I have recently read Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Samson’s story, like much of the Book of Judges, has little in the way of editorial commentary, which means that the reader is left to draw his own conclusions about what is good and what is evil in the story. That being said, traditional readings among Jews and Christians have generally found a basic consensus on the events and motifs of the tale, and that consensus is unpopular in today’s world.
Destroying one’s enemies
The destruction of the Philistines is a central element of the Samson story. The Angel who prophesies his birth tells his parents that he was born to deliver Israel from Philistine oppression. He has numerous violent encounters with the Philistines, including the famous slaughter with the jawbone of an ass, and culminating in the incident at the temple of Dagon.
Christianity has a complex view of martial violence; nevertheless, Samson is affirmed as a hero in the New Testament.
And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
There are times when a military approach is necessary. It should not be desired for its own sake, nor should it be lightly undertaken, but it is necessary. If Israel had continued under Philistine oppression, it might have fallen into apostasy and idolatry and ceased to be distinctive as a nation, melting into the surrounding Canaanite culture.
Samson stands out as a hero, a brave man who singlehandedly fought to liberate Israel from her oppressors. He fought when the rest of his nation would not help him, armed not with steel or bronze, but with the power of God’s Spirit, in whom he placed his trust. He is an inspiration for us today to have faith when things look bad, when we look weak and isolated. But he is also a reminder of the need to defend our country when she is threatened by enemies.
Putting God first
Samson goes wrong because he fails to keep God first in his life: this is arguably the greatest lesson we can take from his walk of faith. He finds himself unhappy in his first marriage because he has married outside of Israel. God is able to turn this into an opportunity to begin the liberation of Israel, but this is a contingent series of events. Things could have been otherwise: Samson could have married within Israel and God could have provided another means for him to remove the yoke of Philistine oppression.
In Delilah Samson meets his downfall. By revealing the secret of his strength, his Nazarite locks of hair, he places his love for her over his love for God. This lesson is particularly unpopular in today’s world, which places Eros, not Agape, at the pinnacle of its Babylonian tower of values. If Samson had put God before his romantic liaison, he would not have revealed the secret, and would have avoided the capture and slavery that degraded him and led to his tragic death.
Grace and supremacy
Samson’s story does not end with his work in the prison-house of Gaza. Though blinded and humiliated, his hair grows back, a symbol of God’s supervening grace. He seeks the LORD in prayer, and God grants him a guide in his blindness and the strength and opportunity to pull down the temple of Dagon, humiliating the idol and destroying the Philistines.
In this example of grace, we see God’s forgiveness and faithfulness to His covenants and promises. We also see His supremacy: God said that Samson would begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines, and He saw to it that the promise stood, despite Samson’s moral weakness. Following the time of Samson, God raised up David to complete the work.
At first glance, women do not come across well in the Samson story. It would be a mistake, however, to read it misogynistically. The point of the story is not that women are any worse than men: Samson is culpable for failing to keep his Nazarite vow.
There is a contrast, however, between the treacherous wheedling used by Delilah and the honest, open force used by Samson in battle. We are not meant to infer that women are inherently more treacherous than men – the Bible is full of stories of male treachery. The contrast and allocation to the genders is there simply to hammer home the warning about treachery, which is an important motif in the Bible: be careful about where you place your trust.
At the start of the year, it is common to think about resolutions, repentance, and aspirations. In our more humble and virtuous moments, we think about what we got wrong and what we would like to do better. We also hope for achievements, successes that will make us feel good. Samson’s story should serve as a warning and a message of hope going forward: we must persevere despite our own failings and the failings of others and look to God as our strength to carry on. Happy new year!