Samson is the “imperfect savior” not because he saved God's people despite his flaws and imperfections but because, given the opportunity to deliver God's people, he didn't deliver. In this way he reminds us of and points ahead to Jesus, who did God's will in delivering his people. He also serves as a wake-up call to us, to set aside our idolatry so we can be set apart for God.
Introduction to Samson and Judges 13-16
Samson is the worst judge. He is the last judge in this book and, when he selected his first wife based on how she looked to him (“She's the right one for me”), began the cycle whereby everyone did what was right in their own eyes (14:3; 17:6; 21:25). As things spiraled downward, out of control, and into chaos, Samson came as a judge who didn't even deliver himself, much less Israel.
Yet, Samson figured into God's plan by virtue of becoming God's agent against the Philistines (14:4). The Philistine oppression provided the context for Samson's story. The Philistines were apparently one among several tribes who were left behind in the land to test the Israelites who did not face battles in Canaan (3:3).
God worked his plan out mysteriously, possibly even without Samson's knowledge (14:4). The larger mystery is that God even bothered. When he raised up Samson, he did so from scratch, influencing Samson's parents even before he was born to set him apart under a nazirite vow to be consecrated specially to God. (You can read more about the nazirite vow in Numbers 6:1-21.) But God was on his own—the people weren't even crying out for a deliverer like in the past. It was almost as if they had been comfortable living under a foreign ruler, much like they had to be coaxed out of Egypt by Moses. So it was left for God to deliver his people without their even wanting to be delivered.
But Samson was no Moses. Despite being described in one verse as having “led” (15:20) Israel for twenty years, he did no leading of any kind, except perhaps as a motivational leader, if Israel could be said to draw strength from the ways Samson showed up the Philistines. Rather, Samson is a follower—of his own desires and urges, which got him into trouble on many occasions and ultimately led to his temple-destruction and demise.
Judges describes Samson as one who will only “begin” (13:5) to deliver Israel. This is true. Any deliverance that came as a result of Samson's work was not directly attributable to him. He really only led himself and any leading he did of the people appears to be incidental to him exacting revenge. Everything fell apart after the Israelites him (read chs 17-21 for a very dark and grim depiction of Israelite history and human nature) and when the next judge appeared, Samuel, he was also under a nazirite vow and had to deal with the Philistine threat because Samson didn't take care of it. In short, Samuel had to clean up Samson's mess (see 1 Samuel 4-7).
One final interesting note is that Samson's story is less about him than about the women in his life (as evidenced by his unnamed mother, often referred to as “the woman,” and the references to his wives and the prostitute, although his second “wife” is named). This contrast symbolizes how women affected Samson—he did not follow the positive example of his mother and was tricked time and again by his two wives and almost captured when he spent the night with a prostitute.
Chapter 13—Samson's birth narrative; the faithful example of his mother; the Spirit of the LORD “begins to stir him”
The birth story is completely one-quarter of the Samson story and is focused on the faith of his parents, especially that of his mother, and their fear of God. The promise is only that Samson will “begin to deliver” Israel (13:5). Note that this promise did not come by the hopes or desires of his parents but by the promise of the angel. Samson possibly “began” to fulfill this prophecy, but if so, not until the end of his story when he killed more Philistines in his own death than he had while he was alive (16:30). Tragically, the value of Samson's life appears to be measured by how many he killed.
Ultimately, Samson's “beginning” does not find true fulfillment until the coming of Jesus. Israel was delivered to the Philistines for forty years, reminiscent of the wilderness wandering for forty years. Instead of being delivered by God (via Samson) through it, they fell apart. Samson was supposed to be special, set apart under the nazirite vow, but never lived up to his potential. The specialness of Samson is evident in that only a few others in the bible receive a birth narrative account like this—Ishmael (Gen 16:7-16); Isaac (Gen 17:16-21; 18:10-15); John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25, 57-66); and Jesus (Luke 1:26-45; 2:1-7). Instead of simply appointing a deliverer, God worked to raise one from nothing. Sadly, Samson didn't go along with the plan.
In this section, at the very end, the first occurrence of “the Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power” comes into play. But the phrase appears to be used somewhat ambiguously. The Spirit, somewhat innocuously, enabled Samson to destroy a lion, but later when the Spirit came upon Samson it enabled Samson to accomplish God's work but not in a way that “delivered” Israel; it merely inflicted damage to the Philistines (see 14:19 and 15:14; cf. 14:4). However, at the end of his life, when Samson brought down the temple to Dagon on himself and the Philistines, despite his prayer to God, there is no mention of the Spirit of the LORD.
Chapter 14—Samson marries a Philistine woman; kills a lion; tricks the Philistines and is then tricked himself; kills thirty men in an act of revenge
Although Samson's story began in chapter 13 with his parents, he doesn't make a physical appearance until chapter 14. Suddenly, the grown Samson had a liking for forbidden things: he went down to the land of the Philistines and found a Philistine woman to marry. Despite his parents objections, he instructed his father to arrange the marriage, stating, “She's the right one for me.” This note precedes a pattern that will finish out Judges whereby “everyone did as they saw fit” (see 17:6; 21:25). This phrase is literally the last sentence in Judges! And it's Samson who began it using it!
Even though God was seeking to gain a foothold through through all this (14:4), the fact remains that Samson “began” to lead the people in doing whatever pleased them personally. He selected his wife based on what was good to him regardless of his nazirite vow. Samson's foreign wives are a symbol of Israel's idolatry towards God in these times.
On the way to Timnah to marry his bride, Samson encountered a lion that he destroyed with the help of God. This carcass, which also served as food for him on a later occasion (his interaction with the carcass likely broke his nazirite vow), became the source of a riddle he told to his thirty companions. This scene begins the depiction in Judges of Samson as a one-upper of the Philistines, tricking them even as they try to trick him.
Foolishly, Samson gave the answer to his riddle to his wife, who had been extorted by the Philistines (14:15). Samson was furious that his riddle had been deciphered, blamed it on his wife, and in a brutal act of revenge slaughtered thirty men to obtain the garments he needed to provide his thirty companions. Mysteriously, the Spirit of the LORD enabled him to do this, likely because of the damage inflicted to the Philistines.
Chapter 15—Samson's marital problems; he destroys the economy of the Philistines as revenge; is turned over by his own people to the Philistines; slaughters a thousand men to get away
In 15:1 Samson returned “later” to visit his wife. “Burning with anger” (14:19) after being betrayed by her he had gone home. After cooling off, he decided to pay a visit to his “wife's room” (15:2). But when he arrived he discovered that his marriage had been annulled and his wife had been given to another!
Samson decided he had a “right” to get even and set out to “really harm them” (15:3). His act of revenge this time destroyed the economy of the Philistines when he burned up their crops. As a result of this, Samson's wife and father-in-law were burned by the Philistines, thus fulfilling a promise they had made earlier (14:15). Samson became furious over this and “slaughtered” many of them (15:8).
The Philistines decided to capture Samson to bring him to justice. This was easy for them as the people of Judah were furious with Samson for going against their Philistine rulers. The people would rather be subject to foreign rulers than take a stand for God! And in this case, when Samson could have challenged them on that point as their judge, he didn't. He merely secured a promise from them that they wouldn't kill him themselves (15:12). When they came to arrest Samson, the Spirit of the LORD came upon Samson and he killed a thousand of them with a donkey's jawbone.
He was thirsty after all this “hard work” so he selfishly cried out to God, mimicking the sincere cries to God by oppressed Israelites (see, for example, 6:7). Rather than delivering Israel, Samson wanted God to deliver him from his thirst. God answered his prayer by opening a source of water for him and he drank and was refreshed. The chapter concludes by noting that Samson “led” Israel. Whatever this entailed, it did not include delivering Israel from the Philistine rule (15:20).
Chapter 16—Samson is almost captured; falls in love with Delilah; is tricked by Delilah and captured; kills more Philistines in his death than while he was alive
Samson was nearly undone by his desires when he was almost captured because he spent the night with a prostitute. But continuing his theme of one-upping the Philistines, as they waited for the morning to kill him (16:2), Samson got up in the dark and left the city, taking the city gates with him!
Some time later he met another Philistine woman (Delilah), loved her, and began some kind of relationship with her (presumably a marriage). Just like with his previous wife, the Philistines created an arrangement with her for her to betray Samson. Specifically, she was supposed to find out the source of Samson's strength. Eventually Samson broke, although it took four times for him to finally tell her that the source of his strength was his nazirite vow and that his hair had never been cut. Ironically, despite clearly having been the punchline of a joke, Samson did not figure out what his wife was up to.
Armed with this information the Philistines are able to subdue Samson, gouge his eyes out, and take him prisoner. Samson's bondage in this scene is symbolic of the bondage Israel was under as a result of their idolatry with foreign gods. In another ironic turn of events, the Philistines consider Samson to have been “delivered” (16:23) to them by Dagon in the same way Israel was delivered to the Philistines at the beginning of the Samson story (13:1; 16:23-24). Tragically, the only deliverance in this story occurred when Samson was given to his enemies; he was not able to deliver Israel out of their subjugation to the Philistines.
But Samson got revenge. As his hair began to grow back, he remembered God, and as a final act of revenge prayed to God to give him strength “just once more” (16:28). He did not pray for strength to deliver Israel, however, but to “get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes” (16:28). The text does not tell us whether God answered his prayer, and it is silent on whether the Spirit of the LORD came upon him. But in his last act he took out the support pillars in the temple, bringing the temple down upon itself and on all those who were inside. He killed many more Philistines in his death, even more than during his whole life (16:30).
Samson was a comedic-tragic figure, focused on enjoying life, satisfying his desires, and getting revenge. He never lived up to his potential. In this way he is like those who are like the seed scattered on rocky places (Mark 4:1-20; esp. v. 5-6, 16-17). They started well but didn't end well. Samson had everything going for him—God had prepared him from before his birth to be a great leader to deliver his people. But Samson couldn't overcome his weaknesses. He is a wake-up call to us to keep our eyes focused on Jesus and to set aside any idols we have so we can be set apart for God.
Previous commentaries on Judges are found here: An Introduction to Judges 1-2; Deborah and Barak (Judges 4-5); Gideon (Judges 6-8); and Abimelech (Judges 9).
Context and Story
Despite the appearance of the minor judges, Tola and Jair, the Jephthah story picks up during the aftermath of the Gideon and Abimelek debacle. Judges 6-9 should be read as one unit, as Abimelek, Gideon's son, raised himself up after Gideon's death to avenge the bad name he thought his family received. He took a bad situation, where Israel had devolved into idolatry, and made it worse by creating an immense vacuum of leadership. Despite the forty-five years of seemingly positive leadership from Tola and Jair, Israel appears to be on a downward spiral.
There is a clear emphasis early in chapter 10 (10:6-10) on how far things have indeed fallen. An extended description of the "evil" Israel committed includes idolatry on a mass scale--Israel appears to be worshiping every god in sight except the one, true God! Thus, God, in keeping with pattern in Judges, turns them over as punishment, this time to the Ammonites. True to their part, Israel cries out to God for help, but in a change, God uses an argument originally put forth by Gideon's father (6:31). God tells them that they have turned from him even though he delivered them many times, so why don't they call on the gods they worship to deliver them!
Israel seems to get a little more serious after this. This time, they listen to God and act on their faith. They admit their sin to God, appear to be remorseful and accepting of any punishment God would send, and pack up their foreign gods and serve the one, true God. Their repentance moved God and he "could bear Israel's misery no longer." So he raised up a deliverer, Jephthah.
Jephthah's opponent is the Ammonites. He is already known as a mighty warrior (similar to Gideon, although Gideon was called one by God; 6:12) but has to be recruited by the tribal elders because he had been run out by his half-brothers over a dispute involving Jephthah's mother (she was a prostitute) and the inheritance. Jephtah is rightly skeptical when they come to him for help (11:4-11) but ultimately secures a commitment from the elders to be their leader.
Jephthah's Vow of Sacrifice
He defeats the Ammonites in a big way (11:33). But with victory comes controversy. Jephthah is empowered by the spirit of the LORD (11:29) but also makes a foolish vow designed to gain God's favor that apparently was already given to him. His vow looks noble but on closer inspection shows him to be impetuous--he promises that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to the Lord. Presumably he expected an animal, maybe the pet dog, to come out to greet him, but instead...
...it's his daughter. And in possibly the worst irony in the entire book of Judges, Jephthah blames her for his vow! (11:34-35) Yet, of all characters in this story, and perhaps even in the entire book, Jephthah's unnamed daughter shows the greatest understanding of God. She both fears God and is faithful to him. She knows what it means to fear God and be faithful to him.
She understands that Jephthah must live up to his vow since it was made before the Lord. But does Jephthah ever consider going back on his vow? Does he ever consider appealing to God's mercy that was so prevalent in the experience of the Israelites? He acts as though his hands are tied, despite God's instruction in the law not to sacrifice children (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5). And after an initial mourning period, he follows through on his vow and sacrifices his daughter.
There is a tradition that interprets this event as non-sacrifice but rather as dedication to celibacy. This interpretation focuses on Jephthah's daughter's emphasis on mourning her "virginity" (11:37-39). However, this interpretation, while softening the hard edge of the vow of sacrifice, does not make sense in light of the whole story. Jephthah is portrayed as irresponsible, as a gambler who, although he received the Spirit of God still needed to find security, just like Gideon did, when Gideon twice tested God after also receiving the empowerment of the Spirit (6:34-40). Jephthah was impetuous and this vow, and its consequences, highlight why he was unfit to bring spiritual change to Israel.
Was Jephthah's vow manipulative? What was the reason for it? It was already clearly stated that he had received empowerment by the Spirit of the Lord. Jephthah likely tried to manipulate God: although the Spirit was freely given, Jephthah, just like Gideon, needed to provide for himself a sense of empowerment that he could feel secure in. As a result of trusting in himself he became the very thing he sought to destroy--an idolater, a surrogate Ammonite, for whom child sacrifice was a normal part of religious experience. He focuses in himself the very experience Israel sought to rid themselves of when they cried out for a deliverer in 10:6-10.
They were so saturated with idolatry it took a great declaration from God to wake them up. But the deliverer took them right back to where they began. The similarities between Jephthah and Gideon are intentional. Things are going from bad to worse for Israel.
The Spirit of the LORD
The narrator of Judges lets us know that Jephthah was empowered by the Spirit of the LORD. This empowerment appears to have enabled Jephthah to advance boldly against the Ammonites and we're left with the impression that it was just a matter of time before Jephthah would be victorious. Yet, Jephthah disregards the Spirit's empowerment and makes a rash, foolish vow concerning sacrifice, in an effort to curry God's favor. Wasn't God's favor already with him as a result of the Spirit's empowerment?
The Spirit of the Lord in Judges is a little tricky to nail down. It works both practically in the experience of the deliverers it "comes upon" but also narratively in the story of Judges to point out the strugge and disintegration of the Israelites.
In Othniel's case (3:10-11), the presence of the Spirit meant immediate victory. But in Gideon's experience (6:34-40), he was hesitant after receiving empowerment by the Spirit; the presence of the Spirit had a delayed effectiveness. Similarly, for Jephthah, the Spirit of the Lord appeared to point him in the right direction but he stumbled, unnable to trust completely in God and it led to a devastating moment for him and Israel. Finally, by the time of Samson, when the Spirit of the Lord rests upon him, he is able to do impressive things but he is far from being a deliverer. In fact, the narrator tells us Samson only "began to deliver Israel" (13:5).
What should we make of this? On one end, Othniel was competely effective, and on the other end, Samson was completely ineffective (or just beginning to be effective). In between, Gideon delivered but reverted back to idolatry almost immediately after deliverance and Jephthah delivered but also slipped back almost immediately. His slip led the people towards violence--both in his sacrifice of his daughter and in the vicious civil war that began shortly after.
This evidence points us towards a truth about God's Spirit and how he works. As we consider the disintegration of Israel over the course of this book, we also see this represented in how the Spirit was able to work in the deliverers God raised up. When Israel was more focused in the beginning of the book, the Spirit met with great success in Othniel. As Israel began to disintegrate, become more chaotic, and take a more permanent stance against God, the Spirit began to be less effective in the deliverers.
Was this the Spirit's fault? Hardly. The Spirit was the agent of God's presence. But how can God work through a deliverer if the deliverer does not cooperate with God? The principle is this: The Spirit is effective, but not always automatically so. God's presence through the Spirit must be met with cooperation on the part of his followers. The fact that God resides within us (1 Cor. 6:19) is a mere point of interest if we are not serious and dedicated to cooperating with him in the work he desires to do in and through us.
Jephthah's story ends on a ridiculous and tragic note. Just like Gideon, Jephthah is called out by the Ephraimites, who are upset that they were not included in the fighting men. They threaten to burn down Jephthah's house retaliation! Jephthah offers an explanation, but rather than waiting to see how Ephraim would respond, he gathers a fighting force and goes against them. Ultimately, it would cost the lives of 42,000 Ephraimites.
Just like Gideon, who started so well in overcoming fear to lead a victorious army but finished poorly by taking the people back into idolatry, Jephthah began well but didn't finish well. He was rejected by his family because of his lineage but built a reputation for himself and was recruited by the tribal elders, then received empowerment by God's Spirit and led Israel victoriously through battle but left a legacy of foolishness and violence because he could not bring himself to trust fully in God.
As Jesus says, "Whoever has ears, let them hear" (Matt. 11:15).
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