Samson – A Hero of the Faith?

Samson is mentioned in two places in Scripture. The first is the story of Samson in Judges 13-16. The only other mention is in Hebrews 12 among a list of other Old Testament characters.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. (12:32-34)

As a group, faithfulness among those in this list varies widely. David was flawed, but also a man after God’s own heart. Samuel was generally faithful. Barak (Judges 4-5) was used by God, but required Deborah the prophet to accompany him.

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. … She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. (Judges 4:4-9)

Gideon (or Jerub-Baal) … there are a number of places in the story (Judges 6-8) where he acted faithfully before God but in the end “Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” (8:27)

The Lord used Jepthah (Judges 11-12) to subdue the Ammonites and Ephraimites – but he also sacrificed his daughter to satisfy a vow he made to “ensure victory.”  Not the kind of hero we would really like to emulate, nor do I think that it is consistent with the gospel.

It is not at all clear that inclusion on the list in Hebrews requires that we view these men as heroes of the faith. Some are, some are not. All were used by God to achieve his purposes. Of course, God also used Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus. As we will see in our walk through Isaiah, Cyrus is even called “his anointed.”  (Is. 45:1) But this certainly does not make Cyrus a hero of the faith.

So What? I recently heard a sermon that used the story of Samson as a foreshadowing of Jesus. The way that Samson was connected with Jesus disturbed me. A number of parallels were drawn – the divinely enabled birth of Samson to a woman unable to have children (13:2 ff), the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson (13:25, 14:19, 15:14), Samson sacrificed himself for his people (16:26-30 – more on this below). This preacher is not off by himself. Other Christians have viewed Samson as a type of Jesus, based on similarities between their lives.

I think this is a serious mistake.

There is a running theme through the Old and New Testament of God’s will being accomplished through children born through his promise to childless women (for example: Sarah, Rebekah (see Gen 25:21), Hannah (1 Sam. 1), and Elizabeth, but we could find others as well.) Samson does fall in this pattern and it is clear that Jesus does as well, in a far more profound way. Okay, but can we go beyond this?

Now the preacher did not claim that Samson was perfect – in fact far from it. He commented on the rather foolish interaction with Delilah. After the first three incidents, you would think Samson would realize that she was not to be trusted! He suggested that Samson’s self-confidence was such that he thought no one could ever defeat him and his hair was unimportant. That makes sense. Perhaps Samson’s biggest problem here was that he thought that his success was all his own doing and nothing could change it.

But here is the problem – there is no indication anywhere in the story of Samson as far as I can see, that he ever did anything except in his own self-interest and to satisfy his desires. Yes he defeated the Philistines (and was used by God to do so), but it was always because of some slight to himself.  His new wife betrayed his riddle (so he killed some Philistines to satisfy his debt), his wife was given to another (because he deserted her), … which led to a couple more incidents and many deaths.

Later he met Delilah and fell for her. When his head was shaved he lost his strength, his eyes were gouged out and he was put to work … “But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.” (16:22) The preacher noted that the hair was not important – but the text isn’t as clear.

And then we get to the final episode.

Now the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to rejoice, and they said, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand.” And when the people saw him, they praised their god. For they said, “Our god has given our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.” And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, that he may entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he entertained them. They made him stand between the pillars. And Samson said to the young man who held him by the hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, that I may lean against them.” Now the house was full of men and women. All the lords of the Philistines were there, and on the roof there were about 3,000 men and women, who looked on while Samson entertained.

Then Samson called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life. (16:23-30)

Note that, contrary to what this preacher asserted, Samson did not sacrifice himself for the people of Israel. Rather we read that Samson wanted to be avenged for the loss of his eyes, and likely for the mocking he was forced to endure. Again … it was all about himself.  God used Samson to defeat Philistines – but not because anything about Samson or his motives was ever focused on concern for others.

Samson was motivated by a desire for revenge … because he had been humiliated. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek and prayed from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)  He did give up his life as a ransom for many and he never (ever) sought revenge for slights against himself … even to death on the cross.

Samson did “believe in God” but it seems to me that he also viewed God as a servant to his needs rather than himself as a servant of the most high God.

We need the Old Testament. But we need it for what it is, not for what we wish it was. Not every hero is … is a hero, that is. Some stories are not really appropriate for children and we shouldn’t attempt to make then into what they are not.

What do you think?

Is there something I’ve missed?

How should we view and use the story of Samson?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

I welcome comments that enlighten us on the topic or ask questions. Expressions of disagreement, agreement, and elaboration are also welcome. Comments are moderated and comments that are excessively long, are abusive or aggressive, or are off-topic will not appear. Imagine that you are holding a conversation over coffee with a friend and you want to remain friends. Your first comment will be held for moderation – subsequent comments will usually appear automatically.

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3 Responses to Samson – A Hero of the Faith?

  1. I think Samson was a hero of the faith, but I do not have time to respond right now. Hopefully, later I will. I do think it is worthwhile to take a second look at the record we have. There are multiple ways to read a story, assuming the worst and assuming the best.

  2. Anton says:

    If Hebrews says Samson is a hero of the faith, he is. But how and why is also a mystery to me. Maybe to show others that God is bigger than the way we think about heroism?

  3. Allen Browne says:

    Completely agreed, RJS. Judges is a masterfully told story, recounting Israel’s inability to exist as a nation directly ruled by God (the king who rescued them and established his covenant to be their ruler and they his people at Sinai). Without enduring human leaders (“In those days Israel had no king”), they descend into unrestrained violence, almost destroying themselves (Benjamin as case in point).
    Within that trajectory, Samson is introduced as a kind of final hope of the ideal godly leader (Judges 13), but he never galvanizes his people to the cause and never frees Israel. He squanders his strength on personal revenge, dying as a suicide bomber. The writer has used our propensity for superheros to push us to question how we expect God to work, the developing story that starts going wrong with Gideon, has the direct expression of this message with Gideon’s son who claims to be king (Judges 9), and sets up for the horror of a leader who comes from Saul’s town (named x20 in Judges 20).
    Several good commentaries highlight this plotline, including Block (NAC) and Webb (NICOT).

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