Who Was Samson's Real Father?
A Tale of Two “Men”
Judges 13:2-25, the haftarah for Parashat Nasso, opens with a well-known scene—a barren woman. But this scene differs from similar passages: unlike Sara, Rebecca, or Hannah, this woman is unnamed; furthermore, she never prays for a child nor does her husband pray for her.
Even greater deviations from the typical pattern await the reader, hinted by the story’s opening contrast between two “men”— Samson’s father Manoah and the unnamed angel. Verse 2, the main introduction of the story, calls Manoah an אִישׁ אֶחָד, “a certain man” and the מַלְאַךְ יְהוָ֖ה, “angel/messenger of God,” is later twice called אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים, “the man of God” (vv. 6, 8). The juxtaposition of these two “men” along with other textual anomalies suggests that we ask: Which אִישׁ—man or husband— is Samson’s father?
The Angel as Samson’s Father
To my mind, once translated properly, vv. 3 and 5 answer this question quite clearly. My translation follows:
וַיֵּרָ֥א מַלְאַךְ יְ-הוָ֖ה אֶל הָאִשָּׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלֶ֗יהָ הִנֵּה נָ֤א אַתְּ עֲקָרָה֙ וְלֹ֣א יָלַ֔דְתְּ וְהָרִ֖ית וְיָלַ֥דְתְּ בֵּֽן׃…
3 An angel of YHWH appeared to the woman and said to her, “Look–you are now barren and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son…
5 כִּי֩ הִנָּ֨ך הָרָ֜ה וְיֹלַ֣דְתְּ בֵּ֗ן וּמוֹרָה֙ לֹא יַעֲלֶ֣ה עַל רֹאשׁ֔וֹ כִּֽי נְזִ֧יר אֱלֹהִ֛ים יִהְיֶ֥ה הַנַּ֖עַר מִן הַבָּ֑טֶן וְה֗וּא יָחֵ֛ל לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִיַּ֥ד פְּלִשְׁתִּֽים׃
5 For look—you have conceived and are going to conceive and bear a son; let no razor touch his head, for the boy is to be a Nazirite to God from the womb on. He shall be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines.”
In both the Hebrew and English I have highlighted the key particle (short word), הנה, which I have rendered “look.” It is a presentative particle, offering new information or information that should be highlighted—in the case of v. 5 that Mrs. Manoah is newly pregnant. Mrs. Manoah and the angel are alone, and she was barren in v. 3, and is pregnant by v. 5; the only possible father is the angel! (On the nature of this angel-man, see appendix below, “A Brief Excursus on Angels.”)
Alone in the Field!
This interpretation of the angel as Samson’s father is intimated elsewhere in this unit. The second time they meet alone is “in the field” (בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה, v. 9), the ideal place for sexual trysts (see Song of Songs 7:12; Deut 22:25-27). Most significantly, in v. 10 Mrs. Manoah calls this man/angel: הָאִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁר בָּ֥א בַיּ֖וֹם אֵלָֽי׃, which NJPS renders: “The man who came to me before has just appeared to me.” This translation misses that the Hebrew idiom rendered as “appeared,”ba’ ’el, is frequently used in the Bible to refer to sexual intercourse (as in Gen 29:1 or Deut 22:13, among tens of other instances). This angel has not appeared to her, as the NJPS renders, but had “come (on)” to her!
Where Did Samson Get His Superhuman Strength?
The Samson story in Judges 13-16 is more properly described as a cycle, a number of originally separate stories about Samson that were secondarily linked together. The composite nature of the material is seen most clearly by the repetition of the following two verses:
וַיִּשְׁפֹּ֧ט אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בִּימֵ֥י פְלִשְׁתִּ֖ים עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָֽה:
He led Israel in the days of the Philistines for twenty years.
וְה֛וּא שָׁפַ֥ט אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָֽה:
He had led Israel for twenty years.
The phrase in 15:20 is the formula that indicates the end of a unit in Judges (see e.g. 10:2, 2; 12:9). This was an earlier conclusion of the cycle, before ch. 16 was added.
Different parts of the cycle, originating from different circles and perhaps different times, offer more than one explanation for Samson’s strength.
- He gets (and loses!) his strength from his hair (Delilah story);
- He becomes strong when “the spirit of YHWH” (רוח י-הוה) suddenly alights upon him (e.g. 14:6, 19);
- He is always, innately strong (16:1-3).
The bulk of ch. 13 is offers an explanation in line with the third supposition, namely, that he is always strong: his superhuman strength comes from his angelic father. His name implies that, like Heracles, he is connected to the sun-god; Shimson (Samson) is from Hebrewshemesh (“sun”) with a diminutive ending, thus he is “Sunlet.”
Some readers may be surprised or offended at this suggested reading of Judges 13, believing that it is improper, or even sacrilegious to suggest that the Bible could believe that angels and humans could have sex together—and that this union could even produce children. Yet, this is explicit in Genesis 6:1-4:
א וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּֽי הֵחֵ֣ל הָֽאָדָ֔ם לָרֹ֖ב עַל פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וּבָנ֖וֹת יֻלְּד֥וּ לָהֶֽם׃ ב וַיִּרְא֤וּ בְנֵי הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֥י טֹבֹ֖ת הֵ֑נָּה וַיִּקְח֤וּ לָהֶם֙ נָשִׁ֔ים מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּחָֽרוּ׃…
1 When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them….
ד הַנְּפִלִ֞ים הָי֣וּ בָאָרֶץ֮ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵם֒ וְגַ֣ם אַֽחֲרֵי כֵ֗ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָבֹ֜אוּ בְּנֵ֤י הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם וְיָלְד֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם הֵ֧מָּה הַגִּבֹּרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵעוֹלָ֖ם אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַשֵּֽׁם׃
4 It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth—when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
This somewhat enigmatic Torah passage suggests that the Nephilim, possibly giants, “heroes of old, the men of renown” were born of exactly the type of union described in Judges 13: between divine male beings and human women.
Second Temple literature elaborated on this divine-human mixing in a wide variety of sources that are unequivocal that the Torah is speaking of a special “species” resulting from this human-divine intermixing. Nor is this type of mixing unique to the Bible: The great Sumerian King Gilgamesh is depicted as “two-thirds human, one-third divine.” The math of this is a bit hard to figure out, but seems to represent the idea that he was more human than divine. Divine beings, unless they are demoted to human as described in Ps 82:6-7, are immortal. But those who are part-divine, part-human may have some divine attributes such as gigantic size, tremendous strength, undying reputations, but they too will die, as Samson does at the very end of ch. 16, the conclusion of the Samson cycle.
The Negative Depiction of Manoah
In contrast to the angel, Manoah is depicted as an unsuitable father for the great, heroic Samson. Even his name suggests passivity or weakness, for מָנוֹחַ may be understood from the root נוח, “to rest.” He is the opposite of an active character, and might even be called “Mr. Couch Potato.” He is nowhere to be seen when the man of God appears to Mrs. Manoah, who is very active; she must tell her husband what the angel told her (v. 6).
Manoah Misses the Angel’s Visit, Again!
Manoah does not trust his wife’s recapitulation of the angel’s message, and in v. 8:
וַיֶּעְתַּ֥ר מָנ֛וֹחַ אֶל יְ-הוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר בִּ֣י אֲדוֹנָ֔י אִ֣ישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֞ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׁלַ֗חְתָּ יָבוֹא נָ֥א עוֹד֙ אֵלֵ֔ינוּ וְיוֹרֵ֕נוּ מַֽה נַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה לַנַּ֥עַר הַיּוּלָּֽד׃
Manoah pleaded with YHWH. “Oh, my Lord!” he said, “please let the man of God that You sent come to us again, and let him instruct us how to act with the child that is to be born.”
The Hebrew is quite unambiguous—he asks for the man to appear אֵלֵ֔ינוּ, “to us,” and the beginning of v. 9, וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּק֣וֹל מָנ֑וֹחַ, “God heeded Manoah’s plea,” leads to this expectation. But instead, the verse continues וַיָּבֹ֣א מַלְאַךְ֩ הָאֱלֹהִ֨ים ע֜וֹד אֶל הָאִשָּׁ֗ה, “and the angel of God came to the woman again,” perhaps suggesting that Manoah alone was not worthy of such a visit.
Further, the text notes:
וְהִיא֙ יוֹשֶׁ֣בֶת בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה וּמָנ֥וֹחַ אִישָׁ֖הּ אֵ֥ין עִמָּֽהּ
She was sitting in the field and her husband Manoah was not with her.
This is a remarkable role-reversal—we expect women to be working in the domestic home, and the man to be in the field (see esp. 2 Kings 4:18-20), but here she is in the field, while her husband is absent—the fact that he isn’t working in the field (while his wife ostensibly is!) would imply to the ancient reader that he is not behaving properly or “manly.”
Behind his Wife, Every Step of the Way
Verse 11 again reverses the expected gender roles, as וַיָּ֛קָם וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ מָנ֖וֹחַ אַחֲרֵ֣י אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ, “Manoah promptly followed his wife”—a wife leading her husband is stark in a society widely viewed as patriarchal. According to Rav Nahman, this shows that Manoah was an ignoramus (מנוח עם הארץ היה; b. Eruvin, 18b).
We, as readers, know that Mrs. Manoah has accurately conveyed to her husband the angel’s message, but Manoah does not trust what his wife has said, and insists on hearing first-hand from the angel (12b):
מַה יִּֽהְיֶ֥ה מִשְׁפַּט הַנַּ֖עַר וּמַעֲשֵֽׂהוּ׃
“What rules shall be observed for the boy?”
The angel’s response, introduced in the following verse is snarky, rebuking Manoah for not trusting his wife:
וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מַלְאַ֥ךְ יְ-הוָ֖ה אֶל מָנ֑וֹחַ מִכֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר אָמַ֥רְתִּי אֶל הָאִשָּׁ֖ה תִּשָּׁמֵֽר׃
The angel of YHWH said to Manoah, “The woman must abstain from all the things against which I warned her.”
At this point, Manoah should realize that this “man” is really an angel—indeed, it is odd that he, unlike his wife, does not perceive that (v. 6),
וּמַרְאֵ֕הוּ כְּמַרְאֵ֛ה מַלְאַ֥ךְ הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים נוֹרָ֣א מְאֹ֑ד.
He looked like an angel of God, very awesome.
Most angels do not look any different than people—they are not white and winged, as often depicted in art—but they behave differently, and convey divine messages. Who else but a prophetic divine messenger/angel, Manoah should have realized, could know that the unborn child (v. 5) “shall be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines” (יָחֵ֛ל לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִיַּ֥ד פְּלִשְׁתִּֽים)?
Manoah’s Continued Obtuseness
By the time the angel repeated the divine message to Manoah, Manoah should have realized that this “man” is indeed divine, and Manoah should have behaved appropriately, for example, fearing that he will die, since he saw a divine figure. (See esp. Judges 6:22-23.) Instead, Manoah insists on feeding this angel—even though (this text assumes that Manoah should have known that) angels do not eat human food. Verses 15-16 depict this in a quite humorous way—with Manoah the butt of the joke:
טו וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מָנ֖וֹחַ אֶל מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְ-הוָ֑ה נַעְצְרָה נָּ֣א אוֹתָ֔ךְ וְנַעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְפָנֶ֖יךָ גְּדִ֥י עִזִּֽים׃ טזוַיֹּאמֶר֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְ-הוָ֜ה אֶל מָנ֗וֹחַ אִם תַּעְצְרֵ֙נִי֙ לֹא אֹכַ֣ל בְּלַחְמֶ֔ךָ וְאִם תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה עֹלָ֔ה לַי-הוָ֖ה תַּעֲלֶ֑נָּה כִּ֚י לֹא יָדַ֣ע מָנ֔וֹחַ כִּֽי מַלְאַ֥ךְ יְ-הוָ֖ה הֽוּא׃15
Manoah said to the angel of YHWH, “Let us detain you and prepare a kid for you.” 16 But the angel of YHWH said to Manoah, “If you detain me, I shall not eat your food; and if you present a burnt offering, offer it to YHWH.”—For Manoah did not know that he was an angel of YHWH.
Furthermore, Manoah asks this “man” for his name—but angels (according to the biblical texts from this period) were unnamed! This request as well highlights Manoah’s ignorance. The angel virtually makes this point to Manoah explicitly:
לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וְהוּא פֶֽלִאי.
You must not ask for my name; it is unknowable!
Even after this, Manoah still does not seem to realize he is speaking with an angel.
Manoah’s Aha Moment
Manoah only begins to get it after the angel goes up in a puff of smoke (v. 20), and finally when (v. 21),
וְלֹא יָ֤סַף עוֹד֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְ-הוָ֔ה לְהֵרָאֹ֖ה אֶל מָנ֣וֹחַ וְאֶל אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ אָ֚ז יָדַ֣ע מָנ֔וֹחַ כִּֽי מַלְאַ֥ךְ יְ-הוָ֖ה הֽוּא׃
The angel of YHWH never appeared again to Manoah and his wife.—Manoah then realized that it had been an angel of YHWH.
And to make him look more obtuse, Manoah worries that he will die, and his wife, again switching gender roles, is the one to reassure him correctly (v. 23):It takes quite a lot for Manoah to have his “aha” moment; he realizes that this “man” is no regular man only after the angel appears again, repeats his message, refuses to eat, refuses to divulge his name, disappears into a puff of smoke, and does not reappear. Only then does he understand what his wife appreciated at the very beginning of the chapter.
לוּ֩ חָפֵ֨ץ יְ-הוָ֤ה לַהֲמִיתֵ֙נוּ֙ לֹֽא לָקַ֤ח מִיָּדֵ֙נוּ֙ עֹלָ֣ה וּמִנְחָ֔ה וְלֹ֥א הֶרְאָ֖נוּ אֶת כָּל אֵ֑לֶּה וְכָעֵ֕ת לֹ֥א הִשְׁמִיעָ֖נוּ כָּזֹֽאת׃
“Had YHWH meant to take our lives, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and meal offering from us, nor let us see all these things; and He would not have made such an announcement to us.”
After all, a dead Mrs. Manoah cannot deliver Israel’s next deliverer!
This multi-pronged derogatory depiction of Manoah suggests that he, the slow-witted laggard, could not have fathered the great and strong Samson, and thus dovetails well with the depiction of the angel as his father. And it further focuses our attention on Mrs. Manoah, who although unnamed, is one of the most positively depicted women in the Bible—so great that an angel desires her, and worthy as the mother of Samson, who saved the Israelites from the Philistines.
The Nature of Angels in the Bible
Hebrew does not have a specific word for general angels, though it does have words for specific types of angels, e.g. the שׂרפים, Seraphs, who are featured in Isaiah’s vision in ch. 6. Furthermore, biblical angels through the exilic period are never named—Michael and Gabriel are the only two named angels in the Bible, and their names appear only in Daniel, among the very latest biblical books. Thus, the שַׂר צְבָא יְ-הוָה, “captain of YHWH’s host” who appears to Joshua in 5:14-15 is unnamed. The angels who appear Abraham in the Sodom story are also unnamed.
The word מלאך, mal’ak derives from the root l’k, which does not appear as a verb in biblical Hebrew, though it is found in related languages such as Ugaritic. In the Bible, מלאך is the general word for a messenger or any type. In Gen 32:4, for example, “Jacob sent messengers (מלאכים, mal’akim [mal’aks]) ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.” Kings often send mal’aks—these are human emissaries or messengers.
The English word “angel” derives (via Latin) from the Gree ἄγγελος, angelos, which means “messenger.” It is standardly used in the Septuagint to translate mal’ak, whether human or divine. In English, it refers specifically to a divine emissary, but the Hebrew mal’ak refers to both divine and human ones; only context suggests if it is best translated as “messenger” or “angel.”
To complicate matters further, a prophet as well is a divine messenger; this is why form-critical biblical scholars refer to the common formula כה אמר י-הוה, “thus says YHWH,” as “the messenger formula”—it is an elaboration of the formula כה אמר “thus says” used by human messengers (see e.g. Gen 32:5; 2 Kings 9:18; 18:19). The abstract noun מלאכות, “messengership,” is used once in the Bible, in reference to the prophet Haggai (1:13).
In our case, the unidentified angel who appears to Mrs. Manoah is a divine messenger who functions as a prophet, bringing a message from God to Manoah’s family.
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May 29, 2017
January 17, 2021
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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