By Jud Nirenberg © 2010
The woman stood behind the clay house where the visitor had appeared. She thought of how to explain it to her husband. They had wanted a child for so long and given up hope. But this was different than they had imagined. She asked herself if people get what they’ve prayed for, but not as they imagined, are they happy? Manoah was not hotheaded or violent but he could be hard. He could turn off his emotions if it suited him. She would have to look glad, not frightened, so that her face would guide him in what to believe and what to feel. But her hands were still trembling. She had chewed some of the dried leaves Manoah kept for when cousins came to see him, the leaves that were supposed to be calming. They had not helped.
A Mediterranean sun hovered just over the hill. Glaring as it was, dusk would come in a few minutes. It colored the land the same shades as a half-baked idol, the patchy hues of warm clay and mud before it takes its shape and cannot be altered. Manoah would be home at any moment. She went into the house. The chores were done and there was nothing to do but wait. She went looking for the broom, then stopped herself. She would wait by the entrance. She could hear his mule’s footsteps on the path.
Manoah was a tall man. He had come to be a trader after harder labor and he was built for rigorous demands. The mule groaned a bit when frustrated but kept moving until it saw by its master’s example that it was time to stop.
When Manoah reached the house, his wife was there to greet him. She smiled and he touched her hand as he led the animal through the entranceway. “How are you?” he asked. She nodded. He led the mule into the stable room, tied it and removed his pack. When he had come out of the stable and was standing in the foyer, the pack slung over his shoulder, she stood in front of him “And you? How was it today?”
“No great riches but I sold something. I also spoke with a freed slave who’s new to the area. You know how some of them are when they arrive. He says he wants to learn about God. He wants his sons to apprentice with Israelites.” Apprentices served artisans. Few went to live with merchants. And yet, given his circumstances, Manoah was always hopeful a boy could be found, especially given the dangers of traveling alone. If he had an armed young man with him he might be less a target for Philistine highwaymen.
“And you agreed on something?”
“Only to speak again the next time I go to his village,” he said.
“Are you thirsty?” He sighed that he was. “Come on,” she told him.
He walked behind her now until near the hearth. She got him a pot, the nice Minoan one with the dark waves and she put it into his hands. The water was cool. As he quietly gulped, she spoke. “You might worry less about finding a boy now.”
“Mmh?” He looked at her eyes and kept sipping.
“My love…I’m pregnant,”
He lowered the clay, watched her. They both smiled. “Are you sure? Can you be?”
“I don’t know. I think so. I’m sure.”
“What signs are you having?”
“Listen, love. I’m not having any signs. A man was here. Or, uh...There was a man who came when you were out and he told me that I’m going to have a child. A boy,”
She smiled more, tried to convey excitement. It was the kind of news they had given up on ever hearing. She wanted him to grab her in joy. She saw the puzzlement in his face.
“A stranger. He was, I don’t know, he didn’t look like anyone I’ve ever met. I was afraid when I saw him. He was an angel, Manoah,” She watched his confusion and she forgot what she had been planning to say. She was unsure what she should put into her story, and what was best left out. “We’re having a boy, thanks to God, and the angel told me that he’ll be a Nazirite,”
“Our boy? A Nazirite,”
“We have to raise him to be a Nazirite. We can never give him grapes or alcohol, no impure foods. He’ll be a Nazirite all his life,” she remembered everything the angel said. Was it the time to give her husband a full accounting, a long list of the angel’s orders? She looked at him as they each guarded their thoughts.
Manoah felt acid building along with the unknowable in his stomach A Nazirite. He considered the sounds of the word and their common roots with another. Stranger. He surely will be a stranger. A stranger to me, anyway, a sI know it’s not my son she’s having, not after being unable for all this time. He breathed, deeply as he could. Stay calm. It could be the truth. It could be. The Lord hears prayers.
“I see,” he said. He drank the rest of the water. Don’t get angry. It could be true. She has never lied. He looked at her, her eyes pleading with him to believe. “Let’s pray,” he said, “Let’s pray for the angel to come back so I can meet him. Maybe he’ll tell us what we should do,” Manoah prayed and his wife, Simcha prayed beside him that night for hours. “Let the angel come back, Lord.” He prayed aloud and watched his wife’s face. “Let him tell us what we should do with the baby that you’re sending.” He prayed that his wife had not made a fool of him. She is a good woman. Please, let it be true.
And she prayed that she had not lost her mind. They both believed that they could have a baby after all, and both prayed that they were not deluding themselves. Manoah prayed that if she were deceiving him, that neither he nor any of his family would ever learn the truth, never be forced to redress.
And there was idea of promising to raise his son a Nazirite. How could that have come to her? Some of those raised to follow the Nazirites’ order became important leaders, turned to for guidance on Hebrew law and on the ways to please the Lord. But not all of them amounted to anything and all of them were committed to a life apart, held at a cold length by the odd rules they observed. Committing his son to life as a Nazirite meant many obligations for the boy but no assurance of reward. It might be a good gamble for a goatherd with few animals and too many children, someone who did not know what other path to lay for his child. To a Danite like Manoah it seemed impractical. Why would someone have suggested it to her, and why would she bring the idea to her husband? Unless she had been told by a messenger from the Lord. It would be better, he told himself again, if there really were an angel.
In the morning, he kissed her cheek and went to feed the mule. Simcha stretched and scratched her head before putting on her sandals and going outside. The sun was strong. She had gardening to do and it would be a long day in this heat.
In the field she daydreamed about the baby. She thought about names. The angel had said that he would be someone important. He would one day give the Israelites the upper hand over the Philistines. She remembered her grandfather’s stories about the times when the Egyptians kept troops in Canaan. No tribe robbed any other or encroached on their lands, knowing that the Egyptians wanted order and would have harsh judgments for troublemakers. Since their presence had diminished, the Philistines had become more numerous in the area, asserting themselves. The Israelites had also grown in number. As new migrants came into the region, many of them joined the Israelites’ villages and took their laws. It would be generous of God to give his people back the safety and the lands that the Philistines had taken. It would be right.
She sat down in the grass and pictured her baby’s face. She had been at several births. It was going to hurt. Would people say she had handled it bravely? A shadow covered the spot where she sat. She looked up, turned around to see what it was. The stranger was back. “You prayed for my return.”
“Oh! Wait,” she choked out the word, breathless. She jumped to her feet and ran to the house, finding her wind and shouting Manoah’s name.
He appeared right away. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s here again. Come on,” She waved at him to follow and ran back into the field. She could hear her husband catching up to her, his feet slapping the earth.
The man was waiting for them. He said nothing as they looked at him. He waited as their breathing slowed from the sprint, and he smiled. He looked nothing like any man
Manoah had met. Taller, as thin as if he had not eaten in weeks but not frail. He was not an Israelite or a Philistine, not any of the Sea Peoples. Manoah asked, trying to seem calm “Are you the man who spoke to my wife when I was away yesterday?”
Manoah listened for the explanation but the stranger was not hurried. He watched the couple, waited for their questions. His expression gave Manoah no sense of what he wanted or expected. “Well, then tell us about this child you told her that God would give us. What should we do with him? How are we supposed to take care of him?”
“Just as I’ve told your wife. Let him keep the ways of a Nazirite from his first day of life. No wine or hard drinks, no impure foods. You know their customs.”
Again, the stranger was quiet. Manoah looked closely. There was no shame, no attempt to convince. The man seemed detached from his message. It was Manoah’s burden to believe, not his concern. And he wanted to believe. He wanted a child, and he wanted to believe there was some way other than his wife’s infidelity. “Please. Let us invite you to stay a little while. We’ll kill a lamb. Wherever you’ll go from here, it will be a better journey if you’ve had a proper meal.”
“I’ll stay a bit, but I won’t eat. If you wish to slaughter a kid, you can make an offering to the Lord.” Manoah looked at his wife, whose eyes were fixed on the angel. “Go inside and get some kindling from the hearth.” he told her. “Meet us at the clearing. I’ll get the lamb.”
He brought a skinny animal, the only lamb he had, to the clearing in his field, where there was a large stone, flat on top. He waited with the guest until Simcha had rejoined them from the house. Manoah drew the palm length knife he kept in his belt and knelt at the lamb’s side, petting its neck. It rubbed the side of its face against his knee, sniffed at him. He recited the required words barely loud enough for the others to hear before taking hold of its jaw and yanking the neck taut, then quickly slicing. His wife built a fire on top of the rock while he prepared the carcass for sacrifice, then went to stand behind the men. The guest shook his head, signaling that he would not be going nearer. He never sat in the grass, never took to chatting. He stood behind them, not moving, and waited.
“So,” Manoah tried to engage him, “What’s your name? I mean, when the child is born and when everything happens as you’ve predicted, we’ll want to honor your name.”
“You ask my name?”
Manoah turned to see the speaker. He was still impassive. “It’s unknowable.” He was hardly looking at Manoah, focusing his gaze on the blood that drained from the lamb.
Simcha edged closer, stopping when the visitor’s eyes turned to her. “If people know that my son…I mean, if they know our son is from..” She knew that one does not question the Lord’s will. “Of course, people should respect a man whose life is a gift from our Lord. But it makes him so... It makes him harder to accept.”
The angel looked back at the lamb and said “You will decide what to tell the boy and what to tell your people. Our maker knows the outcome.” Manoah put the animal onto the flames. Their guest stepped forward, gently brushing the man’s shoulder so that he would step aside. Then he moved past him, hopping up onto the rock. He was in the fire, completely undistressed as the fire enveloped his legs and caught his tunic. Simcha cried out, then stopped. Both the angel and the lamb were gone. There were only twigs in the fire.
Manoah and Simcha had always been taught, even as children, to hide low when danger approaches in the fields. They both fell to the earth on instinct. There, bellies and chests in the dirt, they faced each other.
“We just saw God,” said Manoah. “We’re going to die.”
“No,” She said, pale and shaking, “He took the offering. He told us I’m going to have a boy. We’re not dying.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jud Nirenberg's career in minority and human rights has exposed him to violent inter-ethnic hatred in the Middle East, Balkans and Eastern Europe . His vision of Samson's war against the Philistines is based both on research of that time period and his own experiences.
SAMSON'S WALLS is now in pre-production as an opera, to be initially performed in 2010 in Washington , DC . Music is being composed by Gregg Martin, with Nirenberg consulting on the libretto. See http://www.greggmartin.net/ for more information.
A Kindle version of the novel is available through Amazon, through Oak Tree Books. The paperback will also be available through Amazon and in select bookstores.
from the March 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine