Today is Mother’s Day. Every year on this special day, I write a post honoring the mothers of the Old Testament. Samson’s mother is the tenth Old Testament mother who is honored on this special occasion. The list of previous mothers who have been honored on Mother’s Day is found here.
In studying Samson’s mother, I will not focus on Manoah, her husband, nor on Samson, her son, unless they are mentioned in the narrative that includes her. Samson’s mother is the focus of the birth narrative that appears in Judges 13.
Old Testament mothers played a significant role in the lives of their children and in the lives of their families. Old Testament mothers’ primary role was in the nurturing of their children. They were also influential in their social and religious development.
A Woman from Zorah
Samson’s mother played a significant role in Samson’s early life. She was a woman from Zorah, a village in the tribe of Dan, although throughout the narrative she remains unnamed. Two other women whose stories appeared in the book of Judges are also unnamed: Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11) and the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19).
The biblical writer identifies the woman as the wife of Manoah (Judges 13:2), as the mother of Samson (Judges 14:2), or simply as “the women” (Judges 13:6). Although she is never mentioned by her name, Samson’s mother is the main protagonist in the narrative announcing the birth of the one who would begin to deliver Israel from Philistine oppression.
The narrative begins by announcing that the woman who would become Samson’s mother was barren and unable to have children. But she is not alone; five other women who were also barren in the Old Testament became mothers with divine assistance. However, Manoah’s wife is the only barren woman whose name is never mentioned.
Because Manoah is not the main character of the birth narrative and because the woman does not become Samson’s mother until after the birth of her son, in order not to identify the woman as Manoah’s wife, I will follow the biblical writer (13:3, 6) and the angel (13:13) by referring to Samson’s mother as “the woman.”
The biblical text does not say anything about Samson’s mother. The text does not say whether she was young or old or whether she prayed for a son. It is God who takes the initiative to give the woman a son. The birth of the child is part of God’s purpose to liberate the people of Israel from an oppressive situation.
The Announcement of the Birth of a Son
A divine messenger appeared to the woman announcing that her barrenness had come to an end. He told her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son” (Judges 13:3).
The biblical text is ambiguous in the identification of this heavenly messenger. He is called “The Angel of the LORD” (Judges 13:3), “the angel of God” (Judges 13:9), “the man of God” (Judges 13:8), “a man of God having the appearance of an angel” (Judges 13:6), or simply “the man” (Judges 13:10).
This ambiguity may be another instance of the embodiment of God in the Old Testament since the Angel of the Lord is the way by which the invisible God revealed himself to people in Israel. Although the divine messenger appeared as a man, in the end, Manoah realized that he and his wife saw God himself.
When the Angel of the Lord told the woman that she would become the mother of a son, he also instructed her what she must do during her pregnancy and what her son would do in his life. He said to her, “Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:4–5).
Although the NRSV says that the boy would “be a Nazirite to God from birth,” the Hebrew text literally says that the boy would be a Nazirite “from the womb.” A Nazirite (a man or a woman) was a person consecrated to the service of God. The law regulating the vow of the Nazirite is found in Numbers 6:1–8.
The Nazirite vow was a voluntary and temporary vow that individuals, men and women, took for a limited period. “Samson’s vow is unique in three ways: (1) it is divinely imposed; (2) it is from birth to death; and (3) it imposes his mother to keep the sanctions during her pregnancy” (Johnson 2010:277).
Samson was to be a Nazirite for life. According to Numbers 6 the Nazirites had to observe three rules: they must abstain from wine and all other products of the wine, they must not allow the hair of their head to be cut by a razor, and they must not come near a dead body.
Because the boy was to be a Nazirite “from the womb,” the mother of the boy must also, as long as she carried her son in her womb, share with her son the Nazirite vow. She must keep herself pure. It is for this reason that she must “be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean.”
The purpose of the mother’s requirement to observe the Nazirite vow was to make sure that her son would be consecrated to God from the very moment of conception and that he would be a Nazirite to God from the womb. Samson’s mother was committed to her son’s vocation as a Nazirite because of the special mission God had assigned to him. For this reason she was willing to abstain both from foods and drinks forbidden to a Nazirite.
After her conversation with the angel, the woman met her husband and told him what the divine messenger had spoken. She told her husband the words of the messenger: “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 to God from birth to the day of his death” (Judges 13:7).
What the woman told her husband differs from what the messenger had told her. The messenger said, “the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth” (Judges 13:5). The woman told her husband that “the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death” (Judges 13:7).
By the expression “from birth to the day of his death” the woman probably meant that her son would be a Nazirite for life, but unintentionally, the mother of the boy was, prophetically, announcing his death for breaking his vow of a Nazirite: “when Samson breaks his vow and finally ceases to be a Nazirite in any sense of the word, his death quickly follows. Thus, it turns out to be true that Samson was a Nazirite ‘until the day of his death’” (Johnson 2010:276).
The Birth of the Son
The birth of the child is shrouded in what could be defined as a mystery. When the angel first appeared to the woman, the angel said, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son” (Judges 13:3). However, in the second announcement, the woman seems to be already pregnant, “For you are with child and will give birth to a son” (Judges 13:5 BBE).
Although most English translations say that the pregnancy is yet to come, “you will conceive and give birth to a son” (Judges 13:5 NIV), the Hebrew text’s use of the perfect tense of the verb implies that the woman is already pregnant. The text never says that Manoah knew his wife sexually and there is no mention of a conception. The text only says that “the woman bore a son” (Judges 13:24). (In a future post I will deal with the birth of Samson).
After the child was born, his mother named him Samson. Samson’s mother is one of the few women in the Old Testament who named their sons at birth. The woman does not give a reason for naming her son Samson. The name Samson is derived from the Hebrew word šmš and it means “Little Sun.”
It is possible that the reference to the sun may be related to a village in the tribe of Dan called Ir-shemesh (“City of the Sun,” Joshua 19:41) or with the city of Beth-shemesh (“House/temple of the sun [god]”). However, the reason for the solar implication in Samson’s name in unknown.
A Mother’s Disappointment
When the angel announced the birth of Samson, the angel said to the woman that her son “shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). From his birth, Samson was set apart and given a special status by God to be a savior in Israel. The words of the angel imply that Samson would do the same work previous judges had done in delivering Israel from the hands of their enemies.
Samson, however, failed to meet the promise the angel had made to his mother. Samson failed to deliver Israel from their Philistine oppression. He also failed to keep his Nazirite vow.
Against his mother’s will, Samson married a Philistine woman: “One day when Samson was in Timnah, one of the Philistine women caught his eye. When he returned home, he told his father and mother, ‘A young Philistine woman in Timnah caught my eye. I want to marry her. Get her for me.’ His father and mother objected. ‘Isn’t there even one woman in our tribe or among all the Israelites you could marry?’ they asked. ‘Why must you go to the pagan Philistines to find a wife?’” (Judges 14:1–3 NLT).
In addition to marrying a Philistine woman, Samson “went to the Philistine town of Gaza and spent the night with a prostitute” (Judges 16:1 NLT). Samson also fell in love with a Philistine woman named Delilah. Delilah betrayed Samson and sold him to the Philistines.
Samson’s mother had kept the Nazirite vow for the sake of her son during her pregnancy and during the time she nursed him, a total of three or four years. Samson did not honor his mother’s sacrifice because he broke his Nazirite vow for selfish motives.
Samson probably drank wine at his wedding (Judges 14:10), he touched the carcass of the lion (Judges 14:8), he touched the bodies of dead Philistines (Judges 14:19), and he allowed his hair to be cut (Judges 16:19).
Samson was a great disappointment to his mother. He failed as a Nazirite, he failed as a judge, and he failed to deliver Israel from the Philistines. He married a Philistine woman against the objection of his mother and allowed a Philistine woman to violate his Nazirite vow.
Samson is numbered among the judges of Israel, but because of his many failures, Samson cannot be considered to be a good judge. Of all the four women in Samson’s life, only his mother was a faithful and righteous woman. As McCann wrote, “If there’s a faithful hero in the story, besides Samson’s mother, it is the God who proves persistently faithful to Samson (see 16:28–31), who proves himself persistently unfaithful to God” (McCann 2002:101).
Besides the love and commitment of a faithful mother, there is another lesson to learn from Samson’s story: “The significance of Samson’s story is as an expression of YHWH’s willingness to work wonders in Israel in spite of the vessels he chooses to use” (Johnson 2010:285).
Happy Mother’s Day.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Johnson, Benjamin J. M. “What Type of Son Is Samson? Reading Judges 13 as a Biblical Type-scene.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53 (2010) 269–86.
McCann, J. Clinton. Judges. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox, 2002.