R-Rated: The Bible's Flawed Superman
R-Rated: The Bible's Flawed Superman
There are a lot of heroes in the Bible, but there's really only one superhero, and that's Samson. If you think about it, Samson is a lot like Superman. He's got an amazing power, namely his incredible strength. He fights for the little guy, the downtrodden people of Israel. And, like Superman and his kryptonite, Samson has a weakness as well, namely losing his hair.
As similar as Samson and Superman may seem superficially, there is one key difference between the two of them. Superman is known as the Big Blue Boy Scout due to his upstanding moral behavior. Since Samson is a judge and a Biblical hero, it's tempting to paint him with the same brush as Superman, especially if all we look at are the stories that we tell our kids. But when we take a deeper look at Samson's story, we find a much more complex individual, one who has a bigger weakness than just the barber's chair. But to understand why, we need to talk about the lifestyle Samson was supposed to live.
A Nazirite for life
In Judges 13, we read how Samson's parents were unable to have children until they were visited by the angel of the Lord. The angel told them that not only were they going to be parents, but that their child was to be a Nazirite from the moment he was born (Judges 13:5).
The Nazirite vow is outlined in Numbers 6:1-21. It was essentially a vow Israelites could take to thank God for a specific blessing in their lives. Most Nazirite vows were temporary (a good example of this is in Acts 21:17-26), but there are a few instances of people who took the vow for life, the most prominent example aside from Samson being Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11). People who took Nazirite vows basically promised to avoid three things: wine and other grape-based food products (including raisins), haircuts, and coming in contact with dead bodies.
In the case of Samson, we can see how he failed to keep this vow when it comes to the infamous story of Delilah. But careful examination of his life shows that he may have had significant trouble with the other two requirements as well.
For example, there's the fact that Samson threw a wedding feast when he got married to a Philistine girl (Judges 14:10-18), an event that typically included the consumption of a lot of wine. Now it is true that the Bible doesn't explicitly say that Samson drank wine at his wedding, but he definitely struggled with the prohibition against coming in contact with dead bodies.
Consider the story of Samson's riddle. One day, as he was traveling to see his fiancé, he protected his parents from a lion attack. Afterwards, he discovered that bees had made a hive in the lion's corpse and he ate the honey he found in it (Judges 14:5-9). Not only is that gross, but Samson was consuming something that came out of a corpse. I don't know if animal corpses counted for Nazirite vows, but the next examples are much more clear-cut.
During the aforementioned wedding feast, Samson challenged his guests to a game of riddles. At stake were thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes for the winner. Samson's "riddle" borders on the ridiculous: "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet" (Judges 14:14). It reminds me of Bilbo's final riddle to Gollum in The Hobbit. Like poor old Gollum, the Philistines aren't able to answer the riddle. Faced with the loss, they pressure Samson's new bride to learn the answer.
When they're able to win the bet, Samson diplomatically tells them, "If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle." What a hero, right? At any rate, Samson goes out and kills thirty Philistines and loots the corpses to fulfill the terms of the bet. That may be a clever solution to his problem, but it's definitely a violation of his Nazirite vows. He came in contact with not just one, but thirty dead bodies!
This isn't the only example. A short while later, Samson takes on a thousand Philistines with the infamous donkey's jawbone (Judges 15:11-17). Or, to put it another way, he used a piece of a corpse to make more corpses. I find it very hard to believe that Samson didn't come into contact with at least one dead body during that fight.
Samson had a difficult time keeping to the spirit of his Nazirite vows. Samson also ran into trouble with a law that God handed down that applied, not only to Nazirites, but to every single one of God's chosen people. Samson had a problem with the ladies.
No foreign women
In Deuteronomy 7, God lays down some specific instructions as to whether or not the Israelites are to have relationships with foreign women. In a word, he says, "No." Or, more specifically, he said: "Do not intermarry with [the non-Israelites in the land of Canaan]. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons." This command may seem harsh and maybe even a little racist. Only God's concern isn't racial purity. It's actually about spiritual purity. He goes on to say, "for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you."
God's concerns were justified. We only have to look at King Solomon to see why. While we usually remember Solomon for his divinely granted wisdom, he had a problem with the ladies. In 1 Kings, we learn that he married seven hundred wives and had three hundred concubines. When he grew older, these many wives enticed him into worshiping false gods. We're even told, "On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites." The worship of those gods included child sacrifice. Solomon's love for foreign women pulled him away from God.
There are other examples in the Bible of the people of Israel being enticed away from God by foreign women. That's why it's so puzzling when we realize that Samson had a thing for foreign women.
Samson, the ladies' man
We've already discussed how Samson was a married man, but it's important to remember that his wife was a Philistine girl. This led to no end of grief between Samson and the Philistines, with a body count that reached over a thousand. While the author of Judges tries to explain all of this as God trying to engineer a confrontation between Samson and the Philistines (Judges 14:4), the next example can't be tidied up.
One day, Samson is in the Philistine city of Gaza and he sees a prostitute. He decides to spend the night with her. When the Philistines learn about this, they lock the city gates and figure that when Samson comes out in the morning, he'll be trapped. Except Samson got up in the middle of the night and ripped the city gates out of the wall and carried them close to forty miles to the Israelite city of Hebron. That's an impressive feat, but let's not overlook that the whole reason why Samson was in Gaza in the first place. He was visiting a prostitute! That seems a pretty clear violation of God's covenant with Israel, no matter how you slice it.
And then there's the most well-known story about Samson, his time with Delilah. We don't know if Delilah was a Philistine woman. The Bible doesn't say explicitly that she was, but I think it's a safe assumption to make. She was more than willing to work with the Philistine rulers, and while some Israelite women might have been mercenary enough to betray one of Israel's leaders for a load of silver, at this point, we can safely say that Samson had a type when it came to women.
Whatever the case, I think it's clear that Samson's relationship with Delilah wasn't chaste. Their conversations in Judges 16:6-20 sounds like pillow talk. Plus, there's the pattern that emerges in these little heart-to-hearts: Delilah asks to know Samson's secret, he lies to her, she acts on the lie, only to learn that he tricked her. This happens not once, not twice, but three times before Samson gives in and tells her the truth. The fact that he does this at all is ridiculous. After all, "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Samson is clearly too in lust with Delilah to see the threat lying next to him.
When we tell this story to our kids, we usually make it sound like Samson's lack of hair was his kryptonite, the one thing that gave him his superpowers. I wonder if his forced haircut was simply the last straw for God. Samson had violated the covenant by consorting with foreign women, and he had ignored every part of his Nazirite vow.
Samson does eventually get his act together, but only after being captured and blinded by the Philistines. I wonder what might have been had he been able to resist the lure of foreign women. He's not like the other Judges described in the book. He didn't unite anyone to face a common enemy. He's more of a rogue and a maverick whose career only lasted twenty years. What might he have accomplished if he hadn't fallen for the Philistine's honey trap named Delilah and followed God's will more closely?
Fairy tale vs. reality
Atheists and agnostics often suggest that the stories we find in the Bible are little more than fables and fairy tales, fantastic characters doing unearthly things. We, as Christians, disagree with that. We insist that these stories are real, filled with people who actually lived and walked this earth. Yet, all too often, we do treat these stories like fairy tales.
Think about how we teach our children the stories of the Bible. We take random stories, usually focusing on one of the "heroes." We then rip those stories out of their larger context and thoroughly cleanse them of anything we wouldn't want kids to hear. Then we emphasize an attribute of the hero, suggesting that the kids should show more of that attribute in their lives too. We'll even tack on a moral to the story, just like you do with a fairy tale. By the time we're done, these Biblical people are little more than caricatures.
Take Samson. He's the super-strong dude who protected God's people. He took out a thousand bad guys using just the jawbone of a donkey. And yeah, he fell in love with the wrong girl, and it seemed like the bad guys won, but not really! Samson was able to take them all out. Like I said earlier, Samson is a lot like Superman. And the way we usually present him makes him seem just as "real" as a comic book character. The problem is, Samson was a real person, a complex individual with moral failings. He broke his vows. He had a problem with lust. He was a sinner.
Actually, all of the Biblical people we turn into fairy tales were the same. Abraham had trust issues. Moses couldn't control his temper. Jeremiah was depressed. Peter suffered from perpetual foot-in-mouth disease. David turned out to be an adulterer, a liar, and a murderer, and that's just in his dealings with Bathsheba. Samson, like the rest of them, wasn't a pillar of righteous thought or action. He wasn't a fairy tale prince or hero. No, Samson was a sinner, just like you and me. Thank God for that.
What makes the "heroes" of the Bible heroic isn't anything in them. It's not due to some superior spiritual quality that the rest of us mere mortals are lacking. No, the reason why God chose them, the secret factor that made them what they are, is because of God's grace. It is his grace that transforms sinners into saints. Samson, like all of God's people, was caught in a tug of war. He was, as Lutherans like to put it, simul justus et peccator. That means "simultaneously saint and sinner." It's the tension we're all caught in, the tension that Paul talks about in Romans 7 when he wrote:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:15, 18-21, 24)
Paul's question is one we all need answered. Thankfully, Paul gives us the answer right away: "Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25a)
It's God who makes people heroes, true heroes, in spite of their sinfulness. That's why it's so important to take the time to work through the R-Rated sections of the Bible. Because when we do, we see the real people who lived in this fallen and broken world, and see how God was able to work through them to accomplish his purposes. Even though Samson was a vow-breaker and a ladies' man, God still was able to use him to save his people from the Philistines. Even though Abraham had trust issues, God was able to fashion him into the foundation for all of his people. Even though David was a skunk, God worked through him to create a family tree for his Son.
That is good news for us, because if he can use sinners like Samson to accomplish his work, he can use us, imperfect yet forgiven, fallen yet raised up again, sinners and saints at the same time, to serve him now.
John W. Otte is a husband, father, author, Lutheran pastor, and geek (although not always in that order).