First Reading of Judges: 15, Fall of Samson

Samson threatens father in law Rembrandt
“Samson Threatening His Father-in-Law,” Rembrandt, 1635

So, in the past few days, the Nix household has been visited by a series of unfortunate events.  First, I got sick.  Next, my daughter got sick.  After that, my husband had to leave for a two-week work assignment.  So it’s been a little longer than I planned between Judges installments.  I’m sorry about that, but it just couldn’t be helped.  If you haven’t read the previous installments of the Judges First Reading series, you might want to go peruse those and catch up.  Otherwise, we’ll just jump right in where we left off.

Previously, in Judges
Samson flagrantly and repeatedly broke his Nazirite vows to God.  He got married, murdered 30 innocent people in cold blood, and then abandoned his wife, publicly humiliating her family.

15:1 – Our Mass Murderer Returns to Timnah with a Gift Goat
Verse 1 of chapter 15 tells us that some time later, during the wheat harvest, Samson suddenly remembers that he married a woman and decides to go see her.  Now, it’s been weeks or months since Samson went on a murder spree and skipped town.  If it were only a matter of a few days, wouldn’t it make sense for the text to say “a few days later” instead of giving us a seasonal reference?  Also, we know that these weddings take a full week of festivities, and the wife has been married off to another man in meantime. It’s possible that her second wedding was a hushed up and rushed affair, but a lot has taken place since Samson threw a fit, killed thirty people, looted their corpses, and then ran home to mommy.

Solid commentary will sort this out for me later, but for now, I’m going with the “weeks or months” assumption.

Samson married and then bedded his wife in a very public marriage festival that lasted for a solid week.  Samson and his wife both came from very wealthy families, so we can also assume that every human being for miles around knew about the marriage and probably attended or spectated in some way.  It’s crucial to understand this part.  This wedding was a major event, and when the upper classes got married, the lower classes were generally given gifts of free wine or food alongside the gifts of spectacle and gossip.  Nobody would have missed that wedding, and nobody would have missed the fact that the groom ran off and left his ruined bride behind, either.

We have to consider how totally humiliating and degrading it would have been for this woman after Samson abandoned her, and their culture was one that placed a much, much higher value on family honor than we do.  The honor of the family was everything.  Israelite and Philistine alike had this honor business indoctrinated into them from birth.  It was so culturally central that if you opened them up, you’d probably find it carved into their bones.

So imagine you’re Samson’s wife or her father.  No longer a maiden, but abandoned by her husband and left single as a ruined woman, this kind of dishonor would have been utterly disastrous for her and all of her family.  She had been functionally divorced/set aside by Samson, so her father did what any rational, caring father of that time and place would have done.  He saved her dignity and respect in the community by giving her in marriage to another man.  There is absolutely no hint that I can see in the text that any of this was done duplicitously or maliciously.  It was a rational and culturally acceptable way to handle the wreckage Samson had left behind him.  It is also another reason to believe that Samson was gone for more than a few days.  Otherwise, the family would not have drawn the conclusion that his wife had been forsaken forever.

Samson was gone for so long that they believed he had thrown her off and was never coming back.

Now Samson comes waltzing back into town with a young goat to give as a gift.  His purpose for doing this was not to apologize to his father-in-law or to make things right with his wife.  Let’s look at 15:1 in full because his motive here is crystal clear.

Later on, during the wheat harvest, Samson took a young goat as a present to his wife.  He said, “I’m going into my wife’s room to sleep with her,” but her father wouldn’t let him in.” – NLT

Samson’s only purpose here was to exert his marital sexual privilege with her.  He slaughtered thirty men who were strangers to him and had done him no wrong.  He paid off his foolish gambling debt in a rage with wealth he stole from his murder victims.  He abandoned his wife to humiliation and despair.  And it was not remorse that brought him back to his father-in-law’s house with a goat.  It was lust.

15:2 – Samson Continues to Terrorize His In-Laws
Samson is shocked when he is denied access to his wife.  After all, from his perspective, he’s done nothing wrong.  It was her fault.  She told his secret to the partygoers and betrayed him.  She is the one who made him go to another town and kill thirty innocent people to get the money for the debt.  In spite of all that, he is willing to forgive.  Look, he even brought this fine gift, and these Philistines have the unmitigated gall to tell him that he can’t go on up and make use of his wife?

Madness, I know, but this is how Samson sees all of this.

The father-in-law, probably shaking with a combination of anger and anxiety over this whole nightmare tries to remedy the situation by offering Samson his younger daughter as a wife.  This, as we’ve seen in several parts of the Old Testament, is considered normal, decent, hospitable, and generous.  It was not viewed as a debauched proposal by anyone in that part of the world except for the Israelites under Mosaic Law.  For the father-in-law, this was likely a sincere and socially acceptable solution to the problem, but for Israelites, it would be out of the question.

Judges has nodded back to Leviticus many times, and here we see it happen again.  The author of Judges is systematically reminding us of the Law and highlighting areas where the Philistines live in a debauched, ungodly culture, much like the Canaanite nations we saw in Judges 1-12.

Samson, as an Israelite generally and as a Nazirite especially, could not marry the sister of his wife as long as his wife remained living (Lev 18:18).  This was more about polygamy rules than it was about this strange and really messy situation Samson now found himself in with his father-in-law, but it still applied.  Samson couldn’t marry the younger sister, even if he wanted to.  I mean, he had no problem eating honey out of a dead lion in a vineyard, but apparently the sister wife law was where he drew the line.

He slides into another rage, saying, “This time, I cannot be held responsible for what I do to you Philistines.”  I found this really interesting.  It sure sounds like “this time” means that Samson understood he was guilty for the things he did to the Philistines up to this point.  Doesn’t it?  If that’s what it means, then it is the only time in his entire recorded story that he expresses any sort of personal responsibility for his sins and crimes.

 

Samson Foxes Etienne Delaune 1561
Samson setting the foxes’ tails on fire, print by Etienne Delaune, 1561

15:3-6, Samson Tortures Some Animals and Gets His In-Laws Killed
Because the father has denied Samson access to his wife, and because the offered solution of marrying her sister is unacceptable, Samson goes out and traps “300 foxes,” which seems a very specific sort of number.  Literal or no, he got a bunch of foxes, tied their tails together, and lit them on fire so that the poor creatures would panic and run through the Philistines’ grain fields, olive groves, and vineyards, totally destroying all of the crops in one day.

fullsizeoutput_9f6So the foxes get the job done while they run for their poor little lives through the fields, and now other Philistines are starting to ask who this crazy man is and why he is doing this terrible thing.  These Philistines find out that Samson is the culprit and that he is doing it for revenge against his father-in-law.  So they go to Timnah, drag the ex-wife and the father-in-law out, and then burn them to death.

Ironically, they did to the wife and her father exactly what the party guests threatened to do to her if she didn’t give them the answer to Samson’s riddle from the wedding.  That is just some really thick tragedy.  By betraying her husband to avoid the violence she was threatened with, Samson’s wife actually brought it about.  I’m sure there’s a whole sermon you could preach off of that lesson.

Whether the Philistines did this to appease Samson, hoping that he would be satisfied and stop attacking them, or whether they did it for some other reason, I don’t really know.  It’s definitely something to research further.  For now, it’s just another really sad and violent story in Judges.

Symbolism Break – Crops Fit for God’s Table
Bread, olive oil, and wine are the only non-animal items approved for sacrifice under Mosaic Law.  Bread or flour with olive oil and wine were offered up as sacrifices of thanksgiving.

Philistines did not keep the dietary laws of Israel, of course, and they consumed animals that were unclean.  They also worshiped many gods and sacrificed animals to those idols, often consuming the meat later.

I don’t think it’s just an accident that the only foods the Philistines had that were fit for sacrifice to God were the only ones that got burned down.  Go with me on this for a hot minute.  Turn to Genesis 15:16, and see if this tracks:

“After four generations, your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” – Gen 15:16, NLT

“And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” – Gen 15:16, ESV

God tells Abraham that his descendants will have to wait before taking possession of the Promised Land because the appointed time for his wrath against the Amorites has not yet arrived.  God wouldn’t send the Amorites to their fate at the hands of Israel until their sin had reached a point of no return.  Once that switch got flipped and the appointed time arrived, the Amorites were driven out and destroyed.

God allowed the Philistines to come in and oppress the Israelites.  Until the Philistines’ sin reached a point of no return, until the appointed time, God would not move against them.  The Philistine’s grain, their olives, and their grapes, which were fit for God’s table but never offered to him, seem to symbolize that “not yet complete” and that “do not yet warrant destruction” part of Genesis 15:16.  Samson comes in and burns those crops and so nothing fit for God’s table remains with the Philistines.

Immediately after this scene, Samson wages real war on the Philistines with the jawbone and 1,000 dead.  So…that sounds an awful lot like a divine “appointed time switch” getting flipped, doesn’t it?

What do you think?  Too much?  I think I’m kind of skating a line with this one, but I thought about it during this reading, so I’m sharing it.  I think it makes sense, but I fully concede that I might be overdoing it.

 

15:7-13, Samson is Rejected by Judah
It’s clear in verse 7 that if what the Philistines wanted was to appease Samson by killing his wife and her father, they seriously missed the mark.  Samson is even further inflamed.  He wanted to punish the Philistines, not kill his family.  When he hears about their deaths, he vows revenge and kills “many” Philistines.  He skips town again and hides in a cave in the land of the tribe of Judah.

IMG_2159The Philistines are hunting Samson down, now, and when they come into the area where Samson is hidden away, the Judah-ites realize that they didn’t bargain for this much heat.  Samson is not from Judah, and his behavior has been reprehensible from start to finish.  They go to him and say, “Look, you’ve put us in a huge bind here.  The Philistines rule this land, and you have seriously screwed up.  We’re not risking our lives and lands and families for you.  You gotta let us hand you over.”  Samson protests, refusing to take responsibility for anything.  It’s always someone else’s fault.  He considers himself blameless for all of his violence and all of his sins.  Eventually, he relents, unwilling to try to harm his own people, but he asks them to promise not to kill him themselves.  They agree, so he allows them to tie him up and deliver him to the Philistines.

And here is where the tire meets the pavement.

The Spirit comes powerfully upon him yet again, and he slays 1,000 men, single-handedly and with nothing but a weapon of opportunity he found lying on the ground–the fabled donkey’s jawbone.

The jawbone was of a “recently killed” donkey, meaning that, once again, we are watching a Nazirite touch the corpse of a dead animal in violation of his vows.

…and then he brags about it.  Because of course he does.

There is no mention whatsoever of glory for God or gratitude for God’s help and favor.  Nope. All Samson.  All swagger.  This man is the king of blind worship of the self.

After all of this exertion and killing, and after a tremendous display of boasting and posturing for the crowd of Judah-ites, Samson is overpowered by thirst, and for the first time during all of this, he finally looks to God.  He begs God not to allow him to achieve victory only to collapse from thirst and fall into the hands of the Gentiles/pagans.  God opens a rock and water flows out.

Samson drinks God’s water and is refreshed.

Only after this is Samson named a judge of Israel.  Do you see it?  For this one moment, this one tiny brief space of time, Samson asked God to save him.  He took refreshment from God instead of from the bodies of women or from honey out of corpses.  He looked to God for a minute, and only after he’d done that did God make him judge of Israel.

Samson Jawbone Julius Schnor 1871
Woodcutting by German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld who made many famous illustrations of Bible stories and died in 1872.

When I return to Judges at some point later to do more in-depth scholarship, I will use multiple commentaries, theology breakdowns of Judges, and histories of the Syro-Canaanite people to better understand the context of these stories, and you’d best believe that I will spend a lot of time on chapters 14 and 15 to get to the bottom of all of it.  Until then, however, my First Reading opinion stands:  Samson is a serial killer.  He is an unrepentant vow-breaker.  He dishonored his parents.  He dishonored his wife.  He is a tragic picture of a man given many gifts who squanders and abuses every single one of them.

The Lord, as we have seen through the entire story, is at work in all of this.  God’s promise was to begin releasing Israel from Philistine oppression through Samson.  What God promises, God delivers.  Samson failed to humble himself and follow God as a holy, obedient man.  Samson chose the path of violence and turned himself into a monster.

The moral of the story is that God executed his will for the nation of Israel in spite of Samson’s depravity, and now that the worst of his story is over with, we can finish up with the redemption and victory in Chapter 16.  When we come back, we’ll meet the other two women in Samson’s life and discuss the very strange story of the gates of Gaza.

 

 

 


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