When Delilah realized that he had told her his whole secret, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, “This time come up, for he has told his whole secret to me.” Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her, and brought the money in their hands. She let him fall asleep on her lap; and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. He began to weaken, and his strength left him. —Judges 16: 18-19
“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord”—it reads like a refrain throughout the book of Judges. Just when it appears that the Jews have learned their lesson and rejected the idolatrous practices of the people around them, the new generation falls for the same familiar temptations, predictably throwing the country into turmoil once more. Invincible as they may have felt with God “on their side,” they discover—for the umpteenth time—that they are just as vulnerable as their enemies. Not even Samson, the strongest of all the Israelites, is exempt.
The son of Mano'ah and his wife, who is never named, Samson is another of what some have referred to as the “miracle babies of the Bible.” Like Abraham and Sarah, Samson’s parents are childless until they are visited by an angel of the Lord, who tells them, “[Y]ou shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
As a life-long Nazirite—as opposed to one who takes these vows for a designated period of time—Samson is never to drink wine or consume any product made from grapes, never to touch the dead body of either a person or animal, and never to cut his hair. At various points in his life, he manages to disregard all three admonitions.
The story resumes with Samson's desire to marry a Philistine woman, despite his parents' objections. What they don’t know, however, is that he is “seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines,” under whose rule the Israelites had been living. He has his opportunity soon enough.
While traveling near the Philistine town of Timnah, where his wife-to-be lives, Samson encounters a young lion, which he kills bare-handed. Sometime later he returns, and finding the carcass full of honey, he scoops it out, eats some and gives the rest to his parents. Then, as if gloating, he challenges his wedding guests to solve a riddle: “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.” What is it? When no one is able to guess the answer after seven days, Samson’s wife pleads with him to confide in her. When he does, she tells her people, giving Samson a reason to kill 30 of the Philistines who have learned his secret.
Samson’s father-in-law responds by giving his daughter to one of Samson’s best friends, an act that initiates a cycle of violence and revenge: Samson burns the Philistines’ fields; the Philistines burn his wife and her father; Samson carries out a “great slaughter” on the enemy. Fearing retribution from their rulers, the Israelites confront Samson, and after gaining his cooperation, give him over to the Philistines. Once again, though, Samson turns the situation around, killing a thousand of these men with the jawbone of an ass. Nothing, it seems, can stop him.
But then comes Delilah. Aware of his weakness for women, the Philistines have asked her to “[c]oax him, and find out what makes his strength so great.” Motivated by the eleven hundred pieces of silver she’ll receive if she succeeds, Delilah attempts to wheedle the truth out of him. Finally, she gets what she wants; Samson tells her that his strength comes from his hair, which has never been—and must never be—cut. Predictably, the moment Samson falls asleep, the Philistines sneak in and cut his hair, leaving him with the power of an ordinary man. To make him even less of a threat, they gouge out his eyes and put him to work milling grain.
What the Philistines don’t realize, of course, is that as Samson’s hair begins to grow, so will his strength. Assuming he is still incapacitated, they take him out of prison to “entertain” them. Only feigning weakness, Samson asks to be placed between two pillars of the house so that he might lean on them. The Philistines oblige, and Samson proceeds to topple the supports, bringing the whole structure down and killing them all, including himself.
Is Samson’s strategy a success? Yes and no. He does accomplish what he sets out to do—that is, he defeats the Philistines—but at what price? In his hubris, he loses not only those he loves, but also his life. Like the blind seers of Greek myth, he learns the cost of pride firsthand, discovering that he is vulnerable—and human—after all.
O God, guard us from the assumption that we are infallible; that we, unlike the rest of your children, have no limitations; that we, unlike Samson, will always reap what we sow in pride.