Tuesday, January 27, 2015

some brief thoughts on Samson from the book of Judges, a Sterling Archer in the Old Testament.

Samson would have to be the worst keeper of a naziritic code in the documents collected in the Bible.  After all, he's said to have killed a bunch of people with a donkey's jawbone.  He also consulted a prostitute and went to the trouble of seeking to marry a Phillistine.  Samson, at best, inadvertently begins to bring about deliverance of Israel from Phillistine rule.  Samson comes across as a self-serving, self-absorbed idiotic horndog whose lust and narcissism don't stop him from miraculously managing to save the day for corrupt and incompetent people whom he works with and for.

This may be an esoteric way of putting it for anyone who's not already into animated shows and films ... but Samson could be thought of as a kind of Sterling Archer in the book of Judges. Yeah, he's technically a protagonist in the narrative in which he appears ... but that doesn't mean he's not a complete idiot most of the time.

One of the things Wenatchee The Hatchet heard a Pentecostal youth pastor teach decades ago was that Samson offers a sober lesson, that it doesn't matter how gifted you are or how powerfully anointed you might think you or your hero is, that will never be a substitute for living a genuinely pious and ethical life.  At some point or another if you presume upon the power and aid of God you may find it leaves you in your moment of testing and you don't pass the test.  It doesn't mean God can't or won't save you, but it might mean that you get to feel the full force of the consequences for your own life of self-serving idiocy. 

Throughout the narrative of Judges Samson generally does what he does in spite of his motives. He comes across as a cheater in the riddle he poses at his own wedding, leaning heavily on an incident only he was present for, a set of actions that involved him scooping honey out of the carcass of a lion and feeding it not just to himself but to his parents, thus defiling them all and rendering them impure within the strictures of the naziritic observance.  Samson also uses a donkey's jawbone to kill a mess of people, yet another case in which Samson blithely ignored one of the few rules of purifying separation the nazirite was supposed to adhere to.  At the end of his life, when he killed more Phillistines in his death than while he lived, he asks to get vengeance against his enemies for his two eyes, not out of any loyalty or consideration for Israel as a whole. 

And yet Samson was mentioned as one of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. It's as though Samson spent his whole life trying to live life just like any Phillistine, even going so far as to pursue Phillistine women.  If he's a saint it's because God would not let go him of him not because Samson demonstrated any will to be particularly obedient to God about fairly basic rules of conduct for a Jewish person in that time and place.

Lately, since Wenatchee The Hatchet finally got around to watching Archer, and Samson does come across as being somewhat like the randy and uncouth protagonist of that cartoon. 

What made Samson a hero?  Well, from an Israelite standpoint, God used Samson, generally in spite of Samson's own motives ,to exact punishment on the Phillistines, who were enemies of Israel for a while.  Samson did seem to have flashes of awareness that the power he had was given by God but by and large his acknowledgments of Yahweh appear in Judges 15:18 and 16:28-30.  The rest of the time it doesn't seem as though Samson had much thought for God even when the power of God worked through him to kill Phillistines.

What is striking about those upon whom the spirit of God works in the book of Judges is that they don't lose their individual agency.  If anything they not only don't lose their agency they seem to go on and say or do the things that are most characteristically flawed about them.  After Gideon is clothed in the spirit of the Lord what does he do?  He puts out that fleece, unsure that Yahweh is really with him after all.  Jephthah makes a weirdly calculated vow that IF God is with him and gives him a victory then he'd sacrifice ... whatever ... happens to come out to greet him.  As Barry Webb explained in his commentary on Judges, the vow was a hedging and calculated sort of vow and it also suggests that Jephthah didn't even have any clear sense that the spirit of God was upon him.  Webb lays out an exegetical case for why the burnt offering/holocaust interpretation has to be rendered literally.  Jephthah actually shifts the blame to his daughter for coming out to greet him and his daughter, revealing a level of integrity and selflessness Jephthah did not match, accepts the vow as binding.  Jephthah, depending on how we read the text, does not come across as someone who would ignore or nullify the vow.  Why Jephthah was considered a hero would have to be explained another time, largely in terms of his willingness as an ostracized bastard cast out of his family inheritance and clan to nevertheless be willing, even conditionally, to fight to rescue Israelites from a war.  That Jepthah was the first judge that was nominated by Israelites rather than directly appointed or called by the Lord would be another topic to discuss at another time.

All that to say, it's not a big surprise if you engage carefully with Judges to see that the men who are empowered by God to do great and remarkable things don't stop being precisely as bad as they were before God called them.  If anything they go on to get worse.  The slide toward apostasy in Israel began before Gideon was even dead, a foreboding development in the narrative of Judges. 

When Samson tells his father he wants to marry that Phillistine woman he says "Get her for me, for she's the right one in my eyes" the foreshadowing of the end of the book of Judges is clear.  Samson, as judge, articulates the "right in his own eyes" ethos that becomes the end of the book as a whole.  The leader, sort of, pioneers by example the moral decline of the people while also reflecting it. 

Long ago, back in the early Mars Hill days, on the older Midrash, there were some who theorized, no, asserted that Samson turned out to be as bad as he did because his parents dropped the ball.  Parenting fail, big time.  But the text of Judges never indicates this even once.  The Bible has at least a handful of stories of children who turn out to be remarkably different in character from their parents.  Samson seems heedless of the naziritic code and does not lose his strength after repeated in fractions against it.  He touches corpses, he kills willy-nilly, he visits a prostitute, pursues Phillistine women, and "may" have ignored the ban on grapes, too.  Cutting the hair was the last straw, the one last rule Samson hadn't broken along the way of being probably the worst nazirite in the Bible. 

Samson's life does not look like the life of someone transformed from a bad person into a righteous person.  No, he pretty much stays bad from start to finish.  And yet he's mentioned as one of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. 

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