Joshua/Judges Week 11
Samson, the Anti-Judge: Judges 13:1–16:31
Assistant Professor of New Testament, George Fox University
Read this week’s Scripture: Judges 13:1-16:31
There used to be a time, in America, when a child was told, You could grow up to be anything you want to be — you could be the President of the United States. I don’t think that happens very much anymore.
It is not so much that “youngsters” have lost their potential. I think it is because the reply nowadays would be, Why would I want to be President of the United States? We look at our national leaders, especially now in our time, as “normal,” flawed people. Presidents have affairs. Presidents are caught on tape muttering expletives. Presidents have shady parts of their past, skeletons in their closets, blemishes on their record. Not just presidents. Governors. Senators. Mega-church pastors.
We have a sense that state or national leaders are role models — ideally. Their status and offices come with certain expectations. We are all too aware, though, in our day and age, that it is rare to find an honest leader with integrity, humility, generosity, and wisdom. So we are really not surprised when the next scandal comes along; it is par for the course. (Are you depressed yet?)
I think the book of Judges works in a similar way. The “ideal-type” (such as Othniel or Deborah) is set early on — take notice, this is what a godly “leader” looks like. Then we meet Gideon, and our hopes begin to deflate. One moment Gideon is a sniveling weakling who repeatedly tests God because he is afraid, and in the next moment he goes on a pride-filled rampage of revenge.
With Samson, the last “judge” of Israel, the pattern devolves even further. The pattern begins the same way: the Israelites do “evil” in the eyes of the LORD and then they are made to sit in the mess they created — this time subjection to Philistine oppression (13:1).
Normally the people cry out and then a “judge” is sent by God. But the people of Israel are so deep in sin and rebellion that they don’t even know enough to cry out for help. While Gideon was wise enough (at least in one of his “better moments”) to proclaim that YHWH is the only proper ruler (Judges 8:23), the Israelites eventually just accept that the Philistines are in charge now (see 15:11) — and if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
A Hopeful Start: The Birth of Samson
The 13th chapter of Judges recounts the birth of Samson, not normally something we are clued into regarding these special leaders. What is being communicated, I think, is that God is pulling out all the stops to show his full commitment to attend to the pitiful state of his people.
An unnamed woman of the tribe of Dan (whose husband’s name is Manoah) is not able to have children (Judges 13:2). The angel of the LORD comes to her and promises a son. This kind of situation is very unusual in the Bible. It happened with Abraham and Sarah (with the birth of Isaac), but that only further underscores its importance here (see Genesis 17:16–17; 18:9–14).
This special boy is committed to a special ceremony of dedication — he is to be a Nazirite all his life (see Numbers 6:2–21). Nazirites were people who took a special religious vow “to separate themselves to the LORD” (Numbers 6:2). Normally three regulations were involved.
- They had to abstain from alcohol consumption — they even had to stay away from any grapevine product.
- They had to refrain from cutting their hair.
- They were prohibited from touching a corpse [see Author’s Note 1].
Normally, Nazirites maintained this vow for a specific period of life, and then went through a series of rituals to transition back into the general population (see Numbers 6:13–20). Thus, it would have been very special for Samson to be selected as a Nazirite for life.
What we learn from this chapter is that all the pieces are in place from God’s end in terms of raising up a judge. He gives a “miracle baby” to a barren family. He sets the boy on a holy path even before he was born. The text even says that as the boy grew up “the LORD blessed him” (13:24). And just at the end of this chapter, we see the Spirit of the LORD starting to stir in him (13:25).
This Samson-ite has Serious Baggage!
Here is what I might have hoped would come next: Samson sees injustice and idolatry around him. He sees Philistine occupation and dominance. He gathers Israelite troops, makes a sacrifice to YHWH, and “delivers” God’s people as a valiant judge. OK, turn to Chapter 14 and let’s see what we actually find.
[Paraphrase] The Israelite Samson went to a Philistine city and saw a hot Philistine woman and told his parents that he wanted her.
Some “judge.” While his parents resist because she is the enemy (she is a Philistine), they eventually give in.
Interlude: We switch over to a scene where Samson kills a wild young lion (with only his bare hands; 14:5). Apparently he wasted no time resting or washing up, but went on his way to be with his hot Philistine woman. Later on, Samson passes by the lion carcass and notices that some bees have nested in the dead animal and produced honey. Samson decides to have a sweet snack.
Why are we told all these things? Well, it is obvious enough that we are not dealing with a self-controlled, calm, collected leader. He is basically a savage.
More importantly, though, he consistently acts against Torah — the law of Israel, God’s law. In Deuteronomy 7:1–7, Moses makes it clear that God does not want his people to intermarry with the people of the land of Canaan. This is the first thing that Samson does. Next, the lifelong Nazirite vow Samson is committed to strictly prohibits him from touching a dead body — and he is all too eager to get that honey out of the lion carcass.
In fact, Samson ends up being duped into breaking his second vow of never cutting his hair, as he gives in to the seduction of Delilah (16:16–19). And, while the text doesn’t explicitly mention Samson’s drinking alcohol, all signs point to a frivolous disregard in this area.
For example, when he wanted to marry the first Philistine woman, he threw a huge party that lasted a week (14:10, 17)! I would be surprised if, in all that time of riddle-telling and celebration, Samson was self-controlled enough to politely refuse a drink. Eventually, then, he probably breaks all his Nazirite vows.
Not only that, but the whole trajectory of his adult life is like a depressing soap opera complete with affairs, seduction, lies, plots, and lots of revenge. Every time he feels tricked or betrayed, he takes matters into his own hands. This Samson-ite has serious baggage! We are told in Deuteronomy 32:35–6, “Vengeance is mine [says the LORD] …. Indeed, the LORD will vindicate his people ….” Samson could not and would not wait for that.
Let’s look at a few of the famous Ten Commandments for a moment.
- Do not worship other gods. Actually, Samson didn’t do too badly on this one, but the idea behind not intermarrying with the people of the land of Canaan was to protect the Israelites from falling into worshipping their gods. So, had Samson lived a bit longer, he probably would have ended up breaking this commandment.
- Do not murder. Yikes! In 20 years, he killed over 1,000 men, mostly out of revenge.
- Do not commit adultery. We don’t know of his sleeping with anyone’s wife, but he does visit a Philistine prostitute (16:1).
- Do not covet. Cravings and uncontrollable desires are really what Samson is all about.
If a judge is a national leader who cares first and foremost about looking out for the best interests of the whole people, and sets aside his or her own “wants” in view of the important task at hand, then Samson is really the anti-judge. Not one action he carries out is for the benefit of anyone except himself. He proves himself to be no better than the “wicked” Philistines. For all that God had done to set the stage for a new, holy leader, Samson turns out to be no deliverer. He can’t even save himself (16:30–31).
Why would God allow this to happen? We see God’s Spirit with Samson. God blesses him. God even listens to him in his last days when Samson wants to avenge himself. Again, this all points to the way God has set up his world. He has made human beings very special — they are made in his image. When sinful humanity built that tower in Babel, trying to reach heaven, the LORD could look at their project and say, “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:4).
It’s not that God is not powerful enough to stop humans. Rather, this underscores the idea that God made humans very powerful, as a reflection of his own strength. So, the question is not whether or not God can stop it; the question is this:
If we humans recognize what we are really capable of (for good or for evil), how are we going to use that potential? Will it be for our own revenge, power, ambition, profit, and pleasure? Or will it be for the glory of God and the common good?
Again, Samson proved himself the anti-judge, anti-Torah.
Samson the Martyr?
When we look at conversations about Samson in the early church (after the time of the New Testament), some theologians compared Samson to Christ — Samson gave up his life trying to destroy the enemy. He sacrificed himself. Some might call him a martyr. But the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word martys, which means “witness” or “one who gives testimony.”
To call people “martyrs” in the religious sense would be to say that with their very lives (in the act of willingly facing death), they testified to the true nature of their God. What would Samson’s testimony be? He did not really die nobly. To me, in his final act he looks like the same old Samson — impulsive, violent, uncontrollable, vengeful.
So ends the so-called “judges cycle” of the book of Judges. While there are more chapters yet in the book, the narrative of this series of national leaders is concluded. What do we learn in the big picture (other than that the Bible can be a real downer sometimes)?
I suggested in a previous week that we think about the narratives on two levels. On a ground-view micro-level we have the individual lives of the judges. We can’t help but wonder whether they are good models for us or not. It is natural, then, to hold up the virtues and vices of these leaders for our benefit or warning.
However, if we only reflect on the morals of each judge, we are missing out on the big picture of what God was doing in Israel and how he was working out his wider plan. For that, we need the bird’s eye, or satellite, view. From that perspective, we can see that the period of the judges raises a question about how the people of God should be led. We learn, especially in Judges 17–21, that this era of judges was a disappointment and that Israel was in need of a stronger form of leadership — a king.
Now, there will come a time when the people cry out for a king. YHWH takes this personally — “they have rejected me [their LORD] from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). To want a king “like the nations around us” was a sinful desire — to have a tangible, human leader to fight for them in war and a visible ruler. However, God granted this sinfully motivated request and chose to bless it — to bless the Hell out of it (literally!).
That is, while they eventually land on good King David, God put into motion a plan to use this human royal seat in Israel to place his ultimate ruler and savior — Christ, the son of David.
The period of the judges reminds us, as Christians:
- First, that humans all by themselves could never ultimately bring the true restoration, because the allure and power of sin was simply too strong.
- Second, God never gave up and continually heard the cries of his people and blessed them.
- Third, God never turned away from his plan to include humans in his project of redemption. He would simply have to make a way for a human to be free from the grip of sin. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ….
Questions for Further Reflection
- What are some of Samson’s major failures as a leader? Are they struggles that you relate to? Why or why not?
- What role do you think the narrative of Samson, the “anti-judge,” plays in the book of Judges? What might the author be trying to communicate on a broader level? Why is it significant that he has such disregard for Torah?
- Thinking about the New Testament, the Lectio writer points out the tendency by early church writers to draw a link between Samson and Jesus Christ. Take a moment and reflect on this. Are there distinct similarities (e.g., in their background, birth, upbringing, life, death)? What about clear differences? How might Jesus be the opposite of Samson?
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