The Comeback Kid
A few years ago, the comedy website Cracked did a countdown of the most hardcore action heroes in the Bible. They mentioned a lot of classics – Ehud’s John McLane-style regicide, Elijah’s calling down fire from heaven – but they reserved some of their loudest praise for Samson. “He was a sort of biblical superhero,” they write breathlessly, “who could basically call down the powers of the Lord to turn himself into a hurricane” of killing. “Specifically, the Philistines went to war against just Samson. And they pretty much lost.”
While Samson is arguably more famous for how he died – and we’ll get to that – the Cracked staff are right about Samson. He was unquestionably an incredible warrior, who we – somewhat unusually – follow all the way from birth to death, in Judges 13-16. An angel of the Lord appears to Samson’s mother and tells her that God has chosen her to have a special son, a Nazarite, whose life will be spent in the service of the Lord. He must never drink alcohol, nor eat unclean meat, nor cut his hair.
Samson grows up powerfully strong, but with one debilitating weakness: women. In his first recorded exploit as an adult, he falls in love with a Philistine woman from far away and decides to marry her. On his way to meet with her he encounters a lion, and casually rips it apart with his bare hands. I’ll let you read the ensuing hijinks for yourself: they reveal Samson’s hotheadness, love of puns and riddles, and penchant for ripping through entire armies like they’re tissue paper.
The hurricane of sex and violence that follows makes your average Bond film pale by comparison. Samson’s Philistine girlfriend is given to another man, so he captures three hundred foxes, ties them together, lights them on fire, and uses them to burn through the Philistines’ crops. When they retaliate by killing his girlfriend and her dad, he kills the murderers, then takes out the one thousand soldiers sent as reinforcement’s using nothing but a donkey’s jawbone. Like a true action hero, he even takes time for a snarky one-liner: “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them” (15:16 NIV). All he needs to do is put on sunglasses and the opening credits of CSI: Miami would probably start to roll.
For twenty years, the Bible notes, Samson led the Israelites, easily dealing with any threat the Philistines sent his way. One day, however, he met his match. After losing thousands of men and being humiliated again and again, the Philistines found his weakness: women. They paid off his girlfriend, Delilah, to figure out his secret. Three nights in a row, she begs him to tell her his secret, and for three nights he gives her false leads. Every night she does what he says, bids the Philistines attack, and then watches in exasperation as he easily defeats them. Finally she plays her trump card: doesn’t he love her? Tired of her questions, Samson gives in and tells her his secret: he can’t cut his hair. That night, Delilah shaves Samson’s head, and his strength leaves him.
At this point, I can’t help but shake my head at how stupid Samson is. I picture him as a cross between Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Channing Tatum, but roughly 100x dumber, with reduced brains making up for his increased muscle. Delilah has betrayed him three times in a row, but he still thinks telling her is real weakness is a good idea.
More realistically, maybe he just got cocky. He’s spent more than twenty years destroying everyone in his path. Why shouldn’t he think that’s his own power, not God’s?
The Philistines attack, and Samson is helpless. They capture him, gouge out his eyes, and put him to work as a slave grinding grain. Israel’s action hero has been completely and totally broken.
Or has he? As the text ominously notes, “the hair on his head began to grow again.”
Giddy over their victory against Samson, the Philistines start using him as entertainment at parties. They bring him out during a celebration in the temple, and he stands between the two great pillars holding up the roof. And then he prays to God one last time, begging for a second chance. “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes” (16:28 NIV).
He takes a deep breath, braces his hands against the pillars, and takes time for his action hero last words: “Let me die with the Philistines!” The temple collapses, killing Samson along with more than three thousand people: more than he killed during his entire life.
Every action hero needs a good comeback story, and Samson brought down the house with his.
Related texts or passages to consider: Lamentations 3:21-23; 2 Peter 3:9; 2 Samuel 6:7
• Why do some people seem to get dozens of second chances in the Bible, some get one major one (like Samson), and some none? Is there a way to know why God gives people second chances in the Bible? How many chances do you think he gives us in life today?
• Samson seems deeply stupid in light of God’s clear provision for him and Delilah’s obvious attempts to betray him. In light of his actions, is he not smart, or is he incredibly proud? What does it say about human nature if Samson could have such a seemingly clear situation and still make the wrong choice?
• The book of Judges follows the downward spiral of Israel's leaders after coming into the promised land. Look at Samson's behavior in Judges 15. Do you think he should be thought of as a hero? If so, why? If not, why do you think many people have presented him that way?
• After Samson's death, Israel descends deeper and deeper into chaos until a horrifying sexual assault and murder lead to a civil war, a near genocide of the Tribe of Benjamin by other Israelites, and a mass kidnapping of young women, all in a continuous string of out of control violence. This takes place between Judges 19 and 21, some of the most disturbing stories recorded in the whole Bible. The book ends with this statement: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit." (Judges 21:25 NIV) If the book ends on such a sad note, why is it in the Bible?
• Building off the last question: Samson's story almost ended in failure, but God showed his grace at the end and allowed Samson a redemption. Is the same true for the story of Israel? Read Ruth 1:1-5, and Ruth 4:13-22. How does the story of Ruth wrap up the story of Judges?
• How does the story of Judges and the story of Samson teach us about God's grace and patience?