Bible: Were these men heroes?

June 18 — Judges 11:4-11, 29-31; June 25 — Judges 13:1-7, 24-25

Jun 5, 2017 by

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How do we square the God revealed in Jesus with the stories of Samson and Jephthah, which barely reflect any understanding of a God of love and grace for all people?

Duane Beachey

Beachey

Jephthah is known more for an impulsive vow than for defeating Israel’s enemies. Unlike his half-brothers, he was the son of a prostitute. His family drove him away to the land of Tob, where he gathered a group of outcasts. Together they raided other towns, and he apparently gained a reputation as a great fighter, because his former townspeople came to ask him to lead them against the Ammonites.

Jephthah says, “Now you want me after you’re in trouble. Weren’t you the same ones who pushed me out?” They insisted he be their leader. Jephthah agreed.

He successfully won several battles. Then, in a moment of religious fervor, he made a vow that if God would give him victory over the Ammonites he would offer as a sacrifice whatever came to meet him when he returned home. But it was his daughter, not a lamb or other animal, who came to meet him.

Since he had made a vow to God, he had to keep it in spite of a prohibition against child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31). He allowed his daughter a few weeks to mourn before carrying out his vow. You have to wonder what he thought God would do to him if he failed to keep his vow and saved his daughter’s life. He seems a questionable hero at best.

Equally questionable and far more famous was Samson. Marion Bontrager, Michele Hershberger and John Sharp, in their recent book, The Bible as Story, suggest: “Samson may actually be a metaphor for the people who married Canaanite neighbors and were seduced by their wives to worship other gods. So Israel, like foolish Samson, exposed and disclosed its strength in Yahweh to their enemies.” Israel and Samson fell for the same temptation.

For all Samson’s strength, his downfall was his weakness for Philistine women. Unlike other judges, such as Gideon and Deborah, who God seems to have chosen in spite of their weakness, Samson was known for only one thing — his strength. Unlike other stories of Judges, Samson doesn’t lead Israel into battle, rather he singlehandedly just slaughters them, sometimes hundreds at a time.

In Judges 13, Samson’s mother, who is never named, but only referred to as the wife of Manoah, is told by an angel she will have a son who will deliver Israel from the Philistines. This passage is notable in that the angel appears to Manoah’s wife alone to tell her she must abstain from alcoholic drinks and how her son is to be raised. Manoah prays for further instructions, only to have the angel appear to his wife again. She runs to get Manoah, but the angel only tells him that his wife must do everything he has told her. If Manoah thought the angel might tell him more than he had told her, he was disappointed.

The appearance of an angel to announce the birth of one who would save his people has parallels to Jesus’ birth announcement. The differences between these two sons could not have been more stark. Samson never came close to being a holy, undefiled Nazarite. Samson was self-indulged and ruled by his passions. Every story we have of Samson is a story of violence, destruction and trickery.

If God is like Jesus, as the Gos­pels and epistles affirm, we can see these stories reflecting a primitive understanding of God. Israel carried out bloody battles with a zeal for an ethnic purity they believed God desired. Over a thousand-year period God patiently worked with Israel’s imperfect understanding until Jesus destroyed the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. It took a vision from God of a sheet from heaven for Peter to overcome a thousand years of ethnic-purity beliefs.

Duane Beachey, author of Reading the Bible As If Jesus Mattered (Cascadia, 2014), is a Mennonite pastor serving two small Presbyterian churches in eastern Kentucky, where he and his wife, Gloria, served with Mennonite Central Committee.


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