Reading Judges 13:2-24
We’ve been working our way through some annunciations stories in Scripture this Advent, and today we reach undoubtedly the most comic of the lot. An unnamed woman receives a visit from a messenger of God, who announces that she will bear a son and instructs her on how to best prepare herself and the son-to-be for the liberative purposes of God. And then… her husband gets involved.
Manoah, her husband, wants to hear the message for himself! And so goes to God to entreat God to send the messenger once more, this time to him. God indeed does send the messenger again, but to his wife, when she is once again alone in the field. Manoah’s wife, perhaps not wanting to keep going through this whole rigmarole, fetches her husband so he can see the messenger. Manoah then asks the messenger, how are they to raise the boy, to which the messenger says: “look, I already told your wife this, she knows what to do… just listen to her.”
Manoah then – still not clicking that this isn’t just some guy with a prediction – asks to make the messenger of God a snack, the messenger refuses telling him instead to make an offering to the Lord… Manoah persisting in his buffoonish ignorance, asks the messenger their name (the very thing his wife, in the first encounter knew not to do) and the messenger has to scold him for such a request.
Finally, when the messenger of God ascends back to the heavens, Manoah realises that it was an angel of the Lord. And – in a panic - Manoah says to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” To which, this tried and tired woman must reassure him that, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.”
This is a sitcom level scene of an oafish husband continually missing what is going on, even though his wife realised it immediately. A missing of the point so egregious that it even tries the patience of an angel! You wouldn’t think such sublime beings that live in the presence of God could be ruffled like this, but so is the power of Man(oah).
What is wild though, is despite this story, despite all of Manoah’s obliviousness and faux pas, he is the one who is named in this story, his wife – who was astute enough to believe the messenger off the bat, and followed the instructions for how to prepare herself and her son for the particular life God had prepared for him, she is unnamed. We can only speak of her as Manoah’s wife, or Samson’s mother… which doesn’t seem befitting of her role in this story, but is sadly too common in even our holy Scriptures that bear the mark of the various patriarchal cultures in which they were composed (though, we will come to see, they are clearly not consumed by such a culture).
Reading through this story from Judges reminded me to of the story of Zachariah. When Zechariah receives the annunciation of the birth of Joseph he objects to God’s messenger, Gabriel, claiming that he and his wife, Elizabeth are too old to conceive. Zechariah actually cops it worse than Manoah, for, Gabriel punishes Zechariah by striking him mute until all that was announced to him comes to pass. In contrast to him, Elizabeth, when she became pregnant understands immediately that which is happening and declares: ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
Earlier this week I read the following from Melissa Florer-Bixler: “Elizabeth is the first person in the gospel of Luke to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary is the first to offer Jesus body to the world. A Samaritan woman is the first to proclaim Jesus as messiah. Mary is the first to preach the resurrection.” Compared to the accounts of Manoah and Zechariah (and the various fumbling and misunderstanding of the various male disciples across the gospel) one suspects that Luke is making a point. The good news of what God is doing subverts traditional hierarchies of gender and societal prestige, for it is more often than not those on the margins, those who are too readily ignored, silenced, or rendered nameless in the pages of history and holy writ, who are able to see that which God is doing, has done and will do.
The problem is – often – that because of those hierarchies, because of those expectations and traditions, we miss that good news. We miss that good news because we don’t expect to hear it from those who are telling it to us, and so our ears are closed to them. Manoah can’t accept that the messenger of God would choose to go to his wife over him, and can’t trust her account of what happened. At the end of the gospel of Luke, when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women return from the empty tomb to proclaim Jesus had risen, the rest of the disciples did not believe them and treated their words like an idle tale. Even Peter, who seems more convinced, doesn’t ask them to tell him more, or inquire as to where Jesus might be, but ran to the tomb himself to try and see what had happened.
So the question I’m led to is, who might we be ignoring today? Whose proclamation of the good news of what God is doing and has done and will do is being missed because we have been conditioned into thinking it could not possibly come from the likes of them?
Many churches still ignore the witness of women, others may treat the wisdom of children with no more than an aww shucks. Perhaps we avert our ears from the witness of those whose articulation of the good news comes in an accent we are unaccustomed to? Perhaps it is the witness from those who are unhoused, who battle addiction or are mentally ill, perhaps it is those who became a Christian like, 20 minutes ago that we are quick to dismiss? Perhaps it is folks who are trans, or who have been turned out of their homes? Or perhaps, in a completely different vein… it is not those who are so different, or removed, or foreign… but those most close to home who we cannot hear in their full voice. Jesus himself said that a prophet receives no welcome in their hometown because no one sees who they are, who they could become, outside of the particular frame of “isn’t that Joseph’s kid.” Perhaps Manoah inability to trust that his wife had received and accurately conveyed this divine message was as much a gendered issue as it was, well, “she’s my wife, the one I’ve lived with all these years… she’s too ordinary, too familiar to have something to say about God’s work in the world.” Perhaps familiarity breeds lowered expectations. Perhaps it can be those nearest to us that we can struggle to see as offering something so cosmic as the good news of God’s blossoming work of liberation… Or perhaps, more intimately still, it is our own experience, our own words, our own witness to the good news that we struggle most to hear and trust? Perhaps we, like Mary, have received a blessing, have experienced the feeling of being favoured and loved by God, but are so racked by insecurity and low self-esteem to be able to sing a song such as hers, a song which makes no apologies for having a place in God’s story, and boldly proclaims God has done, is doing, and will do.
Mary and the unnamed mother of Samson both receive a divine message that their son is a promised deliverer. Samson shall save the people from the Philistines, as Jesus is promised as a deliverer to Israel, now subjected by Rome. And both women participate and play a role in seeing that this promise and potential comes to be: the mother of Samson engages a particular posture of religious life so that the boy will be a nazarite to God from birth and Mary the mother of Jesus, engages a particular posture of religious fervour in singing a song prophesying over the work of God that Jesus will bring about. Not only this but it will be Mary (at least in John’s gospel account) who will urge Jesus to begin his public ministry and signs at the wedding at Cana. We mentioned a couple of weeks ago, that like Hagar, Mary is a theologian – one who speaks of her encounter with God. This young woman, from some backwater village, whose pregnancy is wrapped in scandal, is the paragon of discipleship and commitment to the work of God, and who gifts to us – the church in all ages – one of the most profound, beautiful, striking, and challenging passages in all of Scripture. What a shame it would be to miss contemporary expressions of what God is doing, has done and will do, because we dismiss the one who speaks it aloud. Whether that be because the speaker is so unlike those we associate with godly talk, or because they are so familiar to us that we cannot see that they too are a disciple of the risen Lord, called to witness to his victory.
So let us endeavour, in this remaining season of Advent, and in the season of Christmas, to listen well to those who bring us a good word of grace, listen well to those who proclaim good news, listen well to those who pose hard questions, listen well to those who share what God has done, is doing and will do.
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