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.
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.