19 December – First Reading


Commentary on Judges 13:2-7,24-25

There are in the Bible a number of incidences where elderly women who had never borne a child are, through the intervention of God, blessed with a child, usually a son.

Today’s First Reading recounts one of these – the birth of Samson. What is special to all these stories is that the child to be born has a very special role given to it by God. It is as if to say that God had played a role with the mother in the birth of this child. He was, in a way, God’s child. And that is what we also see in today’s Gospel which speaks about the circumstances in which the elderly Elizabeth is blessed with a son, who will be John the Baptist

The reading is from the book of Judges. These ‘judges’ were really heroic figures from various Israelite tribes who were engaged in the struggle of the Israelites to establish their dominion over the land which they believed had been allotted to them by God. Not surprisingly, the present occupants of the territories were not too pleased and resisted strongly, with varying degrees of success and failure on both sides.

Our reading is concerned with one of these ‘judges’ – Samson. Overall, he is presented as being physically very strong but in other respects very weak, particularly where women were concerned. And it was a woman, the notorious Delilah, who would bring about his downfall. Nor, in spite of some successes, did he ever manage to free his country from the Philistine enemy. His exploits were more concerned with himself than his people.

The Philistines, who will appear later in the story of David (Goliath was a Philistine), were a non-Semitic people, possibly from Crete, who settled on the coastal plain of Palestine about the same time as the Hebrews were entering the land from the east. Conflict between them was inevitable.

Samson can be seen in a way as a symbol of his people. The misdeeds of the Israelites are often pictured by the prophets in the light of the foolish pursuit of foreign women, some of them of ill-repute, and falling victim to them. During the Judges’ period, the people constantly prostituted themselves in worshipping Canaanite gods.

Samson was from the tribe of Dan. His story is told from birth to death. We are only concerned today with his birth. His father’s name was Manoah and came from Zorah, in the territory of Dan. (Dan was one of the twelve sons of Jacob.) The wife, whose name is not given, is sterile – the greatest curse a married woman could suffer in her society.

She shares this fate with some other prominent women in the Old Testament – Sara, the mother of Isaac; Rebecca, the mother of Jacob; Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel; and, of course, in today’s Gospel, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist.

But it is then that an ‘angel of the Lord’ appears to her. She hears the wonderful words: “You will conceive and bear a son.” Words which are repeated in Gospel and will be heard again during the Annunciation to Mary.

Samson’s mother is to prepare for his birth by not taking wine or any food regarded as unclean. As a future liberator of his people, this son will be especially dedicated to the Lord. From his very conception he is to be regarded as a Nazirite. The word nazir in Hebrew means ‘consecrated’. A Nazirite was obliged to abstain from drinking wine or having his hair cut. In early times, the nazirite vow was for life but in later times it could be temporary and termination would be signified by the cutting of one’s hair. It is implied that Samson’s uncut hair is the source of his great strength, which is lost when it is cut by the treacherous Delilah.

When the child is born, his mother names him Samson, a word which means ‘sun’ or ‘brightness’. This could be an expression of joy over the birth of an unexpected child or refer to a nearby town, Beth Shemesh, ‘house of the sun(-god)’.

The passage ends with the words: “The child grew and the Lord blessed him: and the Spirit of the Lord began to move him.” This final remark refers to his future feats of strength. Compare this with the words about Jesus after he had returned to Nazareth following his presentation in the Temple by Mary and Joseph: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him” (Luke 2:52).

Today, let us reflect on our own calling by God. Perhaps there was nothing very special about it. Yet, like John the Baptist, each of us has been called to be a forerunner of Jesus, to prepare the way for Jesus to come into other people’s lives, especially those who have not yet had the experience of knowing him.

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