Monday, October 26, 2020

Playing with Fire-Judges 15.1-8

 For a while now my son has shown a fascination with anything related to the military—its history, wars, weaponry, generals, etc. Understandably, this includes those things related to guns. When he was even a small toddler, every stick was a gun. Eventually we ended up buying him Nerf guns that shot foam projectiles at targets. However, recently, thanks to a sweet member of our church, he has graduated to his very own Daisy Red Rider BB gun. This past weekend we took his new BB gun out to my in-laws house and tested it out with great success. As a shooter myself, I could not help but appreciate how we were able to enjoy something we both share an interest in together. That said, even if I was not interested in shooting, you better believe I would not send my young son out to enjoy himself alone—especially with something that could prove dangerous. You see, our shooting together rendered our time all the more safe and sweet. Choosing to go it alone would have simultaneously thrown open the door for considerable risk and would have lessened the sweetness of the experience we had. This was true this past weekend as my son and I went shooting and it is also true in the context of God’s people. In Judges 15:1-8, Samson ends up playing with fire in part because he ends up going about the Lord's business alone. As a result, he ends up celebrating alone and throwing himself open to unnecessary risk (once again).

1) ELEMENT #1: The Spark-15:1-2

When we last left Samson he was pouting at his parent’s house after being brought to shame at his wedding feast. Not only had he been personally embarrassed, he had also brought embarrassment upon his family and left his bride with a “friend” of his back in Timnah. Needless to say, there appeared to be no love lost between Samson and his wife nor the Israelites and the Philistines at the end of chapter 14. However, as chapter 15 rolls around “love is in the air again” (or, perhaps more accurately, “lust is in the air”). Verse 1 reads, “But after a while in the time of wheat harvest, Samson visited his wife with a young goat, and said, ‘I will go into my wife in her room’” (15:1a).  The time of the wheat harvest (late April-late May) is when people would typically celebrate the land’s fertility for another year and, perhaps, when youthful romantic impulses were in full swing (Chisholm, Judges & Ruth, 411; see also Gen. 30:14; Ruth 2:23). Such impulses seem to be guiding Samson back to Timnah who returns with goat in hand looking for physical intimacy with this woman. Some commentators have interpreted this gift as an ancient equivalent to a box of chocolates (Boling, Judges¸234). Samson is expecting to enjoy himself with his wife despite everything he did earlier to ruin this relationship. It might take more than a goat to smooth things over—that is, if she is even available anymore in the first place.

Upon his arrival, “her father did not let him enter. Her father said, ‘I really though that you hated her intensely; so I gave her to your companion’…” (15:1b-2). Given Samson’s behavior in the previous passage, the father’s conclusion seems reasonable. After all, Samson abandoned his bride after calling her a heifer. Even more so, the wording here might suggest that Samson had near-formally divorced his bride. Some have even translated the father’s first comment here as “I must insist that you certainly divorced her” (Polzin, Moses and the Deuteronomist, 189; See also Block, Judges, Ruth, 439). As far as the father was concerned, things between his daughter and Samson were over—so over that the father had already given the daughter away to someone else (another member of the wedding party)! This is not something that could be easily reversed. What is Samson to do? What is the father to do?

Quick thinking leads the father to what he believes is a good compromise/solution—the hand of his second daughter—“Is not her younger sister more beautiful than she? Please let her be yours instead’…” (15:2b). The father attempts to quench Samson’s rage by offering what he believed was an even prettier daughter in place of Samson’s first wife. Such cavalier attitudes toward women were not characteristic of God’s people (and certainly never taught in Scripture). However, we learn here and elsewhere that this kind of indifferent treatment of women was certainly par for the course for the Philistines. Does the daughter have an opinion on the matter? Instead of treating her like a person, she is treated more like a new car given in place of the previous year’s model. Yikes!

Though this transaction is shocking in today’s standards, we might be led to believe that Samson would be eager to take the father up on this offer. After all, Samson is someone who did “what seemed right in his own eyes” and this girl is supposed to be pretty (that is all that seemed to matter the first time around). Also, Samson is looking for satisfaction and this would be the easiest way to achieve that. However, if we have learned anything from Samson up to this point, expect the unexpected.

2) ELEMENT #2: The Fuse-15:3-5

The spark of unmet expectations lights a fuse in Samson leading to conflict. It is obvious by Samson’s reaction that he did not give the way he left the wedding feast a second thought. He expected to return to his wife and resume life as if nothing happened (Block, Judges, Ruth, 440). We might add clueless to the list of Samson’s character traits (a list which already include devious, lustful, reckless, etc.). In his own twisted way, Samson feels more than justified in taking the actions he does in response to this father’s comments—“Samson then said to them, ‘This time I shall be blameless in regard to the Philistines when I do them harm.’…” (15:3). What Samson says here spells trouble. What he ultimately states is “I will be absolved of all when I bring disaster upon you.” In Samson’s mind, something that belonged to him was taken unjustly. Therefore, to enact vengeance for this offense would be justified. His promise creates a sense of anticipation in the text. The reader is left to wonder “What is he going to do to get even?”

The reader’s curiosity is not disappointed as something truly unexpected takes place—“Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took torches, and turned the foxes tail to tail and put one torch in the middle between two tails…” (15:4). The collection of these foxes, the fastening of these foxes together, and the lighting of the torches attached to the foxes fit the pattern of Samson winning victories in unusual/unexpected was. He has already ripped a lion apart and single-handedly killed 30 Philistines. Later we will see him break through brand new ropes, slay hundreds with a jawbone of a donkey, and topple an entire structure. Against this backdrop something like collecting these foxes, tying them together, and setting them ablaze, does not seem like too big a deal. However, it is what he does with these foxes once lit that bring about devastation.

The text reads, “When he had set fire to the torches, he released the foxes into the standing grain of the Philistines, thus burning up both the shocks and standing grain along with the vineyards and groves” (15:5). Now we can better understand why the detail of the “wheat harvest” was mentioned in verse 1. Because Samson was kept from enjoying himself in the way he expected, he keeps the Philistines from enjoying the fertility of the land. Some have speculated that by tying the foxes together the two competing animals trying to separate from each other would have sent the pair through the fields in a zigzag pattern, maximizing the devastating effects of the torches attached to their tails. All parts of the grain crop along with the vineyards and olive groves are decimated. This would have crippled the Philistine economy in this region.

If we take a step back we can take notice of how Samson and his dealings compare to the others God uses in this book. Samson goes about his battles and conquests alone. “All his achievements are personal, and all are provoked by his own [mis]behavior. [Also], unlike the other deliverers, he never seeks to rid Israel of foreign oppressors, and he never calls out the Israelite troops. Samson is a man with a higher calling than any other deliverer in the book, but he spends his whole life ‘doing his own thing’” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 441). By operating alone, Samson leaves himself open to two things: 1) The lack of accountability leads him into trouble, and 2) the lack of fellowship keeps the victories he wins in God’s strength short-lived and lacking in impact.  In this way, by failing to surround himself with others, this deliverer proves personally inept. He gets the nation into trouble and he fails to inspire the nation when God uses him to clean up after the fact.

3) ELEMENT #3: The Explosion-15:6-8

Things explode in and around Samson after his arson in verses 6-8. First, an investigation is launched seeking to discover the source of the wildfire—“Then the Philistines said, ‘Who did this?’ And they said, ‘Samson the son-in-law of the Timnite, because he took his wife and gave her to his companion” (15:6a). But wait, I thought according to the father Samson had “divorced” his wife earlier. Wouldn’t this have severed the son-in-law/father-in-law relationship? According to the Philistines, Samson was the husband of the first woman and he had not formally divorced her. This seems to discredit the father’s statement and action of giving Samson’s bride away to his companion. Perhaps Samson is justified in his anger on some level.

Either the Philistines are looking for an easier target to blame and deal with than Samson, or they are so convinced that this father has dealt poorly with Samson and had brought Samson’s wrath upon the Philistines. Either way, the Philistines enact their own brand of justice against the father-in-law and older daughter—“So the Philistines came up and burned her and her father with fire” (15:6b).  This is dripping with irony given that this was the very fate that the daughter was threatened with earlier—the threat that she took pains to avoid in retrieving the answer to the riddle Samson gave earlier (see 14:10-20). Though she acted as the master of her fate earlier, the hidden providence of God is able to bring the schemes and conduct of human beings upon their own heads and thereby accomplish his own purposes (Block, Judges, Ruth, 442).

Earlier actions and statements might suggest that Samson didn’t really care for his first wife all that much. However, after she is burned up, Samson appears to be really grieved by the Philistine’s actions against her—“Samson, said to them, ‘Since you act like this, I will surely take revenge on you, but after that I will quit” (15:7). After the Philistines fight Samson’s fire with fire of their own, Samson vows to repay their violence with more violence and then foolishly expects that to be the end of it. To be sure, Samson always acts as if the next destructive act will be the last. However, this kind of violence only breeds more violence, leaving very little room for resolution. Had Samson been keen on including the nation of Israel in his campaigns against the Philistines or seeking the Lord’s will on his nation’s behalf and not going it alone, things might have concluded much earlier.

Samson makes good on his promise in verse 8—“He struck them ruthlessly with a great slaughter; and went down and lived in the cleft of the rock of Etam…” (15:8). In Hebrew this verse reads, “He struck them leg upon thigh with a great striking.” Most believe that this is a Hebrews idiom for total victory. Samson may have dealt “completely”/”ruthlessly” with those Philistines in Timnah; however, in so doing he shook the hornet’s nest of the greater Philistine nation as a whole. This is probably why he retreats down in the cleft of the rock of Etam like an animal hiding from its predator. Once again, we find Samson alone. 

So What?

God’s people are not designed to go through life and pursue God’s mission alone. In the Book of Judges, Samson was intended to be a deliverer who rallied God’s people to drive out the Philistine influence around them just as Gideon had the Midianites earlier or Jephthah the Amorites after that. Instead, Samson goes it alone. This does two things, it leaves him alone to enjoy hollow victories and throws himself into unnecessary risks. While God can (and does) continue to work through even Samson’s foibles and failures, the lack of accountability and fellowship that is characteristic of Samson’s career renders his tenure especially tenuous. The same might be said of God’s people today. While God can accomplish his will regardless of the circumstances we are in or the circumstances that are places around us, the Lord’s design is for us to partner together in meaningful relationships the provide the accountability and fellowship we need to persevere from a posture of strength, not unnecessary risk.

Applied today in a pandemic world with increased isolation and social distancing, a world in which investments have been made to render access to church services easier online, we must be especially aware of this. God has not designed the church to operate virtually through congregations of isolated individuals far removed from the gathering. This is not church as it should be. While certainly, especially for a season, God can work through this series of unprecedented circumstances and for those of especially high risk participation virtually may be necessary, we all need to be vigilant to remain accountable and pursue meaningful fellowship with each other as best and as richly as possible. If that means you can be here, you need to be here. If you cannot be here yet, this means going out of your way to be as plugged in as possible and investing in ways that go beyond casual viewing.

Friends/family, it is only then when pursue community with the body God has given us that we can adequately celebrate the victories God provides us to the fullest, bringing inspiration and perseverance to our walk. Also, it is only when we are together in meaningful ways that we can be held accountable and be encouraged to walk according to the word and will of God alongside our brothers and sisters.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Party's Over- Judges 14:10-20


Weddings are a big deal in our culture. There is so much about a wedding that people are fascinated with. What is it that you enjoy most about a marital celebration? Is it the dress? The ceremony? The venue? The vows? The reception party? The dancing? The toasts? The reunion with family and friends? Is it all of the above? In Samson’s day, weddings were a big deal also and yet, in Judges 14:10-20, Samson spoils the celebration in a foolish way leading to embarrassment, shame, and even separation from his own bride. YIKES! You have heard of a bridezilla. Samson proves to be a groomzilla. In today’s passage we are going to look at three actions that expose Samson’s weakness. In so doing we will learn how we might avoid the kind of shame that befalls him at his wedding feast in our own lives.

a. Samson Presents an Impossible Riddle -14:10-14

When we last left Samson he was heading back for his bride in Timnah with his parents while feeding on honey scraped out of a dead lion. We pick up the story of Samson’s life in verses 10-11 of chapter 14 as the wedding celebration commences—“Then his father went down to the woman; and Samson made a feast there, for the young men customarily did this…” This all seems innocent enough, except that the word for “feast” in this context “refers to a seven-day drinking bout at the home of his bride’s parents” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 431). Samson is not enjoying a traditional Israelite wedding celebration as much as he is a Philistine stag party with the young men of Timnah. Having already failed to keep his Nazarite vow by entering into marriage with a Philistine woman and coming into contact with a dead body, now Samson stands to break another element of this consecration with the consumption of strong drink. By giving into a pagan people and endorsing their pagan customs, Samson puts himself in another highly compromising situation and sets himself up for failure.

The already compromising situation grow tense, if not dangerous, as the text reveals that “When they saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him,…” (14:11). After the Philistines see Samson, they are afraid of him. Unwilling to take any chances, they surround him with bodyguards—enough bodyguards to easily overwhelm Samson if they need to for any reason.

Samson fails to see just how precarious his situation is. Instead, he believes that he can outsmart his hosts and trick them out of a great deal of assets. Rather than play things safe, Samson seems eager to pick a fight. This he does by presenting a riddle. However, before he shares the riddle, he must see if the partiers want to play his game. Therefore, he sets the terms, terms that appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of the Philistines: “Then Samson said to them, ‘Let me now propound a riddle to you; if you will indeed tell it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes. But if you are unable to tell me, then you shall give me thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes.’…” (14:12-13a). Samson suggests that if they can solve his riddle within seven days, he will provide each of them with a complete suit of clothes, consisting of long garments and shorter tunics (Block, Judges, Ruth, 432). This was no small prize. The wager here involves the equivalent of 30 modern-day three-piece suits worn for a special occasion. However, if they fail to provide the right answer, then they must provide Samson with thirty capes and suits of clothing.

If this sounds like a bar bet, that is because it is in many ways. After a few drinks, Samson is feeling cocky and the guards surrounding him are eager to take him up on the bet—“And they said to him, ‘Propound your riddle, that we may hear it.’…” (14:13b).

Samson’s riddle involves a short six words in the original language: “Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet” (14:14). The riddle includes two paradoxes: a consumer producing food and something strong producing sweetness. No doubt the Philistines would have begun searching around the room they were partying in for clues that might point them in the right direction. However, Samson knows all along that the answer lies in a distant field in a remote location that, as far as he knows, only he has visited. It is, for all intents and purposes, an impossible riddle and Samson, by all appearances, has this won from the beginning. The only one who could ruin this for Samson is, well, Samson himself.

b. Samson Is Tricked into Providing the Answer-14:15-18

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens and Samson’s wife is the means by which the answer would be extracted and shared. After a few days of ruminating on the riddle, the Philistine fraternizers grow anxious, fearing that they are going to have to make good on the wager they made—"Then it came about on the fourth day that they said to Samson’s wife, ‘Entice your husband, so that he will tell us the riddle, or we will burn you and your father’s house with fire. Have you invited us to impoverish us? Is this not so?..." (14:15). First, to retrieve the elusive answer, the group of guards blackmail this woman, threatening her and her family’s house (hmmmm…nice countrymen this Philistine woman has on her side). Second, they suggest that she is complicit in Samson’s bet. Evidence of just how high the price was that they would have to pay if they lose is seen in their anxiety over their presumed fate if they failed to produce the answer—“have you invited us to impoverish us?”.  Her loyalty to her people questioned and her home threatened, Samson’s wife is successfully enlisted by these guards to somehow pry the answer to the riddle out of her new husband and she wastes no time to get started.

“Samson’s wife wept before him and said, ‘You only hate me, and you do not love me; you have propounded a riddle to the sons of my people, and have not told it to me.’ (14:16a). Not a bad first attempt by this new bride. Her first ploy is to weep (playing the emotional card) and then to guilt her husband into giving what she wants by questioning his love for her (though I’m not sure how effective this will prove to be given that Samson didn’t appear to be as much “in love” with this woman as much as he was “in lust”). Then she questions his respect for her people the Philistines, “you have propounded a riddle to the sons of my people, and have not told it to me” (as if Samson cared at all for the fate of the Philistines). Samson’s response is terse and firm: “And he said to her, ‘Behold, I have not told it to my father or mother, so should I tell you?’…” (14:16b). This response reveals at least two things. First, it reminds the reader of Samson’s callousness toward his parents. His withholding of the details about the lion and the honey from them in chapter 14:1-9 shows just how little he cared for even them, let alone his new bride. However, the second thing this reveals is that regardless of how much he really cared for/loved his parents, the apron strings had not been severed and if it came to a choice between them and his new wife, his parents would receive priority (contrary to Gen. 2:24).

With time ticking (given the seven day timetable ascribed to this wager) and her first attempt unsuccessful, Samson’s wife persists in her efforts—“However she wept before him seven days while their feast lasted…” (14:17a). Never underestimate the power of persistence, especially in the home! “And on the seventh day he told her because she pressed him so hard” (14:17b). Apparently Samson could only take so much and “at the climactic ‘eleventh hour’ on the seventh day” he finally relents to her nagging demands, perhaps just to silence her many tearful appeals (Block, Judges Ruth, 434).

Like clockwork, Samson’s wife relays the newfound information to her co-conspirators—“she then told the riddle to the sons of her people” (14:17b). This whole ordeal reveals just how ill-conceived this whole relationship is on the surface. Samson doesn’t seem to really love her and she doesn’t seem in the least bit loyal to him. All of this leads to the another failure in Samson’s life—a failure that he got himself into by making this bet in the first place and then cracking under the pressure thereby losing the bet he was sure to win outright. Samson proves cocky, reckless, and mentally weak. This gets him into trouble.

c. Samson Reacts to His Embarrassing Failure-14:18-20

With a grin on their faces, the Philistines present their answer to Samson’s riddle just in time to win the wager in verse 18—“ So the men of the city said to him on the seventh day before the sun went down, ‘What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?’…” (14:18). Perhaps to twist the proverbial knife into Samson’s ego and maximize the drama of this moment, the Philistines wait until the last minute to provide the answer and when they do they answer Samson’s riddle with one of their own. The riddle doesn’t just reveal that they discovered the answer to the riddle, it also exposes Samson’s desecrating act of scarping honey out of a dead carcass. This was highly embarrassing for Samson and, I imagine, highly disappointing for his parents if they were nearby.

Furious after his loss and immediately aware of how these guards have won, Samson “said to them, ‘If you had not plowed with my heifer, You would not have found out my riddle,’…” (14:18b). “You cheated!” Samson exclaims, “and you used my wife to do it” (although he doesn’t use “wife”). His reference for his wife proves to be just as offensive today as it would have been in the ancient world. What a great way to end a wedding feast! YIKES!

However, the scene is not finished yet. “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily, and he went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty of them and took their spoil and gave the changes of clothes to those who told the riddle…” (14:19a). Though Samson got himself into this mess, the Lord gets him out of it. It is God’s Spirit that allows Samson the strength necessary to overwhelm his enemies here. Samson kills thirty men, took their spoil (personal effects), and then uses these articles to pay the debt he owed to those who won the bet.

Remember, God is using this ill-conceived marriage to stir things up between Israel and the Philistines because things have become too comfortable between these two people groups and Israel, as a result, is losing its special identity as the set-apart people of God.

The fallout of this episode continues as Samson—now posturing as a pouty and embarrassed brat—returning home to live with mom and daddy—“And his anger burned, and he went up to his father’s house…” (14:19b). As for Samson’s wife, she “was given to his companion who had been his friend” (14:20). Talk about marital bliss. Some have said that the first year of marriage is the most difficult, but I would have never imagined a more difficult first week!

So What?

In last’s week’s look at Samson’s life we saw how isolation and a sweet tooth got this young man into compromising situations. In this week’s passage we see how risky behaviors (fraternizing at a raucous party) and reckless wagers (in the giving of the riddle) can lead to embarrassment and shame. Ultimately, in both passages, these failures demonstrate what occurs regularly in a life ruled by the flesh. While last week we saw how familiarity with God’s Word and pursuing spiritual community can help God’s people live a life in the Spirit, today we might say that avoiding the wrong crowds and unnecessary risks can also help aide a Spirit-filled life.

However, we also learn that God can and will use anything and everything to wake his people up from misplaced complacency and comfort—even if it that means allowing us to fail miserably. For Israel, he allowed Samson to go through the motions of this chapter to stir his people toward long-overdue action that would have them appropriately distance themselves from the pagan influences and practices that they were entertaining and accepting. In our lives, God may use an embarrassing failure to draw our attention to areas of compromise and complacency that need fixing or avoiding too.

Maybe you have failed recently. Maybe you are fresh off an embarrassing episode. If you are a child of God today, do not lose heart and do not give up. The same God that so-empowered Samson despite himself is more than able to overwhelm the mess you have gotten yourself into and even use it to accomplish his will. Call upon him today and life a life ruled by the Spirit as you move forward.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Dangerous Thing About a Sweet Tooth-Judges 14:1-9

Last week’s message and this week’s message have us moving from one major life event (Samson’s birth) to another (Samson’s marriage). Both these milestones garner a lot of attention and celebration in the ancient world and today. However, there are those things that might spoil the celebration or turn the wedding shower into a mere drizzle. In Judges 14:1-9, Samson proves to be his own worst enemy and cannot seem to get out of his own way as he pursues and marries a Philistine woman. Despite all that God does to empower Samson for great things, we will learn by watching two episodes in this passage that when we choose to be controlled by our flesh instead of the Spirit, bad things will result.


We pick up the story of Samson’s life when he is a young man. In chapter 14 verse 1, the narrative wastes no time in suggesting what appears to drive “Sunny” –“Then Samson went down to Timnah and saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines…” (14:1). This is the first of two examples IN THIS PASSAGE of Samson being ruled by the lust of his flesh. Nothing of this woman’s character is mentioned. For Samson, her looks were more than enough, even though she was a Philistine from Timnah.

The town of Timnah, now under Philistine rule, used to belong to the tribe of Dan (see Josh 19:43). Located on the northern border region of Judah between Israelite and Philistine populations, this community would no doubt see many clashes between these two people groups. Samson first confronts this city as Israel’s deliverer not as an aggressor seeking to free God’s people from oppression, but as a lustful young man looking for a wife in what many believed were all the wrong places. “The image the narrator paints of Samson in…(this) episode is anything but attractive. He is an insolent and independent young man, unafraid to venture into the pagan world of the Philistines and undaunted by potentially compromising situations” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 424).

Singularly motivated by his flesh, Samson “came back and told his father and mother, ‘I saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines; now therefore get her for me as a wife’…” (14:2). The repetition of the verb “to see” in verses 1-2 (and later) demonstrates that Samson is operating on appearance and for personal interest, not on principle or for the greater good. He has a one track mind that is not going to a holy place. Added to this lustful desire to be satisfied is the sense of entitlement and self-centeredness. You can almost hear the bratty selfishness in his demand of his parents to do what is necessary to get this girl for him at the end of verse 2. What do his parents have to say?

Interestingly, Manoah and his wife (remember them from chapter 13), appear to be the voice of reason in this episode—“Then his father and his mother said to him, ‘Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’…” (14:3a). This response from Samson’s parents demonstrates their pain and disappointment in their son’s choice of a bride. Is there no one good enough for him among his own countrywomen, that he would stoop to such a level and take a wife from among the uncircumcised Philistines (an intentionally pejorative way to refer to this people group)? The parent’s comment serves to remind Samson that intermarriage with these pagan oppressors was inappropriate. For Samson’s parents his demand poses not only an ethnic problem but a cultural dilemma. Because the Philistines were considered unclean, marital union between an Israelite and a Philistine presented obvious problems.

Equally important to what was said by Samson’s parents is what was not said. Their quibble with Samson’s choice seems to be based on ethnicity, not on what God had clearly articulated in his word. Samson’s parents do not recite Deuteronomy 7:1-5 which says, in part, “Intermarriage with non-Israelites is forbidden by the Lord” nor do they remind him of his Nazarite vow which would have prohibited him from marrying this woman. Their problem with Samson’s would-be wife is not based on what God has said, but by their personal prejudice. (Nice, sounds like this is going to work out really well).

Samson is undeterred by his parent’s comments. His mind appears to be made up –“But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, for she looks good to me.’…” (14:3b). Again, the primary motivator in Samson is what he “sees”—i.e. the lust of the eyes. Literally the text reads “because she is right in my eyes.” She may not be right for Samson’s parents or in accordance with what is said in God’s Word or in keeping with his Nazarite vow, but she is right in the only way that seems to matter to Samson—right in his eyes. Like the rest of his countrymen during this sordid period in their history, Samson, the typical Israelite, operates exclusively on the basis of his senses. In fact, rather than rise above the least common denominator as the deliverer of God’s people, he fits right in with “everyone who did what was right in their own eyes” (see 17:6; 21:25) (Block, Judges, Ruth, 426).

This union has disaster written all over it. However, perhaps it is not totally irredeemable.

In a shocking twist, the text suggests that something much bigger is at work—“However, his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines…” (14:4). OF THE LORD!? How in the world could this be of the Lord?  A fresh look at this whole episode from the Lord’s perspective reveals the answer. This marriage illustrates (through God’s chosen deliverer) Israel’s willingness to coexist peacefully with and even intermarry with the Philistines. Remember, God’s people were so comfortable and accommodating to this pagan people group that they did not even cry out for the deliverer they received in chapter 13 (oppression can turn to misplaced comfort, it just take apathy and time). However, it was never God’s intention for his people to lie down with the enemy and he is determined to shake things up in a mighty way. Samson is the tool God will use to aggravate the Philistines and his marriage to this woman, no matter how ill-conceived at first glance, would offer the Lord the opportunity to make this happen.

In case the reader forgot, the narrator reminds them at the end of verse 4, “Now at that time the Philistines were ruling over Israel.” This was not what God wanted. Therefore, “if the Israelites do not have the heart to take action against the Philistines, God will cause the Philistines to take action against them” and use Samson’s lusty pursuit of and union with a Philistine woman to that end (Block, Judges, Ruth, 426).


As we move to episode two, "a strange thing happened on the way to Timnah” (a play on “A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”). It is obvious that Samson’s parents give in to their son’s demands and head toward the town where his future bride lived—"Then Samson went down to Timnah with his father and mother, and came as far as the vineyards of Timnah;…” (14:5a). Though Samson and his parents start their journey together, at some point, given what is revealed later, Samson must have wandered off by himself.

“...and behold, a young lion came roaring toward him” (14:5b). One commentator has concluded that this young lion, like all male lions, became nomadic—a loner (kind of like Samson here in this situation). When such lions attempt to claim territory, they roar more frequently and become more aggressive. This is the kind of lion that Samson encounters. Strawn concludes that such a roaring nomadic lion “is perhaps the most dangerous instance of the world’s dominant land predator that one could possibly encounter” (Strawn, “Kepir arayot,” 158). Hungry, strong, and driven purely by instinct, Samson appears to meet his match in the animal kingdom.  

Immediately upon seeing this lion, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him (Samson) mightily” (14:6a). As if to highlight the role of the Lord in these events, the text reads that the Sprit of the Lord “rushed” upon Samson and infused him with superhuman strength. God is ultimately the one behind Samson’s power and this description of God’s activity reveals who is really in control of both Samson’s life and Israel’s destiny.

So empowered is Samson by the Lord “that he tore him (the lion) as one tears a young goat though he had nothing in his hand” (14:6b). This is remarkable on several levels. First, few people would/ever did tear goats apart (uncooked ones at least). That would be a feat in and of itself and here Samson shreds a lion!  Second, he does this barehanded (no weapon, knife, or other utensil necessary). Add this to what we already learned about the lion and what you have here is perhaps the best possible way to introduce Samson’s remarkable strength when empowered by the Spirit. When God was with Samson, there was nothing in the world that could take him down.

While we might expect Samson to share and even gloat about his victory over this ferocious feline, “he did not tell his father or mother what he had done” (14:6c). This is curious to say the least, almost as curious as the appearance of the lion itself. Perhaps the best explanation for this entire spectacle is that the Lord is at work both in the emergence of the Lion, the strength to defeat it, and the silence after the victory. God is setting things up for something yet to come in the future. We will have to wait and see how this all fits together until later in chapter 14. 

Hot off his victory over the lion, Samson “went down and talked to the woman, and (once again) she looked good to Samson” (14:7). This is probably the first time Samson spoke to his love interest (as before the text suggests he stopped at gawking at her). However, the depth of their conversation appears relatively shallow as at the conclusion of the dialogue the narrative simply reiterates that “she looked good to Samson.” Again, Samson appears to be driven primarily by his flesh and soon we see more confirmation of this.

Things fast forward in verse 8 beyond the presumed negotiations Samson’s mom and dad entered with the woman’s parents. Once complete, sometime later Samson returns to Timnah to retrieve his bride—“When he returned later to take her” (14:8a) (gee, sounds romantic). While in route “He turned aside to look at the carcass of the lion” (14:8b). Perhaps out of curiosity, Samson follows the same route he took earlier on purpose to see what had become of his vanquished foe. This was risky as Samson was supposed to be fulfilling a Nazarite vow. According to Numbers 6:6, a Nazarite was not to “contact a dead body.” This risk doesn’t appear to be of any concern to Samson (after all, he was on his way to marry a Philistine).

Samson’s curiosity was not disappointed as “behold, a swarm of bees and honey were in the body of the lion” (14:8b). This detail and what follows is teaming with significance. First, this swarm bears the signature of God as bees do not normally inhabit dead bodies (like, say flies/maggots do). Something peculiar and, even, supernatural was at play here as God places these bees where they would not naturally be found to test Samson. Second, the image of a “community” (translated “swarm”) of bees thriving in a decaying carcass is dripping with irony. Nearly everywhere else this word for “swarm” is used it refers to a collection of people, usually the Israelites as a faith community called to be agents of grace and light in the world. In other words, the bees thriving and producing honey in a dead lion was an illustration for what God’s people were supposed to be doing on the world’s stage. Both the bees in the lion and the Israelites success in the world were peculiar examples of God’s supernatural power in expected places.

Throwing all inhibitions aside Samson “scraped the honey into his hands and went on eating as he went” (14:9a). Obviously Samson does not just have an eye for the ladies, he also has an insatiable sweet tooth. While he had passed the physical test posed by the lion, he failed to keep the spirit of his Nazarite vow and failed the spiritual test of self-discipline that this honey posed. Why would he do this? “It is possible Samson interpreted his finding the honey on his way to his wedding as a good omen that foreshadowed blessing. Perhaps he viewed it as a symbol of the sexual pleasure about to be his or as an aphrodisiac, appropriately provided just before his wedding” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 407). Regardless of why he does it, it is a gross and ominous act that spells disaster in the future and helps set in motion what will happen in the remainder of the chapter.

Adding insult to injury, Samson cavalierly implicates his parents in his own defilement by sharing this honey with them—“ When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them and they ate it; but he did not tell them that he had scraped the honey out of the body of the lion,…” (14:9b). It appears that Samson’s perversity and lack of scruples knows no bounds. While his parents had done their best to raise him as a Nazarite per the Angel of the Lord’s instructions, here Samson returns the favor by desecrating them both. Unaware of what he has just ingested, Manoah, Samson’s father, continues the journey down to Timnah to finalize the wedding arrangements for his compromised and compromising son.

So What?

Among other things, this passage illustrates two ways of living—living under the control of the Spirit or living under the control of the flesh. When Samson was guided by and empowered by the Spirit, he was literally tearing lion’s apart. However, when he was controlled by his flesh he was entertaining dangerous relationships and defiling himself and those around him. What we all have to understand from the life of Samson is that relinquishing control to the flesh—i.e. following our gut to whatever will satisfy us or give us pleasure for the moment—is the human default. Living by our senses and being guided by the lust of our eyes is what comes most naturally to human beings given that we are fallen creatures in a broken world. This mode of living is easy to slip into, even for those who have been called of God. When things are especially tense, frustrating, or challenging we are most susceptible to reverting to the least common denominator. When the world throws us for a loop (as it has for all of us this past year), the natural parts of us will seek the path of least resistance to find relief. This can have us digging into a carcass for the honey just like Samson or chasing after what is forbidden for a thrill. Therapies that we pursue that run contrary to the Word and will of God may feel good for the moment, but they, whether we realize it or not at the time, defile us and leave us susceptible to hurting those around us.

 God would have us endorse a different lifestyle—a life in the Spirit. Consider the words of Paul: “for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). “Therefore, consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry” (Col. 3:5). “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). When we walk by the Spirit, God can do extraordinary things in and through us. Why would we choose to live any other way?

Monday, October 5, 2020

An Unsolicited Deliverer is Born-Judges 13

 Today as we reenter our series in the book of Judges, we happen to come across one of the most treasured and familiar story-types in the Bible—the birth story. From Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, to Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary, predictions of special birthdays and the fulfillments of such are common motifs in the scriptures that tend to signal major shifts for God’s people. These stories often highlight God’s movement and special activity as they promise better days and major victories in the future. Today’s passage in Judges 13 is one such example of a birth story. However, as we will soon see, things in this narrative are a bit shaky and do not run as smoothly as they might in other passages. What we will learn in Judges 13 as we look at five elements of Samson’s birth story is that God is able carry his people where they need to be despite themselves.

a. ELEMENT #1: The Backdrop-13:1

Let us remind ourselves of where we are in Israel’s history. In the time between Joshua (Moses’ successor) and Saul (Israel’s first king), God’s people were led by judges—military leaders that were empowered by the Spirit of God. These judges were far from perfect and often demonstrated with their own failures and setbacks just how far from God the Israelites were in this period. The precarious and recurrent spiritual condition of God’s people is highlighted in the opening of chapter 13 with “Now the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, so that the Lord gave them into the hands of the Philistines forty years,…” (13:1). This oft-repeated progress report on Israel establishes her lapse into sin and God’s disciplinary judgement as the backdrop for the story of Samson.  Things are rotten in the state of Israel and yet, God is not going to leave his people without the promise of a leader to help see them through this Philistine oppression (even if this time they don’t even cry out for such).

b. ELEMENT #2: The Prediction-13:2-7

The narrative continues with the introduction of a couple from Zorah—“There was a certain man of Zorah of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and had borne no children…” (13:2). Most who are familiar with biblical history cannot avoid thinking about the recurrent theme of God opening the womb of a barren woman. Sarah (Gen. 11:30), Rebekah (Gen. 25:21), and Rachel (Gen. 29:31) are all described as barren and yet God miraculously allowed each of these women to bear a son that proved important in Israel’s history. Given the introduction of this couple, the reader should expect nothing less than a miraculous birth that yields an important figure whose life would serve as an emblem and example of God’s faithfulness.

Our expectation appears to receive some justification when we read verses 3-5—“Then the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Behold now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. Now therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing. For behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines’…”. This prediction is important for several reasons. First, by seeking to supernaturally bring a child to a childless and barren woman, God demonstrates his love for life and delight in bringing children into the world. This stands in stark contrast to what occurred in the previous chapter with Jephthah who foolishly fulfilled a misguided oath and killed his virgin daughter. What God does suggests that he delights in making the barren woman a mother, not in his worshippers making potential mothers childless (Chisholm, Judges & Ruth, 390).

Second, the angel instructs Manoah’s wife to follow a diet fit for a Nazarite (see Numbers 6:3-4), as her son would be consecrated to God as a Nazarite from birth. Not only would this child’s prenatal life be special as it was wrought of a miracle of God, but his postnatal life would be consecrated to the Lord. This child was to be set apart from birth and in an effort to give that the best chance possible, Manoah’s wife would participate in abstaining from wine, alcoholic drinks of any kind, and food that the Israelite laws forbade as defiled (Block, Judges, Ruth, 402).

Third, verse 5 reveals that the promised child’s primary task would be military victory (“and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines’…”). This is surprising given that in the preceding cycle of Judges God was reluctant to respond to Israel, even after they confessed their sins (see 10:6-16). Here, no one was even crying out for deliverance and yet God gives them a deliverer and even goes to the extreme of a miraculous birth and Nazarite vow to give them a good one. “(God’s) sovereign and spontaneous decision to do so reminds us that he would never forsake his covenant people, no matter how apathetic they become” (Chisholm).

After receiving this message, Manoah’s wife shares the news with her husband—“Then the woman came and told her husband, saying, ‘A man of God came to me and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome. And I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name. But he said to me, “Behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and now you shall not drink wine or strong drink nor eat any unclean thing, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.”’…” (13:6-7). Much is made here and later of the ignorance of God’s people to recognize this messenger. This suggests that Israel at this delicate moment in her history is so far from the Lord that even when he gives them a message directly, she does not recognize it is from him (at least initially) YIKES! The wife’s report also fails to include one of the most important instructions given to this woman concerning her child—“ and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb” (13:5). This helps foreshadow, even before the child is born, Israel’s coming failure to recognize Samson as their God-given deliverer, Samson’s own confusion about his role in life, and his ultimate demise. DOUBLE YIKES!

c. ELEMENT #3: The Request-13:8-14

Manoah’s response to his wife’s report reads as follows: “Then Manoah entreated the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, please let the man of God whom You have sent come to us again that he may teach us what to do for the boy who is to be born’…” (13:8). Several things might motivate this reaction. After all, as a childless man, perhaps Manoah is a bit nervous about the prospect of raising a son. Perhaps Manoah is unwilling to respond positively based merely on his wife’s report. Or, perhaps like Gideon before him, Manoah needs added reassurances before he is willing to sign on with this program.

Regardless of what motivates Manoah’s request, God answers it and we read what happens in verses 9-14—“ God listened to the voice of Manoah; and the angel of God came again to the woman as she was sitting in the field, but Manoah her husband was not with her. So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, ‘Behold, the man who came the other day has appeared to me.’ Then Manoah arose and followed his wife, and when he came to the man he said to him, ‘Are you the man who spoke to the woman?’ And he said, ‘I am.’ Manoah said, ‘Now when your words come to pass, what shall be the boy’s mode of life and his vocation?’ So the angel of the Lord said to Manoah, ‘Let the woman pay attention to all that I said. She should not eat anything that comes from the vine nor drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing; let her observe all that I commanded.’…”. What is interesting here is God answers Manoah’s prayer by once again appearing to his wife (not Manoah), illustrating that what was shared with her previously was enough to go on already. That said, once the figure appears again, Manoah’s wife quickly retrieves her husband so that he himself can bear witness to the instructions. However, there really are no added instructions given. Instead the angel simply says, “let the woman pay attention to all that I said…” and then goes on to repeat elements of their first meeting (13:13). Apparently, the angel expected Manoah’s wife to inform her husband about the child’s special consecration to the Lord, his role as deliverer, and the Nazarite vow though there is never any indication that she ever did.  Unfortunately, this seems to continue as the story unfolds. In what follows, Samson never gives any indication that he understood himself to be Israel’s deliverer and certainly does not live up the vow that was to govern his life. Things are not looking good already! Understanding one’s role in God’s plan is vital to participating well in what the Lord is doing and that appears to be in jeopardy here. 

d. ELEMENT #4: The Worship-13:15-20

Evidence that Manoah and his bride still don’t quite understand who they are talking to continues to pour in as Manoah invites the messenger to stay for a meal—“Then Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘Please let us detain you so that we may prepare a young goat for you’” (13:15). However, the angel of the Lord refuses the meal and suggests something else—“The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, ‘Though you detain me, I will not eat your food, but if you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.’ For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord” (13:15-16). For this angel to entertain table fellowship with Manoah and his wife was impossible at this point in time given that the spiritual condition of the nation would not allow these people to share company with a heavenly intermediary. Therefore, rather than share a meal, the angel suggests that this family make an offering to the Lord which would help them take the first spiritual steps in the direction toward a right relationship with their God.

Confusion on Manoah’s part seems chronic as in verses 17-18 he asks for the name of this heavenly messenger—“Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘What is your name, so that when your words come to pass, we may honor you?’…” (13:17-18). The angel does not entertain Manoah’s request with an answer but responds with a question of his own—“why do you ask for my name, seeing it as extraordinary/beyond understanding?” (13:18). To Manoah and to all of Israel, the messenger is a mystery as is the God that has sent this messenger as is the plan that God is in the process of executing. The angelic messenger would rather Manoah figure out this riddle on his own (hoping that it might lead to understanding) rather than solve it for him (Block, Judges, Ruth, 414).

“So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering and offered it on the rock to the Lord, and He performed wonders while Manoah and his wife looked on. For it came about when the flame went up from the altar toward heaven, that the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground…” (13:19-20). It is important to point out that Manoah presents this offering to the Lord, not to the messenger. While in process of making the offering, the Lord miraculously calls up his angelic messenger back to heaven and this elicits a worshipful response from this couple—a response that was scarce seen among God’s people in the time of the judges.

What we are witnessing in this birth narrative is God spoon-feeding his people toward deliverance. He is going to help his people even though they do not call on him to do so. He is going to miraculously allow a barren woman to give birth to a son. He is going to consecrate this son of Manoah (despite their ignorance and failure to communicate the nature of his vow). And he is going to use this son to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. God even reminds, requests, and helps execute a simple offering for this family as a first step they might take in the right direction. Like a parent holding the hands of a staggering infant learning to walk, God is leading a woefully infantile people to where he wants them to be despite themselves.

e. ELEMENT #5: The Aftermath-13:21-25

After the worship experience Manoah and his wife participate in, it is almost as though this first step has provided some limited clarity on their part concerning what is going on—“ Now the angel of the Lord did not appear to Manoah or his wife again. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the Lord….” (13:21). The two finally figure out that an angel of the Lord has spoken with them. However, rather than be inspired by what they’ve learned, Manoah grows petrified with fear—“So Manoah said to his wife, ‘We will surely die, for we have seen God.’…” (13:22) (One step forward two steps back).

Manoah’s wife calms her husband’s hysterics with some common sense—"But his wife said to him, ‘If the Lord had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have let us hear things like this at this time’…” (13:23). This couple is hardly the shining parenting duo you might hope to use to bring up the next deliverer of Israel. However, at this time in Israel’s history, the pickings were slim and Manoah and his wife are chosen.

The fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy is described in verses 24-25—“Then the woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson; and the child grew up and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Mahaney-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.” “Sunny” (as his name is translated) was born to this couple just as the Lord had promised. Rather than give him a name that was connected to God or his people, “sunny” or “solar” carries the connotations of paganism and “if not outrightly pagan is dangerously compromising” (Block, Judges, Ruth,  419). As he grew, God’s spirit began to empower him (quite literally) for his special purpose and with this final comment in chapter 13 the stage is set for Samson to confront the Philistines and begin his life’s work of delivering his people from their oppressors.

So What?

Though there are a lot of issues one might raise concerning Samson’s parents, their ignorance, and the spiritual condition of God’s people in and around the time of Samson’s birth that would leave you wondering if a successful deliverer could be raised in a time like this, what we witness in this passage is God’s ability to supersede limitations and setbacks with opportunities and empowerment that allow his people the best chance to move forward according to his will. God overwhelms a barren womb allowing Manoah’s wife to give birth. God overwhelms an ignorant Manoah with the angel of the Lord. God overwhelms spiritual darkness by leading this couple to make an offering. All this God does to overwhelm Israel’s desperate plight with a special deliverer who was to be set apart from birth (through the Nazarite vow) and empowered by the Spirit. Despite everything to the contrary, God intervenes in a special way in this text to give what Israel needs, even when they don’t ask for it. Even more so, he provides this deliverer all the makings of a great leader (a miraculous birth and a program of holiness that should keep him out of trouble).

What is it that you need from the Lord that maybe you have forgotten to ask for or have tired of requesting? Maybe like a frustrated infant struggling to learn to walk, you have decided crawling is good enough, or worse, I’ll just sit here. Spiritually speaking that is where the Israelites are at the beginning of Judges 13 and I hope that is not where you are at today. But it if is, maybe you need to clasp the outstretched hands of the Father who is ready and willing to pull you up and help guide you in all patience to where you need to be. You may wobble and stumble (boy was this the case for Manoah and his wife), but God will not give up leading those who are his. Even further, God will more than make up for what is missing (faith, smarts, experience, etc.) with his provision and grace just as he provided a barren woman with a special son who was to be consecrated and spiritually-empowered.

However, as we will soon learn, gifts and opportunities that God provides must be utilized and applied appropriately if one is be successful in performing God’s will. God can give you all the tools you need, but unless you take full advantage of those graces, things may never change.