Judges 13 – Samson’s inscrutable tale

 

                                                                                  Chapter 13

                                                               The inscrutable tale of Samson

                                         

Samson’s story is told in Judges in four chapters. The chapters state that he “judged Israel for twenty years”[1] twice: at the end of chapter 15 before the episode of Delilah, after describing various episodes where Samson seems to have violated what was later codified as rabbinical law, such as marrying non-Israelite women and killing people out of revenge, and at the end of chapter 16, after his death. There is an additional third indicator of his service in 13:5 where the angel of God who appeared to a barren woman telling her that she will bear a son, Samson, “and he will begin to save Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” who were oppressing her tribe Dan and other near-by tribes at that time.[2] Yet, despite these indicators that Samson would judge and begin to deliver his people, there is no clear statement that he acted as a judge.

 

Negative evaluation

Accordingly, many scholars see Samson as a muscular, self-centered man, who was drawn to Philistine women and mischievous acts to his detriment. Even in his final prayer Samson does not think of his people, but of personal revenge. Rather than helping his people, his vengeful actions against Philistines who hurt him personally aggravated the relationship between the Philistines and Israelites. He did not stop the Philistine oppression, it continued unabated after his death. Unlike the other judges – Shamgar also being an exception – he did not organize the Israelites to fight against the Philistines; all of his confrontations with Philistines were personal. His mother was told that he mustn’t ingest intoxicating liquids and unclean foods,[3] but he engaged in festivities in 14:5 which may have included alcohol and unclean foods.

 

How does he compare with other judges?

I described in chapter 10 that the book Judges is unclear about many things, including how many judges judged Israel, the area and tribes they judged, or how they judged the people. Some scholars count the number of judges as low as 12 and others as high as 17.

Samson was not unique in having unfavorable tales told about him. Abimelech and Jephthah also did evil things. Abimelech killed all but one of his 70 brothers and waged war against Shechem and its environs. If Shechem was populated by Israelites as some commentators contend, he was engaged in a civil war. Judges ends its depiction of Abimelech’s activities by saying, after describing his death, “Thus God punished the wickedness of Abimelech because of what he did to his father when he killed his 70 brothers.” The book does not say that he judged the Israelites, although many commentators include him among the judges.

Jephthah killed his daughters according to the majority interpretation or forced her to live a secluded life according to the minority. He clearly engaged in civil war and killed 42,000 fellow Israelites. The book ends its narration of his activities by saying “he judged Israel for twenty years.” The evil deeds of these two men and those of Samson and the absence of any description of how they judged the people raise many questions, including: Does Scripture want readers to see these men as favorable figures? How should we understand the word “judges” since no description of their judgeship is given?

 

Samson’s birth is foretold

Samson is the only judge whose birth is foretold by an angel.[4] The predicting of the birth of a significant person is not unique to Judaism and is also found in other cultures. Genesis 18 has the story about Abraham being told by three angels that he will have a son. One angel informs Samson’s parents that he would be born in Judges 13, and the New Testament has one angel foretell the birth of Jesus in Luke 1:30-31. Abraham received the message because he was an old man and the birth was unusual. Why were the other births prophesied? Is there significance in Abraham being visited by three angels?[5] Why did Samson’s birth warrant the angelic prediction?

This was not the only sign that Samson’s birth was wonder-filled and unique. His unnamed mother[6] was barren until the angel appeared, just like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Samuel’s mother who bore important children.

A third sign of Samson’s significance is that the angel instructed his mother to engage in unusual prenatal care, to abstain from intoxicating drinks, unclean thing, and “no razor must come on his head; for the child will be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he will begin[7] to save Israel from the Philistine’s hand.”[8]  Perhaps this maternal abstinence emphasizes that Samson was so important and his future acts so momentous that even his mother had to refrain from certain foods while she bore him.

Yet, the story portrays Samson as impetuous, with a choleric temper, and doing improper acts, which do not seem to warrant miraculous antecedent events. Is it possible that this is irony: despite being assigned a divine mission, Samson did not carry it out? But are we reading the text improperly? Perhaps, as some scholars feel, we need to read the silence between the lines.

 

Was Samson so important that the Pentateuch predicted his birth?

Rashi wrote that the Torah predicted his birth, but his grandson Rashbam disagreed. Rashbam criticized his grandfather’s midrashic methodology with strong words in his commentary to Genesis 37:2 (“These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock of his brother, being still a lad, even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought evil reports of them unto their father”) and 49:16 (“Dan will judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel”). In 37:2, Rashi explains each of the many phrases of the passage with a host of elaborate imaginative Midrashim that are not hinted in the biblical words. He states that 49:16 is telling readers that Jacob predicted the judgeship of Samson who was from the tribe of Dan.

Rashbam wrote in his commentary to 49:16: “Those [meaning Rashi and those like him] who explain that the verse refers to Samson do not know anything about the manner of interpreting Scripture’s simple meaning. Would Jacob prophesy about a single individual who fell into the hands of the Philistines, who blinded him, and who died with the Philistines in a terrible situation!? Chalilah chalilah [God forbid! God forbid! ]!”

 

How did some rabbis consider Samson righteous?

Some rabbis argued that Samson was granted an exception and allowed to marry a Philistine woman in Judges 14 because of a special need: he required an excuse to attack the Philistines in revenge for taking advantage of his wife.

Rabbi I. Ginian takes this approach.[9] He felt that God is involved in the daily life of humanity, God manipulates lives to accomplish the divines purpose, God punishes people if they do wrong, and may discipline an entire family or nation for the wrongs committed by individuals because they should have stopped the person from doing the wrong. While some may read Judges as a book that occasionally portrays Israelite leaders in an unfavorable light, such as the story of Samson, Rabbi Ginian sees God working through the devout Samson to accomplish the divine purpose. Ginian ends his book by saying that the difficulty that some people have in maintaining faith is that although God is constantly involved in all that occurs in this world, God is invisible.   

Ginian wrote that while the Bible states that the Israelites “did evil in the eyes of God” during the age of the judges, “the clear inference is that this was evil only in the eyes of Hashem (God). Had we seen these people with our own eyes, we would not have perceived any evil.” Yet, since the Israelites “underwent a general decline, sinking below the spiritual level expected of them…Hashem placed them under the domination of the small Plishti (Philistine) nation for forty years, something that in natural terms would never have happened.”

After years of battles, Ginian writes, Samson fell victim to the Philistines because his father doubted the words of the angel who predicted Samson’s birth. Ginian calls Samson’s death the “far-reaching effects of errors.” Samson never intended to tell Delilah about his hair, but God made him do it. Samson’s father was a reincarnation of the biblical Noah and Samson of the patriarch Isaac’s son Esau or, according to another view, a reincarnation of Moses’ brother Aaron’s son Nadav (whom God killed). The reincarnation afforded the souls of the deceased an opportunity to repair past errors and be purified.

Although unstated in the Bible, Samson did not sin by marrying a Philistine girl, according to Ginian: the marriage was decreed in heaven, the girl converted, and the pair went through a Jewish wedding ceremony. God wanted Samson to marry this woman to begin Samson’s war against the Philistines. However, his wife was unfaithful to him and had an affair with one of the Philistines at their wedding ceremony.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky has the same approach to the Samson story.[10] He felt that Samson was “the leading Torah scholar and spiritual guide” of his age. He taught his people Torah for some twenty years “between his skirmishes and intermarriages.” His “one-man wars enabled the people to focus on rebuilding their spiritual lives free from the terror of the Philistines.” He explains that Samson married non-Israelite women as a two-pronged strategic subterfuge to ingratiate himself in the enemy camp and to seemingly separate himself from the Israelites so that the Philistines would not seek revenge for his deeds against his people.

Pruzansky explains that although Samson’s strategy was inspired and even directed by God, Samson failed because living among the non-Israelites turned his heart and mind. He fell in love with Delilah, who he had been using as a tool to his task. Samson “was harmed by his prolonged exposure to the decadent society of the Philistines. He infiltrated it, but, in turn, it infiltrated him as well” even though he was protected by a divine plan and his Torah studies. This, writes Pruzansky, is a lesson for many Jews today who have well-meaning and seemingly cogent goals that fail because of the temptations of the non-Jewish secular environment.

In short, Rabbis Ginian and Pruzansky reflect the view of people who desire to see God functioning in this world and manipulating people as puppets to accomplish the divine will. None of this is clearly apparent in the book. A plain reading of the four chapters reveals Samson committing many improper acts.

 

 

[1] Why was the number repeated twice? It is possible that we should view the Samson tale as taking place in three phases. In the first phase, until the end of chapter 15, he performed many improper acts. Then he matured in the second phase and judged the Israelites for twenty years, acts which are not detailed. At the end of the twenty years he relapsed and was enticed by Delilah. Chapter 16 ends by repeating that during his lifetime, he had acted as a judge.

[2] The number three and its variations appear frequently in the Samson story. He becomes involved with three Philistine women to his detriment. The angel repeats his instruction of how Samson’s mother and Samson should behave three times. The angel gave three instructions: not to partake of intoxicating drinks, nor eat unclean things, and he should not shave his head. Samson is tricked by thirty Philistines. He kills thirty thousand Philistines. When Samson’s father thought he and his wife will die because they saw God, Samson’s mother offered three reasons why this will not occur: God showed satisfaction with us by taking our sacrifice, we were told we would have a son which could not happen if we were killed, and God showed us the miracle of the angel departing in the sacrificial flame. Additionally, this is the third time that an angel appears to announce a birth in the Hebrew Bible. The other two instances are to Abraham in Genesis 18 and Gideon in Judges 6. In all three of these instances three things occur: the appearance of the angel, the offering of a meal to the angel, and doubt about the prediction: Sara doubted that she would bear a child, Gideon wanted another sign, and Samson’s father did not believe his wife.

[3] It is obscure what the unclean foods mean.

[4] He is born after the Israelites reverted to idol worship and God gave them into the hands of Philistines for forty years.

[5] The midrashic explanation is that every angel performs a single function. Abraham was visited by three angels each of whom had a different role. One informed Abraham about the birth of Isaac, one destroyed Sodom and its environs, and one healed Abraham (Rashi on Genesis 18:2, based on Midrash Genesis Rabbah.

[6] The angel is unnamed. Only Samson’s father is named in this chapter. Manoah, like Noah means “rest.”

[7] Samson will begin but not complete the deliverance.

[8] The laws of the Nazirite are in Numbers 6:1-21. A Nazirite is a man who vowed to abstain temporarily from intoxicant drinks and cutting his hair, but the Pentateuch does not indicate such a thing as a Nazirite from birth or a life-long vow. However Amos 2:11-12 speaks of a life-long vow. The judge Samuel’s mother petitioned God for a son and promised in I Samuel 1:11 that if she bears a son, no razor will cut his hair.

[9] In Sefer Shoftim.

[10] In Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim.

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