Manoah the Dunce

In Judges 13, Samson’s father Manoah comes across as a complete dunce. His wife tells him that she saw a man of God who resembled an angel, and Manoah wants to feed him and find out his name. The angel essentially tells Manoah (in my paraphrase): “I don’t eat, silly, and my name is too wonderful to share with you. Didn’t you hear what your wife said? I’m an angel! Duh!”

When Manoah offers a sacrifice, the angel ascends into the flames, and Manoah gets scared. “We shall surely die, for we have seen God,” he exclaims. But his wife responds (in my paraphrase): “Manoah, relax! If God had wanted to kill us, he wouldn’t have accepted our sacrifice. Plus, didn’t you hear the angel? God has promised us that we will have a son. We can’t do that if we’re not alive!”

Manoah must be the slow one of the family. And what’s interesting is that Manoah didn’t hear all of the information about Samson. The angel told Samson’s mother that her son would be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines. But neither Samson’s mother nor the angel told Manoah that little detail. Why not? Maybe they thought Manoah was so dense that he’d blab about his son to the Philistines, or to the other Israelites in the Philistines’ hearing. “What’s this you’re saying about a soon deliverance?” the big, tough Pharisees would then say to the helpless Israelites.

The vast majority of commentators treat Manoah as a dolt. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Nahman calls him an ignorant man because he followed his wife’s advice (Berachot 61a; Eiruvin 18b). That’s slightly unfair. What was he supposed to do? Act on his own thinking? His wife was the only bright bulb in the family!

Jon Courson tries his best to find something good about Manoah. When Manoah asked his wife to seek further instructions from the man of God, Courson said that’s a lesson to all of us: that we should pray for God’s instructions rather than being hasty in our actions. But when he got to the “We’re all going to die!” scene, even Courson admitted that Manoah is pretty dense!

This whole scene got me thinking about feminist approaches to Scripture. There are at least two ways that feminists read the Bible. One is “the Bible is good because it uplifts women.” The other is “the Bible is bad because it downgrades women.” Carol Delaney is an example of the latter point of view, for she argues in Abraham on Trial that Genesis 22 treats Isaac as the sole property of Abraham, since Abe doesn’t even tell his wife that he’s about to sacrifice their son. Maybe, but Judges 13 presents the opposite scenario, for Samson’s mother doesn’t share everything with Manoah. Plus, she comes across as more spiritually insightful than her husband.

Why does Judges present Manoah as such a dolt? One of my professors has argued that the Book of Judges is comic, and that may be a part of it. Even the ancient Israelites needed entertainment!

But I also think that the text is saying that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Manoah was dense and had to be led around by his wife (which will probably be me when I get married!). Well, Samson was much the same way. Delilah kept asking him for the secret of his strength, and she tried to weaken him on two separate occasions (with ropes and a hair loom–see Judges 15). And Samson thought she wouldn’t cut off his hair once he told her his secret? How gullible can you be? Samson was dense, and he got outsmarted by a woman! He’s a chip off the old block.

In one of my recovery groups, some people were talking about the fourth step, which is kind of like a personal psychological evaluation: you try to dig into why you are the way that you are. A few in the group were tracing their personalities to their fathers. “My dad was an obnoxious loudmouth, like I am.” “My dad was a know-it-all, like me.” “James, was your dad quiet and timid?” Well, he certainly is on the quiet side, but timid? Absolutely not! I got my timidity by stumbling around through life.

But could it be that we mirror our parents in some way, shape, or form? Maybe that should motivate us to be good examples for our kids. Of course, I don’t want my kids to grow up to be timid, so I may wait before I have some!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Manoah the Dunce

  1. Ryan says:

    Hi James,

    I find it a bit odd that no-one seems to find what Manoah said interesting… “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.”

    From a careful reading of this passage, it would seem that it wasn’t because angels cannot eat that this particular messenger wouldn’t accept food, but because they didn’t recognize Him as “The Angel of the LORD.” Manoah’s statement here is a direct allusion to Exod 33:20 where God said, “no one can see My face and live.” So what we surmise, at minimum, is that Manoah believes he sees God Himself. His wife does not correct this, but correctly realizes that the promise given to them cannot be fulfilled if they died.

    So now we should, I think, be drawn into wondering how it is then that they have seen God and yet lived contrary to Exod 33:20? The answer should be that there is a person in God who cannot be seen and you live to tell of it, and another person in God who can be seen and yet you can live to talk about it. After all, Elohim is plural, and the Hebrew ehad from Deut 6:4 is the same word used to describe the man and wife as “one” flesh, so it clearly does not limit to one person.

    Here, I think, we have yet another hint at God portraying Himself as a composite of persons. Elsewhere we will find that He reveals one more person, the Spirit, and we find then that there are three persons in Elohim, all who share the same attributes and form the One (ehad) God (elohim).

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Yeah, that’s one way to handle it: to see it as a Christophany. I’ve heard some Old Testament scholars claim that there’s an amorphous relationship between God and the angels, so we see places where an angel says something, then it’s seen as God saying something (Genesis 22, the burning bush). But a lot of Christians interpret those as Christophanies as well.

    The JPS translates “God” as divine being, which would apply to an angel. I’m not sure if that works, since Elohim is plural.

    You say:

    “From a careful reading of this passage, it would seem that it wasn’t because angels cannot eat that this particular messenger wouldn’t accept food, but because they didn’t recognize Him as ‘The Angel of the LORD.'”

    I’m not sure. This whole issue is hard. We see in Genesis 18 that angels could eat. But, here in Judges 13, it seems to be that the angel is saying that he does not eat, so Manoah should offer an animal to God (who, in a sense, does eat–he eats sacrifices).

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  3. Ryan says:

    James wrote:

    << I’m not sure. This whole issue is hard. We see in Genesis 18 that angels could eat. But, here in Judges 13, it seems to be that the angel is saying that he does not eat, so Manoah should offer an animal to God (who, in a sense, does eat–he eats sacrifices). >>

    So then, angels can eat, right? If they can eat and this angel says “If you detain me, I will not eat, but offer a sacrifice to the Lord your God,” could it not be because Manoah was about to do something he shouldn’t have considering that he thought this was just an ordinary angel? No ordinary angel is to be worshiped, and anyone who attempts to do so is sinning, and the angel who allows this would also be doing wrong. In this case, the angel initially refuses to eat the food because they don’t recognize Him. But once the sacrifice is offered, it is the angel Himself who consumes it, and they then realize that it is God, and Manoah’s response is quite appropriate.

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  4. James Pate says:

    But v 16 also said Manoah didn’t know he was an angel. Also, I don’t see the angel consuming it, but he ascended in the smoke. Still, in Judges 6:21, an angel does that with Gideon’s sacrifice–he touched it, and it was consumed.

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