Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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The untold story of Samson

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.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

Moralistic, therapeutic deism, a term first used by Christian Smith, seems a fitting description of much of what passes for Christianity in North America. The followers of this religion believe in a God who wants them to be good, wants them to feel good about themselves, doesn’t need to be consulted except in case of emergencies, and who will accept all good people into heaven.

One unfortunate result is that such people read the Old Testament as a series of morality tales, leading to conclusions that play up the foolishness and waywardness of Old Testament characters. Such a reading altogether misses the redemption story that is an essential ingredient of these histories. The New Testament points to these histories as God’s way of revealing little by little his plan of redemption.

The translators of the Authorized (King James) Version were men of remarkable humility. When a Bible passage could legitimately be understood in two different ways, they did not believe they had a right to choose between them. They placed one in the text and the alternate rendering they placed in a note beside the verse. I’m afraid that all North American editions of the Bible have eliminated these alternate readings, and subsequent translators have not had the same hesitancy about choosing one over the other.

In Judges 11:31 Jephthah’s vow is that whatsoever came out of his house “shall surely be the Lord’s and/or I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” The Hebrew text contains no conjunction, yet the context seems to demand one. The translators inserted and in the verse and or in the note for that verse. Then we are told in verse 40 that “the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament/talk with the daughter of Jephthah.” Lament is in the verse, talk with is in the note. These alternate readings, which the translators deemed to be credible renderings of the Hebrew, seem to be the more likely meaning in light of God’s hatred of human sacrifice and His blessing on Jephthah

The stories of Jephthah and Samson seem to be almost universally misunderstood. If Jephthah was as foolish and wicked as he is often portrayed today, why did the Lord bless his vow and give him victory over the Ammonites? And why is he listed in Hebrews 11:32 as a man of faith? The message that we should take from the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 is that he sacrificed himself to save his people from their oppressors.

It is nowhere said that he offered his daughter as a burnt offering. His daughter did not go up and down on the mountains to lament her impending death, she was lamenting the fact that she would never have children, and thus her father would have no posterity. This was a tremendous sacrifice for a man in Israel and links the story of Jephthah with the account of Abraham offering his son. Both are part of the redemption story, foretelling the time when God would offer His only Son for our redemption.

Samson was for twenty years a judge in Israel. If we read the account, we find that most of the things which modern preachers and writers find so disreputable were done by Samson at the prompting of the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord did not leave Samson until he forgot that his great strength came from the Lord. He told Delilah the secret of his strength, but it appears that by this time he hardly believed anymore that his strength was the result of his vow as a Nazarite. The Spirit of the Lord left him, with painful consequences. Then, while a captive and slave of the Philistines, he renewed his vow and gave his life to set his people free from the domination of the Philistines. This is the message of the story of Samson that is entirely missed by those trying to draw a moral lesson from his supposed misdeeds. Samson is also mentioned as a man of faith in Hebrews 11:32.

To the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus said: “O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). A little further in the same chapter, he says: “All things must be fulfilled that were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (verses 44-45). Today we have both the Old and New Testaments, why are so many still slow of heart to believe the evidences of the redemption story that are found in Old Testament history?

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