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Grown-Up Bible Stories

The Weak Commando

He was a man of iron, but also a man of irony. The man most universally remembered for great strength was also a man of great weakness. He was a man consecrated to God before birth, yet his religion never seems to have quite reached his heart. He spent his life wearing the sign of a holy man, but he wasn’t holy. He wasn’t supposed to touch a dead body, yet he killed thousands single-handedly. He was a man of contrasts, a hero and a villain, a patriot whose numerous girlfriends inevitably belonged to the enemy. He lived, fought, killed, and died for the good of his country, but his motives were often personal rather than civic. The man whom even his countrymen feared was unable in the end to rise above his own emotions.

This famous sinner was set apart as special for God—by a very rare angelic announcement--from before his birth. Specifically, he was to spend his entire life as a Nazirite, a member of one of old Israel’s holiest orders. Nazirites were men and women who took a time-limited vow to abstain from haircuts and shaving, grapes and grape products, and any contact with dead bodies. At the close of the vow, they shaved their heads and offered sacrifices before fitting back into cultural norms. Samson, however, was a Nazirite who never made the vow. God assigned that role to him prior to conception. It was to be his life, and he wouldn’t get to shave his head and go free. In fact, God commanded his mother to abstain from wine and other intoxicants during the pregnancy. At least fetal alcohol syndrome wouldn’t be an issue.

Young Samson grew up unlike other boys. His hair hung long, girlish to his friends. He abstained from favorite foods and beverages. He was different. He was set apart. He was a Nazirite. He was holy.

But Samson was set apart for a purpose. He was supposed to deliver his people from the Philistines. Keep in mind that the Philistines and Israel were enemies of long standing. Whoever won the latest battle considered it fair and reasonable to oppress the other, usually by taxation, seizure of property, and maybe even taking slaves. The Philistines were up to their old tricks and the Jews were suffering. Samson was to be holy so God could use him to set his people free. It was a noble purpose for which he’d been called, sanctified, and born.

Yet, when the day finally came, this young man with the shaggy head and ultra-kosher diet wasn’t into the program. The Bible doesn’t record a commissioning in which God spoke the words, “Set my people free,” to Samson. He openly called others, but Samson apparently wasn’t listening. It seems that God had to use circumstances to get him mad at the enemy so he’d be motivated to do his job. In a practical sense, the job got done. In a spiritual sense, Samson never really got on God’s team.

The initial step in Samson’s lifework was a love affair. It was against Biblical law for a young Jew to marry a heathen woman. The object of the law wasn’t racism, but spiritual purity. People who married across religious lines often wound up worshiping carved stones and cast metal statues rather than the living God. Some ancient pagan worship was obscene. Sometimes, it involved human sacrifice of child victims. The holy God didn’t want his people marrying into such sordid settings. But Samson, strong and passionate, didn’t get it. He loved a Philistine girl, and he intended to get what he wanted.

Unlike today, ancient Israelites didn’t just go out and date for a while and then tie the knot. Parents or other relatives arranged the marriages; however, the prospective bride and groom weren’t necessarily railroaded. In Samson’s case, the would-be suitor actually started the process. Of course, he started it with a talk with Dad. “I’ve found this woman that I love. Please go and get her for my wife, because she pleases me well.” [Quotations are not necessarily exact unless accompanied by a Scripture reference.]

Dad, religious man that he was, objected. “Can’t you find a daughter of your own people?”

But Samson wanted what he wanted, and little else mattered. In the end, he got his way. He and his parents headed down for enemy territory to seal the engagement.

En route, Samson was walking alone when a lion attacked him. The cougars or mountain lions familiar to those of us in the new world are dangerous enough, but the lions that lived in Palestine in ancient times were likely larger. Any lion represents a very deadly threat to a man on foot. Samson tapped into the great strength that was already becoming his trademark, and killed the monster with his bare hands. He left the carcass lay and proceeded on to pursue his girlfriend.

The arrangements were made, and everybody went home for the customary wait prior to the wedding.

As the big day neared, Samson and his parents retraced the route from the engagement trip. None too careful about a religious law that restricted Israelites when it came to even touching dead carnivores, Samson stepped off the road to check out the remains of the lion he’d killed. He found it beneath a swarm of bees. Somehow, in a cavity in the decaying cat, the bees had found a place for a nest. Samson plunged a strong hand into the carcass and pulled out some honey for himself. He walked on munching and licking away. When he came to his parents, he offered them some, and they helped him enjoy his find. He didn’t bother to tell them that the honey had come from a dead cat. By eating this product of death, they were defiling themselves, and the parents didn’t even know to go through the cleansing ritual the law required.

We’d call the wedding spectacular. It lasted at least a week with the crowd partying much of the time. Samson had a best man, a Philistine. In fact, most of the guests seem to have belonged to the enemy. Who else would the Philistine father-of-the bride invite? Among them were thirty young men who filled positions in the party without being close friends of the groom. This lack of real relationship eventually came to the surface.

Samson started the problem with a riddle. Actually, it was a form of gambling. “If you can guess my riddle, I’ll give each of you a change of clothes. If you can’t, each of you gives me a change of clothes.” Sort of like 30 to 1 odds, but Samson was sure of himself. After all, the dead lion was a secret, even from his parents. Samson waxed poetic. “Out of the eater came forth food. Out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Ok, try it! Pretend you don’t know the background. What is he talking about?

Samson hadn’t picked up a girl at the temple. He’d married a heathen, and now he was up against the heathens. His thirty “friends” came to his bride on the sly. “Get your husband to tell us what this riddle means, or we’ll burn you and your father’s house with fire. Why’d you bring us here, to take our property?” Obviously more than a small tiff between drunks at the reception.

The stakes were high, and she resorted to what she knew how to do. She started crying and begging. It’s hardly what a groom would expect, and certainly not what he’d want at a wedding party. But she was desperate and played her part well. “How can you say you love me if you won’t tell me your secret?”

Not even my parents know.”  It wasn’t the excuse we’d use in modern America, but parents carried a lot of weight in Bible times.

The bride continued her pout.

Finally, the strong man gave in. He told her the story. Their relationship presumably improved.

The local boys had their answer. They waited until near the end of the long party. But at last they approached the groom. “What is stronger than a lion? What is sweeter than honey?”

Samson made a rather ungentlemanly remark about their having plowed with his heifer. But he’d started it, and he finished it. He left the party alone. When he came back, he had thirty outfits for the young men. They presumably gloated in their good fortune, but it wasn’t quite that simple. Thirty of their countrymen, thirty enemies of Israel, lay dead. Samson was a strong man. He didn’t need to buy the clothes.

After paying off his gambling debt, Samson went home. That is home as in back to Mom and Dad. He left his bride in her country. It wasn’t exactly a good way to begin a marriage, but hey, she’d sided with the locals against him. He was likely good and mad.

But time did its usual number and the angry groom cooled down. It was time to go back down to the Philistines and pick up where he’d left off with his wife. He arrived all excited and ready for lovemaking, only to have his father-in-law stop him.

"I thought you hated her. I gave her to your best man.”  We’d consider it an awfully informal divorce and remarriage, but this was ancient Palestine. Parents carried a lot of weight.

Had Samson been a devoted servant of God, he would have seen delivering his nation as a high and holy calling. He would have fought the Philistines without the heartbreak of a broken marriage to spur him on. But he lacked such devotion, and now, God had issued his calling in terms that even a thoroughly irreligious man could understand. Samson wanted revenge. Not the national revenge of delivering starving children. It wasn’t high and lofty patriotism. He was just an angry former lover. 

But he was a strong former lover. He went out and captured three hundred foxes alive. Then, grabbing them in pairs he tied their tails together with a burning torch between them. Classing all Philistines with his fickle in-laws, he released the panicking little animals into the standing grain of the neighbors. Kindness toward animals? Hardly. One of history’s more creative arsons? Definitely.

The flaming foxes did their damage, and the fields caught fire. The fire destroyed the neighbors’ crops. Upon inquiry the burned-out victims learned that Samson had started the fire and why. Whatever you may have heard about civilization beginning in that part of the world, the neighborly response was to burn father and daughter with yet more fire.

Samson, an effective military reservist, a man who’d killed people for their clothes, was aghast at such brutality. He lit into the mob single handedly. Their efforts at self-defense fell helpless. He was a man of superhuman strength. We aren’t told how many people died that day, but there were many. Of course, his revenge called for more revenge, and he beat it back into Israel, a wanted man.

Samson found himself a hiding place in the protection of one of the large rock formations of Israel’s rugged terrain. He’d shown great strength, but he wasn’t mad any more. With calmness came common sense. He laid low.

Hiding didn’t do any good. The Philistines sent out an army—it’s easy to imagine a militia from the community whose fields had burned, but we aren’t told if that was the case. The army came and set up camp on the border of Israel. A lover’s revenge had triggered an international incident.

Other Jewish heads were calmer than Samson’s, and negotiations began shortly. When it was learned that the whole pending invasion was basically a hunt for what probably seemed a criminal to the Philistines, the Jews readily agreed to hand him over. Of course there were problems. First, he was one of theirs, and rather than a criminal, they saw him as a freedom fighter. Second, he’d demonstrated unusual physical ability in an era where military and police action involved hand-to-hand combat rather than firearms. The local leaders approached him cautiously. They needed to arrest him and hand him over to the enemy. The economy couldn’t handle a war just now. But they weren’t ready to take on Samson either.

Samson exacted a promise that his countrymen wouldn’t harm him themselves. Then, he allowed himself to be tied with ropes and led to the waiting army. For most men, it would have been the end.

But God had plans for Samson, plans that his lack of commitment weren’t going to sidetrack. At the moment of being turned over to Philistine custody, Samson received an undeserved filling of the Spirit of God. He broke his ropes and faced an army. Of course he was weaponless, but the skeletal remains of a donkey lay nearby, and he grabbed the jawbone. He defended himself with that makeshift weapon, and he did it with style. When he was done, a thousand dead soldiers lay in heaps. Samson looked at the piles, and named the place “Jawbone Height.” [Source: The Holy Bible,The New King James Version: Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson, Inc.1982, translation footnote to Judges 15:17 ]

In what was perhaps one of the most genuine religious experiences of his life, he recognized that the exertion had left him extremely thirsty and called out to God for water. At least to me it isn’t clear if the miracle water sprang from the jawbone or from the earth, but in any event, he received a direct personal miracle from God that had nothing to do with anger, and everything to do with faith and prayer.

Samson’s life became less spectacular after his one-man war with the Philistines. We are told that he judged Israel for twenty years. It’s possible that Samson’s great strength kept local rowdies in line, but there was likely more involved than functioning as magistrate. If you’ve read the Old Testament book of Judges, you’re probably aware that to “judge” the nation in that setting often carried an idea of standing against its oppressors. As judge, he may very well have been a military leader.

At one point, Samson went back down to the Philistines alone. His visit wasn’t violent, but it wasn’t moral either. He was spending the night in a house of ill repute when he realized that the enemy had discovered him and were waiting for his morning departure. Since he was in a walled city, escape was challenging at best. An arrow or two from ambush would have safely solved a big Philistine problem.

Samson gave them the slip. Rising at midnight, He snuck out of town in the dark. When the sun rose, the massive city gate, complete with its solid doors, was no longer attached to the city entrance. It now sat alone on a hill overlooking town. Samson went back to Israel and continued his dual life of saint and sinner.

Some people would have learned their lesson and stayed at home. But Samson found himself passionate about yet another Philistine woman. You’ve heard this one’s name, of course. It was Delilah. Samson would visit her and spend the night. Not what you’d expect of a man who’d been dedicated to God for many years, but Samson was better at defeating soldiers than he was at conquering his own desires. He got to be a regular at Delilah’s house.

Community leaders got wind of it all. Soon Delilah had an official visit. When her visitors left, she had a commission. Find out where this guy gets his super-human strength. Find out, and we’ll each of us give you eleven hundred pieces of silver. Not a terribly devoted lover, she decided to do her part.

One woman had wheedled Samson into giving away secrets to his own hurt. Whether Delilah knew that much of his history is unknown. But she did know enough to try the same tricks. She started asking him how he got to be so strong.

Today, we’d just write it off to genetics. But Samson’s power went beyond genetics and training. The ancient world was a lot more spiritually sensitive than today’s world. It may seem like superstition to us, but the Philistines rightly guessed that Samson’s strength had a spiritual root. Their spirituality tended to be flawed and focused on fetishes and images, but with Samson, they were on track. His strength did come from God. It fell to Delilah to find out the details so her countrymen could have a chance in overcoming this God-empowered enemy commando.

Samson parried her first attempt with a lie. “If they bind me with brand new, undried bowstrings, I’ll become weak and be like anybody else.”

Delilah tried it. Based on the rest of the story, we usually assume she soothed him off to sleep first, but it could have all been pulled off between two laughing lovers as sort of a joke. Unknown to Samson, the local authorities were hiding in the house. This fact is interesting. To twenty-first century eyes, her two or three room house would seem little more than a rude hut. The hiding lawmen crouched in very close proximity to a very dangerous prey. A sneeze or yawn could have led to Samson piling up the bodies and walking off in a huff.

When Delilah got him tied, she cried out, “The Philistines are on top of you, Samson!”

He snapped the strings. History leaves us to speculate about the Philistines. Perhaps they managed to escape through a window. Maybe they kept hiding, and Samson was too disgusted with his “lover’s” practical joke to look.

But the offer was still on, and Delilah still wanted her thousands of silver pieces. She confronted Samson again. “What’s the secret? How could I tie you up to torment you?” Why she thought he’d tell after she’d tricked him once is a good question, unless of course, the officers had stayed safely out of sight the first time.

Samson lied again. “Tie me with new ropes that have never been used. Then I’ll be as weak as any other man.” Was he thinking how gullible she was for all her loveliness? Was he wondering why she’d want to tie him up? History doesn’t say.

Soon, he was in her home again, presumably sound asleep. The law was there, out of sight, but far from asleep. So were new ropes. Delilah tied her fancier with them, and resorted to her old trick. “The Philistines are on you, Samson!”

Again, he woke, snapped the ropes, and it was all over. No casualties recorded—apparently he could take a joke. No record of a rising distrust on his part. No known outward sign that her love was cooling off, other than her efforts to overpower him.

Now she was probably getting pouty. After all, he claimed to love her, how could he lie? I have to wonder if she claimed to love him. But anyway, this unhappy woman wasn’t making much of a sweetheart.

He decided to lie again. This time he moved closer to the truth. “Take my seven locks of hair and weave them into the weavers loom. You’ll have me weak then.”

Likely, the loom was framed with massive timbers. It might just have seemed credible that with his hair being pulled up by the roots, he’d be too uncomfortable to fight.

Apparently Samson was afraid of nothing. He trusted her again and fell asleep. When she gave her familiar “The Philistines are on you!” he woke up and went out. The loom went to pieces. Presumably, the would-be arresting officers were cowering in the corners or running—quite literally for their lives.

Only speculation can tell us many of the details of the lovers’ next meeting. It seems incredible that he would even care to come back. His actions definitely give force to the teachings of those who differentiate between love and lust. Was she trembling in fear? Hiding her fear while putting on the act that we know happened next?

What we do know is that she played the unhappy lover, begging to know how she could bind him so she could afflict him. She made a big enough scene that he finally gave in.

From my childhood no razor has come upon my head. I am a Nazirite. If you shave my head, I’ll become weak.” He was finally relating his strength to the holy calling he’d been given by God. He’d just exposed the outward symbol of his spiritual power. That the inner holiness was long gone doesn’t seem to have entered his equation. He was strong because he was holy—at least on the outside. Maybe that is all the further concept of holiness he had.

Again we don’t know if Delilah really knew what she was dealing with. She would have had a respect for spiritual power. It is likely that she identified the great strength of her admirer with the spirit realm. That she should see long hair as a source of spiritual power makes a bit more sense than for him. After all, she seems to have sided with a religious tradition that saw spirituality in carved rocks and metal statues. If gods could live in such, they could live in a man’s wild hair.

Apparently her Philistine handlers held a similar view. There’s no other way to explain a group of men hiding in a small house in hopes that a hair cut would turn a military superstar into a jellyfish. But they did.

Delilah got Samson asleep again, his head on her knees. Then dragging in a guy with a razor she had his head shaved. One has to wonder if she’d drugged his supper to get him to sleep through a shaving, especially after she’d tried to rob him of his strength before.

Again, she cried out, “The Philistines are upon you!”

Again he got up, saying something about going out and shaking himself as before. Only, this time it was too late. Whether by mistake or through doubt, he’d told the truth to a demonstrated enemy. The only holiness he had left, the outward sign of long hair, was gone, and with it the power of God. Samson was arrested.

The Philistines had no scruples about the God of Israel. Their gods would let them be cruel, and they were. They gouged out his eyes—and keep in mind they hadn’t developed much in the line of anesthesia in those days. We’re talking about a horrible experience with great pain, risk of infection, and the lingering tragedy of blindness. Then, they took their sightless prisoner to jail and set him to work grinding grain. This grinding would have been done with millstones. While we aren’t told what quality of equipment they allowed their prisoner, our understanding of ancient technology would suggest two stone wheels with an axle that allowed the top wheel to rotate. It would have been a slow, grating, high friction movement that pulverized and powdered the grain placed between the stones. It was tiring, manual work, and you can be sure his supervisors didn’t care a whole lot about his comfort or damage to his body caused by repetitive action. And so he sat in prison, doomed to spend the rest of his life blindly laboring for the enemy.

The Philistines weren’t content to let good enough alone. They’d beaten this God-empowered man. They figured it was time to praise their gods for giving them the cunning and ability to beat the God of Israel. They threw a major party in one of their temples, and, adding insult to injury, they had a young boy guide Samson into the building to perform for them. We aren’t told what the performance was like, but you can be sure it was humiliating.

Samson’s hair had begun to grow after his first and only shave. So he was outwardly moving back to his old form, albeit without his eyes. Apparently, his heart was still its old self, recognizing God but driven by hatred and desire for revenge. As the party continued, he asked the kid who led him to allow him to lean on two of the pillars that supported the stone structure. There, with thousands of Philistines using the temple roof as a grandstand, the man whose unholy heart had cost him his power called out to God one last time.

Just this once, give me my strength, so I can avenge myself for my two eyes.” Then, apparently sensing the return of divine power, or maybe just in dead-hearted desperation, Samson grasped the two pillars. “Let me die with the Philistines!”  He leaned into the pillars, and pulled.

His family came down to the site of the disaster. Here in the rubble of what had been the temple of an idol called Dagon, they found their loved one’s shattered body. He was but one of three thousand buried under the collapsed building. They moved his remains back to Israel, back to where his heart had never stayed. They buried him where no attractive enemy would ever entice him again.


Samson lived before the coming of Jesus Christ. Religion, even Biblical religion, tended to focus on outward actions such as making sacrifices—or in this case wearing long hair--as the means of serving God. Jesus taught us that even more important than such religious observance was that our inner selves, our hearts, need to be pure before God. That isn’t to say that He sought to abolish all religious forms. In fact, he added a couple, namely baptism and communion. His point was that what really matters in relating to God isn’t a holy body, but a holy heart.

Yet, even before Jesus spoke out on this matter, Samson served as a tragic reminder that no outward action can take care of the sin-sickened human spirit. Only God can do that. Yes, Samson’s strength came and went with the long hair, the outward symbol of holiness. But he lost that symbol, his miraculous strength, and, ultimately his life, because he failed to maintain the inner reality. In the end, religion without a heart changed and made holy by God is just a shell that will disappear when we need it most.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:8)

. . . That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man. (Jesus Christ in Mark 7:20-23)

Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. (James 1:15)

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

This work is in the pubic domain and may be copied and distributed freely.


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