Judges 16: A heart in an egg in a well in a church on an island in a lake…

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Unfortunately for Samson, he failed to get laid in Judges 15. He’s a very goal-oriented sort of man, though, and he doesn’t let one failure get him down. So he makes his way to Gaza – one of the five major cities of the Philistine confederation (according to my study Bible, p.315) – to go “in to” a prostitute (Judges 16:1).

But poor Samson can’t seem to be able to pursue relations of an intimate nature without some sort of disaster. So, of course, the Philistines find out where he’s laying. Presumably afraid of bursting in to some scene of unspeakable horror, they opt to set up an ambush by the city gate, assuming that they would be waiting until morning.

It’s unclear what happens to the ambushers, but at around midnight, Samson wakes, comes out of the brothel, rips out the city gate, plops it up on his shoulders, and drags it up a hill near Hebron.

The fatal flaw

Then, as we all found out in Sunday School, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The Philistine lords approach her and offer her a sum of 1,100 pieces of silver from each of them if she can find out what Samson’s weakness is.

It’s never explicitly stated that Delilah is a Philistine, by the way – as Samson’s other dalliances have been. We know only that he met her in the valley of Sorek – which, according to my study Bible, “led into the north end of the Philistine plain” (p.315). She is also, obviously, in cahoots with the Philistine elders.

Delilah, who is subtle and sly with the feminine wiles of a Biblical Mata Hari, asks: “Please tell me wherein your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you” (Judges 16:6).

Well, at least she said ‘please.’

Samson somehow figures out that it may be a trick, so he lies to her. He tells her that if he is bound with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, he will become weak. The Philistine lords give Delilah seven bowstrings and lie in ambush while she binds Samson (presumably while he sleeps). To test the bindings, she yells out a warning and Samson easily snaps the bowstrings.

Delilah reproaches Samson: “Behold, you have mocked me, and told me lies; please tell me how you might be bound” (Judges 16:10). This time, Samson says that if he is bound with new ropes that have never been used, he will lose his strength. Of course, this was a lie too and he easily snaps his bindings.

The third time she asks, Samson tells her that she must weave “the seven locks of my head” (Judges 16:13) with a loom to drain his strength. (Rastafari, who try to follow the Nazirite rules of Numbers 6, interpret this reference to “seven locks” as meaning dreadlocks.) Predictably, when Delilah yells her warning, Samson pulls easily away from the loom.

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Finally, she pulls out the big guns: “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” (Judges 16:15), just as Samson’s unnamed bride said in Judges 14:16. For all his strength, Samson is a sucker for emotional manipulation, so he finally tells Delilah the secret of his hair.

If you were a child in the ’80s, you might have thought – as I did – of the Heartless Giant story from The Storyteller. In it, a young boy must defeat a giant who cannot be killed because he has hidden his heart. And so every day, the boy asks the giant where his heart is kept until, finally, the giant reveals the location (though in that story, the giant’s motive makes a bit more sense – the boy is clever and tricks the giant into thinking that he’s on his side). The big difference between the two stories is that, here, the giant is the Good Guy.

With his secret finally in her hands, Delilah has Samson fall asleep on her knee, and he does it because he’s Samson and he’s always found thinking hard when it comes to women. In Sunday School, Delilah then cuts Samson’s hair. Here, though, she has some guy come in and do it for some reason. It’s an odd detail – why can’t she do it herself? Would it be too much like Samson is defeated by a woman to have her be the one cutting his hair?

Regardless, when she wakes him, he doesn’t realize that “the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20) and tries to break himself free, only then to realize just how fickle his God’s affections are. The Philistines rush in and gauge out his eyes, putting him in bronze fetters and then make him grind at the mill in prison. But unbeknownst to them, hair grows back…

The fall

The Philistine lords have gathered to offer a sacrifice to Dagon in thanks for allowing them to capture their arch-nemesis. Dagon, according to my study Bible, “was an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). In their thanks, they describe Samson as “the ravager of our country, who has slain many of us” (Judges 16:24). I wonder if Samson ever had one of Mitchell & Webb’s “Are we the baddies?” moments.

As part of their celebrations, they decide to have Samson “make sport for us” (Judges 16:25). It’s unclear to me what this means. Abbie at Better than Esdras reads it as making him fight in deathmatches. In my own reading, I interpreted it as putting him on display, perhaps with intention of pelting him with rotten vegetables.

In a stunning feat of architecture, the Philistines have managed to construct a building large enough for 3,000 people to be sitting on the roof, yet it is entirely supported by two pillars close enough together that one man can touch both at the same time. Further, a man standing between these two pillars is visible to the 3,000 on the roof. It’s practically an eight wonder of the world for sheer goofiness.

Samson, now blind, is led by a boy holding his hand to his spot between the two pillars. His hair now grown, he prays to God to grant him the strength to avenge one of his two eyes (perhaps he never much liked the other one). It’s very clear that this great final exploit, as all his others have been, is completely personal. He was not raised by God to deliver Israel from the Philistines, no matter what the editor might claim.

Samson has his guide-boy places his hands on the pillars and, his strength now renewed, pushes them apart – knowing that he will die too – to kill the Philistines. “So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life” (Judges 16:30).

His brothers and other members of his family (once his mother’s womb opened, it was apparently left open) collected his body and buried him in the tomb of his father, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

Samson’s story closes by telling us that “he had judged Israel twenty years” (Judges 16:31), a repetition of Judges 15:20. He did not, as Brant points out on Both Saint and Cynic, get “his people out from under the oppressive thumb of the Philistines.” Throughout, his motivations and exploits have been personal.

Judges 13: Stirrings of the Lord

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Once again, the people mess up so God gives them over to an enemy – this time choosing the Philistines. On this new enemy, Collins explains:

The people with whom Samson interacts are the Philistines, who were emerging as a power at the same time as Israel. It is unlikely that they had dominion over all the Israelite tribes, but they controlled the coastal plain and came into conflict with the neighboring tribe of Judah. The story of Samson implies that there was considerable coming and going between Judah and Philistia, and a major feature of Samson’s career is his involvement with Philistine women. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

Israel is annoyed by the Philistines for forty years before God, in his angel form, appears to the wife of a man named Manoah – a Danite from Zorah who has no children. God tells this unnamed woman that she will have a son, but that she mustn’t drink wine or any other strong drink, nor eat anything unclean. Once her son is born, she is never to shave his head because he will be a “Nazirite to God from birth” (Judges 13:5).

While the rules given to Manoah’s wife bear some resemblance to the rules regarding Nazirites in Numbers 6, the differences are quite significant. For one thing, the Nazirite vow in Numbers is explicitly a temporary and voluntary condition – taken on, for example, by Manoah’s wife or even Manoah himself, as a way to conceive the child they have so far been unable to have. It would not be a condition imposed upon the child produced by the vow. Nor would its restrictions apply to anyone other than the Nazirite, though Manoah’s wife is the one told that she may not drink alcohol.

Nor – *spoilers* – does the Numbers 6 version have anything to do with strength, though Samson’s superhuman strength is said to have something to do with his uncut hair.

In trying to understand the discrepancy, Collins suggests two possibilities:

It may well be that Samson’s long hair was a folkloric motif related to his strength, and that he was called a nazirite to bring him within the categories of biblical law. Or it may be that the significance of the nazirite vow evolved over time. Originally, it may have pertained to the status of special warriors, related to their exceptional strength. Later it became a way of expressing a particular type of piety. Samson does not seem to be concerned with holiness, but he does seem to channel divine power, which is somewhow associated with his hair.  (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 113)

Back to the story, Manoah’s wife tells her husband about her encounter with the angel of God who, at this point, she doesn’t seem to know is god.

Manoah and his wife give a sacrifice, from the Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Manoah and his wife give a sacrifice, from the Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Manoah’s motives aren’t explicitly stated, but he seems rather disconcerted by the fact that God has spoken to his wife and not to him. Apparently in an attempt to establish primacy in the relationship between his family and God, he prays for another visitation, using as an excuse that he needs more instruction regarding what to do with his son-to-be. But God bypasses him yet again, appearing to wife while she is sitting alone in a field.

Dutifully, she rushes to fetch her husband, who comes out to meet with God. Only now is he able to interact with God without his wife’s mediation.

There have been several times that I’ve sensed hints of older stories, stories that seem to have been about priestesses or perhaps even goddesses. God telling Sarah about Isaac, Sarah bedding with the kings of two nations (Pharaoh and Abimelech), Rebekah bedding with a third king, Miriam’s song of praise, Zipporah’s circumcision of her son, Deborah’s song, etc. Here, we have another that I would put in the same category – though she is given no name, it is clear that it is through her that God wishes to communicate with Manoah’s family. I suspect that the latter portion of the chapter, where he switches to speaking directly to Manoah, may have been a later edit, because coming the second time to Manoah’s wife while she is alone just seems far too deliberate to me.

In the field, God confirms all that he has told Manoah’s wife, adding only that she can’t even eat anything from a vine (the prohibition extended from just being against consuming wine).

Manoah, apparently pleased with the news, wishes to thank his visitor by offering him a kid. God, however, says that he will not eat the offering in the ordinary way, but that it should instead be offered as a burnt offering instead. Manoah seems confused, and asks for God’s name. On the one hand, it seems that Manoah does not yet realize that he is speaking to a god, though he summoned the second visitation through prayer. Another interpretation is that he doesn’t know which god he is speaking to and wants to know which god to thank once the prophecy is fulfilled.

To this, God rebukes him for asking, saying that his name is either too wonderful or too secret for him to know (depending on the translation). Abbie at Better than Esdras claims that the word used here “actually appears nowhere else in the Bible. So I’m pretty sure they’re just guessing at the meaning.” The episode mirrors Moses’s question in Exodus 3:14, except that God chooses here not to reveal his name.

As per God’s instructions, Manoah prepares a kid for a burnt offering. When he sets the meat aflame, the angel steps onto the altar and ascends with the flame. Predictably, Manoah and his wife fall on their faces.

Seeing that their visitor really is God, Manoah grows very anxious. As per Exod. 33:20, he believes that he must die now that he has seen God’s face. His wife comforts him, arguing that if God had wanted them to die, they’d be dead already. He wouldn’t have accepted their offering. And though she doesn’t say so, it wouldn’t make much sense. If they were to be stricken dead by seeing God, how could they bear the son he predicted?

Closing off the chapter, their son, Samson, is born and we are told that the “Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him” (Judges 13:25) in Mahanehdan.