Judges 13

Samson’s Annunciation

Commentaries by Laura Moffatt

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Rose Finn-Kelcey

Angel, Installed 22nd February to 22nd July 2004, 83,000 metalic shimmer-discs, Installation at St Paul's Church, Bow Common, London; © Rose Finn-Kelcey

You’re an Angel!

Commentary by Laura Moffatt

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Read by Ben Quash

Mobile phones were yet to become ‘smart’ in 2003 when the British artist Rose Finn-Kelcey was commissioned to make a work of art for the church of St Paul’s Bow Common, East London. But messaging had evolved enough to mean that there was a received abbreviation for many commonly used words in our lexicon, and the use of symbols and punctuation to create expressive icons (what were to become emojis) had established itself and spread quickly. One of these, which uses the image of a haloed angel’s face on its side 0:-) as if to say ‘You’re an angel’, became the central motif of the vast panel of shimmer discs with which Finn-Kelcey graced the exterior of this post-war church. It remained there for six months.

In the Bible, angels take many forms and inhabit many guises. When the angel appears for the first time before ‘the woman’, wife of Manoah and mother-to-be of Samson (Judges 13:3), with news that she will conceive, the woman has no doubt of the angel’s veracity, although she does remark afterwards that ‘he didn’t tell me his name’ (v.6). This compulsion to name and identify the angel is more strongly expressed by Manoah himself when the angel appears a second time (v.9), but the angel evades answering, giving the reassurance that it is a name that is ‘wonderful’ (v.18).

Finn-Kelcey’s Angel was a deliberate and contemporary manifestation of the ambiguity between sign (what is being shown) and identity (what—or who—is being communicated in the showing). As Manoah and his wife found themselves wondering about the full implications of their angel's message, so the audience to Finn-Kelcey's work were encouraged to speculate on the meaning of hers

In doing so, she turned the secluded experience of the biblical couple into something very public. Her sideways digital characterization was a departure from traditional visualizations of angels, but suggested an openness to those beyond the Church. Enlarging its central motif to the scale of an advertising hoarding, it was widely visible. Using the para-linguistic code of texting, it was legible to many for whom the Church may perhaps have seemed anachronistic. And harnessing human beings’ magpie-like attraction to shiny materials it appealed beyond the boundaries of any one culture or belief.

Rather than conveying her message from within the privacy of one-to-one messaging Finn-Kelcey declared it at full visual volume to anyone who would listen.

Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson

The Carriers' Prayer, 2007, High definition video, Commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, London; © Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson

Playing with Praying

Commentary by Laura Moffatt

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Read by Ben Quash

Upwards and downwards movement are typical aspects of the Bible’s descriptions of angels (e.g. Genesis 28; Matthew 28:2), and in Judges 13 the announcement of the miraculous conception of Samson ends with the angel ascending in flames.

In Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson’s short film The Carriers’ Prayer, a feat of theatrical staging plays with such movement to engender a seeming miracle.

Candles with flame-tips that point downwards could be said to both parody and pay homage to the vertical axis which we have long associated with prayer. These so-called ‘scally fireworks’ are made from tightly coiled carrier bags. They are suspended from the ‘ceiling’ of a space that has been built to resemble an austere, white-walled church—but this ‘church’ is upside down. Once lit, the fireworks are filmed. The resultant footage—in which the fireworks drip burning plastic producing an eerie sound track of pops and whistles—is then rotated 180 degrees, so that the church interior appears the correct way up and the fireworks look like malformed candles releasing their ascending pyrotechnics.

While not at pains to hide their trickery, Crowe and Rawlinson’s film brings a sense of irony and playfulness to the reverence that often surrounds prayer—as it also, perhaps, surrounds attitudes to the angels of biblical narrative.

Our attention to the movement between heaven and earth can be rooted in more than the traditional symbols of prayer: the rise of incense and the odour of burnt offerings, the bowing of heads and the upward pull of a candle’s flame. In Judges 13, Manoah’s wife is said to be ‘out in the field’ when the angel appears to her for a second time (vv.9–14). There is perhaps in this an indication of the ordinariness of that moment.

The Carriers’ Prayer reminds us that our own prayers, often mundane and material expressions of need or desire, can be nurtured and celebrated as our best efforts to reach heavenwards. And that—as with the scally fireworks—we should not belittle their everydayness.

David Best

Temple, Derry/Londonderry, Ireland, 2015, Mixed media, Produced by Artichoke in Derry, Londonderry; Destroyed 2015, Photo by Matthew Andrews

Built to Burn; Designed to Heal

Commentary by Laura Moffatt

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Read by Ben Quash

Manoah and his wife are told by an angel that they are to have a child (Samson). In thanksgiving for the angel's message, the couple prepare a burnt offering (v.19) and watch as the angel himself disappears in the flames of the altar. Is Judges 13 showing us a link between sacrifice and the mystical presence of angels, and/or that being consumed by flames is a way to God?

American sculptor David Best’s Temple projects are contemporary evocations of this kind of mystical event (although they are purportedly ‘non-religious’). In constructing his huge and ornate wooden structures, using the skills and labour of as many local people as he can involve at once, he both harnesses and gives rise to an instinctive desire to make, mark, and adorn. Within the different communities in which he has worked, the participants’ motivations to contribute can vary from expressions of grief and loss, to a desire for forgiveness and community cohesion.

Best’s Temple in Derry-Londonderry was sited on a contested piece of land in one of the areas most divided and damaged by Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’; all too familiar with flames. It drew some 60,000 visitors, all of whom were invited to inscribe personal messages on the structure (or place them within it). Then on 21 March 2015, six individuals involved in the making of Temple set the structure alight and the work was razed to the ground.

In its evocation of a rite of purging, or perhaps offering, this symbolic ‘letting go’ of a damaged community’s anxieties, desires, and dreams could be said to have a sacrificial quality.

Manoah and his wife invest their intense and fearful hopes for a son in the sacrificial rites they perform. But these hopes and fears are also bound up with their faith in the strange heavenly messenger. So when the angel reveals himself as an angel by becoming one with the fire in front of them, it could be said that their sacrifice to God and God’s message to them become simultaneous. The altar flames are the outward expression of their most intimate prayer, and the first manifestation of its answer.



David Best Temples, http://davidbesttemples.org [accessed 11 December 2018]

Rose Finn-Kelcey :

Angel, Installed 22nd February to 22nd July 2004 , 83,000 metalic shimmer-discs

Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson :

The Carriers' Prayer, 2007 , High definition video

David Best :

Temple, Derry/Londonderry, Ireland, 2015 , Mixed media

Ardent Annunciations

Comparative commentary by Laura Moffatt

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It is attractive for Christian exegetes to find most of the significance in this passage in its prefiguring of angelic annunciations to Zechariah and Mary in the New Testament (Luke 1:8–38), and also as an underpinning to the life-story of Samson himself. But there is a rich texture of interlacing themes and imagery in this passage alone.

In many ways it is an extraordinarily clear description of an annunciation scene. We can sense the tension between the wife’s instinctive trust in what the angel has told her and the scepticism of her husband Manoah. We can empathize with their initial fear of the angel and their compulsion to identify him (v.17). And we can stand with them in their disbelief at the angel’s conflagration at a moment when they surely wished him to remain (vv.15–22).

But the angel’s veracity comes from his very unworldliness. Appearing at unguarded moments of daily life, the angel is a manifestation of the God who ‘works wonders’ (v.19), confirmation of the life of faith that Manoah and his wife have upheld, and a harbinger of miraculous truths. These sit alongside the practical advice reiterated at his second visitation: ‘drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean’ (vv.7, 14).

Rose Finn-Kelcey’s Angel, Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson’s The Carriers’ Prayer, and David Best’s Temple all play on that dichotomy between suspended disbelief and everyday signs of God’s being in the world. Angel simultaneously used humour, and aroused wonder and awe, in a visual symbol of grace and kindness; The Carriers’ Prayer inverts the sophistication of commercial fireworks and with it the hierarchies of value in the goods with which we entertain ourselves; and the Derry-Londonderry Temple was a potent physical channel through which human beings could forge a shared creativity and by it express something of their contemporary beliefs.

Each of the three artworks discussed here was selected, in part, for its use of fire as a visual device. In the red-yellow shimmering discs of Angel there is a deliberately fiery backdrop to the emoticon, one which reflected the setting sun and looked like it was ablaze. On its west-facing wall—a common site for judgement paintings in medieval churches—the shimmer discs defied the emoticon’s flatness, moving in the wind and amplifying the sense of a spirit-filled icon.

The moment of combustion is of course heralded earlier in the Bible by the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is the subject of another of Crowe and Rawlinson’s video works set in an area of wasteland in Manchester, in which we witness not one but two burning bushes. In a short three-and-a-half minute loop of film the bushes spontaneously ignite and burn; and yet the fire does not consume the vegetation. The duplication of the single signifier/source of God’s speaking makes reference to the depiction of a burning bush in both the Bible and the Qur’an. But it also immediately suggests that the signs which are conduits for God’s speech may not be singular, or fixed in their meaning.

The Carriers’ Prayer, in which Crowe and Rawlinson both duplicate and invert the image of a church, uses the audio device of a surreal and unintelligible ‘speaking’ as well as a topsy-turvy world in which fireworks—today often highly controlled and aestheticized—are subverted. These ‘scally fireworks’, made by young and underprivileged city dwellers to alleviate boredom, evoke historic moments of chaos, violence, and revolution. Crowe and Rawlinson's work thereby helps to underline the way that Jesus’s own earthly life was a 'sign of contradiction' (Luke 2:34)—a life presaged by subversive and, ultimately, violent figures such as Samson (Judges 16:29–30).

The burning of Best’s Temple in Ireland is also a subversion, not only of the capital-fuelled production of artworks (indeed the artist talks openly about trying to negate any possible commercial value in his work) but of the intuitive way in which we seek to preserve, collect, and value objects of beauty. It sacrifices human creativity and labour towards a moment of fulfilment that might benefit a whole community.

Is it possible then to consider these works in place of certain traditional foci of prayerful contemplation—like votive candles or various static and comforting images of angels—and to relate them to the frequently subversive interventions of biblical angels in their earthly manifestation? These works serve as generative cyphers for an understanding of a God whose nature is complex, counter-intuitive, and too ‘wonderful’ for our comprehension (v.18).



Best, David.  2017. What it Means to be an Artist (You Tube: Tedx Talks) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Aalzp5491I#action=share [accessed 11 December 2018]

Next exhibition: Judges 14

Judges 13

Revised Standard Version

13 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.

2 And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoʹah; and his wife was barren and had no children. 3And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son. 4Therefore beware, and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, 5for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his countenance was like the countenance of the angel of God, very terrible; I did not ask him whence he was, and he did not tell me his name; 7but he said to me, ‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son; so then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.’ ”

8 Then Manoʹah entreated the Lord, and said, “O, Lord, I pray thee, let the man of God whom thou didst send come again to us, and teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born.” 9And God listened to the voice of Manoʹah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but Manoʹah her husband was not with her. 10And the woman ran in haste and told her husband, “Behold, the man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.” 11And Manoʹah arose and went after his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” And he said, “I am.” 12And Manoʹah said, “Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s manner of life, and what is he to do?” 13And the angel of the Lord said to Manoʹah, “Of all that I said to the woman let her beware. 14She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine, neither let her drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing; all that I commanded her let her observe.”

15 Manoʹah said to the angel of the Lord, “Pray, let us detain you, and prepare a kid for you.” 16And the angel of the Lord said to Manoʹah, “If you detain me, I will not eat of your food; but if you make ready a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.” (For Manoʹah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord.) 17And Manoʹah said to the angel of the Lord, “What is your name, so that, when your words come true, we may honor you?” 18And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” 19So Manoʹah took the kid with the cereal offering, and offered it upon the rock to the Lord, to him who works wonders. 20And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoʹah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground.

21 The angel of the Lord appeared no more to Manoʹah and to his wife. Then Manoʹah knew that he was the angel of the Lord. 22And Manoʹah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” 23But his wife said to him, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a cereal offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.” 24And the woman bore a son, and called his name Samson; and the boy grew, and the Lord blessed him. 25And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Maʹhaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshʹta-ol.