Real Bible Studies: Samson

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As a child growing up in the Methodist Church, I learned about Samson, the legendary strongman from Judges, in Sunday School. This Biblical hero looms large in the imagination of believers and non-believers alike both for his strength and his amazing head of hair. What I learned then is that he was really strong, devoted to God, and his hair gave him his strength. He fell in love with a woman named Delilah, who tricked him into revealing the secret of his strength, after which she betrayed him and cut his hair. After his enemies had blinded him and forced him into bondage, YHWH restored his hair and his strength, and he took revenge by causing the temple in which he was held to collapse, killing him and a lot of Philistines. Samson’s story takes up all of chapters 13 through 16 of Judges.

Judges is set during the period between the time Joshua led the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan and the anointment of Saul as the first king of a united Israel. In the interim, the tribes apparently formed a loose coalition with no defined leader, as the author or editor of Judges points out rather frequently within the text. Much of Judges is a hodgepodge of myths and legends, which may constitute some of the earliest tales to find their way into the Bible. Hardly any mention is made of escaping from Egypt, or of Abraham’s covenant with YHWH. The tribes of Israel aren’t shown in the most positive light, indiscriminately hopping around the region putting various people to the sword and running afoul of their chief deity, which leads to a leader or judge arising to deliver them from whichever nation is oppressing them. Frequently stories begin with the people being led astray and often end without a definitive resolution or without making any sort of salient point. Mixing with the natives of the region, they frequently “did evil in the eyes of the lord” and fell into the hands of the various nations who surrounded them, including the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. The Moabites and Ammonites were introduced in Genesis 19, when Lot’s nameless daughters got their father drunk and had sex with him to produce heirs. The Philistines appear to be the people also known to history as the Phoenicians, a coastal, seafaring people renowned for their navigation skills. The same region was later identified by the Greeks as Palestrina, which yielded the modern name of Palestine.

Samson’s father is identified as Manoah, a Danite, that is, someone from the tribe of Dan. Judges 13 tells us of Samson’s birth, and as is almost cliche for Biblical matriarchs, Samson’s mother is said to be childless and unable to give birth, until she has a visit from a mysterious stranger who tells her she’ll have a son. In exchange, she’s told to raise him as a Nazirite, a person dedicated to YHWH from birth. To learn what a Nazirite is, we need to turn to Numbers 6, which goes into detail about the Nazirites, and establishes the laws governing how they are to behave: 1) Abstain from wine and other fermented drinks; also vinegar made from wine or other fermented drinks; also grape juice, grapes and raisins, or anything that comes from the grapevine, including skin or seeds; 2) No razor may be used on his head; his hair must grow long; 3) Avoid dead bodies, even those of parents or siblings; if someone dies suddenly in his presence, he must shave his head and perform purity rituals to cleanse himself; afterward, he must rededicate himself to YHWH. At the end of the term of his dedication, he must appear at the tent of meeting with offerings for the priest; then shave off the hair that symbolizes his dedication and the hair is burned on the fire. After that the Nazirite may drink wine. It’s not really spelled out in Numbers exactly what the Nazirite is supposed to do, but it appears the terms are worked out between the individual and YHWH as is the period of dedication.

It’s probable that the detail of Samson being a Nazirite was added by a later editor, as we already see a flaw in the notion of Samson being one, since he’s directly responsible for producing quite a few dead bodies, who presumably die in his presence, after which he does not perform the required purity rituals. The most notable instance is when Samson slays a thousand Philistines using the jawbone of a donkey. This being one of his most famous exploits, it bears a close examination. Previously, against the wishes of his parents, Samson wed a Philistine woman, though it’s stated his purpose is to provoke the Philistines, without mentioning how this is supposed to accomplish that end. After the wedding, Samson takes off and shows no concern for the woman at all, so her father gives her to one of Samson’s companions as a wife. Samson finally shows up with a young goat, demanding to see his wife, only to be told by his father-in-law that since he apparently abandoned her, she’s been given to someone else, but the father-in-law offers her younger sister as compensation. Samson takes offense at this and retaliates by destroying the crops of all the Philistines. When they learn who did this and why, they retaliate by killing the woman and her father, which gives Samson all the justification he needs to get really righteous with them.

After slaughtering an undisclosed number of Philistines during an attack he provoked, Samson flees and hides in a cave. The Philistines mount an attack force and head off to Judah, who aren’t sure what they’ve done to provoke the wrath of their overlords. Once the situation has been explained to them, three thousand men of Israel go to find Samson in his cave. He agrees to let them bind him, so long as none of them kill him, and he’s handed over to the Philistines. Once he’s in Philistine hands, the NIV tells us that “the spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him” so he picks up the jawbone of a donkey and proceeds to slaughter a thousand more men. From start to finish, Samson is the engineer of all the slaughter, and not once does he claim any of it is on behalf of the Israelites, or YHWH, but to serve his own need for revenge.

As a child, reading and hearing about Samson, I was led to believe Samson’s strength came from his hair and once it was cut off, he lost his powers, and this seems supported by what’s in Judges. One would think Samson’s strength does not derive specifically from his hair, but from his covenant with YHWH, but the way the account is worded, it makes it sound like the hair is the overriding factor. Samson is not described as a particularly righteous person, and almost never attributes any of his abilities to his devotion to YHWH, though he does acknowledge his power derives from being a Nazirite. Once again, his identification as such seems to be inserted by a later editor, since he doesn’t meet any of the other requirements of a Nazirite. The description in Numbers does not confer great strength on a Nazirite, and speaks more about what’s required of the individual rather than the abilities he might gain. This is not the only place in the Bible where a mother swears that a razor will not touch the head of her offspring. While he’s not specifically called a Nazirite, the prophet Samuel is also dedicated to the work of the Lord, and his mother also promises that no razor will touch his head. Unlike Samson, Samuel does not appear to gain super human strength from this. An even more important requirement is to not consume wine or any other fermented beverage, or any product whatsoever of the vine, but Judges doesn’t go into much detail about whether Samson follows this restriction. Given that he holds an elaborate celebration for his marriage to the Philistine woman, it could be implied wine was served, but whether or not Samson drank any, is not mentioned.

What they didn’t tell me in Sunday School is that there are good Biblical heroes and bad Biblical heroes and Samson is one of the worst. Judges, a text one might assume would cast him in a favorable light, doesn’t list a single redeeming quality for him. While he’s identified as a Nazirite dedicated to YHWH, he never takes any action that doesn’t have a selfish motive behind it. He engineers disputes with the Philistines, not to save Israel, but to show how powerful he is. His arrogance leads him to make stupid mistakes, from which only the strength he derives from YHWH can save him. Against the advice of his parents, he marries a woman who’s not of his tribe or people then kills and steals from others to satisfy a wager he’s made. Following this, he abandons his wife, solicits a prostitute, and becomes enamored with Delilah to such an extent, he totally ignores the obvious clues that she’s trying to betray him. Even a violent and destructive deity like YHWH has some rhyme or reason for its actions. Samson is just an arrogant bully who picks fights with the Philistines because he can. Nothing Samson does is of any benefit to the Israelites at all, even though Judges says he’s leading them. He never leads them into combat nor counsels them on how to behave, and it’s a good thing, given the serious behavioral problems he exhibits.

It is said that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and if so, Samson is one of the most curious. It’s not clear from the text how anything Samson does delivers the Israelites from their bondage. Even though a lot of them have been killed, the Philistines have not been driven from the land at the end of the story and they still appear to be in charge of the region. Other than being set among the Danites, there’s only one mention of an Israelite tribe, Judah, and with the exception of binding Samson and handing him over to the Philistines, the inhabitants hardly take part in what happens. Samson never does anything in the name of YHWH, but all his disputes are characterized as taking revenge for offenses committed against him. I suppose one could argue that YHWH was using Samson as an unconscious foil, accomplishing YHWH’s goals without comprehending why he’s doing it, but this goes against the grain of other Biblical individuals who were very conscious of their motivations even if they didn’t know why they were being told to do these things. Also, with the exception of once when he asks for some water, and later when Samson calls out to YHWH to restore his strength so he can finish off those who are punishing him, he rarely communicates with YHWH, unlike Abraham who had regular two-way conversations with the deity.

Still, the flaws of Samson attest to the authenticity of the legend, since a totally fictitious story would paint the hero in a much more positive light. One can imagine this tale being passed around orally among the tribes before finally being committed to paper. There’s significant evidence of editorial oversight throughout Judges, particularly since whoever wrote it down frequently mentions Israel is without a king at this point and the people generally did as they chose. Since most of the individual stories relate to a particular tribe — in the case of Samson, the Danites — one can assume that Judges was comprised of folk takes which originated among the individual tribes and were combined into a single narrative when the first draft of the Jewish Bible was compiled, possibly during the reign of King Josiah.

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