History Channel’s The Bible: Episode 3, “Homeland”

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Forty years after the events of the last episode (in narrative time, it hasn’t actually been that long since I wrote that post!), we open with Joshua praying in a deep, melodious voice that I am sure gets that actor oodles of gigs as a movie trailer narrator. The prayer serves to establish Joshua’s character – both his identity and goal.

His prayers over, we then zoom up Joshua’s nostril has he tells his spies to sneak into Jericho, and then into the spies’ nostrils as they agree.

We really get right up there.

We really get right up there.

I pointed out in my review of episodes 1 & 2 that the series tends to make up details to make the baddies seem like actual baddies, rather than just guys who happen to have settled in the wrong area (or, in Lot’s wife’s case, had complex feelings about leaving her home forever). So, of course, the figures of authority – apparently something like police officers – in Jericho are complete jerks. Right off the bat, one of them calls Rahab a “whore” and acts like a complete creepster.

The spies are fairly incompetent, and have perhaps forgotten to wear britches because everyone in town recognizes them immediately. They spend their time in Jericho running from alley to alley, recognized by more people at each turn, pursued by an ever-growing mob. Finally, they settle on the winning strategy of holding a knife to Rahab’s son’s throat and threatening to kill him unless Rahab protects them. Which, for some reason, doesn’t make them baddies. Rahab, like everyone else in town, immediately recognizes the Israelites, to which they reply, “you’ve heard of us?” As if they haven’t just spent the better part of the evening running from an entire town full of people who’ve heard of them and recognize them. At least the show managed to stay true to the text in making these the worst spies in the history of espionage.

Rahab agrees to delay the guards while the spies escape, either because she’s wowed by their super powerful deity or because they’ve just been holding a knife to her son’s throat. With a big third wall-breaking smirk, one of the spies gives her a red cord and tells her to tie it to her doorpost so that “you’ll be passed over.” Get it? Like the Israelites in Egypt? Get it??

When they get back to camp, they tell Joshua that the battle’s already half won because the citizens of Jericho believe that God is on the Israelite side. Joshua snaps at then, “God is on our side!” Yeah, dude, they know. That wasn’t the point. In fact, this happens several times during the episode. Some character will use “they think” language, and a Holy character will pause for a moment to shout, full froth, that God really really is with them, and then everyone resumes the scene as if nothing happened. I can just imagine some guy in the screenwriter circle with serious anger issues demanding that the line be added, in full caps, at regular intervals throughout the script. Perhaps he even brought a Bible along so that he could thump it to accentuate every second word.

The hapless spies failed to find a way into the city, but the angel of the Lord comes to Joshua and gives him the “Walls of Jericho” choreography. It’s the black one this time. We’ll see the white one later. The Asian band of our rainbow was apparently benched for this episode.

Bible_03_02_The Angel of the Lord

When the walls of Jericho fall, Joshua yells something that sounded something like “he truly is the saviour of the world” – or, perhaps, “this truly is the centre of the world.” Either way, it makes little sense in this context. Unless, of course, our True Believer scriptwriter wanted to remind everyone that Jesus is what it’s all about, even in the Old Testament.

Must more fitting with the tone of the Deuteronomic history is Joshua’s other shout: “If we obey the Lord, anything is possible!”

Samson

A hundred years pass and the Philistines are being jerks. The show introduces the concept of judges (plural), but completely skips most of them over to get to Samson – a strong black man with dreadlocks. In Judges 16:19, a reference is made to Samson’s “seven locks.” Some – particularly those in the Rastafari faith system – believe that this indicates that Samson may have worn dreadlocks. I found it interesting to see that theme taken up here.

Choosing to make Samson black is interesting, too, especially given the direction in which they decided to take the story. Rather than being the personal revenge story we get in the text, here it’s depicted as a sort of defence of interracial marriage – further, it’s one where our sympathetic character is the person of colour. Samson and his mother are black, whereas the Philistines are all portrayed as white.

Samson with Delilah

Samson with Delilah

To make it work, they’ve written out the lion and the riddle and the first wife’s betrayal. Instead, the Philistines murder Samson’s wife (by setting her on fire, no less) because “our people should never mix.”

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. The Philistines (you can tell they are baddies because they all wear Jack Sparrow eyeliner) are shown to be against Samson’s marriage to a Philistine woman from the start, but so is Samson’s mother. At her own son’s wedding, she is shown pursing her lips judgementally, prompting Samson to ask her what she wants from him. “What would you have me do? Reject the woman I fell in love with just because she’s a Philistine?”

Bible_03_Wedding

Because it’s a lot harder to CGI burning foxes than just to have a couple of stunt doubles wail on each other, Samson’s revenge involves the latter as he shouts, “for my wife!”

JAWBOWNED!

JAWBOWNED!

As in the text, Samson escapes and hides in a cave for a bit.

Also like the text, the Philistines start harassing nearby Israelites (in this case, Samson’s mother is included in the group). The History Channel couldn’t help but to add a little Hollywood flair, however, as the Philistines pull the old “for every arbitrary unit of time you make us wait for Samson, we will kill one of you! Starting NOW!” canard. The Israelites find Samson and convince him to submit.

The Philistines have Samson in chains, there’s a baddie/goodie exchange, Samson breaks free, then comes the jawbone.

It’s on his escape from his fight that Samson meets Delilah, violently grabbing a water jug out of her hands and then, inexplicably, thanking her as though he’d asked for it like a normal human being. This apparently sets Delilah swooning.

The Philistines approach Delilah and try to convince her to betray Samson. At first, they argue that he’s been going around butchering Philistines – entirely the impression of the text, but a lie in the context of the History Channel’s spin on the story. Delilah is unconvinced, “He’s changed, he’s a different man since he’s met me.” I mean, sure, he was covered in Philistine blood when she met him, but he hasn’t even tried to commit genocide since!

What finally convinces her is the offer of money. That meshes with the text, but it feels worse here, somehow. Delilah is portrayed as having genuine affection for Samson, defending him and even crying when he is captured. Yet her greed overrides her affection to the point that she methodically sheers his hair while he sleeps, with no indication of internal conflict.

As in the text, Samson is blinded. Where the adaptation deviates, however, is that it has him brought to Dagon’s temple immediately. When Samson regains his strength, it is through prayer only. There has been no time for his hair to grow, so the History Channel has chosen to just skip over the possible pagan elements that, I suppose might have been theologically troubling to their resident Bible thumper – the one who peppers his speech with shouts of “God is with us!” – even when simply discussing the weather or how to conquer nearby cities.

Finally, we get the Hollywood trick of having Samson’s mother pulling rubble away to reveal her son, and Samson’s chapter ends with her crying over his corpse.

Samson’s mother features quite prominently in the adaptation. In the text, she’s unnamed – clearly important, and it’s notable that God speaks to her rather than her husband, but still rather effaced. Here, however, the reverse is the case. Samson’s mother is written into a number of scenes, while her husband is entirely absent. Anyone who didn’t already know the story might well get the impression that her pregnancy was, like Mary’s, one that needed no human help getting started.

Of course, she receives the news of her pregnancy from the creepiest angel ever. Seriously, the guy is as bad as a Jerichoite. God’s HR department needs to have a sensitivity course with its angels to talk about personal space, I think.

Bible_03_03_Creeper Angel

Samuel

Micah’s idol, the concubine’s rape, and the ark’s adventures are all skipped over, and we move straight into Samuel’s old age. The voice over tells us that poor Samuel tried his best to unite the Israelites to fight against the Philistines, but he has failed.

Unlike his text self, he assumes that his sons will succeed him, and defends him from the Israelite accusations that they are corrupt and have been accepting bribes. He is clearly meant to be a goodie, but his resistance to the monarchy is not explained. Given the lack of eyeliner on the Israelites asking for a king, they seem to be sympathetic characters too. Rather than coming across like a legitimate question that is up in the air, it ends up just looking like Samuel is a horrible guy and a bad leader who the show really really wants to convince us is on the good side. The whole scene feels awkward and rushed.

Samuel explicitly personalizes the rejection of his sons and the judge system, crying out that the people “have rejected me” and adding “and you, God” as though it were an afterthought.

When God shows Samuel the king he’s chosen, Samuel says, “that could never be me. But I will still be your prophet!” I don’t know what impression I was supposed to draw from Samuel’s scene, but it struck me like a corrupt old man scrambling to keep hold of power. Like I said, it was awkwardly done.

In a nice touch of framing, we return into a nostril as the episode comes to a close.

Bible_03_08_Saul 2

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Judges: What is a judge?

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It couldn’t be clearer from the text that “judge” is not being used in the ‘arbitration of law’ sense, at least not purely. Certainly, it’s more Judge Dredd than Judge McLachlin. Since the use of the term is far from clear, I thought I’d take a little time to talk about what the word actually means in the context of this book.

I found it helpful to think of the judges as falling into three separate categories:

Legal Judges lack detail, their function is not explained. The only hint we get is a reference to Deborah doing her judging thing while seated under a palm tree (Judges 4:4-5). This sounds very much like a “keeper of the law” sort of role, where an individual is arbitrating for a community. Deborah (Judges 4-5) certainly fits this model. Tola (Judges 10:1-2), Jair (Judges 10:3-5), Ibzan (Judges 12:8-10), Elon (Judges 12:11-12), and Abdon (Judges 12:13-15) may as well – if only because no details of heroic feats are listed. This leads me to guess that perhaps these names are actual records of judges, keepers of the law. Their names could be a fragment of an actual historical record of real people.

Military Leaders perform great deeds of nationalistic importance. These “judges” lead armies to kill Israel’s enemies. I include Othniel (Judges 3:7-11) and Jephthah (Judges 10-12) in this category.

Folk Heroes also perform great deeds, but theirs are more personal. Rather than commanding an army to achieve victory, these guys personally take up arms (or, rather, oxgoads or donkey jawbones) to beat the ever-loving-crap out of their enemies. While they may be said to deliver Israel, where their motives are recorded, they are generally very personal. Samson (Judges 13-16) is the perfect example – not only does he never deliver Israel from its oppressors, his motives throughout his narrative all come down to 1) get laid, and 2) get revenge. Abimelech (Judges 9) is an implied judge who is motivated by little more than gaining power. Ehud (Judges 3:12-30) delivers Israel, but does so by personally stabbing the Baddie head honcho and then escaping through a toilet chute. Shamgar (Judges 3:31) just kills a bunch of Philistines with an oxgoad, his motives unspecified. I’d also include Gideon (Judges 6-8) in this category; he may lead an army, but it’s a very small one and his victory comes through trickery rather than military might. His story also hints that his motive is personal revenge.

So, as my study Bible puts it, the term may have began as a title of keepers of the law, but “would then later have been extended loosely to military heroes of the same period” (p.308).

Claude Mariottini goes into a bit more detail on his blog, speaking about the term in relation specifically to Deborah and how she fits in with the other characters of the book.

Further Categories

And just because I’m a categorizer, I tried sorting the judges a few different ways:

Gideon and Jephthah’s stories both come with lengthy lectures about how the Israelites are terrible and God is just so mad. Deborah, Othniel, Ehud, and Samson get shorter references to how bad the Israelites are. Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Shamgar get little or no mention of the “falling into sin” narrative. (Neither does Abimelech, but his story seems to be a continuation of Gideon’s.)

The following judges are entered by the Spirit of the Lord: Othniel (Judges 3:10), Jephthah (Judges 11:29), Gideon (Judges 6:34), and Samson (Judges 13:25, 14:6, 14:19, 15:14).

It may be worth noting that none of the characters I sorted as Legal Judges are entered by the Spirit of the Lord, and only Deborah’s story includes the “Israelites are terrible” formula. The notion of holy possession seems tied entirely with feats of military/personal strength, not with wisdom (if anything, the opposite is true since Jephthah makes is awful vow while possessed and Samson gets possessed more than anyone).

Another Old God

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I noted a few weeks ago that Jephthah’s story reminded me of a pantheonic myth anthropomorphised as Israel moved toward monotheism. I got the same feeling from Samson, so imagine my surprise when I read the following in my study Bible notes:

The story that Samson was a Nazirite (ch. 13) seems to be a late attempt to make Samson respectable; none of his exploits show him as a religious enthusiast. The motif of the unshorn hair is probably derived from mythology rather than high religion. The name Samson is connected with the Hebrew word for “sun”; some scholars believe the stories originally go back to pre-Hebrew sources in which the hair represented the sun’s rays, i.e. its strength. (p.316)

So I thought I’d look at the Samson story again with that perspective in mind. What if Samson was originally some sort of sun god, or even perhaps a Herculean demi-god?

Godly Deeds

When Samson is first displeased with the Philistines, he burns down their crops. If he is some sort of sun god, it seems plausible that this would be a reference to a draught fire.

I don’t know why foxes would feature in that story, though. Foxes seem to be related to trickery in many cultures, but any narrative that gives that as the reason for their presence feels like far too much of a stretch. I did find that they were considered sacred to the Sumerian fertility goddess Ninhursag, which seems a little more likely.

Der geblendete Simson, by Lovis Corinth, 1912

Der geblendete Simson, by Lovis Corinth, 1912

I also found a reference to foxes in the Song of Solomon (Song 2:15). I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean or to refer to, except that the Song’s foxes, like Samson’s, come as destroyers of agriculture.

The other interesting detail is the presence of Dagon in Judges 16:23. It’s important to note for this thesis that Dagon was, as my study Bible puts it, “an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). It’s possible, then, that the original story featured some battle or disagreement between Samson and Dagon, since Dagon would have been worshipped in the area for long enough.

According to Claude Mariottini, “some scholars have identified Dagon as a “grain” god while others have identified him as a “fish” god.” So it’s a little ambiguous and, in an agricultural society where most mythologies will have something to do with grain, it might be a bit of a stretch, but what if Samson’s vulpine adventure was originally an attack on the grain god Dagon?

If we’re going to take this angle, a possible moral of the story would be that the sun and the grain must work together, and that society crumbles (much like Dagon’s temple with its 3,000 people) when they get into a tiff.

Hot Faith Injection

At some point, Samson (whether originally a god or just a regular folk hero) was brought into the monotheistic fold. As with most of Judges, Samson gets only a few edits to put him on Team YHWH, but otherwise seems largely left to his own devices.

To start with, there’s the Nazirite thing. There’s really very little in Samson’s story that suggests that he was a Nazirite, as they are described in Numbers 6. He isn’t shown drinking alcohol, but that’s the case for a great many of the characters we’ve seen so far. He’s also dedicated as a Nazirite from (pre-)birth, which contradicts the purpose of the vow outlined in Numbers.

Collins offers one possibility:

[I]t 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. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.113)

I think it more likely that the Nazirite references were written in, inspired by the hair motif, as a way of easily bringing Samson into the holy fold, so that he would make sense (to an extent) in the context of the editor’s worldview.

It’s notable that Delilah doesn’t seem know what a Nazirite is, or at least that Samson is one. Samson is able to fool her three times because she doesn’t know the rules of Samson’s super powers. This suggests, to me at least, that Samson’s story either pre-dates the Nazirite concept, or that it was originally completely unrelated to the Nazirites.

We see another hint of the editing when Samson is able to pull down Dagon’s temple. The editor tells us that the return of Samson’s strength is the answer to a prayer (Judges 16:28) while still preserving the original reason – his hair has grown back (Judges 16:22).

I think it’s also meaningful that Samson’s parents, way back in Judges 13, seem to alternate between knowing the identity of the god who predicts Samson’s birth and not knowing it – almost as if, perhaps, the story hadn’t originally included YHWH.

I should note, as with my discussion of Jephthah, that this is all pure conjecture. I have no idea how likely any of this might be.

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 14: For the love of a Philistine

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While visiting Timnah on unspecified business, Samson falls in like-like with a Philistine woman. With no more description than her location and ethnicity, he rushes back to his parents and tells them: “now get her for me as my wife” (Judges 14:2). If that sounds really snotty and entitled to you, gird your loins because that’s apparently a major theme of the Samson story.

The parents are rather aghast that their son would fall for a shiksa and ask him if he couldn’t find some nice Jewish girl instead. But Samson has fallen completely in like-like and he is adamant that she is the one he wants (even though he hasn’t, so far as the text indicates, so much as talked to her by this point).

Samson battling with the lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520-1525

Samson battling with the lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520-1525

If you’re of a mind with Phinehas from Numbers 25, you might be inclined to agree with Samson’s parents here. But what you and Samson’s parents don’t know is that Samson’s predilections have been, in fact, orchestrated by God, who “was seeking an occasion against the Philistines” (Judges 14:4).

The movement in the following passages is a little odd. Best as I can figure, Samson tells his parents to go fetch the woman, but then goes along with them, then somehow meets with the woman alone, and finishes by returning to his parents with the wedding plans settled.

At some point during all this awkward travelling, Samson encounters a lion. The “Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him” (Judges 14:6) and he was able to tear the lion apart with his bare hands.

Later, when passing the same area, he stumbles on the lion’s carcass. Rather than rotting, it appears to have entered a second life as a bee’s hive. Samson shoves right into the rotting lion’s corpse, pulls out fistfuls of honey, and has a sweet snack. In the spirit of sharing, he brings some more home to his parents and feeds it to them, never letting them know that it came from a hive built in rotting meat.

A NOTE TO MY CHILD: If you ever come across an animal’s carcass, assume that it does not contain honey. Do not be fooled by squirming movement under the skin. Just leave it alone and, whatever you do, do not bring me the contents to eat. I hope you learned your lesson with that worm you were very interested in having me eat the other day.

Biblical Red Wedding

Samson prepares a wedding feast to last seven days. This, according to the text, is in keeping with what “the young men used to do” (Judges 14:10). The bride invites thirty fellow Philistines, to whom Samson poses a riddle:

Out of the eater came something to eat
Out of the strong came something sweet (Judges 14:14)

You can probably guess the answer, but keep in mind that Samson has told no one of his honey-containing lion-slaying. There is literally no way that anyone could guess the answer to this awful riddle.

If the Philistines can guess the answer within the seven day feast, Samson must provide each of them with one garment of linen and one festal garment. If they cannot answer, they must give Samson a total of thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments.

Three days pass and, on the fourth day, the Philistines start to realize that they aren’t going to figure this riddle out. So they go to the bride and ask her if she “invited us here to impoverish us?” (Judges 14:15).

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there’s nothing in the text to suggest that they were compelled to agree to the terms of the riddle. There’s also no reason to blame the bride for what her groom has chosen to do (other than the apparent fact that it is always a woman’s fault).

On the other hand, Samson knew quite well that his riddle is unanswerable. Not only that but, as we’ll find out shortly, he does not have the clothes to pay up should the Philistines win – showing, clearly, that he never expected them to solve the riddle.

So, yeah, he did intend to impoverish them. Or, at the very least, he had intended to profit from his wedding guests.

His wife, now working with her fellow Philistines, pulls the old “if you really loved me” trick, weeping for seven days (consistency error) until, on the last day of the wedding feast, Samson finally gives in and tells her the answer to the riddle. She immediately tells the Philistine guests.

When the Philistines give him the correct answer, he immediately figures out what happened: “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle” (Judges 14:18).

But he did promise those garments, so the Spirit of the Lord comes to him and he heads off to Ashkelon. There, he kills thirty people, takes their clothes, and uses them to pay off the Philistines’ winnings.

If you’ll remember, Ashkelon was taken by Judah in Judges 1:18. If the continuity is accurate, that means that he just killed a bunch of Israelites to pay off his gambling debt to the Philistines.

A sore loser, Samson gives the Philistines their garments and then goes back to his parents in a huff. Unbeknownst to him, his bride – assuming herself abandoned – decides to make the best of the wedding and marries Samson’s best man instead.

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.