One of the most exciting stories in all the Bible is the story of Samson—made culturally famous by the penultimate episode of the story, that of “Samson and Delilah”. His story forms a significant part of Israel’s history, occupying an entire four chapters of the Book of Judges—even more than the story of Gideon, whom the distributors of Bibles chose for their patron. Though Samson was not exactly a poster boy for self-control and askesis, he remains an exemplar in Israelite history, being listed along with Gideon, Barak, David, Samuel and the other prophets in Hebrews 11:32f as one of the heroes of faith. So: who exactly was Samson, and why was he listed as one of Israel’s heroes?
His significance is apparent early on, since his birth was foretold by an angel—one of the few such foretellings in Scripture. And that foretelling was preceded by this historical note: “The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh and Yahweh gave them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years” (Judges 13:1). This reveals that Samson’s life would be God’s provision and response to Philistine tyranny. An angel came from Yahweh to announce to the barren and childless wife of Manoah that their prayers had been answered and that she would conceive a son. The boy would belong to God in a special way, being a dedicated Nazirite from birth. He must therefore drink no wine and must never cut his hair (compare the provisions for Nazirites in Numbers 6). The angel promised that this boy would “begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). That is to say, he would take his place among the judges of Israel.
It is important to know what is meant by “a judge” in Israel, who the judges were, and why the Book of Judges contains many of their stories. For us the picture of a judge conjures up an image of an old distinguished man sitting calmly in a black robe in a courtroom, hearing stories and giving verdicts. The most exciting thing he (or she) does is to perhaps bang a gavel if the courtroom gets too noisy.
That was not what a judge did in Israel. Back then a judge (Hebrew shophet) was more like a freedom fighter (their foes would have preferred the term “terrorist”). Ehud, for example, was a judge, and he didn’t hold a gavel. He held a short sword which he concealed on his right thigh because he was left-handed, and he jammed it into the fat gut of the king of Moab during a private audience to assassinate him. In fact he rammed it in so hard that the hilt went in after the blade and the fat closed over the blade. He then locked him in his private chamber, took off, rallied his waiting army who then seized the fords of the Jordan against their Moabite oppressors and killed thousands of them. “So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel, and the land had rest for eighty years” (Judges 3:30). There was another judge in the land after Ehud. His name was Shamgar, and he killed six hundred of the Philistines armed only with an ox-goad. He too delivered Israel (Judges 3:31). That was quite a feat. Don’t mess with Shamgar.
We see now the context in which these men functioned: that of oppression and servitude. God promised Israel that if they sinned against Him He would sell them into the hands of their foes, and if they repented He would deliver them from their foes. Those through whom God delivered them were called “judges”—i.e. men who brought judgment and justice to their people by vindicating them and bringing liberation. The justice they brought (Hebrew mishpat, a word with wider connotations than the merely forensic) did not come through calm courtrooms. It came through defiant violence and bloodied swords. That is because Israel’s oppressors—people like the Philistines and the Moabites—did not understand any other language.
The Book of Judges contains these stories of violence and of the steely-eyed heroism of the men who took up the sword at the risk of their lives. There is, of course, a subtext to the Book of Judges. It reports not merely the heroism of the judges, but their flaws as well. It also reports other examples of sin, such as the horrifying conclusion to Jephthah’s unfortunate vow, and the gang rape and murder of a concubine and the resultant civil war that followed it (Judges 11-12 and 19-21). The editor of the Book of Judges was trying to make a point: this is the sort of thing that happened when there was no king in the land and when everyone therefore did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).
This explains somewhat the searching spotlight turned on Samson and the editor’s refusal to whitewash his career. The Book of Judges reports without flinching Samson’s determination to marry a Philistine woman over the protests of his parents (a defiance more scandalous then than now)—and not because he and the woman were “star-crossed lovers”, but because he thought she was hot. (Or in the scarcely more elegant words of Samson, “Get her for me, for she pleases me well”.) Later, when a post-wedding reception feast ended with a marital double-cross and a slaughter of the Philistines of Ashkelon, the bride’s father concluded, not unnaturally, that this was the end of the marriage. When Samson showed up later wanting his bride and discovered that her father had given her to someone else, he was seriously choked, and declined the father’s offer of her sister in her place. “This time I will be blameless in regard to the Philistines when I do them harm!” he said. At the end of the day, he had burned up a field of Philistine grain and some olive orchards.
That is how Samson’s career began. There is more, but it is better read than summarized. Samson made a career out of vexing the Philistines for twenty years, being a thorn in their sides and a kind of Philistine Public Enemy Number One. He was like Clyde without Bonnie; he killed a lot of Philistines, assisted by the power of God. Samson was God’s hell-raiser, His chosen instrument to wreak vengeance on Israel’s tyrannical oppressors.
Eventually it ended in the arms of yet another woman, Delilah (quelle-surprise). Samson was quite infatuated with her, and it proved his undoing. She betrayed him to his enemies who cut off his hair when he was asleep on her lap, seized him, gouged out his eyes, bound him in bronze fetters, and sentenced him to the humiliating work of grinding grain at the mill in prison. There was much rejoicing in Philistia: “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country who has slain many of us!” Obviously, they thought, Yahweh was no match for their god Dagon. Samson was now defeated, weak, blind, helpless, and apparently hopeless. But Samson’s hair, the symbol of his consecration and the secret of his strength, began to grow back.
Everyone knows the finale: at a public celebration in honour of Dagon they called for Samson to be brought out so that they could jeer at him yet again. Samson was by then a more sober and changed man. As he leaned upon the pillars upon which the whole structure rested, he prayed to God, “O Lord Yahweh, remember me, I ask You and strengthen me, I ask You, only this once, O God, that I may be avenged upon the Philistines for at least one of my two eyes.” He called upon God’s name repeatedly in this one short prayer, the voice of a humbled man. And God exalted the humble, as He always does. By His power Samson pulled down the supporting pillars and brought the whole structure crashing down upon him and his tormentors. “So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life. He had judged Israel twenty years.” (Judges 16:30-31).
What is the abiding lesson of Samson, and why was he included among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11? Samson, for all his flaws, was a man who embraced the purpose for which he was born, and who refused to accept the tyrannous status quo of submission to the Philistines. In his heart beat the defiance that beats in the heart of everyone in every resistance movement, everyone who rebels inwardly against tyranny, who longs for freedom and looks to God for a better day. His acts of defiance were unplanned, isolated, and apparently futile. But he never accepted the inevitability of a Philistine yoke, and that is why his acts of defiance gave hope to his people and why he was counted among the judges who worked to liberate Israel. Samson, that inveterate hell-raiser, spoke for the multitudes who had no voice and no power. He could tear a lion in half, when others could only look on helplessly while human lions devoured them. Samson was their hero, toasted secretly by multitudes of the oppressed.
His spirit is much needed today. We need not imitate his all too obvious weaknesses. But we may find inspiration in his splendid defiance, a defiance made all the more splendid by its apparent hopelessness and futility. The Philistine world may knock us to the ground. Fine. Whatever. But we will never lie down. Samson, son of Manoah and God’s hell-raiser, bids us rise up and fight on.