Chapter 16 of Judges brings a close to the story of Samson. Samson’s character is more fleshed out and his story is more elaborately told than any other person’s in Judges. Not even Gideon is illuminated in the way that Samson is.
When the Bible highlights someone so strongly, I take it to mean that the story or the person in that story is very important, that the author is asking us to really pay attention to that particular person, event, or lesson. In Judges 13-16, the author is asking us to look really hard at Samson and the Philistines and all of the events in this story. I’ve tried to do that.
Samson’s saga falls in the middle of Judges with a full chapter as its introduction and three full chapters devoted to its tales and lessons. Samson is a big deal, and his story is exciting, appalling, and filled with loaded references to the secular and pagan cultures around Israelites at the time. It is also the climax story in the middle of a book of stories, and it draws the reader to understand the main “moral” or thesis. The thesis of Judges, I think, is that no matter what earthly powers oppose it, God’s plan for this world will be accomplished. Even if we don’t cooperate. Even if whole armies stand in opposition to it. God gets it done.
Samson and the Gates of Gaza
Chapter 16 opens with Samson buying the services of a prostitute in the city of Gaza. Samson is now a wanted man throughout Philistia, and Gaza, as you can see in the map above, is one of the five cities of the Philistine Pentapolis. It’s brazen and foolhardy for Samson to be there at all after the incident with the jawbone and the 1,000 dead, but Samson is nothing if not brazen and foolhardy, right?
Anyway, he’s right there in the biggest Philistine city, feeling powerful and very chuffed with himself after his martial victory, and he gets himself a prostitute because of course he does. The Philistines become aware of Samson’s presence in the city and wait at the city gates to apprehend and kill him the next morning when he leaves. The text simply says that “the men of Gaza” wait for him at the town gates. I have no idea how many men this would constitute, but it sounds to me like it must have been a force rather than a few random guys. I’m envisioning quite a gathering.
Samson surprises them, however. Finished with his “lady,” he leaves at midnight rather than sleeping in Gaza until morning. There is no record of any conflict or any mention of words exchanged between Samson and these men at the gates. It simply leaves us to assume that Samson caught them by surprise (maybe they were all sleeping, camp style, at the gates?). Samson lifts the city gates up, posts and bar and all, heaves them over his back and shoulders, and carries them for miles to a hill overlooking the town of Hebron.
This story makes no sense except that it illustrates that God is still with Samson. Samson still has this supernatural strength from the last time the “Spirit came powerfully upon him.” It certainly isn’t because Samson has personally earned any favor or shown any faith and devotion. In case the previous history of his life weren’t enough to let us know that, we are shown in the previous verses that Samson is in Gaza to commit sin again, and quite unrepentantly. So, no. This Herculean tale of strength isn’t about Samson. This is about the brute force of God’s will, and it was not within God’s will for Samson to be captured that day.
Pretty ladies are Samson’s Achilles’ heel, and Delilah was a pretty lady. I found it interesting that Delilah is not called a Philistine. I had always been told that Delilah was a Philistine woman like Samson’s wife and the Gaza prostitute. Scripture, however, does not say that. Delilah is a Hebrew name, and she lives east of Philistia, so all evidence points to her being a Hebrew lady. A first for Samson.
Like Samson’s wife before her, Delilah would be approached by powerful Philistine men and talked into manipulating Samson. Unlike Samson’s wife, Delilah is not threatened but bribed. “If you help us take this criminal down, we’ll each give you 1,100 bucks.” Honestly, Bible scholars have always worked really hard to make Delilah some kind of horrible person who took Samson down for spite. I was always taught to view her as a harlot, a Philistine, and a cold human being motivated by greed. She very well may have been all of those things.
But you know what? The Bible doesn’t actually say any of that about her.
Samson is the one with a history of self-interest, self-aggrandizement, greed, violence, and profligacy. Samson is the one with a reputation across the entire land for being a mass murdering libertine who steals and destroys and kills. The Israelites didn’t think of him as their hero. He was a dangerous, destructive, and publicly sinful vow-breaker who brought pain and suffering everywhere he went. The Bible tells us all of those things about him.
Women in the Bible take a lot of heat and conjecture off of modern exegetes who really ought to know better. Women in the Ancient Near East had no power except in very rare instances. Israelite women had a modicum of protection under the Mosaic Law. It was unique in the region in several ways, and one of those unique features is that it recognized the rights and personhood of women. But the Israelites have forgotten the law during the time of the judges, haven’t they? In Judges, they are fully participating in Canaanite and Philistine life. In this part of the world during this era of human history, women were absolutely and undeniably powerless chattel in almost every way, and there is no reason to assume that Delilah, living in the line between Philistine and Canaanite control, was any different.
All I’m saying is that the narratives we’re taught about these stories are worth a little reflection and challenge. We should sit and consider what the Bible does not say about Delilah vs. what politically and doctrinally-biased bible scholars have taught us about her centuries and millennia later. What I am finding afresh in almost every book of Scripture I read is that the Bible often does not say what I’ve been taught it says.
Just a thought.
Whatever Delilah was, she was not responsible for Samson’s downfall. She was the means to an inevitable end. Don’t blame Delilah. I mean, learn a lesson or two from her, but don’t blame Delilah. Blame Samson.
Three Lies & Some Willful Blindness
Now here’s where the story gets really infuriating because Samson is an idiot if this story is taken as literally true. There are stark parallels here between Delilah’s manipulation and the earlier manipulations of Samson’s wife. This man should see all of it coming from miles away at this point, but he is totally blind to Delilah’s actual motives, and if that ain’t just an irony, I don’t know what is.
“So Delilah said to Samson, “Please tell me what makes you so strong and what it would take to tie you up securely.” – Judges 16:6, NLT
Delilah proceeds to harangue Samson for the secret of his strength, and three separate times, Samson tells her a lie to get her to leave him alone. He doesn’t just say, “no, I won’t tell you.” He tells her elaborate lies about how his strength could be taken from him. First, he tells her that he can be undone by tying him up with bowstrings, so she ties him up with bowstrings and the Philistines almost immediately show up to try and capture him.
Samson…honey…that was your first clue.
Next, he tells her that if she tied him with new rope that had never been used, he would be as weak as a normal man, so she ties him up with brand new ropes that had never been used and the Philistines show up a second time.
Now, after two lies, Delilah starts to get frustrated. She wants her money and she wants to be rid of Samson, and he’s clearly not telling her the truth. She turns on her charm and says, “don’t make fun of me,” and, “you must not really love me,” and the like. Typical post-adolescent falderal. So Samson tells her a third lie to get her to just shut up and go back to being pretty and sexy. He tells her that if she were to weave his seven braids of hair together on a loom and tighten them with a loom shuttle, he would be as weak as a normal man. So Delilah weaves his seven braids together with her loom and the Philistines come again.
Remember that Samson was a Nazirite. No blade has ever trimmed his hair and he is a fully-grown man. We can’t be sure of his age, but he’s at least in his thirties. His hair would be very long…much longer than most depictions of him. Think of hair down to his thighs and you won’t be far off the mark (which also explains the seven braids).
Okay. Two things:
1.) So at this point, if Samson hasn’t figured out that this woman is trying to betray him, then I can’t summon any sympathy. This has all happened before with his wife nagging him desperately for the answer to his riddle. Samson should recognize a woman who is being pushed to treachery by Philistines by now, right?
But he doesn’t.
2.) Notice also that this third lie is about his hair. He’s gone from just making up something random to get Delilah off his back to telling her something really close to the truth. The truth, of course, is that his hair is the outward sign of his dedication to God as a Nazirite. It’s the thing that makes clear to anyone who sees him that his supernatural gifts are from God. If his hair is cut, he will lose that supernatural strength because it would no longer point people to a knowledge of God. Make sense?
Samson is Blinded and Enslaved
Samson is totally “blind” to this woman’s manipulation of him. The fourth time she nags him, he tells her the truth. She realizes instantly that she’s gotten the real story this time, and she summons the Philistines to her house. Once Samson is asleep, the men come in and shave his head. I was always told that Delilah did it. She does not.
Almost every depiction of Delilah in film or still art shows her cutting Samson’s hair. Delilah is shown holding a fistful of his hair or wielding the blade in just about every painting or engraving of the scene. I find it very interesting that it’s such a universal trend because Delilah wasn’t the one who cut Samson’s hair (See Judges 16:18).
The Philistine men gouge his eyes out, bind him in chains, and make him work as a slave in the grain mill for an unspecified length of time.
So this spiritually and morally and intellectually blind man is made physically blind, brought low, and put away in repetitive hard labor as a slave. Samson is gonna get plenty of time to reflect on all of his sins, all of his bad choices, and come to repentance. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is precisely why God allowed it to happen in just this way. And all that time Samson spent grinding the grain, his hair was growing back.
Samson Dies Redeemed and Victorious
The Philistines are absolutely ecstatic about having captured Samson, and if we’re being honest, they were justifiable in that self-congratulation. The leaders decide to hold a feast honoring their god Dagon. They’re going to bring Samson out as an amusement here in a minute, and it’s important to note why this matters–why this was the stage set for God to come back into the picture.
The Philistines bring Samson out to honor their false god, Dagon. Dagon was later depicted with mermaid tales and associated with fish, but during the time of the Judges, Dagon was the god of grain and agricultural fertility. They’ve had Samson “serving” Dagon by grinding the grain, and now they’re going to haul him out and publicly give thanks to Dagon for Samson’s capture. Dagon was a huge, huge deal for the Philistines as well as many Canaanites. This is very much an our god vs. your god tableau.
And the God of Israel does not tolerate idolatry.
This temple is massive, which we know because the text tells us that there are 3,000 Philistine revelers on the roof alone, and the interior of the temple is also “filled” with people. This is a very strategic target at a very strategic event. Thousands and thousands of Philistines are gathered for this festival in honor of Dagon to celebrate the supremacy of Dagon’s people over the God of Abraham’s champion. Do you see it? Big deal. Big imagery here.
“Then Samson prayed to the Lord, ‘Sovereign Lord, remember me again. O God, please strengthen me just one more time. With one blow, let me pay back the Philistines for the loss of my two eyes…Let me die with the Philistines.'” – Judges 16:28 & 30a, NLT
That is the most humble this man has ever sounded in his entire life, right? The important thing is that he’s completely surrendered. It’s tragic that he had to be brought this low in order to submit his will to God’s, but he did. And God gave him a final victory, redeemed and reconciled before the end.
Samson gets his strength back for one last deed, and he pulls the roof down on top of himself and the thousands of Philistines, killing “more people when he died than he had during his entire lifetime.” And that’s saying something.
Samson’s body is retrieved by family members and he is taken home to be buried next to his father, Manoah. There were 20 years between the battle with the jawbone and his death, so Samson was a judge of Israel for two decades. In that time, he did precious little for his people, but he did what God promised he would do. He started the conflict with the Philistines that began to free Israel from Philistine rule.
I find the story infuriating and sad because “if only” Samson had lived as he should have, the story might be so much more glorious.
That’s true for just about all of us though, isn’t it? If we hadn’t been prideful or stubborn or blind or just plain selfish…how many of our stories would be different? Samson is a lesson we all need to learn, and I think it’s one of the richest and most powerful stories in the Bible.
We’ll come back next time with the stories of Micah and the Danites where yet another group of Israelites have found new ways to get it all wrong.