The Birth of Samson: Angels II ‎

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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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’. ‎
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Analysis ‎
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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? ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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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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