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Telling the story: Samson & Delilah

given on Sunday, February 19 2012

Telling the story:  Samson and Delilah

Women, wine leave Samson’s reign in shambles

The press release accompanying the latest movie poster leaves a lot to the imagination.  This story is one many already know so why did the producers think it was important to reissue it?

The young Jewish students had probably wondered why they had to learn about this judge, too.  He certainly did not seem to follow God’s laws, yet for some reason the priests wanted them to learn about him.

A little background may help set up the students to understand why stories about Samson are included in the studies.  Judges tells the stories of 12 individuals who were responsible for freeing the Israelites from the control of the Philistines.

The stories of Samson may well be the most memorable because they are so sensational.  Consider the images that Google provides when doing a search.  Most could not be published in church, and the movie’s poster was one of the tamest.  Cecil B. DeMille recognized the elements of a blockbuster movie.

Why are the stories retold?  Look at Samson’s birth.  For years his mother had not conceived, and yet an “Angel of the Lord” appeared and told her that she would give birth to a son.  This story of a late pregnancy also comes with instructions:

. . . he told me, ‘You’re pregnant. You’re going to give birth to a son. Don’t drink any wine or beer and eat nothing ritually unclean. The boy will be God’s Nazirite from the moment of birth to the day of his death.'”

After she told her startled husband, the Angel of the Lord reappeared and repeated the instructions.

Turns out that the instructions are key to Samson’s stories, and the classification of Nazirite is also significant.  A Nazirite could not drink any intoxicants, could not cut one’s hair, nor could one touch any dead body-even if a parent.

As storytelling goes, these restrictions foreshadow real trouble for Samson as he reaches adulthood.  In fact, Samson sounds spoiled.  As a young man, he is ready to marry and as a Nazirite he is expected to marry within the faith, an Israelite.  But he looks around and sees a Philistine woman that pleases him:  3 Samson said to his father, “Get her for me. She’s the one I want—she’s the right one.”

And Samson’s troubles begin.  He does not follow the lifestyle of a Nazirite, nor does he follow his parents’ advice much less God’s.  This young Nazirite is mixed up with the Philistines and both women and wine stir up problems for Samson.

The priests used Samson’s stories because it demonstrated what happens when one does not follow God’s law.  Adolescent Israelites including Jesus, certainly listened to all the details with special interest. Samson’s story is a story of what not to do.  It has all the key, tantalizing human ingredients for a blockbuster that Cecil B. DeMille recognized.  [By the way, Jesus was also a Nazarene that according to Harper’s Bible Dictionary was another term for the Nazirite making another connection for today’s Christians.]

There are at least three acts to Samson’s story.  He begins drinking wine and chasing women.  Yet, God has a plan and the key is the extraordinary strength connected to his uncut locks of hair—remember one precept of a Nazirite is not to cut the hair.

Act I:  Samson is attracted to a Philistine woman and marries outside his faith.  Remember the Philistines ruled the Israelites.  He goes by a vineyard, a lion attacks and he kills him with his bare hands.

Act II:  Samson returns to marry the Philistine woman, passes the lion’s dead body—another Nazirite precept was not to touch any dead body—and finds honeycomb inside it.  He reaches into it and eats the honey.

Continuing the story, at the wedding he creates a riddle and is tricked by the woman to reveal the solution.  One thing leads to another:  his father-in-law gives Samson’s wife to a friend; Samson gets made and wants revenge.  He battles a group of Philistines, destroys them, and ends up going to live in a cave.

Act III:  Men from Judah, Israelites, confront Samson in the cave, he comes out, and whether tricked or not, a battle ensues and Samson becomes Israel’s leader for 20 years.  Still, he falls in love with another Philistine woman, Delilah.

The climax of the story comes when she cuts his hair in his sleep, he loses his strength and is captured by the Philistines.  The trouble that Samson keeps getting into connects to his failure to follow the Nazirite lifestyle.  He fails to follow God.

The story could end there, but all good movies need a grand finale.  Samson’s story does not fail to provide that, either.  The lesson for the young Israelites is that you can still ask for God’s forgiveness and it will be given to you.

Captured, Samson again outwits the Philistines.  Even though the Philistines blinded him, put him in shackles and had him grinding grain.  His strength was gone since Delilah had cut his hair, but hair does continue growing.

As his hair grew, so did his strength. The final scene has him being paraded around, entertaining the Philistines.  The servants place him among the pillars of the temple filled with Philistines.  He prayed:

Master, God!
Oh, please, look on me again,
Oh, please, give strength yet once more.
With one avenging blow let me be avenged
On the Philistines for my two eyes!   (Judges 16:28, the MSG)

And he pushed against the pillars; it destroys the temple and everyone there—including Samson.  His twenty-year reign as leader ends.

Granted Samson’s story takes four entire chapters in Judges.  The stories are pretty sensational, and the young people probably remember more of the details than they do the overriding themes.  Yet, the Old Testament stories do have clear guidelines for lives then as well as today.

Today, over 3,000 years later, the news repeatedly reports similar stories to us.  Our world is not just the small piece of land that the Israelites lived in, but it is the entire globe.  Evil seems to be winning.  The stories include sex, alcohol and drugs, jealousy, political control, greed, and more.  We easily forget that there is good news, too.

Samson’s story covers many of today’s issues, too.  In the Life Application Bible’s study notes, explanations provide guidelines for us:

  • Referring to v.15:1—Revenge is an uncontrollable monster.  Each act of retaliation brings another.  It is a boomerang that cannot be thrown without cost to the thrower.  The revenge cycle can be halted only by forgiveness.
  • Referring to v.15:14-17—The Lord’s strength came upon Samson, but he was proud and boasted only of his own strength. . . . Pride can cause us to take credit for work we’ve done only because of God’s strength.
  • Referring to v.15:18—Emotionally, we are most vulnerable after a great effort or when faced with physical needs.  Severe depression often follows great achievements; so don’t be surprised if you feel drained after a personal victory.
  • Continuing with v. 15:18—During these times of vulnerability, avoid the temptation to think that God owes you for your efforts.  It was his strength that gave you victory.  Concentrate on keeping your attitudes, actions, and words focused on God instead of yourself.

We may not be able to bring in the movie and show it today, but the images that Samson’s stories provide us are easy to translate into various visual images we see on today’s screens.  The human characteristics, including the flaws, are easy to detect in today’s world.  Yet we tend to forget the lessons that the Old Testament delivers.

Just like Samson, we easily are swayed by what is attractive to our eyes—whether a good-looking man or woman or whether some material thing that catches our favor.

Just like Samson, alcohol or drugs or other addictive traits can impair our best judgment.

Just like Samson, we forget who gives us the skills and talents that we can use to follow God’s law—to love one another and to make believers of others so the world can be transformed by unconditional love.

Just like Samson, we need to talk to God regularly because then we listen to God, we follow his directions, and when we complete the task we are to praise him—not take pride in what we do, but in what God does through us.

This week stop and evaluate your lives.  Are you following Samson’s model or are you following Jesus’ model?  Pray about it.  Make sure that the decisions you make are those that would please God, not the Philistines which surround you.  Who knows, maybe the next generation’s Cecil B. DeMille will want to make a movie of your life!

Dear God,

Years have passed; centuries have passed;

Yet the stories of the Old Testament continue to teach.

As we have heard the stories these past few weeks,

guide us in using the lessons in today’s world.

Keep us from making the mistakes that others make

by failing to follow your teachings.

Help us to continue teaching the stories

so others may see your love through our lives.

As we depart today, we praise you

and we will try to live the stories so others

may learn them, too, and the world can be transformed.




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Telling the story: King Solomon’s Decision

given on Sunday, February 12, 2012

Telling the Story:  King Solomon’s Decision

What is the lesson for us to learn?

         One of my favorite teas is blackberry sage that is marketed as the “tea for wisdom.”  As I wait for the teakettle to whistle, my mind can wander around aimlessly; but when the hot water hits that tea bag, an aroma lifts up that seems to just bring all those random thoughts together.

Whether or not that specific tea really triggers wisdom or not is undoubtedly an advertising gimmick, but it does seem to make a mixed up mind slow down and begin to work a bit better for me.  I suppose in a way, just the process of making a cup of tea is the real reason the mind begins to focus.  Still, how does one develop wisdom is a question to consider.

Today’s Old Testament story continues to serve as a model of wisdom.  The judgment a young king made in a heart-wrenching disagreement serves as a foundational lesson in wisdom.  As young Jewish children were taught the law, King Solomon’s decision demonstrated the application of wisdom.

Researching the story revealed how essential the story is in the Jewish tradition.  Googling ‘King Solomon’ the first non-Wikipedia articles are from Jewish resources.  One that captured my attention was from a law office.  The entry was a detailed explanation about the decision made in the parentage of the disputed baby.

Trying to summarize the content of that article and a historical piece would be time-consuming.  But, the gist of the two Jewish references indicates that this particular judgment is culturally complicated.  Prostitution was simply one more means of economically meeting the needs of a family or of single women in a patriarchal society.  The issues of widowhood, infertility, and various social situations led to the practice.

In the legal dissertation on the story, the two women were identified as a mother and daughter who were competing to gain a socially acceptable status as a mother of a son.  The more interpretations one reads, the more complicated the story becomes.  Again, the question develops:  Why is King Solomon’s decision about the mothers’ argument used as a teaching tool?

The decision to cut the baby in half certainly grabs attention, and in today’s society downright appalling.  For us to understand the story, we need to understand the culture.  Yet, the graphic images that come to mind with this story have nothing to do with the lesson.  The lesson is about wisdom.

Consider the Old Testament struggles to keep the Jewish people focused on living a God-centered life.  The Ten Commandments seemingly would have been enough but instead laws upon laws upon laws were made controlling every facet of life.  Following that law became so complicated one may have been tempted to just stay home and not even venture outside.

The lesson appropriate today as well as in late 900 BC and early 800 BC is a God-centered life leads to wisdom.  The first verse read today is included in the dream segment.  Young King Solomon was making political decisions by “creating alliances” with other country leaders—some through marriages.  In a dream, God talks with Solomon.  God asks him what he should give him as a result of a pleasing offering.  The answer was for discernment between good and evil.

The Jewish references go in detail how Solomon made the decision, even to the point of watching the body language of the two women.  Asking God for discernment rather than for wealth or influence or any other tangible, materialistic gift pleased God.  The lesson is that asking God for things is not good, but asking God to be central in making decisions is good.

Jesus reiterates this in his ministry.  Rather than force people to learn all the minute details of the law and to live within those extremely tight guidelines, we are to look at the world through God’s eyes.  We are to make decisions as God would make them.  We are to love one another as we would love ourselves.  There is the lesson.

Remember the phrase “Judge not that you be judged”?  That verse comes from Matthew 7, part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus again is outlining the guidelines for living a God-centered life:

A Simple Guide for Behavior

1-5 “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.  (the Message)

Simply do not judge others.  God is in charge of judging, not us.  If we judge one another, we do not love one another.

In the Wesley Study Bible, the core term ‘judgment’ ads another dimension to the story:

Judgment is critical evaluation against a standard.  In biblical terms, the standard is the word or the law of God.  No one escapes God’s judgment . . . the Reformation tradition—including the Wesleyan tradition—places judgment in the context of grace.  Redemption is the final word—not judgment.  . . .  John Wesley. . . insisted that God’s prevenient grace opened salvation to all under judgment.  God through Christ calls everyone to respond in faith, to be forgiven, and to grow in love.  Judgment nevertheless remains an awesome reality.  Some, all of us must stand—beyond death—before the judgment throne of Christ.  (p. 1122)

God judges; not us.  We can make decisions about good and bad, but we cannot judge others and their decisions.

The lesson from King Solomon’s decision is one for us today.  We are to ask God for the ability to discern good from bad.  We are to ask God to guide us in seeing the world through his eyes.  Maybe the Jewish lawyer was right.  What the story is about is not the lesson.  The lesson is making decisions based on solid reasoning after seeing the situation through God’s loving eyes.

Another core term of Wesley points this out:

God calls us to use our minds.  God wants us to use the intellectual abilities with which we have been blessed . . . it means to love God is to develop our minds in ways that deepen or enhance our expressions of love.  . . .  Solomon developed his reasoning powers in ways that we now think of as setting the standard for wisdom.  . . .  To be wise is to know how to fully integrate the information we have stored with the situation at hand.  This integration takes into account the relationship we have with God and others.  Wise Solomon sets an example that we ought to emulate.  (p. 414)

Whether the story is remembered for the threat of cutting a living baby in half or not, King Solomon’s decision to ask God for discernment rather than riches demonstrates wisdom in the story.  The lesson for 21st century Christians is simply to love one another.  Look at the situation through God’s eyes and leave the judging to him.

Dear Wise Father,

All too often we jump to conclusions.

We look at the world through our eyes, not your eyes.

When we do, we judge.

Open our hearts and our minds today.

Give us discernment as you did King Solomon.

Guide us in using our reason in making decisions.

Help us to teach others how to love one another.


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