January 2013 - Heroes of Faith

Heroes of Faith.  Week 4 Samson
Judges Chapters 13 - 16

The story of Samson must rank as one of the most bizarre stories in the whole of the bible.  If it were told in modern times it’d almost certainly have to be as a pantomime.  The story is full of slightly comedic baddies, outrageously obvious plots and ploys, with a sprinkling of the magical and confusing (not to mention a little animal cruelty – if you’re anti fox hunting you might want to skip some of the story). 
As with any such story it is difficult to interpret the meaning and draw out conclusions let alone points of practical application, but we’ll give it a go and see what we can see.
The context:
At the very start of the book of Judges we read of the death of Joshua.  Even though Joshua is dead the battle to claim the promised land continues and we read that the Israelites continued to fight the Canaanites – the people from whom they were taking the land. 
In taking the promised land the Lord had instructed the Israelites to completely remove the inhabitants and their gods from it, but we read in chapter 1 of Judges that this did not happen.  Instead the Israelites took the Canaanites as forced labour and allowed them to retain their local gods. 
In Chapter 2 of Judges we read of Gods response to his peoples disobedience, mediated through the angel of the Lord who delivers the following message:
“…I will not drive them (the inhabitants of the land) out before you; they will be thorns in your side and their gods will be a snare to you…”
How true this was to prove! 
Judges ch 3:5 records:  “The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizites, Hivites and Jebusites.  They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.”
Something to think and talk about:  The compromise that led to Israels downfall, time and time again, was essentially their accommodation of the ways of life that stood against the way of life God had called them to.  In accommodating other ways they diluted and compromised their faithfulness to God.  This is perhaps something that we’re all too familiar with, for most if not all of us strike compromises between the ways of God and the ways of the world.  It may be helpful to identify one way in which you’ve struck a compromise deal and ask God to give you the strength to live fully for him in this area of life. 
And so this becomes the cyclical pattern of life for the Israelites.  Compromise and sin leads to oppression which in turn leads to deliverance.  Not only is this a cycle, it’s also a downward spiral as the quality of the ‘Judges’ who lead Israel deteriorates with each cycle. 
Here’s the school reports for the Judges:
Othniel:  A model of what a good judge is and should be.  Raised up in the ways of God and filled with his Spirit. 
Ehud:  Ehud doesn’t appear to be filled with Gods Spirit, he rescues Israel by deceit and treachery. Nothing is said about God’s will and relationship to him.
Deborah:  Was a prophetess and judged Israel reasonably well.  Under her inter-tribal disunity intensifies and Israel becomes split into factions.
Gideon:  A farmer is slow to recognize and respond to Gods call.  Never a particularly brave and courageous leader Gideon eventually succumbs to worshipping a false god which leads Israel astray.  The inter-tribal disunity grows to become intra-family disunity and murder abounds. 
Jephthah:  Jephthah is full of self interest, and his appearance on the scene coincides with Yahweh retiring from the scene. 
Samson:  Our final name in the list of major judges Samson is a shadow of what a judge should be.  Full of self indulgence and with an out of control sexual appetite.  He achieves more by dying than he ever did in lfe. 
We’re now going to explore some of the key aspects of Samson’s story as we try to make sense of it.
Yet again we read that Israel has done evil in the sight of God and been handed over to be oppressed by another people group.  And so once again the people need a deliverer and someone to rescue them.  Into the story step Manoah and his sterile wife who after a miraculous encounter with the angel of the Lord produce Samson. 

Even before Samson is born the angel informs Manoah and his wife that the child must be set apart for God from birth.  He was to be a nazirite.  (Nazirite is taken from the Hebrew word Nazir which means ‘consecrated’.  A Nazirite was someone who voluntarily took the vows detailed in Numbers 6:1-21)

So far so normal…but things will change…
The first major recorded event in Samsons life is his marriage to a Philistine woman.  The author of Judges records the build up to the marriage with comical brevity “Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman.  When he returned home he said to his father and mother “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife”.  Samson seems to be like a child who’s just seen his favourite sweets in a jar and who somewhat demandingly says ‘I want one” whilst stamping his feet in an embarrassing sort of way. 
One can almost hear his parents responding “not now Samson it will ruin your supper…”
But Samson does get what he wants and eventually he takes a trip to Timnah with his parents to acquire his wife.  It is on this journey that we’re first introduced to the super-human strength for which he will become famous.  Already in the story Samson is a man driven by an uncontrolled desire…he sees, he wants…

His parents tried to stop him, asking why he couldn’t find a wife from amongst his own people, but we read “His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines”(14:4)

A question to think and talk about:  This is one of those times when we see the will of God asserted through the will of a person.  It leads to all sorts of complicated questions about how the will of God is manifest through people, whether people always know about it, to what degree people are responsible for their will when ‘God lead’ and more.  It might be worth exploring this in conversation.
The wedding takes place and from the earliest moments we get an idea that it might not be a success…take a read of Ch14:10-18!
At the end of this episode we’re introduced to another of Samson’s character traits  – his burning anger – and it’s bloody consequences. 
From here a couple of notable events occur in Samson’s life.  His own people want to hand him over to the Philistines who are out for revenge, but he ends up killing a lot of Philistines with the jaw bone of a donkey and writes a poem about it (see he does have a sensitive side). 
Secondly he meets a lovely lady called Delilah.  The sort of girl who is every mothers dream for their son…
Despite being married to Samson Delilah is convinced by the Philistines to trick Samson into revealing the secret of his great strength which after a number of attempts she does.  As we read the story it might strike us as frankly bizarre that Samson didn’t rumble her  plot especially after so many failed attempts…but eventually he confesses that his hair is the source of his strength.  This confession leads to his eventual capture and the symbolic gouging out of his eyes, and eventually to his last and ‘greatest’ act – the destruction of the temple of the god Dagon and with it a large number of the Philistine elite. 
So what on earth do we take from this…?
Firstly:  Samson’s self indulgence and desire for foreign women is a metaphor to describe Israel itself.  The nation was unwilling to resist the pull to foreign bodies and gods and had corrupted and diluted her life with God through straying in this way.
This presents a strong challenge to us who if we’re honest are often prone to the same…
Secondly:  Samson like Israel had been set aside for God from his birth.  Called out to be different and consecrated to God.  And yet despite this calling he strayed and so much of his potential was left unfulfilled. 

Again this presents a strong challenge to us who are likewise called and consecrated to God…

Thirdly:  Samson’s downfall was his eyes.  He saw, he wanted, he got.  His eyes feasted on things that were off limits and destructive, things that would ultimately lead him astray and away from God.  Jesus picks up this theme as he teaches, it’s recorded in Matthew 6:22 “The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eyes are good your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are bad your whole body will be full of darkness…”

This poses the question ‘what do we feast our eyes on?
To Close:
There are some strong challenges to us in the story of Samson despite it being utterly bizarre.  As with many others in the ‘Heroes of faith’ list in Hebrews 11 we’re confronted with a person who is fatally flawed and compromised, and yet who somehow still manages to be a tool in the hands of God who is bringing his purposes to completion. 
As we reflect on this unlikely group of heroes we are reminded that we too, with our ignorance, frailty, and tangled motives, are tools in Gods hands because of his grace alone.  For all their flaws we learn from their faith because it was in faith that these messy individuals “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promosed” (Heb 11:32-33)

Simon Butler, 24/01/2013