Seeing Samson's Cross-Eyed Reflection

BY DONAVON RILEY

For the past twenty years that I've been a Christian, I've not found any evidence in my reading of Judges 13-16 that qualifies Samson for the "book of faith" (Hebrews 11). Selfish, manipulative, short-tempered, and homicidally violent, Samson's a borderline-psychotic personality. Maybe that's why I've always had a problem with Samson being held up as a "hero of the faith." He reminds me too much of me.

Judges 13-16 is also a vivid example of God's faithful, loving, kindness. He's even the Life of those, like Samson, who live to take life. Is there anything more contrary to our way of thinking about justice and mercy than that? That God's judgement vindicates hang-em-high judges, or that he's merciful to merciless people?

Samson's blood lust is just the beginning of his faults. Not only is Samson merciless, he's girl-crazy. He's always getting himself into a jam with the Israelites because he couldn't stay away from women from the other side of the tracks. His heart is always divided between his desire to serve as judge of Israel and his passion for Philistine woman.

But, God made a promise to Samson's parents. Manoah and his wife, who's unable to carry a child in her womb, gives birth to a son who will begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines. And God keeps his promise in spite of Samson's numerous destructive decisions. From the first time Samson goes down to Timnah to Samson's final sanctified suicide, God is always with his chosen redeemer.

Samson ignores God's promise throughout his life. As a consequence, he gloats over the number of men he's killed, and holds this up as a show of his strength. And God, like the father in the parable, waits for his prodigal to turn from his self-destructive ways and come home.

To put it another way, if God's mercy were an elastic cord, Samson would have snapped it. He struggles against the laws that set him apart and is led by passion rather than conviction. In many ways, God makes Samson a mirror which Israel is made to look at, to see the truth about itself. And they don't like what they're shown!

But, Samson is proof of what St. Paul later writes that: "This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring" (Romans 9:8).

Judges 13-16 isn't about how Samson fails, even though that can easily grab our attention. After all, Judges 13-16 is like an epic Rated R sword-and-sandal movie. Sex, violence, betrayal, vengeance. Judges 13-16 has it all!

Instead, when we put aside Samson's passions and homicidal rages, what we're shown by God is that Samson also acts as a mirror of the Lord’s love for all his children. God desires to redeem his chosen people in spite of their efforts (great or small) to undo his promises.

Samson’s life is an example for us that God is faithful, loving, and kind even when we're stuttering and stumbling through the life and work he gives us. But even when we fail miserably, as Samson does more than once, and even when we're defeated by our own morally bankrupt, self-destructive decisions, God remains true to his promise.The God of Israel vindicates us with his judgements. He's merciful even when we're merciless. 

He's with Samson at the end, when the judge of Israel finally cries out in his weakness, "“O Lord GOD, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes" (Judges 16:28). Samson has to have everything taken from him, even his sight, before he realizes that God has been his "strength and shield" all along. Only then does he cling to God's promise in faith.

So now, when I read Judges 13-16, I look at Samson through Jesus' cross... and Samson comforts me, because he reminds me of me: proof that the LORD keeps his promises. AMEN.

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.
Twitter @DonavonRiley