for life. Think of it as super fasting. No alcohol. Never cutting the hair. Strict avoidance of ceremonial uncleanliness. It’s not the same as fasting, but it’s a similar concept. It’s total dedication, and this total dedication of Samson to holiness for life, commanded even before his conception, is huge.
Second, the Nazirite dedication really makes the reader focus on the contrast between what God’s desire was for Samson (holiness) and the reality of Samson’s choices (worldliness). The contrast between the image of Nazirite vows, which is a clean, holy way of living entirely for God, and the reality of Samson’s behavior make the story much more focused and the moral lessons much clearer.
4.) The angel in this case is very likely God, Himself. When Manoah and his wife ask the angel for his name, he replies that it is too wonderful for them to understand. I don’t think angels of the Lord are prone to gloating, and they often seem appalled when humans fall down before them in postures of servitude or worship. So…this one is special. I will have to consult commentaries, but for the moment, I’m assuming the angel is God. Also, when the couple offers their burnt sacrifice to the Lord, the angel ascends to Heaven in the column of flame. This mirrors the visible manifestation of God’s presence with Israel in the wilderness as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. So…God came personally to announce the birth of this man.
This story is clearly important.
Samson is born and his parents follow the rules for him. The Spirit of the Lord “began to stir him” very early on. So this guy is supposed to be just Superman of the Old Testament. He was born for the singular purpose of releasing Israel from the Philistine warrior pirates. Samson fails in almost every single way imaginable, but God doesn’t. It’s a story of God using a man who is hell-bent on getting his own way and doing “whatever is right in his own eyes.” It is a story that reminds us that God is God, and his will is gonna get done no matter what. We can do it the easy way or the hard way, but God will accomplish his purpose every time.
I’m hesitant to let this one get any longer, so I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll take Samson’s life story apart one lesson at a time.