Samson: Hero or Terrorist?

Friday, August 17, 2012 — Week of Proper 14

Samuel Johnson, Timothy Cutler, and Thomas Bradbury Chandler, Priests, 1772, 1765, 1790

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 979)

Psalms 102 (morning) 107:1-32 (evening)

Judges 14:20 – 15:20

Acts 7:17-29

John 4:43-54

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Samson is the kind of hero’s folk tale that thrives among an oppressed people. His story happens at a time when the Philistines are dominant over the tribes of Israel. The Philistines have consolidated their position in the prosperous coastal plain in an alliance of five strong cities. The Israelites live in the hill country, their tribes related in a loose confederacy. The Philistines are able to reach into the hills and express their power whenever they wish. No doubt, the more sophisticated coast people made sport of their rural circumcised neighbors.

Samson’s exploits are the stories of an individual of great personal power and courage who wreaks havoc with an oppressor. When his riddle is betrayed, he raids one of the coastal town and kills forty men to seize their festal garments to pay his bet. He uses clever low-tech means to terrorize the powerful Palestinians — tying torches to foxes’ tails to burn their harvest and orchards; slaying a cohort of men with the jawbone of a donkey. Guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

We’ve also got the intrigue of counter-terrorism, as the Palestinians exploit his weakness for women to compromise him. This is great spy stuff and a compelling story. Stay tuned. The Delilah story starts tomorrow.

And Sunday’s reading for Morning Prayer will bring the cycle to its end. Blind Samson will pull down the pillars of the house “full of men and women; all the lords of the Philistines” — 3000 of them. Looking ahead at the story, my heart skipped just a bit when I read that number. A suicide attack on a great building in which 3000 were killed. That sounds too familiar.

In the end, nothing much changed. The Philistines still held sway over the Israelites, a condition that would continue for many years until the successes of Saul and David. But the oppressed Israelites had a story of a hero they could tell their children about.

I remember as a child being told the story of Samson. It was one of my favorites. I wanted to grow up to be strong like him, able to defeat God’s enemies with my might and cunning. The stuff with girls just sounded perplexing. I wouldn’t be so stupid as to tell some girl about the secret of my strength. I wouldn’t make the mistakes Samson made — then nothing could stop me.

It might seem like pretty innocent stuff. Like Superman and Batman. Unless you are a kid growing up in occupied Palestine in a Hezbollah school in Gaza for the children of the unemployed, demoralized masses there. This is the kind of story oppressed people tell to restore a bit of pride. It’s the kind of story that inspires courage for resistance. It’s the kind of story that plants seeds to grow freedom fighters. It’s the kind of story that can create a new generation of heroes — or terrorists — depending upon with side of the power struggle you occupy. It’s the kind of story that glorifies wanton damage and death. It’s not one of my favorite stories anymore.

But then, I am a Philistine, one of the powerful.

What would I think of a story like this if I were a black Moslem in Darfur? …a Kurdish child on the Turkish-Iraqi border? …a student in a Taliban school in Pakistan? …a Palestinian boy in Gaza?

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