Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Tintoretto painting of annunciation to Manoah's wife
“You are special.”

The text today continues the exploration of God’s call in the book of Judges, with the call of Samson – although the call is more properly, as we’ll see, the call of Samson’s mother. Scripture doesn’t tell us her name, but we know she must have had one, and according to Jewish tradition it was Zlelponith, so maybe it will be OK to call her that.

The story happens late in the period of the Judges; Samson is one of the last-named judges in the book – and conditions in Israel have deteriorated a lot since the early days. People in general don’t seem to know a lot about the God of Israel, don’t seem to be too familiar with what God asks from people. And that is part of what we have to reflect on this morning: what God asks from people.

Here is the question that has been on my mind this week: Does the Bible ever disappoint us?

This probably sounds like a loaded question, a trick question. It probably sounds like the answer is obviously supposed to be no – of course not, how could the Bible disappoint us? Who are we to be disappointed by the Bible? If I said I was disappointed by the Bible, it wouldn’t it sort of mean there was something wrong with me?

But I don’t mean it as a trick question at all, I mean it completely seriously, as a straightforward question; because my experience has been that sometimes we are perplexed and disappointed by the Bible, and that perplexity and disappointment has a lot to do with our expectations about the Bible, maybe with our unrealistic expectations about the Bible. Judging by what I read about the Bible, about Bible stories and about the Bible’s lessons for us, at least from some quarters, many of us have the idea that the Bible is a book chock full of moral and spiritual uplift, crammed full of beautiful divine promises and inspirational quotations. Period. Our go-to feel-good letter from God.

And while I don’t exactly want to say it isn’t that … because all of those things are in the Bible … this morning we are reading Judges. Chapter 13. The beginning of the story of Samson. And if we actually read the story, we have to admit that Samson does not come off as an obviously wise, obviously pious, obviously admirable figure from ancient Israelite history. There is precious little in Samson’s story that qualifies as moral uplift or spiritual inspiration. There are traditions of interpretation that do a lot to salvage Samson’s reputation – that insist that he didn’t actually marry gentile women, but that the women had converted to the worship of YHWH first; and that he was less of a womanizer than it looks, that he went after those women in the first place more or less strategically, so that he would have good reasons for attacking the Philistines … and I don’t exactly want to disparage those traditions of interpretation, or their motives, either.

But I do want to challenge us to recognize the Bible as a much more complex and challenging text than we sometimes give it credit for, a text that doesn’t just shower us with little spritzers of spiritual uplift, but that makes significant demands on us, as readers and as thinkers, and as people who are pursuing, or maybe more properly for some of us are being pursued by, a relationship with God. So this morning I want to suggest that this text from Judges, which is not unique in this respect, as a matter of fact, is not there to make us feel good or to present us with a clearly and simply positive moral lesson, but is more frankly and starkly there to tell something like the truth about an important aspect of life as the “people of God,” of which the Israelites are the paradigmatic example. It’s their story, after all, that we have preserved as the “story of the people of God” in this way for these thousands of years. So this morning, I want to suggest that this story of the people of God is a difficult story, a story that is sometimes not all that easy to live with, to live, but that despite that it has a deep claim on our lives.

When we come into the story, the people of Israel have been doing evil, and as a consequence, they are also experiencing defeat at the hands of the Philistines, oppression at the hands of the Philistines. So, as we have seen all through the book of Judges, just because people are God’s people doesn’t mean they are well-behaved, or understand their own best interests, or do the right thing. And being ill-behaved, heedless of their own best interests, and doing the wrong thing has consequences, and the consequences are dismal. And God does not just erase those, in fact, we might even want to say God is actively involved in engineering those consequences. That’s where we start.

But then, we seem to learn that people behaving badly is not the whole story. Because an angel of YHWH visits this woman, the wife of Manoah – maybe we can go along with the rabbis and call her Zlelponi – and something we have learned from reading the Bible and its interpretations is that being visited by an angel of YHWH is an honor, and a blessing, that doesn’t just happen to anyone, so we presume that the person it happens to is special. Special, in particular, in respect of righteousness and faithfulness. Specially devoted to God and to God’s people. So we are doubtless safe to assume this is true of Manoah’s wife, who is to be Samson’s mother, Zlelponi.

She is special. Her righteousness and her faithfulness, and perhaps her wisdom – which seems to be demonstrated later in the chapter – make her special.

And it turns out that these qualities have probably been particularly difficult for her to sustain, since she has never been able to bear children. And if we know anything about the social world of ancient Israel, we know that not being able to have children, not having children, was a real affliction, especially for women. Men who did not have children were actually advised to divorce their wives after 10 years, or at least to take additional wives, to ensure that they would have someone to carry on their name and family. Women who didn’t have children didn’t have that option. And they had to suffer the shame and innuendo that went along with suffering some affliction: what’s wrong with her? Why hasn’t God given her children? So here we have a woman who has had to bear the sense that she has been specially disfavored by God, and the persistent suggestion that perhaps that is for some reason … and she is visited by an angel, which is a mark of special favor by God. Should we imagine that this gave her a tremendous sense of relief and reassurance? I don’t think that would be altogether unreasonable!

And then, the angel tells her that even though she is barren and has never borne a child, that is about to change, and not only that, this child is going to be special – not just because she’s finally going to have him, but because he is going to have special work to do. So she is now going to have to follow some additional special instructions: she is going to have to fulfill the vow of a nazirite, because her child is going to be required to fulfill the vow of a nazirite, from birth. This means she is going to need to abstain from wine (the angel says wine and strong drink), and any food that would be “unclean.” From what we know about the vows of the nazirites, that are described in Numbers 6, this would also mean that she would need not to cut her hair, and to avoid being in the presence of the dead. So now, in addition to her special qualities of righteousness and faithfulness, which seems to us a good thing, and in addition to her “special” reproductive status, which we understand to have been a difficult thing, now she is going to have a special rule of life, at least for the next nine months or so.

As an aside, it is a little difficult to establish just how difficult the nazirite vow actually was. For one thing, we don’t really understand what the service was that the nazirite performed for God. We have the impression that taking the vow had something to do with undertaking some kind of special service to God – but what that service was isn’t spelled out anywhere. It might have been different for each different person, come to that. In the case of Zlelponi, the service seems to have been being Samson’s mother … It’s also difficult to say absolutely how difficult meeting the provisions of the vow would have been. I know some people who would have no difficulty whatsoever staying away from wine or strong drink; I know other people who would find that a real imposition. The only point there is that some people would have a relatively easy time keeping that aspect of the vow; others might have a more difficult time. What did avoiding grape products have to do with anything, anyway? Did it demonstrate that God, rather than anything else, was the source of joy and cheer in a person’s life? Did it demonstrate that the nazirite was devoted to a seriousness of purpose that was incompatible with merriment or taking a break? It might have meant something like that, or it might have meant something else … we don’t know for sure. But it was presumably something that people, both the nazirite and the nazirite’s community, would have understood to be a special restriction.

Nazirites were also required to stay away from dead bodies, even to the point of participating in mourning rites for family members. How much of a hardship that would be probably depended a lot on timing. Most years of my life, it wouldn’t have affected my behavior much at all. On the other hand, I am sure I would have felt like I wasn’t being there for my parents if I had felt like I couldn’t stay with them at hospice, for fear that they would die, and I would be breaking my vow not to be in the presence of the dead; if I hadn’t been able to go to my mother’s or my father’s funeral, I might have felt like that was asking something unreasonable. And I might have a hard time understanding why this aspect of the vow mattered; does it have something to do with the person devoted to God having to be completely oriented towards life? Does it have to do purely with ritual cleanliness, while we understand death to carry pollution that can rub off on people? Again, I don’t know, but I know that there would be times that the vow would be easy to keep, and other times that it would be difficult in the extreme.

So after all this, after establishing that Zlelponi is specially meritorious, and specially afflicted, and is being asked to do something that may be specially difficult, we might be more than a little justified if we expect that she will also be specially rewarded. After all this, we might expect that she is going to be specially blessed in the performance of this nazirite practice, or she is going to be an especially happy mother, or she is going to experience some special satisfaction in life. If the Bible were a B movie, if the Bible were a romantic comedy, that’s what we could expect. And if the Bible were a B movie, or a romantic comedy, that’s what would happen.

But this is where the Bible may, frankly, disappoint us. Because as we continue with Zlelponi’s story, as we learn more about her marital situation, and then we learn more about her son, Samson, we come to find out that things don’t work out in an obviously, specially great way. At least not in the conventional sense.

Because what would we consider an especially great experience of parenting? An especially great parenting outcome? I’m guessing most of us imagine some really great experiences with our children; and then, seeing them go on to have success in life, whether we think of that as going to a good school, getting a good job or a meaningful career, marrying someone they love and we love, too, and having one or more darling children who are healthy and happy and seem to like and do well in school and their extra-curricular activities … experiences of our children sharing our values, having meaningful conversations with them, feeling proud of them … having children who keep on going to church after we’ve taken them to church and Sunday school all their lives, who come back after they’ve been confirmed, who participate, who seem to have genuine faith … I’m guessing that for many of us, some of these things are the things we look forward to as young parents, or consider some of the satisfactions of reaching the status of older parents.

If we’re right, then Zlelponi and Manoah don’t have the greatest obvious satisfactions as parents. Their longed-for, special child, who at least doesn’t cut his hair, but who we are not entirely sure fulfills his vow of being a nazirite all that well … as far as we can tell, he does indulge in wine and strong drink, at least some of the time; he certainly doesn’t hesitate to be around dead bodies – bodies he has made dead – and maybe it’s his willingness to break his vow that makes him so useful as an agent against the Philistines … Anyway, it seems he must break his parents’ hearts. He wants to marry a Philistine girl, he wants them to arrange that marriage, what can they possibly think about that? Whether they know all about his other womanizing experiences, we don’t know. We don’t know whether they live to see his capture by the Philistines; perhaps they don’t. But even if they are spared the worst, Samson is definitely not every mother’s dream child. And given Zlelponi’s reputation for righteousness and faithfulness, it’s hard to imagine he is Zlelponi’s dream child, at least on the score of his wisdom (which isn’t always obvious) or his faithfulness (which isn’t always obvious, either).

I am not at all suggesting that Zlelponi did not love her son. What I’m suggesting is that she doesn’t seem to have had a simple, exclusively positive experience of parenting. Instead, she has the ambiguous, difficult, challenged experience of parenting most of the rest of us have, and with rather ambiguous results, despite the involvement of God and the operation of God’s promises in her particular, special, story. She is called; her son is called; and somehow God’s purposes are carried out, we can see how Samson begins to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines; but this is by no means a specially rewarding life experience for Zlelponi and her husband Manoah – at least, not on the surface.

Zlelponi’s being special, and being special to God, isn’t exactly a lesson in moral uplift or spiritual inspiration. It’s more of a reminder that sometimes the service of God is a struggle, that doesn’t have a corresponding material or human payoff. Presumably, Zlelponi’s relationship with God was rewarding – presumably she took some satisfaction in doing what she could to satisfy God’s challenges and demands. Hopefully. Because there were clearly limits to the kinds of satisfactions she could derive from being a mother to a son who was attracted to Philistine women and who lived a violent life and died a violent death as a result.

Should we imagine Zlelponi ever asked herself “what did I do wrong?” “Did I do enough to teach him the way of YHWH?” “Why doesn’t he share our values?” I think we might be allowed to think that.

So to all the ways in which Zlelponi was “special,” it seems possible that we might be able to add “specially burdened.” Of course, we know it can be a burden to be special, in real life. It can be a burden to be special, even if the “specialness” that one experiences, or bears, is almost entirely positive: being royal, or beautiful, or genius, or wealthy. Being special distances us from regular people; gives us experiences that are difficult or in some cases impossible to share with others; makes it harder for “regular” people to understand what we are going through, gets in the way of our communication and participation with friends and neighbors, isolates us, can make us, honestly, lonely. And in fairness to Samson, Samson would have grown up with a keen awareness of all the ways in which he, too, was special; subject to special restrictions that he had had no part in agreeing to; subject to special expectations that he would have to learn whether he could live up to; subject to special problems that few people if anyone could have understood. In that context, the brash, rash, impulsive and excessive performances of the Israelite hero might seem more intelligible, and less disreputable.

There is something disappointing about all of this, it seems to me, at least from the perspective of looking for the happy ending and the Instagram-worthy inspirational meme. The lesson in Zlelponi’s story is not exactly the kind that gets a lot of “likes” on social media: “God rewards righteousness and faithfulness with extra responsibilities, and sometimes the opportunity to experience a sense of failure in one’s call.” Most of the time, honestly, I am hoping for something more uplifting than that!

On the other hand, maybe it is not so disappointing after all, to learn that the story of God’s people – even the legendary early Israelites – is the story of real people, after all; people who have the same kinds of dilemmas and difficulties, uncertainties and imperfections, that we also have; people who live, not in an ideal society, but in the same kind of morally compromised setting we are so familiar with. Maybe we cannot expect a story in that setting to have the same kind of complete and completed happy ending that we associate with the new creation. And too, if the story is not an unambiguous happy ending, it still offers the active involvement of God. If God’s purposes are hard to discern, as they are hard to discern today, there is still evidence that God has them, and is pursuing them, and even that we are playing a part in bringing them to fulfillment; even if we are not unqualified successes, we – perhaps even we – can do something for God and God’s people.

A calling is not a guarantee of felicity, as Zlelponi’s story reminds us. It may even be a prescription for difficulty, difficulty that is not warranted to be compensated in recognizable material coin. But a calling is a present token of ongoing relationship with the God who creates people to be God’s people in the first place. And perhaps we can use disappointing reminders like this that this relationship is not, in the end, for the sake of any other reward but that of the relationship itself. “God is my portion,” as the Psalmist said; and if we can see that as not at all disappointing, maybe we will be making a little progress.

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