November 12, 2003

Samson’s Riddles (Judges 16)

Category: Bible - OT - Judges :: Permalink

I’ve been preaching through Judges and this Sunday I’m coming to Judges 16, the story of Samson and Delilah. Puzzling things happen all through the story of Samson, starting with him being moved by the Spirit (13:25) to marry a Philistine woman, a marriage which his parents didn’t understand but which was “of the LORD” (14:4).

Then, Samson defeats a lion in a vineyard, representing the Philistines in the Promised Land, and the LORD provides honey from the lion’s carcass, which Samson, moved by the Spirit, uses as a riddle at his wedding party. By the use of the riddle, he is going to force the Philistines to choose: Will they acknowledge defeat and come to him for the answer? Or will they cheat?

They cheat and Samson knows it: there’s only one person he told the riddle to. By telling his wife the riddle, Samson was forcing her to choose too: Will she trust her husband, who can rip up a lion barehanded or will she side with the Philistines against him? She makes the wrong choice.

But when she tells the Philistines the riddle, they also must choose: Will they keep oppressing God’s people? Will they despise the one who can tear up lions with his bare hands? Or will they humble themselves and turn to the LORD, the God of Samson? They make the wrong choice: “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Well, Samson is, for starters! And the Word of the LORD is sweeter than honey (Ps. 19), so they’d better start listening to Samson. But they miss the point of the riddle, reject the Messiah, and fall under God’s judgment.

The riddle in the first story about Samson sets the tone for the rest of the Samson story. There are riddles galore here. Samson’s judgment, for instance, is a riddle. Samson maintains that he has judged according to God’s perfect standard of justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: “As they did to me, so I have done to them” (15:11). Samson is the judge, authorized to carry out this kind of judgment. But it’s not easy to see how each of his judgments on the Philistines is eye-for-eye.

When the Philistines reveal the answer to the riddle, Samson knows that they cheated to get the answer. And so Samson cheats to give them their reward: he gets the clothes from thirty other men, whom he kills in Ashkelon. They assaulted his wife (James Jordan suggests that “ploughed with my heifer” in 14:18 has sexual overtones and could be seen as rape) and so he assaults them.

Then, when the Philistines’ treatment of his wife and of Samson leads to her being given to the best man, Samson responds by destroying the Philistine harvest. How is that eye-for-eye perfect justice? Most likely because Samson came to his wife expecting to sleep with her, but the Philistines have robbed him of the chance of having offspring, having his own harvest of children. And so he destroys their harvest.

Then things get a bit murkier. What about those three hundred foxes, tied together in pairs, with a torch between each of them? I dunno. The 150 pairs of foxes could perhaps be aimed at the thirty men who stole Samson’s “heifer”: according to the Torah, if you steal a cow, you pay back five times, and 5 X 30 = 150. Why foxes? Why this kind of judgment? I don’t know. But the details must be important or the Spirit wouldn’t have included them here.

Then the Philistines retaliate, fighting fire with fire and doing their own evil sort of eye-for-eye judgment (as they claim in 15:10). They burn Samson’s wife and her father’s house, the very thing they’d threatened to do in 14:15. She sided with them to avoid this sort of death, and (eye for eye) that’s the death she receives from them anyway. But Samson responds by killing many of them “thigh on hip” (or however that’s supposed to be translated). Jordan suggests that this means that he dismembered them and piled up their limbs, the way you would with a sacrifice. They burned up his wife and her family like a sacrifice and he chopped them up like a sacrifice. That’s a suggestion, but I’m not sure yet.

When the men of Judah hand Samson over to the Philistines, he uses the jawbone of a donkey to kill a thousand of them. Then he makes up a little song in which the word “heap” is identical in form to the word “donkey: “With the jawbone of a donkey, one heap, two heaps; with the jawbone of a donkey, I have slain a thousand men” or “With the jawbone of a donkey, one donkey, two donkeys; with the jawbone of a donkey, I have slain a thousand men.” It’s a pun: the Philistines are donkeys slain by a donkey’s jawbone. (But why a donkey’s jawbone?)

Now I’ve come to Judges 16, where Samson, like Israel, turns away from the LORD and goes whoring after the Philistine culture, represented by two women. (Delilah may have been an Israelite, but she’s a Philistine at heart.)

What are we to make of the things Samson tells her in this chapter? Is Samson just coming up with stuff out of the blue? Is it not really significant?

In his great tape set on Samson, Samson: The Mighty Bridegroom, Jordan offers a very tentative suggestion. The answers Samson gives may be intended as riddles, as in Judges 14. Samson thinks he’s in control here, hinting at the solution to the secret of his strength, but of course he’s not in control; he’s in sin and he’s ensnared.

The second answer Samson gives is that he must be bound with new ropes (16:11). That’s what the men of Judah bound him with when they handed him over to the Philistines (15:13). Is this second answer hinting back to that previous episode? And if so, does that mean that the other two answers hint back to the other two episodes in the Samson narrative?

The third answer might be linked with the Gaza episode. Samson tells Delilah that if she weaves the seven locks of his hair into the loom he’ll be weak but when he awakens he pulls out the batten and the web of the loom (16:14). Is that parallel to Samson being trapped in Gaza and then pulling up the gates and getting out (16:1-3)? Maybe.

The first one is the hardest to connect to a previous episode. Do seven fresh (i.e., unused) bowstrings hint back somehow to his marriage to the Philistine woman and to the ties of love that bound him to her and the seven day wedding feast? That seems like a stretch.

But I do wonder if there might be something here. After all, the Holy Spirit chose to record these statements for a reason. Part of the reason is that they show us that Samson is playing with his calling.

But is there more going on here? Is Samson subtly saying to Delilah, “They tried to get me by having my wife whom I loved betray me, by having the men of Judah bind me, and by trapping me in Gaza when I was ensnared in a woman’s web, but I got out all three times?”

Here, as Jordan reminds us in his tape set, is another place where “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Prov. 25:2). I’m not yet a good enough king to search out these things. But it’s fun to wrestle with them. And now I need to go and write a sermon on Judges 16.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:16 pm | Discuss (0)

Leave a Reply