What do you know about Samson? Is he a Bible character you particularly admire or respect? His story, told in four chapters in Judges, is full of foolish choices. He had a special weakness for Philistine women. His last Philistine girl friend, Delilah, kept bugging him to tell her the secret of his strength. Twice he lied to her, and twice she sent Philistine men to capture him. What kept him from turning his back on her instead of finally telling her the truth? And he had such a great start in life!
The angel of the Lord appeared to Samson’s mother, a barren woman. The Bible does not name her, but think of the other barren women in the Bible who eventually bore illustrious children: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hanna, Elizabeth. The angel told this woman that she would bear a son whose mission was to begin to deliver Israel from its bondage to the Philistines. He also told her that her son was to be a nazirite from his birth. That meant that she, too had to keep the nazirite vow during her pregnancy.
The nazirite vow, described in Numbers 6, set people apart from the rest of society in three ways: they were not allowed to eat or drink anything made from grapes (especially wine, but also vinegar and raisins); they were not allowed to cut their hair; and they were not allowed any contact with a dead body–even a parent or sibling who died. Most often, a man or woman would take the nazirite vow for short periods of time, special times of fellowship with God and separation from everyday routine. Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist were called to a life-long Nazarite vow.
At the end of Judges 13, we read that as Samson grew, the Lord blessed him and that the Holy Spirit began to stir him. That means that Samson began to display superhuman strength at times. That strength was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit and therefore not something Samson always had. He had to ask for it. It is a mistake to think of Samson as some kind of over-muscled body builder who looks to the most casual observer as stronger than anyone else. Samson’s appearance and natural abilities must have been very ordinary.
Many times, the Bible uses one person or thing to stand for something larger. Samson personifies the entire nation of Israel of his day. The way he treated his status as specially chosen mirrors Israel’s status as the chosen race. Perhaps that explains his preference for foreign women. Israelites in general were forbidden to marry them, but when Samson demanded that his father Manoah get a Philistine bride for him, Manoah protested, but got the desired bride. He would have been within his rights to choose a suitable bride for his son and compel him to marry her. We might ask, why didn’t he?
Samson’s desire for foreign women mirrored Israel’s desire to worship Canaanite gods. The Bible says Samson’s choice was from God, but that can only mean that Samson began began to walk in God’s permissive will rather than his intentional will. God accepted Samson, spiritual weakness and all, and used him to advance his (God’s) purposes. Samson would have been even more useful if he had remained faithful to his calling, but God used him as he was. Perhaps, then, we should take Manoah as a type of divine love.
From that time on, we see Samson motivated by his own desires for women, for practical jokes, and for revenge. He could not give up Delilah even though his own self-interest clearly demanded it. So he got a haircut and lost his supernatural strength as a result. Imprisoned and blinded, Samson seemed to end his life in abject failure. The Philistines, though, had reckoned without one important clause in the nazirite vow: if a person broke the vow, he was supposed to shave head and let the hair start to grow back. One week later, he would start a new vow.
The Philistines put him on public display for a feast so they could taunt him. He asked for his supernatural strength again in order to get revenge–his only recorded prayer. God complied, and Samson broke two structural pillars. The entire temple collapsed, killing him and all the Philistines in it. At the end of his career, his success was measured in the number of Philistines he had killed. That’s all. He had not begun any kind of deliverance.
The only time Samson’s name appears outside the book of Judges is in Hebrews 11:32, the list of Old Testament heroes of the faith. Verse 38 says that the world was not worthy of him. How can a man who failed so completely to live up to his promise and calling make it into that list?
First, the failure to begin any kind of deliverance was not entirely Samson’s fault. All of the other judges got military support from the people. By Samson’s time, they were quite willing to live under Philistine rulership and behaved more like rabbits than people willing to trust God for any positive change.
Second, Samson did keep the nazirite vow all his life. True, his taking honey from the corpse of a dead lion came close to a violation, but think of how difficult it must have been for him to give the customary wedding banquet and not drink wine. He did not cut his hair; the Philistines forcibly cut it for him. Keeping a vow all his life that was made for him, and not of his own will showed no little faith and commitment.
And third, Samson judged Israel for twenty years. No one appointed or elected the judges, and they did not inherit their office. In the book of Judges, leaders usually emerged by some kind of heroic deed. Just as they had with Moses, people would come to these leaders with their disputes and problems, seeking advice and resolution. If any of these heros failed to try to be helpful, or if any were found to give unwise or unfair judgment, people would have stopped coming to them. That Samson judged for a long time indicates that his people saw him as a wise and just man.
Samson’s life shows yet again that a man can make spectacular blunders and still walk in God’s blessing. God takes faith and commitment very seriously, and what faith and commitment Samson had was genuine. His failures kept him from fulfilling his calling, but God never abandoned him.
That should give everyone great comfort. Every believer has a calling, whether we recognize it or not. If we recognize it in ourselves, we can allow the Holy Spirit to rise up in us not for our own selfish ends, but to redirect our lives to more holy living and more complete commitment. If we recognize God’s calling in others but also see flaws and weaknesses that keep them from achieving it, we can prayerfully and lovingly minister to them and encourage them to redirect their own lives to more perfectly serve God. If God did not give up on Samson, he won’t give up on me–or you.
Illustration credit: Samson / N.C. Mallory, pastel, charcoal, tempera and mixed media on prepared grey-violet paper (Ingres heavy) on heavy (60-ply) matboard Some rights reserved