I intended that headline to be sensationalist and grab your attention. There is a big problem with how people usually tell the story of Samson. The whole story is in the Bible, but few people seem to be aware of any but the most lurid details.
Let’s start at the beginning. At the time an angel announced Samson’s birth, the Israelites had hit bottom spiritually. They had sinned against God and He abandoned them into the hands of the Philistines. As the story of Samson unfolds, it becomes evident that the people of Israel accepted the domination of the Philistines as a normal state of affairs, with no inkling that things could and should be different.
In the depth of this hopeless situation, God sent His angel to a woman of Zorah to announce that she would bear a son who would begin to deliver Israel from their oppressors. The woman was barren, thought to be incapable of having children, but she and her husband believed the angel and in due time a son was born.
They gave this son the name Samson – like the sun. As he grew, it became evident that he was the recipient of special blessings from God and the Word says “The Spirit of God began to move him.” As it was announced before his birth that he would begin to deliver the people of God from their degraded state, no doubt the Spirit began to make him painfully aware of the evil of the Philistine oppression.
So he decided to marry a Philistine woman. This is not where Samson went astray, but it is where the popular story of Samson goes astray from the Biblical account. Judges 14:4 says of this marriage: “But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the LORD, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.” That may strain some folks’ idea of what is right and proper, nevertheless that is what the Bible says.
The marriage did not turn out well, but it led to two remarkable displays of a strength in Samson that was more than human strength. In both instances the Bible says the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson. Again in Judges 15:14 the Bible says the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson, he broke the cords that bound him and slew 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. There is a play on words at the end of chapter 15. Samson did not drink from the jawbone, but the Lord opened a spring for him in the mountain called Lehi, which is the same word as jawbone.
Samson judged Israel for twenty years during the time the Philistines ruled them. We should not think of the judges of Israel in terms of the judges of our day. The judges were rulers over the people, leading them in battle, making peace and administering justice.
Chapter 16 of Judges begins with Samson’s visit to a harlot in Gaza. Adam Clark says the word translated harlot has the primary meaning of innkeeper, but allows that she may have been both innkeeper and prostitute. The sense of morality in that era was not the same as it is for those informed by the teachings of the New Testament. Men often took many wives, divorced on the feeblest pretext and visited prostitutes. Whatever Samson may have been doing in Gaza, God did not punish him for it, but gave him the strength to uproot the gates of the city, posts and all, and carry them away to the top of a hill.
Next comes the episode with Delilah. We must tread carefully here, as the Bible shows that God did not withdraw from Samson until his hair was cut off. The uncut hair was part of his vow as a Nazarite and that vow was broken when the hair was cut. It appears that as Samson’s hair grew back he also renewed his covenant with God. He was now in a place where the opportunity might come to do far more damage to the power of the Philistines than he ever had before. He bided his time, possibly for several years, as his hair grew. Finally, the opportunity came where, by sacrificing his own life, he could destroy much of the ruling class of the Philistines.
The story of Samson, from his birth foretold by an angel, his miraculous powers and his sacrificial death to overcome the power of the enemy of God’s people, is a figure of Jesus. We miss that when all we can focus on are the details that seem to us to be unsavoury.