The angel of the Lord appears to Manoah and his wife

Judges 13

The sixth and final cycle of judges involves Samson from the tribe of Dan (13:1 – 16:31). By this time, the Danites have abandoned their God-given territory in the land of the Philistines, leaving Samson’s family and a few others in a refugee camp (13:25). Even before he is born, Samson is under a Nazirite vow, which he violates eventually by touching an unclean dead lion (14:8-9), taking part in a drinking feast (14:10), and shaving his head (16:19).

Equally tragic, his Spirit-charged physical strength proves no match for his untamed sensual passions. Encounters with three women, presumably all Philistines, lead to his capture and blindness. As the hair of his Nazirite vow begins to grow back, and especially as he calls out the LORD, Samson receives the power for one last feat: the ability to pull down the pillars of a pagan temple and kill more Philistines in death than throughout his life (16:30).

But this story has a most curious beginning, one that features two visits from the angel of the LORD. Judges 13 opens with a familiar refrain: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the LORD’s sight” (v. 1). In response, Yahweh hands them over to the Philistines for forty years. Normally at this point we see a cry for deliverance, but there is nothing of the sort here – although Judges 14:4 and 15:1 hint at an Israelite cry for deliverance. It seems Israel’s attitude toward its oppressors has changed. Rather than plead for Yahweh’s help, the people are resigned to coexistence with the Philistines. Thus, “Yahweh must seek and create an occasion to disturb the relationship between oppressor and oppressed (14:4).”

Enter the angel of the LORD, who appears to the barren wife of Manoah. The angel confirms the woman’s inability to bear children, then promises her a son. He instructs her to follow strict dietary laws during her pregnancy, and not to cut her future son’s hair. The reason: Her son is to be a Nazirite to God from birth and will begin to save the people from the Philistines (13:5). Nazarite vows include abstinence from wine and other alcoholic beverages, separation from corpses and other sources of defilement, and uncut hair. 

This is a peculiar prophecy. According to Numbers 6:1-21, Israelite men or women could voluntarily take a Nazarite vow, yielding themselves completely to God for a period of time. But the angel tells Manoah’s wife that her future son, Samson, would have no say in the matter; rather, the boy would be a Nazirite from birth. And since his hair never is to be cut, he is dedicated to the LORD his entire life. Like the prophet Jeremiah, Samson is called to the role of deliverer before he is born.

A man with no name

Without delay, the woman tells her husband, Manoah, “A man of God came to me. He looked like the awe-inspiring angel of God. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name” (13:6). 

No doubt, Manoah and his wife have heard about the angel of the LORD – perhaps his appearances to Abraham and Sarah, or to Moses or Gideon. In any case, Manoah’s wife identifies him as “a man of God” who looks like this special angel. We are not told what distinguishes a man from an angel in her view, but something about him – perhaps his voice, his authoritative instructions, or his knowledge of the future – gives him away. She confirms the angel’s message: She will conceive and give birth to a son who will be “a Nazirite to God from birth until the day of his death” (13:7).

We should note that the woman’s name is never recorded in this passage, while her husband is identified by name many times. At first glance, this is not surprising in Ancient Near East culture. However, as the story unfolds, we see Manoah exposed as jealous of his wife’s encounter with the angel. He also reveals himself as suspicious, petty, spiritually immature, and a bit dense. In contrast, the narrator of this story enhances the image and importance of Manoah’s wife. Of all the human characters in this story, she shines as the heroine. 

Manoah’s response to his wife’s report is to petition the LORD to send the angel again, this time to him as well as his wife so they are taught what to do (13:8). God listens to Manoah and sends the angel again – to Manoah’s wife. We are beginning to see the LORD’s regard for the woman and his growing exasperation with Manoah. She hurries to Manoah to announce the angel’s arrival, and he follows her to meet this divine messenger. 

Manoah asks, “Are you the man who spoke to my wife?” The angel says, “I am” (13:11). While the angel’s use of “I am” may cause us to harken back to Yahweh’s encounter with Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:14), the Hebrew is different. To Moses, the angel reveals himself as hayah hayah (I AM THAT I AM), while to Manoah the angel simply acknowledges his identity as the man his wife has seen, using a single Hebrew word, ani (“I [am]”). Perhaps this is because Manoah doesn’t even realize he’s talking with the angel of the LORD (13:16), let alone Yahweh in angelic manifestation. 

After receiving instructions about everything his wife must do to prepare for Samson’s birth, Manoah pleads with the man to stay for a meal. Unlike Gideon, who seems to recognize the angel of the LORD as a divine figure and thus refers to the food he desires to present as a minhah, or offering, Manoah’s words literally mean, “Please let us detain you and prepare a young goat before you” – a most secular invitation to dinner. 

The angel of the LORD agrees – conditionally. The ensuing conversation further reveals Manoah’s cluelessness and the angel’s corrective replies. “If I stay, I won’t eat your food,” the angel says. “But if you want to prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the LORD” (13:16). Manoah appears not to understand the reason for the visitor’s rejection of his offer, so the angel presents an alternative more suitable to Manoah’s divine guest.

Next, Manoah asks the angel’s name. A terse reply follows: “Why do you ask my name,” says the angel, “since it is beyond understanding” (13:18). The reference to his name as “beyond understanding” means “extraordinary” or “wonderful” in Hebrew. In the Old Testament, this Hebrew word is almost always used to describe God, not humans.

We may recall that Manoah’s question, “What is your name …?” is the same question Jacob asks the man with whom he wrestles on the eve of his encounter with Esau (Gen. 32:24-30). The man tells Jacob, “Why do you ask my name?” He then blesses the elderly patriarch, who realizes he has been wrestling with and has seen God face to face. He even names the spot Peniel, literally “the face of God.” For Manoah, when he sees his visitor taken up in the flame of a burnt offering, he comes to realize that he, too, has seen God. In both cases, we witness human encounters with the angel of the LORD, who is identified as God.

After asking the man’s name, Manoah prepares a young goat and a grain offering. Note the specific wording of what follows: “… and offered them on a rock to the LORD, who did something miraculous while Manoah and his wife were watching. When the flame went up from the altar to the sky, the angel of the LORD went up in its flame” (13:19-20). 

Note that the LORD does something miraculous. He ascends in the flame as the angel of the LORD. The LORD and the angel of the LORD are distinguished from one another. However, as in previous meetings with Yahweh and his special messenger, the distinction is blurred. The two divine persons work in tandem to prophesy, instruct, and confirm their divine power. 

“We’re certainly going to die”

So, how do Manoah and his wife respond? They fall “facedown on the ground” (13:20), an appropriate gesture in the presence of a superior – and in this case, in the presence of God. The angel does not appear to them again. However, Manoah finally realizes the visitor is the angel of the LORD (13:21). 

“We’re certainly going to die,” Manoah says to his wife, “because we have seen God!” (13:22). But his wife replies with great wisdom and insight: “If the LORD had intended to kill us, he wouldn’t have accepted the burnt offering and the grain offering from us, and he would not have shown us all these things or spoken to us like this” (13:23).

Curiously, when Manoah and his wife speak of Yahweh, they refer to him only as elohim, a generic designation of deity, and they address him only as Adonai, a generic term for master. Perhaps this reflects the degree to which the Israelites have plummeted in their relationship with the one true God who revealed himself to Moses as I AM THAT I AM and whose unique name, Yahweh, sets him apart from the elohim of the pagans around them. Even more curious, the chapter ends with Manoah’s wife giving birth to Samson, which means “Little Sun” or “Sunny boy,” an apparent nod to the Canaanite sun god. These realities may reflect the Israelites’ fading knowledge of Yahweh more than a desire to shun him.

When Samson is born, God blesses him, and the Spirit of the LORD stirs him to action (13:24-25). Manoah’s unnamed wife joins the ranks of other noble women in the Bible whom God has rescued from barrenness: Sarah, Ruth, and Hannah.

Though nameless, the woman is portrayed as a beautiful person, unquestioning in her faith and logical in her thinking – a model of Israelite womanhood. She is a special woman, called by God to be the bearer of the deliverer of Israel.

The rest of Samson’s life plays out in the back-and-forth of dramatic military victories and disappointing moral compromises. Samson is a picture of Israel. He is chosen for holiness but defiled by his sinful actions. He is born miraculously by the will of God but forsakes the LORD’s will in favor of his own. He is drawn to foreign women as Israel is drawn to foreign gods. He experiences bondage and the cruelty of his captors. He is blinded physically as Israel is blinded spiritually. The LORD abandons him, just as Yahweh abandons Israel. Samson cries out to the LORD, and the LORD graciously hears him, enabling Israel’s deliverer to die in a glorious defeat of the Philistines. Even more wonderfully, the LORD lists Samson in the heroes-of-the-faith hall of fame (Heb. 11:32).

One final note: As in our encounter with Gideon, we get a glimpse of the Trinity in this passage. We read about the LORD, the angel of the LORD, and the Spirit of the LORD. While the three persons are distinguished from one another, they clearly are depicted as one in purpose, united in their work of raising up leaders who deliver God’s people from oppression.


The Book of Judges illustrates what happens when sin is democratized. People do what’s right in their own eyes, and the result is unbridled wickedness that brings divine retribution. “Israel cannot presume upon God’s grace, and neither can Christians. If we abandon his commandments and pursue the idols of our own imaginations, the result will be moral and spiritual chaos.”

But the lessons of the judges also feature the remarkable grace of God. It is Yahweh’s divine election, not Abram’s merit, that births the Israelite people. And it is his grace that sustains them through slavery, desert wandering, the death of leaders, the resistance of enemies, and the corruption of their own hearts. Left to their own devices, God’s people reach a critical mass of sin and then implode. It is only the merciful intervention of Yahweh – often visible in the form of the angel of the LORD – that enables the nation of Israel to survive. Only by the grace of God, the Israelites emerge from the centuries between Joshua and King Saul as a nation distinguishable from its pagan neighbors.

God sends oppressors to remind the people of their grave sin and his great mercy. He responds to their cries and delivers them. They rejoice, forget their saving God, and relapse into sin. And the cycle continues. As the prophet Jeremiah so aptly remarks, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9 KJV). Even so, the Book of Judges illustrates an eternal truth: “the Lord will build his kingdom, in spite of our sin and rebellion.”  

Next: High and lifted up: The Lord of Armies on His throne

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.