LITERARY ANALYSIS OF JUDGES 13:1-25
Judges 13 is arguably one of the more well known stories in the book of Judges. Its tales of “ribaldry, bloody action, and its lengendary coloration” have provided interpretative challenges for scholars and laymen alike as the exploits of Samson resemble that of Herculean legend. The Samson saga in its entirety is ultimately a story of promise noting God’s election of Samson to deliver Israel from Philistine oppression. Judges 13, though full of hope, contains no promise of deliverance thus providing insight into Israel’s depraved spiritual milieu and also serving as a reminder for believers to remain faithful to God’s commands as the ecclesia.
LITERARY TECHNIQUES AND FEATURES OF THE NARRATIVE
This pericope is the foundation for the plot outlined in subsequent chapters. The setting establishes Israel’s spiritual depravity and God’s continued faithfulness to His covenant with Israel. Against this literary backdrop, the author utilizes the literary technique of inter-textuality in verse 3. An angel of the Lord appears to Manoah’s wife, declaring despite her barrenness, she will conceive and bear a son. This statement is strikingly similar to the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 15 and served to remind Israel of God’s providence and commitment to them. Furthermore, this motif “was a formula of blessing used also in Isaiah 7:14” asserting the author’s utilization of inter-textuality to drive home his message.
Another literary technique is a vital development of plot found in the comment made by the angel of the Lord in verse 5 stating Samson will only begin the deliverance from the Philistines setting the stage for what ultimately became a protracted struggle that continued into the time of David. A vital link to the remainder of the Samson saga is the necessity expressed by the angel of the Lord for Samson to be dedicated to God as a Nazirite specifically the command for a razor never to touch Samson’s head. In Judges 13, the thematic element of the Nazirite vow in relation to Samson is first mentioned to Manoah who then relays the message to her husband. Additionally, Manoah’s wife is commanded to abstain from wine and unclean foods.
The concomitant themes of promise and fulfillment are woven throughout Judges 13. The author’s focus on Manoah and his wife display “the narrative is carefully constructed to suggest movement towards its conclusion, the fulfillment of the promise.” It is apparent the author is setting the stage for a point of comparison between the necessity of Samson to fulfill his Nazirite vow with the overt and repeated violations of this command of the Lord in his life. Grant Osborne saliently notes “one of the clues to the Samson story is the carnal, mistaken perspective of Samson contrasted to the omniscient comments of the narrator. As a result the reader experiences in a poignant way the tensions within the story.”
INTERPRETIVE ISSUE AND RESOLUTION
A major interpretive issue identified by numerous scholars regarding Judges 13 is the relationship between Judges 13 and the remainder of the Samson saga provide in Judges 14-16. Of particular interest is the “fact that Judges 14-16 are symmetrical accounts raises the question of the relationship of Judges 13 to these chapters.” J. A. Wharton avers Judges 13 was inserted at a later stage of composition and “has enabled the narrator to place the escapades of Samson in a religious context.” Such a conclusion can be reached by noting the difference in focus of Judges 13 and the remainder of the Samson saga. Judges 13 clearly notes the thematic elements of promise and fulfillment in keeping with God’s covenant promises with Israel. While Judges 13:5 notes the election of Samson as a deliver would not provide a comprehensive relief for Israel from Philistine oppression, it nevertheless identifies God’s providence in the history of Israel despite their ambivalence towards their current spiritual and national situation.
Additionally, Judges 13 provides the reader with a heightened sense of expectation in regards to the role Samson will play in Israelite history. As noted by Gerhard von Rad, Judges 13 is an insight into “the real problem of the Samson story; for anyone who comes from the pious story of the call (with its mention of a manifestation of God, and of sacrifice and a vow) must be astounded by the whirlwind of very unspiritual adventures in which Samson gets lost.” Judges 13 served to reinforce the intricately woven message throughout the Old Testament “about the purpose of Yahweh and the role of human beings in influencing and implementing this purpose.” To that end, Judges 13 is masterfully replete with literary, theological and historical purpose.
APPLICATION OF THE NARRATIVE
The message subsumed in Judges 13 did not contain explicit spiritual application strictly for ancient Israel. Conversely, the message of promise, fulfillment and the necessity to maintain one’s calling by God is of vital import for the New Testament believer as well. Samson was called by God to fulfill an important mission, namely to initiate what would ultimately be a long struggle against Philistine oppression. Judges 13 clearly identifies Samson was to be dedicated to God by way of a Nazirite vow. This vow was intended to place special emphasis on the need for Samson to be pure and holy before God as he fulfilled his calling. Furthermore, the author makes it painfully clear in Judges 13 God’s desire for unfaltering obedience.
Scholar and laymen alike are quite familiar with the tragic end of the Samson tale. Instead of living in obedience to his vow, Samson conversely chose a life replete with lustful passion and revenge. J. A. Wharton saliently notes “in a time of deserved distress Yahweh moved with marvelous secrecy to begin the liberation of his people. The secret of Yahweh prevailed in the midst of the most ludicrous and obscure human interactions to further his liberating purpose.” Wharton goes on to remind us “without Yahweh’s instant aid he (Samson) was a frail as any man.”
One might ask what importance such an ancient story of heroism, passion, promise and failure has for believers in Christ. Ultimately, Judges 13 is a stark reminder that despite humanity’s repeated ambivalence to the oppression of sin in their lives, God continues to desire to provide a way of deliverance. The Apostle Paul in Romans 5:8 declares, “God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The Samson story depicts Israel as engrossed in pagan rituals and stuck in the mire of sin in full rejection of God. The New Testament lucidly notes man’s penchant to be mired in the throes of sinful behavior.
The deliverance from oppression provided by God through Samson was only the beginning for the people of Israel. In fact, full deliverance from oppression never occurred though scripture does promise God will one day restore Israel. In contrast, the deliverance from sin provided through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is eternal. Despite our frailties and often unbridled desire to sin, God utilizes those whom He has called to affect His divine purposes in this world. Samson, despite his rampant disobedience, was still used by God to provide judgment against the Philistines. One can rightly wonder what marvelous deliverance God could have provided to Israel if Samson had chosen to more fully adhere to his call to be separate and holy before God. While God can certainly utilize us for His good pleasure despite our passion for sin, we must not forget as believers we are the ecclesia, the called out ones. Just as Samson was elected by God to fulfill a mission of deliverance, believers are elected to fulfill our commission, the Great Commission of declaring to the world deliverance from oppression can be found by placing their faith and trust in the salvific work of Christ. That is the timeless message subsumed in saga of Samson and particularly in Judges 13.
Judges 13 begins with great promise and hope for the future. Samson was called by God to initiate Israel’s deliverance from Philistine oppression. Subsumed within that calling was the need for obedience. The author of Judges utilized various literary devices to drive home an important and timeless theological message, namely that God desires obedience and despite our frailties as sinners, God still desires to use us if we place our faith and trust in His son Jesus Christ. Samson’s strength did not derive from physical prowess but from God working through him evincing His commitment to the covenant promises He made with Israel. God continues to desire obedience and furthermore, He greatly desires to use us to reach a world in need of deliverance from sin. May we never forget the deliverance from sin provided to us through Christ and may we press on towards fulfilling our calling, the calling of the Great Commission.
Exum, J. Cheryl. “The Theological Dimension of the Samson Saga.” Vetus Testamentum 33, no. 1 (Jan 1983): 30-45.
Osborne, Grant. The Hermeneutical Spiral. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology Vol I. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Wharton, James. “The Secret of Yahweh.” Interpretation 27 (1973): 48-66.
Wolf, Herbert. “Commentary on Judges” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy through 1 and 2 Samuel. Edited by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.