Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Re-examining Samson’s First Philistine Romance


Before Samson ever met Delilah, near the beginning of his story, we are told about his romance with another Philistine woman who remains nameless.

1 And Samson went down to Timnath, and saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines.
2 And he came up, and told his father and his mother, and said, I have seen a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines: now therefore get her for me to wife.
Then his father and his mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines? And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well.  (Judges 14:1-3)

This relationship automatically strikes us as bad news because of the commandment to not intermarry with the Canaanites, so we usually think of the Philistines as the beautiful-enticing-forbidden-evil type.  We think of Samson as someone who is just foolishly captivated with one look at this woman.

However, I suspect that it may not have been that simple.

Consider that the Israelites had forsaken the Lord and served Baal, and at this stage the Israelite girls may not have been much different from the Philistines.  When Israel is corrupted like everyone else, the commandment to marry inside the covenant seems either near impossible or near meaningless.

There is also at least one sign that Samson’s interest in this Philistine woman was not based on her looks because when he loses her, her father offers Samson her younger sister who is “fairer than she.” (Judges 15:2)  If Samson had only been interested in beauty he would have gone for the younger sister in the first place, so he must have seen something in this particular woman that he liked more than physical beauty.

Also, when it says he saw her, we don’t know how long he watched.  Did he glance once and fall in love?  Or did he observe her and what she did? 

How does this change our notion of the choice Samson has?  It is easy to say “marry in the covenant” when there are lots of possible choices who are good, but the choice becomes much harder if you find a good person outside the covenant community and the choices inside have corrupted themselves.

I’m not excusing Samson; it is important to marry in the covenant, but I think we underestimate the difficulties he was up against.

If we change our assumptions about this Philistine girl and assume she was better than most, the rest of the story with her becomes kind of a tragedy because Samson marries her, but then loses her.  The writer of Judges makes meaning out of it this way: “it was of the Lord, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.” (Judges 14:4).

It seems that Samson’s relationship with this girl was meant to highlight the problems with Philistine society in such a way that Israel would eventually become determined to fight their way out from under Philistine dominion.  Samson was to be a judge in Israel, so the judge has to see where the injustice is.

Let’s look at how this happens.

First there’s a bit of traveling back and forth to Timnath and on one trip, Samson meets a lion that attacks and he tears it to pieces.  On the second trip, Samson goes by the lion carcass and notices that a hive of bees has taken up residence inside it and made some honey.  It’s very odd; something you wouldn’t expect would ever happen, but the detail becomes important later.

Next there is some feasting as part of the marriage.

10 ¶So his father went down unto the woman: and Samson made there a feast; for so used the young men to do.
11 And it came to pass, when they saw him, that they brought thirty companions to be with him. (Judges 14:10-11)

It is kind of the people to bring 30 companions to Samson to help him celebrate his marriage properly, but it puts Samson in a tricky situation.  Here he is, one Israelite among 30 Philistines at a party.  Is this a spiritually safe place?  The potential for negative peer pressure is huge.  The potential for all kinds of raunchy things to happen is huge.  What does Samson do?

He proposes a riddle to them that has to do with the strange thing—bees making honey inside a lion carcass--he saw on the way to Timnath.  I almost have to wonder if this was an attempt to distract and dominate the focus and conversation of these 30 companions so as to prevent them from pulling out the wine and so forth.

12 ¶And Samson said unto them, I will now put forth a riddle unto you: if ye can certainly declare it me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty sheets and thirty change of garments:
13 But if ye cannot declare it me, then shall ye give me thirty sheets and thirty change of garments. And they said unto him, Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it.
14 And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle. (Judges 14:12-14)

To make it really exciting, Samson proposes a bet to go with the riddle.  If you notice, the terms of the bet are really unequal.  If the Philistines lose, each one of them only needs to provide one change of clothing, but if Samson loses, then he has to provide them with 30 changes all by himself.  This bet has the potential to either bankrupt Samson or enrich him.  The terms are also extremely gentle on the Philistines.  (This is a time when clothing took a lot of manual labor to make, so a single extra outfit would be a big deal, and 30 extra outfits would be unheard-of largesse.)

Sadly, the Philistines are bad sports and they cheat.

And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson’s wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so? (Judges 14:15)

What does this tell us about Philistine character?  They can’t stand the idea of losing to an Israelite.  So they cheat and ask Samson’s new bride to help them.  Actually, they don’t ask; they demand and threaten.  She must find out the answer for them or they will burn her and her whole family.  (We have to note that this woman was threatened, unlike Delilah, who was bribed with an enormous sum of money.)

The 30 companions also suspect that this riddle was cooked up by the bride and her family with Samson as a family conspiracy to impoverish the Philistine neighbors instead of just to be nice to Samson and give him some friends to celebrate with.  Because the 30 companions think they are being cheated, they think they are allowed to cheat back. 

Notice— the Philistines are bad losers, suspicious, cheaters, and extortioners.

16 And Samson’s wife wept before him, and said, Thou dost but hate me, and lovest me not: thou hast put forth a riddle unto the children of my people, and hast not told it me. And he said unto her, Behold, I have not told it my father nor my mother, and shall I tell it thee?
17 And she wept before him the seven days, while their feast lasted: and it came to pass on the seventh day, that he told her, because she lay sore upon him: and she told the riddle to the children of her people.
18 And the men of the city said unto him on the seventh day before the sun went down, What is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion? And he said unto them, If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle. (Judges 14:16-18)

It is sad, but Samson’s bride caves to the pressure from her people.  I personally have to wonder what I would have done instead if I were in her place.  I could tell Samson, but what could he do to help?  (Well, we see later he could do plenty, but she didn’t know that.)

And Samson’s bride eventually worms the answer to the riddle out of him and tells it to her people.  The 30 Philistines give the answer to Samson in a way that makes it seem like they just figured it out by logic, but the nature of the riddle is such that it can’t be figured out through logic. 

Naturally, Samson recognizes that they have used his wife as a tool.  And he’s mad.

19 ¶And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle. And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father’s house.
20 But Samson’s wife was given to his companion, whom he had used as his friend.  (Judges 14:19-20)

The fact that Samson went and killed 30 men in Ashkelon and looted them to pay his debt shows that he was perfectly capable of protecting his wife and her family.  If she had just stood firm and confided in him, he could have helped protect her and her family.  Or they could have moved into Israelite territory instead.

Samson paid his debt, but he was still mad at his wife, so he went back to his father’s house.  On one hand, you have to give him credit for not directly taking that anger out on her or the 30 companions.  On the other hand, withdrawing still caused problems because it gave the impression that he had abandoned his wife and that she could be married again to someone else.    

So she did marry again.  And to whom?  “to his companion, whom he had used as his friend”  This may have been one of those 30 Philistines who had been brought to Samson to celebrate with him, one of the group that had threatened Samson’s bride and her family!

What does this tell us about the Philistines?

It tells us that the Philistines had a very loose idea of what constituted divorce.  It’s looser than what our society has today, but they interpreted Samson’s mere absence to mean he had divorced her.  And it wasn’t just the men who thought this, but Samson’s new bride did too and her father.

This girl had plenty of time to get married before Samson got interested in her, but she wasn’t, which makes it seem like no one had even noticed her or wanted her before Samson showed any interest.  Then after the wedding and after Samson leaves in a huff, someone else is interested in her now.  The Philistines don’t seem to want something until someone else wants it.

Trouble happens when Samson cools down and wants to make up with the missus.

1 But it came to pass within a while after, in the time of wheat harvest, that Samson visited his wife with a kid; and he said, I will go in to my wife into the chamber. But her father would not suffer him to go in.
2 And her father said, I verily thought that thou hadst utterly hated her; therefore I gave her to thy companion: is not her younger sister fairer than she? take her, I pray thee, instead of her.

Samson may have been mad, but he still considered himself married, unlike the woman he married.  And you have to give him credit for bringing a gift with him to try to smooth things over.  I imagine at that time bringing home a goat would be like bringing home a paycheck today.   But he’s prevented from even getting close to his bride, by the father, who gives him the bad news that she’s no longer his wife.  That must have been absolutely devastating.

The father thinks he can placate Samson by offering Samson marry his bride’s younger sister instead, but this dismisses Samson’s whole basis for choosing the girl he did.  If he wanted the first girl for her character, her young sister isn’t necessarily going to be the same way.

So what does Samson do about this?

3 ¶And Samson said concerning them, Now shall I be more blameless than the Philistines, though I do them a displeasure.
4 And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails.
5 And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks, and also the standing corn, with the vineyards and olives.
6 ¶Then the Philistines said, Who hath done this? And they answered, Samson, the son in law of the Timnite, because he had taken his wife, and given her to his companion. And the Philistines came up, and burnt her and her father with fire. (Judges 15:3-6)

What Samson does to the Philistines strikes us as really extreme, not to mention cruel to the foxes.  However, consider that according to the Law of Moses, his wife had essentially been permitted to commit adultery with one of his companions.  The father’s protest only gives plausible deniability.  For adultery, his bride and the man whom she’d been allowed to marry should have been burned, but the Philistines all think there is nothing wrong with the remarriage, so their whole society is culpable as well. 

Seen this way, Samson’s burning of the Philistine fields, crops, vineyards, and olives is a mild warning.

Samson’s use of the foxes can also be seen as a sort of object lesson, albeit a cruel one.  The two foxes tied together by their tails might represent marriage, and the firebrand between them represented both the power inherent in sexual activity.  300 couples with a fire between them that they can’t (or won’t) control or which pulls them in different directions would destroy a town’s society just like those 300 foxes destroyed the Philistine crops.

Okay, so what do the Philistines do when they find out Samson has done this?  Do they go after him?  No.  They go and burn his wife and her father.  There is not a word about punishing the companion who had married her. 

At this stage, it becomes rather ambiguous about whether the Philistines burned Samson’s wife and father-in-law as retaliation for Samson’s act, or whether it was imperfectly and belatedly executed justice and they hoped to get Samson off their back with a show of doing the proper thing.

What does this tell us about Philistine justice?  They make a show of justice, but it isn’t really just.

What is Samson’s reaction? Is he going to accept it?

7 ¶And Samson said unto them, Though ye have done this, yet will I be avenged of you, and after that I will cease.
8 And he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter: and he went down and dwelt in the top of the rock Etam.

I think what Samson is saying here is that because they let the companion go and killed his bride and her father, by law that looks like retaliation and not justice, so that indicates yet another way their society is messed up and he has to do something about that. 

So he kills a bunch of them.  I don’t know what “smote them hip and thigh” means.  It sounds like an obscure idiom.

9 ¶Then the Philistines went up, and pitched in Judah, and spread themselves in Lehi.
10 And the men of Judah said, Why are ye come up against us? And they answered, To bind Samson are we come up, to do to him as he hath done to us.
11 Then three thousand men of Judah went to the top of the rock Etam, and said to Samson, Knowest thou not that the Philistines are rulers over us? what is this that thou hast done unto us? And he said unto them, As they did unto me, so have I done unto them.

As an oldest child who used to help settle fights among my younger siblings, I read this and kind of snicker because it sounds like the protests I heard at the beginning when both parties were squawking.

Actually, it is another sign of the problems in Philistine society because they knew what they had done and they would not take correction, especially not from one man, and certainly not from an Israelite. 

Even though the justification of both the Philistines and Samson are incredibly abbreviated here, we must assume that the men of Judah got an earful of both sides of the story, enough that they would be able to tell where the fault was.  Yet because they were under the dominion of the Philistines and they didn’t want to rock the boat, they took the Philistine side!  They had enough people that they could have taken Samson’s side, and fought the Philistines, but instead they did the equivalent of delivering the judge into the hands of the criminals.   

12 And they said unto him, We are come down to bind thee, that we may deliver thee into the hand of the Philistines. And Samson said unto them, Swear unto me, that ye will not fall upon me yourselves.
13 And they spake unto him, saying, No; but we will bind thee fast, and deliver thee into their hand: but surely we will not kill thee. And they bound him with two new cords, and brought him up from the rock.
14 ¶And when he came unto Lehi, the Philistines shouted against him: and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands.
15 And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.

As we have seen, the Philistines would not give Samson justice, so he had to take matters into his own hands.  In doing so, Samson made powerful enemies.  His own people wouldn’t maintain his cause and would only promise to not kill him themselves.  Samson really had no one to help him but God.  And when it came down to this moment of greatest extremity, God helped Samson and gave him the strength to fight and maintain his cause as judge against an army of Philistines.

Even when no one else was willing to do justice, and Samson was alone, God helped him execute justice.  (And yes, here execute is an appropriate word.)  No wonder he served as judge in Israel for 20 years. 

Reading this makes me thankful for the justice system we have today.  It also shows the importance of having a fair justice system. 

The way Samson is able to stand when everyone is against him teaches me something about what it will be like at the second coming when Christ comes again.  It also teaches me about Christ’s ability to judge at the final judgment when all are brought before Him.

At the beginning of this post, I pointed out that the writer of these chapters makes meaning out of Samson’s unfortunate experience with the Philistine woman this way: “it was of the Lord, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.” (Judges 14:4).

Samson experience reveals the Philistines to be:
--entertained by high risk bets, but unwilling to risk losing to someone of lower status
--bad sports
--cheaters
--demanding and threatening in order to get their way
--extortionate
--suspicious, suspecting conspiracy where there is none, or at least making a show of it to manipulate
--loose in their views of marriage and grounds for divorce
--unjust
--retaliatory

It seems the Lord was trying to show the Israelites the problems that were caused by being under Philistine dominion, by showing them how they could not ally themselves with that way of life.  Samson became an irritating factor to stir things up.  His strength through his Nazarite vow was supposed to show the Israelites they could be stronger by keeping their covenants.  Sadly, so many Israelites missed the message of hope that Samson was supposed to be.

The lesson for us today is that the Lord does not want us to be comfortable wallowing in our sins, and He will and does bring irritating factors into our lives to try to show us our sins are bad for us, to show us we should fight the sin instead of giving in to it, to show us the real evil of our sins.