We’re doing a sermon series this August on ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ As part of the series, I’m posting some old sermons on random, bizarre stories of the bible. Here’s one from Judges 15. Turns out, Samson’s not the savory character we make him out to be when teaching his story to children.
“With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps (of bodies), with the jawbone of a donkey I have slain a thousand men.”
This is the Word of the Lord?
Samson said to them, “If this is what you do, I swear I will not stop until I have taken revenge on you.”
This is God’s Word?
As I’ve confessed before, I’m a closet Calvinist. So I know the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.
In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.
And most of the time I believe that.
But today I wonder.
I wonder about scripture like:
“Samson said: when I do evil to the Philistines, I will be without blame…
So he struck them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”
I wonder how this is (or ever was) God’s Word?
The Book of Judges could be the book of the bible people have in mind when they say dismissive things like: ‘The Old Testament- it’s so bloody and violent.”
It’s in the Book of Judges that the tribe of Judah- the People of God- kill ten thousand Canaanites and then celebrate their victory by cutting off the thumbs and toes of the Canaanite leader.
The Judge Gideon is well-known for the 300 trumpets that give God’s People a surprising victory over the Midianites. Not as well known is that Gideon later slaughters a whole city of his own people out of rage.
It’s in the Book of Judges that Abimelech, Gideon’s son, executes all seventy of his brothers on the same altar stone.
It’s in the Book of Judges that Jephthah burns his daughter, his only child, alive to honor a victory God gave him over the Ammonites.
That’s all in the Book of Judges, God’s Word.
And it’s in the Book of Judges that Samson, the hero of children’s stories, first kills 30 after losing a wedding feast bet; then kills even more for the death of his wife and father-in-law; then kills 1,000 of the Philistines who try to capture him; and finally kills over 3,000 in a dying act of revenge.
I don’t know what they told you in Sunday School, but Samson is like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Wiener and Tony Soprano rolled into one.
Samson’s story is blood-soaked and sordid, it’s seedy and salacious. Samson’s sinful and selfish and, ultimately, a failure.
But that’s not how his story was supposed to go.
His birth announcement came by way of angelic annunciation. When the angel gives his mother the good news, the angels tells her that her son is to be set apart- just as God wants his People to be set apart from the idolatrous peoples around them.
So, her son is to drink no wine, to touch nothing unclean and to cut not a hair from his head. Her son is to deliver Israel from the Philistines who rule over them. That’s what it meant to be a judge.
After Samson grows, the Spirit of the Lord stirs in him; the Spirit of the Lord blesses him; the Spirt of the Lord gifts him with great strength.
But being blessed by God and fulfilling God’s will for your life are not the same thing.
Rather than being set apart, Samson sets his sights after a Philistine woman that catches his eye.
And when she’s given to another man, it sets off a spiral of vengeance that consumes him.
Samson sets fire to the city’s grain and crops and vineyards and olive groves. He ruins their whole economy, and they determine to ruin him. The Philistines retaliate by setting fire to the woman and her father.
For the two lives they take, Samson takes a great many more lives until, finally, blinded and shorn of his hair and bound in chains, Samson kills himself and takes 3,000 others with him.
‘So those Samson killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.’
That’s how Samson’s story ends.
This is the Word of God for the People of God.
What are we supposed to do with this scripture? What are we meant to learn from this scripture? How are we to believe God can speak through this scripture?
Perhaps, notes one biblical scholar, Samson’s story is meant to be a cautionary one. According to this biblical scholar, Samson illustrates “the challenges of God’s People remaining faithful in a hostile culture.”
Thus Samson is consecrated to not drink a drop of wine and instead he drinks himself into a violent rage.
Thus Samson is consecrated to never touch anything that is ritually unclean and instead he cannot keep his hands off of Philistine women.
Thus Samson is consecrated to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines, but the Israelites prefer the Philistines and they betray Samson into the enemy’s hands.
So perhaps the Word God wants us to hear in this story is a word of caution about living in a culture that doesn’t share our values. Perhaps.
But then what lesson are we to draw from the fact that Samson all but annihilates that culture with his final act of revenge?
Or maybe, argues another biblical commentator, God gives us Samson’s story to function like an allegory.
According to this biblical commentator, Samson signifies all of Israel. And so Samson’s promiscuity with the Philistine woman from Timnah, and after her with a Philistine prostitute, and after her with Delia- Samson’s promiscuity symbolizes Israel’s religious infidelity.
And the way God’s Spirit comes to Samson again and again and again when he least deserves it is a metaphor for how God can’t help but be faithful to God’s People.
So it’s kind of like Amazing Grace but with a much higher body count.
In his commentary on the Book of Judges, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said we should see Samson as a Christ-figure.
There’s the fact that his birth is announced by an angel to an unlikely mother-to-be- just like Jesus.
There’s the fact that from the day of his birth he’s set apart to bring deliverance to his people- just like Jesus.
There’s the fact that the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him and anoints him for God’s purpose- just like Jesus.
And he’s betrayed by his own people- just like Jesus.
He’s bound and handed over to his enemies- just like Jesus.
He’s tortured- just like Jesus.
He dies with his arms outstretched- just like Jesus.
And with the jawbone of a donkey he slays a thousand men- just like…no, wait.
Far be it from me to critique John Wesley, but he doesn’t answer the question any better than the biblical scholars do.
How is this God’s Word for us?
On October 2, 2006 Charles Carl Roberts carried his guns and his rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten children, killing five and then killing himself. The Amish community’s display of forgiveness, in the aftermath, became an international story.
Not as well-known is that eight days before the school shooting, in a neighboring Amish community in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, twelve-year-old Emmanuel King left his home around 5:30, as he did most mornings, to help a neighboring Amish family milk their cows.
He rode his scooter out his family’s mile-long farm lane and turned right onto Georgetown Road. As he rounded a slight turn, an oncoming pickup truck crossed the center line, struck little Emmanuel and threw him to the far side of the road.
The truck hit a fence post and sped away.
The next day, a reporter covering the hit-and-run accident went to Emmanuel’s home, but what the reporter found was not what he had expected- a gracious spirit toward the woman whom police considered and later confirmed to be the hit-and-run suspect.
Emmanuel’s mother was grief-stricken but nevertheless wanted to convey a message to the woman: “She should come here. We would like to see her,” she told the reporter. “We hold nothing against her. We would like to tell her we forgive her.”
When the driver read the newspaper headline, ‘A Boy’s Death, a Family’s Forgiveness,’ she did a surprising thing: she went to the King family home to receive their words of forgiveness. She returned again for Emmanuel’s viewing and again for his funeral. Over the next several weeks she came back three more times and, later, she bought a new scooter for the children on what would have been Emmanuel’s thirteenth birthday.
When a reporter asked a family member why they would forgive the woman who killed their son and left him dead in the ditch, the reporter was told: “Because when you forgive, you’re the one set free.”
When you forgive, you are the one who is set free.
Even though Samson can break any bonds they bind him with; even though he can pull down the pillars of a palace; even though he can shake off any shackles they snap on him- Samson’s never really free.
He’s never really free because he never stops being a prisoner to the wrong that was done to him. He never stops being captive to thinking he’s without blame. He never escapes the urge to ‘do to them as they did to me.’
He’s never really free because Samson was a Judge for twenty years, yet when he dies, even after his eye-for-an-eye ways have left him blind, he dies praying vengeance for a wrong that by then is twenty years old.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve solicited your religious questions to help shape our fall sermon series. And many of your questions have been just what I would expect.
There have been questions about heaven and hell, salvation and people of other religions, faith and science, and homosexuality.
But what’s surprised me is that more so than any other question, you all have asked me questions about forgiveness:
What exactly is forgiveness?
How do I forgive?
How do I know if I’ve really forgiven my ex-husband?
If I tell my mom I forgive her for her drinking do the words mean forgiveness has happened or is something else required?
Do I have to forgive the person who abused me?
My brother hasn’t apologized for what he’s done to our family. Is it possible to forgive someone who doesn’t apologize?
How can I forgive God for my child’s cancer?
Are there conditions for forgiveness?
Is it ever too late to forgive?
Maybe God gives us this scripture because Samson hits closer to home than we think.
Sure, Samson torches the tails of foxes, but plenty of you know what its like to set off land mines in your marriages.
Sure, Samson sets fire to vineyards and olive groves, but plenty of you know what its like to burn and smolder with anger.
Samson slays with a jawbone, but plenty of you know what its like to grab after any word you can find to hurt someone who hurt you.
You know what its like to be convinced you’re the one without blame.
You know what its like to say they did it to me first, they have it coming, they deserve what they get.
Sure, Samson pulls down the pillars of a palace, but he’s not the only one who’s nursed a resentment for twenty years.
He’s not the only one whose life got derailed, whose gifts from God got wasted, whose purpose in life went unfulfilled because of a wrong that went unforgiven.
Samson hits close to home.
So I want you to know-
Even though he can tear a lion in half with his bare hands; even though he can slay one thousand men with a jawbone, even though he can shrug off chains like they were melted wax- Samson’s actually incredibly weak.
Even though he had the strength to bring down the walls of a castle- Samson never had the strength to forgive.
Because with his dying breath, Samson prays for revenge.
But with his dying breath before he gives up his Spirit, Jesus Christ prays ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’
If you think Samson is stronger then you haven’t lived.
To bear the cost yourself of a wrong done to you takes strength.
To refuse to make someone pay for what they did to you takes strength.
To refrain from lashing out at someone when that’s all you want to do takes strength.
It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness hurts.
It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness can feel like agony.
It takes incredible strength because that sort of forgiveness will only add to your suffering.
To give up all the anger, to sacrifice every justification you’re entitled to, to absorb the pain done to you rather than pass it on, that is suffering.
But with Jesus Christ as my witness, it’s the only suffering that leads to Resurrection.
Because when you forgive, you’re the one who’s set free.
This is the Word of the Lord.