The Complete Book of Judges

Is Samson a Hero?
What's really in the Good Book.
Oct. 13 2006 6:17 PM

The Complete Book of Judges

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Chapter 13
Has there ever been a more depressing story about the relationship between men and women than the tale of Samson? Its two conclusions:

1) Men shouldn't trust women because they're deceptive, heartless creatures.

2) Men are too stupid and sex-crazed to realize this.

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Samson has God on his side from the beginning. An angel appears to a barren woman—a la Isaac's mom, Sarah—and says she will bear a son who will deliver Israel from the Philistines. The angel tells her she must never cut his hair: He will be a "nazarite." The woman tells her husband, Manoah—as usual, the husband gets a name, the wife doesn't—about the angel's instructions. His response is hilarious. He doesn't believe his wife. Instead of taking her word, he prays that the Lord will send the angel again to tell them "what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born." So even though the angel already told his wife what they are to do, Manoah insists on being told again. (I have a cousin like this, who annoyingly insists that you repeat to him anything you already told his wife.) The angel does return, and repeats to Manoah what he already told the wife.

A curious incident: Manoah asks the angel his name. The angel refuses to say, because "[i]t is too wonderful." This is another great example of the Bible's respect for the power of names. God's name, of course, is too powerful even to speak. Abram only becomes mighty when he becomes Abraham, as Jacob must become Israel.

Manoah and his wife have a son, and they name him Samson.

Chapter 14and Chapter 15
Visiting a nearby town, Samson sees a Philistine girl and falls in love with her. Manoah and his wife then become the first Jewish parents in history to say: What? You couldn't find a nice Jewish girl? You think I'm joking, but I'm not. "Is there not a woman among your kin, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?" But their son just has a thing for pagan chicks, and insists that dad get him the Philistine wife.

Samson, it soon becomes clear, was the original meathead—born 3,000 years too early to be a hockey goon, or the fraternity rush chairman. On the way down to the wedding, Samson tears a young lion apart with his bare hands.  Later he eats honey from the carcass of the lion. At a post-wedding party, Samson bets the Philistine guests they can't solve his riddle, which is about the lion and the honey. The riddle stumps the Philistines for three days, so they threaten Samson's new bride, saying they'll kill her and her dad unless she coaxes the answer out of him. She nags and wheedles and cajoles her husband for four days. Samson, clearly not the sharpest sword in the scabbard, tells her the answer. She immediately tells the Philistines, who solve the riddle. This enrages Samson, who also seems to think the Philistines have slept with his wife. (He tells them: "[You] plowed with my heifer.") The furious judge kills 30 other, apparently innocent, Philistine men. It says Samson kills them while he is possessed by the "spirit of the Lord"—a kind of holy 'roid rage—but it's not at all clear why God would encourage such pointless murder.

Now it gets really complicated. His father-in-law gives away Samson's wife to Samson's best man. The father-in-law then offers Samson his wife's sister instead (echoes of Laban and Jacob). Samson, who clearly has anger management issues, flips out at the wife swap. He catches 300 foxes, attaches torches to their tails, and releases them into the Philistines' fields, where they burn the crops down. (No word, PETA friends, on what happened to the foxes.) One bad turn deserves another: The Philistines retaliate by incinerating Samson's wife and father-in-law. Then Samson retaliates by slaughtering a mess of Philistines. Then the Philistines retaliate by sending an army against the tribe of Judah. To stop the fight, Samson agrees to let Judah hand him over to the Philistines, but the minute he's in Philistine custody, "the spirit of the Lord rushed on him," he breaks his shackles, grabs a donkey's jawbone, and murders 1,000 Philistines with it. Is there a lesson in this escalating slaughter? I don't see one, except perhaps: Don't tell riddles. That's what started the war.

Here's a curious thing about Samson: He's chosen by God, but he's entirely ungodly. He marries a pagan—which God has repeatedly declared is a death-penalty offense. He invariably takes excessive revenge (i.e., murdering innocents because his riddle was solved). And he's not at all interested in helping the Lord. He delivers the Israelites from the Philistines not out of any passion for his people. On the contrary, he prefers Philistine women, and seems to like partying with Philistine men. The only reason he overthrows the Philistines is that he's seeking personal revenge. He's entirely self-interested.

Chapter 16
Ah, Delilah! Judges doesn't say this temptress is a Philistine, but given Samson's addiction to foreign women, and given her eager cooperation with the Philistine elders, it's probable that she was. Samson falls in love with her, and the Philistine bosses immediately tell her to discover the secret of his strength, so the Philistines can capture him. Here the Samson story takes I turn I never knew about. I always thought Samson revealed the truth about his hair to Delilah immediately. He doesn't. In fact, the story makes him out to be much more of a sucker than I'd imagined.

Here's what happens: Delilah asks him the secret of his strength. Not trusting her, he tells her that if he's tied up with seven fresh bowstrings, he will become weak. She ties him up with seven fresh bowstrings—presumably while he's sleeping—and brings in Philistines to seize him. He, of course, snaps the bowstrings and drives off the attackers. At this point, any man who's not a complete moron or not entirely whipped would dump that treacherous vixen. But not Samson, who appears to be the dumbest Jew in history. Instead, he cuddles right back up with Delilah. She asks for the strength secret again. He lies to her again. The Philistines try to capture him again based on the lie, and he defeats them again. This happens a third time, but still he doesn't get rid of her. Finally she—like his dead first wife—nags him so much that he gives up his secret.

We all know what happens next. A very bad haircut. Then the Philistines arrest him and gouge out his eyes. The Philistines—apparently not brainiacs either—allow him to grow back his hair. They bring him out to dance at a celebration of their god Dagon. Shaggy Samson calls on the Lord to return his strength. He pushes down the house, killing all 3,000 guests and himself. Even in death, he remains an unappealing figure. He's still looking out only for himself: He asks the Lord for strength only so he can have "revenge" against the Philistines. He has no higher desire—not the good of the Israelites, not a strategic victory, not even the glory of the Lord—just personal, private vengeance.

Chapter 17 and Chapter 18
Oh, the Israelites are in a bad, bad, bad way. A man named Micah builds a shrine with a silver idol, and hires his own private priest to administer it. As if that's not sacrilegious enough, a rival militia steals the idol and takes the priest with them. A question: How did the name of Micah make such a comeback? Micah is a greedy idol-worshipper. Yet I can't walk through our synagogue's nursery school without knocking over half a dozen little Micahs. Why is the name trendy again? Is there another, more faithful, Micah elsewhere in the Bible?

Chapter 19 through Chapter 21
Goodness gracious, each time I think Judges can't get any more gruesome, it proves me wrong. A Levite man's concubine/wife runs away from him. (The text is ambiguous on whether she is mistress or wife.) The Levite follows her to her father's house in Bethlehem and persuades her to get back together with him. They begin their journey home. Late one afternoon, they approach a non-Israelite city, but the Levite refuses to stay the night there. "We will not turn aside into a city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel." (Remember this decision!) So the couple continues to the Israelite town of Gibeah, where an old man offers them shelter. (Like the terrified bit player in a horror movie, he warns them to avoid the town square.) They stay at the old man's house, but during the evening, the men of the town, "a perverse lot," pound on the door and demand that the Levite come out "so that we may have intercourse with him." You remember this story now, right? This is what happened in Sodom, when the town's men demanded to rape Lot's guests. In that case, God intervened and brimstoned everyone.

Not this time.

As in the Lot story, the host tries to protect his guest, offering his virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine to the mob instead. The mob refuses them. The Levite, desperate to save himself, grabs his concubine, and hands her over to the rapists. "They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go." She falls down at the door of the house. In the morning, the Levite opens the door and finds her lying on the threshold. Does he offer an apology for sending her in his place? Does he offer her a word of comfort? Nope. He says, "Get up ... we are going." She doesn't answer, so he tosses her on the back of the donkey and starts toward home. By the time they get home, she has died.

And it gets even sicker! He cuts her body into a dozen pieces and sends them throughout Israel, demanding that the Israelites aid his revenge. "Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt?"

This retelling of the Lot story is almost unbearably shocking. In Lot, it was the wicked Sodomites who commit the crime. Here Israelites, God's own chosen people, are the rapists. (Had the Levite and concubine only stopped in that town of foreigners, they would have been safe.) In Lot, God intervenes to save Lot and his family from the mob. Here God is absent, presumably disgusted with the moral decay of His people. And the Levite himself, though a victim of the mob, is almost as wicked as they are: He's a coward who surrenders his woman to save himself, then cruelly neglects her after the gang-rape. 

An army of 400,000 Israelites demands that the tribe of Benjamin turn over the rapists of Gibeah. The Benjaminites refuse, and after three bloody days of fighting, the town of Gibeah is eradicated, and all the Benjaminites except 600 men are dead. The other Israelites refuse to let their daughters marry any of the Benjaminite bachelors, but they feel "compassion" for the men. And how do they show that compassion? They besiege a nearby city, and slaughter all the residents except the 400 virgin girls, whom they give to the Benjaminites. But they're still 200 wives short. So the Israelites tell the unmarried Benjaminites to kidnap 200 more girls from the town of Shiloh.

And there the book ends, with a marvelous, hit-the-nail final verse: "In those days there was no King in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes." This perfectly captures the pessimistic, Hobbesian outlook of this book. Men who abandon God—and reject earthly authority—will find themselves in a chaotic, frightful land, a place of hideous crime and persistent idolatry, a place where law is dead, and only personal vengeance remains.

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