How many of you have heard of the story of Samson from the Book of Judges? I bet you’ve heard of Samson and Delilah. Have you heard of it because you read it for yourself, watched the movie by Cecil B. DeMille or listened to the words of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, which has these lines?
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah
There is no judgment in my question about how you know this story. I know that the story of Samson and Delilah is so much more entertaining and easy to read than the rest of the story of Samson’s life. But today I want to look at Samson’s life before he met Delilah. I want to caution you that this can be a tough story to hear and that is exactly why it isn’t part of the lectionary…and why you may have not heard this story before. Plus, there are no popular songs about this part of Samson’s life. But as you know if you have been part of this church for very long, it is important to me that we truly look at the whole Bible. It is filled with glorious and terrifying stories that resonate with what it means to be human in the world. If we sanitize our Bibles and only listen to the stories that we like or take the texts of terror and try and transform them into love stories, than we do ourselves a disservice. We fail to hear the truths, cautions and words of inspiration that lie within the totality of scripture.
Let me tell you about the pre-Delilah years of Samson’s life. It is best to understand this story within the context of folklore. Think trickster and Hercules combined. It also contains everything needed to make it a blockbuster R-rated movie – sex and violence. Now do I have your attention?
The context of the story is this sentence: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.” Samson was the last and best known of the judges. He will also be the worst of the judges, which you will shortly learn.
Samson’s mother was an unnamed, barren woman and one day when she was minding her own business an angel of the Lord came to her and said, “You are about to conceive and bear a son.” Sons of born of barren women and given a pronouncement by an angel are among the most important male figures in the Hebrew Bible – Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Samuel. When we hear this story we are expecting Samson to be as important as these men, but we will be disappointed.
The angel has more to say to Samson’s mother: “Don’t drink wine or strong drink or eat anything unclean. When the child is born don’t ever cut his hair. He shall be a nazirite from birth. He will be the one to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines.”
A nazirite was a person who was separated from others and consecrated to God. The vow of a nazirite included three things: 1) abstinence from wine and strong drink; 2) refraining from cutting the hair of the head during the period of the vow; and 3) avoiding contact with a dead body. The instruction to Samson’s mother was for her to also avoid these things while carrying Samson in utero. Samson was to be raised a flawless hero. Samson’s mother did as she was instructed.
We know nothing of Samson’s childhood. The story leaps from his upcoming birth to those verses from our first scripture today. The first time we hear Samson speak he is demanding his father and mother go get him a specific woman as his bride…an unnamed Philistine woman. I’ve been on a kick lately to pay more attention to the unnamed people of the Bible. When you come upon an unnamed person in the Bible it usually represents someone who is marginalized and victimized…not even worthy of being named. The woman that Samson wants for a wife is one of many unnamed, marginalized and victimized women of the Bible.
Samson’s father is aghast by Samson’s choice. “How about an Israelite woman? Don’t marry a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines.” “Get her for me, because she pleases me” he demands like a spoiled child.
So his parents dutifully accompany him to Timnah where this unnamed woman lives. Before they meet the woman, Samson goes for a walk through the vineyards of Timnah where he meets a lion. The lion roars and we are told that the spirit of the Lord rushes on Samson. He is a man of superhero strength and he literally tears the lion apart and then goes back to meet his parents so they can go together to meet the unnamed woman from Timnah. Meeting the woman only increases Samson’s desire for her.
So the appropriate plans are made for an upcoming marriage and when Samson goes to collect his bride he walks past the carcass of the lion he killed not long before. Inside the cavity of the dead lion a swarm of bees have built a hive filled with honey. Samson eats some of the honey right out of the carcass of the lion, violating his nazirite vow to never touch a dead body. He even collects some honey for his parents but he doesn’t tell anyone about the lion or where he got the honey or the fact that he touched a carcass.
Samson then throws a wedding feast in Timnah…the land of vineyards. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that he broke another of his nazirite vows and drank wine during that feast. While he is partying he poses a riddle to thirty male Philistines that were brought in to be his companions during the wedding feast. This is the deal he strikes with them: If these men can figure out his riddle in seven days he will give them each a linen garment and a festal garment. If they can’t figure it out, they owe him the sixty garments. “Bring it on,” they say. After all there are 30 of them against the wit of Samson. Surely they will prevail. Here is the riddle:
Out of the eater came something to eat.
Out of the strong came something sweet.
It is a silly riddle for which only Samson can know the answer. The carcass of a lion in which bees have made a hive is the answer. It’s random. These Philistines aren’t going to get this riddle without help. After four days of not being able to solve it the Philistine men get nervous and threaten Samson’s new wife, “Get your husband to explain the riddle or will burn you and your father’s house.”
That poor woman, married off to some spoiled, demanding man she didn’t know who likes to play the role of trickster. Now she is fighting for her life. Samson’s unnamed wife cries to him, “If you really loved me you would explain the riddle to me.” He said, “No. I haven’t even told the answer to my parents, why would I tell you?” Every day she cries and begs him and on the last day he finally relents. She immediately runs to her Philistine townsmen and explains the riddle to save her life. So before the sun sets on the seventh day the Philistine companions say to Samson:
What is sweeter than honey?
What is stronger than a lion?
And Samson replies:
If you would not have ploughed with my heifer,
You would not have found out my riddle.
The whole episode makes Samson so angry he travels to the city of Ashkelon where he kills thirty men and takes their garments from them. Then he travels back to Timnah and throws the spoils of his kills at the Philistine men…paying his debt of 60 garments. Then he goes back to his parents’ home and leaves his wife behind. Unbeknownst to Samson, his wife is then given to his best man from the wedding. That poor woman!
When Samson had calmed down he went back to Timnah to be with his wife. But her father said, “Ahhh, wow! I thought you had rejected her so I gave her to your companion. Uhm…she has a younger sister who people think is even prettier. I can give her sister to you.” Samson said, “No thank you but just remember you all brought this on yourselves.”
Samson’s next act is a response of personal revenge. First he catches three hundred foxes. He turns the foxes tail to tail and ties torches to the paired tails. Then he sets the torches on fire and sends the foxes out into the grain fields and vineyards of the Philistines. Those poor foxes.
The Philistines can’t let this stand so they burn Samson’s unnamed wife and her father. Samson responds by killing dozens of Philistines before he runs for the hills. This unnamed, marginalized, victimized woman was merely a pawn in the wars of personal revenge among men.
Eventually the men of Judah capture Samson and turn him over to their oppressors. But Samson let them do it as a ploy. He actually uses the moment to kill a thousand more Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (again touching a dead body). After that Samson takes a break from his anger and his lusts and serves in the function of judge for 20 years before he meets Delilah. Let’s stop the story there for today but the part where Samson steals the city gate of Gaza and his subsequent dalliance with Delilah are worth the read.
But today I was hoping to figure out with you why the heck this story…this folklore….this tale of a chosen hero who turned out to be such a flawed man…this saga of a person who is in constant pursuit of sexual attraction and personal revenge…..would make it into our Bibles. Even more perplexing is why God would choose Samson. And, of course, why is this bizarre story even relevant to those of us sitting here in this sanctuary today?
Okay…so I was hoping to figure all that out. I wanted to tell you this dark cultural tale that has total disregard for this unnamed woman and her father…this story of vengeance and a flawed hero…and then wrap it up in a good little moral bow and send you away to be better people in the world. But try as I might I couldn’t jam it into any ethical box. I called my oldest son, Matt, and I had a long conversation about my dilemma. He said two things to me, “There is a specific reason that this story has been omitted from the lectionary, Mom. They chose to leave out that which doesn’t make sense and you can’t make sense out of it.” That was the first thing he said. The second thing he said to me was, “You get yourself in this mess over and over again when you try to tell the stories others have chosen to remove in order to sanitize the Bible.” He is right. I got myself in this mess for the very reason he said. I don’t think we get to sanitize this story or any biblical story because then we will never truly look at the human condition.
So what are we left with when we look at the story of Samson and his first wife? The story of Samson is an anti-hero hero story. This isn’t unusual. The Hebrew Bible is filled with anti-hero stories. There is the hero David who uses his power as king to make a married woman have sex with him and then has her husband killed when he learns the woman is pregnant. There is Jacob who tricks his very own father into blessing him. There is Jonah who is called by God to preach to Nineveh and runs the other way instead. I could go on.
It turns out we humans love our anti-hero hero stories. We like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman, Han Solo, Walter White in “Breaking Bad” and Don Draper in “Madmen.” Look at Don Draper for a minute. He cheated on his wife; was awful to his children; was misogynistic to women; and lied about his true identity. We watch shows in which the protagonists are vile people and yet we cheer them on.
The Israelites told the story of Samson as an anti-hero hero story. Samson was a hero because he exacted vengeance on the number one enemy of the Israelites – the Philistines. The Israelites had to have loved this story. But Samson was an anti-hero because he was driven by his own lusts and need for personal revenge. And we love Samson as much as we love our other anti-hero heroes.
Theologian James Wharton argues that this story tells us the important truth that God can accomplish anything, even with an “oversexed buffoon” like Samson. God works in us….even us flawed people – sometimes in incarnational ways. Judges 14 actually gives God credit for Samson’s desire for the woman of Timnah as a pretext for dealing with the Philistines. We also like to give God credit for the collateral damage we leave along the way.
I think the true riddle of this story is why God remains faithful to us even though we are consistently unfaithful. It is the riddle of grace and there is no way to make sense of grace. There is no way to wrap it up in a bow and say we deserve it. We are the beneficiaries of God’s love for us flawed, anti-hero human beings. All we can say is, “Thank God!” Amen.