Samson and Self Control – Has Israelite Strongman Wandered into Wrong Quarterly?


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Samson was a hero of faith, at least if one reads the glowing reports in the “Who’s Who among Ancient Hebrew Worthies” of Hebrews 11 (cf. commentary on week 8). So, why is it that Israel’s heroic strongman is singled out in this week’s study guide as a dead-ringer counter-example of self-control?

The Samson storyline is well known: father and mother pray for child; God’s messenger promises special son, Samson, “Sunny”; Sunny runs into trouble with Philistine bride, mixes it up with could-be in-laws, loses might-have-been bride to the Philistines, but takes out the Philistines in spectacular fashion; he dispatches 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone, piling them up in heaps; he makes a move on an unnamed Gaza prostitute, leaving in a hurry with the weight of the town’s gates on his shoulders; then encounters Delilah (Night Lady), losing his hair and with it his strength; and finally, for his closing act, brings the house down on the cheering Philistines.

But rather than focusing on moral lessons to be learned or unlearned, the storyteller in Judges trots out ironic twist after ironic twist to make other points in dramatic even if surprising fashion. The ironies focus on failed expectations:

  • The birth story raises hopes that we have in this judge a special child who will, like the few other biblical heroes for whom we have birth stories–Moses, Samuel, Jesus–contribute unselfishly to the well-being of God’s people through works of greatness and grandeur. What we get is a rogue warrior on a mission of unmitigated revenge for selfish purposes.
  • The story begins with high anticipation based on the Nazirite vow, setting Samson apart in dedication to God, involving prohibitions against alcohol, contact with the dead, cutting of his hair, and loose living. What we get is a profligate womanizer, forever engaged in party drinking and contact with the dead, whose only surviving reminder of the vows is his unshorn hair–with it goes his strength, and with its return he becomes strong again.
  • The account opens with the request by appropriately praying parents for instructions on how to raise their son. What comes in response from heaven are guidelines for the mother’s life, not the son’s.
  • The story, we begin to think–happily–contains three references to the movement of the Spirit of the Lord in the life of the chosen one, the man marked by vows from birth. But what do we get as the Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform? A lion torn apart like a goat kid on the occasion of sacrificial slaughter; 30 men from Ashkelon murdered for the sake of a riddle gone bad; 1,000 Philistines scattered on the plain by a slicing jawbone, wildly slung ninja-like in every direction.
  • The narrative opens and closes and progresses throughout with actions based on the lives of women, surprising us with the major roles they play in the story. However, while at the beginning we encounter his barren mother praying for a strong son, by the end we meet the infamous mother of the night, Delilah, preying on a potential weakness. In between enter Samson’s would-be Timnite bride who wrings and wrests from him the answer to his impossible riddle, and the Gazite prostitute who interests him for only a few hours before he leaves in a huff.
  • The wedding account regarding the woman of Timnah starts off with what we expect–righteous parents strongly advising their chosen son to avoid marriage with foreigners, especially the Philistines. But we are surprised, in a segment of the story headed toward highlighting self control and wise life choices, to discover that the Lord was behind it all (in order to find an occasion against the Philistines), and hadn’t even told the righteous parents about his plans.
  • The prayer accounts in the story begin where we would expect–a righteous father prays for guidance on how to raise his chosen son. The answer from God is to send a messenger not to him, but to his wife, and not with advice about raising his son, but about how his wife should behave. Adding to the complexity of the narrative, Samson prays not once in the story but twice, at first for something to quench his thirst following the hard work of dispatching the thousand Philistines and a second time to avenge the loss of his eyes in what turned out to be a successful attempt to dispatch thousands more of the enemy. His prayers are answered positively and immediately.
  • The story, like all of those in the book of Judges, leads us to anticipate strong leadership. While the Samson account twice notes that he “judged Israel twenty years,” we have no evidence of what that looked like or how it helped.

Does this leave us with no lessons about self-control, as this week’s lesson guide hopes Samson’s life story will provide? Moralists and devotional writers for centuries have been drawn to the behavior of Samson as a way NOT to live, as actions best NOT followed, as a life NOT well suited for instruction in righteousness. So, the connection is easy to make, even if moral behavior and self-control are clearly not at the center of the storyteller’s goals for the account. There are too many ambiguities in Samson’s story to press the case far: God’s using Samson’s bad behavior for “higher” purposes; righteous prayers unanswered, as opposed to answered prayers in a quest for vengeance; the unexpected collapse of expectations all around.

The Samson story also comes within the context of the book of Judges with its stories about a series of unexpected heroes like Ehud, the left-handed Benjaminite (son of the right hand) whose left hand saves him and the tribes of Israel; Deborah the woman judge whose heroics, along with those of Jael, match those of any man in the book; Gideon the wimp who needed concrete confirmation of everything before proceeding; Jephthah the illegitimate Gileadite who rashly vowed away his innocent daughter’s life; the Levite’s concubine whose dismembered body parts were shipped partial post throughout the territories. Samson was but a part of the tribal slide into theological, ethical, moral, social oblivion due, according to the book, to idolatry.

So the real problem in the Samson story, as in the rest of the book of Judges, is not primarily about gaining self-control, but about the total loss of God’s control among people looking elsewhere for divine support. And it’s not that God ever stopped trying, even in the case of Samson. Ironies and ambiguities aside, God still attempts to engage unexpected heroes, recalcitrant degenerates, reluctant weaklings, and unresponsive idolaters.

At the end of the day, I am quite pleased that Samson wandered into this quarterly, because there certainly are lessons we can learn about bad behaviors and their consequences from this anti-hero. Life is much less complicated when unhealthy habits are avoided entirely, as Samson’s story shows. But even in the face of disastrously misguided choices, the storyteller would like us to know, God is willing to work with just about anybody. We discover this best when we pay attention in the Bible’s stories to details of context, literary style, ironic twists, ambiguities, unexpected turns, character flaws, all of which draw us back to the story over and over to sort them out.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2195