Samson the neighbour
Judges 14:1 - 15:8
Samson was greatly attracted to a Philistine girl in Timnah, and asked his parents to get her for his wife. But they objected. "Why a Philistine girl? Surely you could find a wife amongst your own kin?" "No, get this one for me. She's the one that pleases me." His parents did not know that Yahweh was behind this. Yahweh was seeking the opportunity to confront the Philistines.
Samson was on his way to Timnah when a young lion attacked him. The power of Yahweh took hold of him, and he tore the lion to pieces with his bare hands. He went on and spoke to the girl, and he liked her very much. Not long after that he came back to marry her. On the way he stopped to look at the lion's carcase and discovered a swarm of bees in it, and their honey. He went on to meet the girl. They made a seven-day feast for Samson there in Timnah, that being the custom of the young men. But because they were scared of him they chose thirty fellows to stay close to him.
Then Samson said to them: "I'll ask you a riddle. Give me the answer before the feast ends and I'll give each of you a piece of fine linen and a change of fine clothes. If you can't produce the answer you have to give me thirty pieces of linen and thirty changes of clothes." "Ask on," they said. "We're listening." This was Samson's riddle:
Out of the eater came something to eat;
out of the strong came something sweet.
Three days passed and they hadn't managed to solve it. On the fourth day they said to Samson's wife, "Get the answer out of your husband or we'll burn down your father's house, and you with it. Did you invite us here to rob us?"
So she went to him in tears and flung her arms round his neck. "You don't love me," she said. "You have asked a riddle and you haven't told me the answer." "I haven't even told my mother and father," he protested. "Why should I tell you?" But she kept up her weeping and her entreaties for the remainder of the seven days, until at last he gave in and told her the answer. She immediately told the Philistine young men.
So on the seventh day, as Samson was about to enter the bridal room, the men of the town said to him:
What is sweeter than honey?
What is stronger than a lion?
If you hadn't been ploughing with my heifer,
you would never have guessed my riddle.
Then the power of Yahweh took hold of him. He went to Ashkelon and killed thirty men there. He stripped them and gave the clothes to the young men who had found out the riddle. And then, burning with anger, he went back home. His wife was given to the fellow who had acted as his best man at the wedding.
Later, at the time of the wheat harvest, Samson went back to see his wife. He had brought a kid as a present for her. But her father would not let him go to her room. "I thought you hated her, so I gave her to your friend. Her young sister is prettier, anyway. Have her instead." But Samson said, "Now I really do have a score to settle with you Philistines." He went off and caught 300 foxes. He tied them in pairs tail to tail, with a torch to each pair, put fire to the torches, and then set the foxes loose in the Philistines' cornfields. Not only the sheaves and standing corn, but the vines and olive trees as well, went up in smoke.
When the Philistines found out who was responsible, and how it had come about, they set fire to the house and burnt the girl to death. Samson said: "If this is your answer I'll have revenge." He weighed into them with all his strength and caused great havoc. After that he went down to live in the cave in the Rock of Etam.
Like most modern societies, the world of Samson was multicultural. In the twelfth century B.C.E. the original inhabitants of Palestine, the Canaanites, jostled uneasily with their recent invaders, the tribes of Israel, and the latest arrivals, the Philistines. We can learn something from their difficulties and the way they tackled them. But to do that it's not a bad idea to try to imagine what it must have been like for the Philistines.
They get a very bad press in the Bible story, but then, they didn't write it . . .
Like Samson and his people, the Philistines themselves were new settlers. They used to live much further north, but there was constant fighting and upheaval there, and in the end they were forced out. And so they travelled, looking for new homes, for work and security. Somewhere to start a new life. For a while it looked as though they had found it in Egypt, but there was more trouble, and eventually the government expelled them.
As usual, there were politics involved. The Egyptians didn't want the Philistines in Egypt, but they were willing to let them settle in an area under their control. So they established themselves in a string of cities along the Palestinian coast.
The Philistines were tough fighters, and they had the secret of iron weapons, so the Canaanites didn't give them much trouble. But the Israelites were a different proposition. They resisted the spread of the Philistines very strongly, and for years there were outbreaks of fighting, with first one side then the other gaining control.
There must have been a lot of tension, even in times of peace. Each group resented the other. Though they were trading and mixing - even intermarrying - they found each other's ways strange. Nobody liked the thought of losing out to a 'foreigner' (as each thought of the other). And because they sensed hostility and resentment they were on edge, aggressive.
It's human nature to behave badly when you're both unsure of yourself and suspect that other people don't like you, don't want you there. And occasionally the tension led to violence, even to killing. That's what happened when Samson, the Israelite, fell in love with a Philistine woman, and they decided to marry. It was just the sort of thing which might have drawn Philistines and Israelites together, but that's not how it worked out.
Samson's parents refused point blank to have anything to do with the
wedding. They totally disapproved of their son's choice of a
Philistine bride. So all the arrangements were left to the Philistine
side - and they were careful to see that thirty of their own
young men attended Samson during the feasting that preceded the wedding.
They were uneasy, knowing how strong he was, and Samson
was probably on edge himself. After all, he was all on his own
Perhaps that's why, during the usual entertainments, he put an impossible riddle to the young men and took a huge bet that they couldn't come up with the answer. It was provocation all right. Showing off. One hothead taunting others.
Then one of the Philistines had a bright idea. They'd put pressure on Samson's bride to worm the answer out of him. And so they did - waiting until the last moment to answer the riddle and cheat Samson of his little triumph.
From then on, things got worse and worse. Samson flew into a rage and shamed the family by leaving his marriage unconsummated. To pay back his own ridiculous wager he killed and robbed a number of completely innocent people. When, some time later, he came back to the wife he had treated so badly, he found that her father had given his daughter in a 'real' marriage to another man. Which was his Philistine way of saving the girl's honour, and his own.
Samson reacted by setting fire to several crops and orchards in a futile gesture of revenge. By this time he was quite beside himself. But by now, so were the Philistines. They burnt the woman to death and destroyed her father's house.
If that sounds outrageous, how do you suppose you would have acted? Intolerance starts as a thing no larger than a mustard seed, but how it grows!
© Colin Gibson