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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

SAMSON AND THE CULT OF MACHISMO

The condensed and sanitized version of Samson’s exploits tells the story of a godly man who meets an ungodly woman (Delilah). He falls in love with her and reaps the terrible consequences of this unholy alliance when she cuts off his hair. This is the popular version, but the biblical account is not the story of a good man whose life was forfeited because of his love for a bad woman. In a rare example of scholarly candor, a Christian reference book describes Samson as a hedonistic, brawling man “of enormous strength and equally large libido.””[1]

Samson was the last of the Judges of Israel, whom scholars characterized as minor potentates who rose to prominence “either by valor or by wisdom.””[2] And Samson’s story makes it quite clear that he did not rise to prominence because of his wisdom.

The narrative begins just after his conception, when his mother is told that the child to whom she will give birth “is to be dedicated to God as a Nazirite as long as he lives.””[3] The Nazirite was bound by three vows: never to drink wine or beer, never to touch a corpse and never to cut his hair. Before he died, Samson managed to break all three promises.

Immediately following the story of his birth, the Bible skips to his adulthood and relates that he was determined to marry a Philistine woman. Our Judeo-Christian tradition characterizes the Philistines as a warlike people who were continually attacking the Israelites. But to the native people of Canaan, both the Hebrews and the Philistines were hostile invaders who were either killing each other or killing them.

At the time that Samson was to be married, a temporary and uneasy truce existed between the two groups and Samson insisted on taking a Philistine bride. His parents responded in the time honored way: why couldn’t he find a nice girl from among his own kind? “Why do you have to go to those heathen Philistines to get a wife? Can’t you find a girl in our own clan, among all our people?’ But Samson told his father, ‘She is the one I want you to get for me.  I like her.””[4]

Samson prevailed and the arrangements were made. As part of the traditional festivities, the groom ‘made a feast’ at the bride’s home. This feast was, literally, a week long drinking party. During this marathon binge, the rivalry that lay beneath the surface of Hebrew/Philistine togetherness erupted.

Samson made a wager with thirty of the Philistine wedding guests. He bet they could not solve a riddle he made up. They said they could. If he lost, he had to provide thirty expensive changes of clothing for each of the guests. If they lost, Samson would receive thirty new outfits.

Perhaps all the drinking had befuddled their brains but, for whatever the reason, the Philistines could not come up with an answer to the riddle. They decided to talk to Samson’s bride and persuade her to get the answer from her husband. At first, the young woman refused, but after being told that her father’s house would be burned to the ground, with her and the entire family inside, she agreed to their demand.

When the riddle was solved, Samson was furious; he knew the Philistines got the answer from his wife. Nevertheless, as a man-of-honor, he was determined to pay off his gambling debt. But instead of purchasing the thirty new outfits the loser had to supply, he fulfilled the terms of the wager in another way. “He went down to Ashkelon, where he killed thirty men, stripped them and gave their fine clothes to the men who had solved the riddle. After that, he went back home, furious about what had happened.””[5]  The scribe who contributed this murderous escapade to the Bible assures us that Samson was able to kill the innocent strangers because “the power of the Lord made him strong.””[6]

The slaying of the thirty men was only the beginning of his exploits. After paying off his bet with the clothing of those dead men, Samson returned to his own village. With the passing of time he forgot how furious he had been with his young bride, but he did remember the strong attraction he felt for her. So he decided to go back to her hometown and claim her as his wife.

This reawakened affection came too late. When he arrived at her house, the family was quite surprised to see him. It was the custom of the time that if the groom deserted his new bride, it was tantamount to a declaration of divorce. So the woman’s family had already found her another husband.

Once again, Samson was furious. This time he decided to exact revenge by destroying the entire food supply of the town. He carried out his plan during the most critical season of the year- - the time of the wheat harvest. The Bible reports that he “burned up the shocks and standing grain together with the vineyards and olive groves.””[7]

Samson accomplished this disaster by trapping three hundred foxes, tying their tails in pairs and then fastening a flaming torch between each pair. The terror-stricken animals then ran through the fields, destroying everything in their path until they, themselves, became flaming torches. His torture of the foxes, of which he made torches, is a common illustration in children’s books. And not surprisingly, similar acts of cruelty to animals are still committed by boys raised in a culture which glorifies Samson as a biblical hero and a man of God.

In his book The Message of Judges, a Christian spokesman explains the sequence of events. “However thoughtless and irreligious Samson may be, we notice that the Spirit of the Lord is at work in him.” The author goes on to say that Samson’s infatuation for the Philistine woman he wanted to marry, “is part of a divine plan.” He also blames/credits God for Samson’s torturous use of the three hundred foxes. “We may think this bizarre exploit cruel, or we may think it funny, but the point is that it was done because of the Lord’s resolve to provoke a confrontation.” (Emphasis added.)”[8]

After their food supply was destroyed by the incendiary foxes, the distraught villagers asked Samson why he had done such a terrible thing. He said it was because his wife had been given to another man. Although they knew the sequence of events that had taken place, the Philistine men must have found this a reasonable explanation because instead of attacking Samson for what he had done, they “burned the woman and her family to death.”[9]

This did not end the violence. Although it was he who caused the death of the hapless woman, Samson now assumed the role of a grieving bridegroom and vowed further revenge on the Philistines for her death. The Bible reports that he managed to kill a thousand of them with the jawbone of a dead animal. He celebrated this triumph by boasting:

“With the jawbone of a donkey
I killed a thousand men.
With the jawbone of a donkey
I piled them up in piles.”[10]

Along with his unrestrained violence, Samson was also an unregenerate womanizer. And he invariably became enamored of Philistine women. The Bible tells of a trio that he took to the Philistine city of Gaza. “Where he met a prostitute and went to bed with her.”[11] At this time, he was already serving as leader of the Jewish people and was so well-known that the men of Gaza spread the word that he was in town. They surrounded the prostitute’s house, hoping to kill him when he emerged in the morning. He managed to elude his enemies, but soon found another Philistine woman: “after this, Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah.”[12] She turned out to be his nemesis.

When his ongoing affair with Delilah became common knowledge, the Philistine Chiefs came to visit the woman and offered her a great deal of money if she could discover the secret of Samson’s strength. Obviously, her relationship with Samson was not a love match because Delilah immediately accepted the offer.

On three different occasions she thought she had learned Samson’s secret. Three times he professed to have told her the secret of his strength, but each time she carried out the action he said would render him helpless, it didn’t work. At this point  in the narrative it becomes difficult not to conclude that Samson was somewhat slow witted. Although Delilah had repeatedly tried to use the information he gave her to render him helpless, he finally did reveal his secret. “Day after day she persisted with her questions and allowed him no rest, till he grew tired to death of it. At last he told her his whole secret . . . if my head were shorn, then my power would leave me and I would become like any other man.”[13]

Of course Delilah immediately lulled him to sleep and had his hair cut off. At last the Philistines were able to overpower Samson. They imprisoned him, blinded him and rejoiced that they had captured “the man who laid our country waste and killed so many of us.”[14] They planned a victory celebration in honor of their god, Dagon, but their joy was short lived.

Even as they planned the celebration, Samson’s hair was growing back and that meant his strength was returning. He was finally brought to the Temple of Dagon, in chains, where more than three thousand Philistines had gathered to mock the man who had been so feared, for so long. The scene that unfolded in the temple has been portrayed in numerous books, paintings, Sunday school manuals and by Hollywood film makers.

“Now the building was crowded with men and women. All the chiefs of the Philistines were there, while about three thousand men and women were watching Samson from the roof. Samson called on the Lord and cried out, ‘Lord Yahweh, I beg you give me strength this once, and let me be revenged on the Philistines at one blow for my two eyes.’ And Samson put his arms round the two middle pillars supporting the building and threw all his weight against them . . . He thrust with all his might and the building fell on the chief and on all the people there . . . those he killed at his death outnumbered those he had killed in his life.”[15]

“Those he killed at his death outnumbered those he had killed in his life.”  This statement concludes the Bible’s story of Samson. It is a fitting epitaph for an ancient hero who is a prototype for the modern hero-as-killing machine.

This is the kind of story beloved by those who celebrate the cult of machismo. From ancient days to modern times, men have treasured these tales of the violent hero. In the secular world, his power is often attributed to the influence of testosterone and a dedication to national or ethnic interests. But in biblical times, neither male potency nor ethnic interests were a sufficient excuse for violence. To be acceptable, such behavior had to be God-empowered. So men gave credence to their macho heroes by claiming God’s blessing on their brutality.

Christian apologists continue to celebrate Samson and to uphold the claim that his lifelong violence was God-empowered. Some even see him as an “engaging rogue” and describe his murderous escapades as “bawdy pranks.” And as long as religious people refuse to examine such claims, they will continue to offer men like Samson as godly role models for their children. And the cult of Christian machismo will continue to be glorified.


[1]  Harper’s Bible Commentary, p. 258

[2]  International Bible Commentary, p. 331

[3]  Judges 13:5     TEV

[4]  Judges 14: 3,4 TEV

[5]  Judges  14:19   TEV

[6]  Judges  14:19   TEV

[7]    Judges  15:5   TEV

[8]    Michael Wilcock, The Message of Judges, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Il © 1992

[9]    Judges  15:6

[10]  Judges 15:16

[11]   Judges 16:1        TEV

[12]   Judges 16:4        TEV

[13]   Judges 16:16,17 JB

[14]   Judges 16:24      JB

[15]  Judges 16:29,30  JB

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