Finally he told her his secret. He said to her, “My hair has never been cut, for I have been dedicated to God from the time I was conceived. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be just like all other men.” – Judges 16:17 (NET)
The story of the maddeningly enigmatic character, Samson, begins in a familiar way for the Hebrew Scriptures, which is with a barren woman. It is said that there was “a man named Manoah from Zorah, from the Danite tribe. His wife was infertile and childless” (Judges 13:2). The God of Israel steps into this situation, and the “The Lord’s angelic messenger appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘You are infertile and childless, but you will conceive and have a son” (13:3).
Immediately upon hearing this, one is reminded of the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel. Because the patriarchs of Israel had all experienced, to an extent, what was now being experienced by Manoah and his wife, those hearing this story already know that there is going to be something special about this child. They know that the Creator God of Israel has a special purpose in mind for this family, in line with His larger purposes for Israel.
From the angelic messenger, Manoah’s wife is said to have received explicit instructions in relation to the treatment of the boy that is going to be born to her. The messenger tells her, “Now be careful! Do not drink wine or beer, and do not eat any food that will make you ritually unclean. Look, you will conceive and have a son. You must never cut his hair, for the child will be dedicated to God from birth. He will begin to deliver Israel from the power of the Philistines” (13:4-5).
With this, thoughts are moved beyond the patriarchs of the nation to Israel itself. This mention of ritually unclean foods hearkens to the Mosaic law, and the use of “son” is a reminder that in the Exodus narrative, which was intensely programmatic and definitive for Israel, the Creator God refers to Israel as His firstborn son (4:22). Naturally then, like Samson, Israel was a child dedicated to God from its birth, with certain restrictions in regards to ritual purity. If one was to think big picture, then Israel, ultimately, was going to be the means by which the Creator God acted in history to deliver the whole of His creation from the power of death. Thus, Samson becomes a microcosm of Israel.
When Manoah is given the privilege of encountering the angelic messenger and the instructions are recounted to him, he is told “Your wife should pay attention to everything I told her. She should not drink anything that the grapevine produces. She must not drink wine or beer, and she must not eat any food that will make her ritually unclean. She should obey everything I commanded her to do” (13:13b-14). Fascinatingly, the very thing upon which so many focus when it comes to Samson and the sign of his covenant, which was the instructions related to his hair, is not reiterated to Manoah.
Instead, the messenger tells him, twice, that his wife should pay attention to everything that she has been told to do in regards to her and her son. In this case, she has received further instruction and it is going to be incumbent upon her to share these instructions with her husband. It is also incumbent upon her husband to trust his wife in regards to this matter of their son’s hair, which provides an interesting twist to the dynamic of the story, especially within a society ordered around patriarchal dominance. The report of this situation is yet another compelling reversal of social norms, as it elevates this woman and forces her husband to rely on her in a way that was quite uncommon and potentially revolutionary in that day and age.