Thoughts from Doug Knox.
December 2019 - March 2020
The Men of the Book of Judges, Part 1
Little Background on the Series
About three years ago, my devotional Bible reading took me through the book of Judges. The reading grew into one of the richest Bible studies of my life. Even though the people who populate the book are not heroes, they became fascinating studies. The reason is simple. As deeply as the characters in the book sink, God rescues them. When I say rescue, I do not mean that he stands at the side of the boat and throw them a lifeline. He dives into the mire to pull them out.
History Repeating Itself
The history in Judges has long been recognized for its circular pattern. Judges 2:11-23 introduces the original summary of the cycle.
· The people forget their spiritual roots and look to other gods.
· The LORD sells Israel into the hands of their surrounding enemies.
· Israel falls into distress and (sometimes) calls out to God.
· God calls judges to deliver the people.
· The people follow the judge for a while and then revert to idol worship.
· The cycle begins again.
Judges mentions this cycle three times over the course of the book. Each time the cycle repeats, it becomes more fragmented and the people become less successful. For this reason, the recurrences of the cycle are not just circular. They trace a downward spiral. At the beginning of the book, we meet Caleb’s younger brother Othniel. Caleb led with Joshua during the Conquest, and Othniel leads with equal zeal after him. His is the first and only unblemished record in Judges.
Barak and Deborah
We will begin with Barak, whose story takes place in Judges 4-5. Chapter 4 tells his story. About eighty years after Othniel, Sisera, commander of a large Canaanite army, oppresses Israel for twenty years. With 900 iron chariots, he is invincible. At this time, Deborah, who is a prophetess and judge, summons Barak, son of Abinoam. She tells him,
Judges 4:6-7 (ESV)6 “Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun.7 And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?”
Barak’s Indecisive Response
Deborah’s words are as decisive as anyone could ask. God has summoned Barak for duty and tells him how many men to muster. He tells him he will draw out General Sisera to the river Kishon with his chariots and troops. Finally, he says, “I will give him into your hand.” This kind of call strikes a responsive chord in men. We are hardwired to be heroes in our minds. We crave respect from our wives and children. Given the chance, we hope to do something that matters. Barak faces an easy choice. God has handed him a gift card guaranteeing victory. He will gain enduring fame among those who will follow him. Yet with the strength of the promise gleaming before him, he tells Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8). What? I am not a strong leader, but I have never been able to understand what drives Barak to respond like this. Contemporary observers would call this beta male thinking. The term is another word for cowardice. Deborah tells him, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).
The Irony of Barak’s Surrender
Deborah’s words are not meant to be demeaning toward women under a paternalistic society. They are ironic, however. Barak, after being promised the victory, asks for a woman to stand in harm’s way. Consequently, a woman will steal his glory. As events turn out, Barak massacres Sisera’s army, as God had promised. General Sisera, in turn, flees the scene and comes to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber. The couple has a peace pact with Sisera, so he believes he will be safe. He asks her to harbor him. The irony doubles, because both commanders have sought help from women. Jael is craftier than Sisera realizes. She offers to watch over him while he sleeps, he takes her up on the offer. Then in an act of treachery, she drives a tent peg through his temple. Judges is deliberately graphic in its description. “But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died” (Judges 4:21). After this, Jael goes out to meet Barak and show him her handiwork.
The “Moral” of the Story
If this story has a moral, it stands on its head. Obviously, most of the violence lay in the battlefield, where Barak and his men annihilate General Sisera’s army, but the Bible is silent on this. The violent language is reserved for the woman who performs her gruesome act. The language does not end with the account in Judges 4. The next chapter records the victory song of Deborah and Barak. Although the song bears both names, Deborah is the clear author.
It is in the celebration song that the irony of Barak’s capitulation reaches its peak. Deborah marks Jael’s murder of General Sisera as the high point of the battle, and her description is extreme. Her celebration of Jael’s treachery casts a black shadow over what should have been a moral victory for Israel.
Judges 5:24-27 (ESV)
24 “Most blessed of women be Jael,the wife of Heber the Kenite,of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
25 He asked for water and she gave him milk; she brought him curds in a noble’s bowl.
26 She sent her hand to the tent pegand her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple.
27 Between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; between her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank,there he fell—dead.
Graphic language usually falls to men, but it writhes in Deborah’s song. She even mocks the rape of other Israelite women, as if that atrocity were insignificant (Judges 5:28-30). In the end, the land has rest from its enemies for forty years (Judges 5:31). However, the compassion that we expect from women dies when the men refuse to honor their call. The death of civility is the first sign of the moral gangrene that will consume post-conquest Israel over the course of this book.
The Men of the Book of Judges, Part 3
ABIMELECH: THE RULE OF LAW AND THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED
Characteristics of a Just Government
The framers of the United States Constitution understood a critically important principle. If order is to replace tyranny, those in authority needed to recognize that they held their office by the consent of the governed. This required two fundamental realizations. First, those in authority had to understand that they were servants rather than masters. When they governed, they answered to the rule of law. Second, in a free and orderly society, the people needed to be principled themselves so that they could discern good from evil governance. If a nation loses sight of either principle, authority begins to slip into tyranny.
Gideon’s Contradictory Rule
This is exactly what happens in the book of Judges. At the end of Gideon’s leadership, for example, the book records a mix of positive and negative assessment concerning his judgeship. On the one hand, Gideon dies “in a good old age” (Judges 8:33) and is buried with his father. This statement implies God’s blessing manifested by a peaceful end of life. However, he fails to leave lasting peace to the people whom he rescued from Midian oppression. The land experiences forty years rest during his life (Judges 8:28), but only after he his own countrymen who resist him (Judges 8:13-21).
Further, the man who told his people, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you” (Judges 8:22), gathers a harem and sires seventy sons. He names a son through a concubine Abimelech, “My Father is King” (Judges 8:31). Perhaps worst of all, he accepts contributions of gold from his constituents and fashions it into an ephod, essentially declaring himself the voice of God. The compromises that Gideon makes during his rule erode the moral fiber of his people. In the end, he leaves chaos rather than peace. The earlier judgeships of Othniel and Barak/Deborah each had given the land forty years of peace after their deaths. Gideon leaves nothing. “As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith [‘Master of the Covenant’] their god” (Judges 8:33).
Abimelech’s Tyrannical Rule
Gideon’s concubine-born son Abimelech rushes to fill the power vacuum. Just as he is an illegitimate son, he is also an illegitimate leader. Everything he gains is by cunning. His reign becomes a train wreck of manipulation and murder before God brings him to judgment. His first act is to go to Shechem and persuade the people to reject co-equal rule by Gideon’s seventy legitimate sons in favor of a more convenient monarchy (Judges 9:1-2).
His second act is to murder his brothers whom he dethroned (Judges 9:5).
An Unexpected Turn of Events
Unfortunately for Abimelech, Gideon’s youngest son Jotham escapes the carnage. When Abimelech assumes the throne at Shechem, Jotham stands on top of Mount Gerizim to utter a curse against the elders at Shechem. At the conclusion of the curse, Jotham calls to the people, “If you have not [acted in good faith in making Abimelech king], let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and from Beth-millo and devour Abimelech” (Judges 9:20).
A Thirst for Killing
Jotham’s curse runs its course. Over a three-year period, relations between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem become sour, “that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal [Gideon] might come, and their blood be laid on Abimelech…” (Judges 9:28). For three years the leaders of Shechem try to ambush Abimelech but succeed only in terrorizing passersby (9:22-25). Ultimately, Abimelech returns their treachery. He ambushes the city, kills the entire population, and razes the buildings (Judges 9:26-49). Apparently, his killing spree turns into blood lust, because he goes on to Thebez to do to it what he had done to Shechem. This time, however, a woman in a tower throws a millstone on his head and shatters his skull. Unwilling to be shamed by a woman, Abimelech calls his armor bearer to run him through. With Abimelech’s death, Gideon’s saga ends in disgrace.
In this especially dark section of Judges, we walk away with more questions than answers. Where are the biblical heroes? Why does Gideon appear to encourage his son’s violent behavior? How could God allow such widespread carnage to run unchecked among his people? The simple answer involves consequences. When both the leaders and the people become lawless, we must expect chaos. On the one hand, Gideon squanders the calling that God had given him. Instead of leading his family to revere God’s victory, the one-time hero shifts his concentration to name building. His ephod, his harem, and his favored son by a concubine all lead to the destruction of his family. On the other, we see an unprincipled people. After Gideon dies, the people immediately worship Baal-Berith, “Master of the Covenant.” Their disregard for God leads to disrespect for the leaders. “And the people of Israel did not remember the LORD their God who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side, and they did not show steadfast love to the family of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon), in return for all the good that he had done for Israel” (Judges 8:34-35). Evil becomes rampant is because the people come to accept it as ordinary.
The Course of Justice
All the self-serving momentum that Gideon and his son tried to gain for themselves evaporates like morning fog. Judges draws the combined Gideon/Abimelech saga to a close with ironic words.
Judges 9:55-57 (ESV)55 And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, everyone departed to his home.56 Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers.57 And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.
The assessment is harsh, but ultimately it is encouraging news. God sometimes allows the evil to become abundantly evil before he judges. He allows consequences to run their course, but he brings justice in the end. When this happens, the gravity of the judgment becomes more significant.
The Men of the Book of Judges, Part 4
The Last Cycle in Judges
As the book of Judges continues its downward moral spiral, the last of the three cycles introduces Jephthah and Samson. Israel now worships “the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the Gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines” (Judges 10:6).
Most of these gods belong to Israel’s enemies. God’s people have surrendered. During this cycle, God sells his people into the hands of the Philistines and Ammonites, who oppress them for eighteen years (Judges 10:7-8). Under this oppression, the Israelites admit their error. “And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals” (Judges 10:10). God tells them, “Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress” (Judges 10:14). The people’s reply reflects their level of desperation. “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day” (Judges 10:15). They put away their idols, and God becomes impatient over Israel.
Jephthah the Man
Enter Jephthah—not so much as a hero, but as a deliverer who is a product of his times. From the beginning, the man is a shadowy figure. He is a mighty warrior but also the son of a prostitute. Notice the descent from Abimelech, the previous judge. Abimelech was the son of a concubine. Jephthah is the product of a consensual transaction. The book reads, “Gilead was the father of Jephthah” (Judges 11:1). Gilead is not even a person’s name. It is a region. Jephthah’s father is some Gileadite. While Jephthah’s parentage remains unnamed, his half-brothers know him. “And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman’” (Judges 11:2). Further, Jephthah enters his employment without a call from God. When the Ammonites threaten Israel, the people look around for someone to begin to deliver them (Judges 10:18), and Jephthah answers the ad. His reply to the elders gives us a hint about the alienation that he feels. “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the LORD gives them over to me, I will be your head.” (Judges 11:9 emphasis added).
Jephthah the Statesman
The elders agree, and Jephthah sends messengers to the king of the Ammonites to ask why they are preparing to attack. The king replies that Israel had plundered their land when they left Egypt. All he wants is to get his land back peaceably. Jephthah shows himself to be a shrewd negotiator. In a detailed review of Israelite history, he explains to the king of Ammon that Israel had acquired the land in question from other kings who had acted aggressively toward them. Ammon was not in the picture (Judges 11:18-27). The king of the Ammonites disagrees and calls for war (Judges 11:28).
Opposing Forces in Jephthah’s Lost for Victory
As soon as the Ammonite king rejects his peace offer, Jephthah begins to arm himself. One problem—Jephthah is not the hero in the white hat that he thinks he is. On the contrary, he craves victory at any cost. The text describes his lust for victory this way:
Judges 11:29-31 (ESV)29 Then the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites.30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
If the Spirit of the LORD was upon him, why does he vow to make a burnt offering of “whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me.”
He does not assume that some animal might wander out of the house. A chicken, for example, would be an insult to God in exchange for the victory he seeks. He intends to sacrifice whatever comes “to meet me.” To add to the murkiness, the next verse declares, “So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand” (Judges 11:32). The victory eliminates the Ammonite threat from Israel (Judges11:33).
The Saga’s Crash and Burn
When he returns, his daughter—his only child—comes out with tambourines and dances to meet him. Jephthah’s reaction is as pitiful as his vow is rash. “And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” The man’s mental gymnastics are almost as marvelous as his victory. First, he blames his daughter for coming out at the wrong time and ruining what he planned to be a perfectly anonymous human sacrifice. Look at his last accusation to her. “You have become the cause of great trouble for me.” Like his whole moral conundrum is her fault. Second, he acts like he has fallen under involuntary duress. “For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” Ironically, the daughter, who apparently shares his psychopathic disregard for human life, encourages him to admit his vow and carry it out. “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on our enemies, on the Ammonites” (Judges 11:36).
She asks only for him to give her two months to mourn her virginity with her friends. This is no small matter. She will die unfulfilled as a woman, as a wife, and as a mother. At the end of two months, she returns to her father, who completes the work “according to his vow that he had made” (Judges 11:39).
The Depths of Moral Chaos
How do we unravel a passage that shows the Spirit of the LORD coming on a man, only to witness that man pronounce an appalling vow and then carry it out? I do not believe we can, but that is the point of the book. Judges marks a period of history when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Jephthah is but one example of the book’s moral relativism. We can draw at least two observations, however. On a small scale, Jephthah is a man whose ambitions determine his downfall. I share his fault. I cannot tell you how many times I have lost focus on my wife or family because I cared too deeply for personal glory. In this sense, he stands as a cautionary character. On the larger scale, God eliminated the Ammonite threat. This is the whole point of the saga. In a mostly gray world, God uses broken people to carry out his plan. That give me hope for the future.
The Men of the Book of Judges, Part 5
SAMSON'S EARLY YEARS: DOWN TO TIMNAH
A Child with a Purpose
Samson is the last judge in the book of Judges, and in many ways, he is the most perplexing. From the beginning, the Bible marks him as a man on demand under God. He comes into being at God’s directive, he belongs to God exclusively, and he exists solely for the purpose of fulfilling God’s mission. On the other hand, he ignores the principles he should embrace and squanders his calling. Samson is no hero, but he provides unique insights into God’s stubborn love for his people. Here is the introduction into Samson’s life:
Judges 13:2-5 (ESV)2 There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children.3 And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son.4 Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean,5 for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
Notice that the LORD does not act through a prophetic intermediary. He comes to Manoah and his wife directly in an Old Testament manifestation known as “the angel of the LORD.” His personal appearance marks the gravity of the couple’s shared calling to prepare their son. God’s instructions to them are explicit. The child is not theirs as a blessing. He is God’s man for a mission. The Scripture tells us nothing about Manoah or his wife’s feelings about their inability to bear children. It is silent about their personal joy or fulfillment after Samson is born. This child belongs to God and exists to fulfill God’s ordained purpose.
The Significance of the Nazarite Vow
The assignment as a Nazarite is critical to this section. It is a dedication to complete separation for the LORD’s service. Numbers 6 lays out its requirements. Normally, the vow is voluntary and temporary. During the vow, the person is to protect himself from any kind of defilement. Particularly, the Nazarite is to “separate himself from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins” (Numbers 6:3-4). The Nazarite’s mark of distinction lay in his hair. During the vow, he is to let it remain uncut. When he has completed the vow, he is to shave his head and offer his hair as a burnt offering (Numbers 6:5, 18).
A Man Under Obligation
Samson is the first man in Scripture to be placed under an involuntary vow. His purpose for being lies in God’s stated plan, to “begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” His birth has taken place for this single objective, and he lives under it for his lifetime. From the beginning, God’s hand is heavy on Samson. Judges 13:25 marks the transition to Samson’s adulthood. “And the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.” Stir is an understatement. The text reads more accurately, “The Spirit began to pound him.” God’s work in this man will be in extremes.
Samson’s Two Life Episodes
In order to understand Samson’s life in context, we need to understand why the account presents two summary statements. The first concludes Judges 15. “And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years” (Judges 15:20). The second, a chapter later, marks the end of his life. “He had judged Israel twenty years” (Judges 16:31). The two summaries do not indicate sloppy reporting. They mark the conclusions of distinct sagas in Samson’s adult life. During the first saga in Judges 14-15, the Spirit rides him like a rodeo bull, and Samson thrashes about, wreaking havoc among the Philistines.
The second in chapter 16 records Samson’s demise. In this chapter, he is out of his element, both spiritually and emotionally. The Spirit is absent now, and his life becomes an effort to show the Philistines that he still can better them. The bull is trapped, and his only end is a violent death.
The Spirit’s Violent Ride
This challenge will concentrate on the first saga in Judges 14-15. These two chapters shape Samson’s younger adult life. The section records the three times that the Spirit rushes upon him. The first episode begins when Samson goes “down to Timnah” (Judges 14:1) and finds a Philistine woman whom he wants to marry. Against his parents’ counsel, he demands that his father plan for their marriage, “for she is right in my eyes” (Judges 14:3). The narrator then makes an interesting comment regarding Samson’s demand. “His father and mother did not know that it was from the LORD, for he [The LORD?] was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines ruled over Israel” (Judges 14:4). During the days leading to the wedding, Samson escorts his parents through the vineyards of Timnah. Apparently, he becomes separated from them, and in their absence, a lion attacks him. The Spirit rushes upon him, and he tears the lion to pieces “as one tears a young goat” (Judges 14:6). This event marks the first manifestation of Samson’s explosive strength. The revelation has the same effect that we see when a superhero discovers his powers. He knows he has something big, but he does not understand its significance. He also keeps his newfound power secret. “But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done” (Judges 14:6).
Strength without Maturity
Unfortunately, Samson’s strength comes without wisdom. He will walk among the Philistines as a one-man wrecking ball. The phrase “down to Timnah” at the beginning of chapter 14 foreshadows Samson’s self-destruction. On its face, the phrase describes a geographical descent from the mountains of the Danite region to the coastal area of Philistia. But the writer anticipates Samson’s moral descent as well. We never see Samson master his strength. He acts more like a teenager on methamphetamines than a man pursuing a divine mission. Here are some of the compromises that take place at the beginning:
· Samson declares twice that the woman is “right in my eyes” (Judges 14:3, 7). This is the same phrase that Judges 17:6 and 21:25 use to describe the moral crisis in Israel. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
· During the visit, Samson escorts his parents through a vineyard, which violates the Nazarite purity code.
· Samson disregards his own moral duties as a Nazarite. During a return trip, Samson visits the lion’s carcass. When he sees a swarm of bees in the skeletal remains, he scoops out a handful of honey and gives some to his parents (Judges 14:8-9). His contact with the carcass defiles himself and his parents.
The most inscrutable mystery to me, however, lies at the heart of God’s work with Samson. Each time the Spirit rushes upon Samson, he administers death. The first time, he kills a lion. During the second rushing, he murders thirty Philistines (Judges 14:19). In the third, he slaughters 1,000 men (Judges 15:14-15). However, according to the Nazarite commandment, “All the days that he separates himself to the LORD he shall not go near a dead body….And if any man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his consecrated head, he shall shave his head….because he sinned by reason of the dead body” (Numbers 6:6, 7, 11). The Spirit of the LORD drives Samson to defile the very vow under which he operates. In other words, God violates his own moral boundaries. The only term that I can use to describe this is boundary crossing, and it occurs in both Testaments. When it happens, God does not just hop the fence. He dives into the toxic waste dump. Think this through. If God brings the defilement, then God must absorb the defilement. There is no place else that it can go. The idea sounds blasphemous until we consider that the greatest act of boundary crossing in history took place when Jesus died on the cross. The Apostle Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God comes out dirty and defiled. But that is the essence of grace.
The Men of the Book of Judges, Part 6
SAMSON'S PREPARATORY MISSION
A Man in Moral Freefall
From a moral standpoint, Samson is a man drunk on himself. By the time we reach Judges 16, he has abandoned his own people in his desperate effort to gain his enemies’ respect. Here are some comparisons between his early adulthood in Judges 14-15 and his final days in chapter 16.
· Where the Spirit of the LORD drove Samson in chapters 14-15, he is absent from chapter 16. This point alone speaks volumes to Samson’s moral condition.
· The primary geographic focus of chapters 14-15 lies in Israel, despite the coverage of Samson in Philistia. In chapter 16, Philistia becomes the center of Samson’s life. Israelite locations occur only in 16:3 and 17, and the latter concerns his burial.
· Chapters 14-15 portray Samson is a hayseed with a driving desire to be accepted in Philistine high society. In chapter 16, that need appears to consume him, and he becomes a tragic clown who drives himself to his own destruction.
Samson in Anger
As the text recorded three events in Samson’s earlier life, the second half does the same. In the first, Samson goes to Gaza, where he visits a prostitute (Judges 16;1-3). The Philistines get wind of what is happening and set up an ambush for daybreak. Samson gets up at midnight, goes to the city gate, and pulls the doors up by the pins. From there, he carries the doors to the top of a hill opposite Hebron in Israel, a forty-mile trip.
Samson in Love
Following this, Samson falls in love with Delilah, who proves to be his undoing. This is the longest of the three episodes in Judges 16, covering verses 4-22. “After this, [Samson] loved a woman in the Valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah” (Judges 16:4). For Samson, “love” looks more like a teenage infatuation than an actual commitment. Before Delilah, the mighty man turns to a bowl of Jello. The Philistines see this and hire Delilah to find the secret of his strength. Samson becomes so desperate to win approval from this woman that he gives up the truth. Despite fact that her actions have shown that she intends to betray him, Samson hopes that his most vulnerable secret will persuade her to love him. This does not happen. The scene closes when the Philistines seize him, put out his eyes, and put him on a grinding mill in prison.
Samson’s Last Act
The last sentence of the episode anticipates a more meaningful ending. “But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved” (Judges 16:22). During a later feast, when the Philistines bring him out to mock him, Samson prays to the LORD to grant him strength one more time, “that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16;28). He collapses the building, killing about 3000 Philistine men and women.
Hints of a Bigger Picture
Samson’s behavior points to a man who practiced singular selfishness during his life. His victories are as close to accidental as anyone’s could be. But does the account point to a bigger picture than what we see on the surface. I believe it does. When the angel of the LORD summoned Manoah and his wife to prepare for their miraculous birth, he said the child would “begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). The narrative obviously looks forward to David’s tactical victories in 1 Samuel. By comparison, Samson’s victories pale next to David. However, his real service might have been to shake off the lethargy that had overtaken his fellow Israelites. In Judges 15:1-8, Samson’s father-in-law gives his daughter to another man. The man’s excuse is, “I really thought you hated her, so I gave her to your companion” (Judges 15:2). Samson, being Samson, captures 300 foxes, ties torches to each pair, and sets the Philistine wheat fields on fire (Judges 15:3-5). In retaliation, the Philistines execute Samson’s wife and father-in-law by fire. Then they head to Lehi in Judah to capture the man who humiliated them.
The attack takes Israel by surprise. The leaders ask the reason for the unprovoked attack, and the Philistines tell them that they are after Samson. This leads to what is perhaps the most telling admission in the entire Samson saga.
Judges 15:11-12 (ESV)11 Then 3,000 men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam, and said to Samson, “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?” And he said to them, “As they did to me, so have I done to them.”12 And they said to him, “We have come down to bind you, that we may give you into the hands of the Philistines.”
The scene would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Three thousand men with defeatist attitudes confront the man whom the LORD has given to end their captivity. Their rhetorical question, “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us?” shows exactly how they feel about their lot in life. They have become comfortable slaves. Samson submits to his countrymen so that they can deliver him to the Philistines. This leads to the third time that the Spirit rushes upon Samson, bringing the slaughter of a thousand Philistines.
God’s Long View
We love to witness God’s great works, but we must remain alert to his small victories as well. When he works in small ways, he is no less God. The book of Judges records men and women whose human frailty is as garish as a fake diamond. Nevertheless, God honors their work. This summary statement from Hebrews 11 records four judges whose track records are anything but stellar.
Hebrews 11:32-34 (ESV)32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
I for one am all too capable of human error. Passages like this one give me hope, because God has counted his fallible servants faithful.