The Birth of Samson: Angels II
What is God?
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Samson is one of the most famous figures of the Bible. He is the closest thing the Jews have to a Hercules. He was a lifelong Nazir – vowed to never cut his hair, drink wine, or have direct contact with impure things (such as a corpse, but it Samson’s case this was a restriction on impure foods). This commitment somehow gave him his superhuman strength, but left him vulnerable to the treachery that did him in. He championed the Israelites against their perpetual enemies, the Philistines. He is the first and perhaps only character in the Bible about whom there is a sensual love story. He lived a life of vengeance and died in vengeance. He was betrayed by his wife and handed over to his enemies who blinded him and chained him to the pillars of their temple. In a last burst of his drained strength, he broke the pillars and caused the temple to crash down, killing all those inside, including himself.
What hardly anybody knows about Samson are the events that preceded his birth. It turns out that not only was he a Nazir all of his life, he was even one in the womb. It isn’t easy to take on a vow before birth, but it does seem pretty easy for a fetus to stay away from wine, haircuts, and contact with dead bodies. It turns out that he didn’t make the vow at all. His mother did, when visited by the most Biblical of all supernatural creatures, an angel. She was told quite explicitly by this angel that she would bear a son who would save Israel from the Philistines but in order to do this she would have to start him off on a lifelong path of abstention by her own abstention during pregnancy.
The woman went to her husband and told him what happened, describing her visitor as a ‘man of Elohim’ who ‘had the appearance of an angel of Elohim, very awesome’ (v.6). Manoah, sensing that there was more to this than his wife understood, begs Hashem to send the man of Elohim again to instruct them as to what they were to do with the boy when he would be born. After receiving essentially the same instructions Manoah is clearly convinced of the seriousness of this command.
Manoah then asks the angel of Hashem to wait while he prepares a meal of a goat. The angel of Hashem asks Manoah to not delay him because ‘I cannot eat your bread, but if you make a burnt offering, offer it up to Hashem’ (v.16). The verse concludes with the puzzling statement that, ‘Manoah did not know that he was an angel of Hashem’. Manoah then asks the angel his name so he can honor him when his words come to be. To this simple question he receives the enigmatic reply of, ‘Why do you ask my name, it is hidden (wondrous)’ (v.18). Manoah then roasts his offering to Hashem. ‘As the flames ascended from the altar to the heavens, the angel of Hashem went up in the flames of the altar; Manoah and his wife looked on and fell on their faces to the ground. The angel of Hashem no longer appeared to Manoah and his wife, then Manoah knew that it was an angel of Hashem’ (v. 20-21). The woman gives birth to a son whom she calls Samson who grows up and is ‘blessed by Hashem’.
Why does the angel keep appearing only to Manoah’s wife and not directly to Manoah? Why do Manoah and his wife not understand that this was actually an angel of Hashem? Who did they think they were speaking with? Why does Manoah finally ‘get it’ only when the angel no longer appears to them? Finally, this strange response that the angel gives when Manoah asks what seems to be the perfectly normal question, ‘What is your name’ – what does it mean. How could his name be ‘hidden’, or too wondrous to tell?
Angels come and go in the Bible with remarkable ease. They don’t come all that often, but when they do it seems to need no further explanation. One sometimes gets the impression that angels are as much a part of life as a deadly plague, or the moment of death. This angel came to Manoah’s wife and she listened with apparent equanimity and then calmly strolled over to her husband and told him what happened, as if she was telling him she had just chatted with the people on the neighboring farm. Manoah was a good deal more excited about it than she was, though he seems to have doubted that anything supernatural had happened. It was a ‘man of Elohim’ who ‘had the appearance of an angel of Elohim, very awesome’. Is it possible to mistake an angel for a man?
It seems like the answer to this question is yes. Manoah certainly made this mistake. It isn’t all that clear that his wife could tell the difference either. How could such an obvious and glaring difference not be noticed? If somebody saw an angel today we would probably put them on sedatives, and we’d put them on a double dose if they claimed the angel was a person. Perhaps our inexperience with angels prevents us from understanding a basic assumption of the Bible – angels and people may not be all that different.
What is an angel anyway? We have already seen that their most general description is a messenger of God. But an angel also can be indistinguishable from a person to the degree that somebody who is staring it right in the face and speaking to it cannot tell that he or she is talking to an angel and not to another person. This story is a treasure trove of information into the hidden lives of angels. This angel appeared to Manoah’s wife and not to Manoah. She was the one who needed to know the important news about her upcoming conception and what to do with it. If Manoah had never known any of this it may not have made any difference. It didn’t matter what he ate - it mattered what his wife ate. The messenger of Hashem, this man/angel, was doing exactly what it was supposed to do.
In reporting the second calling to her husband she refers to the angel as ‘the man’. She still doesn’t know his true nature. An angel can be a person. A person may be an angel. In our case the angel appeared to be a man, but he certainly knew what his true nature was and the task that he had to perform. He was not about to let Manoah’s ignorance of who he was delay him, by inducing him to a ‘man’ thing like eating. He couldn’t eat Manoah’s food, for that would have been inappropriate. He was a messenger of Hashem and had no business partaking of a ‘tip’ for having performed his task. He told Manoah that only an offering to Hashem was in order, for it was to Hashem that all acknowledgment should be directed. Angels get none of the credit. They are messengers, not creators.
This important detail about angels is hinted to in the mysterious answer that the angel gave Manoah upon being asked his name. ‘Why do you ask my name, it is hidden (wondrous)’? The angel never answered the question, at least not directly. But maybe he did answer the question indirectly. By throwing the question back at Manoah, he is asking Manoah why he wants to know. There is no need to honor the angel if the prediction comes true. The angel has done nothing worthy of honor other than to faithfully do what he was called upon to do. His name is ‘hidden’ – he plays no role in this story worthy of a name. This may be too ‘wondrous’ for human beings to fathom, that a creation of God can be so dedicated and self negating as to not see itself as having its own identity. This is the crucial difference between an angel and a person. The former understands its spiritual place; the latter is easily blinded by his or her own identity.
Throughout all this, Manoah still didn’t understand that he was dealing with a genuine angel. He thought he was asking a godly stranger to join him for a meal. Only when the angel no longer appears does Manoah fully understand what has actually transpired. This was not just a ‘miracle man’ who could jump through hoops of fire. This was the real thing. This ‘man’ was not interested in a free meal or any future honor that might come his way, no matter how deserving a normal man might think he was of such an honor. It took not a supernatural miracle for Manoah to see what was happening right in front of him, but the self effacement of an angel. Manoah finally understood that the miracle is not in the flames, it is in the dedication to Hashem. Only an angel could perform this miracle.
Perceiving the Image
The reason we have so much trouble with angels is that we are human. We see everything through human eyes and human limitations. When we hear about the dedication of a dog to its ‘master’ we are baffled and maybe even skeptical. We just do not think it is humanly possible to show such loyalty to another. Perhaps it isn’t ‘humanly’ possible. Perhaps only a dog, which has no ego to hold it back, can want nothing more than to risk its own life for the life of its master. The dog is almost angelic.
This is what angels are all about. They simply do the will God, no ifs, ands, or buts. That such a thing is possible is the greatest miracle there is. It is not ‘natural’. It is ‘supernatural’. It may be nearly impossible to perceive or to conceive of such a supernatural phenomenon, but it might not have always been like this. It is possible that in Biblical times people routinely experienced such devotion and dedication. Maybe it was so expected that they had trouble distinguishing an angel from a person. This would not necessarily have been seen as a miracle. Certainly it wasn’t on the order of the splitting of the sea or bringing water from a rock. It would have been perceived as a man or a woman doing exactly what they were created to do – the will of God.
It is a little sad that we do not recognize the angels among us until they are no longer there. When they finally leave our lives or our communities or our world we may catch a glimpse of who these ‘people’ really were. When they don’t come back we no longer take them for granted. Only then do we realize that an angel lived right in our midst and we never knew it. Perhaps we should spend a little more time and energy trying to spot those angels. Not they would want the honor and the glory – they wouldn’t even join in a meal if they knew it was in their honor. The honor would be ours. It would be our privilege to have spent time with such a person, to have experienced what life could be like with the attitude of an angel. Perhaps something would even rub off and we might want to emulate some of those angelic qualities. It is about as close as we can get to perceiving God these days. If you can’t see God, at least you can see God’s messengers.
It is a little amazing that we can become so jaded by cynicism and selfishness that we can no longer see angels in the world. Take away the halos and the wings and you might just have a really normal looking person with a very abnormal personality. Why can’t we see them anymore? Why don’t we want to see them anymore?
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