Samson—The Last Judge*

Robert A. Starke

Samson's life, like that of a wayward politician, is a public relations nightmare. Born as a fulfillment of divine promise, Samson's first public act is his intention to enter into a forbidden marriage with a Philistine woman who has caught his eye. What follows is an almost unbroken stream of disappointments and apparent violations of the Nazarite vow that set him apart from the womb. The cast of characters and the settings—prostitutes and drinking bashes—sound more like a modern TV drama than the life of a man placed among the heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews (11:32). Perhaps not surprisingly, one commentator has gone so far as to draw parallels between the Samson saga and the disgraced and now dethroned mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry,1 pointing out that both were seduced by beautiful women, entrapped by those in power, and ultimately imprisoned for the crime of pursuing their passions.

To many, Samson is simply the "profligate judge," the "bawdy giant."2 In the eyes of many, Samson assumes comic-book proportions. He appears on the stage of redemptive history as the biblical Superman, the Hebrew "Man of Steel"—ha'ish pladath, the Man of Steel with a glaring weakness—women are to Samson as kryptonite is to the comic-book hero. For some, Samson has become merely an oversexed muscleman.3 Is Samson, as someone has described him, merely a man "full of high spirits and low ethics"4? Is Samson simply the "noble savage"5 or is his life more complex than it may first appear? Like Manoah, we ask, "How is the boy to be judged" (Jdg. 13:12)?

Some have sought understanding of Samson's story through the application of the tools of literary criticism. Turning to Aristotelian plot analysis, Samson has been alternately classified as a tragic figure whose saga ends in disintegration, alienation, and death; or as a comedic figure couched in word plays, parody, and hyperbole.6 Such analysis seeks to provide argument for the Samson story being ultimately one of restoration and resolution,7 and yet, ultimately fails to provide a framework for understanding the role of Samson. The Jewish scholar Margalith has sought to explain away Samson as folk-tale, seeing the narrative as a Semitic reinterpretation of the Hercules myth.8 Margalith attempts to demonstrate the parallels between the legendary activities of Hercules, and those of Samson, such as the hero's involvement with women of ill-repute and the centrality of pillars and lions in both accounts. That the Samson saga is pure folklore is made evident, according to Margalith, by what he sees as the obvious internal inconsistencies and unrealistic depiction of events.

In reality then, now some three thousand years later, Samson's worst fears have been realized. Samson has indeed "fallen into the hands of the uncircumcised" (Jdg. 15:18). Even among conservative, evangelical scholars, Samson is considered an anti-hero, the "embodiment of all that was wrong with the judges,"9 the embodiment of all that was wrong with the covenant people of God. The modern consensus, if there is such a thing, is that Samson's life illustrates the spiritual decline of the people of God. Samson's failings are used to reinforce the perceived cyclical pattern in the book of Judges of rebellion, retribution, repentance, and rescue. This simplistic approach perceives in Samson only the unfulfilled great expectations, signified by the angelic announcement of his birth, and therefore, the crushing certainty and humiliation of a self-inflicted death as the universal result of moral failure. For most, Samson's life is a tragedy. His is a "dead end."10 Unable to see beyond his obvious struggles with the flesh, commentators relegate Samson to the role of negative paradigm—a model of "how not to judge Israel," or, to be relevant, how not to succeed in corporate America. Today, even Delilah's cries of "The Philistines are upon you!" seem unable to awaken the Samson saga from its moralistic slumber.

One way out of this moralistic quagmire is to examine more closely the ethical dilemmas in which Samson is entangled. As Tim Lim argued in his discussion of the book of Judges at last year's Kerux Conference,11 perhaps Samson's failings have been judged too harshly. Lim argues that Samson does not, in fact, violate his Nazarite vow. It is true that there is no explicit criticism in the text itself of Samson's apparent dalliances with women or the perceived violations of his Nazarite vow. Lim points out that in Samson's intended marriage to the Timnite woman, she is, in Samson's eyes, "just" or "righteous"—yashar. Lim explains, rightly, that this is not an adjective of appearance, but rather an ethical judgment. The implication being that, in Samson's evaluation, this Philistine woman is "just" or "righteous" and there are no such women among his brothers (Jdg. 14:3). Yet, this same term (yashar) is used in the author's thematic criticism of the covenant people during the period of the Judges: "every man did what was right (yashar) in his own eyes" (17:6; 21:25). So Samson is shown to be, rather than upright, a man of his times, exercising his perceived autonomy. In addition, the term used in the text to describe Samson's anticipated Timnite bride is the common term "woman" ('ishah) not the more acceptable term "maiden" (na'arah) used to refer to a chaste young woman (Gen. 24:16). The text, rather than supporting Samson's evaluation of his bride-to-be as righteous, mocks him.

Secondly, Lim saw the obvious parallels with Joshua's holy war against the Canaanites as the explanation for Samson's involvement with the prostitute in Gaza (Jdg. 16:1-3). Lim likened Samson's nocturnal visit to that of the visit of Joshua's spies to the house of Rahab (Josh. 2:1ff.), where they gathered evidence against the enemies of God. But it should be noted that here Samson "sees" (ra'ah) a "woman of harlotries" ('ishah zonah). The same verb is used earlier for his attraction to his Philistine fiancée. It should also be noted that the spies in Joshua merely seek refuge; Samson dwells with the prostitute until midnight. If there is an allusion here to the conquest under Joshua, it must be admitted that there is also an allusion to Samson's earlier encounter with another of the daughters of the Philistines.

It is true, as Lim pointed out, that in the case of Delilah, she is not explicitly described as a prostitute or even as a Philistine. She is however the only woman in the Samson saga not defined by her relationship to a man.12 Each of the other women in the story is identified in relationship to men, most notably Samson: his mother (14:3), his wife (15:1), the object of his desire (16:1). Delilah, whose name is perhaps best translated as "devotee"—implying, quite possibly, service as a temple prostitute—stands independent of men, independent of Samson, in spite of his "attachment" ('ahav, 16:1) to her. The attachment here is not mutual. There are, as Lim noted, obvious parallels between Delilah and Samson's mother. Both Delilah and his mother cradle the infantile Samson in their laps (16:19). Samson's reluctant admission to Delilah that he has been "a Nazarite to God from my mother's womb" (16:17) is a nearly word for word recitation of the angel's words to his mother prophesying his birth (13:5). For obvious reasons, Samson omits the ominous words of foreshadowing: "to the day of his death" (13:7). It is conceivable that Delilah is playing the foil to Samson's mother, narratively speaking, and in reality. But none of this conclusively exonerates either Delilah or Samson's illicit relationship with her.

Finally, Lim addresses the issue of Samson violating his vow by participating in the "feast" or mishteh that he hosts to celebrate his anticipated wedding (14:10). This "feast" is grammatically linked to drinking, and the behavior at such would have been similar to modern bachelor parties. Lim's suggestion that such parties were associated with beer rather than wine is tenuous at best, since the feast was held not far from the "vineyards of Timnah" (14:5). Even if beer were the beverage of choice, Samson's Nazarite vow included not only abstention from the fruit of the vine, but also "strong drink" (13:4). It would seem that some stain of impropriety must remain on Samson.

It is my belief that Samson's deliverance from the hands of the moralizing, modern day Philistines must come from some other avenue. Without entirely dismissing Mr. Lim's arguments out of hand, Samson then is, as moderns would say, a man with "issues."

To properly understand Samson, we must acknowledge that Samson, like most of the Judges who preceded him, is a man whom the Lord uses in spite of his failings. Each of the previous Judges whose stories are fully developed had glaring weaknesses.13 Ehud was not simply "left-handed" as most of our English translations point out, but as the Hebrew text explains, he was "hindered or crippled ('itter) in his right hand" (Jdg. 3:15). Deborah had the distinct disadvantage of being a woman attempting to lead in a patriarchal society. Gideon, by his own admission was but a "trifling" (sa'ir) in his father's house, who in turn belonged to the "scrawniest" (dal) tribe (6:15). Jephthah, born to a prostitute, was both a social outcast, as well as a literal "cast-out", being driven from his father's house by his half-brothers (11:2). While none of the previous Judges are said to have suffered from an ethical lapse such as Samson, each was flawed in person or character. Samson then differs from the other Judges in terms of his failings only in type and degree.

Samson shares more in common with the Judges that precede him in the book than simply their flaws. The Samson narrative is rife with allusions to the ministry of the previous Judges. In Samson's story, like that of Ehud, "secrets figure prominently."14 The source of Samson's strength is secret; that his marriage to the Timnite was of the Lord is a secret, even to Samson (14:4). Samson is linked to Deborah, as his life is characterized by betrayal, while Deborah uses betrayal to her advantage (4:17ff.). Jael under Deborah's leadership brings an end to Sisera with the "peg" (yetad) of a tent (16:14), while Delilah attempts to bring an end to Samson by way of a "peg" (yetad) from her loom (16:14). Samson, like Gideon before him (6:34), is a man led by the Spirit (13:25; 14:6; 14:19; 15:14). Gideon overthrows the Midianites using 300 men with torches (7:16ff.), Samson uses 300 foxes with torches tied between them (15:1ff.). Samson, as was Jephthah, is known for his vow. Jephthah is remembered for the apparent horrific consequences of keeping a rash vow, while Samson suffers the consequences for violating a sacred promise. Samson is both inextricably linked to the covenant people of God, and to the other Judges, by calling, and by nature. Samson, like the Israelites, "did what was right in his own eyes" (cf. 14:3, 7 with 17:6; 21:25). Clearly, those whom the Lord raised up as Judges were a reflection of the spiritual state of the Israelites themselves.

Nevertheless, similarities and allusions alone cannot account for the dramatic difference in the character of Samson's story. Without shying away from Samson's real, or even his perceived moral failings, one must admit that Samson is singular as a Judge in redemptive history. Samson is more than an anti-hero. Samson is not to be dismissed as merely a "judge who chases women instead of enemies and who avenges only personal grievances."15 The Samson saga cannot be bound by the braided cords of reductionism and mere moral instruction. Samson is more complex than this. Samson refuses to remain a blind, decrepit, tragic figure, morally or otherwise.

It is my contention that one must first view the Samson narrative in light of its place in both the book of Judges and in redemptive history. Consciously, Samson has been placed as the twelfth and final Judge in the book of Judges. It is obvious that the author has placed Samson here intentionally—historically, Samson's exploits were contemporaneous with those of Jephthah, Izban, and Elon (cf. 10:7). The inspired author has placed Samson last, "on display at the end of the procession,"16 as it were, signifying not only the end of an era (although technically Samuel also "judges" Israel before anointing Saul),17 but also signifying the culmination of the judicial role in the history of the covenant people. Samson is, for the author's purposes, and for biblical-theological purposes, the Last Judge—hashofet ha'aharon— the Eschatological Judge. Samson ushers in the end of an era and serves as the harbinger of a new era. As every covenant child knows, Samson's saga ends with Samson standing between two pillars in the temple of Dagon. In redemptive history, Samson also stands poised between two pillars, between two ages—the present age of domination, defeat, and despair, and the age to come with its promise of theocratic and theophanic deliverance, vindication, and victory. With arms stretched out in death, Samson crushes the domination that characterizes the present age, and through its rubble, allows the people of God to glimpse the glory of the age to come. As the angel announces to Manoah's wife, the child "shall begin to deliver Israel" (13:5).

This theophanic annunciation of Samson's birth is both retrospective and prospective, with its obvious parallels to previous momentous events in redemptive history: a barren wife, an angelic messenger, a doubtful parent, an unexpected conception—all serve to set the Samson narrative apart from that of the other Judges. There is something quite distinct about Samson. Manoah's wife's barrenness ties her to the matriarchs of the covenant: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel. Samson's birth is thus linked to the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. The expectations then for this child are high. Given the name "Samson" (which means "little sun") perhaps, the reader is left to wonder, "Will he be a new dawn for the people of God?" "Impelled" (pa'am) by the Spirit of God, set apart from the womb as a Nazarite, Samson's future is bright. The announcement of Samson's birth is not merely retrospective, with its clear ties to earlier events in redemptive history, it is prospective as well, looking to the dawn of the age to come. We cannot help but read the beginning of the Samson saga and be reminded of another divine annunciation. Here we have a distinct foreshadowing of a future angelic announcement to another pious woman of faith—a woman whose Son will bring the realization of the promise implicit in Samson—he will "save His people" (13:5).18

This foreshadowing is strengthened by a sense of foreboding as well. For Samson is said to only "begin" (13:5) the deliverance of the covenant people. He will be unable to complete it. Samson's victories, like his failings, are temporary, transitory, earthly. This sense of foreboding is heightened as Manoah's wife reports the angelic message to her husband, choosing not to mention Samson's mission of deliverance, but only Samson's prenatal Nazarite vow. Here she expands upon what has been recorded, adding that the promised son will not only be a "Nazarite from the womb" but until "the day of his death" as well (13:7). Samson's end is hauntingly mentioned even here at his beginning. And again, we have Samson poised between two pillars, life and death.

Another clue to understanding Samson is what is omitted in the annunciation account. Unlike the previous annunciation accounts in redemptive history, here we find no embittered words from the barren wife; here there are no impassioned pleas to God for a child; here there are no underhanded attempts to circumvent providence through a surrogate mother. Manoah's wife bears her shame in silence, perhaps even content in her barrenness. Likewise, the Israelites, of whom she is a part, have ceased to cry out to the Lord for deliverance. The covenant people also bear their oppression in silence, seemingly content in the knowledge that the Philistines rule over them (15:11). Whereas once the cycle of the book of Judges had included repentance, the people's cry for rescue is no longer heard. The theophanic annunciation is preceded only by the description of rebellion—"the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord" and retribution—"so the Lord gave them into the hands of the Philistines" (13:1). We look in vain for any request from the people for deliverance.

If Israel is to be saved, the Lord himself must act, unbidden. Thus, in what Hamlin describes as "divine impatience,"19 the angel, in his announcement, three times implies divine initiative: "Behold now . . . Now therefore . . . For behold . . ." (hinneh na'. . . we'atah na'. . . ki hinnak. . . , 13:3, 4, 5). The message is clear. It is the Lord alone who initiates salvation. It is the Lord alone who will begin to deliver his people by means of a promised birth. It is the Lord, not Samson, who later will "seek an occasion against the Philistines" (14:4). It is the Spirit of the Lord who comes upon Samson three times, unbidden, enabling Samson to defeat his enemies (14:6, 19; 15:14). Throughout the narrative it is the Spirit of the Lord who "rushes upon" Samson, driving him to his foreordained purpose. Samson, like the nation he is to deliver, appears passive apart from the Spirit's impelling him to act. Even the Nazarite vow itself, which figures so prominently in the saga, is imposed upon Samson in utero.

This Nazarite vow—Samson's repeated passivity toward it, and his ultimate embrace of it—is clearly among the driving forces of the narrative. This Nazarite vow is not only central to the Samson saga (contrary to Crenshaw and Eissfeldt),20 not so much because of how frequently or consistently he may or may not have broken these vows, but for what being a Nazarite implies. On one level, Samson's status as a Nazarite serves to highlight the tension inherent in living between the two ages. Samson is christened a Nazarite, and yet seems better suited as a Canaanite. Samson is entangled in the present age, while partaking of, in part, the age to come. But on another level, Samson as nazir (a Nazarite) sheds light on the deliverance that Samson "begins" to enact, and the nature of the One who will ultimately accomplish true deliverance.

Clearly at the heart of the Nazarite vow is separation. In the description of the vow in Numbers 6, "separation" (nazir) is mentioned no less than eighteen times. Thus the Nazarite is to be separate: separate from the fruit of the vine, separate from the razor, separate from death. Elsewhere the term is translated "crown" (Ex. 29:6) or "prince" (Lam. 4:7, NIV), also signifying distinctiveness.21 The nazir is one who stands apart, separate, alone. And Samson, while morally indistinct perhaps, stands alone (nazir) against the enemies of God. In stark contrast to the other Judges, Samson leads no armies. Ehud the cripple had his armies. Deborah led the sons of Israel against the Canaanites. The Lord whittled down the forces of Gideon to a mere 300. Even the illegitimate Jephthah was followed into battle by the sons of Israel. Samson, the nazir, stands alone. He hears no cry from the people for deliverance, no armies follow Samson. Rather a band of three thousand from the tribe of Judah conspire to hand him over to the Philistines (15:11ff.). Samson faces the uncircumcised alone, separate, distinct from his brother Israelites. Bare-handed, he battles friend and foe. The only weapon he is explicitly said to wield is an unadorned donkey's jawbone (15:15), with which he slays a thousand. Samson as judge is a true nazir—a solitary figure that stands alone as the Lord's warrior.

Some, in trying to understand Samson's Nazarite status, have seen in this separateness, in the rawness of Samson's methods, an implied struggle between nature and culture. The saga of Samson, it is argued, symbolizes the struggle of the relatively unsophisticated Israelites, who, "in some sense are out of nature,"22 to transform and ultimately overcome more cultured civilizations that threaten Israel's distinctiveness, represented here by the Philistines. Throughout, Samson is seen as a natural force who battles not with "culture-intensive"23 weapons but "interrupts or destroys man-made barriers."24 Samson's sustenance comes directly from nature—first as honey from the lion's carcass (14:8), then as water flowing from the rock (15:18). He destroys cultivated fields, city gates, and temples—all symbols of culture and social institutions, and then retires to the wilderness—nature itself (15:8). Samson's demise, at the hands of Delilah, the temptress of culture, therefore, is seen from the same perspective. Samson ultimately succumbs in a series of capitulations to culture, moving each time further from nature. He first tells Delilah that seven "fresh" (untreated by human hands) pieces of rawhide can bind him (16:8). Next, Samson suggests that it is cords of rope—rope being a more culture-intensive item—that will subdue him (16:11). And likewise with the offer that it is the pin of a loom (16:13) that will secure him, Samson moves further away from the natural toward culture and civilization. The true path to overcoming Samson is seen, finally, to be the razor—"culture's tool for taming and changing the natural state."25 In today's psychological vernacular, Samson is envisioned then, as the hero of the marginalized, the disempowered, those who struggle against the oppressive forces of established social institutions, and are, as of yet, unable to overcome.

As biblical theologians, we must reject this reading of Samson. The cutting of Samson's hair is not symbolic of the final socialization of a marginal culture to a more dominant culture. Rather Samson's hair is the sign and seal of his consecration to God. Samson's locks are a visible word, proclaiming to friend and foe alike that he is set apart to the Lord. It is not that Samson's hair is the source of his strength. His unshorn hair serves only as a sign. His power resides in his dedication, his consecration to the Lord. Interestingly, the Nazarite prohibition against the cutting of hair is the only one of the three marks of separation that is specifically applied to Samson (13:5). The prohibition against wine and strong drink is applied only to his mother, and for emphasis is repeated (13:7, 14), while the Nazarite proscription against contact with a corpse is not mentioned at all.26 The message here is not that Samson has become like the Philistines, the established social institution, but that Samson has renounced his status as nazir. Samson no longer sees himself as distinct, no longer alone. With the shearing of his hair, Samson believes he has achieved his desire to "be like any other man" (16:7, 11, 13, 17). The point is not that Samson is identifying himself with the Philistines. In turning from his status as nazir, as holy, the text pictures Samson as identifying himself with the covenant people Israel, accepting and acknowledging that the "Philistines are rulers over us" (15:11). Samson has become "the mirror" of Israel's "fickle state."27

Samson's life then, in renouncing his status as nazir, is the life of the covenant people of God and not merely as a type of Israel either. The allusions and parallels are not coincidental. Samson is one now with the nation of Israel. Samson's cognizance of his consecration to the Lord, and yet, his brazen disregard for the implications of such consecration all mirror that of nation of Israel. His birth is linked to those of the patriarchs through a theophanic announcement. Set apart from the womb to be holy to the Lord, Samson, like Joseph, is bound by his brothers and sold into bondage (15:13). After experiencing a "great deliverance" (15:18), he finds himself in the wilderness, where he grumbles before God. In answer, the Lord "splits" the rock and Samson/Israel is refreshed. Israel's pursuit of foreign gods, which throughout Scripture, even in the book of Judges, is spoken of as "playing the harlot" (2:17), is lived out in Samson's liaisons with first the Timnite woman, then the prostitute in Gaza, and finally in his surrender to the wiles of Delilah. Thus, Samson/Israel, shorn like a captive of war, is enslaved and exiled (cf. Is. 7:20).

Samson's final days are filled with irony.28 Samson, the great symbol of masculinity, is subdued by a woman and the tools of femininity—a loom and its pins, a pair of scissors.29 Some have even suggested that, ironically, the "defeated warrior has been made into a woman,"30 shorn like an exile and assigned the tasks of a woman. Samson who "saw" a woman in Timnah (14:1), Samson who "saw" in Gaza a woman of harlotries (16:1), is now sightless. Samson who used the jawbone of a donkey to slay the Philistines, has become the Philistines' donkey, doing the work of grinding (16:21). He who had once degraded his fiancée as a "heifer" (14:18), has himself become a heifer, pulling a millstone, grinding grain to the glory of the Philistine grain-god.31 Throughout the narrative, Samson is seen "going down" (yarad). This is not merely a passing topographical comment, but a theological statement.32 Willingly, Samson has left the heights—symbolic of God's presence—has left his family, has left the covenant people to mingle with the uncircumcised. Samson "goes down" to Timnah three times (14:1, 5, 7). Samson "goes down" to Ashkelon (14:19), to Etam (15:8). Now, in the end, Samson is "made to go down" to Gaza (16:21). Gaza, the scene of perhaps his greatest feat, the carrying off of the city gates (16:3), is chosen by the Philistines to be the scene of his greatest humiliation. Yet in the end, this will be the site of his greatest victory.

Unwittingly, unwillingly perhaps, Samson is vicariously living Israel's life. Samson, as Judge, Samson as deliverer, enters fully upon the life of his people. Their sin is his sin. Their oppression becomes his oppression. Samson becomes Israel—alone, separate, nazir. Samson alone bears the humiliation. Samson alone is forsaken by the Lord. Samson alone receives the scourging that is Israel's.

Samson as Israel is not, however, merely a negative paradigm. Samson does not, as some insist, remain "a tragic figure, forever blind to the larger purposes"33 of his God. Admittedly, Samson willingly enters into the sinfulness and rebellion of God's elect. Admittedly, Samson is inextricably linked to this present evil age. But Samson also partakes of the age to come. To view the life of Samson as merely negative is to ignore the fact that Samson is the Last Judge—the Eschatological Judge. Samson's life is not limited to defeat and death. One must not, one cannot, forget that Samson is a man of the Spirit (14:6, 19; 15:14). He single-handedly defeats the "roaring lion, seeking someone to devour"34 (14:5-6). He kindles the fires of judgment against God's enemies and "burns the chaff with unquenchable fire"35 (15:4). Samson is shown to be the jealous groom, desirous of his bride's affection (15:1). We see Samson "demolish strongholds"36 and "possess the gates of his enemies"37 (16:3). Samson's life is no tragedy. Samson is victorious over all his enemies. Even in defeat, even in death, Samson is triumphant. To read the Samson saga as only a dramatic representation of the "implosion"38 of the covenant people, is to leave Samson blind, impotent, and shackled.

And Samson will not remain shackled. Blind, enslaved and oppressed by the forces of evil, Samson still stands as nazir—alone, separated unto the Lord. He cannot rid himself of his status. His saga is not yet consummated. Samson proves ultimately, that he is not merely a man "full of high spirits and low ethics,"39 it is the Philistines who are in "high spirits" (16:25), deriding and mocking him, just as Samson had them with his riddles and puns. Samson, at last, in the end, is in the Spirit. Samson, at last, in the end, is truly nazir— now not just merely alone, but separated unto the Lord, for the God unto whom Samson is consecrated stands with him. Samson by faith now looks to him who alone can deliver him. Samson no longer believes that he can "go out as at other times and shake [himself] free" (16:20). Rather, for the first time in his story, Samson, like the One greater than Samson, "calls" (qara' ) out in faith to "the One able to save Him from death."40 The Philistines "call" (qara' ) for Samson (16:25), but Samson "calls" (qara' ) upon the Lord (16:28), using each of the divine designations—'Adonai, 'Elohim, and Yahweh, signifying submission. The Philistines look for amusement, to "make sport" of Samson. Samson looks for vindication. Here there is no carnal presumption that God would act as requested, as there had been at Lehi (15:18). Twice Samson entreats the Lord, "Please remember," "Please strengthen" (16:28), using a particle that stresses his humility, his dependence,41 his faith.

As James Dennison has pointed out, Samson's end is his beginning.42 Samson, unbeknownst even to himself, remains a nazir "until the day of his death," just as his mother had prophesied (13:7). Samson's story does not end in exile, with humiliation, degradation, and death. It is in this, his final confrontation, as Milton has pointed out,43 that Samson truly becomes Samson. As the text reveals, "the hair of his head began to grow again" (16:22), echoing the thematic "begin" of the angelic annunciation (13:5). Samson's end is to be glorious, exceeding even the grand expectations elicited by his birth announcement. He is indeed the Last Judge—the Eschatological Judge. For his hair has "begun to grow." His hair, the sign and seal of his devotion to God, has begun to grow, because, in turn, Samson's faith has begun to grow. Only now does Samson begin to fulfill his promise. Only in death, will Samson prove himself to be Samson. Only in death will Samson live up to his name—little sun—for in his death, a new dawn "begins" to rise.

The mighty man of God, again, stands between two pillars, this time literally. But now there is no wavering; there is no internal conflict. It is not by coincidence that Samson finds himself in the midst of the Philistines. It is not fate that has brought Samson to the temple of the Philistine's god. This is the end for which Samson has been destined. He has been nazir "until the day of his death" (13:7). Samson at last, in the end, will indeed fulfill his calling. Samson seeks divine vindication, rather than personal revenge. Samson's cry, "Let me die with the Philistines" (16:30), is not one of dejected resignation, but a cry of victorious faith. Samson grasps those pillars in faith. Waging holy war against the enemies of God, he gives his "life as a ransom for many."44 He cries to "the One able to save him from death," and at last, in the end, Samson is "heard because of his piety."45 In death, Samson is more victorious than he was in life. Samson, in death, shows himself to be a man of faith. In the end, Samson's journey is reversed. The author tells us, at last, that Samson is "brought up" ('alah, 16:31). Samson is raised! Samson is vindicated and rests with his fathers (16:31).

From this perspective, we see that by faith, Samson "shut the mouths of lions." By faith, Samson "experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment." By faith, Samson, "out of weakness was made strong." By faith, Samson "conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, received the promise." At last, in the end, Samson gains "approval through his faith." By faith, Samson indeed "obtains a better resurrection."46

In this we see that Samson is not the "profligate judge."47 He is hashofet ha'aharon—the Eschatological Judge. Samson ushers in deliverance for the people of God. Samson provides more than just "comic relief."48 He battles the principalities and powers of this dark age.49 Samson stands alone, nazir, against the forces of evil. Nazir—alone, he is rejected and betrayed, his own do not receive him. Samson enters the temple, where he is mocked and "made sport of" (16:25). In death, he quite literally crushes the heads of the servants of the ancient Serpent. Clearly Samson is a type of Christ. Samson's story is Christ's story.

In Samson, we see Christ, "as through a glass darkly."50 Unlike Christ, Samson is unable to deliver Israel fully, because he is Israel, and as Israel, Samson himself is in need of deliverance. Samson, the great man of strength, is also a man of great weakness. The deliverance that Samson accomplishes is temporary, transitory. There is a limit to what he is able to accomplish. As the angel had promised, Samson only "begins" to deliver Israel from their enemies (13:5). The author twice tells us that he "judged Israel twenty years" (15:20; 16:31), only half that of the typical judge, and only half the duration of the Philistine oppression (13:1). Samson cannot accomplish deliverance in any lasting, salvific sense. The saga of Samson turns our eyes to another Judge. In Samson we "see" the need for another Deliverer, One greater than Samson, "One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin."51

Throughout the narrative, there is obvious foreshadowing, pointing the reader to the work of the One who is greater than Samson, our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Nazir. What Samson only "begins," Christ accomplishes. And in the end, his glorious end, the blind Samson "sees" this as well.52 Samson, in the end, "sees" that the Lord has "provided something better for us"53 and in the end, Samson is able to lay down his life, by faith, and embrace the promises "having seen them and welcomed them from afar."54

Samson's story is our story as well. Again, not in some moralistic sense, that somehow we must avoid the ethical pitfalls that Samson could not. But rather, we, like Samson, in union with Christ, stand between two pillars, between two ages. In Christ, we have been endued with the Spirit of God, and yet struggle with the flesh. Like Samson, in Christ, we drink from the living water that flows from the Rock, all the while dwelling in Philistine territory. Spiritually blind, we have been made to see through faith. Like Samson, our strength is made perfect in weakness. Like Samson, we cry out in faith to him who is able to deliver us. We too look in faith to the One who is able to save us completely. We embrace Jesus Christ by faith, just as Samson embraced those pillars. We participate in the glories of the age to come, even now. No longer shackled by the power of sin, death, and hell, we, who were brought down, have been raised up in glory through the death and resurrection of our Judge—Jesus Christ. Like Samson, we cannot "be like other men" (16:7, 11, 13, 17). We are even now, being conformed to the image of Samson's Judge and our Judge. We have entered into the age to come. Together, we long for that final day when "we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is."55

San Jose, California


*An address delivered at the Summer Pastor's Institute of Northwest Theological Seminary on August 19, 2002.
1 M. Greene, "Enigma Variations: Aspects of the Samson Story Judges 13-16." Vox Evangelica XXI, (1991): 53-79.
2 E. John Hamlin, At Risk in the Promised Land: A Commentary on the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990) 126.
3 James Crenshaw, Samson: A Secret Betrayed, a Vow Ignored (Atlanta: John Knox, 1978).
4 Lillian Klein, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989) 110.
5 Susan Niditch, "Samson as Culture Hero, Trickster, and Bandit: The Empowerment of the Weak." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990): 613.
6 J. Cheryl Exum and J. William Whedbee, "Isaac, Samson, and Saul: Reflections on the Comic and Tragic Visions." Semeia 32 (1984): 5-40.
7 Ibid., 21.
8 Othniel Margalith, "The Legends of Samson/Heracles." Vetus Testamentum XXXVII (1987): 63-70.
9 New Interpreter's Bible, vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988) 842.
10 Klein, 132.
11 Tim Lim, "The Book of Judges." Address delivered at the Kerux Conference, Lynnwood, WA, 2001.
12 Susan Ackerman, Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen (New York: Doubleday, 1998) 231.
13 Klein, 115.
14 New Interpreter's Bible, 842.
15 Klein, 118.
16 1 Corinthians 4:9, NIV. (All Biblical quotations are taken from the NASB, 1998, unless noted.)
17 1 Samuel 7:15.
18 Matthew 1:21
19 Hamlin, 130.
20 Otto Eissfeldt, Die Quellen des Richterbuches (Leipzig, 1925); Crenshaw, Samson, 73-74.
21 "Nazir," by Thomas E. McComiskey. In Harris, Archer, Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the OT (Chicago: Moody, 1980) 2:567-68.
22 Niditch, 614.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Niditch, 616.
26 Though it may be implied in the mention of abstaining from "any unclean thing" (13:7, 14).
27 John Milton, Samson Agonistes (London: J.M. for John Starkey, 1671), line 164.
28 Greene, 73-74.
29 Robert Alter, "Samson Without Folklore." In Text and Tradition, ed. Susan Niditch (SBL, Semeia Series, 1988) 47-56.
30 Niditch, 617.
31 Dagon, once thought to be derived from dag (Hebrew for "fish") has now been shown to be linked grammatically and archaeologically to dagan (Hebrew for "corn"); cf. Arthur Cundall, Judges (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968) 179.
32 G. Mayer, "dry yarad." In Botterweck and Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the OT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990) 6:315-322.
33 New Interpreter's Bible, 859.
34 1 Peter 5:8.
35 Matthew 3:12.
36 2 Corinthians 10:4, NIV.
37 Genesis 22:17.
38 New Interpreter's Bible, 842.
39 Klein, 110.
40 Hebrews 5:7.
41 J. Cheryl Exum, "The Theological Dimension of the Samson Saga." VT XXXIII (1983): 45.
42 James T. Dennison, Jr., "When Death Is the Beginning: Samson at Gaza." Sermon delivered in the morning devotions of Westminster Theological Seminary in California, Escondido, May 29, 1997.
43 Milton, line 1709.
44 Mark 10:45.
45 Hebrews 5:7.
46 Hebrews 11:32-40.
47 Hamlin, 126.
48 Robert H. O'Connell, The Rhetoric of the Book of Judges (New York, NY: E.J. Brill, 1996) 215.
49 Dennison.
50 1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV.
51 Hebrews 4:15.
52 Dennison.
53 Hebrews 11:40.
54 Hebrews 11:13.
55 1 John 3:2.