The Samson Saga: An Ancient Tale for the 21st Century

We return to the Book of Judges after several months of respite. I stopped preaching through it abruptly, not because some particular season of the church year intervened, but because it felt like too much–too much violence, too much mayhem, and too much tragedy. As the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to wrest the light from the deepening darkness–yet, paradoxically, the darkness also illuminates the lessons it offers. This is crisis literature. The stories recount the tales of Israel’s heroes and anti-heroes in a time when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25).

The name of God is not absent–in fact, it is flung far and wide. God’s name is invoked to direct wars (Judges 1:1-2, Judges 4:6-7), avenge enemies (Judges 16:28), and commit genocide against alien people (Judges 18:1-2, 5-6, 27-28). It is invoked to punish the miscreant (Judges 8:6-7, 15-16) and fix human-made disasters (Judges 6:1-10).

In our own culture, we often hear stories with heart-breaking beginnings that lead to happy endings. These are the stuff of inspirational biographies and fillers for the weekend newscasts. It is harder to interpret happy beginnings that lead to tragic endings. “She had everything going for her,” or “How could this happen to such a wonderful family?” become the whispered thoughts of friends and loved ones when such tragedies occur.

Such is the tale of the epic character, Samson. His mother is visited by a man who gives her the wonderful news that she will bear a son. The boy is to be a Nazarite from birth–dedicated to the Lord. He is called to rescue his people from Philistine oppression. Both parents are so eager to raise their son in the ways of God, that the father, Manoah, asks that the visitor return again to tell them how to do this. After this second visit, Manoah realizes that he and his wife have seen God (Judges 13:22).
In Hebrew Law, a Nazarite must never cut his hair (Numbers 6:5). The hair is a sign of his dedication to God (Numbers 6:6). He also must not defile himself by going near a corpse (Numbers 6:7). Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, given all sorts of freedoms yet commanded not to touch the apple lest she perish,

Samson is offered both freedom and prohibition. Born of devout parents longing for a child, given God’s blessing and a calling before birth—Samson has everything going for him.
His adulthood unfolds in all its troubled complexity. A warning siren blares beneath the surface of the text when Samson demands that his parents get him a certain Philistine woman for a wife. With mixed feelings, they comply with his request; they are wary of his marriage to a foreign woman, what alone a Philistine. The narrator of the story interprets this marriage as a vehicle for the liberation of Israel from oppression–and what a tragic vehicle the aborted marriage becomes!

Some time before the wedding celebration, Samson kills a lion. The next day, he scoops up honey from its insides. He breaks the Nazarite prohibition against touching a corpse and does not tell his parents. At the wedding celebration, Samson plays Russian roulette with the Philistine guests, spinning riddles for them to solve, daring them to discover what he did. His new wife is in a terrible position–threatened by the Philistines to extract Samson’s secret, yet expected to be a loyal wife. She finally gets Samson to tell her the answer to the riddle. She divulges it to her people, and Samson loses the bet.

Samson had an anger problem, among other things. He stalks out of his wedding celebration alone and furious. In retaliation, he kills 30 Philistines. Later, he returns to find out that his bride’s father has given her away to another man in his absence. In revenge, Samson terrorizes a bunch of foxes by tying them together and lighting their tails, letting them loose in the fields of the Philistines. The terrified animals burn the fields to the ground. In retaliation, the Philistines burn the woman to death and burn her father’s house to the ground. It’s ugly, violence for violence (Judges 14-15).

Things don’t get any better. Samson both uses women and is used by them, as he indulges in some pleasure with a prostitute and then becomes involved with the wily Delilah. She, too, plays the Philistine spy role. After a cat-and-mouse game of trying to learn the secret of Samson’s strength, she finally succeeds in getting him to speak the truth. Cutting his hair, Delilah robs him of his power. The Philistines capture him. They gouge out his eyes, and put him to work doing hard manual labor. They have him just where they want him–humiliated and harmless (Judges 16:4-22).

The grand finale of the story is epic in its tragedy. Samson’s ultimate desire is to end up “on top,” if you will, to avenge his enemies one last time, even if this becomes a suicidal mission. His final prayer is not one of penance but one of vengeance. What could have been a journey of deliverance for his people has become a very brutal personal vendetta between Samson and his Philistine enemies. The son of the devout Manoah and his unnamed wife is willing to go out in a blaze of destruction, as long as he can take the Philistines with him. His final prayer is for success in this mission (Judges 16:28). To some, this last act surely was interpreted as the heroic martyrdom of a tortured freedom fighter. To others it appears to be a suicide mission bent on revenge. Exploring such topics is beyond the purview of this sermon, but they beg for our deeper reflection.

What happened to Samson? Isn’t this the question we ask whenever strength like Samson’s is used to deliver a people from oppression and instead it becomes a bloodbath of chaos? Isn’t this the question we ask about extremists around the globe, some from stable middle class backgrounds, who strap on belts and destroy innocents by the tens, hundreds, and ultimately thousands? Isn’t this the question we pose whenever the oppressed become the oppressors, the liberators become despots? What happened to Samson?

The Book of Judges offers no critique of Samson’s behavior as a Judge in Israel, in the days when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” and God was dangerously reduced to the emissary of the powerful. This lack of critique is in itself an ominous sign of the state of the nation. The narrator’s silence speaks volumes.

There are three particular lessons of this story that stand out to me. First, and most obvious, Samson did not take his dedication to God seriously in his adult years. He may have been raised by devout parents, but he needed to make this commitment to God his own. How great was his call, and how tragic his flaws!

Secondly, Samson continually overestimated his strength and underestimated his weakness. This proved to be a fatal flaw in his leadership of Israel. Again and again, he played fast and loose with his power and strength. He used women, but he never expected to be used back. He avenged his enemies, but he never expected to face retribution himself. Throughout his tumultuous and violent adulthood, Samson saw himself as invincible. He never expected to reap what he sowed.

The final lesson of his story is self-evident. It is a lesson that Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us so well—that violence only begets more violence (John 18:36, Luke 23:49-51). The cycle of blame and retribution spins farther and farther out of control, descending into deeper and deeper darkness. It is in that darkness that the story of Samson ends.

I never heard the phrase, “the Samson option,” until the recent fighting between Israel and Lebanan. It was a both chilling and cavalier useage in the news. ”Will Israel employ ‘the Samson option?’” is what I read or heard (I cannot remember where). As the commentator unpacked the phrase, what he meant was taking the ultimate risk that, in destroying one’s enemies, one also destroys oneself. This phrase makes Samson’s final act, in all its horror, so relevant to the 21st century.

As we look at the world stage today, the entire saga of Samson seems ominously contemporary. TV preachers and others dissect various scripture passages, warning of a spiritual apocalypse centered around War in the Middle East. Scientists warn of a coming environmental apocalypse, evidenced in the melting polar ice caps and escalating extreme weather around the world.

The story of Samson shows us the tragic ends of overestimating our strengths and underestimating our weakness, whether as a nation, world, or both. Human beings are neither invincible nor invulnerable. We are not God. Do we expect the natural world to forever adapt to human-induced climate change? Do we expect Jesus to come and rescue us from ourselves? Has our massive military might and our ability to militarize space become our own “Samson’s hair”? Denuded, we would be reduced to the stature of other nations.

By its very silence, the Book of Judges screams out, “Insanity, pure insanity!” We don’t need commentary with Samson’s story. The end result is commentary enough.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, a different ending to Samson’s story. Samson is denuded; his hair is shorn, his eyes are gouged out, and he has plenty of time to think about his life while doing manual labor for the Philistines.

Suppose Samson thinks about the lessons his devout parents taught him in his childhood. Suppose he begins to think about the vows of a Nazarite and his relationship with God. Suppose he begins to question the endless cycles of violence between himself and the Philistines. Suppose he begins to think that power is not meant to destroy but to heal. Suppose he begins to see his enemies as human beings. Suppose Samson is deeply, profoundly tempted to destroy them if at all possible, but instead he prays another prayer, one like that of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they known not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Suppose his final act is one of redemption rather than retribution.

This isn’t how the story of Samson ends, but why not? What do you think?

The tragic story of Samson is so dark that it, paradoxically, points me to the Light. I’m looking around me in 2007, and I’m seeing a lot of dark—aren’t you? I’m seeing a lot of Samson’s smug self-assurance, aren’t you? I’m seeing Samson’s tragic flaw, writ large on the world stage, aren’t you? I’m seeing nation states threaten the “Samson option,” holding neighbors and their own citizens hostage to utterly frightful scenarios, aren’t you? We know what night looks like. “Mutual assured destruction”, or MAD, was a name for the ‘Samson option’ during the Cold War. What do we call it now? In God’s great love and mercy, we can re-write the story. Following Jesus, we can light a candle in the darkness and resist such folly.

The Good News is this: while many stories in the Bible end tragically, the Big Story of the Bible does not. The Big Story doesn’t end in guts and glory, with a flag of any nation wrapped around the maimed and dying. The Big Story ends in the victory of the Lamb of God. It ends in the triumph of the Prince of Peace. It ends in joy, and worship, and praise. That Story offers hope and strength as we walk as Lovers of the Light, puncturing the darkness, penetrating it with life, light, compassion, and patient endurance–penetrating it with the very Light of Jesus Christ. Amen.