Eyeless in Gaza
Patrick Henry Reardon on the story of Samson
As a life-long Nazirite, Samson was supposed to live a completely consecrated existence, an undistracted life, singular of intent, pure in purpose. That was, at least, the plan. The biblical noun ‘Nazirite,’ derived from the Semitic root nzr, meaning ‘to set apart’, referred to those who vowed to perform some special work in God's service. During the time of that service, the Nazirite's dedication to his vow was indicated by certain ritual and ascetical practices. Indeed, the Nazirite lived very much as the priest did during his own days of liturgical ministry. For example, both men maintained a strict ritual purity and abstained from wine and alcohol. In addition, the hair of the Nazirite was not cut until the completion of the vow (Numbers 6.1–21). Directed to a specific task, the Nazirite's commitment normally lasted for only a determined period. Nonetheless, Holy Scripture indicates three instances, in which the Nazirite's special consecration lasted for his entire lifetime. In two of these instances, Samuel and John the Baptist, the purity of their dedication appears to have been perfect and above reproach all the days of their lives (1 Samuel 1.11, especially in the LXX; Luke 1.15; 7.33). Prior to Samuel and John the Baptist, however, there was Samson (Judges 13.7), and, in the case of Samson, the maintenance of his lifelong Nazirite consecration became a bit … well, complicated.
Arguably the most memorable characteristic of Samson was his immense, Spirit-endowed strength (Judges 13.25), which he displayed in such vigorous, wholesome pursuits as ripping lions apart with his bare hands (14.6), snapping strong ropes as though thin threads (15.14; 16.12), toting heavy city gates up to inconvenient places (16.3), all the while burning the harvests and bashing the heads of deserving Philistines (14.19; 15.5, 8, 15). Such rollicking exhibitions of brawn, tending as they did to keep God's enemies in check and off-balance, were entirely commendable, and Samson spent a good twenty years doing what he did best (15.20). Nonetheless, Samson was not in every respect a man of strength. No, and his distinct weakness was women. Though he eschewed strong drink, Samson did not avoid women. Far from it. On two occasions he fell in love, each time, alas, rather unwisely. Each of the women that Samson loved betrayed him. The first was the unnamed Philistine wife of his youth, and the other a mysterious lady named Delilah, who sealed the tragedy of his last years. There is a serial correspondence between these two stories of Samson in his youth and in his later days. First, each woman is used by the Philistines to ‘entice’ the strong man (14.15; 16.5). Second, in each story Samson is bound with ‘new ropes’ (15.12–13; 16.8, 12). Third, in both cases the breaking of these ropes is compared to a destruction by fire (15.4; 16.9). Fourth, both women want to know a secret, which Samson, finally unable to endure their insistent pouting, rashly discloses to them (14.16–17; 16.16–17).
The close correspondence in detail between these two narratives, however, serves chiefly to heighten the contrast between them. We perceive that Samson in the second story has become, as it were, a different man. In the first account, Samson is ‘in command’ both of himself and of the situation. In the second, Samson is in command of neither. Twenty years separate the two accounts, and Samson is no longer young. Nor, for that matter, is he any longer virtuous. Just prior to falling in love with Delilah, in fact, he had already become involved with a prostitute (16.1). In short, the aging Nazirite falls. Seduced unto the loss of his hair, the outward sign of his inner consecration, Samson is suddenly bereft of his great strength (16.17–20). And then, as though to guarantee that his Nazirite will never look at another woman, God permits Samson to be blinded. Unseeing, but faintly sensing the pagan world about him, Samson spends the ensuing years, day by day, grinding the Philistine grain (16.21). But all these things, even Samson's fall, are parts of God's providential plan (14.4). As tragic as any figure that ever graced the theatres of ancient Greece, blind Samson bides his time, and at last, though he cannot not see the light of it, there dawns the day of his deliverance. As the multitude of Samson's taunters assemble in their temple, he knows what he will do. Sensing the strength that returned slowly to his frame as the hair returned slowly to his head, Samson resolves to redeem his tarnished life by the sacrifice of a selfless death. Praying for the grace to do so (16.28–30), he wreaks his final destruction on the Philistines by forcing one last display of his mighty strength.
Patrick Henry Readon is a senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, www. Touchstonemag.com
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