Sunday, July 22, 2007

Strength and Wisdom (Judges 13-16)

The people once again are given over by the Lord to a group of oppressors for their unfaithfulness – this time it’s the Philistines. As we read about how God raises up this next judge, we are treated to the most dramatic childbirth story since Isaac.

It starts the same way as many others. A man named Manoah has a wife who is unable to have children. The angel of the Lord then appears to them out of nowhere with glorious news:
Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.
The stunned couple asks the angel his name, to which he replies:
Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?
They offer a sacrifice to the Lord, the worker of wonders. The angel then rises up to heaven in the flames of alter. Manoah and his wife fall to the ground, terrified, because they now realize they have seen God face to face.

What a grand introduction to the life of Samson! And, in terms of raw power, the man does not disappoint. When the Holy Spirit comes over him, Samson is simply unstoppable. He tears a lion apart with his bare hands, unhinges the gates of a city and carries them on his back, and kills a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone.

However, what the man has in strength, he lacks in wisdom and vision. He marries a foreign woman, showing contempt for his father and his nation. His great acts of power throughout his entire career are not motivated out of a desire to lead or save Israel, but only to avenge personal wrongs. And, when the Philistines realize they cannot beat him in a fight, they find him easily seduced by a pretty woman.

This woman, Delilah, feigns love for him in order to determine his Achilles Heel. He tells her it’s being tied up with bowstrings – and the next day he wakes up tied up with bowstrings. He says new ropes never fail – and he finds himself bound with new ropes. He tells her weaving his hair in a loom is the ticket – and lo and behold his hair somehow gets woven into a loom.

It’s apparently great fun teasing her, but eventually she wears him down:
And she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and you have not told me where your great strength lies.” And when she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death. And he told her all his heart, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.”
Samson is a total fool - a icon of strength without wisdom. His idiocy is downright painful to watch. He wakes up to find his hair cut and his strength gone. The Philistines capture him, blind him, and chain him to a millstone (rewarding Delilah with a fortune). So much for the deliverer of Israel.

Though Samson may not be a great leader or visionary, there is actually a sense in which he is the perfect representative of Israel. The people as a whole are just like him! They are the product of an amazing miraculous promise, and have a high calling that will bring blessing to the world. The Lord is faithful to them, giving them great power over their enemies. And yet they are petty, easily distracted by worthless pursuits, lacking the vision to appreciate what God has given them. The secret of Israel’s power lay in their covenant with God, but they are easily seduced to follow other gods. Though their enemies could never conquer them with the Lord on their side, they are now easily oppressed and humiliated.

And yet, like the mutilated Samson grinding at the mill, they cry out to the Lord for help and restoration.

Samson’s story ends with the Holy Spirit descending on him for a final blaze of glory. He had been brought to the temple of Dagon as a trophy during a great Philistine celebration. Now he stretches out his great arms against the central pillars and brings the entire building down on top of him. And we are told that Samson killed in his death more Philistines than he did in his life.

Here again is a shadow of things to come. There will be a king who is both the power and wisdom of God. Israel’s greatest salvation for the world will come by this king stretching out his arms and dying. He will bring more blessing to the nations in that one moment than all the acts of Israel throughout their history.

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