Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Samson is a bad man

One thing has particularly struck me reading through the story of Samson recently in Judges 13-16: Samson is awful.  He is a horrible, horrible human being in almost every way.  He treats women like chattels.  He disrespects his parents.  He is unfaithful to God's covenant with Israel (as demonstrated by his marriage choices).  He is extraordinarily gifted by God, but shows no gratitude whatsoever.  He makes no effort to maintain the ritual purity expected of a normal Israelite, let alone a set-apart Nazirite.  He is short-tempered and proud.  He brutally murders people because he is angry and he needs thirty garments because of a stupid bet.  He is vengeful.  He lacks faith, and repeats the grumbling of his forebears when he finds himself in the wilderness without water.  He frequents prostitutes.  He is careless and self-confident to the point of extreme arrogance.

Samson is a bad man.

But - such a promising beginning!  A veritable annunciation in Judges 13, and "the young man grew and Yahweh blessed him.  And the Spirit of Yahweh began to stir him..."  Chosen from the womb by God to be the leader of his people.  Did God choose poorly?

The story actually gets more disturbing in some ways.  This morning the lectionary took us through the tawdry story of Samson's wedding.  His parents tried to persuade him to marry an Israelite, but Samson was having none of it: he would marry a Philistine, apparently just because he thought she was hot - he doesn't have a conversation with her until later.  Samson is marrying into the people who are currently oppressing Israel; not a great look for a deliverer, and on the pattern of the book of Judges that is what we are expecting him to be.  The marriage, of course, goes wrong, and Samson goes off in a rage and murders people and loses his wife (which will have further repercussions, by which I mean more murders, tomorrow).

But none of that is the disturbing bit.  There are two verses in this chapter which are genuinely alarming.  Verse 4:"His father and mother did not know that it was from Yahweh, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines."  And verse 19: "And the Spirit of Yahweh rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men..."

Samson is awful, but it is God who is looking for an opportunity to strike the Philistines - Samson's desire for an unwise and probably illegitimate marriage is "from Yahweh"!  What do we do with that?  Is God as awful as Samson?  If Samson is a bad man, is God a bad God?

Here is where we have to take a careful and nuanced view of God's sovereignty.  There is no doubt that the author of Judges wants us to know that Samson is a bad dude.  It is part of the downward spiral in post-conquest Israelite society that the deliverers who are raised up get progressively less heroic and godly (compare the way the Gideon and Jepthah stories are told, for example, and note the parallels around the treatment of Ephraim, seeking of rulership, etc. etc.)  So the perspective of the text is that Samson is not a role-model.  But the perspective of the text is also that Yahweh God is holy and righteous.  It is certainly not the intention of the author to endorse Samson, but neither is it his intention to implicate God in Samson's awfulness.

So how do we read it?  Samson acted sinfully, but God acted righteously through sinful Samson.  Samson murdered Philistines in petty rage, but God righteously judged the Philistines through petty Samson.  Note that God does not, according to the text, just opportunistically use Samson's crimes for good ends.  In fact, that Samson is chosen from the womb and gets such a big annunciation story serves to underline that God has actively ordained that this wicked man will play a role in his righteous schemes - and yet without himself being tainted in any way by Samson's evil.  Our view of God needs to be enlarged - he is above and beyond, operating on a different plane from us.  But our view of God also needs to be disciplined by revelation - this God is not afraid to mix it up on our plane.

In the end it is impossible for us to disentangle the evil that people intend and the good that God purposes.  We can only pray and work against the former and trust for the latter.  God will sort it all out in the end.

1 comment:

  1. This is good news! Especially in light of contemporary politics and current affairs. Thanks, Daniel. This will shape and inform my prayers in the coming weeks.