June 11, 2023
The Samson Saga – Selection of Judges 13-16
Introduction to Samson:
We’re continuing our series this week – “Read It Again” – where we revisit some of those favorite childhood stories. Today – Samson! It’s a bit of an involved story so we’ll be reading it in episodes, and quite frankly still leaving out a great deal, so feel free to read the entirety of his story on your own.
If we remember much of anything about Samson, it would be his immense strength that is literally tied up in his hair.
His story is found in the book of Judges – and there are a few things you ought to know about this seldom-visited book of the Bible. The time of the Judges was – in many ways – the wild west of Israel’s history.
There’s a refrain that comes up again and again in Judges – “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
And just as the American West was populated by legendary outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, Judges tells the stories of some outlaw types who rise up to deliver Israel against their foes. In fact, there’s a pattern to the book – the Israelites are oppressed; God raises up a Judge to deliver them; they recommit themselves to the Lord, the people backslide – rinse and repeat. Taylor Swift is right – it really is exhausting always rooting for the antiheroes.
Samson is the last of the Judges – and in many ways he is the most outlaw of them all.
This might be a good time to address why there’s a picture of Johnny Cash in your bulletin. I mean, the short answer is that I’m just on a Country Music kick lately, but there’s also something about the Man in Black that comes to mind when I think about Samson.
We begin our story as every legend must begin – with a birth and with a naming. The name Samson in Hebrew is actually Shimshon, derived from the word Shemesh – Sun.
Johnny Cash might have immortalized the story of a Boy Named Sue…but hear the story of a Boy Named Sun.
A Boy Named ‘Sun’ Judges 13: 2-5, 24-25
There was a certain man…whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren…you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the LORD blessed him.
Prayer of Confession
We have an uncanny ability to get it all wrong, God.
We say that our eyes are open, but most often we are blind to what truly matters.
We say that we are strong, but then we are powerless to change the things that need changing.
And yet we do believe in You.
We are confident that you see properly.
We trust that none are as strong as you.
Be our vision, O God, and strengthen our spirits to do your will.
After this he fell in love with a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah. The lords of the Philistines came to her and said to her, “Coax him, and find out what makes his strength so great, and how we may overpower him, so that we may bind him in order to subdue him; and we will each give you eleven hundred pieces of silver.”
So Delilah said to Samson, “Please tell me what makes your strength so great, and how you could be bound, so that one could subdue you.”
Samson said to her, “If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that are not dried out, then I shall become weak, and be like anyone else.”
Then the lords of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings that had not dried out, and she bound him with them. While men were lying in wait in an inner chamber, she said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!”
But he snapped the bowstrings, as a strand of fiber snaps when it touches the fire. So the secret of his strength was not known.
I’m going to skip ahead here because it is a circular pattern story. Three times Delilah asks Samson for the secret to his strength. Three times he tells her something else until at last he tells her the truth – that it’s all about his hair. So of course she arranges for his head to be shaved while he sleeps – let’s not get tied up in how exactly one could sleep through that – but that’s how the story goes and the third of Samson’s Nazirite vows is broken – and with it goes his immense strength. We pick up the final chapter of his story here.
So the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes. They brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles; and he ground at the mill in the prison.
But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.
Now the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to their god Dagon and to rejoice; for they said, “Our god has given Samson into our hand.” And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, and let him entertain us.”
So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. They made him stand between the pillars; and Samson said to the attendant who held him by the hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, so that I may lean against them.”
Now the house was full of men and women; all the lords of the Philistines were there, and on the roof there were about three thousand men and women, who looked on while Samson performed.
Then Samson called to the LORD and said, “Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.” And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other.
Then Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.”
He strained with all his might; and the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it.
So those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.
Then his brothers and all his family came down and took him and buried him in the tomb of his father Manoah. He had judged Israel twenty years.
The word of the Lord.
THANKS BE TO GOD.
“Samson Prison Blues”
The Philistines are a’comin’
I hear them round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in the Cleft of Etam, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to He-He-bron
I fell in love with Delilah
And she told me many lies
She shaved off all my hair
Then they gouged out both my eyes
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
The Lord’s kept on movin’, and that’s what tortures me.
If God freed me from this prison,
If God made me strong once more
I could tumble this whole Temple
Right on top them Philistine Lords
Far from the House of Dagon, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away…..
John R. Cash famously sang “I Walk The Line” as a love song to his wife, but there’s a very different line that he ended up walking.
It’s a line that very few people get to walk in this world.
But from time to time, circumstances conspire to take an ordinary life and catapult it into the realm of myth…so much so that over time the real person starts to drain away and what remains is a Legend.
12 year old Cassius Clay fell into boxing quite by accident after his bike got stolen, but he became swaggering Muhammed Ali. A legend.
You’re not JR Cash, a purveyor of country-tinged pop, but you put a black suit, black shirt and black tie on and play before the inmates at Folsom Prison and suddenly you become The Man in Black. A Legend.
That’s the line that Samson walked as well.
And when you become a legend, the real story gets a bit fuzzy.
There’s a whole lot going on in the Samson story but the main theme you get is wasted potential.
Samson had every gift he needed to become a great leader:
He’s a Nazirite from birth – set apart as holy.
It would be fair to say that he’s a capable warrior – 1000 men with a
donkey’s jawbone, not bad.
He must be reasonably charming.
He’s clever and an excellent trickster – we didn’t read this one part but he hilariously rips the gates of a Philistine city out of the ground and carries them to his home in Israel, which plays on a euphemism for military victory – that a conqueror “possesses the gates of the city.” He has so much going for him – he could have been a fantastic leader, but he’s not.
Now – if you pay attention to the one and only part of his story that is most often told – the Delilah debacle – you might be saying to yourself “Leadership potential? That guy may have been strong, but he was dumber n’ a doornail.”
Four times Delilah asks him the secret of his strength and four times she sells him out to the Philistines. You’d think the man would notice a pattern. But for whatever reason, Samson simply cannot stay away from the people who seek to do him harm.
If I were being consistent I’d say there’s some Johnny Cash song that would be right for Samson at this moment – but I think our antihero could have used this gem from Taylor Swift: “We-ee are never, ever, ever – getting back together!”
And in many ways that is the point – the book of Judges charts a downward spiral for the whole people of God. Samson is really just a reflection of all Israel – set apart and so very gifted, yet always slipping into selfish pursuits.
By all outward appearances, Samson looks like a hero and he sounds like a hero – but ultimately he doesn’t act like a hero. He squanders his immense potential. He is a shell of what he could have been.
And yet there is still good news – because even in his lowest moment – bound and blinded before his enemies – God still works even through him.
Part of the legend of Johnny Cash is his turning point at Nickajack cave near his home in Tennessee.
It was 1967 and, like Samson with his hair shaved off, Cash was a pale reflection of his former self – strung out on amphetamines; his career near washed out; he could hardly stand on stage, much less sing, on account of all that hard living. He would later say that his body had wasted away to “leather and bones.” He was alienated from the people who loved him most.
He drove his car east from his Tennessee home and then parked it on the side of the road and pushed through thorns and brush to get to the mouth of Nickajack cave – a cave that was scheduled to be flooded by the Army Corp of Engineers later that year. He walked into the dark of that cave without any food or flash light. He expected to end his life there and, in his own words, “let God put him wherever he put people like me.”
He just wanted all of that shame to be swallowed up in the dark of that cavern.
But in the myth-making story of the Man in Black, that was not going to be his end.
John felt an unmistakable sensation – an impulse to get up and seek the light of day. Of course he was so deep in the twists and turns of that cave that it was hard to make heads or tails of how to get out.
But he started to crawl – first one way and then another…and then he felt a breath of wind and so he followed that until he saw a faint glimmer of light from outside, and when he finally emerged from the cave into the light of day, June Carter – his wife to be – was just approaching the cave with a basket of food and a drink of water. And as she drove him back home he said “I’m not going back to what I was before.”
Now – how much of that is true…it’s hard to say. Probably not much of it. Legends are like that – a little fuzzy around the edges.
But what this story suggests is a yearning that is so very human – that we all long to have a second chance.
a chance to undo what you have done.
a chance to reshape the person you have become.
Samson stood between those pillars – about as low as the man could have become.
His strength – diminished.
His potential – squandered.
And yet, God met him there and God listened to his prayer and God gave him the power to do the one thing he was meant to do; strength to be the person he was always meant to be.
The one to deliver Israel from its enemies.
We may not walk the line very well at all, but God walks the line of absolute faithfulness, even to we who are chronically unfaithful.
We may lazily assume that line separates the saints from the sinners, but the truth is that the line more often runs right down the middle of each one of us.
That picture of Johnny Cash in the bulletin comes from the cover of Cash’s late-career comeback – the first of what would become a six installment series called The American Recordings. The Man in Black gestures mysteriously to these dogs sitting at his feet. About that photo, Cash said;
“Like the dogs on my album cover – one’s black with a white stripe and one’s white with a black stripe. I named one Sin and the other Redemption…but like me, neither dog is all one way or the other.”
The good news to be found in this odd story of this truly exhausting antihero is that nobody is beyond God’s reach. Nobody is beyond God’s purpose.
The good news is that God has not and will not give up on you.
Thanks and all praise to God – God who takes us where we are, as we are, because there’s nothing more legendary than that. Amen.