“The Most Immoral Book in the Bible”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, July 9, 2023
Reading: Judges 16:23-30
I only get two cracks at you the rest of this summer, this week and next, before our August is filled with outstanding guest preachers. These are also my last two chances to preach in our series on strange texts in the Bible. This week we have Samson, as you heard, next week David and Goliath. These are two stories that never appear in the lectionary that assigns texts for Sunday worship. That’s why we’ve done this series. These stories are important. Even folks with little religious knowledge know that Samson is really strong, and David overcomes the odds. So, we preachers owe you a sermon about them once in a blue moon. The blue moon is here. What do we make of the Samson story? How is it good news for our lives?
The story is wild. Wilder even than its conclusion that you heard. Go home and read Judges 13-16 this afternoon and you’ll see what I mean.
I knew a man once who’d been in the foreign service of his country in Asia, trained by the Brits. The first thing he did every morning was fall out of bed and punch out 100 push-ups. Or was it 500? Can’t remember. Some ridiculous number. He told me if someone tried to stab his chest, the knife would bend before it cut into him. I couldn’t tell if he was joking. But the way his pecs looked, who knew? There was something legendary, mythical in his claims, but also something true—dude was shredded. I felt safer around him. In real life, the line between fable and reality can be hard to find. How much more in the Bible.
Samson is born to a barren couple in Israel, like so many important figures in our faith. An angel appears and tells his parents they’ll conceive, and their child is never to cut his hair. That untouched hair will be a sign of God’s blessing. It’s odd that our culture in recent centuries frowned on men leaving their hair long. This just shows how far social convention and biblical faith can be from one another. In the Samson story, long hair is a sign of strength and devotion to God. A few weeks back we mentioned the she-bears that maul 42 children in another strange text in 2nd Kings. The children taunted Elisha as “old bald head.” It wasn’t just a diss. Elijah was known as a hairy man. To call Elisha “hairless” was to say he was no Elijah. Turns out the kids were wrong, they realized as they were being mauled. Good news for those of us who are balding: God can use even us. Now don’t curse anyone, or ask she-bears to maul anybody, okay bald guys? John the Baptist is also a wild man with wild locks. Even Victorian images of Jesus have his hair long, blow-dried looking, styled. Samson’s hair is a sign of his God-given strength.
But his Philistine enemies don’t know this is the source of his strength.
When our son Sam was born, he was nearly 11 pounds. And a friend suggested we call him Samson. ‘I mean, like Samson, your son is big and strong,’ she said. Yeah, we said, that story doesn’t end well. We’ll stick with Samuel. But you see her point. Samson is the strong man of the Bible. Many cultures admire physical strength. And when someone is in charge illegitimately, by force, not rule of law, we also call that one a “strongman.” The term is ambivalent.
And now you’re starting to see why we’re doing this series on strange texts. Because lots that people think comes from scripture, just ain’t there. In the 60s men grew their hair long as part of the counterculture. They didn’t realize they were imitating great men of the Bible. Neither did their critics. Growing long hair was seeking God’s strength even if they didn’t know it. When my Cree friend became a Christian, he cut his hair. He’d been implicitly told that being Christian meant having a European hairstyle. Nope. Now he wears his hair long. Except when his parents died. Then he cut his braids and placed them in his parent’s coffins. Because a part of him died with them. Our moralistic forebears, bless their hearts, turned the Bible into a children’s book of good and bad behaviour. But the Bible won’t bend like that. It’s R-rated at best. It’s not a book about how to be good. The Bible is about how good God is to people who don’t deserve it, like us. And the book of Judges is the most unflattering portrait of humanity we have, in a very unflattering Bible.
The judges rule in Israel in a time without morals. Joshua is dead and has no real successor. Just these petty strongmen who vie with one another in how to behave the worst. Samson is the greatest of them, which just means he’s the greatest sinner. He asks his parents for a wife from Israel’s enemy, the Philistines. Then his misbehaviour results in his wife’s and her father’s gruesome deaths. Samson visits prostitutes. He casually kills and then celebrates it—once killing 1000 Philistines with — wait for it — the jawbone of an ass (really, look it up, I’m not making this stuff up, it’s in the book!). Samson is stronger than my secret service friend, ripping apart a lion with his bare hands. He has one weakness. If women nag him, he gives up his secrets. And beautiful Delilah, bribed by the Philistines, nags very well. Samson lies to her three times, the Philistines attack each time, but Samson still has his strength and defeats them. Until he tells the truth. Delilah has his hair cut while his head rests on her lap. Samson’s enemies are upon him, and his strength is gone, lying on the floor with his hair. The Philistines gouge his eyes out. They force their mutilated, captured archenemy to entertain them. Enemies are triumphant over Samson, praising their god Dagon. The book of Judges ends on this sad note: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all people did what was right in their own eyes.” Moral anarchy.
And you thought we had bad politicians.
I wonder what your greatest strength is. What’s the gift God has given you that’s unique, that you’re right to be proud of? I’ll give you a moment to think. But I bet you know already. Now, what’s your greatest weakness? Forgive me, this isn’t a job interview. ‘If you were a vegetable, what kind of vegetable would you be?’ Our strengths and weaknesses are usually very close to one another. Think of the gifted researcher who looks down on her less clever colleagues. Or the investor who’s too confident he’s mastered the fickle market. This is true of nations too—our strengths and weaknesses are nearly the same. My home USA has so much might we’re tempted to think we’ve mastered morality too. Nope. Canada is a middle-weight power and so is more invested in diplomacy and prides itself on being morally better than the US. That’s setting the bar kind of low, guys. But if Canada were in this Bible story, we’d have hammered out a peace treaty with the Philistines and set up health care in the land, though it would be chronically under-funded. Samson’s a champion of strength at a time when Israel feels weak. No central leadership, battered by its enemies. The memories here are of one man who was not weak. Until he was. Defeated not by bigger muscles, but by a beloved’s nagging. If Samson had had any sense, he’d have noticed Delilah was betraying him. But muscles can be an effort to make up for lack of intelligence, right? Strong as Samson is in one way, he’s a bit of a lug head. And now he’s blinded, mutilated, performing for cruel enemies in the house of their false god. It’s not just Samson who’s being mocked. It’s all Israel. ‘Look, your champion is our entertainment. Your strongman is our performing pet.’
One reason folks reject Christian faith, is for the Bible’s depiction of aberrant behaviour. Look at all the warfare. All the sex. All the petty rules. I see this differently. The Bible is deeply wise about human nature. It is never shocked at how we misbehave. In fact, scripture shows our fickle hearts on almost every page. God knows what he’s up against. The one person the Bible says we should imitate is Jesus. And we all fall short of that. Judges depicts our moral fragility and failure. ‘But look, we have a strong man! And he’s felled by pillow talk with his obviously unreliable lover.’ There is wisdom in the story, but no moral modeling. Our age is no better. We offer up celebrities for imitation—movie stars and athletes and entrepreneurs. The book of Judges is a little like our supermarket tabloids. Here are all the garish ways we misbehave. Except Judges is aware these behaviors are aberrant. The tabloids, and we who feast on celebrity culture, not so much.
In Leonard Cohen’s great song “Hallelujah,” he splices together the Samson story with the David story. He sings, “She took your throne, she cut your hair.” Cohen might have been Canadian, but he’s the world’s treasure. Leonard Cohen gets that the Old Testament is no triumph. It’s a profound dirge. The chorus in the book of Judges is this: ‘Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.’ Israel is humanity, and we are nothing but failure. But a dirge can be useful. A friend of mine found Cohen’s song saved his life. When he went through a divorce, he put that song on repeat. And its mournful “hallelujah” taught him to say that word again. First with bitterness. How could this happen to me? Then with resolution. Here I am at my lowest. And eventually with gladness. I’m still here. Maybe there is life after this.
Think about our theatre, not just on King Street but writ large. We modern English speakers love comedy. A show has to end in triumph, or we won’t buy tickets. Our Greek ancestors were the opposite. They loved tragedy. If they didn’t bawl their eyes out, they wouldn’t buy tickets. The Bible is neither comedy nor tragedy. It’s a lament. ‘Is there any sorrow like mine?’ it asks. Lament is like a good cry. Afterwards you feel better. The word “hallelujah” is a ladder from the grave to God’s own presence. The word in Hebrew means “praise the Lord.” The Bible shows us our failure. And in Christ, God absorbs our failure and gives us back resurrection. That’s the best trade there’s ever been.
Samson’s strength is not his own. It’s God’s. Our strength is not our own. It’s God’s. And this story shows not to rely on it too much. Our strengths are usually our downfall. Samson’s long hair is a sign of God’s blessing. But his hair is not magic. If you or I grow our hair longer we won’t suddenly have Samson’s strength. We’d have to hit the gym. A friend of mine explains why he won’t lift weights. They’re heavy. Haven’t you noticed?! In our story Samson turns to God for very the first time, when he’s at his lowest. This is the only place in his four-chapter story where Samson prays, or remembers God, or has need of God at all. He prays, “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me.” Not a bad prayer, at last. Samson’s great strength was why he had no need of prayer or God before. Now, with his strength gone, he realizes how needy he is, how needy he’s always been, and he prays. There is weakness in strength: you think you need nothing. There is strength in weakness: you realize you need God and other people. If we surveyed ourselves in here, or listening online, I’d bet 90 percent of us got interested in God out of some weakness. Someone we love died. Or we got sick. Or we realized our own frailty. And we prayed. Someone wise said: “God never wastes a weakness.” The cutting of Samson’s hair, his loss of strength, his falling to his Philistine enemies, maybe that all was God’s gift to him. It made him realize his need. Made him pray. For the first time.
What about you? What makes you pray? Really pray? Not for a parking place. But for life in the face of death?
In Israel’s story, it’s always tempted either to fight with or to sleep with its enemies. Something very human in that. In the Samson story we see both. He kills countless Philistines. He sleeps with other Philistines. You already know from more than one sermon that Rome conquered Judah in 70 AD and destroyed the temple. Jesus foresees this catastrophe in a few places. What you may not have heard, because it’s after the New Testament is written, is that Judah rebelled again in the 130s AD. This time with no temple to destroy, the Romans banned Jews from Judea. You can’t live in the promised land anymore. They even changed Judea’s name on the map. And what did Rome change Judea’s name to? Palestine. The land of the Philistines. Rome wanted to erase Judea forever and so renamed the place for Israel’s enemy. It didn’t work. They only made Judaism greater. In English when we want to say someone is being a boor, or that they have no artistic refinement, we can call them a Philistine. Which is ironic since Samson’s that in our story. The modern nation-state of Israel is, of course, a western ally with nuclear weapons. And apparently the plan’s name for Israel to use those nukes is the Samson plan. Israel knows it’s so small that if they use nuclear weapons on their enemies, it’ll destroy them too. The waste will make the region uninhabitable. But like Samson they’ll kill more enemies in death than they did in life. Bring the roof down on everybody’s head. In a last operatic act of death, take more of them out than ever.
You see how frightfully applicable these stories are to real life?
The conclusion of the Samson story is bloody revenge. He kills more Philistines with his death than he did with his bloody life. And that’s saying something. Samson is Rambo. Or John Wick. The unkillable hero. We love that story. The only problem is it’s not true. In real war, violence doesn’t distinguish between the hero and the coward. There is no unkillable champion. When Donald Trump said he was only interested in soldiers who don’t get captured, attacking John McCain, he showed again his vast ignorance. To be a soldier is to face death. You can’t always cheat it. Samson is the soldier who pulls the pin on the grenade. Heroic vengeance. Fitting for his life.
The New Testament is no hero’s story. Jesus talks feisty, but when the soldiers come for him, he does no violence. His disciples have two swords ready, not exactly a vast armory, but Jesus rebukes them. Put those silly things away. He hardly defends himself at trial. He goes to his death with forgiveness for those who ask for it, and for those who don’t, for all of us humanity that crucify him. We’re the Philistines, mutilating our Lord, mocking him. And he responds not like Samson, by murdering us all, but by giving us all life. Jesus is no hero bent on revenge. He is more like a martyr, but not even quite that. He is God—the source of all life—on that death-dealing cross. That’s the strangest story in the whole Bible. I can understand and explain the Samson story. I can’t understand or explain the Jesus story. No one can. But it’s life unending. That’s why we follow this man. Badly, we all follow Jesus badly. But we can’t help but follow. He is life itself.
There are even some signs of Jesus’ coming triumph in the Samson story. Samson asks his captors to let him lean on two pillars. Presumably he’s tired from entertaining the Philistine hordes. They uncuff him and grant him this pitiful mercy. The story says, “he leaned his weight against the pillars, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other.” That is, he made a cruciform shape, arms outstretched. Our Christian ancestors saw this as a dark sign of Jesus’ coming cross. As Samson slayed his enemies through death, so too would Jesus slay us, his enemies, with his death. And then give us life with his resurrection. Christian faith is always tempted to turn ours into a heroic story of champions conquering. We did that with the crusades, with the conquest of the Americas, Mr. Trump’s fans see him that way. Perhaps the Samson story shows us to have a little sympathy. When you feel weak, you seek a strongman to fight for you. The problem is strength always runs out in the end – turns on you. All strength can do is kill; it can’t give life. Here’s a truer story, the Bible’s story, God’s story. Triumph really happens through weakness. Crucifixion. Not killing others, but ourselves; not a strongman but an innocent tortured to death; not conquest but being conquered.
The Bible is not a moral colouring book. It is a book of horrors. And when we read it right, we see the horror we make of our world. And we see something even more shocking. God makes himself a horror to give life to all of us who don’t deserve it.
So let us pray. Gracious God. We want a champion. You give us a baffling rabbi betrayed by us, his friends, tortured to death by Roman enemies, buried in a borrowed tomb. We are tempted by the way of strength. Give us instead Jesus’ weak way of resurrection. Amen.