19 December – First Reading

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

In the Bible, there are a number of incidences where elderly women, who had never borne a child, through the intervention of God, are 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 is given a very special role 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.

Today’s 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 with his people.

The Philistines, who will appear later in the story of David (remember, Goliath was a Philistine), were a non-Semitic people, possibly from Crete. They 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 their foolish pursuit of foreign women, some 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 he came from Zorah, in the territory of Dan (Dan was one of the twelve sons of Jacob). Manoah’s wife, whose name is not given, is “barren” – in the society of her time, the greatest curse a married woman could suffer.

She shares this fate with some other prominent women in the Old Testament – Sarah, 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 “the angel of the Lord” appears to her. She hears the wonderful words:

…you shall conceive and bear a son.

Words which are repeated in the 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 its 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 boy grew, and the Lord blessed 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:

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor. (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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