By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Judges, chapters 13-16
At Trinity we believe in the power of narrative, of stories. Our once monthly outreach, Fusion, focuses on fusing or connecting the bible story with our own personal stories. At our September Fusion, Morris was our storyteller and he reminded us, among other things, that the ways in which our stories connect, evolve, and are interpreted over time has a significant impact on us as individuals and communities.
For those of you who are traditionalists, next week I will return to our customary worship format in which a few verses of scripture are read and then expounded upon in the morning message. But this morning, like the prior three Sundays, I’ll be telling the bible story. We often don’t consider the fact that many stories of our Old Testament circulated orally for centuries before they were put into written form. And, as they were told, like the stories within our lives, they evolved, influenced and impacted by how the faith community understood and interpreted their experiences.
This morning I’m wrapping up this month’s focus on Hebrew bible stories with heroic characters and I’m preaching on Samson. Now, I have never preached – nor have I ever heard preached – a sermon on Samson. So, some background is necessary. Let’s start with a little audience participation. What do you know about Samson?
So, before I tell the story of Samson this morning, I need to provide some historical background. If you’re a history buff, this morning is for you.
The Jewish people trace their heritage back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish (or Hebrew) nation. Abraham and Sarah were barren until God appeared before Abraham to announce that he and Sarah would have a son and, eventually, many descendents who would be granted or gifted land from God – an area of land known as Canaan. God also declared they would be a blessing to all people… an important part of the promise.
Abraham and Sarah have Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah have twins, Jacob and Esau. Jacob has 12 sons. Why is that important? There will come to be, historically, 12 tribes of Israel. One of those sons is Joseph of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. He’s the spoiled baby of the family; his dad makes him a special, fancy coat. His big brothers are really sick of him and what happens to him?
Right, sold into slavery in Egypt. But, it turns out to be a “God thing.” Joseph has a God-given gift for dream interpretation (this is critical to this morning’s message about Samson… Joseph has a God-given gift and his willingness to use that gift wisely, means deliverance for so many people). Pharaoh of Egypt has a crazy dream. Joseph interprets it. A drought and famine are coming. So armed with this information, the Pharaoh is able to prepare for this disaster by stockpiling crops. The famine comes and people from across the Mesopotamian region stream into Egypt as environmental refugees in a desperate attempt to secure food. That results, eventually, in the arrival of Joseph’s entire family in Egypt. They receive asylum because of the critical role Joseph played in the Egyptian government at the time of this crisis. So the Hebrews have left Canaan (due to drought and famine) and they have migrated to Egypt. But eventually, time passes and Egypt feels the economic and political stress and strain of those refugees and a government plan is put in place to control their population. The Hebrews are consigned to forced labor and the government orders the death of all new-born Hebrew boys. But one baby boy manages to live and, miraculously, winds up being discovered and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. Who is that little boy?
Right. Moses will eventually grow up to see and discern the dreadful plight of his ancestral people and, in time, God will call him to function as deliverer of those people leading to what we know as The Exodus, the journey through the wilderness that – due to a lot of disobedience – not bad navigation – stretches across 40 years. God uses that 40 year journey to codify his relationship with these Hebrew people through what is, technically, the Sinai Covenant, but learned by most of us in Sunday School as The Ten Commandments. Central to those commandments are something we probably didn’t learn about in Sunday School, The Holiness Code... again, important to the story of Samson. That code, in a nutshell, says this: the Hebrew people were to set apart for God and God’s purposes. They were not to offer their allegiance to other gods. They were to be loyal, primarily, to Yahweh (the God of the Hebrews). And in order to be “set apart,” they weren’t supposed to marry people from other religions, follow their customs, or devote themselves to their gods… gods like Baal or ba’al. The destination of the Exodus is back to Canaan, the very land that Joseph’s brothers’ fled at the time of famine. So, they are not entering a new land; they are returning to the land God originally gave to Abraham and his descendents. But, there have been and still are a lot of other people/tribes living in Canaan.
So now Joshua – famous, again in Sunday School, for the battle of Jericho – leads the Hebrew people into the land of Canaan to drive out the current occupants and take back the land.
But this process doesn’t go smoothly. The people squabble among themselves and they do, in fact, get led astray by the other people living in Canaan. Just before his death, Joshua instructs (Joshua, chapters 23-24) the people to fish or cut bait; to stop screwing around and playing games with their religion. If they will devote themselves fully and entirely to their God, Yahweh, then God will protect them and provide for them. But if they keep screwing around, worshiping other gods, bickering with one another, doing whatever they feel like doing, it’s going to be one train wreck after another. And, it is. Yet even so, every time things start to break down and fall apart and they cry out to God, God responds and God raises up a new leader to help them… although, more often than not, those leaders are pretty lame. Those leaders were known as judges, the final judge being named Samson. Now, they weren’t judges in the way we understand that role today. They were, primarily, military leaders that helped to deliver the Israelites from the various inhabitants of Canaan who threatened, oppressed and attacked them. Principal among these threatening inhabitants were the Philistines, who we talked about last week.
The last judge God raised up for the Israelites was Samson and his call was to deliver God’s people from the Philistines. But Samson does a pretty lame job. In fact, he gives “sleeping with the enemy” literal meaning.
Now, the story of Samson occupies chapters 13-16 of the book of Judges. It likely began as a series of stories that circulated and were later kind of woven together into a narrative composite.
Now the birth of Samson is miraculous. Samson’s mother is barren. We have other bible stories about barren couples and miraculous births: there’s Isaac, Samuel, John the Baptist. In particular, there are connecting threads with John the Baptist. Both feature an angelic pronouncement. Now, the angel appears to Samson’s mother and appears to John’s father. But in both cases, the guys are kind of thick headed about it. The men challenge the angels who don’t really appreciate it very much. But the mothers are significantly more in tune with what’s happening. Also, in both cases, these boys to be born – John and Samson – are never to drink alcohol. They are to have a distinctive lifestyle from the very beginning that will identify them as being holy, set apart for God’s purposes. Samson will be set apart for the purpose of delivering the Israelites from Philistine oppression. John the Baptist will be set apart for a ministry of preparing the Israelites for the coming of Jesus. The way they were instructed to live was to be an outward sign of their holy calling.
Now, John the Baptist hit it out of the ballpark. Samson mostly struck out.
First story of Samson… He grows up and a pretty Philistine girl catches his eye. He tells his parents he wants to marry her and they should set it up. They’re not very happy about it. But who knows; maybe this is part of the plot to overthrow the Philistines, so they do it. Samson is a dude who loves riddles; mostly he seems to love messing with people. At his wedding reception, he tells the people in his wife’s village a riddle and enters a wager with them. They can’t figure it out. They pressure and threaten his new bride and her family. So she whines and nags Samson who finally tells her; she, in turn, tells the villagers. Samson, furious, murders thirty Philistines as revenge. But notice: he didn’t put an end to the Philistines in an effort to liberate the Israelites. He murdered them because they got one over on him. There’s nothing noble and heroic here. Samson uses his God-given gift of remarkable physical strength and stamina to get back at people who stole the answer to his riddle.
Samson is angry at his wife, too and goes home to live with mom and dad. Since he’s run off, his wife’s father gives her to the best man to be his wife. But she’s pretty and Samson decides he wants her back. He goes to talk to her father and learns that he married her off and, once again, he’s angry and exacts revenge. He catches 300 foxes and ties them tail to tail to torches and sets them loose in the wheat fields and vineyards of his father-in-law’s village. The rest of the people in the village don’t appreciate all their crops being burned. When they learn who did it, they exact revenge on Samson’s ex-wife and her family, killing them all. When Samson sees that, he attacks them for killing his ex-wife. Then retreats to an Israelite village to hide out. The Philistines pursue him. The Israelites want to know why Samson is putting their village at risk. Samson allows them to turn him over to the Philistines but when they take him captive, he breaks his bonds and counter attacks… once again putting to use his dramatic physical strength and stamina and kills 1,000 Philistine men.
Time passes. Samson goes to spend the night with a Philistine prostitute. The men of the village hear he’s in town. They are going to wait ‘til morning and attack him. But he gets up during the night, somehow wise to their plan, and on his way out of town destroys the city gates, leaving the city defenseless. Once again, not a move to liberate the Israelite people; just revenge. At every turn, there is nothing noble about the actions of Samson. He is not a man of the people. He is an army of one and he is consistently looking out for number one.
The end of his story, the end of his life, is the part that most of us know. He falls in love with yet another Philistine woman, named Delilah. Now when the Philistine leaders discover this they instruct Delilah: she needs to get to the bottom of the source of Samson’s supernatural strength and they promise her a hefty reward. Eventually Samson succumbs to her feminine wiles, or maybe her nagging just wears him down, and he tells her the truth. His hair is cut while he is sleeping, his strength drains from him, and the Philistine warlords are able to capture him.
They gouge out his eyes… customary for that period of history. They shackle him. Eventually they take Samson, in shackles, to a religious feast in praise of their god, Dagon. But Samson’s hair has been growing and he feels his strength returning. He asks someone in attendance to position him between two pillars of the building. The building is filled with Philistines there to worship and feast and celebrate. And now, for what appears to be the first time in his life, Samson prays. But it is not a prayer of repentance or a prayer for the deliverance of Israel. His prayer is this: “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.” And with that, Samson pushes at the pillars, the building collapses and Samson and all the Philistines within the building perish. That is the story of the “hero” Samson.
So, what are to learn from this story of Samson? What lesson can there be for us and for our time. Well, first of all, there’s the obvious lesson that we need to be careful how we define “heroes.”
But I think there is a lesson even more important and germane to our times. We live in a culture focused on identifying our gifts and talents for personal advancement and self-gratification. There are countless companies and inventories to determine where our special gifts and talents lie; an array of tests and tools to unlock our hidden potential with the inherent implication that our gifts belong to us. Our gifts and talents can be used to make us successful, influential, rich and fully content.
Yet our gifts, while they may be unique to us are not our personal possession. Samson was – like all of us, consecrated and set apart for God. Samson was gifted with supernatural strength in order to carry out God’s purpose of delivering the Israelites from their Philistine oppressors. Yet he consistently used his gift in selfish ways. Nothing could have been less honorable than what Samson did. The story of Samson is a sad, sad story of what happens when we neglect or reject our identity as holy people, people set apart for God and God’s purposes. Samson’s strength was intended to be used to deliver the Israelites from Philistine oppression. But Samson turned holy deliverance into personal, petty revenge. Every mess he got into was of his own making. He didn’t fix anything. He compounded the problem. His strategy was more like poking the bear; he just got the Philistines increasingly riled up.
Friends: this is an ancient story. But God’s call over our lives is timeless. In every time and in every place, there are people held captive and oppressed. And in every time and in every place, God calls AND GIFTS his people to be set apart for his holy purposes, his sacred work. Whatever you have, whatever you are able to do well, whatever blessing or gift you have, its source is God. God has blessed and gifted you with some skill or talent or ability that God wants you to use in order to serve God’s people.
Friends, we are the hands and feet of God in this world. The exercise of human freedom can and does impact God’s divine will and purposes here on earth. Our gifts and abilities are not ours alone; they are to be used for God’s work and God’s people.
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