It is hard to know quite what to make of the story of Samson. It is certainly entertaining: the long-haired, larger-than life Danite hero with his appetite for Philistine women uses his superhuman strength to get out of a number of scrapes largely of his own making, until the beautiful Delilah gets the better of him with her incessant nagging and extracts the secret of his strength. With his hair shaved, he is captured and blinded by his enemies. Perhaps there is redemption of sorts at the end when he pulls the house down on the oppressors of his people, taking thousands of Philistines to death with him.
But that story, no doubt told and retold with relish in ancient Israel, is set within a larger narrative in the biblical canon. It is the last in a series of accounts of saviours of ancient Israel found in the book of Judges, a list that includes heroes like Gideon and Deborah. Each story has been woven into a theological framework with a highly stylised introduction and conclusion. The LORD’s people forsake their God, who then allows their enemies to oppress them. When they cry out in distress, God raises a deliver to rescue them. Under his or her rule they enjoy a time of peace. That is exactly how the Samson saga begins: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.” (Jdg 13:1 NRSV). But then the pattern changes. Here there is no crying out for help. The people of God seem resigned to their fate. They no longer even look to God to save them. To the contrary, a little way into Samson’s saga, they are annoyed with him for provoking their oppressors with his personal vendettas and hand him over to appease the Philistines (15:10-11). But the LORD is determined to save them nonetheless.
Samson’s story starts well. His birth is announced by an angel: the barren woman will conceive and give birth to a son, who is to be consecrated to God. He is to be a nazirite, a vowed religious of sorts. Numbers 6 sets out the terms of the nazirite vow: to abstain from alcohol and grape products, to avoid corpses and not to cut the hair. The vow was usually taken for a limited period, but Samson, like Samuel and John the Baptist after him, was to be a nazirite from the womb to the tomb.
The LORD had great plans for Samson. He blesses the growing child, and the Spirit of the LORD begins to move him (13:24-25). But from this point onwards the story of Samson is an uneasy weaving of discordant narratives. There is the underlying story of God and God’s people, and God’s plan to rescue them from oppression. But there is also the story of self-centred Samson, driven by his appetites and desire for revenge. He does fulfil his calling somewhat by vexing the Philistines, but not because he is living out of the story of the people of God and God’s plans for them. It is always a result of personal vendettas. These stories intersect. The Spirit of the LORD is ever eager to work through Samson, coaxing him toward a confrontation with the enemy and coming upon him on a number of occasions to empower him to act as Israel’s saviour, as well as save his own skin (14:4, 6, 19; 15:14).
Twice in the narrative Samson prays. Dying of thirst after massacring a thousand Philistines with an ass’s jawbone, he cries out to God, referring to himself as God’s servant, and crediting God with the victory (15:18). God responds immediately by causing a spring to gush forth. In his last prayer, when the shorn and blinded Samson is providing entertainment for the worshippers in Dagon’s temple, he says: “Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes,” followed by a final “Let me die with the Philistines” (16:28, 30 NRSV). The divine response is implied in the answer that is given when the pillars are toppled so that the roof comes crashing down. Is this final request of Samson that of the noble hero? I hear in it the final act of revenge for a personal grievance. Even here Samson has not risen above his own story to consciously join God’s story. He is his own avenger, not Israel’s saviour.
Samson doesn’t give us much of an example to aspire to. Once we have been entertained by the superbly told tale, what stays with us? Perhaps we can find in Samson not who we should be, but who we are. As called, gifted people, empowered by the Spirit, out of whose story are we living? That story can be writ large, with great exploits, but is it at the end of the day about us, or about what God is stirring us to do in the world?
There is something hopeful about Samson’s story too. The Spirit of the LORD was patient and willing to work with a very flawed individual. Even his self-centred actions could be woven somehow into the divine tale. The shearing of his locks on Delilah’s lap was not the first time that he had played loose with his vows. He had hosted a drinking party at his wedding (14:10) and dug honey out of the corpse of a lion (14:9). It is only when his hair is cut that the Spirit leaves him (16:20). But immediately after we are told that his hair began to grow again. There is still the possibility of redemption. As Samson veers from one ‘incident’ to the next, the Spirit of the LORD is at work, finding the gaps and the opportunities, using Samson’s temperamental personality to disturb the numbed acceptance of the status quo where God’s people have resigned themselves to their life of un-freedom.
Will God’s will be done anyway? Samson’s story suggests ‘yes and no’. Even Samson’s eye for women can be the opportunity for God to upset the settled relationship between the Israelites and the Philistines. But by the end of the story there is still no real deliverance from the Philistine oppression, despite the accumulation of dead bodies. In the canonical context, we see how the whole system is failing. The book of Judges will now leave the accounts of individual saviour-judges to paint a shocking and depressing picture of life within the community of the people of God. Things are falling apart. This next part of the book has as a repeated refrain:”in those days Israel had no king” (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25). God’s chosen instruments, called, gifted and empowered by the Spirit though they are, are no longer effective in doing the work of leading God’s people. A new dispensation is needed.
I wonder whether our lives and mission are God’s story or ours? Is the power of the Spirit squandered on personal agendas, or are we truly those who bring salvation? Thank God, the LORD is creative in weaving the stories together. And shorn hair regrows.