‘Family Values’ and Scripture: The Scandalous Story of Samson

When I re-read the book of Judges a couple years back, it occurred to me that you simply cannot read the Hebrew Scriptures and still promote family values: they just aren’t there! And now that my lectionary has me back in Judges, I am even more convinced of this. In fact, the story of Samson alone negates most of the discussion about how sexual promiscuity is the most pernicious evil in our country and will arouse God’s wrath more than anything else. It should be enough to note that in the Prophets, sexual behavior is almost unimportant compared to the national sins of oppression, injustice, and pride. In fact, if we are worried about arousing God’s wrath in this country, we should look first to the way we vaunt our strength and the way we treat minorities and the poor. But the story of Samson nails it down that God is far less concerned with sexual morality than we are.

Now take note that I am not saying that anything goes in terms of sex. I strongly believe that the spiritual fruit of self-control is of the utmost importance in our walk with God, both in terms of allowing God more place in our lives and in regard to the witness we have in the community around us. What I am suggesting is that God has different concerns than we do, and that our sexual behavior will not necessarily prevent God from using us to fulfill God’s will. Again, I say this not because I believe in unrestrained sexual activity. I certainly do not agree with that kind of behavior. I say this because we as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and whatever else we might be have been beaten over the head for so long with the notion that God can only use people who practice “acceptable” modes of sexual behavior: namely either conjugal heterosexual activity or chastity. For us, then, Samson’s life should provide a powerful argument in our favor. So let’s take a closer look at what the Bible gives us.

In fact, let’s look not at the part of the story we know, the Samson and Delilah story, but at the parts that come before that. The story of Samson begins in Judges 13. Now if you aren’t familiar with the Book of Judges, you should know this: the Israelites have already entered the land of Canaan (what we now call Israel) after being led by God out of slavery in Egypt. They are now free to live in their own land under God’s protection. But they have not been able to drive out all of the earlier inhabitants of the land as they were commanded to do by God. Now, today, this will give us some problems, since the Christian gospel is one of breaking down the walls between cultures, but in purely scriptural terms, this land had been promised to the descendants of Abraham by God, and the Israelites were now receiving that promise. Therefore the land, from God’s perspective, belonged to them and to them alone. The problem with the nations who remained in Canaan was that they worshipped idols and false gods, and since God wanted to show the entire world that he is the only true God, these nations had to be driven out.

Since the Israelites had not in fact driven these nations out, their false religions became a temptation to them over and over again. God, therefore, still wanting to show the world the falseness of their religions, gave the Israelites into the hands of foreign nations for periods of years. The witness was to be clear: the gods the Israelites trusted in had no power to deliver them. But after a period of time, God would raise up a judge for the people (there was no king in Israel yet since God wanted to be the sole ruler of the nation) who would deliver them from the foreign power and into a period of peace. This series of events – idolatry, invasion, and deliverance – occurred over and over during the time covered by the book.

So it is in Judges 13 that the Israelites have once again been unfaithful to God and have been ruled by the Philistines for forty years. Now notice how the story of Samson begins: with a visit by an angel announcing his coming birth. God has done this before, and will do it again, with some of the most important figures in the Bible. The births of Isaac, John the Baptist, and of course of Jesus are all announced ahead of time by angels. Moreover, we are told in verse 2 that Samson’s mother was barren, thus linking her as well with Rachel, the mother of Joseph, and with Hannah, the mother of Samuel. This is to say that Samson and his parents are in pretty good company when it comes to being in God’s favor.

Now note what the angel says to Samson’s mother (she is never named in the story): she is “not to drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing … and no razor shall come upon [Samson’s] head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” [NASB] Now if you don’t know what a Nazirite is, look back to the beginning of Numbers 6: these are people (men and women) who have dedicated themselves to God and must follow, during the time of their dedication, very strict rules so as to remain holy. So we can see that Samson, called by God to be a Nazirite, was therefore called to be holy all his life, even while he was in the womb. And remember that God has already foretold that Samson will deliver Israel.

So this makes it all the more interesting that things start to fall apart almost immediately! Notice what happens at the very beginning of chapter 14: Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman. Now this was something that had always been a problem for the Israelites. Remember that as far back as the Book of Exodus, the Israelites were warned against taking spouses from foreign nations for fear this would lead to idolatry. Also much later than the time of the Judges, the Israelites were led by Ezra to put away their foreign wives and even their children. So Samson is here being doubly scandalous! It was bad enough he fell in love with a woman who was not an Israelite, but she belonged to the people who were oppressing Israel! This is truly a “wrong side of the tracks” situation!

We can see that Samson’s behavior was considered scandalous by looking at his parents’ reaction: they ask him why he doesn’t choose a woman from the Israelites. Now we can note two things here: first, Samson’s behavior is not really considered acceptable. And yet this is the man dedicated to God from the womb, the promised deliverer of the Israelites! The second thing is that Samson’s interest in the woman seems to be stronger than his interest in his country. I’m making a guess here, but it sounds to me as though Samson has become infatuated with her – fallen in love in the loosest sense of the phrase. I point this out because to me it echoes our experience as gay people: we cannot help it that we fall in love with the “wrong” people. Yes, we know it would be easier to fall in love the heterosexual way and raise a family and all that. But it is not so simple. Again, I’m guessing, but I don’t see that there’s much textual evidence to refute the possibility that this is what happened.

Now, as we’ve said, this is scandalous behavior on Samson’s part. But what is really shocking is what comes next: we are told that “it was of the Lord, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines.” Do you realize what we are being told here? Samson fell in love with the worst possible person he could have, and it was God’s doing! Now when I was working through my issues regarding being gay and a Christian, I noticed that many of the testimonies I read from practicing gay Christians had something in common. These people, after praying very hard to live a chaste or heterosexual life, were placed in situations where they fell in love with someone of the same sex. In other words, it appears as though despite all their prayers, God had deliberately placed them in a situation in which they could not continue to remain “pure.” Now this is exactly what I see going on here with Samson: God has brought him to this place for reasons that only God is able to understand. In fact, we are told that Samson’s parents did not know it was of God: how many of us face the same problem with our Christian friends and family members?

So Samson, led by God, has done something that scandalized his community: he wants to marry someone from the enemy’s camp. But since it was from God, we see that God is faithful to fulfill God’s purposes. That is, Samson’s scandalous behavior in no way interferes with God’s promise to use him to deliver the Israelites. In fact, we see in the next two chapters how God works out this situation by punishing the Philistines for the way they mistreat Samson during the marriage feast and after the wedding.

I want to focus on one more episode in this story, because it is to me even more puzzling than the previous one. We have seen that from the very beginning of Samson’s work, his actions seem to contradict the promise given by the angel to his parents – that he would be a Nazirite “to the day of his death.” It doesn’t seem proper for people dedicated to God to marry people outside the nation of Israel, much less from the nation that is oppressing Israel. Chapters 13 and 14 sit very uneasily side-by-side. But what happens at the start of chapter 16 is truly surprising, both for the actual content of the story and for the lack of commentary to explain it.

Simply put, while Samson visits a prostitute, the people of the town lay in wait in order to kill him. Now in modern day church teaching we would expect that Samson’s blatantly scandalous act would be his downfall here. We are told that God will not abide with men who visit prostitutes. And yet this episode clearly says the opposite! Samson’s strength does not leave him at all, in spite of what he has just done: he escapes the ambush and carries the city gates on his shoulders! Nor are we told that he repents of his behavior first. The text, as it is given to us, suggests that God has no problem with Samson going in to the prostitute (and I think it unlikely that nothing happened inside her place). Now I don’t want to suggest that it is okay for us to visit prostitutes, but honestly, I do not understand this passage. What it seems to tell us is that Samson, called by God to be faithful to his Nazirite vows, does not lose his strength, that is, does not lose God’s favor, by visiting the prostitute. Somehow, this act has not made him unholy before God. I do not understand this, I admit. And what we learn in the Delilah story that follows is that as long as his hair stays long, he will remain in God’s favor.

Strange. It seems that God is showing us that Samson’s sexual behavior is in no way an obstacle for God to use him. It is the hair that counts – as long as Samson is faithful to keep his hair intact, God can use him. (Of course, we see at the end that God works even without Samson having hair, but that seems to be an exception to this story.) Now what it does suggest to me is that God is faithful to honor God’s promises even if we behave in a less-than-perfect manner. We saw before that sometimes God calls us to behave in ways that scandalize our community. Here we see that if God has made a promise, then God will fulfill it. Samson was faithful not to cut his hair, nor did he worship any foreign god, and the God of Israel was faithful then to remain with him as long as this was the case, even when his behavior clearly went against what we think proper behavior is.

I say this, again, not to say we can be sexually loose and visit prostitutes and marry non-Christians. I still believe there is enough scriptural argument against all these behaviors. The reason I find this story important is because of how it relates to us as gay Christians. God has made us a promise: whosoever believes on the name of Jesus shall find salvation. That Jesus was the messiah sent by God to reconcile all people unto God, and that only because of the work of Jesus (as opposed to our own efforts to earn God’s favor) do we have any right to call ourselves God’s sons and daughters. God made this promise to us. And if we are gay, if we fall in love with the “wrong” people, if our behavior scandalizes the people around us, and yes, even if we do not live up to our own standards as Christians, God is still faithful and we are still forgiven in Christ.

We must remember that Christ bore our sin in his body 2,000 years ago. It was, in that moment, completely taken care of – before we had even sinned, we had been forgiven. This is the grace and forgiveness of God, that it is because God is faithful that we are reconciled to God – not because of our faithfulness, but because of God’s promise to remain with us. Samson’s life shows that God is much bigger than our understanding of what acceptable behavior is. Later on, in the Book of Acts, Peter and Paul show the same thing, in that God begins calling the Gentiles to worship in Spirit and in Truth. And now we, as sexual outlaws, are a witness to the world that God’s love and power are greater than the world’s understanding of morality. God has chosen to allow us to be gay, bisexual, transgender, etc. And if we allow God to use this in our lives, then it does not matter one whit what the church tells us – if God is for us, who can possibly be against us?

And that should be very good news indeed!