Published in Sunday Midday on 17 August, 2008.
The story of Samson comes to us from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament of the Bible and from the Tanakh (the Bible of the Jewish people). It took place many centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, but much after Moses led his people out of captivity in Egypt into the Promised Land that later came to be known as Israel.
On reaching the Promised Land, the Israelites gradually lost their faith in God. To teach them a lesson, God caused them to be once again oppressed, this time by their neighbors, the Philistines. Samson was born in the time of such conflict.
An angel came to his parents and told them that Samson would have superhuman strength and that he could use this strength to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines – but this strength would last provided his hair was never cut.
And so, Samson’s hair was never cut and he grew up to be an extremely strong man. But as luck would have it, he fell in love with a Philistine woman and decided to marry her much against the wishes of his family.
While the wedding preparations were on, Samson asked a riddle to his bride’s family, `Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.’ If they solved the riddle, he said, he would give all thirty of them fine linen garments, something that Samson did not possess and could not afford. The riddle referred to a lion that Samson had killed and to the honey that bees made within the rotting carcass of the lion a few days later.
The bride’s family felt Samson was mocking them – he was trying to show how smart Israelites were and how stupid the Philistines were, losing riddles and losing girls. So they threatened Samson’s future father-in-law that they would burn his crops if he did not force his daughter to find out what the answer to the riddle was – it was a question of Philistine pride.
The girl under family pressure used every womanly wile and got the answer out of Samson and passed it on to her family. `The strong eater is the lion; the sweet eaten out of him is honey,’ the family said to Samson. It was the right answer and Samson had no choice but to pay up.
Samson left the wedding hall in a huff, and on the highway attacked a group of thirty rich Philistine traders, stole their fine linen clothes and returned to the wedding hall. To his surprise, he found his bride had been given in marriage to another man, a Philistine, because the family did not expect Samson to pay up. Samson realized he had been tricked and that his bride had betrayed him. In rage, he burnt the crops of the Philistines, who in turn, killed the bride, the woman Samson deeply loved.
So began the feud between Samson and the Philistines, one that led to many a violent confrontation. Each time, thanks to his great strength, Samson emerged victorious, much to the delight of the Israelites who forgave him for abandoning them for a woman.
But Samson had not learnt his lesson; once again he fell in love with another Philistine woman, whose name was Delilah. And he decided to marry her outraging his parents once more.
`Get the secret of his strength,’ the Philistines told Delilah, `And we will shower you with silver’. Under pressure and out of greed, Delilah did her best to enchant Samson and get the secret out of Samson.
At first he lied to her. `Tie me with fresh bowstrings,’ he said once. `Braid my hair,’ he said another time. Each time, this was done, the Philistines attacked only to realize they had been duped. Finally, after much persuasion, Samson revealed his strength lay in his hair. The hair was cut while Samson slept in the arms of Delilah, and the weakened Samson was finally caught by the Philistines who poked out his eyes and put him in chains.
Later a festival was held at the temple of Dagon, god of the Philistines, where Samson was dragged in like an animal to entertain the worshippers and tied between the two temple pillars. While the women and men and children jeered him, a remorseful Samson, whose hair had grown back whilst in captivity, begged God to restore his strength one last time. He then heaved against the temple pillars with all his strength. To his great satisfaction, God had forgiven him and restored his strength: the pillars cracked, the roof caved in, and the entire temple collapsed upon itself killing all the assembled Philistines and Samson with it.
Samson’s story is thus a story of faith and obedience. It is also the story of the power of enchantment – how, despite many proofs to the contrary, we are constantly drawn towards things that are not good for us.