Gideon’s weakness was the perfect canvas on which to display the Lord’s power. A braver, more capable military leader could have claimed credit for God’s victory over the Midianites. But Gideon’s fear and doubt made it clear that it was God’s victory alone.
Gideon’s story is enriched when placed alongside the biblical account of another familiar figure. Several generations after Gideon, the Lord raised up a judge in Israel named Samson. The beginnings of their stories share some remarkable parallels. Yet, in terms of their personal dispositions, Gideon and Samson could not have been more opposite. Whereas Gideon was timid and fearful, Samson was brash and reckless. The former saw himself as weak and inadequate; the latter arrogantly believed himself to be invincible. Despite those stark contrasts, the Lord worked through both men to fulfill His sovereign purposes for Israel.
Samson himself is a study in contradiction—a man endowed with supernatural strength whose feats of might belong to the world of children’s fantasy heroes. Yet that unparalleled strength and power, corrupted and forfeited by his untamed passion, diminished him into a tragically pitiful weakling. But when he was weakest, the Lord used Samson in the mightiest act of his astonishing life.
Born to Be Wild?
In the thirteenth chapter of Judges, Samson’s story begins much like Gideon’s did. The Israelites were, once again, under the thumb of a foreign enemy: the Philistines. After years of oppression, the Angel of the Lord—another pre-incarnate appearance of the Son of God—came to commission a new deliverer for His people. In this case, He presented Himself to Samson’s parents, announcing to them that they would soon have a son who would one day be used by God to rescue the nation. Samson’s father, Manoah, responded to the Angel’s report in the same way Gideon had—by bringing a young goat and some grain as an offering to the Lord. What happened next is recorded in Judges 13:19–20:
So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering and offered it on the rock to the Lord, and He performed wonders while Manoah and his wife looked on. For it came about when the flame went up from the altar toward heaven, that the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground. (Judges 13:19-20)
As He had done for Gideon, the Lord turned the sacrifice into a miraculous verification of His divine identity. Manoah and his wife were understandably filled with terror when they realized that they had seen God (Judges 13:22). Like Gideon, they thought they were going to die in divine judgment because they were sinners (cf. Judges 6:22–23).
Samson’s mother had been barren before the Angel of the Lord promised her that she would give birth to a unique son. The Lord also gave her specific instructions regarding her pregnancy. She was not to drink wine or eat anything that was ceremonially unclean. Also, after the child was born, she was not to cut his hair because Samson was to be a Nazirite. The word Nazirite comes from the Hebrew word meaning, “to separate.” In Numbers 6:1–8, the Lord gave specific restrictions for those who took this vow of separation: no drinking of alcohol, no cutting of the hair, and no touching of a dead body. This was to externally symbolize the person’s commitment to holy living.
The fact that Samson from birth was to be separated had little effect on how he actually lived as an adult. Throughout his life, he would violate all three of the Nazirite prohibitions (touching a dead body—in Judges 14:8–9; drinking at his wedding feast—in Judges 14:10–11; and allowing his head to be shaved—in Judges 16:19). He became a man driven by fleshly desires, especially his illicit and unrestrained passion for pagan women. Scripture describes him as having a stubborn will, irrational desires, and a violent temper—a volatile combination. Ultimately, Samson’s wild disregard for the Lord’s clear commands would make his life a legendary tragedy, with his infatuation for Philistine women at the center.
Crashing His Own Wedding
In spite of Samson’s flagrant sin, for which he paid a terrible price, God still had a purpose for him to serve in rescuing Israel from Philistine aggression. When God wanted him to have supernatural empowerment for his appointed role, the Spirit of the Lord would come upon him and he would display humanly impossible feats of strength, always related to the destruction of the Philistines.
It all was launched when, as a young man, Samson insisted on marrying a Philistine woman—a union that was expressly forbidden by God (Deuteronomy 7:1–5; cf. Judges 3:5–7). The text emphasizes the fact that Samson saw the young woman and that she was pleasing in his sight, implying that his interest in her was entirely superficial. Though his parents tried to dissuade him from the marriage, Samson ignored their counsel and persisted until he got his way (Judges 14:3).
While walking to the town where his pagan fiancée lived, Samson was ambushed by a lion, an event not unheard of in ancient Israel. Normally, the odds would favor the large predatory cat, with its sharp claws and ferocious fangs. But this time, the lion was to be the victim, as God protected Samson for future exploits. According to Judges 14:6, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon [Samson] mightily, so that he tore [the lion] as one tears a young goat though he had nothing in his hand.”
Several months later, when Samson passed that way again, he saw the lion’s carcass and went to investigate, probably expecting it to be full of flies and maggots. Instead, a colony of bees had taken up residence inside. Avoiding the dead body was required by his Nazirite vow, but Samson ignored that and collected honey from the carcass, eating it as he walked along the road. He even offered some to his parents when he arrived home.
When the betrothal period ended and wedding preparations were complete, Samson travelled back to his fiancée’s hometown for the feast. Such pagan celebrations typically lasted seven days and primarily consisted of drunken revelry. The biblical text indicates that Samson was joined by thirty Philistine young men, whose relationship to him is somewhat unclear. They must have been acquaintances of the bride who had been invited as guests to the feast, and they may also have been guards ordered to watch Samson, whom the Philistines probably already viewed with suspicion. In an effort to embarrass them, the young groom, who was likely drunk himself, challenged the Philistine men with an impossible riddle based on his lion-killing adventure.
Then Samson said to them, “Let me now propound a riddle to you; if you will indeed tell it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes. But if you are unable to tell me, then you shall give me thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes.” And they said to him, “Propound your riddle, that we may hear it.” So he said to them, “Out of the eater came something to eat, And out of the strong came something sweet.” But they could not tell the riddle in three days. (Judges 14:12-14)
Out of frustration over their inability to solve the riddle, the thirty humiliated men cornered Samson’s wife, threatening to burn her and her father’s house unless she told them the meaning of her husband’s riddle. In a preview of Samson’s later relationship with Delilah, his bride incessantly begged him to reveal the riddle to her. He initially refused, but her relentless pleading eventually won out.
When the Philistine men produced the correct answer, Samson knew his new bride had betrayed him. Enraged, he traveled to Ashkelon (a Philistine city twenty-three miles away), killed thirty men, and brought back their garments in order to make good on his promised reward for solving the riddle (Judges 14:19). Still fuming, after his slaughter had fed his fury, he left the woman and returned to his parents.
It is sadly ironic that, though identified as one of his nation’s foremost judges, Samson never made any attempt to drive Israel’s enemies out of the land. In fact, he was happy to interact with the Philistines, even to the point of marrying one of them. Though he was only interested in serving himself, the Lord would superintend Samson’s selfish choices to secure Israel’s deliverance and ensure Philistia’s demise (cf. Judges 14:4).
Next time we’ll see how Samson’s weak character led to the loss of his supernatural strength.
(Adapted from Twelve Unlikely Heroes.)