Why, why, why, Samson?

Blanchard, Pascal, active 1885-1909; Samson and Delilah

Photo credit: Walker Art Gallery

Then [Samson’s] brothers and all his family came down and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of his father Manoah. He had judged Israel twenty years. (Judges 16.31)

So ends the story of Samson, according to the Book of Judges. Clearly the word ‘judged’ means something different here, from what we take it to mean. For us, a judge is expected to be a person of wisdom, experience, and knowledge of the law. Samson, a testosterone-charged strong man, bully, boor, terrorist (according to the Philistines) or freedom fighter (according to the Israelites), womaniser and idiot, is of all the characters in the Bible pretty much the most lacking in all these qualities.

In fact, the word translated ‘judge’ does include other significances in the Bible. The entry in Strong’s Concordance for H8199 reads:

שָׁפַט  shâphaṭ, shaw-fat’; a primitive root; to judge, i.e. pronounce sentence (for or against); by implication, to vindicate or punish; by extension, to govern; passively, to litigate (literally or figuratively):— avenge, that condemn, contend, defend, execute (judgment), (be a) judge(-ment), needs, plead, reason, rule.

Well, there may be a lot of avenging and punishing going on in the story of Samson. But very little vindicating, pronouncing sentence in any legal sense, and still less governing. This is a man who can’t even govern himself; it would be remarkable if he could govern anything or anyone else.

When I was a child the biblical story of Samson used to be considered suitable reading for children, in Children’s Bibles and the like. Please don’t tell me it still is. We had to read the story of Samson and Delilah in this morning’s lections for Morning Prayer, and frankly we didn’t know what to make of it. (See Judges 16.4-31) It’s certainly a well-constructed story, as stories go: you have the rule of three, three questions and false answers before Samson finally betrays the secret of his strength (because of his mistress’s nagging and pestering, the narrator tells us); the inevitable violent consequence in his capture and the gouging out of his eyes (suitable for children?!); his final repentance and restoration, so that his enemies get their justifiable comeuppance… But really: what else is going on here? Is this a subversive tale, subverting patriarchy, marriage, male machismo in general? Is it a cautionary tale about ‘marrying out’? (Samson should have fallen in love with and married nice Jewish girls, instead of these sexy Philistine women…) or just against extra-marital sex in general? Is it a feminist tract urging women to get their own back? Is it a dire warning for parents not to indulge their children? Because we blamed the parents: Manoah and his (of course, unnamed) wife are visited by the angel of the LORD and promised a miraculous son who is to be consecrated to God for the whole of his life. But instead of bringing him up to have any kind of respect for that consecration, or any understanding of the Law or what it means to be holy and godly, they pander to his every whim, chasing round the country to negotiate for him to marry some young woman who has taken his fancy, whom their son then deserts on his wedding night, with the consequence that she and her father get burned to death by their neighbours. Nice story.

So, what is this Samson? A thoroughly nasty piece of work? Or a hero and a role model for Israel? I was going to say, Surely not! But maybe that is exactly what he has become: a model for still smiting and killing Palestinians?

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