Special Births Connected to Christmas: Samson, Samuel, and John: the Nazirites
Judges 13:3-5, I Samuel 1:11, Luke 1:13-17
By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
My favorite Christmas joke is a short one. He wanted a new car for Christmas; she wanted a fur coat. They compromised: they bought the coat, but kept it in the garage. Christmas time is obviously more that gifts, but most of us do enjoy the celebration.
Even from the Biblical perspective, the birth of Jesus and his resultant work is broader than the single night on which Jesus was born. There were countless events that prepared or foreshadowed the Messiah. Today I would like to suggest that even John – the one who prepared the way for Jesus – was foreshadowed.
Jesus commented on John the Baptist in Matthew 11:11, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
We often associate John the Baptist with Elijah (as Jesus did in Matthew 11:14), because he came in the power and spirit of Elijah (Luke 1:17). When John was questioned as to whether he was Elijah (John 1:21), he answered, “I am not.” Even John is himself a foreshadowing of Elijah who will return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5).
Many modern scholars believe John was part of the Dead Sea Scroll community (the Essenes), but I am skeptical about that. The Essenes promoted isolation and joining their commune. John taught people to bloom where they were planted (Luke 3:10-14).
Because John was a Nazirite from birth – which meant he was permanently under a vow that was normally temporary –Jewish readers would automatically connect him to the two other men in the Old Testament who were also lifelong Nazirites: Samuel and even more especially Samson.
The great rabbi, Hillel (grandfather of Gamaliel, the rabbi who trained Paul, Acts 22:3), greatly affected how the Jews understood the Scriptures by enumerating seven rules of interpretation. One of the particular rules is called, “G’zerah Shavah” which translates to “equivalent expressions.” This rule tells us to associate texts with similar wording or ideas, particularly if something unusual is mentioned. Thus John the Baptist would immediately be associated with Samuel and Samson because of their repeated convergences.
My main idea is this: there are only three men in Scripture who were under a Nazirite Vow from birth: Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist. Putting them together demonstrates a pattern we associate with the birth and ministry of Jesus.
I. Similarities Between ALL Three: Samson, Samuel, and John
The rules for taking a Nazirite vow are stated in Numbers 6:1b-7 (ESV)
… When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.
“All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the Lord, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long.
The three special obligations of a Nazirite include: (1) avoiding any grape product, including wine (later expanded to strong drink), (2) not cutting ones hair, and (3) avoiding contact with a dead body.
Paul the apostle apparently took a Nazarite vow in a typical, temporary way; because he would not be able to trim his hair during the days of his vow, he probably followed the practice of first shaving his head (Acts 21:23-24). This was the typical way to practice a Nazarite vow.
But the three men who are noted to have been Nazirites for the entire course of their lives (Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist) had much in common. All three were born to childless couples. Manoah and his wife had been married for some time, and his wife is described as barren (Judges 13:2). An angel appears (a theophany). We pick up the narrative from Judges 13:3-5,
And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son [Samson]. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
Hannah and Elkanah were also childless, although Hannah was not beyond the age of childbearing. Neither was she commanded to make her son a Nazirite. I Samuel 1:11 reads,
And she [Hannah] vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son [Samuel], then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
In the case of John the Baptist, an angel appears to Zechariah while he is ministering in the temple. We pick up the action in Luke 1:13-17, “But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’”
Also note that all three prepared the way for David or David’s heir, the Messiah. Samson and Samuel were thought to be contemporary, ministering in different parts of Israel. They both oversaw the weakening of the powerful and oppressive Philistine people. Note that Samuel and Samson prepared the way for David, who would complete the conquest.
In the same way, John’s message of preparation and his service as the “voice in the wilderness” who would “prepare the way for the Lord” (see Luke 3:4) began the Messianic mission completed by Jesus in his atoning death and conquering resurrection.
Samson, Samuel, and John all died in seeming defeat. When Samson died, he died a death that seemed to terminate an unsuccessful ministry (Judges 16); Samson never lived to see the complete conquest of the Philistines. Samuel had anointed David as king, but he died while David was on the run from Saul, the disappointing king he had also anointed (I Samuel 25:1). John was beheaded during imprisonment, struggling with doubts that Jesus really was the Messiah (John 7:18-23).
II. Similarities Between John and Samson
Both Samson and John were stirred by the Spirit to begin their work. In Judges 13:25, we read of Samson, “And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him.” Of John we read in Luke 3:2, “…the word of the Lord came to John…”
Both were noted for their boldness. Both fell through sensuous women. Samson’s downfall was Delilah, though Samson’s own sinful behavior brought his downfall (Judges 16). In the case of John, it was Herodias’ and her daughter’s sensual dance (she is said to be named “Salome” by Josephus) that resulted in John’s death. They manipulated Herod to have John executed (Matthew 14:1-12).
Both had pyromaniac tendencies; Samson tied the tails of living foxes to a torch and released them to burn up the Philistines’ crops. John the Baptist preached boldly about the coming Messiah who would baptize with the Spirit and “fire” (Luke 3:16).
III. Contrasts Between Samson and John
John was given the name Yochanan (Yahweh is gracious) before his birth by the angel (Luke 1:13), while Samson, which means “daring” (according to Keil and Delitzsch) after his birth by his mother (Judges 13:24). Indeed, both men lived up to their names.
The biggest difference between them is obvious: Samson was ungodly, and God used him despite himself. In contrast, John the Baptist was godly; indeed, he was filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in the womb (Luke 1:15), a fact that argues for both the full humanity of the pre-born and the sovereignty of God, even over human will.
Jesus described John as the greatest of the prophets. Although John has his times of doubt, we could not find many who could compete with him on the spiritual level.
John’s influence was initially greater than the influence of Jesus, particularly within the Jewish community. One branch of Judaism believed that John the Baptist was the Messiah, or could have possibly been the Messiah. This school of though evolved into a religion which still exists, called “Mandaeanism. “According to Wikipedia,
Mandaeism or Mandaeanism … is a gnostic religion… with a strongly dualistic worldview.
Its adherents, the Mandaeans, revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram and especially John the Baptist, but reject Jesus of Nazareth and Christianity…
According to most scholars, Mandaeans… are Semites and speak a dialect of Eastern Aramaic known as Mandaic.
…. There are thought to be between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans worldwide, and until the 2003 Iraq war, almost all of them lived in Iraq. Many Mandaean Iraqis have since fled their country (as have many other Iraqis) because of the turmoil created by the War on Terror and subsequent rise in sectarian violence by Muslim extremists… Most Mandaean Iraqis have sought refuge in Iran with the fellow Mandaeans there…
Although men like Samson, Samuel, and John were men God used in great ways, their special roles to prepare for David – and David’s heir, the Messiah – was their true calling. Despite their differences, they were preludes to what would follow.