This post assumes the reader to have a familiarity with the plot of the story of Samson as it appears in Judges. It is also helpful if your familiar with the story of Dinah (Genesis 34) that I refer to but do not retell.
Like a number of stories in the Old Testament, that of Samson finds its origin in an earlier folk tale. That shouldn’t be a surprise as the entire book of judges is a gathering together of tales about Israel’s champions over a 300 year period.
There are those that say that the judges version of the story of Samson did very little to clean up its violent and ethically repugnant parts to make it appropriate for a collection of holy scripture. While I agree that what we read in Judges seems to have undergone very little by the way of revision, I do not think that this was due to an oversight on the part of the writers. I also don’t think that they wrote with any kind of ignorance: consider how the annunciation scene in Judges 13 plays on the conventions laid down in Torah. the writers of the Judges version of the Samson story compose each part with intention. (check out my preach on judges 13 to hear more)
This isn’t to mention that as Christians we kind of have to assume that God intended for us to have received this story in the way that we do. So what does this tale of one man’s arrogance, anger and sexual misconduct have to tell us about God, or even about ourselves?
Samson’s tale takes place over 4 chapters of Judges (13-16) and I’m going to take a bit of time on each chapter. This will make a sort of mini-series. I hope that by breaking it down I’ll be able to spend more time with its different themes. I covered chapter 13 the last time I preached at Harbour Community Church. So for the rest of this post I’ll be looking at chapter 14.
Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. When he returned, he said to his father and mother, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.”
His father and mother replied, “Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?”
But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me. She’s the right one for me.” (His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.)
Judges 14 1-4
Judges 14 is our first view of Samson as an adult and from the very get go there seems to be something fishy. We’re told that Samson goes off to the philistine town of Timnah, though we’re given no reason why. Its an odd thing to do, to go and hang out in the towns of your enemies – unless you’re in the habit of causing trouble of course. So while Samson’s there he sees a girl that he falls for and he’s got to have her. So he goes back and tells his parents about her and they’re not impressed. Marrying outside of the tribe is a massive no-no. But we, the readers, are told in verse 4 that this was God’s plan.
But does that strike anyone else as odd? I mean we’re told that this is God’s plan as a quiet aside, in the NIV its even in brackets. This is not anything like the clear and unequivocal voice of the Lord that we see in chapter 13. This side note in Judges 14 isn’t God speaking; its the author or recorder of the scriptural narrative popping up. It doesn’t have anything like the weight or authority of the previous chapter. This is significant. Its as if the person recording the story realises how odd the narrative sounds and just wants to assure us that God is in it even though it looks on the surface as if Samson is only looking after his own wants and desires. We have to be assured of this early on because throughout the tale it will be Samson’s rigorous pursuit of his own gratification that defines him. It’s like the writer wants to give us a heads up and say that even though Samson’s story seems perfectly disastrous, actually there is some wisdom and power at work behind all of it. Judges 14 verse 4 is a stage whisper, a nod and a wink: Even a man like Samson comes under the Lord’s authority.
But as I mentioned before the assertion of verse 4 just doesn’t bear the same authority as the appearance of the Angel of The Lord who has already rocked up and pronounced stuff about God’s plans earlier in the story. I believe that chapter 14′s assurance of God’s plan is supposed to seem weak comparatively. Its supposed to make us watch more closely for God’s involvement in what unfolds. It invites us to question just which (if any) of Samson’s actions meet with God’s sanction, if God always intended for Samson to be so awful, and also whether Samson knows any better than his parents just what God’s will is for him?
That’s the first observation down. I’ve argued that even something as small as a set of brackets or the word ‘but’ was placed with utter precision and attention. Now I’d like to argue that even these first few verses of Chapter 14 have made an allusion to an earlier story and that it was no less accidental in its occurrence.
So if we forget the characters and just look at the events of the beginning of chapter 14 we can uncover a surprising correlation with another Bible tale. Let me explain,
So the facts of the story so far are these: There are two politically apposed nations having to share a proximity of space. A young champion from one of the nations decides that he wants to marry a girl from the other nation and petitions his family to get the girl so that they can marry.
Those same facts are true of Genesis 34, a story in which we find Jacob in a foreign area and the ruler’s son has his heart set upon marrying Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Here though, the roles are flipped, its the enemy champion that desires an Israeli girl. But the reaction on Israel’s side is the same: The idea is detestable because we’re circumcised and they’re in a sense unclean, they are not God’s chosen. Both stories make the ritual circumcision of the Israelites to be the thing that is the big difference between the two groups. Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?” – cry Samson’s parents presumably in creepy unison. And in the Dinah story, her brothers claim that a union between the Hivites and Israel is detestable because the Hivite men are not circumcised. There are differences in the stories too, I don’t want to suggest that they are mirrors but there is a correlation here.
I want to suggest that this correlation isn’t just accidental but that this is just one of a number of points in Samson’s saga in which the scripture is doing something quite radical. The way that the story of Samson does this kind of role reversal, with it being Israel’s champion imposing himself on a daughter of the enemy presents something like, and this is going to sound controversial but I think its backed up by other things that happen in the story… it’s something like a cultural relativism. This runs counter as what we see in the surface narrative in which Israel are the good guys and the Philistines the bad guys. But really the book of Judges is all about how God is continually working for a people who perpetually ignore him and do whatever they want (each man did what was right in his own eyes), and so the role reversal on Genesis 34 points out to the reader that actually Israel is by its own merit no different to the philistines (who coincidentally are only in power because God them there in the first place). To channel Paul in his letter to the Romans the Israelites break the law so regularly that they may as well be uncircumcised.
Why does the story do this? well I think that it has something clear to say about how we should treat the favour God has given us: From before his birth Samson was set apart. God promises that he will bring about great things through Samson. It is an act of pure nomination on God’s part; Samson did nothing to earn his privilege. So, his job then is really to steward the gift he has been given. After-all he did not earn the right to have God’s spirit aiding him but he was given it. But as we know from the things Samson gets up to he doesn’t steward it well, in fact he acts as if he’s entitled, as if he’s boss instead of God. He does not act like a lowly man given a gift by God but as if he’s a big man, that he is special. The message here is that being set apart by God is not licence to act as we please. Just because we’ve received an assured and predestined future does not mean that we deserved it, or that we are better than anyone else by our own merit. This message is true for Christians today and it was true for the Israel of the Old Testament who often displayed a sense of diminished responsibility for their actions assuming that God would always be there to back them up.
So there are ways in which Samson resembles the enemy from Genesis 34 but later on in the story his reactions to the situation will match Jacob’s sons. But we’ll come to that in due course. First lets look the next part of Samson’s tale.
Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done. Then he went down and talked with the woman, and he liked her.
Some time later, when he went back to marry her, he turned aside to look at the lion’s carcass, and in it he saw a swarm of bees and some honey. He scooped out the honey with his hands and ate as he went along. When he rejoined his parents, he gave them some, and they too ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the lion’s carcass.
Now his father went down to see the woman. And there Samson held a feast, as was customary for young men. When the people saw him, they chose thirty men to be his companions.
“Let me tell you a riddle,” Samson said to them. “If you can give me the answer within the seven days of the feast, I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes. If you can’t tell me the answer, you must give me thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes.”
“Tell us your riddle,” they said. “Let’s hear it.”
“Out of the eater, something to eat;
out of the strong, something sweet.”
For three days they could not give the answer.
Judges 14, 5-14
So after an odd encounter with a lion in a vineyard, not to mention the stranger act returning to the carcass and eating the honey from within it, (vineyards and dead things both being things Samson shouldn’t go near) Samson gives a riddle. Why he sets a riddle we don’t know. There is no aside to help us, it seems to be just for the sport of making a bet. Yet, I believe that once again there is a greater thing at play thematically. As we all know, the most famous part of Samson’s saga is all to do with the riddle of his strength. So really one of Samson’s primary duties is to know when to reveal the secret, when to reveal the answer to the riddle.
The writers of Judges could not have known at the time but this theme of riddling creates a really strong typological connection with Jesus. This duty is really a connection to christ that is even as strong as the image of Samson freeing Israel by dying with his arms outstretched. To my mind it connects with the riddle of Jesus identity. Throughout all 4 gospels there are occasions in which Jesus is candid about his identity but just as many occasions when he urges secrecy about who he is, or even about the works he has done. Both Jesus and Samson are met with times in which they must hold onto the secret of what sets them apart, but where Samson fails Jesus does not.
On with the text;
On the fourth day, they said to Samson’s wife, “Coax your husband into explaining the riddle for us, or we will burn you and your father’s household to death. Did you invite us here to steal our property?”
Then Samson’s wife threw herself on him, sobbing, “You hate me! You don’t really love me. You’ve given my people a riddle, but you haven’t told me the answer.”
“I haven’t even explained it to my father or mother,” he replied, “so why should I explain it to you?” She cried the whole seven days of the feast. So on the seventh day he finally told her, because she continued to press him. She in turn explained the riddle to her people.
Before sunset on the seventh day the men of the town said to him,
“What is sweeter than honey?
What is stronger than a lion?”
- Judges 14 15-18
So we see quickly that Samson can’t keep his riddle a secret. What a baffoon. But notice in particular how the philistines answer Samson’s riddle. They not only give the right answer (honey and a lion) but they pose their response as a second riddle. Now before we look to see how Samson takes it, think for a moment how you would answer their riddle?
What is sweeter than honey? What is Stronger than a lion?
Well the Bible describes God’s word as being sweet like honey on a number of occasions (take Ezekiel as one example). And the Lion of Judah is a symbol used in Genesis that is used again in revelation to describe Christ.
So perhaps we might see God, or Jesus as being appropriate answers to this riddle. Without understanding what they have said, the Philistines are really evoking Yahweh when they answer Samson. They point to the source of Samson’s strength and his power which is the Lord. So not only has Samson been bested but if he also perceives the answer to his enemy’s riddle than he will have been convicted about who is really in charge: In Judges 14 Samson pushes ahead with a questionable wedding, he flouts the laws that were supposed to set him apart and he tries to establish and assert authority for himself by becoming the setter of riddles. He’s got a lot of confidence in himself and he’s forgotten to rely on God. The reminder of God’s greater strength and goodness must smart.
So what does Samson do…
Samson said to them,
“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
you would not have solved my riddle.”
Then the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of everything and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he returned to his father’s home. And Samson’s wife was given to one of his companions who had attended him at the feast.
Judges 14 18-20
Samson goes on a killing spree, he burns with anger. Yet the fault for the riddle being solved was his own. He really over-reacts here and there is no clear defence for his actions. There is no other way to understand his actions but as something that is totally reprehensible. Anger and revenge also plays a part in the mass murder Jacob’s sons commit in Genesis 34: The killers in both stories are motivated by the desire for revenge, the desire to pay others back instead of following God and letting him deal with it. In both cases this only serves to make matters worse:
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me obnoxious to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed.” – Genesis 34
Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?” – Judges 15
At the end of Judges 14 we’re left with another riddle. How can it be that God chose Samson and that he motioned the events of the chapter by prompting Samson to marry the woman from Timneh. How can this be God’s plan, how can it be defended?
I believe that we cannot say that Samson is a hero, or that he is obedient. But what is fascinating is how despite Samson’s recalcitrance God still brings about his purpose. The message is all about how God is the true power and strength in the universe. The story of Samson is in part a satire on heroic literature. The real hero here is God. Its another example of Israel’s God setting himself apart from other cultures.
How then do we answer the riddle of Samson’s story? How can we express this idea of God bringing about his purpose despite the utterly disastrous life of Samson. We could perhaps describe it by saying…
Out of the eater, something to eat;
out of the strong, something sweet.
Samson is both an eater; all he does is eat and destroy and consume and live by his libidinous desires – and of course he is strong. Yet through him God begins the work of redeeming Israel from the Philistines, bringing them peace and provision.
If you rely on man and you rely on the sum of his vices and it ends badly, but if you rely on God then you rely on one strong to keep his promise despite whatever circumstances or efforts to destroy. It is this that makes us more than conquerers.