As we are reading the account of Samson in the Book of Judges, I recall the shock of really getting to know Samson in a Bible study many years ago. Samson is, in popular imagination, one of the great Biblical heroes. In fact, my guess is his name would be more recognizable than any number of other Biblical figures. It is probably because he was so strong. We like action heroes and we like strength. Samson is sort of the Jewish Bible's answer to Hercules (of Greek legend). His story appeals to some broad human need. However, a closer reading provides a story of a troubled hero and deeper reflection raises the question, was he a hero at all?
In the notes from 2008, I quoted Olsen (New Interpreter's Bible, 841-2) who demonstrated that there are sixteen allusions between the Samson story and all other stories in Judges. This is because the Samson cycle recapitulates the story of Israel's failure (God's "shattered dream for His people"). He is the twelveth judge.
In the beginning, the Judges delivered Israel from disaster. The three named Judges before Samson (Ibzan, Elon, Abdon) are mentioned with a focus solely on their households and number of children.They deliver no one, there is no mention of peace, and their very brief stories are in marked contrast to the very long story of Samson. However, the stage is set for diminished expectations.
Samson, against the prohibition (Judges 3) marries foreign women, who generate much of his strife. He is alone, not leading the nation at all, but usually involved in personal vendettas and enraged acts of revenge. He is a Nazirite who regularly breaks his vows. His petulance and self-centeredness (I want!) are an image of the people. Wasted potential leads to question, what could have been if Samson were faithful and God-seeking; if Israel were God-seeking and faithful?
Samson asks a riddle at his wedding feast which may be a key to unlocking the mystery of the real hero of the story. "what is sweeter than honey? what is stronger than a lion?" God's love. God is the faithful one even as Samson engages in his self seeking. God is faithful. Yet God's strength is found in weakness, His willingness to let humans have there way--and then rescuing them, or him, as they turn to God for help.
Like Samson, we all have wasted our strength in pursuits not worthy of us. And God sees, He understands, He forgives and He rescues. It is all a grace...