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These past several weeks we’ve been revisiting some familiar stories from the Hebrew Bible, trying to see them from a new vantage point. Today we continue our grown up reimagining with the story of Samson. I have to admit, as a kid this story was one of my favorites. Samson was depicted in a kind of Herculean style, and he didn’t take junk from nobody. I also grew up reading the King James Version, in which it says, “And he [Samson] found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.” (Judges 15:15, KJV) I would always giggle at that line, completely unaware of the gravity of what was being said there. That’s why we need to come back to these stories as grown ups, because we don’t want to gloss over the slaughtering of a thousand human beings.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
First, a bit about where we find the Samson story.
We meet Samson in the book of Judges. To situate this in the chronology of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, you have the Exodus from Egypt, then the forty years of Wandering in the wilderness, which leads to the Conquest of Canaan, and then the period of the Judges. These aren’t people who went around wearing long black robes pronouncing people guilty or not guilty. Judges were temporary leaders to help Israel overcome their enemies, who were oppressing them.
There’s actually a pattern present in the stories Judges tells. Israel does things that “the LORD saw as evil,” and as a result, they end up being oppressed by their enemies. When the people cried out to God for help, God would raise up a Judge to help lead and liberate the people. This wasn’t a long-term position of power; it would be ended when the people were liberated.
Samson was one of these Judges, and he lived in one of those times of oppression. His story begins with these words:
Judges 13:1, CEB
The Israelites again did things that the LORD saw as evil, and he handed them over to the Philistines for forty years.
The context of the Samson narrative is one that sees the Israelites being oppressed by a group of people known as the Philistines.
So, what I’d like to do is give an overview of his story, and then offer a couple observations or takeaways that I think are actually just as urgent for us in our day as they would have been in Samson’s.
A MIRACULOUS BIRTH
Stories of unlikely, even miraculous births aren’t uncommon in the ancient world, or the Bible for that matter. It would actually be more noteworthy if a person who achieved a status of notoriety or reverence didn’t have a miraculous beginning. In the Bible the stories of Isaac, Joseph, Samuel, John the Baptizer, Jesus, and others begin with an uncommon entrance into the world. This acts as a kind of teaser trailer, giving us a glimpse of who these kids would become as adults.
Samson’s story is similar. His parents were unable to conceive, until one day an angel of the LORD appears to his mother and tells her she is now pregnant with a son. The angel tells her:
Judges 13:4-5, CEB
Now be careful not to drink wine or brandy or to eat anything that is ritually unclean, because you are pregnant and will give birth to a son. Don’t allow a razor to shave his head, because the boy is going to be a nazirite for God from birth. He’ll be the one who begins Israel’s rescue from the power of the Philistines.”
Nazarite means, “devoted one.” To be a Nazarite (like Samson) means to take a specific vow, found in Numbers 6, that is essentially committing to serve God in a specific way.
There were three requirements during the fulfillment of the vow:
No wine (or anything made from grapes)
No contact with death (which would make one ritually impure)
The headline here is that Samson will have extraordinary strength if he keeps his nazarite vow. So, the story begins.
The next major episode in the life of Samson involves his marriage to a Philistine woman. I am only going to hit the essentials for the story to make sense, but there’s a lot here if you’re interested in going back to it later.
The elevator summary would be that Samson marries a Philistine woman (they were the people oppressing Israel), and at the wedding feast Samson tells a riddle to thirty of the Philistine men. The stakes: if they can answer it correctly by the end of the wedding feast, he will give each of them a new set of clothes. If not, they will give him thirty sets of clothes. He thinks he’s got them, because he offers a riddle to which only he knows the answer. As the feast drew to a close the Philistines pressured Samson’s wife to find out and share the answer with them. She managed to draw it out of Samson, and she told it to the Philistines. When they gave Samson the correct answer he responds with something that is super misogynistic, and then he goes on a tear.
Judges 14:19-20, CEB
Then the LORD’s spirit rushed over him, and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty of their men, stripped them of their gear, and gave the sets of clothes to the ones who had told the answer to the riddle. In anger, he went back up to his father’s household. And Samson’s wife married one of those who had been his companions.
He kills thirty Philistines, gives their clothes to the other Philistines, then bolts for home. I guess there was no stipulation that they had to be new sets of clothes? Gently used, maybe? What about the nazarite vow? He can’t be near a corpse, and here he is making corpses. Also, there have been lots of people who’ve believed they were led by the Spirit to do terrible things, an explanation which we rightly resist and critique. Unless it’s in the Bible. Then we tend to try to do the mental gymnastics to make it acceptable. Here’s the thing, I don’t think the Bible is off limits. I think what Samson does here is not only a violation of his nazarite vow, but a total misunderstanding of what/who God is. Further, Samson doesn’t even do this to liberate his people. It’s about his own, petty squabbles with his in-laws. The story continues…
VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE
The next episode sees Samson going back to visit his wife during the wheat harvest, only to discover that she had been given in marriage to another Philistine man by her father (oh, the patriarchy!). Listen to what follows…
Judges 15:3-5, CEB
Samson replied, “No one can blame me now for being ready to bring down trouble on the Philistines!” Then Samson went and caught three hundred foxes. He took torches, turned the foxes tail to tail, and put a torch between each pair of tails. He lit the torches and released the foxes into the Philistines’ grain fields. So he burned the stacked grain, standing grain, vineyards, and olive orchards.
Samson responds by essentially decimating their economy. But, you know that’s not where it stops. That’s never where it stops, is it?
Judges 15:6-8, CEB
The Philistines inquired, “Who did this?”
So it was reported, “Samson the Timnite’s son-in-law did it, because his father-in-law gave his wife in marriage to one of his companions.” So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death. Samson then responded to them, “If this is how you act, then I won’t stop until I get revenge on you!” He struck them hard, taking their legs right out from under them.
He ends up allowing himself to be captured, but it’s a complete ruse…
Judges 15:14-17a, CEB
When Samson arrived at Lehi, the Philistines met him and came out shouting. The LORD’s spirit rushed over him, the ropes on his arms became like burned-up linen, and the ties melted right off his hands. He found a donkey’s fresh jawbone, picked it up, and used it to attack one thousand men. Samson said,
“With a donkey’s jawbone,
stacks on stacks!
With a donkey’s jawbone,
I’ve killed one thousand men.”
When he finished speaking, he tossed away the jawbone.
Do you see how this whole thing has gotten out of control?
And it’s still. not. over.
There are other episodes, but the most famous is probably the story of Delilah, another Philistine woman Samson falls in love with. The Philistine leaders convince her to discover the secret of his strength, so they can exploit his weakness. He eventually tells her it’s his hair, and that if his head is shaved, he will become like any other person.
He fell asleep, his head was shaved, and he awoke a prisoner of the Philistines. They gouged out eyes and placed him in chains. His humiliation was complete. Yet, the text tells us that his hair began to grown again.
As you might expect this story ends tragically. At a festival for their god, the Philistines bring Samson into their temple to entertain them, and it’s there that the story of Samson ends.
Judges 16:29-30, CEB
Samson grabbed the two central pillars that held up the temple. He leaned against one with his right hand and the other with his left. And Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" He strained with all his might, and the temple collapsed on the rulers and all the people who were in it. So it turned out that he killed more people in his death than he did during his life.
Let’s really hear that last sentence:
So it turned out that he killed more people in his death than he did during his life.
Is Samson a hero? Is he someone to be emulated or admired? Do we want our kids to follow in Samson’s footsteps?
What do we do with this story?
Samson’s story is about what we do with our power.
It’s a little counterintuitive to say that Samson has power, because Israel is being oppressed by the Philistines. Yet, Samson clearly has power, and he uses it again and again, but not to deliver his people. Samson uses his power for himself, and in the process he broke his vow on almost every page.
The tendency in people is to try to bring power up and in, meaning up to the top of the hierarchy, and in meaning holding it tightly and protectively. This is why someone would try to make it a felony to protest, or employ tear gas for a photo op at a church. It’s to hold on to power, to keep it at the top. This is why we can’t get elected leaders to affirm that Black Lives Matter, or acknowledge that if we don’t make reforms when it comes to policing and guns (and a whole lot of other things, too) we are in big trouble.
There are people all throughout Scripture who take that approach, keeping power up and in, and in telling those stories the Bible is trying, I think, to be descriptive and not prescriptive. It never turns out well.
The approach the Scriptures seem to advocate is the posture of pushing power down and out. This is seen in Jesus’s interaction with his own disciples who are, again and again, operating from an up and in perspective. They want to keep the circle tight, and access low. Jesus calls for a wider and wider circle, one that shares power, and empowers others to do the same.
Samson used his power, again and again to advance his own selfish agenda. How will we use whatever power we may have?
Samson’s story is about the way revenge works (or doesn’t).
Last week we saw that in Esau, who chose to not seek revenge, the face of God was seen. In Samson we see the opposite; we see the endless cycle of revenge played out in painful detail. I remember playing our Atari when I was a kid. I loved PacMan and Space Invaders. I also loved Pong, although it was never as easy as it sounded. The goal is just to keep knocking the little ball back and forth. Keep it going. Just volley it back and forth. That’s where revenge always takes us. Trying to one up the person or people who hurt us. Where does it end? How do we get off this ride that has been spinning for however long humans have humaned? If we want to, take thriving off the table, if we want to survive, we have to find a better way to process our anger, hurt, grief, and pain.
And it is a kind of unlearning. I watch my kids and how quickly it can turn into baby fight club when there’s a toy that more than one kid wants. Violence is imbedded in us by years of evolutionary process. But so is the capacity to choose something else, to choose to embrace what Jesus called, “enemy love.” We are not bound to the responses of our parents, grandparents, or anyone else. We get to choose.
May we choose a better way to approach power, and a better way to process pain.