Judges 13:1-16:31 – Samson against the Philistines
SummarySamson is unlike the other judges whom God raised up to deliver the people from oppression. Samson is, rather, a "hero" who exercises a personal vendetta against his opponents.
Only two elements in the recurrent pattern remain in the Samson story: apostasy and oppression (13:1). We look in vain for a cry for help or deliverance from the Philistines. Instead, during the forty-year period of Philistine oppression, an angel of the Lord appeared to the barren wife of an Israelite named Manoah with the announcement that she would miraculously bear a son. He was to be a Nazirite, "dedicated" to the Lord at the time of his birth. Numbers 6 provides more information about Nazirites. They were forbidden to touch the carcass of dead bodies, to drink alcoholic beverages, or to cut their hair. The special purpose for which Samson was dedicated was the beginning of the deliverance of Israel from the hand of the Philistines (13:5). When the boy was born he was called Samson ("Sunshine"), and as he grew the Lord blessed him (13:24).
As he grew up, however, Samson proved to be a disappointment. His incredible strength was not paired with an exemplary character. Though his feats usually resulted in the death of huge numbers of Philistines, the purpose for which he had been dedicated, readers are appalled at the cruelty and disregard for human life that emerges from these exploits. In addition, by touching the carcass of a lion (14:5-9) and hosting the extravagant celebration in 14:10, Samson broke two of the three Nazirite vows. The breaking of the third vow would come later.
Samson was finally overcome by Delilah ("Hair [?]; "Night" [?]). The Philistine rulers offered her an enormous fee to discover the secret of Samson's prodigious strength. Each of the leaders pledged 1,100 pieces of silver at a time when the priests earned 10 pieces of silver annually. At first, Samson teased Delilah and lied to her about the source of his prowess. But ultimately she discovered the truth, had his hair cut (thereby breaking Samson's third Nazirite vow), and left him helpless before the Philistines who blinded him and forced him to grind grain at the prison mill.
The tragic story of Samson ends with his death. After his hair had grown back, he was led, still blind and in chains, to a celebration in honor of the Philistine god Dagon. With a prayer of vengeance on his lips (16:28), Samson dislodged the two pillars supporting the temple. He died, along with thousands of Philistines, in the collapse of the building, ironically fulfilling the purpose given at his birth: "It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines" (13:5, emphasis added). The struggle for deliverance would continue under the leadership of Samuel, Saul, and David.
Samson is usually seen in contrast to the other "judges." In some ways, however, Samson most closely exemplifies Israel in this period. His special status at the time of his birth recalls Israel's privileged position at the start of Judges, just as his disregard for the obligations that such a standing entails echoes Israel's apostasy.