Samson: Hero of Israel

“The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him…Give not thy strength unto women, nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings” (Prov 31:1-3).

“Everybody loves a hero”, as the saying goes.  We admire and adore those men and women of the past who did exploits; people of courage who overcame all obstacles and were fearless in the face of the enemy.  I grew up reading Greek mythology, having discovered it while still a very young boy.  My favourite characters were Achilles and Heracles (Hercules) in mythology, but as I got older and learned history, my favourites became real people, headed by Alexander the Great (who claimed descent from Heracles), and my favourite nation of history was Greece; and of the Greek city states, I loved Athens above all. 

But with my new-found Saviour and Christian faith, boyhood adulation matured and gave way to an appreciation and love of people who demonstrated faith, mercy, love, purity, and especially courage under persecution.  I saw the flaws in petulant and vengeful Achilles, womanising Heracles, and the murderous Alexander who killed over a million innocents on his way to the Indus; and they became distinctly less heroic to me.  At the same time I developed love for and admiration of biblical characters such as Joseph, King Josiah, Daniel, Rachel the harlot, and godly Hannah; and historical figures such as the Emperor Constantine, John Calvin, The English Reformers, and Oliver Cromwell, each of whom have displayed heroism in various ways.  As for Constantine, I accept that he had serious flaws, but I love him for setting all the poor benighted women of Phoenicia free from being confined in the temple areas until their virginity was taken by a stranger; and for banning gladiatorial combat throughout the empire.  And, of course, for putting an end to the persecution of Christians, legalising Christianity and giving it equal rights with paganism. 

Sadly, even the best of human beings are flawed because we’re fallen creatures, all sinners; every one of us is born at enmity with God and hostile to him (Rom 3:9-18; Eph 2:1-3) and our hearts are “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9).  Sir Galahad and Sir Percival are Christlike but fictional heroes, and however much we aspire to be like them, the best we can attain is to be like their contemporary, Sir Lancelot, a hero with flaws which precluded him from being able to find the Holy Grail.

Samson’s Shared Characteristics with Heroes of Mythology

Samson’s Birth Announced by an Angel

Samson was a real man in real history.  He was a living hero of early Israel whose exploits have become legendary because of his amazing feats of strength; and he had characteristics in common with Heracles and Achilles, two heroes of mythology.  Even his birth had a supernatural element about it in that it was prophesied like some kind of mythical hero by an angelic visitor whom we discover as we read the narrative, was a theophany – the second Person of the Trinity, no less.

The story of Samson is told in the book of Judges, chapters 13 to 16.  He was born in the time of the judges of early Israel and when the Philistines dominated Israel, approximately 30-40 years before Saul was made king of Israel; and Samson himself was a judge and therefore a leader in Israel.  He was the first to strike a blow against Israel’s Philistine overlords.

Before he was born, before he was even conceived, God chose him to lead his people Israel and deliver them from the hands of the Philistines.  We’re told: “And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren, and bare not.  And the angel of the LORD appeared unto the woman, and said unto her, Behold now, thou art barren, and bearest not: but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son.  Now therefore beware, I pray thee, and drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing: For, lo, thou shalt conceive and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazirite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (Jud 13:2-5).

Samson and Heracles

It is natural for us to compare Samson with Heracles, the greatest of all the ancient Greek heroes, because of their superhuman strength.  Chronologically, only a century separates them; the myth of Heracles can be traced as far back as the 13th century B.C. and Samson’s life can be dated to the 12th century B.C.  Heracles’ exploits were known across the ancient world, and one of his famous Twelve Labours was to kill the Nemean lion, a creature with an impenetrable hide who had been laying waste the countryside.  Heracles located him in a cave, strangled him, and wore the hide as armour ever afterwards.  Samson likewise killed a lion, which he met by the wayside, literally tearing it to pieces with his bare hands; and there the similarity ends.  Heracles was a demi-god, having been born of a union between Zeus and a human woman, hence his inherent immense strength; whereas Samson was only ever a human being, but one who was given extraordinary physical strength by the Holy Spirit.  Thus we see that deities were closely involved in the lives of each of these men.

Samson had prodigious physical strength and he used it to perform great acts for God and his people, Israel.  He even made it into the bible’s “Hall of Fame”, being commended as a man of extraordinary faith (Heb 11:32); this is quite an honour, considering that the bible is full of people of extraordinary faith.  Indeed, only fifteen people are actually named in this list of “Heroes of the Faith” – and Samson is one of them. 

Samson and Achilles

At his birth, Samson was to be dedicated to God as a Nazirite.  Nazirites were people who had dedicated themselves or had been dedicated to God, and one of the requirements of being a Nazarite was that they were not to shave their heads; they were to let their hair grow during the whole time of their separation to God (Num 6:5).  But Samson was appointed by God to be a Nazirite from the time of his birth and for his whole life.  Consequently, his hair may never have been cut; but it was allowable for lifelong Nazirites to cut their hair once a year if their hair became bothersome.  However, the bible does tell us that Samson did indeed have very much and very long hair – so long that he kept it in seven locks (Jud 16:19).  His hair, the source of his strength (Jud 16:17), became his weakness and destruction.

Like Samson, another hero famous for his one vulnerable point was Achilles.  When he was a child, his mother, Thetis, a sea nymph (a lesser female deity), married a Greek hero named Peleus; thus Achilles was a demi-god.  In order to secure his power and invulnerability, Thetis took Achilles to the River Styx, which separated the land of the living from Hades, the realm of the dead, and immersed him in the river.  However, she kept hold of his left heel during the process, and this remained his one vulnerable spot – his “Achilles heel”, because the water of the Styx could not touch his skin where his mother had held him.  During the Trojan War, the Trojan prince, Paris (who was the cause of the war), shot an arrow at Achilles as he was with the Greek army fighting outside the city walls; the arrow, apparently poisoned, lodged in Achilles’ left heel, and caused his death.

Was Samson Really a Hero?  What Exactly is a Hero?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “hero” as: “1. man of superhuman qualities, favoured by the gods; demigod.  2. illustrious warrior.  3. man admired for achievements and noble qualities. 4. chief male character in poem, play, or story”.

Samson’s life and character fill this definition admirably.  He is a central character in the book of Judges and noteworthy for his faith in the book of Hebrews.  He was/is a national hero to Israel and to Christians, such as Achilles was to the Greeks – invincible in battle; such as Heracles was to the Greeks, performing impossible feats of strength; and, like these two mythical Greek heroes, was favoured by God but also filled with his Holy Spirit who gave him superhuman abilities.

But unlike Achilles he was not a soldier, born and trained for war.  Although he fought and killed many Philistines, he never defeated the nation to deliver Israel from them – that was reserved for another flawed saint – King David.  And David, also recorded in Hebrews chapter 11 as was Samson –is the only person in the whole bible who is called “a man after God’s own heart”.

But despite his heroic achievements he was very human.  Like Achilles, Samson sought vengeance; but unlike Achilles he was not cruel with it.  Achilles’ cruel treatment of the body of Hector, crown prince and  much loved hero of Troy, after he killed him in revenge for the death of his companion and lover, Patroclus, does not leave Achilles covered in glory.  Samson, on the other hand, sought vengeance for the murder of his wife and her father, saying: “Though ye have done this, yet will I be avenged of you, and after that I will cease (Jud 15:7).  And when in bondage to the Philistines and brought out to the temple of Dagon for their sport, he prayed to God: “O LORD GOD, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.  And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other his left.  And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines.  And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein.  So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life (Jud 16:28-31).

Samson: A Flawed Hero

But as we read the story of Samson we’re surprised at some of his behaviour.  And we wonder how he could ever have made it onto the highest acknowledgment – the list of heroes in Hebrews chapter 11.  He loved women and apparently thought nothing of sex outside of marriage.  In the book of Judges we’re told: “Then went Samson to Gaza, and saw there an harlot, and he went in unto her” (Jud 16:1).  Most likely, the reason this particular event is described is because it led to a demonstration of his superhuman strength. 

We’re encouraged in this view by the events described immediately following his sexual mishap in Gaza: “And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the Valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah” (Judges 16:4).  This was an ongoing and clearly intimate relationship and it led to his capture by the Philistines and his eventual death.  It seems that Samson was not averse to sexual relationships with prostitutes and unmarried women.  When we read of his sexual escapades, we are surprised, we frown, we criticise, and we judge him as a womaniser and a man of weak character.  But is this the right way to regard him when the bible, so far from condemning his sexual relationships, doesn’t even comment on them? 

Indeed, God apparently has no view of Samson’s sexual sins directly but regards him as a man of faith.  And his name is placed among a bevy of heroic men and women, “Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens….” (Heb 11:33-34).  What illustrious company Samson now finds himself in.  That is how God sees Samson; it is his final word on him.  Far more preferable this company, despised by the world, than that Samson be memorialised alongside ungodly characters such as Achilles, Heracles, Alexander, and so on. 

It is true that Samson was a less than exemplary demonstration of godliness and purity, and we wish he was otherwise.  But most of the prophets and leaders in the OT had faults, some of them quite serious.  For example, while Moses was up on Mt Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God, Aaron was down below, leading the Israelites in idolatry and sexualised worship.  The patriarch Judah, within days of the death of his wife randomly comes across a prostitute, as he thinks, and buys her favours, oblivious to the fact that she is his daughter-in-law.  Jephthah offers a human sacrifice – his own daughter – to God, in order to honour his rash vow (ironically, Jephthah is also listed in the list of exemplary faith in Hebrews chapter 11, along with Samson).  And who doesn’t know about King David’s adultery and murder?

God sees things differently to how we see them.  In the case of Samson, God sees him as a man of extraordinary faith, and thus to be immortalised in the bible record.  He saw what humans don’t see.  He saw what was worthy and of great price in Samson, and immortalised him for it.  “For the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).  Likewise he sees the true state of the sinners’ heart – he records in both testaments that “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10), seeing the human heart as it really is – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9); and Jesus’ judgment was that “…out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man” (Matt 15:19).

This is not to say, however, that sin is trivial – far from it.  It was our sin that required Jesus to become a man, a true human being, in order to die in our place to satisfy the wrath of God against sin.  God does not think sin is trivial and neither should we; and we have no warrant to believe we can intentionally sin with the idea of repenting afterwards – this is a very dangerous game to play with God.

But the Christian can rejoice and take comfort from the example of Samson.  If a sinner such as Samson can be regarded by God as worthy of being enrolled amongst the “Heroes of the Faith”, then what does that say for us?  It is a demonstration that when God looks at us – sinners – he looks at us through Christ; and he sees the beauty of Christ – he sees his shed blood covering us; he sees us clothed in the robe of the righteousness of Christ; he sees us as being without sin, as being righteous – and in seeing, he accepts us “in the beloved”; he welcomes us, loves us, rejoices in us.  He is no longer angry with us.  “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

The Story of Samson

“Samson went down to Timnath, and saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines.  And he came up, and told his father and mother, and said, I have seen a woman in Timnath, of the daughters of the Philistines: now get her for me to wife.  Then his father and his mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?  And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well.  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 Israel (Jud 14:1-3).

Samson does not give a good first impression.  In his introduction to us he appears to be imperious, demanding, and apparently entitled; a spoilt brat in an adult body.  Donald Stamps (KJV Life in the Spirit Study Bible) comments: “Samson’s sexual lust eventually led to his downfall (cf 4, 19-21).  He was more concerned with satisfying his sexual passion than with pleasing his holy God (vv 1-3)”.  But step back for a moment – the text tells us that this occasion was of the Lord.  It was to be Samson’s first conflict with the Philistines – the storm was about to break on them.  God, through his chosen and prepared servant, was moving to deliver his people Israel. 

I like to think that Samson knew what was happening; knew what God was doing; knew his own part in this occasion.  After all, he was placed on that exclusive list of heroes of the faith, so he wasn’t just some weak dim-witted man led by his lusts, as Donald Stamps seems to think.  He was a remarkable man of faith, yet with human flaws, who walked with God; a man whose birth was prophesied by “the angel of the LORD” and who was dedicated by God to God.  He also judged Israel for twenty years!  How could he have done this, dispensing justice to all the people, if he lived only to satisfy his lusts?  It is simply not feasible that Samson was the kind of man that Donald Stamps thinks he was. 

More plausibly than Stamps, Matthew Henry comments on Judges 16:1-3: “His taking a Philistine to wife, in the beginning of his time, was in some degree excusable, but to join himself to a harlot that he accidentally saw among them was a profanation of his honor as an Israelite and as a Nazarite….He  rose at midnight with a penitent abhorrence of the sin he was now committing, and of himself because of it, and with a pious resolution not to return to it….He makes immediately towards the gate of the city, stays not to break open the gates, but plucks up the posts, takes them, gates and bar and all, in disdain of their attempt to secure him with gates and bars, proof of the great strength God had given him and a type of Christ’s victory over death and the grave” (The Matthew Henry Study Bible).

And his confidence in God – his faith – enabled him to be sure in himself and unworried.  Samson wasn’t a spoiled brat – he was the sword of the Lord – the instrument of judgment on the enemies of God and of Israel.  God had been preparing Samson for this time, equipping him with all he would need to fulfil God’s purposes.  And now Samson was looking for a fight.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to my Wedding

Samson made his way to his wedding with his parents to Timnah, a town just inside Judah’s border with Dan, and apparently the town of his intended Philistine bride.  But while he was alone in the vineyards there, he was confronted by a lion: “And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a young kid, and he had nothing in his hand” (Jud 14:5-9).  The story is the first of his prodigious feats of strength, and it attributes this strength to God – Samson’s superhuman strength was the gift of God to perform the purposes of God for the good of his people.

The passage tells us that he didn’t tell his parents what he had done (Jud 14:7).  And when he came back to take the woman to wife, we’re told: “…and he turned aside to see the carcase of the lion: and behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion.  And he took thereof in his hands and went on eating, and came to his father and mother, and he gave them, and they did eat:  but he told not them that he had taken the honey out of the carcase of the lion” (Jud 14:8-9).

Riddle me this…

Thus the scene is set for his next exploit.  When Samson was at the festivities he was given thirty (presumably) Philistine, companions to be with him.  He put a riddle to them as a kind of wager; if the Philistines couldn’t answer his riddle within the seven days of the feast, he would give the companions thirty sheets (linen garments) and thirty change of garments (Jud 14:12).  But if they couldn’t answer it, they would have to give him the same amount of garments.

By the fourth day Samson’s companions had been unable to answer his riddle, so they approached his wife and threatened to burn her, her father, and his house, if she didn’t find out the answer.  After much nagging, she wheedled his secret from him, and forthwith told it to her countrymen; and before the sun went down on the seventh day, they answered Samson’s riddle.  Consequently, “the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle.  And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father’s house.  But Samson’s wife was given to his companion, whom had used as his friend” (Jud 14:19-20).

“They stumble upon their corpses” (Nahum 3:3)

Samson left his wedding feast, an angry man, as soon as he had given the garments to his Philistine companions.  But before long he came back to Timnath to “go into” his wife, but her father wouldn’t let him because he’d given her to one of his Philistine companions.  “And Samson said concerning them, Now shall I be more blameless than the Philistines, though I do them a displeasure” (Jud 15:3).  And so Samson went into the Philistine corn fields and burnt them, along with the vineyards and the olives.  In response, the Philistines burnt his wife and her father.

Samson was not a man to be messed with, and he said to them, “Though ye have done this, yet will I will avenged on you, and after that I will cease.  And he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter” (Jud 15:4-8).

But it didn’t end there because neither were the Philistines men to be messed with; and they came after him in force.  After the men of Judah bound him – with his permission – they handed Samson over to the Philistines who, when they saw Samson, “…shouted against him: and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands.  And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith” (Jud 15:9-16).

“Her house is the way to hell” (Prov 7:27)

Samson had now become Public Enemy No. 1.  And in his daring, we’re told: “then went Samson to Gaza” – this was Philistine heartland; one of the five cities; a royal city – “and saw there an harlot, and went in unto her” (Jud 16:1).

This was an event which seemed to have no religious or spiritual purpose; a trip to Gaza for no specified reason and of which is not said that it was from the LORD”.  And while he was there, he saw a harlot who obviously took his fancy.  It was one of those moments presented to us by Satan which can be life-changing in its consequences.  A moment which catches us off guard; an opportunity which, in our thinking, would be unlikely to occur again, so we take it and think we’ll deal with the consequences later – if there are any.  As mentioned above, a strikingly similar moment was presented to the patriarch, Judah, where he, too, came across a prostitute (as he thought) and paid her for her favours.  And King David was bowled over by the beauty of the naked Bathsheba as she bathed.

When the Philistines heard that he was in their city they set an ambush for him, intending to kill him.  But somehow he knew they were there, and at midnight he rose to leave the city.  But the city gates were shut in order to protect the city and keep its inhabitants safe while they slept.  The gates of Gaza or any other ancient walled city weren’t simply gates such as we see in a picket fence or a garage door – they were massive and strong, designed to withstand the battering rams and fury of a besieging army.

But Samson, in an utterly astonishing feat of strength, “took the doors of the gate of the city, and the two posts, and went away with them, bar and all, and put them upon his shoulders, and carried them to the top of an hill that is before Hebron” (Jud 16:3-4).  The distance between Gaza in Philistia and Hebron in Israel is 37 miles (60 kilometres) as the crow flies.  The mind boggles trying to comprehend such a feat!

Soon afterwards we find Samson in the Valley of Sorek with another Philistine woman – Delilah – with whom he had a brief dalliance.  Sorek was on the border of Philistia and Dan, Samson’s homeland.  It was this situation that was his undoing.  Delilah was promised a large sum of money by the five Philistine lords to find out the source of Samson’s great strength.  After several attempts she succeeded in discovering that it was his hair, and that it had never been cut.  “And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him.  And she said, The Philistines be upon thee, Samson.  And he awoke out of his sleep, and said, I will go out as at other times before, and shake myself.  And he wist not (did not know) that the LORD was departed from him.  But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house” (Jud 16:19-21).

In Samson’s sin, in his weakness and blindness, in his utter helplessness, and under the power of cruel people, God was preparing him for his greatest exploit of all.  Samson was to have a victory not only against the Philistines, but over their gods as well.  And his name has gone down in history and in folk-memory for his immense physical strength and his very human weakness.  Even children have ever since learned about Samson, and his name has been on their lips and in their stories and story books for over 3000 years.  And over a thousand years after he lived and died, his name was recorded in the New Testament, commended for his faith by God for as long as the world shall stand.

“Howbeit the hair of his head began to grow again after he was shaven.  Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand’” (Jud 16:22-23).

Although Samson died in victory over his tormenters – and it was a great victory – and as a hero in the nation of Israel, we’re left feeling sad.  He was a man brought very low by his sin; despite his supernatural physical strength, he was overcome by a woman and her lies; his eyes were put out and he was chained to a grinding stone in a prison; and finally he was brought out to entertain his enemies, humiliated and a laughing stock to all.  He died with his enemies, crushed by the huge blocks of stone of the temple, the supports of which he pulled away so that the whole edifice fell to the ground, killing Samson and the several thousand people in and on it.  His broken and crushed body was recovered by his family members and buried in the burying place of his father.  A great man was humbled and destroyed; the light of Israel was snuffed out – and that was the end.

But God raised his spirit to a great height; and now Samson dwells with his God in heaven.  It’s not until we read Hebrews 11:32-33 that the gloom lifts and we see Samson surrounded by acrowd of sinners like himself, likewise lifted to glory and joy.  And we rejoice with him, a sinner and a saint, a man loved by God, and who, unseen but ever-present, was with Samson every step of his way.  “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Ps 116:15).

It is the very last line of the narrative that is the greatest testament to Samson’s godliness and faithfulness: “And he judged Israel twenty years” (Jud 16:31).

References

Henry, M. 1997, “The Matthew Henry Study Bible: King James Version”, copyright Thomas Nelson Inc., pub Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA.

KJV Life in the Spirit Study Bible, ed. Stamps, D. and Adams J.W., 2003, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN