Judges 16 Samson, Delilah and a Crashing End

Samson and Delilah (1887) by Jose Etxenagusia

Judges 16

Once Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and went in to her. 2 The Gazites were told, “Samson has come here.” So they circled around and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They kept quiet all night, thinking, “Let us wait until the light of the morning; then we will kill him.” 3 But Samson lay only until midnight. Then at midnight he rose up, took hold of the doors of the city gate and the two posts, pulled them up, bar and all, put them on his shoulders, and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron.

4 After this he fell in love with a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.5 The lords of the Philistines came to her and said to her, “Coax him, and find out what makes his strength so great, and how we may overpower him, so that we may bind him in order to subdue him; and we will each give you eleven hundred pieces of silver.” 6 So Delilah said to Samson, “Please tell me what makes your strength so great, and how you could be bound, so that one could subdue you.” 7 Samson said to her, “If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that are not dried out, then I shall become weak, and be like anyone else.” 8 Then the lords of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings that had not dried out, and she bound him with them. 9 While men were lying in wait in an inner chamber, she said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” But he snapped the bowstrings, as a strand of fiber snaps when it touches the fire. So the secret of his strength was not known.

10 Then Delilah said to Samson, “You have mocked me and told me lies; please tell me how you could be bound.” 11 He said to her, “If they bind me with new ropes that have not been used, then I shall become weak, and be like anyone else.” 12 So Delilah took new ropes and bound him with them, and said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” (The men lying in wait were in an inner chamber.) But he snapped the ropes off his arms like a thread.

13 Then Delilah said to Samson, “Until now you have mocked me and told me lies; tell me how you could be bound.” He said to her, “If you weave the seven locks of my head with the web and make it tight with the pin, then I shall become weak, and be like anyone else.” 14 So while he slept, Delilah took the seven locks of his head and wove them into the web, and made them tight with the pin. Then she said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” But he awoke from his sleep, and pulled away the pin, the loom, and the web.

15 Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times now and have not told me what makes your strength so great.” 16 Finally, after she had nagged him with her words day after day, and pestered him, he was tired to death. 17 So he told her his whole secret, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else.”

18 When Delilah realized that he had told her his whole secret, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, “This time come up, for he has told his whole secret to me.” Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her, and brought the money in their hands. 19 She let him fall asleep on her lap; and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. He began to weaken, and his strength left him. 20 Then she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” When he awoke from his sleep, he thought, “I will go out as at other times, and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the LORD had left him. 21 So the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes. They brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles; and he ground at the mill in the prison. 22 But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.

23 Now the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to their god Dagon, and to rejoice; for they said, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand.” 24 When the people saw him, they praised their god; for they said, “Our god has given our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.” 25 And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, and let him entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. They made him stand between the pillars; 26 and Samson said to the attendant who held him by the hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, so that I may lean against them.” 27 Now the house was full of men and women; all the lords of the Philistines were there, and on the roof there were about three thousand men and women, who looked on while Samson performed.

28 Then Samson called to the LORD and said, “Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.” 29 And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. 30 Then Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” He strained with all his might; and the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life. 31 Then his brothers and all his family came down and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of his father Manoah. He had judged Israel twenty years.

Samson’s narrative is a tragicomedy. There is a humorous element, and I can picture these stories being shared around a campfire by people who have imbibed heavily or to entertain children. Samson’s story is the most famous from the book of Judges and many people encountered the story of this incredibly strong but wild and strange man who does everything possible to turn away from his calling as a nazirite and yet still is revered as an agent God acted through to begin the deliverance of the people. Yet, even with its humorous elements, the story is a tragedy. As Rabbi Michael Hattin can state:

Of all the judges, Samson is the most heartbreaking; of all the leaders, the most terribly alone. No other judge in the book labors in such isolation, with none of his own people at his side to face down the enemy. Essentially, Samson’s life is a splendid study in alienation, a profound glimpse into the process that unfolds when a man withdraws from his community, people, and himself. Bereft of tribal ties, estranged from parents and family, Samson is alone. (Hattin, 2020, p. 171)

This child born of angelic announcement ends up dying in the temple of the oppressors of the people blinded and weakened and pleading to God for one last chance to revenge himself. Samson is both in constant conflict with the Philistines and continually drawn to Philistine women. He can acknowledge his calling as a nazirite dedicated to the LORD which is the source of his strength as he continually takes actions which violate the nazirite vows. Samson’s incredible strength and seeming invincibility is matched by his captivity to his passions and his foolish trust of relationships that demonstrate themselves to be untrustworthy.

Samson’s story passes through three different views of sexual relationships: in the previous two chapters Samson obsession revolves around a Philistine woman he wants for his wife and in this concluding chapter Samson passes through an isolated night with a prostitute and a longer relationship with Delilah. The sexual encounter with the prostitute in Gaza takes up far less ink than the other two tales, but it still demonstrates how this man driven by passion and instinct continues to confound the desires of the Philistines to bind and kill him. The careful movement of the Philistine residents of Gaza to guard the city gates and to prepare to capture Samson in the morning are upended by Samson’s midnight departure and mammoth uprooting and transportation of the gates of Gaza thirty-nine miles inland and uphill to the hill near Hebron. The Philistines awake gateless in Gaza as Samson again passes through the midst of their preparations. The remainder of Israel seems resigned to submit to the reign of the Philistines, but Samson’s incredible strength and unpredictable behavior makes him public enemy number one to the Philistine lords.

For the first time since Deborah, we have a woman who is named in the book of Judges, but this time she is in league with the lords of the Philistines. Delilah may be a Philistine, a Canaanite, or a Hebrew but she is amenable to the lavish offer of these leaders among the Philistine people and attempts to learn Samson’s secret. Samson was already worn down by the questioning and weeping of the woman he married in Timnah, and now he finds himself hounded by his new lover. Three times he provides a false answer and destroys the Philistines who emerge from the inner chamber to attempt to bind him. Perhaps this is a game between Samson and Delilah and perhaps this dangerous game provides some additional enticement to the relationship for the passionate Samson. Yet a recurring element in the narration is Samson’s continued rejection of his identity pulling away from the commitments and the markers which marked him as set aside to God so that he might be like ‘any other man.’ As Barry Webb can state:

The fact is that Samson has always been in rebellion against his separation to God. He has never wanted to fight the Philistines as he was destined to do. He has wanted to mix with them, intermarry with them, and party with the. He has especially wanted to have this woman, Delilah, because he loved her. But his separateness has always caught up with him. (Webb, 2012, p. 405)

Each falsehood moves closer and closer to the truth, and in the third lie linguistically foreshadows Samson’s impending death. In the story of Deborah and Barak the fleeing general Sisera enters the tent of Jael and while he is sleeping Jael thrust a peg/pin[1] into his head (4:17-21) and now as Samson sleeps Delilah thrusts a pin/peg into his hair to form a web. Samson is tired to death from nagging, perhaps from his separation from every other man, and he surrenders his secret and his identity as a nazirite of God. Previously Samson has violated the other two nazirite vows about touching corpses and drinking wine and now he sets the conditions for his head to be shaved. Samson has turned away from his calling from birth but instead of finding freedom he only finds bondage. He may have longed to intermarry and party with the Philistines, but he cannot escape who he is as an Israelite. He is bound, blinded, and forced to work in a mill as a prisoner. The once feared Samson is now an object of mockery. The only ray of hope is that his hair begins to grow again.

The Blinded Samson (1912) by Lovis Corvinth

Samson only calls to the LORD in moments of desperation. Previously he called on the LORD after his victory when he feared dying of dehydration (15: 18-20). Now he calls on the LORD for a final time to enact his revenge upon the Philistines. We never get any sense of remorse from Samson, only a desire to pay back his captors for his lost eyes. He may have little right to expect anything from God based on the way he has treated his calling, but God has answered him in the past. Samson, who wanted to live among the Philistines now dies among them. He is an agent of death throughout his life and his final action proves to be his deadliest. Finally in his death his family returns to claim him and lay him in the father’s tomb. Samson, like Israel, no matter how hard he tries cannot escape his identity as a chosen one of God.

The story of Samson is one of many strange stories that make up the book of Judges and the bible in general. Samson is a trickster, and the bible is full of stories of tricksters. The Bible rarely tells morality tales, and the ‘heroes of faith’ are often deeply flawed people. Samson is a strange agent who God is able to work through to bring some relief from the people’s oppression under the Philistines. Yet in a narrative where the people have lost their connection with the LORD their God and have turned away from their identity as a chosen people it is appropriate that the final judge also attempts to turn away from his identity and calling. Israel stands at a dark and vulnerable point but as the coming chapters will demonstrate the greatest threat is not the Philistines but the lawless place that Israel has become.

 

[1] Same word in Hebrew.

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