Samson the son
The people of Israel once again displeased Yahweh with their deeds, and Yahweh let the Philistines rule them for forty years.
There was a man of the tribe of Dan, Manoah by name, whose wife was barren - they had no children. Yahweh appeared to her and told her: "Although you are childless you are about to conceive, and you will give birth to a son. So take care. Do not yourself touch any wine or strong drink. Do not eat any forbidden food. The boy's hair must not be cut, for he will be dedicated to God as a Nazirite. It is he who will begin the work of liberating Israel from the Philistines."
The woman went and told her husband that a man of God had approached her, a man of awesome countenance. She repeated the words that had been spoken to her. Then Manoah prayed to Yahweh to send the man again, to instruct them more fully as to how they should raise the boy.
Once more Yahweh appeared to the woman. She quickly called her husband, who asked, "Was it you who spoke to my wife?"
"Yes, it was I."
"Then tell me, when your words come true, what sort of boy will he be? What will he do?"
"Just let your wife take care to do everything I told her."
"Will you stay a while, and let us prepare a young goat for you?"
"I will not eat your food. If you wish you may burn the kid as an offering to Yahweh."
"Who are you? What is your name? When your words come true we will want to honour you."
"How can you ask my name? It is a name of wonder."
So Manoah took the kid and the grain-offering and offered them on the rock to Yahweh, to him who works wonders. And as the flame rose to heaven the one who had visited them ascended in the flame. When they saw this they fell to the ground. Manoah realised, then, that it was Yahweh who had appeared to them. He said to his wife, "We have seen God! Surely we will die." But she said, "If Yahweh had meant to kill us he would not have accepted our offerings, or told us all those things."
The woman gave birth to a son, and named him Samson. As the boy grew Yahweh blessed him, and the power of Yahweh began to stir in him.
Samson must be the only biblical hero who has ever given his name to a brand of roof paint. Perhaps the manufacturers were thinking of his legendary strength and toughness when they chose such a name. But the real Samson was a much more complicated and interesting person than that suggests.
We can be pretty sure he was an actual person; even though, later on, fantasy and folk imagination made him larger than life. He was born only a few miles west of Jerusalem, into the tribe of Dan, one of the twelve clans that made up the young nation of Israel. He was probably an only child, and the Bible says he was born long after his mother had given up any hope of having children.
Young Samson was brought up a Nazirite. That is, someone set
apart, dedicated by his parents to the service of God.
Nazirites were regarded as sacred, and as a sign of their consecration
were forbidden to cut their hair, to have any physical contact with
the dead, to drink wine or eat ceremonially unclean animals.
That insistence on letting the hair grow might sound very modern,
recalling the fashion for long hair as a sign of rebellion and male
strength. But the meaning was different in Samson's day.
Then, hair symbolized the sacred life of a person; and uncut
hair was the visible sign of the divine power, the charisma of the
We don't know the name of Samson's mother, because in the Bible she is only described as the wife of Manoah, a simple villager living in a small frontier settlement. But she must have been an interesting mixture of shrewd common sense and intense religious devotion.
Like any contemporary mother who gives up smoking and drinking for the sake of her unborn child's health, during her pregnancy this village woman herself observed all the strictest customs of the Nazirites. This baby, her baby, was going to be special; so she made herself special too.
At first everything went well. She must have been pleased (if not a little frightened) when the boy began to show the enormous physical strength that would later make him a legend among his people. Perhaps there were storms of emotional energy accompanied by extraordinary feats of strength - rather like the berserker rages of Viking warriors. In one such outburst Samson tore apart a young lion when the animal attacked him. In another, he lifted a massive town gate off its hinges, and carried it away, to the astonishment of the townspeople. But this wild man also began to develop an alarming will of his own, coupled with a powerful sexual appetite.
Worse still, Samson showed very little of the fierce racial pride of his own tribe. Philistine women attracted him, not the local girls.
Against even the opposition of his parents, he first went through a
disastrous marriage to a woman from the nearby Philistine settlement of
Timnah. Next (and by now with a price on his head) he
ventured into the major Philistine town of Gath, and was nearly
trapped with a prostitute there. And finally, the fatal passion
for another Philistine woman, Delilah, his lover and betrayer.
I suppose Samson's mother could only watch helplessly as the shame her son felt at Timnah and the dreadful death of his young bride there drove Samson into a one-man war of revenge against the Philistines, a war conducted from a mountain hideout close to the family home. Sure, there were famous victories, victories that would spark Israel's rebellion against their Philistine overlords, but the end was always in sight. Samson's mother finally heard that her son had been captured and mutilated, forced into slavery and degradation. Brought out to make brutal sport for his captors, he died a suicide, beneath their bodies and the ruins of a building he brought down in a final spasm of strength.
"What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap, would think her son, did she but see that shape with sixty or more winters on its head, a compensation for the pangs of his birth, or the uncertainty of his setting forth?" So wrote the poet W.B. Yeats.
Was that how it was for Samson's mother? Was the faith and the self-dedication wasted in the bitterness of his life and his dying? I don't think so. It's the nature of faith to outface even the worst. And as the Bible says, faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen. It was his mother's faith that Samson was extraordinary, someone special for God. And she was right.
© Colin Gibson