Seems our Sunday school teachers tended to leave out a few details. Such as the ones that actually describe Samson’s personality, which turns out to be brutish, temperamental, short-sighted, and cruel.
Let’s start at the beginning. The Israelites are once again being punished for “doing what is evil in the sight of God,” by being oppressed by the Philistines. This is an extra-long oppression, lasting forty years. And in this time there was a man named Manoah of the tribe of Dan whose nameless wife was barren. The angel of God appeared to the woman and told her that even though she was barren, God was going to give her a son who would be a Nazirite from birth (See Numbers Chapter 6 for a discussion of what Nazirites are), so she must refrain from strong drink and must never let a razor touch his head. Then the angel left.
The woman went and told her husband Manoah about the angel, and then he prayed to god for the angel to visit again. So the angel appears to the woman again, and she brings him to her husband. There’s a repetition of pretty much the same conversation as before, then they offer the angel a goat. They place it on their altar stone, and when they set it alight the flame went up toward heaven and the angel went up with it. That pretty much sealed the deal, convincing them that they had indeed been visited by God. When the baby was born, they named him Samson.
The Bible skips ahead then to when Samson had grown into a young man. He comes across a Philistine woman and falls for her, so he goes to his father and asks him to get the woman for his wife. His parents are reluctant, because racism was in at the time, but Samson was insistent. Also…
“Jdg 14:4 His father and mother did not know that it was from Yahweh, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At the time the Philistines ruled over Israel.”
So… God makes Samson fall for a girl he otherwise wouldn’t have in order to manufacture an excuse to fuck with the Philistines? And as you’re about to see, the “opportunity” thus created is so dependent on Samson behaving like a monumental douchebag that he couldn’t have come off any worse if he’d just randomly started attacking Philistines without bothering to fabricate an excuse. Observe.
Samson and his parents are on the road to Timnah where the Philistine girl lived to talk with the woman about setting up the marriage. When they were passing among the vineyards, a roaring lion attacked Samson. But "the Spirit of the Lord” came upon him and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands. Somehow, though, this escaped his parents’ notice, and he didn’t tell them about it either.
A few days later they returned to have the wedding feast. Samson separated from his parents for a bit to go check out the lion corpse, and found that a swarm of bees had set up a nest in the body, and made honey. So he scraped up the honey and continued on his way eating it. He even shared some with his parents when he caught up to them, but didn’t tell them where it came from.
At the wedding feast, Samson decided to make a bet with thirty of the local men. He’d tell them a riddle. If they couldn’t answer it within seven days, they would pay him thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothes, but if they could answer it then he would pay them the same. The riddle was “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.”
Which is kind of a stupid riddle, since obviously it couldn’t be answered correctly if you didn’t already know about the lion and the honey.
Anyway, after a few days the men couldn’t figure out the answer, so they went to Samson’s new wife and told her that she’d better get Samson to tell her the answer or they’d burn down her father’s house. I guess everybody back then was kind of a dick.
So Samson’s wife pleads with him to get the answer, and eventually he gave in and told her. She passed the answer to the men, and they came back and told it to Samson. He was angry, feeling that they’d cheated by getting his wife to give them the answer. Plus he had the slight problem of not having the clothes he’d need to pay them off. But no matter!
“Jdg 4:19 And the Spirit of Yahweh rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men of the town and took their spoil and gave the garments to those who had told the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house.”
That’s right. Samson just murdered thirty men and stole their clothes to cover his gambling debts. Still think he’s a hero?
And he did it explicitly with the help of the “Spirit of Yahweh,” so you can’t even argue that the Bible (and/or God) regards this as an example of a flaw in a man otherwise used for God’s good purpose. No, this act is pretty explicitly condoned.
Oh, incidentally… Samson is supposed to be a Nazirite. By law, Nazirites are forbidden contact with the dead (like might happen when you kill a dude and loot his corpse), and are required to atone for such contact by shaving their heads and undergoing a cleansing ritual. Samson didn’t do any of that shit – not that hypocrisy is unexpected by this point. But back to the story.
When Samson stormed off in a huff, the wife’s father figured she’d been rejected and gave her to Samson’s best man instead (who you’d think would have known better).
So a few days later Samson comes back for his wife, and declares to her father his intention to enter her chamber and nail her (seriously… who the fuck says things like this to a woman’s father, even if she is your wife?). But the father puts the breaks on it, telling Samson that he thought he’d rejected the girl so he’d given her to his companion instead. He offers to make it up to Samson by giving him his younger daughter (who he claims is more attractive).
Samson’s reaction is completely rational and in no way the behavior of a temperamental sociopath. He goes out and captures a bunch of foxes (300 are claimed, though I have a hard time seeing how that could be done in any reasonable timeframe), sets their tails on fire, and drives them through the grain fields and olive orchards of the town so that they burn down the crops. Not just his father-in-law’s crops, mind you, but fucking everybody’s. ‘Cause that’s just how he rolls.
But, y’know, they’re Philistines, so I imagine that in the eyes of the Bible they deserve whatever gets done to them for that fact alone.
Obviously, the townspeople are kind of pissed at the outright destruction of their livelihoods. So they put together a mob and kill Samson’s wife and father-in-law with fire. Samson fought his way free and fled to hide out in a cave at a place called Etam in the lands of the tribe of Judah.
The Philistines put together a posse to go chase him down, and they take off into Judah in hot pursuit. The people of Judah are a bit nonplussed by this party of Philistines tromping through their land, and ask them what the deal is. When informed that they are looking for Samson because of his crimes, the people of Judah decide to hand him over.
“Jdg 15:11 Then 3,000 men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam, and said to Samson ‘Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?’ And he said to them ‘What they have done to me, I have done to them.’”
So that raises the question: is Samson lying to his own people to make himself look better, or is he so lacking in any sense of proportion that he actually believes what he’s saying?
After some back and forth, Samson agrees to let them tie him up and deliver him to the Philistines so long as they promise not to attack him themselves. So they do, and take him to a place called Lehi to meet the Philistines. But when they hand him over, the “Spirit of Yahweh” comes over him again. He bursts his bonds, picks up a handy donkey’s jawbone that happened to by lying nearby, and proceeds to beat 1,000 Philistines to death with it.
Samson worked up a powerful thirst distributing all that death and mayhem, so he called out to God for something to drink. God responds by opening a crack in the ground from which water spills out so Samson can sate himself.
I guess this got the “Don’t fuck with Samson,” message across to the Philistines, since we don’t hear much about his life for a little while except that he “judged Israel” for twenty years.
Then one day Samson traveled down to the town of Gaza where, in his heroic way, he did a prostitute. And when the people of Gaza found out that Samson was in town, they decided to set an ambush for him at the city gates so that they could kill him when he went to leave in the morning. But he woke up in the middle of the night, picked up the city gates, and carried them to the top of the hill at Hebron. Somehow, this prevented him from being ambushed, though the text never actually explains why. Maybe we’re supposed to assume that the Gazites were so gobsmacked by the monumental strength combined with monumental pointlessness embodied in the act that they didn’t get around to attacking him.
But now we finally get to Delilah. She was a woman from the valley of Sorek that Samson fell in love with after the scene at Gaza, though apparently she didn’t really return the affection. The Philistines found out about his infatuation, and offered Delilah 1,100 pieces of silver if she could seduce from Samson the secret of his great strength and how to defeat him.
“Jdg 15:6 So Delilah said to Samson, ‘Please tell me where your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you.’”
Which doesn’t sound suspicious at all.
So Samson tells her that if he’s bound with seven fresh bowstrings that haven’t been dried, then he’ll be as weak as any other man. Delilah sends to the lords of the Philistines, who provide her with the bowstrings and some men whom she hides in her house. She ties up Samson with the bowstrings, and tests him by shouting "The Philistines are upon you!” At the alarm, Samson easily snaps the bowstrings, thus demonstrating that the ruse had failed.
This goes on a couple more times, with Delilah begging to know how to make him weak, and Samson giving her different lies about how to do it, followed by Delilah testing him by tying him up and giving alarm, and Samson breaking his bonds. Finally, though, Samson gives in and tells her the truth: that he can be defeated by shaving his head.
You know… for someone who is supposed to be a judge, Samson demonstrates a remarkable lack of… well… judgment.
So Delilah waits until Samson falls asleep in her lap, and has a guy come in and shave his head while he sleeps. And when she yelled “The Philistines are upon you!” he woke as usual, but his strength had left him and the Philistines were able to overcome him. They bound him and gouged out his eyes, then took him to a prison where he was forced to labor at a mill.
So now we’re coming to the climax of the Samson story. The Philistines hold a big party to celebrate their defeat of Samson and to praise their own god, Dagon, for giving it to them. Because Yahweh’s followers aren’t the only ones who suffer from the delusion that their own accomplishments are really the work of an invisible helper. They have Samson brought out to be put on display for their amusement, making him stand between the two pillars that are the main support for the roof. Somehow, the Philistines had managed to pack 3,000 people into a building small enough to be supported by two pillars that were within arm’s reach of one another. So Samson puts his hands on the pillars and prays to God to give him the strength to kill himself and take shitloads of Philistines with him.
“Jdg 16:30 And Samson said ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life.”
Hmmm… we have people today who pray to their gods while using their own deaths to kill thousands of other people. Only we don’t call them “judges.”
Afterwards, Samson’s family buries him, and we’re done with his story.
Gotta tell you, reading the Samson story was kind of depressing. After all, he was one of the heroes of my childhood. It may have been years since I actually believed the supernatural stuff in the Bible was real, but I still had recollections of the Samson story I’d been taught in Sunday school and remembered it fondly. So sitting down and reading it as an adult… well, it was a bit like I imagine it might be if I went back and watched old Transformers episodes only to discover that Optimus Prime was really a relatively dim mass-murdering psychopath and the Decepticons actually had some reasonable justifications for having it in for him.
Ah well, such is life. I’ll see you back next time, when we continue making our way through the remainder of Judges. Until then, be well!