March 24, 2008

Judges 16-18: Please... with a cherry on top?

(Today's passage covers the story of Samson and Delilah, and the story of Micah's idols.)

The story of Samson and Delilah is one of the best-known Old Testament stories outside the Pentateuch. Everyone likes to feel bad for Samson, which is strange, because he had all the chances in the world to save himself.

The story is told in Judg. 16, and it goes something like this: having escaped death many times already, and with an ever-increasing death-count, Samson falls in love with yet another Philistine woman, Delilah. When Samson married his first wife in Judg. 14, the wedding guests used her to get Samson to reveal the answer to his riddle. With Delilah, we have a repeat performance with higher stakes: the Philistine leaders ask Delilah to discover the secret of Samson's strength, and promise her 1,100 pieces of silver each if she figures it out. (For the curious, that's about $7,660 each in today's dollars at today's silver prices.) (Judg. 16:3-5)

Delilah tries. She asks Samson for the secret to his strength, and he tells her that if someone binds him with seven new bow-strings, he'll lose his strength. So Delilah ties him up with seven bow-strings and shouts, "the Philistines are here!" Samson promptly breaks the bow-strings and reveals the deception. (Judg. 16:6-9)

Delilah tries again. And again. Samson tells her his strength will be lost if he's bound with new ropes, if his hair is braided into a tapestry, and probably a whole lot of other lies. Each time, Delilah tries the ploy, shouts out that the Philistines are here, and Samson breaks free of the bonds. Delilah keeps asking until Samson "was vexed unto death." (Judg. 16:10-16, KJV)

Finally, the grand reveal: Samson finally tells Delilah that his strength comes from his hair, and that if his hair is cut, he'll lose his strength. Delilah, predictably, cuts Samson's hair and yells out "the Philistines are here!" Samson doesn't realize God has left his, tries to fight back, and utterly fails to do anything. The Philistines gouge out his eyes, bind him with brass chains, and take him away. (Judg. 16:17-22)

Here we must ask ourselves one very obvious question: how dumb was Samson, really? Delilah asked him again and again for the secret to his strength, and she kept doing the things he told her and calling in the Philistines to capture him. Sooner or later, a man's bound to catch on that something isn't quite right here. But not Samson, who keeps stringing Delilah along with ever-more lies. It's not like Samson has any qualms about leaving his women, either. We say in Judg. 14 that he left his first wife, and earlier in Judg. 16, he leaves a prostitute he was staying with for a while. He could certainly have left Delilah if he wanted.

Maybe the answer is simply that Samson didn't know where his own strength came from. In Judg. 16:20, the text says that Samson didn't know God had left him. Maybe he thought he was just giving Delilah another lie ("sure, hon, cut my hair, and watch me slaughter your Philistine friends!"), never knowing that he was actually revealing the secret of his strength. It's a compelling explanation for people who want to believe Samson was at least trying to be cunning, instead of simply being dumb as a brick.

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