When we think about Samson, what kind of opinion do we form? Do we consider him a hero of the faith or do we think of him as a failure. I used to be in the latter category. I remember being taught how the book of Judges was setup like a downward spiral where each story just got worse until you got to Samson where even though he was a judge he was still pretty much a failure.
This has been the most common view that I have experienced most of my life. That has changed in the last 6 months however. It started when I was listening to a teaching by Rikk Watts about the book of Samuel and he made an the cuff remark about Samson and how we have misunderstood him. This led me to start studying Samson and his stories more in depth and has led me to come to the conclusion that I think Samson, unlike few others, shows us the true character of God. I don’t mean we see God’s character in how God treats Samson, rather Samson himself gives us a good picture of who God is.
The first reason for thinking that Samson might be a good guy after all is found in his birth narrative. Actually, it’s found in the fact that Samson has a birth narrative at all. It’s quite uncommon for someone to be given a birth narrative in the Bible for the simple fact that space is limited. So a writer is only going to give you the details that are important to their point. Since births are pretty common, we’ve all been born at some point, then there’s no reason for a writer to include the birth story of a character unless there is a special reason. In Samson’s case we find that his parents were unable to have children. Then an angel appears to Samson’s mother and tells her that she is going to have a son.
In the entire Bible there are only seven birth narratives where an angel announces the birth of a child. The six other birth narratives are of people who are held up as godly men. This includes people like Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist. Even more rare is for an angel to announce the birth of a child where the mother wasn’t even asking for a child. There is only one other birth story where the child was not asked for.
So we can see from Samson’s birth story that we should be thinking of him as a man of God. There is another important part of the birth narrative though. It’s interesting that in the narrative the angel appears the first time only to Samson’s mother. The angel doesn’t appear to Manoah. When she is informed about the child she is going to bear she accepts the news without doubting. However, when she tells her husband he has doubts. So Manoah prays for the man of God to visit again so that he can ask him how they are supposed to raise the child which is something that the angel has already told Manoah’s wife. God in his humour listens to Manoah and sends the angel again, but he doesn’t send the angel to Manoah, instead the angel visits Manoah’s wife again. His wife is a good person though so when the angel does come again she runs for her husband so that he can meet the angel. Manoah doesn’t recognize that their visitor is an angel, instead he thinks their visitor is a man of God, perhaps a prophet. Manoah asks their visitor how they are supposed to raise their son and the angel tells Manoah that he should listen to what has already been told to his wife. It’s when the angel ascends in the flame of the altar that Manoah realizes that this is no ordinary man and then worries that God is going to have them killed. Manoah’s wife, again the voice of reason here, reassures her husband that if God was going to kill them then he wouldn’t have accepted the burnt offering or told them of the birth of their child.
One of the important themes to pick up in this birth narrative is that Manoah cannot understand the working of God. That he keeps misinterpreting what God is up to. This is I think a common theme throughout the story of Samson. That the Israelites, and I think often us as readers, can’t see what God is really saying and doing in the Samson account.
For instance, in the very next chapter we have the story of Samson falling in love with the Phistine woman from Timnah. Samson’s parents are aghast that he would take an uncircumcised Philistine as his wife. How could this be a part of God’s plan for Samson. Yet we read in 14:4 that all this was from the Lord. It was God who led Samson to fall in love and marry the Philistine.
There are many more examples of this that we could go through but I want to look at just one more. But before we get there we need to first look at the riddle that Samson gives to the Philistines at his wedding ceremony. During a wager with the Philistines when he is getting married to the woman from Timnah Samson makes a wager with the Philistines whether they can answer his riddle. The riddle is, “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.” The answer for us reading the story appears to be the lion carcass that he had found lying beside the rode that had a swarm of bees in honey inside of it.
The Philistines can’t figure out this riddle and so threaten the lives of Samson’s wife and her family unless she gets the answer for them. She eventually succeeds and on the seventh day of the party they come back to Samson with the answer. What’s interesting is that we never actually get to hear what the answer to the riddle is. What happens instead, is that the Philistines come back to Samson with questions of their own. In 14:14 they say “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Now it seems that they referring to the lion carcass here but there is another possibility and I think this other possibility is the key to understanding the story of Samson’s life. The other answer to the riddle is love. It is love that is sweeter than honey and it is love that is stronger than a lion. In fact, it is love that will prove even stronger than Samson, the strongest man. And it is when we start looking at the story of Samson through the lens of love that we see how prominent a role it plays throughout these stories
For instance, why does Samson’s wife agree to find the answer for the Philistine’s? Because of her love for her family which the Philistine men had threatened to burn alive. Why does Samson eventually tell her the answer? Samson tells her the answer to the riddle after she questions his love for her.
Which brings us to the story of Samson and Delilah. A story which most people read as Samson being a incredible fool. Why after Delilah betrays him over and over again would Samson actually tell her the secret to his strength? I don’t think it is because Samson is a fool. I think it is because Delilah questions the love that Samson has for her. She tells him in 16:15, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you will not share your secret with me?” It is the love that Samson has for Delilah, even after she has continually betrayed him, that compels him to reveal the secret of his strength even though, I believe, Samson knows that this will lead to his imprisonment and death.
And it is also at this moment that we learn the key to how we are to interpret the book of Judges. As we look at the book of Judges who was it that continually keeps being betrayed but comes back because of love? It is God himself. Over and over we see the cycle of Israel leaving God behind and going after other idols only to get into trouble with the nations around her. Eventually things get so bad that they call out to Yahweh for help and he will raise up a judge to come and deliver her. Only for her to repeat the cycle over and over again. It is God who keeps getting betrayed by Israel and yet because of his love for her will continually deliver her even though he knows that she will betray him again. An interesting side note here is that Samson is the only judge who God raises up without Israel first asking for deliverance. Samson isn’t an answer to a call for help but he is a deliverer provided by God when Israel isn’t even in a place to call out to him for help.
I mentioned at the beginning that there are only two birth stories in the entire Bible where God delivered a child to a mother who wasn’t asking for a child. The other time is the birth of Jesus. Mary and Monoah’s wife are the only two women where an angel appears to them they will give birth to a son when they didn’t ask for a child. And the similarities don’t end there.
Samson is criticized for marrying a Philistine woman because she’s not the right type of woman. Jesus is constantly being told he should not be hanging around tax-collectors and sinners. Samson at one point allows himself to be tied up by his fellows Israelites and handed over to the Philistines. Jesus allows himself to be handed over to the Romans by Judas and the rest of Israel. Samson asks God to let him die with the Philistines, the enemy of God’s people. Jesus will die on the cross between two criminals. It is at a Philistine victory celebration, where they are celebrating the defeat of Samson, that Samson is able to bring his greatest victory to Israel. It is on the cross when the enemies of God finally think they have triumphed and won that Jesus turns the table and defeats death itself.
So in the end how do we see Samson? There are more examples I could look at from Samson’s life that show the character of God but I think this is a good beginning. Samson, like God, shows us the power of love and how it doesn’t always look like we think it should look. We can see in Samson’s life how powerful the love of God is for his people. That his love will lead him to sacrifice himself for their benefit.