Jay: Samson was a “superhero”—a man possessed of exceptional strength who was a hero to his people, the Israelites. He was eventually tricked by his Gentile wife into revealing the source of his strength (his hair), and was lulled by her to sleep so that her servants could cut his hair and render him susceptible to capture by his enemies, the Philistines, who blinded him and held him for years in captivity. One day:
It so happened when they were in high spirits, that they said, “Call for Samson, that he may amuse us.” So they called for Samson from the prison, and he entertained them. And they made him stand between the pillars. Then Samson said to the boy who was holding his hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, that I may lean against them.” Now the house was full of men and women, and all the lords of the Philistines were there. And about 3,000 men and women were on the roof looking on while Samson was amusing them.
Then Samson called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.” Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life. (Judges 16:25-30)
Samson’s prayer seems to be aimed at inflicting revenge while committing suicide. On the face of it, the story seems preposterous, but that does not necessarily mean there is no lesson in it or that Samson’s prayer has no meaning. Does it tell us anything at all about the relationship between God and Man? Does it tell us anything about prayer?
Donald: I wonder why it is referred to as a story, rather than history? Does it make any difference? Samson’s prayer seems to say “Let me get even for the harm they’ve caused me” rather than “Let me get even for the harm they’ve caused You, God”.
David: It’s an Old Testament prayer to a vengeful Old Testament God. It is not a prayer one can imagine Jesus praying. The story seems designed as propaganda for the God of Israel, not the universal God of all Mankind.
Don: It starts with the idea that Samson became a successful judge because of a vow his parents made before he was born. There is Scriptural precedent where barren parents make vows to God for their child/ren, so perhaps there is some significance in that. But although the emphasis in the story is very much on Samson, perhaps it holds more meaning if we examine what it says about God. It says, for example, that our strength derives not from our own effort but is God-given; but there may be much more.
Jay: A story that tells of a vengeful God who answers vengeful prayer is a bothersome story. It does not indeed sound like a prayer Jesus would pray. Its perspective comes undoubtedly from the Israelites of that time. Perhaps that is the lesson: It shows how people understood God at that time. Perhaps it helps enlighten us about the changing nature of Man’s relationship with God over time. The problem is that if it causes too much cognitive dissonance, the reader’s mind will throw out that faintly illumined baby of enlightenment with the dark and dirty bathwater. But if it does not, what does the mind make of the baby?
Donald: Looked at from today’s perspective, Samson’s destruction of the temple was an act of terror for the purpose of revenge. If the story is about a relationship with God, is it about our communal relationship with God or about our individual relationships with Him? Israel owned Samson’s God. He was their national, communal, God.
David: We in this class have come to understand “Our Father” as the God of the entire global human community. The Samson story is a square peg we are desperately trying to hammer into the round hole of our understanding of God (inadequate as that is bound to be). Don has led us through other more or less preposterous Old Testament stories—Jonah, Jacob, Job—to arrive at some enlightenment, which was achieved partly by ignoring preposterous bits such as being swallowed alive by a fish. But, to me, Samson is a step too far. If there is an important message in the story, why bury it so deep that it is impossible to find? If we are seeking enlightenment about the nature and nurturing of our relationship with God (individual and communal) need we look any further than the New Testament, and in particular the Gospels?
Michael: The story is a bit strong in terms of its focus on the Israelites even compared to other Old Testament stories, but even from the perspective of a contemporary Israelite I don’t see how the story would have been seen as any more than the story of an egotistical loser bent on revenge.
Mikiko: The Israelites did bad in Jehovah’s eyes so He gave them over to the Philistines for 40 years, and appointed Samson to judge them during 20 of the 40 years. God’s injunctions about not cutting Sampson’s hair and so on might seem like a children’s story but we are assured that…
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness…. (2 Timothy 3:16)
Chris: Before he was born, Samson was singled out to begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines. This was God’s plan. There were rules he was expected to follow (though it was his parents, not him, who had agreed to them). No matter that he broke most of them, God’s plan for him did not change. Every time he utilized his superpowers, Scripture says “the spirit of God came upon him.” So no matter Samson’s transgressions, God stuck with him and in the end the plan succeeded and God’s will was done. Perhaps that is the meaning of the story: That God’s plan for us does not change, despite what we may do.
David: It seems to me such an argument, based upon this particular story of Samson, tacitly accepts that God’s plan was for Israel and its God to rule the world. Tell that to the Buddhists and the Hindus! Of course God’s plan is God’s plan, but we can’t hope to deduce His plan from an obvious piece of propaganda that relies, furthermore, on magic: “Subscribe to our God of Israel and you too may successfully wrestle with lions!”
Chris: The Israelites were oppressed. God’s plan is for us to live in harmony with one another.
Jay: But is it God’s plan for oppression to be ended by violent means?
Michael: We think of Samson’s prayer as the cause and the destruction of the temple as the effect—as the outcome of the prayer. But if we disagree about whether this was the outcome God planned, logically we must conclude that no outcome can reliably be linked with an antecedent prayer.
Donald: In pictorials displayed during Sabbath School, we were constantly reminded of Old Testament stories such as Jonah and the whale, Moses in the basket, Daniel in the lion’s den, Moses at the Burning Bush and parting the Red Sea, and so on. The stories are dramatic and therefore evoke memorable imagery. With the obvious exception of the Crucifixion, stories from the New Testament—the Sermon on the Mount, for example—tend to lack drama, so are not as memorable.
David: We have talked in depth and rejected the notion that God will resort to magic to answer our prayers. We’ve relied heavily on Isaiah’s statement that God’s ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. We’ve concluded, from this and from Paul and others, that God does answer prayers, but does so in His own time and in His own way, therefore we may not even recognize His answer when it comes. Samson lived a magical life and his final prayer asked for magic. It’s true that Jesus answered a few prayers for healing immediately and magically, and He was the one who said “Ask and ye shall receive,” but in our earlier discussion of this we seem to have concluded that His Way, Truth, and Life were nowhere near so facile as that; that He meant we may ask and we will receive, but what we receive is unlikely to be in the form we expect. (Prosperity gospel preachers, of course, get rich by preaching the opposite!)
Jay: Samson’s was indeed an “Ask for magic and receive it”, cause-and-effect-sort-of prayer. That is a bad ask. Jesus would rather pray unselfishly to end the suffering of others.
Chris: In the end, God’s will for the beginning of the deliverance of Israel was done and it aligned perfectly with Samson’s will for the destruction of the temple. Perhaps when the will of Man aligns with the will of God, magic ensues! If Samson had prayed simply to have his sight restored, it would not have happened.
David: Why would the God of all people side with one national interest over another? Any politician or stateswo/man’s speechwriter could concoct a hundred stories showing that God is on their side. But that’s all they would be: Stories depending purely on rhetoric and drama and magic for their persuasiveness.
Donald: We can often find correlations in retrospect.
Jay: Samson’s story has taken us further than usual from our comfort zone. Perhaps that is the inevitable result of trying to approach the unfathomable.