The following is an excerpt from Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible 2.0.
IT’S HARD TO SAY ANYTHING GOOD about Samson, once you’ve read his story.
Especially perplexing is why God chose him to become a national hero. And why an unnamed writer in the New Testament put him on an elite list with David, Samuel, and Gideon as leaders “whose weakness was turned to strength” (Hebrews 11:34). Samson seemed exactly the opposite: a muscleman so driven by his animal appetites—especially sex and revenge—that his strength was turned to weakness.
He was at his weakest around unsavory women—three that we know of, each of whom got him into deep trouble: his bride, a prostitute, and Delilah. In fact, his entire life story spins around these three women, the trouble they got him into, and the violence that came of it.
A miracle baby
Samson was born to an Israelite couple who thought they couldn’t have children. That puts Samson in the company of several distinguished Hebrew leaders: Isaac, Joseph, Samuel, and John the Baptist. Samson’s parents—Manoah and his unidentified wife—lived in the gently sloping hills of Judea, in the tiny village of Zorah. That’s about fifteen miles west of Jerusalem and a few miles from several Philistine villages on the coastal plain further west.
An angel appeared to Manoah’s wife and told her she would have a son. Not just any son. “The boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5 NRSV).
Nazarites were Hebrews who lived by unique rules, to show a devotion to God that was above and beyond the normal. There were three main rules:
- Don’t eat grapes or drink wine made from them.
- Don’t go near a corpse—not even a close relative.
- Don’t cut your hair.
An angel told Samson’s mother to live by these rules while she was pregnant, and explained that Samson was supposed to live by them all his life.
A Philistine wedding
Samson decided to marry a Philistine woman from the neighboring village five miles away. This angered his parents, who asked, “Why must you go to the pagan Philistines to find a wife?” (Judges 14:3). There was no talking him out of it. This choice set him on a deadly collision course with the Philistines. Deadly for them. Deadly for him.
At the beginning of his seven-day wedding festival, Samson bet the thirty Philistine men who came as guests that they couldn’t solve a riddle. If they did, Samson said, he’d give each man a set of robes. If they didn’t, they’d each give him a set of robes.
Samson’s riddle was about honey he found in the carcass of a lion: “From the one who eats came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14:14).
After four days, the guests threatened Samson’s bride, “Get the answer to the riddle from your husband, or we will burn down your father’s house with you in it” (Judges 14:15). She did as ordered.
Furious that his bride betrayed him, he stormed off to Ashkelon, a Philistine city twenty-five miles away. There, he killed thirty men, stripped off their clothes, and paid his debt to the guests. Then he stomped home to his parents—without his bride. He calmed down eventually and went back to get her. But by that time, her father had given her to the best man, explaining that he thought Samson hated her.
“This time I cannot be blamed for everything I am going to do to you Philistines,” Samson replied (Judges 15:3).
He caught 300 foxes, tied their tails in pairs along with torches, and set them loose in Philistine grain fields, vineyards, and olive groves. A burnt field wipes out only a single harvest, but the damage to vineyards and olive groves is much more extensive. Newly planted grape vines take three to five years to produce a full crop. Olive trees in Bible times were most productive only after forty or fifty years.
The Philistines retaliated with fire of their own. They burned to death Samson’s ex-wife and her father for starting the trouble. Samson lashed back, killing many Philistines before retreating into the Judean hills.
Philistine soldiers launched a manhunt into Jewish territory. Judeans saw this invasion as the start of potentially worse consequences ahead. So a contingent of 3,000 asked Samson him to give himself up. In a rare selfless gesture, Samson agreed.
Bound with new ropes, Samson was turned over to the Philistines. Once in custody, however, he promptly broke free, picked up a donkey’s jawbone, and killed a thousand soldiers.
Date with a prostitute
Another woman generated the next scene in Samson’s story: a prostitute in the Philistine coastal city of Gaza. When Samson arrived at her place of business, word spread throughout town.
Men surrounded the place and lay in wait, planning to kill Samson when he left in the morning, exhausted from sex. But the surprise was on them. Samson left about midnight, energized. He tore off the city’s massive front door— posts and all—and hauled it away on his shoulders. He lugged it some forty miles before setting it up on a hilltop in front of the Israelite village of Hebron.
Delilah, the fatal attraction
Samson’s most famous story begins with a third woman: Delilah, a Philistine living in the Valley of Sorek just a couple of miles from his home. Samson fell in love with her. But Philistine leaders promised to pay her twenty-eight pounds of silver if she coaxed out of him the secret of his strength.
For days, Delilah begged, nagged, and badgered Samson. Three times he tried to silence her with a lie.
- Lie #1: He’d get weak if tied up with seven new bowstrings. When he fell asleep at Delilah’s place, she tied him up with seven new bowstrings and woke him. Instantly, he snapped the cords.
- Lie #2. New ropes would do the trick. Delilah tried again while he slept. Same result.
- Lie #3. Weaving together the seven braids of his hair would sap his strength. Next time he fell asleep, Delilah tested the theory. Negative.
With a question wrapped in guilt, Delilah tried once more. “How can you say you love me when you don’t confide in me?” (Judges 16:15).
“My hair has never been cut,” Samson finally admitted, “for I was dedicated to God as a Nazirite from birth. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as anyone else” (Judges 16:17).
Why Samson expected to fall asleep in Delilah’s presence and wake up with hair is beyond comprehension.
Samson woke up—his clipped head on the lap of Delilah and his fate in the hands of Philistine soldiers she called. They seized him, gouged out his eyes, and led him away to grind grain at a prison mill.
For twenty years Samson had been on the Philistine’s Most Wanted List. So they celebrated. With thousands of happy Philistines crowded into a temple—3,000 on the roof alone—Samson was paraded in front of them. By this time his hair was growing back.
Samson asked the attendant leading him to let him rest by the support pillars, which in many temples were blocks of wood or stone set on top of one another. Samson’s last words were a prayer for revenge: “O God, please strengthen me one more time so that I may pay back the Philistines for the loss of my eyes” (Judges 16:28).
He pushed against the columns, the temple collapsed, and he was crushed to death with more Philistines than he had killed in all the years before. His family came to retrieve the body, and then buried him with his father near their home.
The Bible doesn’t say that God was orchestrating Samson’s bad decisions. But the story of Israel’s history shows that God was able to put those bad decisions to good use.
Before Samson came along, Israel was in danger of becoming assimilated into the stronger Philistine nation. But Samson drove a wedge between the two nations, keeping them apart and suspicious of each other. What Samson started, King David finished about fifty years later—crushing the Philistine army. David made Israel the leading nation in the region. In time, the Philistines vanished from history, assimilated into other Middle East nations.