First Reading of Judges: 14, Rise of Samson

Samson's Wedding Rembrandt
“The Wedding of Samson” painted by Rembrandt, 1638
I love this painting.  The look on the bride’s face tells it all.

Welcome to Part 4 of my First Reading of the Book of Judges.  This post will discuss chapter 14, which covers the early adulthood and marriage of Samson.  It is absolutely packed with symbolism and allusions and deeper meanings.  I had so many thoughts to share with you from this chapter.  In fact, I wish my husband were face-to-face with you because he would laugh and tell you how excited and animated I get when I’m talking about Samson and this story.  Chapter 14 is just stuffed with figurative layers on top of the plot, and even though most of it won’t be obvious on the surface to us, we have to remember that all of it would have been perfectly plain to the Hebrews of Ancient Israel.

This chapter is so full of loaded references that I actually imagined contemporary readers turning to one another with exasperated faces saying something like, “Wow, he’s laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think,” but for us, it’s not quite so easy.  You and I will have to work through these metaphors and images a little bit to get at the meanings, but once you see them, it’s really cool.

Previously, in Judges
Samson is born after a divine annunciation to his mother from an angel of the Lord.  He is dedicated as a Nazirite (see Numbers 6 for details) from before his conception in order to keep him holy (set apart) for God.  This man was born with one purpose:  to deliver Israel from the Philistines.

Samson’s Character is Revealed
This chapter is packed with points of illumination on who Samson is.  We learned in chapter 13 who this man was supposed to be for God, and in chapter 14, we learn who he actually became.

In the very first verse, we see Samson lust after a woman and then go to his parents with this little nugget:

“When he returned home, he told his father, ‘A young Philistine woman in Timnah caught my eye.  I want to marry her.  Get her for me.’” – Judges 14:2.

1.) Samson sees a pretty girl, and based upon his initial physical attraction, he determines to marry her.

2.) This girl is a Philistine, but Samson registers no caution on that front.  Remember that Samson is a Nazirite for life, and above all that means keeping himself ceremonially clean and holy/set apart for service to God.  Marrying a Philistine, a pagan worshiper of false gods and idols, was unwise in the extreme, not to mention a direct violation of Mosaic Law.

IMG_2077It is important as Western and 21st century people that we don’t get confused here.  The laws against intermarriage weren’t about race or racial purity or even obsessions with bloodline.  We can know that they weren’t because there are a lot of examples to turn to.  Moses had two wives during his life (one at a time), and they were each of a different nation and race.  When Moses’ brother and sister complain about his new 2nd wife (who was Ethiopian/Cushite), God punishes the siblings severely for it.  He straight gives the sister (Miriam) a flaming case of leprosy until she repents!  Further, throughout the Old Testament, we see people marrying across nation/tribe lines with general approval.  So the law against intermarriage isn’t about Samson’s pretty woman being a Philistine or an ethnic “other.”  This is about her being a follower of idolatrous worship, a religious “other,” which in case we missed it between Genesis and Judges chapter 11 is the number one cause of Israel’s distress and destruction.

God tolerates just about everything, but the hammer comes down on idolatry…over and over and over again.  It’s what the whole book of Judges is about, after all!  Samson’s mother tries to reason with her son over this to no avail.

3.) Samson’s language to his father indicates a toxic sense of entitlement on Samson’s part.  He sees this Philistine woman and wants her, so he feels entitled to own her.  Let that percolate for a few seconds.  We’ve met people like Samson, haven’t we?  They want it so the world owes it to them.  “Get her for me, Dad.  I want her.”  Just wow.

Samson sees this woman.  He doesn’t talk to her.  He doesn’t meet with her father or ask around about her family.  He doesn’t bring her a gift or perform any kind of gallant service for her like previous courting we’ve seen in the Old Testament.  He doesn’t look to see if her people are idolaters or express a curiosity about her moral character.  When we read about the way Isaac and Rebekah marry in Genesis 24 or the way Jacob courts Rachel in Genesis 29, we see a huge and stark contrast in the behavior and the image of how decent, well-mannered people put a marriage together from this ancient culture.

Seeing this difference, we can know (even through the veil of modern Western eyes) that Samson’s reactions and his expectations and his behavior are not normal or respectful or even decent.  Samson wants what he wants, and he believes he is owed “whatever is right in his own eyes.”


We Do Our Children No Favors By Spoiling Them
As I was reading this, I made the sort of side joke to my husband that “Samson’s mother must have just spoiled him rotten,” but I have to wonder if that’s more accurate than we know.  This is not from the text, but I was just really struck by it pretty hard while reading Samson’s story.  It makes sense.

Amy’s Wild Speculation #1:
Samson’s parents were wealthy and somewhat influential; that’s made very clear in the story.  They couldn’t conceive for a long time, and when they finally do get to have a baby together, it is a boy, an heir.  He is announced with fire and fanfare by an angel of the Lord.  He is special.  He is dedicated to God and blessed by God before he even leaves the womb.  He is going to rescue their people.  He is going to be—omg, wait for it—a savior.

Don’t think for a second that I’m reading too much into this.  I might get it wrong sometimes, but these similarities and these structural parallels and then the stark contrasts are all in here for a reason.  Nothing in the Bible is an accident, and you don’t get a story that mirrors the messianic story by accident…not ever.  They are usually there to either foreshadow Christ or show a fallen contrast to Christ (which is what I believe this one is), but they crop up all over the place.  When they do, you have to look at it because it’s always important.

How cool is the Bible?  Man alive, I love studying this book.

Okay, so now…imagine you’re Manoah or his wife raising this unbelievably miraculous baby.  This kid is your golden boy!  You prayed for him.  God sent an actual angel down from actual Heaven to answer your prayers.  He told you that your long-awaited child is going to save Israel.  Do you think maybe you could fall into the trap of just absolutely ruining the boy’s disposition with overindulgence?  With overpraise?  With overestimation of what he deserves?

I think I could fall into that trap, and I very much wonder if Samson’s parents did.  I would have loved to be a fly on that wall.

At any rate, the contrast between the expectation of Samson in chapter 13 and the reality of Samson in chapter 14 is shocking, and I believe that was intentional.  We’re supposed to be thinking here that something has gone terribly wrong with this boy who was blessed by God and stirred by the Spirit.

Instead of being holy, he is worldly.  Instead of being self-sacrificing, he is hedonistic.  Instead of being humble, he is proud.  The author wants to make sure we know all of that about Samson by verse 2!  Not good.

And it’s gonna get worse.

samson and the lion
unattributed 19th century etching, “Samson and the Lion”

Samson Violates His Nazirite Vows with the Lion & Honey
Samson kills a lion on his way to meet with the Philistine woman (now his fiancée).  It’s interesting because it says he was travelling to see her with his parents, but he clearly walked away from them or took a different path than they did because his mother and father are not witness to his killing of the lion.  The Spirit of the Lord came “powerfully upon him” when the lion attacked.  Samson has a destiny.  God wasn’t going to allow him to be killed by a beast.  Still.  If he’d just stayed on the path set forth for him by his parents, he never woulda had ta’ kill a flippin’ lion with his bare hands to keep from getting dead.  /wise nod.

Now the really important thing I noticed comes next.  When they come back for the wedding some time later, Samson takes this same road again and stops to see the lion’s carcass.  Dead animals are unclean.  Mosaic Law (and basic common sense) makes this clear.  For Nazirites, this is even more important.  “They must not go near a dead body…even if the dead person is their own father, mother, brother, or sister, they must not defile themselves.” (Num 6:6-7)  Nazirites are supposed to be so clean and so separated from unclean things that they don’t even go near a dead human body, much less touch one (the normal rule).  Not even for a funeral.  Every Israelite was to avoid touching dead animals, and Nazirites are even further restricted.  So this is a violation of his vows beyond the pale when he revisits the dead lion.

In fairness, if I was just going along and living my life and one day out of the blue, God put a superpower on me so strong that I could catch and tear apart an angry lion with my bare hands, I might have gotten a bit obsessed with it, as well.  It is understandable that Samson might want to go back to the dead lion.  Did he dream it?  Did that crazy thing really happen?  It makes sense.  But it’s still a rebellious sin.

Samson Num 6-2So Samson waltzes through a vineyard to seek out this dead lion.  Nazirites are not to eat or drink anything made from grapes or consume any kind of alcohol.  So here Samson is, surrounded by grapes, purposefully examining the dead body of a lion.  It is a striking picture, an overwhelming picture, of the direct violation of his vows.  So what does this man do next?  Well, naturally, he scoops some honey up out of the carcass and eats it.  Honey is also very symbolic in the Old Testament and is forbidden in sacrifices to the Lord.  I’m absolutely certain this is important, that it makes what Samson has done here even worse, but I will have to consult with theology books on this before I can really go further in understanding it.  It ties in deeply with Leviticus and honey being ritualistically related to blood, but all you need to know for now is:

-Nazirites are supposed to be living sacrifices to God while they are under their time of vows.

-Nazirites are never to go anywhere near a dead body.

-Honey is forbidden in sacrifices to the Lord.

-Eating honey out of a dead carcass is just about the last thing on earth a Nazirite should ever do.

Suffice it to say, this was really, really disobedient and unholy and unclean, but to make matters even worse—the author is really banging this symbolism home—Samson takes this unholy honey to his parents and, like Eve in the Garden, encourages them to eat it also.  Like the serpent, he deceives them because they have no idea that this honey is unclean and like Eve, he encourages them to partake in his own rebellious sin.

It’s that deep, y’all.  Go back and read this first half of chapter 14 again if it’s been a while for you.  This incident with the lion carcass and the honey is huge, Huge, HUGE.  I don’t understand all of it, but I know that much.  Big, big deal.  This is serious blasphemy going on as they travel down for Samson’s wedding.

The Lord Was at Work in This
I love verse 14:4 because it gives the reader permission to exhale and believe that all of this is going to be okay in the end.  God’s got this.  It reads:

“His father and mother didn’t realize the Lord was at work in this, creating an opportunity to work against the Philistines, who ruled over Israel at that time.”

And that is the main point.

However this happened, whether it was parental failure or just really bad choices made by Samson, the people in this story mess everything up.  God’s plan, however, is going to get executed. Whatever the ideal plan may have looked like, Samson’s behavior and character led them all to this point, and God’s solution was to put a Philistine woman in Samson’s path to nudge events from there.

Amy’s Wild Speculation #2:
Samson was born into the perfect family from which to exert political influence.  He was dedicated as a Nazirite to demonstrate God’s glory to any Philistine who met him.  That is a powerful combination.  Wealth, influence, and all of the spiritual gifts necessary to demonstrate the glory of the one true and living God of Israel to their enemies were his.  All of that tied up in one man at the perfect time.  I mean, wow.  It could have been just take-your-breath-out magnificent.  Through his rebellion and sin, however, Samson shut down the gateway to any diplomatic dissolution of Philistine oppression, so God flips the switch and uses Samson to start a war, instead.  More than one way to peel an orange, I guess.

Now, keep in mind that these are just thoughts I’m having as I read and reflect on this story.  There is no textual evidence that God had a “better plan” to do any of this differently, but I think it’s pretty clear that God’s intention for Samson was not vow breaking and lust and visceral rages at innocent people.  God hasn’t ever worked like that in the Old Testament before so, I wondered about what God’s original plan for Samson—the good way, the easy way, the godly way—to deliver Israel from Philistine oppression might have looked like.  If Samson had been a good man, a holy man, and lived up to the destiny that was set up for him in Judges 13, then what would his story have looked like?

And I thought of Joseph in Egypt.  Diplomacy.  Daniel with Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.  Diplomacy.  Samson was wealthy and impressive.  Is it odd to think that God might have wanted to use Samson with the Philistines the way he used Joseph with the Egyptians and Daniel with the Babylonians?  We can’t know.  The Bible doesn’t tell us, but these are the thoughts I had.

samson timnah map
I thought a map might be helpful.  You can see Timnah,
the town where Samson married and Zorah, where his family lived.
map image from Ferrell’s Travel Blog.

Pride Goeth Before the Fall
So the family descends on the town and Samson is married.  Immediately, Samson begins to assimilate and follow Philistine customs.  Verses 10 and 11 tell us that elite Philistine grooms have a custom of getting a large group of other elite men together for a seven-day party after weddings.  The bride’s parents choose thirty Philistine men to be Samson’s “companions” at this party.  Samson is not behaving as an Israelite.  He is not socializing with Israelites.  He is not following or demonstrating Israelite customs and religious practice to the Philistines in his new family.  He is not exerting his influence on the pagans.  He is allowing the pagans to influence him.

And we all know how well that turns out.

Still unable to stop obsessing about having killed the lion with his bare hands, Samson’s wonderment or amazement has turned into pride.  He is very self-congratulatory.  He thinks he is just the best thing since sliced bread, and at this decadent party filled with Philistine strangers, he sets a riddle before his guests.  He knows they will never guess the story of the lion and the honey, so his intention is to bilk them out of the goods they wagered over the riddle and then amaze them all with his self-aggrandizing tale of superhuman strength.

The men from this party don’t want to lose face in a bet with this Israelite stranger, so they bully his wife, even threatening to kill her family in order to get the answer to Samson’s riddle from her.  In fear, she goes to Samson weeping.  She asks for the answer, but he refuses to give it to her.  The bullies get even more hostile so she “torments” Samson with her “nagging” until he gives her the answer.  Naturally, she passes the lion and honey answer to the men, causing Samson to lose the wager and, more importantly, the shock and awe he was so eager to deliver in front of the whole party in triumph at the end of the seven days.

Samson prideInstead of taking pity on his new bride or asking why she would have done such a thing, our self-satisfied Samson flies off into a blind rage (which will become a pattern with him).

-He went to another town and murdered thirty innocent men.  One can only assume these were proxy killings because he wanted to kill the thirty men from the party.

-He steals the goods and clothing from his murder victims to pay the wager to his party companions.

-Then he skips town to go back home to his parents, publicly abandoning his wife so thoroughly that her family believes she has been functionally divorced/rejected.

The bride’s father gives her in marriage to the man who was Samson’s best man at the wedding, and they all go on with life, assuming that the whole unpleasant mess is over.

Side Note/Question: On that last point, I will have to look up to see if that was some kind of Philistine custom.  The Israelites, for example, would have a man marry his brother’s widow if the brother died without heirs, and this was a sacred duty in their family codes of honor.  The verse is so specific about the best man from the wedding taking Samson’s jilted wife that it makes me wonder if there’s a cultural custom of the Philistines in there somewhere.

Closing out Chapter 14
I think the major goal of chapter 14 is to show us that Samson rejected the gifts of his birth.  He was set up for every kind of material and spiritual success, but even with every imaginable advantage, Samson chose sin and rebellion and violence.  He followed his own desires and cared nothing for the needs of other people, for the honor of his parents, or for his vows to God.

God had an original plan for Samson, and we can only speculate about the particulars, but we know from chapter 13 that it was special and holy and good.  Samson rejected God’s plan, and it leads to his death and destruction.  God’s will gets done.  God is God, and what he speaks will be.  We can get on board and enjoy the blessings or we can get in the way and be steamrolled.

I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll jump right back in at chapter 15.

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