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In His Strength Was Weakness
The Birth of Samson
The Book of Judges is an interesting read. Viewed through modern lenses its less a book of judicial leaders and more a book of guerrilla fighters; each with their own strengths and weaknesses. For some of the Heroes described in the book, it can be difficult to look past their flaws, yet to ignore them completely would be to miss out on some important lessons about how God can, and will, work through anybody. One of the more interesting judges in the book is Samson.
Samson was the 15th judge of Israel, born to the Tribe of Dan, sometime between 1154 BC and 1124 BC. God had meant for Samson to be a strong leader, not strong in terms of strength, but to be sure, he had strength in abundance. He was said to be the strongest man of his generation. But God wanted a man with strong moral and leadership qualities, sadly, neither of those were Samson’s strong point. Samson’s mother was barren when an angel appeared to her and told her that she was to have a son. He was to be a Nazarite, set apart from birth by God Almighty. She was to abstain from wine and alcohol, and not ever cut his hair.
Now here is where things get really interesting. Samson’s unnamed mother told her husband, Manoah, that an angel appeared before her to inform her that she was pregnant. Manoah, upon hearing the news, immediately prayed for the angel to return and instruct them on how to raise the child. When the angel returned, he didn’t offer instructions on child care, he simply reiterated that Samson’s mother was to drink no alcohol and eat nothing that was unclean. While it is certainly advisable that pregnant women abstain from alcohol and food which may contain pathogens, it didn’t quite offer the guidelines that Manoah and his wife may have hoped for.
Samson was born after Moses had laid down the law for the Israelites, but before there were any official rulers in the land. The laws codified in the Torah were numbered at 613. If a person obeyed even half of those laws, they were far more likely to be an upright and moral person. God Himself had big plans for Samson. Yet Samson lacked discipline. Living in a lawless country with no real rulers to maintain the written law and order isn’t the most appropriate place for a young man who was often driven by his own testosterone and desires. His parents didn't seem to help guide him much. What little we know of them, it appears as if they often gave into his wants. Perhaps they were afraid of his strength. Or maybe they believed that since he was set aside by the Lord, that they were in no position to provide stricter discipline? Mere biblical speculation, but at any rate, Samson was not one who would allow his impulses to be controlled.
Samson’s mother was barren when an angel appeared to her and told her that she was to have a son. He was to be a Nazarite, set apart from birth by God Almighty. She was to abstain from wine and alcohol, and not ever cut his hair.
The First Sign of Trouble
From a young age, Samson flirted with temptation, that is, when he wasn’t flirting with the Godless Philistines. One of the first signs of trouble was when Samson fell in love with a young Philistine woman named Timnah. He ordered his parents to get her for him, they tried to discourage the union, but in the end, they gave into their son’s wishes. Samson showed no regard for the advice of his parents, or even Timnah herself. On the day he went to bargain for the young Philistine, he killed a lion with his bare hands. And on the day he went to marry her, he noticed that bees had built a hive inside the carcass. He scooped out honey from the comb and shared it with his parents. At the wedding feast, Samson was understandably in good spirits. Standing before his guests of both Israelites and Philistines he used the experience for a riddle, wagering thirty linen garments to the one who could solve the riddle before the seven day feast had concluded. He asked:
Out of the eater, something to eat;
Out of the strong, something sweet.
The Philistines were unable to guess the answer to the riddle, so they petitioned Timnah to coax the answer from Samson. For three days she pestered Samson and on the seventh day he gave in and told her the answer. “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Timnah passed the answer onto her countrymen and when they came to Samson with it he lost his temper. He went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty men, stripped them of their clothes and gave them to the men who answered the riddle. Thirty linen garments to the one who guessed correctly. After this incident, Manoah gave Timnah to Samson’s Best Man.
Unfortunately, Samson wasn’t exactly thrilled that his wife was given away. Rather than try to reason with his father, who offered Timnah’s younger sister in her stead, Samson lost his temper. Vowing revenge against the Philistines, he captured three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail, in pairs. He attached torches to their tails and let them loose amongst the standing grain of the Philistines. Remember now, that God had big plans for Samson. It is unlikely that animal abuse and wanton destruction were part of those plans. When the Philistines had heard that Samson was the one behind the destruction, and that his motive was in revenge because Timnah had been given to his friend, they reacted violently. Violence only ever begets more violence. In retaliation against Samson’s crimes, the Philistines burned Timnah and her father. A brutal revenge for Samson's actions. This prompted a retaliatory strike by Samson against the Philistines and he murdered many of them.
What do we know here? Timnah was never asked if she wanted to marry Samson, she was told that she had to do it. This was the custom and the culture at the time. Did she have any love for Samson? Probably not. But she may not have hated him either. It’s possible that she didn’t know him well enough to form an opinion. She was married to him, and removed from him, without any say in the matter. Though it’s very likely that after he killed thirty men, she wasn’t too impressed by him.
Did Samson love Timnah? Probably not. But he most certainly lusted after her, and he definitely wanted her. And as we see, whatever Samson wanted, Samson got. And while it was Samson’s father who gave Timnah away, Samson took his anger out on the Philistines. The Philistines, for their part, took their revenge on Timnah and her father, not on Samson. In response, Samson killed even more people. Violence only creates more violence, and these men found themselves in the middle of a bloodbath. The more we know, the more we see that Samson is looking less like a godly figure, and more like a serial killer.
Throughout history, it was common for kings and rulers to marry the royalty in other countries. This helped forge an alliance with foreign entities and could often facilitate peace between the two nations. Israel and Philistine fought constantly, Samson was in a position to use his union with Timnah to bring peace and end the warfare. Instead, through his temper, he exacerbated the tensions. This led to the eventual deaths of thousands of people. Was that God's will? While I can't speak for God, I would wager that it wasn't. From everything else the Bible teaches we can conclude that God loved the Philistines. It is far more likely that He would have preferred conversion to massacre.
Vowing revenge against the Philistines, Samson captured three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail, in pairs. He attached torches to their tails and let them loose amongst the standing grain of the Philistines.
The Spirit of the Lord, or the Fruit of the Spirit?
After Samson murdered many Philistines, he went into hiding. The Philistines threatened to fight the Israelites, so they went out to Samson, tied him up and handed him over to his enemies. Judges 15:14 tells us that when that happened the “spirit of the Lord came upon [Samson] in power” and he ripped through his cords, picked up a jawbone of a donkey and killed a thousand Philistines. The story reads like a fish tale and it’s easy to imagine the Israelites telling the story over the home fires. To the superstitious Israelites it was proof positive that the Lord was on their side. But getting caught up in the action of the story can make it easy to miss the forest through the trees; as you look at the words being said, don’t miss the words that aren’t said.
The text in Judges 15:14 tells us that the spirit of the Lord came upon Samson in power. But what about the fruit of the spirit? Matthew 7 tells us that we will recognize those who come in the name of the Lord by their fruits. 7:17 says that good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. At this point in Samson life he had gone dangerously astray. God had singled him out for greatness, but his lust and his temper continually got the better of him. Samson had tremendous strength, but he lacked the fruits of the Spirit; in particular love, wisdom, and self control. As a result, people died.
Judges 15:20 says that Samson judged Israel for twenty years, but it fails to mention what kind of leader he was. In chapter 13 we learned that Samson was singled out before his birth by an angel, he was the only judge to have this distinction. Samson was to be a Nazarite; a group who was to live their lives devoted to God. Nazarites were to never go near a dead body, drink wine, or cut their hair. Of all of those, the only rule that Samson kept was that he never cut his hair. Not surprisingly, that was the only rule that required no discipline.
Good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. At this point in Samson life he had gone dangerously astray. God had singled him out for greatness, but his lust and his temper continually got the better of him.
Eventually, Samson fell in love with another Philistine, this one from the Valley of Sorek, a woman of great beauty named Delilah. The infamous vixen who led to the downfall of the strongest man in the world. Where thousands of men failed, she succeeded, using her brain instead of her brawn. When the people of Sorek learned that Samson was in love with Delilah they approached her, offering her money in exchange for the secret of his strength. For a time he toyed with her, giving her false information, but eventually he gave into her nagging. He told her that his strength was tied to his hair, so naturally, she had a man shave his head while he slept.
With the Philistines in place, Delilah woke Samson who was immediately captured, blinded, and shackled. He was imprisoned in Gaza where he was set to grind at a mill as punishment. While there, his hair eventually began to grow back. One day the Philistines held a great celebration to their god, Dagon, who had delivered Samson into their hands. They brought Samson out and had him perform, like a trained seal, before a crowd of thousands. Samson requested that the guard take him to the pillars of the temple. At the temple thousands of spectators had gathered, 3,000 were watching from the roof alone. With a prayer to God, for revenge, not peace or forgiveness, Samson pushed the pillars off their base. The pillars, which were likely already strained under the weight of the onlookers, toppled like a house of cards. Thus, chapter 16:30 tells us that Samson killed far more people when he died than when he lived.
In the Time of the Judges
In the time of the judges, Israel had no leader. The book of Judges repeats the phrase “everyone did as he saw fit.” It does not say “everyone did right in the eyes of the Lord." It is said that a country gets the leader it deserves, if this is true, it speaks volumes about both Samson and the Israelites. The Israelites, at this time, lived violently, died violently, and found time to worship idols in between. The last several chapters of Judges speaks of terrible violence, both heterosexual and homosexual gang rape, murder, and massacres. God had wanted a moral leader, but sadly, Samson’s strength lay in his muscles, not his leadership qualities. I say that not to judge, but to mourn. Who suffered the most from Samson’s short comings: Samson, the Philistines, or the Israelites? Samson had great promise, but he failed to live up to it, any good he did seemed to be by accident more than design. His twenty years of rule was pockmarked by fits of lust and violence, and in the end, he brought about his own downfall. His final act in life was revenge.
The story may be dark, but there’s hope. The heroes in the Book of Judges all had one thing in common: they were imperfect human beings. Just like the rest of us. Some of their weaknesses were obvious and fatal, as we saw from Samson. Others, like Gideon, had more inward limitations; fear and uncertainty. Yet despite their flaws, God still used them for His purpose. And if He can use them, then He can use us too.
© 2018 Anna Watson