The book of Judges describes Israel’s downward spiral as they fell into sin and cried out for help multiple times. Each time, God sent a rescuer, and each one was less godly than the one before.
Samson, the last of the series, had superhuman strength and worse judgment than any of the others. His father Manoah and his unnamed mother gave him unparalleled spiritual advantages. He squandered his advantage and disappointed his father and mother. Samson’s parents surely count among the spiritual giants of the Old Testament.
Like many Old Testament stories, Samson’s was passed down orally for generations before anyone wrote it down. Somewhere along the line, people forgot the name of his mother. God, however, clearly considered her more important than her husband for his purpose.
By the time their story (in Judges 13) begins, Israel had lived under Philistine domination for 40 years. Always before, the people had cried out to God for a deliverer. This time, they were so complacent about living under foreign rule that they didn’t bother. God chose to prepare a very special judge for a special mission and prepared Samson’s parents for their task. He revealed it first to his mother
We learn that Manoah was from Zorah of the tribe of Dan and that his wife was barren. The angel of the Lord (that is, God himself) appeared to Manoah’s wife when she was alone. He told her that she would finally bear a son and that he was to be a Nazirite from the womb until the day of his death. That meant that, during her pregnancy, she had to live like a Nazirite and refrain from wine, strong drink, and unclean food.
Ordinarily, someone would voluntarily take a Nazirite vow for a limited period of time to set him or herself apart from the rest of society. Nazirites gave up grapes and everything made from them, not only wine, but also vinegar and raisins.
In addition, they could not cut their hair during the time of their vow or make themselves ritually unclean by handling a dead body. That meant that even if their parent, sibling, or child died during the time of the vow, they were not allowed to help prepare them for burial or even caress them one last time.
The angel also told her that her son would begin to save Israel from the Philistines. Unlike earlier judges, he would not bring complete deliverance.
When the angel left her, she went to her husband and told him all about the conversation with the man of God. Now, think of how many times Scripture records someone responding to good news with skepticism. Manoah believed his wife completely. He prayed that the same man of God would speak to them and teach them all about how to raise this special son.
In response to the prayer, the angel of God again appeared to the wife when she was alone. She ran to bring Manoah to talk with him. Manoah expressed his confidence that the man’s words would become true and asked for clarification about his role in raising the child. God had nothing to add to what he had told the woman in the first place.
As was the custom, Manoah and his wife invited the man to stay for supper. Neither had any idea that they were speaking with the angel of God. The angel declined to eat their food and suggested that they offer a sacrifice to the Lord. To their astonishment, the angel merged with the flame from the offering and ascended to heaven.
They fell with their faces to the ground. When they got up, the angel was no longer with them. Finally realizing that they had seen God, Manoah told his wife that they would certainly die.
His society had forgotten much, but perhaps they retained the story of Moses seeing only God’s backside, because “no man may see me and live.” In any case, Manoah had ample reason to believe he was doomed, even though his wife had seen the same angel once before and lived.
She reminded him that if God wanted them to die, he would not have made such a great promise. She lived out her pregnancy as God had instructed and gave birth to a son, whom she named Samson.
We must not think of Samson as someone pictured on the cover of a body-building magazine. In that case, no one would have wondered where he got his strength. No, he was a completely ordinary looking man who could do freakishly impossible deeds of strength when the Spirit of God moved on him.
Unfortunately, he turned out not to be the hero the angel had led Samson’s parents to expect. He showed no interest in delivering Israel from the Philistines. Instead, he used his great strength to play practical jokes or seek personal revenge. He never displayed his parents’ piety or faithfulness to God. He had a dangerous attraction to Philistine women, to his parents’ great disappointment.
Samson came closer than any of the other judges to mirroring the corruption of his people. Concerning his mission in life, Samson appears an abject failure. And yet by God’s grace, the book of Hebrews enshrines him in the faith hall of fame. Scripture forbids us to consider him a wasted life.
Lessons from Samson’s parents
Manoah and his wife make much better role models than their famous son. They stood out from their society as Christians today ought to stand out from ours:
Samson’s parents remained faithful to God in a time of utter social corruption and decay. Nowadays, the behavior of church people in general does not noticeably differ from society as a whole. Christians who live faithful, pious, and humble lives shine as brightly as Manoah and his wife did.
Lessons especially from his mother
The anonymous wife shines even more brightly than the named husband. If you feel like you don’t matter to anyone, you matter very much to God. He knows your name even if no one else does.
Manoah’s wife very much wanted a son and probably prayed for one all her adult life. She never anticipated accepting out-of-the-ordinary responsibilities along with the answer to her prayer. God frequently answers prayer by giving people more than they bargained for. Whatever burdens come with answered prayer are a gift of God’s grace as much as what we ask for in the first place.
Nazirite vows were usually voluntary. It must have been unnerving to hear that she must observe one and raise her son as a life-long Nazirite. She accepted the burden without hesitation.
After she heard the good news from the angel, she immediately told her husband. That ought to be the normal pattern. Any time we receive any kind of grace from God, we ought to share it with someone else.
Lessons especially from Manoah
Manoah’s wife came to him with a fantastic story. Sarah laughed when she heard the same promise. Mary Magdalene had her own fantastic story, and what a difference! Jesus rebuked his disciples for hardness of heart because they did not believe her. Manoah believed his wife immediately.
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, when he heard his wife’s news, he immediately prayed for guidance. How many of us today pray only after we head out on our own and run into trouble? For that matter, how many turn to prayer only as an absolute last resort after all else has failed?
The angel’s repetition of instructions does not mean that Manoah was unworthy to hear anything new. It doesn’t even mean that he didn’t receive additional details not mentioned in the story. In terms of literary structure, the three-fold repetition of the instructions underscores the importance of revelation knowledge and acting on it.
Lessons from Samson’s parents jointly as a couple
In ancient times, most societies assumed that men were more spiritually mature and discerning than women. But the angel appeared to the wife first. Manoah had good reason to fear that seeing God meant death, but it was his wife who pointed out that, if they died, the angel’s words could not come true.
Nowadays, “religion” seems most suited for women. That is merely an equal and opposite error. God makes no distinction. We, too, should hold the spiritual discernment of men and women in equal esteem.
We all need the fellowship of sharing to fully understand whatever revelation knowledge we receive. In this case, the woman corrected her husband’s misunderstanding. No doubt he had other occasions to correct her. We need each other. Spiritual help and guidance can never be a one-way street.
From all appearances, Manoah and his wife did all the right things as parents. Samson grew up to disappoint them. There has, of course, been an unbroken chain of parental failure since Adam and Eve raised Cain. But children are responsible for their own choices once they grow up.
So first, don’t automatically blame parents for their children’s failures. They may be innocent.
Second, if you are a parent, don’t accept any blame (or credit!) from anyone about how your children turned out unless you know of a specific failure. Certainly, you must take full responsibility for your own sins.