So, with Judges 13, we begin the wade into the deep end of the book of Judges. The story of Samson is an ugly one that takes up a very large portion of the book, and unfortunately, there's not much to commend in the stories afterwards.
Well, comparatively, this portion of the story, our introduction to Samson's parents, is pretty good. There's not much indication (yet) that there's anything really bad about these folks, other than the fact that they seem to be rather helpless and confused most of the time.
The story opens with yet another time of trouble for Israel, and this time, they're in the hands of the Philistines, who seem to be Israel's major enemies through all of this time on into the time of David. I don't think you can deny that whatever else is going on in the life of Samson, this story has a lot of political undertones that end up almost overshadowing the spiritual issues; of course, they're all intertwined.
In the midst of this difficult time, we are introduced to yet another couple with a barren wife. The SAB comments once again on the issue of barren women in the Bible, not so directly as before, but I'm assuming that's the point being made. Another thought I had as I was reading this chapter yesterday in addition to what I said about barrenness earlier is that in those ancient times, they knew a little bit about how babies were made, and it might be fair to assume, with the limited knowledge they had, that so long as a man appeared to have "seed", lack of children must be a problem with the woman. Scientifically questionable by modern standards, yes, but the ancients didn't have microscopes. Actually, it might additionally be said that the term "barren" may simply mean that a married woman had not yet borne any children; that's a speculation just now off the top of my head, someone who knew Hebrew far better than I might know if there's any truth to that. (I note that in looking up the Hebrew, that the word for "barren" does not appear in 1Sam. 1, although clearly that's what's being talked about there.)
Anyway, an angel appears to this woman and tells her she is going to have a son. (Despite the innuendo on the part of the SAB that there was something of a sexual relationship that happened between the "angel" and the woman, the language doesn't really suggest that at all.) Some interesting commands are given to her concerning her pregnancy and raising of the child. There are to interesting points about this, one of which is that the commands the angel gives her for her pregnancy are actually good advice for any pregnant woman. Don't drink wine or eat "unclean" food during your pregnancy? Hey, that's just sound prenatal care!
The other point is one that I touched on briefly in talking about John the Baptist. Although I skipped ahead from the middle of Genesis and therefore never hit Numbers 6, this would probably be a very good place to delve into the issues of that chapter. As the angel says, Samson is supposed to be a "Nazarite...from the womb" (as is suggested, but not expressly stated in the cases of John the Baptist and the prophet Samuel). Two questions come up in the Numbers 6 and here as well that are worth exploring. Is it okay to drink? Generally, the Bible does not seem to be against it, in moderation. Wine is an important part of many Jewish and Christian ceremonies. Is it okay for men to have long hair? Clearly Paul did not think highly of it, and it was not the cultural norm of the times. (I myself, up until about half a year ago had a nice long ponytail I'd been letting grow for about 15 years. I cut it off because my wife wanted my hair short, not because of a moral or social issue.) So why are these demands made of Nazarites? Well, the Nazarite was setting himself apart from society to be dedicated to the Lord. (Nazarite literally means "separated", and when context calls for it, it's translated that way.) When everyone else had a party and sat down to drink, he would stay sober. When all other men were walking around looking neat and clean-cut, he would look like a hippie, with a shaggy long head of hair and beard. A Nazarite was supposed to look and act in a way that was acceptable to God, but generally socially unacceptable, so that people would notice him standing out. If you know the story of Samson, you have to realize that Samson was actually a pretty bad Nazarite, since long hair was the only requirement he kept, and even that ends up being a problem in the end.
So Samson's parents end up having a bit of drama with this angel, and yeah, a lot of it is rather strange, although the part about the angel ascending to heaven in the fire of the altar is something serves to clarify the supernatural aspect of the event. In fact, it seems that Samson's father wasn't quite 100% convinced until this happened, at which point he says that they "have seen God." While the question of whether not God can be seen is a tricky question that I have examined elsewhere, I don't think it's an issue here, as I think he's just being dramatic. It wasn't God, it was just a heavenly messenger, and his wife essentially says, "Get over yourself; if we were going to die, we'd already be dead instead of standing here by this altar."
The final note of this chapter is really the big question of this whole story. I'm tempted to say that verse 24 is really talking about how Samson was blessed by God as a child, and later he turned bad; indeed, it might be the case. On the other hand, there seems to be little room for denial that Samson led a charmed life up until the very end; why is God blessing a guy who seems to hold none of the moral values that the Bible stands for? It's a very good question, but I intend to answer it at the end of the story rather than here.