A VERY HAIRY SITUATION
18When Delilah realized that Samson had told her his whole secret, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, “This time come up, for he has told his whole secret to me.” Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her, and brought the money in their hands. 19She let him fall asleep on her lap; and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. He began to weaken, and his strength left him.20Then she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” When he awoke from his sleep, he thought, “I will go out as at other times, and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. 21So the Philistines seized him and blinded his eyes. They brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles; and he ground at the mill in the prison. 22But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.
(Judges 16:18-22, NRSV)
“Never judge a book by its cover,” we know the old adage, and yet most of us judge people by their appearance all the time. I know I do. I wish I didn’t but I do. Growing up, all kids go through various phases. It’s a way of trying on different personas in the quest to find their authentic selves. I remember when Matt went through a rap music phase including the lopsided hat and gold necklaces. Another phase was “Matt the rock star.” I bought him an inexpensive amp and electric guitar. The cool part was his attempts at song writing. The uncool part was Matthew’s refusal to attempt tuning the guitar. It’s not like it mattered all that much because his forte was loud distorted guitar playing with screeching feedback blasting out of his amp. I tried playing drums with him a time or two with no success.
Another persona Matt tried on was being a skateboarder dude. He had the perfect stickers on his skateboard and the latest skateboarding sneakers. I used to take him to Manorhaven Park in Port Washington to ride in the skate park. Some of the kids at the skate park looked more or less like Matthew, clean cut teens trying really hard to look cool with their brand new skateboards. There was another group huddled on the far side of the park smoking cigarettes with scowls on their faces. Most of these kids were older and appeared to be out of high school. A few had pierced various body parts including their cheeks and tongues. In a split second, I surmised that I did not want to meet these tough looking guys in some dark alley.
Lest I judge too quickly, some guys from this seemingly rough crowd took it upon themselves to teach Matt the right way to ride his skateboard. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched some of these multi-pierced guys offer Matt tips and encouragement. One guy even let Matt ride his BMX trick bike, teaching and challenging him to jump some small ramps. While Matt continued practicing on the borrowed bike, I crossed to the other side of the skate park where this motley crew congregated. I thanked the self-appointed bike teacher who, with several other guys, explained the ins and outs of BMX biking and skateboarding to me. In other words, all appearances aside, they were nice guys who showed kindness to Matthew and reminded me that I should never judge a book by its cover.
If we had seen Samson back in the day, we would have likely judged him by his cover. Like John the Baptist 1,000 years later, Samson is a Nazarite meaning that he vows to avoid alcohol, keep kosher, avoid touching corpses, and focus his time and energy on physical and spiritual purity. Most off-putting to those who did not know Samson, he never cuts his hair or shaves his beard in keeping with his Nazarite vows.
Samson’s story begins before his birth. His would-be parents desperately want a child, but have no success for years. One day an angel appears to his mother-to-be telling her that she and her husband will have a child at last. When Samson is born, Israel has been conquered and ruled by the Philistines for 40 years.
As Samson grew into a man, the text says that the Spirit of God empowered him with superhuman strength. The first clue of Samson’s strength and courage arises when he kills a lion with his bare hands. However, despite being a Nazarite and a judge in Israel, Samson has a major character flaw—he lets his passions get the best of him and loses his self-control. As the story goes, God plays matchmaker telling Samson to marry a Philistine woman. God’s strategy is to position Samson in close proximity to the Philistines that he might better fight them. (Before the killing begins, let me say that I find the violence in Samson’s story abhorrent. The text does not address this issue, reflecting the belief that the slaughter of Israel’s enemies is a good thing. Jesus blessing the peacemakers would have to wait another 1,000 years!)
Just after his wedding, Samson’s temper flares and he kills 30 men, taking their possessions, including linen robes, to pay off a debt resulting from Philistine trickery. Samson then goes home without his new wife for an unknown reason. Upon his return, Samson learns that his father-in-law has given his wife to another man. The father-in-law offers Samson his youngest daughter in return, but the jilted husband refuses. (Needless to say, feminism would take a few thousand years.) In one of the Bible’s stranger passages, Samson attaches lit torches to the tails of 300 foxes sending them through the Philistine’s fields to torch their crops. Now the cycle of violence spirals further downward. In retaliation, the Philistines kill Samson’s wife and father-in-law. Samson’s temper gets the best of him and, in revenge for these murders, Samson uses the jaw bone from a donkey skeleton as a club to kill 1,000 Philistines.
Next, led by the fire of his unbridled passion, Samson spins further out of control visiting a prostitute. Realizing that Samson has a weakness for women, the Philistine commanders offer Delilah 1,000 pieces of silver if she can seduce Samson and discover the secret of his strength. Delilah agrees and has Samson wrapped around her finger in no time. Three times she asks Samson the source of his strength and he lies each time. For a fourth time, Delilah asks Samson about the source of his superhuman strength. This time Samson’s lust is strong and his will is weak. Making the worst mistake of his life, Samson tells Delilah that his long hair is the source of his God-given strength. That night as the strongman sleeps, Delilah procures a barber to shave Samson’s head and beard. Awakening in a weakened state, Samson is taken prisoner by the Philistines who add insult to injury by blinding him.
Bound in chains, Samson goes to a prison in Gaza where he must push a circular grind stone day in and day out. Time passes and, unnoticed by the Philistines, Samson’s hair grows back (apparently without the need for Rogaine). One fateful day, Samson is brought into a Philistine temple for the feast of their god, Dagon. For sport, Samson will be made a public spectacle, performing humiliating tricks to the audience’s delight. To get a better view, 3,000 Philistines gather on the temple roof, which was supported by two central pillars. Aware of the vulnerable pillars, Samson asks his captors to move him closer to the pillars that he might lean against them and rest for a moment.
Next, according to the text, “Samson calls to the Lord and says, ‘Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.’ Samson then grasps the two middle pillars on which the temple rests and says to God, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ He strains with all his might. The pillars topple and the temple falls killing all 3,000 people…Those he kills at his death are more than those he has killed during his life” (Judges 16:28-30). Thus ends the twisted, tragic, gory tale of Samson.
There is a phrase in Samson’s story that I find troubling. It says, “Samson did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20b). Despite what the text says, I do not believe that God ever leaves us. I do believe that, like the Prodigal Son, we sometimes wander into the far country and feel alienated from God. When our focus shifts away from serving God and serving others, we’ve wandered into the far country. When we lose self-control and lose ourselves in addictions or other harmful behaviors or attitudes, we’ve wandered into the far country where it may feel like God has left us. God hasn’t, the problem is with us, not with God. If we feel distant from God, we are the ones who have taken the wrong turn, not God. The good news is that God is still with us and desires to lead us back home.
At the end of Samson’s life, we are reminded that God hasn’t given up on any of us. Standing between the two pillars in the Philistine temple, Samson prays, “Lord, come to me one more time that I can do your will.” Just before his death Samson takes one shot to reconnect with God and follow what he believes is God’s plan. This spiritual reality rings true for us too. God never gives up on us and never throws in the towel. At any moment in our lives we can, like Samson, come to our senses and reconnect with God—Samson’s assumption that it was God’s will for him to bring the house down killing 3,000 Philistines notwithstanding.
One take away from this story is that when we seek to follow God’s way and fulfill God’s will, that God can empower and strengthen us, not like the muscle man Samson, but like the weakness made strong in none other than Jesus himself. As Jesus reminds us, someday the first will be last and the last will be first. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
September 1, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, our strength and our help in times of trouble, we thank you for your constant companionship. When we are weak, you are ever near. When we feel that you have abandoned us, you promise to be with us always. Remind us that when we feel like you have drifted away from us, that we are the ones who have drifted. And yet even then, you stay beside us and in us when we sense your presence and when we don’t. We give thanks that you persevere with us, in the bad times, in the good times, and at every point in-between.
From the depth of our being we give you thanks and praise O God, this day and every day. AMEN.