Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Samson's wife: the worst wedding ever (Judges 14:1-15:8)

What we learn about women:
  • Women, as weaker members in the world's power structure, can become the horrible incarnation of the suffering which is the inherent result of evil.
  • We see an example of a woman faced with a choice between two bad options choose the worse one and suffer more than she might have otherwise.
  • Beauty is not an unmitigated good. Though we see it as offering a measure of power to women who possess it, it can also be a magnet that draws attention from even more powerful people who want to exploit.
What I'm wondering: (If you aren't familiar with these stories, read below first to make sense of the questions.)
  • Samson's wife appears to be a mere pawn in this story. Could she have used the little agency she had for a better outcome?
  • Is there an echo of this kind of conflict in the current horrific events in Palestine? What are the women who are "pawns" under the authority and power of the violent men of Gaza to do? 

It's time to talk about Samson and the women in his life. If you grew up in church, you probably encountered Samson as some sort of a strongman superhero in Sunday school. But the passages in the book of Judges that tell his story are not so fun and kid-friendly. These passages do have two interesting female characters that will contribute to our project. One is Samson's wife, though his marriage is of no significant length due to the chaos and tragedy that typify Judges. The other is his lover, also implicated in dark drama. Both women are crucial for moving his story forward. Neither knows God. But we are told repeatedly that in the context of the untrustworthy women and evil events that characterize Samson's life, God's Spirit is with him and helping him. This post will focus on Samson's wife, the next one on the notorious Delilah.

I have to confess that on first reading, the horror of everything that Samson is involved with makes me want to shut the book. These chapters recount mass killing, deceit upon deceit, animal cruelty, and burning alive to name a few. I'm sticking with it to try to keep to this task of putting together the whole biblical picture of women in the Bible without avoiding inconvenient parts. I read Matthew Henry's commentary to get some additional perspective, and I was surprised to see that though he acknowledged plainly the evil inherent in much of the action, he was not as squeamish as I felt about the totality of the story. He focused in on the fact that many of the people who are doing and receiving evil in the story are self-designated enemies of God. (Samson excluded.) Henry is able to look at Samson as a super hero fighting bad guys who deserve it. I think that context is important to keep in mind for those of us who are accustomed to a post-Christ way of seeing everyone in the world as a possible redeemed child of God. That was still true back in the days of the Judges. But this story focuses more on the deliverance of the people of God from those who do not chose to be redeemed than the redemption and turning of God's enemies into friends. Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising to see God's judgment on display in a book entitled, "Judges."

Samson chooses for his wife a Philistine babe who "looked good to him." His parents warn him about marrying outside of God's people but he does not take their advice. From Matthew Henry's point of view, everything that follows results from the ungodly character of the Philistines with whom he will keep company for the rest of his story. 

Samson's wife, we've already noted, was lovely enough to draw Samson's eye from afar. She is unlucky in the rest of her circumstances, and one has to wonder if she would have even seen the beauty that drew Samson to her as luck in the end. At her wedding, Samson challenges his male Philistine companions to answer a riddle, with 30 outfits of clothing on the line. They can't do it. They force his fiance to get the answer out of him and tell it to them, or else they threaten to burn her and her father in their home. And with that, we start to see the mood of these stories play out. 

Samson's poor fiance has been put into a terrible position. She must betray her new husband, or else face a threat of horrific violence from the thugs she grew up with. What would have happened if she had allied herself with her super-hero husband? We don't have that story. But one does feel pity for her when she approaches Samson "in tears" and asks him to reveal his answer if he really loves her. This is the first part of a pattern that repeats with the other woman in his life Delilah later. They are both described as nagging him until he gives in and tells the information his enemies need to get the better of him. Then they both promptly give that information to his enemies. 

After the riddle ends in this way, Samson flies off in a rage to collect 30 outfits from 30 people in Ashkelon, by killing them. The Spirit of the Lord enables him to do this. We are to see it as a feat which helps to deliver Israel from its oppressors. But it sure does ruin the wedding. Everyone leaves, Samson and his bride go home. Her father figures the marriage is off and gives his daughter in marriage to the best man. But later Samson comes back to make up with her, and wants to visit her in her bedroom. This is now impossible. Samson is furious, and the situation escalates through the burning of Philistine fields, the burning of Samson's bride and her father in their house as previously threatened, a great slaughter executed by Samson on the Philistines in response, and then Samson going to live alone in a cave. The Philistines will continue to try to capture him unsuccessfully until they get in league with a true femme fatale, Delilah.

Samson's first wife is a simple tragic character. She's a beautiful pawn who is taken advantage of by her people, and meets a terrible end. What can we learn from her? For one thing, she is an example of how the power structure within which women exist can be used for evil. Women find ourselves weaker physically and socially often in the world. When there is no love, respect, or protection offered to the weak by the strong, they often become a horribly vivid incarnation of suffering and oppression. This testifies loudly to the appalling evil that is done when the strong exploit and abuse the weak. We hate to see and hear of these kind of events. Those who perpetrate them are clearly exposed in their inhumanity and demand to be judged.  

Second, in the question of how this woman might have used her limited agency, there is a call to those who find themselves in positions of weakness to look at what power for good and for influence they still have. No human being is a completely passive recipient, unless this has been their choice. When we find ourselves in impossible circumstances, what can we do? With whom should we ally ourselves for security? When we look to thugs and bullies rather than God and his people, we take the side of evil which opposes God and will ultimately be overcome by him. It is vital for human beings, whatever their level of power amongst their peers, to ally ourselves with the ultimate power for good. God can be trusted to work for goodness in the end, regardless of the intermediate timeline. He can also be trusted to work against those who oppose him. 

This story could apply to women when we are pushed and pulled by conflicting obligations with potentially terrible consequences attending whatever choice we make, and we do not have the ability to ensure a good result through our own power. When we have these choices to make, it is vital to ally ourselves with God and his work even if it comes with a large social cost. Letting the loudest and most familiar voices dictate her behavior led to disaster for Samson's wife. If she had been able to see that God was at work in the life of her new husband and taken his side instead of her old community, her story might have ended differently, and God's wrath might not have been poured out on so many others. That's the simpler way to look at this story. The other angle which could be taken is to throw up our hands and weep at the tragedy that was so typical of the time of the Judges, where there was so much violence and immorality and "Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes."