Let us pray:
Lord God, guide our ears and our hearts this morning as we come and hear your Word. Give us the grace to approach as we are; give us the grace to see Scripture as it is. Give us the courage for honesty. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The Spirit Came to Him?!?
You may be familiar with some of the story of Samson, whether from Sunday school or from movies like Samson and Delilah and songs like “Hallelujah.” And yet both tend to portray Samson as positive, as someone who’s a strong, wonderful hero, if perhaps a bit flawed.
When actually… not so much….
The story of Samson, as told in Judges, is a story of violence and revenge. It is set in a book where Israel has come to the promised land but is struggling to hold it, for they cycle through idolatry and other sins, after which they are oppressed by the locals and call out to God, who sends a judge to rescue them, until they sin again and it all starts over. For Samson, the sin has happened, and the people have been oppressed by the Philistines.
Samson is the last judge; after him, the people spiral into violent sin with no judge in sight. Samson’s strength and hero-status were foretold to his mother by an angel, who told her that Samson should live as a Nazarite from birth: someone who didn’t go anywhere near grapes of any kind or ever cut his hair. Someone who is set apart for God, in other words. Someone special. Someone who is going to rescue God’s people even though, for the first and only time, they haven’t even cried out to God for help.
And then we actually meet Samson. His first act is to tell his parents who he’d going to marry, in the most bratty way ever: “Get her for me! I like her!” The woman he chose, of course, was a Philistine, one of the oppressors. His parents agree, for whatever reason, and eventually they are wedded at a great feast. How or if Samson avoided wine at this feast is unclear, although I somehow doubt he did. Samson tells a riddle as part of the festivities, a riddle based on his experience earlier in the story with a lion carcass filled by a honeybee hive after he ripped the lion in half; his groomsmen force Samson’s wife to find out the answer, and when they answer correctly Samson goes and kills some Philistines to get them their promised prize and then storms off in a huff.
Eventually he returns to his wife, only to find that her parents have given her to another man. He storms off again, this time to destroy their crops by tying foxes together after tying burning torches to their tails. When the Philistines kill Samson’s ex-wife in revenge, he goes and kills some more people. The Philistines try to capture Samson; Samson goes into their camp as a prisoner and then kills them all with a donkey’s jaw bone.
After settling down for a bit, Samson returns to the heart of Philistine territory to spend a night with a prostitute, destroys a city gate to escape, and then falls in love with another woman, Delilah. She intends to betray him to the Philistines, and so she begins to ask him, pretty bluntly: “Please tell me what makes your strength so great, and how you could be bound, so that one could subdue you.” After three false alarms, he actually tells her: that his uncut hair is the source of his great strength. She, of course, promptly cuts it all off, and Samson is captured by the Philistines. His eyes are gouged out, and he’s set to hard physical labor except when he’s dragged out of the dungeon for sport. The story ends when Samson prays to God for his former strength back, because he wants revenge on his captors, and he kills himself and thousands of feasting Philistines.
I should probably be honest here: I don’t like Samson. I think he’s a selfish, womanizing jerk. Frankly, it kind of annoys me that he’s so often talked about as this great hero, because not only was he selfish, he also didn’t actually accomplish anything: I mean, he killed lots of people, but it didn’t really have a point: he wasn’t trying to drive the Philistines out of the land, he was just seeking his own gratification. The Philistines were still the rulers of the land after he died. He didn’t save anyone.
But Scripture doesn’t entirely support that reading of Samson. For one, there’s the whole angel thing: an angel does come to Samson’s mother and tell her that her future son will have a great destiny: but the angel also says, very carefully, that Samson will “begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (v. 5). Not deliver them–just begin to deliver them. Despite all the hullaballoo, the angel doesn’t seem to expect that Samson is going to save Israel.
For another, the Spirit comes to Samson. The Spirit comes to Samson and fills him with strength: when he kills the lion (14:6), when he kills 30 men to get the riddle-solving prize (14:19), and when he kills the Philistines who tried to capture him (15:14). It’s implied the Spirit comes, too, when he pulls the building down on the feasting Philistines (16:28-30).
Finally, Samson does seem to have a relationship with God: he calls to God after he’s killed the Philistines who tried to capture him, and God brings water out of a rock to refresh him (15:18-19). Samson prays for strength before he kills himself with the Philistines (16:28-30). And in chapter 15, as we read, Samson spends twenty years judging Israel, settling disputes as the other judges had done. He must have been respected enough for people to follow his rulings (and to not kill him, as they did to a few other terrible judges). He must have helped the people. The role implies that he looked to God.
And, of all things, he’s listed as one of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11.
Samson’s story isn’t comfortable or easy. He is not the nicest or the kindest person. But his story does remind me that faith doesn’t always look like I think it does or like I think it should look. Grace doesn’t come after we’re flawless. God uses broken human beings.
Samson is distinctly human. He has emotions, and he lets those emotions run away with him. He returns, again and again and again, to the things, to the behaviors and kinds of people, that are the worst for him, that bring out the worst in him. I can relate to that. If I’m honest, I can relate to a lot of Samson’s story–not the behaviors themselves so much as the patterns, the cycle of personal destruction as Samson again and again chooses women who are willing to betray him, again and again tells things he shouldn’t have and then turns to revenge instead of wondering why he did it. Who among us can say we do not choose, again and again, that which is absolutely terrible for us? And, too, I am familiar with the cycle of getting myself into trouble and turning to God for help getting out of it, sometimes with all the grace of a two-year-old demanding ice cream with cake and cookies for breakfast for the third month in a row. Samson may frustrate me to no end, but I am very glad nonetheless that God follows the pattern with me, rescues me over and over, no matter how many times I do that stupid thing that I know perfectly well I shouldn’t.
Samson’s story is still troubling. His morals are questionable at best, as is his self-control. The Spirit seems to fill Samson every time he’s full of vengeful rage, and that isn’t the Spirit I know, or even see in most of Scripture. I don’t know what to do with that, except hope that in my story as in Samson’s, in the church’s story as in Israel’s God can fill my and our sins with redemption and rescue us from them.