Chapter 1 — Under the Sea
When my family and I lived in Israel, we often planned weekend getaways. If I had a weekend off from my studies in Jerusalem, we’d rent a car and head off to explore new hikes, visit new sites, or revisit our favorite places. (I’ve lost track of how many times we visited the Galilee area—Jesus knew how to pick a place!) We were in Israel for a limited time and wanted to make the most of every opportunity. We’d return exhausted, but we had the time of our lives, and we loved every minute of it.
One particular weekend in 2009, our getaway was strictly for the purpose of rest and relaxation. I had a few days off from my studies and my brain needed a rest. I’ve never enjoyed education as much as while studying in Israel, but even the good things in life need a siesta. So we rented a car and headed off to our destination.
For months we’d wanted to visit the city of Eilat. Nestled in the southernmost reaches of Israel, adjacent to Egypt and Jordan, and within eyeshot of Saudi Arabia to the southeast, Eilat sits on the northern tip of the Red Sea. It’s a popular destination for both international and domestic tourism, and a city renowned for its nightlife, impeccable climate, and beaches. Since we were visiting for the purpose of rest and relaxation, it was the beaches that drew our greatest interest.
We arrived at the beach late morning on a picturesque day. It was seventy‐five degrees with a light breeze. We found an empty area with a couple of beach chairs and settled into our joy. With the cool sand cascading between our toes, we gazed upon a deep and vibrant blue sky and watched the white, puffy clouds meander across the heavens. Could life be any better? This was paradise. We were experiencing the best Eilat had to offer.
Or were we? Because then it happened.
I’m sure it had been going on for some time, but we were so entranced in our solitude, we hadn’t even noticed. People started walking out of the sea. Lots of them, like they’d just ascended some underwater stairway. And all of them were ranting and raving about something. Their faces were lit up with excitement as they gestured wildly to one another. It didn’t take us long to make the connection that their amazement had something to do with the masks, snorkels, and fins they all possessed.
Clearly we hadn’t gotten the memo. Something spectacular was going on and we were missing out. My look of perplexity and curiosity caught the attention of an amused bystander, who approached and informed us we could rent snorkel gear in the shop we’d recently passed through to enter the beach.
Within minutes, we had fins on our feet, masks on our faces, snorkels in our mouths, and a whole lot of anticipation. Once underwater, we understood. Less than a hundred feet from shore was one of the most exquisite coral reefs we’d ever seen. And with exquisite coral reefs come exotic fish. The experience left us breathless.
A whole new world lay under the sea—a world deep and meaningful and full of new surprises. It was a world we didn’t know existed while lounging on the beach less than a hundred feet away, and yet it was there all along. All we needed was someone to guide us in the right direction and provide the necessary gear.
Many stories in the Bible function in a similar fashion. We’ve read them time and again, but our view has been from the beach, and we’ve been oblivious to the reality that there’s more under the sea. But once we descend the depths, we recognize these stories are deeper and more meaningful than what we’ve come to understand or believe.
Take the story of Samson.
When you hear the word “Samson,” what immediately comes to mind?
Perhaps it’s his superhuman strength capable of performing enormous feats, such as tying three hundred jackals tail‐to‐tail or collapsing the pillar supports of a temple, killing thousands of Philistines. Or the infamous cat‐and‐mouse game he plays with an enticing woman named Delilah. Maybe it’s his ability to end lives as he shreds a lion with his bare hands or strikes down a thousand Philistines with a fresh jawbone (can’t forget about the “fresh” part— nobody wants to be killing anyone with a “dry” jawbone). Or maybe it’s that Samson was a great military hero who led the Israelites in the precarious time of the Judges. From the beach, this story has an impressive view.
But perhaps the story isn’t beckoning us to see it from the beach, but from under the sea. Maybe our perspective has been limited, and the story is pleading with us to get under the water and see it anew. If so, then you may wonder how we know we’ve been viewing the story from the beach, and not from under the sea.
Let’s grab a mask and take a preliminary look.
The Samson narrative begins in Judges 13, and as the curtain is lifted, we are immediately ushered into a devastating reality.
Samson’s mother (whose name we aren’t given) is unable to conceive. For a woman in the ancient world, you couldn’t find a more demoralizing or painful predicament.
The two most important aspects of life for the ancients were land and family. To be exiled from your land or to be unable to pass along your family heritage through the birth of children was far worse than any other tragedy, including death. Furthermore, in an honor and shame culture, in which every activity of life brought either honor or shame, infertility was the pinnacle of shame for a woman. This is why in Genesis, Jacob’s wife Rachel, during her stage of bar‐ renness, bitterly proclaims to her husband, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” (Gen. 30:1). This despairing situation for Samson’s mother is no different. For Manoah’s wife, as Samson’s mother is called, this is a gut‐wrenching reality.
However, the fact she is barren tips us off to an unfolding pattern. In addition to Manoah’s wife, there are six other women in the biblical narrative who experience a period of barrenness. Perhaps you’re familiar with some of these names: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, the Shunnamite’s wife, and Elizabeth.
Three of these women are Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel) who give birth to such figures as Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Hannah is the mother of Samuel, who becomes a pivotal leader and linchpin between the Judges and the Monarchy. And Elizabeth is the mother of John the Baptist, who will lay the foundation for the coming of Jesus.
Not a bad cast of mothers and sons.
Now what can be observed is that in every case of barrenness in the Bible, God shows up and provides a way for the woman to conceive,(1) and the boys of these formerly barren women grow up to become very important figures in the history of the Israelite people.(2)
So when we read that Manoah’s wife is barren, we are deeply saddened at her predicament, but we recognize her barrenness is a harbinger of something epic to come. God is up to something, and so our anticipation builds. This is a moment of colossal significance, and we are not disappointed by what ensues.
Samson’s Nazirite Calling
An angel of the Lord appears to Manoah’s wife, announces she will have a child, and specifically states he is to be a “Nazirite” from birth. Manoah is not present at this monumental conversation, and therefore his wife recounts the event, again highlighting the fact the child is to be a “Nazirite.” What’s fascinating is that this Nazirite stipulation is so critical to the conversation that it has to be mentioned twice in this opening chapter!(3)
For Samson to be identified as a “Nazirite” would’ve meant adherence to the parameters of the Nazirite vow found in Numbers 6. It’s a vow of complete dedication to God, and one that both men and women could enter into. Interestingly enough, while Numbers 6 indicates the vow is voluntary and for whatever length the individual desires, Samson’s vow is involuntary and without end. God specifically called Samson to be a Nazirite for life.
Prior to this point in the biblical story, there is no indication of anyone being a Nazirite for life, let alone specifically commanded by God to do so. Samson’s Nazirite calling is unprecedented.
Only Samuel and John the Baptist will become Nazirites for life in the remaining pages of the Scriptures,(4) and Samuel’s will be a result of a voluntary vow made by his mother, Hannah. Furthermore, in the cases of both Samuel and John the Baptist, the Nazirite status is alluded to with references to restrictions of the Nazirite vow.
Only with Samson is the specified term, “Nazirite,” used. It’s as if God is making it undeniably clear this Nazirite identity is to be of paramount importance in the life of Samson.
Numbers 6 lists three restrictions a Nazirite must adhere to. First, a Nazirite must not consume anything from the grapevine, including wine, or any other alcoholic drink. Therefore, no grapes and definitively no wine. Second, a Nazirite must not cut their hair. Their long hair is the visible identifier of the vow taken before God. And third, a Nazirite is not allowed to be in the vicinity of a dead body.
Wait a minute.
Did you catch that last restriction?
A Nazirite is not allowed to be in the vicinity of a dead body. Which means a Nazirite is not allowed to kill.
Therefore, Samson is not allowed to kill.
Uh‐oh, we’re no longer on the beach.
But hold on, that doesn’t make any sense. Samson’s gift is unparalleled human strength, and much of the Samson story entails him utilizing this strength to rid the earth of those oppressive Philistines, whom he has been commissioned to deal with. What’s more, God seems to be blessing his efforts. But if Samson is commanded by God to be a Nazirite, which invariably comes with the stipulation of not killing, why then would God give Samson superhuman strength if he’s not allowed to kill? It doesn’t make any sense.
That is, it doesn’t make any sense if the story is operating under the sea and we’ve been viewing it from the beach.
Hence, this book.
I believe many of us have only seen and heard the Samson story from the beach, and yet there’s a world under the sea waiting to be explored. It is a world that provides a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the story. And it is a world that has been there all along; we just haven’t had the guidance and gear to get there.
However, this journey isn’t simply for the purpose of better understanding the story. We don’t want it to simply remain a story. We want it to do something to us—to inform us, challenge us, direct us, and most important, transform us.
I believe some of the most foundational truths and struggles of life are seen implicitly and explicitly in this story of Samson. This isn’t a story about muscles and testosterone, nor is it simply for men. It is a story for humanity because it is a story about humanity.
It is a story about calling and the use of our gifts.
It is a story about successes and failures.
It is a story about forgiveness and revenge.
It is a story about hope and despair.
It is a story about light and darkness.
It is a story riddled with anger, pride, arrogance, lust, selfishness, and a host of other human emotions we all deal with from time to time.
Essentially, it is a story about life.
And so it beckons us to grab a mask, a snorkel, and a pair of fins and dive in—to leave what is known on the beach and enter the unknown under the sea.(5) But even more than that, it beckons us to anticipate that once we’ve surfaced after all we’ve seen and experienced, we will do so as people who’ve been profoundly challenged and changed.
- Infertility was a devastating reality for those in the ancient world, and it’s a devastating reality for those today. Having experienced a second trimester miscarriage prior to having our first child, there was a period of time when my wife and I didn’t know if we’d be able to have kids. It was a time of frustration, perplexity, and anxiety. And so when one learns that every barren woman in the Bible eventually has a child (or multiple children), one naturally begins to asks questions such as, “What are we doing wrong?” or “Is God punishing us in some way?” or “Are we not praying hard enough?” Let me offer a few clarifications. First, barrenness is never said to be a result of sin (Jesus addresses a similar idea in John 9:1–3). We are never given answers as to why these women were infertile. Second, in each case of these women in the Bible, God shows up to demonstrate His involvement in advancing the larger story. And third, to piggyback what was stated in the main text, every one of the boys (with the exception of the Shunnamite’s son) born to these women grows up to be a very important individual in the story of Israel. Which demonstrates that God gives children to these women not only for their joy but ultimately for His greater purposes. For a more complete discussion, see K. T. Magnuson, “Childlessness,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D. A. Carson, and Graeme Goldsworthy (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 404–7.
- We don’t know what became of the Shunnamite’s son other than the fact that Elisha raised him from the dead (see 2 Kings 4).
- See Judges 13:5, 7.
- See 1 Samuel 1 and Luke 1.
- I am most grateful to Kenneth Bailey, who in a lecture I attended shared the analogy of having views of the biblical text from the beach and from under the ocean. Little did I realize I would experience this analogy in real life, and that it would profoundly alter my way of see‐ ing the stories in the Bible.
Make Your Mark by Brad Gray
“In MAKE YOUR MARK Brad Gray helps strip away our Western cultural assumptions and gives us a fresh look into the story of Samson. Along the way he gives us practical and biblical instruction that helps us navigate through our own stories as we become a part of the larger story.”—TobyMac, Grammy award–winning artist, producer, songwriter, and author
Available in bookstores August 19th. Order now: