This blog ofers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
EBOLA A CURSE FROM GOD SOME AFRICA RELIGIOUS LEADERS CLAIM
Judges 13:1-15New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
The Birth of Samson
13 The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.
2 There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. 3 And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. 4 Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, 5 for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite[a] to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.’ 6 Then the woman came and told her husband, ‘A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel[b] of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; 7 but he said to me, “You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite[c] to God from birth to the day of his death.”’
8 Then Manoah entreated the Lord, and said, ‘O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.’ 9 God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10 So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, ‘The man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.’ 11 Manoah got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, ‘Are you the man who spoke to this woman?’ And he said, ‘I am.’ 12 Then Manoah said, ‘Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s rule of life; what is he to do?’ 13 The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, ‘Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her. 14 She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. She is to observe everything that I commanded her.’
15 Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘Allow us to detain you, and prepare a kid for you.’
This is the start of the stories of Samson, which includes folk-tales as well as narratives with a historical setting. The motif of the “strong man”is common to many cultures, featuring heroes from Hercules to Desperate Dan (see D C Thomson Comics). In many cases there are comic and tragic elements to the stories as well as muscular performances. This passage tells of the divinely appointed birth of Samson.
The storyteller very delicately picks a path between divine and human action. God takes the initiative promising a special child to a childless woman. But the messenger is an ambiguous creature, sometimes described as an awe-inspiring angel and at other times as a man of God. Conventional pictures of angels with wings derive from later, Assyrian models. In this case we are to imagine a human body. The Hebrew word translated angel, “mal’ak”, means messenger. After the message has been communcated the angel is revealed as as a visitation of God. The relationship between God’s initiative and the human response is also delicately balanced. It is open to the human couple to disbelieve or to refuse God’s plan. God needs human cooperation in order to achieve his objective. Here is no bolt from the blue, not even an all-powerful Word. God’s plan has to take its chances along with human plans. The pregnant woman must refrain from alcohol or unclean foods in order that the child may grow up as a nazirite, devoted to God. Presumably her failure to observe this regime could spoil God’s plan.
In the case of an ambiguously divine visitor, the human host is expected to act as he would towards any visitor, offering hospitality. In this case, the food is gently refused but then graciously accepted as a burnt offering. All such details play with an understood etiquette between God and his people. God’s purpose, as the reader is given to understand, is to form and educate his people to become a blessing to the world, but he has to take people as he finds them, pushing, punishing, inspiring and enabling, but not forcing them or acting by pure miracle. Human beings on the other hand, may listen or turn a deaf ear, may obey or disobey, may keep their promises to God or break them, may entrust their lives to God indeed without ever ceasing to be passionate creatures of dust.
This is such a complete theological achievement that readers often ignore the insight, discipline and humour with which it is managed. It indicates the meaning of belief in God in a way which is still helpful 2500 years later.