Probably the most famous guy in the book of Judges is Samson, the freakishly strong, (not particularly mature) man who led Israel while it was being oppressed by the Philistines. His story begins in Judges 13 with his parents (who in the next chapter are some of the first recorded parents, though certainly not the last, to lament "why couldn't you have brought home a nice Jewish girl?") – in particular, with his mother. The text doesn't tell us her name, but it's clear from the story that this isn't because God thought less of her than of her husband Manoah. In fact, the story is striking in its strong portrayal of this woman – and of the God who changed her life forever.
The story begins with a woman who is infertile – a fairly frequent theme in the Bible, possibly because it was so devastating in that culture that it set the stage for God's power to show up. Infertility is heartbreaking for many even now, but at the time one's entire identity and worth as a woman was wrapped up in having children, not to mention one's future well-being in a society where adult children were expected to care for their aging parents, with no governmental or nonprofit entities picking up the slack for them. Numerous infertile women feature prominently in the biblical narrative, and it's almost always the case that the children they end up bearing are crucial in Israel's history. The hopelessness of their situation necessitates God stepping in, and highlights the fact that it's God's will, not human plans, being achieved when they finally give birth to these "children of promise." This is, of course, only an extremely cursory glance at this theme in the Bible; for a deeply compassionate and theologically rich treatment of it, The Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James (particularly chapter 3) is a great place to go.
Unlike numerous other barren women in the Bible, Manoah's wife doesn't (at least in what the text reports) ask God for a child. God just comes to her and says she'll have one. In addition, the angel of God instructs that she should set apart her child from birth as a Nazirite, which in Jewish law was a person specially set apart for God's service, distinguished by long hair and abstinence from wine and other alcohol (and in fact, from any grape product).
Here's where the story gets really interesting (as if a visit from the angel of the Lord wasn't interesting enough) – the angel of God leaves. We don't actually see that in the text, but we can assume the angel left because once the woman reports all of this to her husband, there's no angel left for him to see. Manoah then prays for the angel to return and God honors his prayer, but the angel brings no additional instructions.
Apparently, God thought it sufficient to have given the instructions to the woman. (Sorry about the awkwardness of having to call her “the woman” – if it really bothers you, you can call her “Betty.”)
Now, we don't know why exactly Manoah expected further instructions, but I find I sympathize with several possible motivations. Whenever we see God moving in a significant way, we tend to feel our own inadequacies more keenly – the power of God throws our smallness into sharp relief. I can imagine that had I been told that God was miraculously giving me a child in order for that child to later play a crucial role in the sociopolitical situation of my theocratic nation, I too would be begging God for as many instructions as possible on how to not screw it up. (And I imagine that for Manoah, as is often the case for me, God's answer that He's already given us what we need was both reassuring and terrifying.)
It's also possible that Manoah didn't think his wife competent to receive these instructions and wanted to get the information first-hand. It sounds awful to our modern ears, but this was not Manoah being hateful or even more-than-usually arrogant: he had grown up in a society that taught him that women were morally and ontologically inferior to men, a society in which women were not considered competent even to offer testimony in court, and it would have seemed quite reasonable for him to doubt his wife's competence, and even feel it was his responsibility to make sure she'd gotten the instructions accurately. Although my own cultural milieu is vastly different, there are plenty of situations in which I similarly assume (rightly or wrongly) that I am more competent than someone else, and therefore take charge or double-check some things to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. Perhaps someday my own reasons for thinking I'm more competent than someone else will seem just as offensive as Manoah's patriarchal attitude does to us now, but the fact remains that in some situations, one person is more qualified than another, and when we are that qualified person – or assume we are – we naturally take on the responsibility of acting as the failsafe for what the other may have missed, even considering it our duty to do so.
What is striking here is that, whatever patriarchal beliefs may have been at play between the human characters in this story, it is clear from the text that God does not share that perspective. Even now, many Christians believe that women need a man to confirm or legitimize what they hear from God. And yet this story reminds us that God does not need a man to legitimize what He says to a woman. In this story the angel of God speaks directly to a woman, and leaves. Period. God wasn't giving her the basics and waiting to give Manoah the fuller picture. When the angel returns, the instructions Manoah gets are exactly the same as his wife got – nothing missing, nothing added – and not only that, but the angel highlights twice that the instructions were really for the wife in the first place – almost as if to subtly question Manoah's need to get the instructions himself. God had business with this woman, and it seems that in God's eyes, she was enough to engage in that business herself.
Later in the text, she's also portrayed as the one who has the more rational response to God's presence. When fire consumes their sacrifice and the angel disappears, Manoah has an emotional, panicked response: “We're going to die, because we've seen God!” His wife is the one who talks him down, reasoning that if God had purposed to kill them, He wouldn't have bothered coming to talk to them first and wouldn't have accepted their sacrifice. In complete contrast to the stereotype of men as rational and women as emotional, the text portrays Manoah's wife as not only competent and worthy to receive instruction from God, but also skilled in interpreting her interactions with God – more skilled, in fact, than her male counterpart.
This passage's implications about God's view of women are extraordinary and should not be passed over lightly.
Here is the other thing I find extraordinary about this passage: God answers Manoah's prayer. It's easy for us to hate on Manoah, at least from the vantage point of this century. His apparent assumptions about his wife seem inexcusably arrogant and patriarchal to our eyes, and since they clearly don't match up with God's opinion of her, we expect God to share our outrage.
And yet God didn't condemn Manoah for the ideas he'd absorbed throughout his life, even when they were wrong. He didn't expect Manoah to somehow have independently broken out of the mold in which his society had cast him and to have perfect, godly, countercultural ideas. God challenged Manoah's assumptions and fears, but did not berate him for them, and did not withhold Himself.
This speaks volumes about God's grace. How many of our own cultural and personal assumptions will we someday find aren't shared by God? What a relief to know that even as God gently questions our ideas and ungodly attitudes, he refrains from condemning us for them!
Not only that, but there are plenty of times when I too ask God for things I don't really need. How often do I ask for information or confirmation about things He's already told me? How often do we doubt things He's already said quite clearly in the His word? And yet He does give us reminders, assurances, encouragements, timely words, quite often and in a variety of ways.
Perhaps Manoah shouldn't have needed the angel to come back. But he needed it anyway. And God sent it.
This God, the One who values women without devaluing men, who meets us in our weakness and who is patient with our learning process, who both challenges and reassures us by His Presence – this is the God we need. It was the God who was needed in Manoah's day. It's the God I need today. And He's the God who will continue to be both surprising and gracious tomorrow. Just ask Manoah and Betty.