April showers come in dazzling white in Nova Scotia! “April is”, as T.S. Eliot observes, “the cruellest month” and he never even visited the Maritimes! But this too shall pass. There are more important things to think about than the vagaries of the weather. In Chapel we have embarked upon the lenten discipline of a study of The Book of Judges.
The story of Samson is a major part of The Book of Judges and contributes to its overarching themes in and through the folkloric character of many of its stories. Samson is the proverbial strong man, the “Rocky” of the Old Testament, as it were, and yet as a judge in Israel, he is not defined primarily or essentially by his strength or by any human quality but by “the Spirit of the Lord”. That is the tension in the story of Samson within the struggles of the conquest of the “promised land”. Yet what looks like tribal conflicts is really about something deeper, about what defines Israel over and against the Philistines. One of the most famous passages is the story of Samson and Delilah.
What is that story about? It is about what truly defines Samson. He is from his birth, as he tells Delilah, a Nazirite. He has been dedicated to God and that dedication is expressed in terms of a set of defining disciplines such as not cutting his hair, not drinking wine nor eating grapes, and avoiding carrion flesh. In other words, he is defined by his relation to God. It is “the Spirit of the Lord” that matters and not his physical strength. What happens if we deny the principle that defines us? What happens if we trust more in our own strength rather than in the Spirit of the Lord who is radically other than the ‘gods’ of the Philistines? The Book of Judges is about those questions which distinguish and define Israel.
And while that theme appears in the context of violence and conflict, the deeper point is that something greater is at work in Israel than just tribal identities. In other words, being defined by God ultimately transcends the tribal. That lesson is part of the long, long journey of Israel’s learning what it means to be the people of the Law. Judges shows us how hard the journey of learning is and yet how necessary. It especially provides a necessary critique of human pride and presumption. In that sense it complements other works from other traditions that also present a self-critique of reason and human presumption.
Delilah prevails upon Samson to reveal to her the secret of his strength. Samson is not just the strong man. Nor is he just the riddler. No. He is the guy who has the hair! He betrays himself in revealing to Delilah his vow symbolized in the discipline of not cutting his hair. It has everything to do with his relation to God. But in telling her, he gives the Philistines, through Delilah, power over him. They bind him and gouge out his eyes and make sport of him. The strong man has become the plaything of the Philistines.
I can’t help but think about the parallels between this scene and Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. What happens to Samson is the consequence of his betrayal of his vow, a kind of anagnorisis, perhaps, a moment of realization or recognition for Samson. When Oedipus, who thought he knew who he was, discovers that he was wrong, and so learns the truth about himself, he puts out his own eyes. As Aristotle notes, his anagnorisis, his moment of recognition, is equally his peripeteia, his reversal of situation. He goes from being king to being nobody. His self-blinding is a dramatic and violent image. It highlights that when he saw he didn’t see for he is blind to who he is. In a way, he is acknowledging the truth of another kind of knowing, the prophetic knowing or intellectus of the blind poet, Teiresias, who knew who Oedipus was. Though he told him, Oedipus couldn’t understand the truth of what Teiresias was saying until he figured it out for himself. That meant learning about the limits of human knowing and human presumption. The great virtue of Oedipus lies in his quest to know no matter how painful and hard that knowledge might be.
In the Biblical perspective, God makes something strong and good out of our weakness and self-betrayal, out of our folly and presumption. The charismatic leaders - the Judges - are flawed and limited. The Book of Judges constantly emphasizes this in order to recall Israel to God and the Law over and against the idolatries of the tribes around them. The strength of Israel lies not in herself but in God. The final story of Samson is about his victory over the Philistines by pulling the pillars of their temple dedicated to Dagon, a Canaanite deity, down upon himself and upon a great number of the Philistines. Does this make Samson an early prototype of the suicide bomber? Is he an early poster boy for the legitimation of suicide? Such things run the risk of mistaking the example of Samson and missing the deeper point. Samson’s act is neither the nihilism of Jihadis nor an assertion of the autonomy of the atomized individual. He is moved, as Judges emphasizes, by “the Spirit of the Lord”. In the context of The Book of Judges, Samson’s death brings justice to the Philistines and reveals the Spirit of the Lord.
These are all lessons in the school of hard knocks, lessons learned through sin and suffering, even through betrayal and violence. It is not a pretty picture nor is it intended to be. Our brief study of Judges shows the violence of our humanity, not to encourage or promote violence, but to know it and to take steps against its force and power in our own communities and lives. Just as the birth of Samson is a kind of foreshadowing of Christ’s nativity, so too his death is seen sacrificially and in anticipation of Christ’s passion and death. Next week is Holy Week in which we immerse ourselves in the Passion of Christ. As with The Book of Judges, the struggle of our learning is to find and to follow the thread of wisdom that runs through the powerful accounts of the Passion of Christ in the Gospels. Christ’s crucifixion, Lancelot Andrewes says, is liber charitatis, the book of love, opened for us to read. Every part of the Passion is a little window into the greater goodness of God in spite of human evil and folly.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
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