A Study of Samson: Faith and Folly
The eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews has often been called the biblical “Hall of Fame,” or “Hall of Faith.” The stories of those Old Testament heroes that adorn this section of scripture have thrilled our hearts since we were children.
When one sees names such as Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, he does not wonder at their appearance. On the other hand, when one encounters the names of others, e.g. Rahab, Jephthah, and Samson, he is forced to probe deeper into the record in an attempt to understand why such flawed people warrant this tribute. In this study, we shall give consideration to one of the more perplexing characters — Samson.
Samson occupies an unusual niche in the Old Testament in that his mission is foretold even before his conception. The barren wife of Manoah, a Hebrew man of Zorah, was mysteriously visited by “the Messenger of Jehovah,” who appeared to her in the form of a man. (Note: A compelling case can be made for the view that this Person was the preincarnate Christ. See Funderburk, 162-163.)
The Messenger informed the dear woman that she would conceive a son. The child was to be raised a Nazirite (cf. Numbers 6), and his role would be to “begin” the deliverance of Israel from the oppressive Philistines, a pagan people who dwelt along the coastal region in SW Canaan (Judges 13:5-6). As a result of his special dedication to the Lord, young Samson was endowed with incredible strength.
Given the circumstances of his birth along with the training he received as a boy, one expects the life of this Hebrew leader to shine brilliantly as a thrilling example of fidelity before God. Instead, the student meets with considerable disappointment.
Major Movements in Samson’s Administration
Some movements in Samson’s period of judging are rather easily delineated.
Samson became infatuated with a Philistine woman whom he eventually married. She betrayed his confidence which led to a confrontation between the youth and these heathen people. As a result, Samson killed thirty Philistine men (Judges 14).
Samson’s wife was given to another man. In retaliation, he loosed three hundred foxes (or jackals), with fire brands tied to their tails, among the ripe wheat and in the oliveyards. In response, the Philistines murdered his wife and father-in-law. In a vigorous rejoinder, Samson smote these pagans “hip and thigh” with a “great slaughter.”
The Philistines, who “ruled” Israel in those days (15:11), then put pressure on the Hebrews to surrender Samson to them. The young judge yielded to a plan of sorts, allowing himself to be bound. When confronted by the enemy, however, he broke the bands as if they were a rope of ashes; he seized the fresh (non-brittle) jawbone of a donkey, and therewith eliminated 1,000 of the enemy. God blessed this endeavor (Judges 15).
Samson journeyed to Gaza, one of the Philistine stronghold cities, and consorted with a harlot. The heathen citizens heard of his visit and surrounded the house wherein he lay, determining to capture him at day break. Somehow, Samson slipped through their guard, pulled up the doors of the city gate, and carried them to a place near Hebron, some forty miles away. This was a sharp insult to Gaza (Judges 16:1-3).
Samson fell in love with a Philistine woman named Delilah. From the commencement of their unseemly relationship Delilah was filled with treachery. The Philistines made her a lucrative deal. “Discover the secret of Samson’s strength, reveal it to us, and we will reward you with much silver.”
After a series of maneuvers, wherein Samson played the “cat-and-mouse” game with her (ending up as the mouse), she extracted the secret. Samson was shorn of his long hair and, more significantly, “Jehovah departed from him” and he became as weak physically as he was spiritually (16:20). The Philistines captured him, put out his eyes, and cast him into prison (Judges 16:4-27).
Time passed. Presently, during a religious celebration, wherein the pagan god Dagon was exalted above Jehovah, Samson prayed to God for the restoration of his former strength. His prayer was answered. He pushed over two mighty pillars of the heathen temple, causing the roof to collapse. Thousands were killed (3,000 were on the roof), and Samson himself surrendered his life in this final “battle” between God’s judge and the godless Philistines.
In this concluding contest, Samson had slain more than in all his earlier efforts combined (Judges 16:23-31). Thus ended Samson’s twenty-year period of judgment in Israel.
A Key Passage
Perhaps the most critical passage in the book of Judges is that which has to do with Samson’s selection of his Philistine wife, with the reluctant participation of his father and mother. Here is the controversial reading:
“But his father and mother knew not that it was of Jehovah; for he sought an occasion against the Philistines” (14:4 — emphasis added).
There are two problems here that must be carefully considered.
First, there is the phrase (regarding Samson’s marriage to this Philistine), “it was of Jehovah.” How can that be said when, clearly, marriages between the Hebrews and pagans were prohibited (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3)? Did God cause Samson to violate divine law? He did not. What, then, is the meaning?
This is an example of the use of a common Hebrew idiom, whereby God is said to actively do what he merely tolerates. The Lord can take a bad situation and use it for the accomplishment of his own purpose.
Second, what does the text mean when it says that “he sought an occasion against the Philistines”? Does the pronoun refer to God, or to Samson?
Though some (Keil, 409) attribute the action to Samson, more likely the reference is to Jehovah (Kaiser, 196). If that is the case, we must not assume that the Lord was arbitrarily looking for some excuse to justify the destruction of an innocent people. No, the record of Philistine depravity is clear enough. In fact, these people should have been eliminated during Israel’s initial invasion of the land.
Furthermore, “sought” is a form of the figure of speech known as anthropopathism (human emotions ascribed to deity) — just as physical traits are sometimes employed of God for emphatic purposes (cf. Isaiah 59:1).
The meaning of the text, therefore, seems to be this. God, in his infinite wisdom and in the exercise of his sovereign power, allowed Samson to utilize his own freedom of choice — foolish though it was — yet the Lord turned the occasion into a victory for Israel over their oppressors. Jehovah’s will cannot be thwarted!
Samson’s Moral Flaws
In discussing Samson as a person, we must first observe that the critical view, which sees this narrative as a collection of “folk tales” which were merely intended “to entertain” (Pressler, 1161) and do not reflect historical reality is to be rejected forthrightly. The inspired writer of Hebrews obviously considered Samson as a real, historical person — as with the other Old Testament figures he mentions (cf. 11:32).
Besides, such a stained character would scarcely have been invented as a national hero.
The early years of Samson are passed over quickly by the sacred writer. He “grew, and Jehovah blessed him. And the Spirit of Jehovah began to move him” (Judges 13:25). A study of the subsequent record, however, pinpoints many weaknesses in this man who was so strong physically. Let us focus attention upon this matter.
One of Samson’s besetting sins was his lust for women. He flung principle to the wind by marrying a heathen woman simply because she “pleased” him (14:3). He fraternized with a prostitute at Gaza (16:1), and fell head-over-heals for the treacherous Delilah — even though he could discern her designing intentions from the start. He subordinated spiritual interests to the flesh.
Additionally, Samson did not live up to his training and dedication as a Nazirite. He involved himself in a wine-drinking feast (so the Hebrew term misteh of 14:10 indicates) (Davis, 136). He took honey from the carcass of a dead lion, thus violating laws regarding ceremonial separateness (Numbers 6:6).
Finally, many of his heroic efforts appear to have been motivated by personal inclination of revenge, rather than a desire to establish the cause of a Holy God (cf. 15:3; 16:28).
But that is not the entire story.
Samson’s Commendable Traits
By way of contrast, Samson possessed qualities which obviously were worthy of commendation.
He appears to have accepted his role as one who was set apart to be a deliverer of the Lord’s people from their pagan enemies. There is no evidence that he repudiated the divine appointment, of which his parents would have informed him.
While he was marred by weakness, he did not hesitate to engage the enemy as a lone warrior. He never led an army; his victories were achieved with only Jehovah as a partner.
There are glimpses of trusting faith when he calls upon God for strength and sustenance (Judges 15:18-19). It is interesting that in his final prayer (16:28ff), he employs three names for God. He appeals to Yahweh (rendered “Jehovah” — ASV), the covenant name of the self-existing God (Exodus 3:14-15). He designates God as Adonai (Lord), suggestive of the sovereignty or mastery of deity over man. Then there is the designation Elohim (God) which likely hints of the strength or power of deity (see Stone).
h2. Putting the Samson Narrative into Focus
The reflective student cannot but be troubled by what appears to be a disproportionate amount of material derailing Samson’s weaknesses as compared to his deeds of nobility. However, to provide balance, the following factors must be kept in mind.
The period of the judges was “the dark age” of Hebrew history. The entire nation was characterized by a spirit of rebellion (cf. 21:25). Samson’s weaknesses mirrored the religious and moral climate of the people as a whole.
One must remember that Samson judged Israel for twenty years (16:31); the episodes recorded in the book do not represent the totality of his service.
Samson’s sins were weaknesses of the flesh. They were not defiant repudiations of the Creator, such as were those frequent meanderings into idolatry to which so many of the Hebrews were prone. The fact that the Lord responded to this judge when he called out for help, is testimony that Samson was sincere in his devotion, though tragically weak in character.
That the Old Testament record contains these unvarnished accounts of Samson’s sins, with no attempt to conceal them, is evidence of the divine inspiration of the document. A strictly humanistic vantage point would have down-played the man’s blunders and exalted his nobler traits.
The Old Testament contains wonderful examples of how Almighty God can work a divine plan using even the most tarnished of characters. The acts of Providence are amazing indeed. The examples of Balaam (Numbers 22-24), Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 25:9), and Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28-45:1) are incredible cases of where God employed weak — sometimes even evil men — to weave his sacred purpose into the tapestry of history.
h2. A Summary
One must, therefore, say this. Though the case of Samson is at times perplexing, the problems associated with him are not insurmountable. He justly deserves censure. He was often profane (like Esau — Hebrews 12:16), giving in to the urges of the flesh, but he was contrite at times as well. Certainly he was effective in the commencement of Israel’s overthrow of the godless Philistines — though perhaps not as effective as he might have been had he been as strong spiritually as he was physically.
It is very likely that the concluding victory, in which he gave his life, was the precursor to that devastating defeat of the Philistines which was accomplished not long thereafter.
bq. “So the Philistines were subdued, and they came no more within the border of Israel: and the hand of Jehovah was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel” (1 Samuel 7:13).
h2. An Archaeological Note
There is an interesting archaeological footnote which may be added to this discussion. Several Philistine temples have been discovered in recent years. At Tell Qasile, on the bank of the Yarkon River, just north of Tel Aviv, in the early 1970’s, the first remnants of Philistine temples were discovered.
Three temples were superimposed at levels XII, Xl, and X. Amidst the ruins of these edifices were two circular stone pedestals (about a yard apart) upon which rested massive cedar pillars which supported the roof (Negev, 317; Rea, 1514). This descriptive is very reminiscent of the temple at Gaza, mentioned in Judges 16:25ff.
- Davis, John & Whitcomb, John. 1980. A History of Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Funderburk, G. B. 1975. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 1. Merrill Tenney, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Kaiser, Walter C., et al. 1996. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVasity.
- Keil, C. F. and Delitzsch, F. 1978. Commentary on the Old Testament. Vol. II. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Negev, Avraham 1986. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land. Nashville, TN: Nelson.
- Pressler, Carolyn 2000. “Samson.” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. David N. Freedman, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Rea, John 1998. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Stone, Nathan 1944. The Names of God. Chicago, IL: Moody.