Sibble Sunday: Sleeping with the Enemy (Judges 14–16)

The weather and my spring schedule has generally discombobulated me and done horrible things to my focus. But I’m back, hopefully for good.

Short snarky summary: Israel’s most recent savior is a real shit, and surprisingly bad at his job. He kills lots of Philistines but mostly incidentally to his hedonistic excesses.

Larry Gonick commented, with regard to some of the more awful doings of Herakles, that heroes “are not always good, just excessive”. Certainly that’s a pervasive theme of gods, demigods, and heroes of the ancient world. I’m not an anthropologist, but it certainly seems that the idea that power goes hand in hand with moral clarity is actually a fairly late arrival in world religion. We’re so used to the Christian conception of the powerful mythical forces in the cosmos (God, angels, demons, and Satan) being specifically aligned with moral spheres that it’s not obvious, unless you read a lot of mythology, that that’s not a necessary function of religion. The larger-than-life figures peppering mythology aren’t actually, as a general rule, avatars of good or evil, but just like really powerful humans with an admixture of generosity, cruelty, self-interest, affection, and all those other all-too-human traits which make us behave horribly and wonderfully towards each other.

I veer off into this anthropological direction because it’s kind of the only way to explain Samson. Modern (by which I mean, since the first-century-CE development of the fundamental Jewish exegetical texts) views of the Judges, and other heroes of Jewish lore, tend to work within this “moral superiority of heroes” framework, so Samson is wedged into this traditional role which the actual Bible text doesn’t support, because the character described in the text is decidedly not admirable, whether considered as a regular joe, a freedom fighter, or as a devout Jew.

Interestingly, we’re never explicitly told in the text about the Samson’s most notable feature, namely, his superpowers. We’re left to infer it from the many times he performed feats of strength beyond those of mere mortals. We were told in the story of his birth that he was to remain unshorn (and otherwise observe the restrictions of the nazir), but none of that appears in the story of his life at all until very late. So the most important facts about him are buried through the story rather than laid out straightforwardly.

What we are told, straightaway, is that this hero—the holy scourge, the deliverer of Israel from the Philistine yoke—decides to marry a Philistine woman. This seems like an awfully unusual way to achieve his destiny. Generally speaking, if your life is dedicated to the extermination of a nation, marrying one of its members might be a counterproductive move, unless that member is in a position of power or in possession of useful intelligence you can use to destroy the nation from within. The story justifies this explicitly as a machination of God, to give Samson a grievance against the Philistines. But that’s not terribly to Samson’s credit either. Previous Judges went out and did what they did because they were freedom fighters and rescuing their people from bondage was kind of their entire purpose. But Samson isn’t going to go toe-to-toe with the Philistines until he’s been personally slighted.

Anyways, about that marriage: there’s a preface where he kills a lion and later finds a beehive in the skeleton. The purpose of this little story, other than giving us our first inkling that Samson is preternaturally strong, is to give Samson an impossible challenge for his wedding guests. He challenges them to a riddle contest, with a significant bet of linen on the line, and essentially he cheats, by telling a riddle which makes no damn sense unless you know this episode of his life. Riddles as an art form and entertainment presumably preceded Samson (and surely preceded the Deuteronomists who set this story in its place and redacted it), and historically the accepted practice has been that riddles, although meant ot be difficult to solve, ultimately rely on knowledge common to the culture (the other famous riddle of antiquity, the Riddle of the Sphinx, is definitely of this type, in that the situation being described is a well-recognized one). Under this premise, I’d stipulate that Samson’s riddle is a bad one, and one out of line with the spirit of the game. Understandably the guests are a bit irked, and decide to use their phone-a-friend lifeline and get the help of Samson’s betrothed, who cajoles the answer out of him and duly reports it to the wedding guests, who answer the singularly obscure riddle.

Of course, Samson knows the riddle’s not fair, and immediately realizes how they figured out the answer, just in case you thought he’d unwittingly given an impossible riddle. So he pays off his debt of linen by killing thirty Philistines and stealing their shirts. Now is as good a time as any to remind you that among the vows of nazirus (to which Samson is ostensibly bound), there’s a prohibition on touching the dead. So I’m not sure how Samson gets the shirts of of thirty dead men without touching them. As another practical upshot of the riddle, Samson breaks off his engagement, and his fiancée marries one of the guests. Later Samson changes his mind, but too late.

At this point, Samson is really angry with the Philistines, but I find his heroism a bit unsatisfactory, because everything he’s angry about them for is his own fault. He gives them an impossible riddle, and is angry when they solve it. He breaks off his betrothal, and is angry when his jilted lover remarries. If he’d sworn vengeance on the Philistines for their abuse of his nation and tribesmen, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, but his resentment is based on such stupid shit that it’s hard to really see him as a sympathetic figure.

Anyways, in the direct fallout of the broken weding, Samson sends foxes tied to lit torches out into the Philistine fields, which is actually a pretty creative act of revenge, and thereupon fighting breaks out, with Samson beating up the Philistines, and eventually being taken prisoner by the Judahites and handed over to the Philistines.

It’s hard to really fault the tribesmen of Judah for this decision. Samson is making things a lot worse, and he’s not really effectually freeing Israel from the Philistine yoke, so handing him over to the conquerors probably looks a lot to the tribe of Judah like a way of killing two birds with one stone.

Anyways, the handoff doesn’t actually work. Samson breaks free and kills a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (between this and Shamgar’s oxgoad, Philistines are looking awfully susceptible to unconventional weaponry). Then he almost dies of thirst. No, really. Killing Philistines is thirsty work, and apparently Samson got so absorbed with it that he got seriously dehydrated, and would’ve died if God hadn’t opened a spring right there. I guess at least God likes Samson, but they’re both prone to capricious rages, so I guess I can see what they have in common.

Next up we’re treated to a story notable mostly for Samson soliciting a prostitute, just in case we’d gotten the impression he was a holy man. The townspeople of the city lay in wait for him until morning, but instead of submitting he just left at night through the barred front gate of the city, breaking the gate in and taking it with him. This story serves no particular purpose as far as I can tell, except to solidify our impression of Samson as a hedonistic, unthinking clod.

But of course, the next and final story of Samson is the one everyone remembers. He meets and falls in love with a woman named Delilah, who is not explicitly described as a Philistine, although she’s clearly known to the Philistines, who immediately bribe her to figure out a way to capture Samson. Several times she asks Samson for the secret of his strength, and each time he tells her some new lie, which she then puts to the test with a Philistine ambush which fails.

Eventually she harangues him into telling her, which seems an act of monumental foolishness, because really what happens next can’t possibly take him by surprise. I’m not much of a gender essentialist, but a distinct element of this story would have to be “perfidity of women”: every single time Samson trusts a woman, she turns right around and abuses that trust. He has every good reason in the world to never tell a woman (or anyone else, at that) his big secret. But he does, which we can only chalk up to either the mythic character of the story eschewing reason or Samson being an extremely stupid person. And, surprise, surprise, the Philistines shave him, capture him, and blind him.

But from God’s perspective (and I suppose you can explain all his bizarre actions if you handwave them away as God’s machinations), this is actually a good last chance for Samson, since a big crowd of Philistines goes to the temple to jeer at him, and at Samson’s request, God imbues him with power once again to pull down the pillars of the temple and kill all within.

So, yeah, that’s Samson. He’s not remotely an admirable person, and his life seemed to be entirely driven by self-interest and occasional depths of gullibility. I suppose we’re meant to take his rampage as the will of God, but it’s unusual that, unlike in other stories, God doesn’t seem to be enacting his will through anyone who exemplifies any godly virtues. For that reason, I get a hint this story is less extensively redacted than others, because it doesn’t actually accord real well with later Jewish morality.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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