Judges 15

Judges 15
by Pastor Mark Hudson

In our chapter, we discover a violent, destructive Samson.  Recall, that Samson stands out from his fellow Israelites.  In v. 11, the men of Judah have made peace with the Philistines.  Not Samson. In 13:5, “and he (God through Samson) shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”  In 14:4, “for he (presumably the Lord) was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.”  Samson can deliver and that meant fighting.  Oppressors do not give up the oppressed without a fight.  The south, prior to the civil war, had no plans to give away their free labor.  The Philistines willing to move on from Israel.

In the story of Samson, Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative notices the key word following Samson is fire.  “The various cords that fail to bind him are likened to flax dissolving in fire . . . (15:14).  The thirty Philistine men threaten his first wife with death by fire if she does not obtain the answer to Samson’s riddle (14:15).  When Samson is discarded as a husband by the action of his first father-in-law, he responds by tying torches to the tails of foxes and setting the Philistine fields on fire (15:4-5).  The immediate reaction of the Philistines is to make a roaring bonfire out of the household of Samson’s recent wife, with her and her father in the midst of the flames (15:6).   . . . fire has become a metonymic image of Samson himself: a blind, uncontrolled force, leaving a terrible swath of destruction behind it, finally consuming itself together with whatever stands in its way” (p. 94-95).

Another article I copied years ago (but cannot reference) by M.A. Berkenbosch commenting on the lion in chapter 14 “is a symbol of the danger toward which Samson is headed, a warning that he’s in dangerous territory. Since Samson easily defeats the lion, this is also a hopeful sign – a sign of the power and victory that will be his as long as he walks in the strength of the Spirit of God.  The dead lion is a hopeful , encouraging symbol.

But wait – a lengthening shadow falls over the story.  . . . Samson doesn’t heed the warning of the lion and carries on his love affair with the Timnite girl.”  Then Samson defiles himself by touching the carcass of the lion.  “And in that moment Samson defiles himself and spoils his consecration.

Do you see what is happening?  The lion Samson defeated now returns to defeat him.  The lion, once a hopeful symbol of Samson’s victory, now becomes a symbol of his defeat.

There is a terrible division and contradiction in Samson’s life.  One the one hand, he can meet and defeat his enemy.  On the other hand, the enemy easily overcomes him.  He is awfully strong and terribly weak.  Samson’s life is a riddle”  (Merkenbosch pp.246-7).

Later Merkenbosch discloses interesting parallels with Samson and Israel, Samson and the church, and Samson and the gospel.  But first, since we spoke about the enigma of Samson, what can we say about the Philistines?   Dale R. Davis looks at this narrative from another angle.  Davis observes a solution/failure structure in chapters 14-16.  He shows the structure on p. 176 of his commentary

Episode 1                    14:5-20

Solution          answer to riddle

Failure             slaughter at Ashkelon

Episode 2                     15:1-6a

Solution          Samson gone; peace restored

Girl given to best man

Failure             flaming foxes

Episode 3                      15:6b-8

Solution          burn Timnite woman

And father

Failure             slaughter by Samson

Episode 4                   15:9-17

Solution          Samson bound

Failure             “Jawbone Hill”

Episode 5                    16:1-3

Solution          Ambush the playboy

Failure             portable gates

Episode 6                     16:4-30

Major pattern:

Solution          Hair shaved

Failure             Tragedy at Dagon’s Place

Subsidiary patterns:


7 bowstrings              16:6-9a

New ropes                  16:1-12a

Loom                          16:13-14

Razor                           16:15-19

Davis’ point is that from the Philistines view point they would experience a solution or success.  But that success or solution would turn into failure.  Yes, the Philistines solve a riddle, but they lose 30 men.  Yes, Samson is gone, and his “wife” marries a Philistine.  But then they lose their crop which may peril even more lives and livelihoods.  Then they burn the Timnite woman and her father.  But here comes Samson with another slaughter (hip and thigh).  Samson is turned over to the Philistines which turns into a slaughter of 1,000 at Jawbone Hill.  The Philistines ambush Samson only to see the city gates removed and the city left defenseless in Gaza.  The Philistines finally find out the secret of Samson’s strength, and take him to Gaza and make fun of him.  His hair is beginning to grow.  Samson, in his death, kills more on that day than all he killed in his life.

So, if Samson is so bad, what does that say about the Philistines?  This is one big joke against the Philistines.  Where are the dead Jews?  Not one has been killed. But thousands of the Philistines have died.  So, while Samson is a tragedy and certainly is not at his best, what does this say about the Philistines?  Israel may even see humor as Samson, in all his bumbling and fumbling, mocks the Philistines.

Merkenbosch is correct in his analysis but so is Davis.  If Samson takes his calling lightly, the Philistines are worse.  Thousands die from Philistia even in the last moments of Samson’s life.  As they are laughing and drinking, Samson is about to end their lives.  So, who looks worse?

Back to Merkenbosch who in a section called the reason for the Samson story introduces this section with, “Any good Israelite with a conscience would feel the hot flush of shame on his cheeks when he heard this story.  He would recognize that this is not just the story of Samson the man, but of Israel the nation.”

Israel was the one who was specially born, specially nurtured, set aside to be God’s invincible army against the powers that opposed God’s kingdom.  . . . Israel was brought out of Egypt . . . so she could defend herself against the stalking lion that sought to destroy her and God’s cosmic plan of redemption . . . .   But when she settled in the land of Canaan . . . (she) became careless and, with hardly so much as a second thought, began to dip her hand into the carcass of Canaanite culture.  She pulled out whatever sweets she craved, sometimes a golden calf, sometime a Baal.

Israel had a wandering eye and a wavering heart.  For the sake of the forbidden honey of Canaan she violated her consecration before God.  You may ask, “How could God use such a blunt sword as Samson?”  Surely the better question would be, ‘How could God use such a blunt instrument as Israel the unfaithful.’”  (Merkenbosch p. 248).  He then continues with this same comparison with the church, and we fare no better.

But the gospel isn’t that God uses great people to accomplish His will.  The story of the Bible is a great God who uses sinful people to accomplish His plans.  God used a person who killed Christians to become the greatest Christian, evangelist and theologian.  It is still difficult to comprehend that he uses people like you and me to build His church.  Which is why we have multiple reasons to point people to Jesus Christ and not ourselves or our church.

Father, we thank You for allowing us to participate in the joyous work of spreading the gospel and worshipping together.  Why You invite us to this great work is still a mystery to us.  When we read of stories of Your people in times past, we shake our heads wondering how dense they can be . . . until we think of our neglect of You, our love of the world, our pride, all baptized in worldliness and (we assume) covered by our self-satisfying words.  But You are not so easily fooled.  Keep up focused on the gospel and looking in faith to Jesus Christ.  Help us to think more about You and Your work and less often about our own “importance.”  In our humble Servant’s name, Jesus Christ.  Amen.