The Riddle of Samson and Jesus
Let's read for you the annunciation scene from Matthew’s Gospel:
“Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, look, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife,
for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus”
There are many parallels in the OT to Jesus’ annunciation, where the angels come and announce that a woman will have a son. For instance, Sarah and Hannah both have angels visit them with this news. But the closest parallel is to Samson’s mother. So why make the strongest connection to Samson, what connection does Matthew want us to make between Samson and Jesus?
Samson is a strange judge and he’s different from the 11 other judges. His is the longest narrative and it is also the most puzzling.
Samson was a nazirite from birth. A nazirite was someone who specially devoted themselves to God for some period of time, in Samson’s case, his whole life. And there were some rules for being a nazirite, one of them being no touching dead animals and no eating or drinking anything from the vine. Another law that will be important for understanding Samson is that the Israelites were not to marry wives of some foreign places. And finally, we have to remember that the author of Hebrews places Samson in the hall of faith among the men and women of greatest faith.
With this as the background we can start puzzling over Samson. The first thing that Samson does in the story is demand a Philistine wife. His parents protest but Samson insists. Seems like not an ideal first action for the climactic judge.
Next, when he goes down to get his wife he stops in the vineyards of the city of Timnah. Strike two, why would he stop in a vineyard when he couldn’t partake of anything there?
While he’s there a lion attacks him and he kills it, presumably touching a dead animal, then later he will scoop out honey that is in that dead animal. Strike three.
Now if Samson is so great, as the author of Hebrews tells us, if he’s the climactic Judge, which he is, and if his birth is the closest parallel to Jesus, and it is, why all the disobedience? Why all the strangeness?
And we haven’t even talked about all the weird things. Not only does he kill a lion and eat honey out of it but he presents puzzles to his enemies, has strength in his hair, and ties foxes tails together, lighting them on fire to destroy crops, and, this might be the craziest thing, in the end commits suicide. I mean, what’s going on here? Why does Matthew connect him to Jesus?
Well, if you feel puzzlingness of this all you’re on the right track. The author of Judges presents Samson not only as a teller of riddles but as a riddle himself. Samson is a literary riddle that is meant to seem paradoxical. We are supposed to feel puzzled by Samson and figure him out.
As any good riddle, one’s first thought, the first appearance is always wrong. That’s the nature of a riddle. If the obvious answer was the real answer, it wouldn’t be a riddle. So while Samson appears to be breaking the laws, in reality he is not. And we have solved the riddle when we know how, how has he not broken the law with killing a lion, not broken the law eating honey out of its corpse, and not broken the law by committing suicide.
First, the law nowhere prohibits the intermarriage between Israelites and Philistines. Actually, when the law does list nations with whom Israelites are prohibited from marrying, Philistines are not included. Furthermore, these prohibitions weren’t about nationalities, but about faith and practice. The Israelites were more than welcome to marry people from other nations if they joined Israel and her God.
Second, the issue of touching dead animals. For the careful reader and meditator on God’s word, the law about not touching dead animals only applied to animals that died that you came upon, not animals that you killed. Samson killed this animal, so he was not prohibited from touching it.
And third, while he enters into the vineyard he never eats grapes or drinks wine. And he is so committed to his pledge that he will take the sustenance from the dead carcass of an animal rather than violate his vow and eat the grapes.
Finally, his death. At the end of his life, Samson is inside the Philistine’s false god’s temple, chained to columns that hold up the structure. Samson, pushes over these columns killing himself and thousands of Philistines. But while this may looks like a suicide, a violation of the 6th commandment, this, I believe is the most profound riddle in Samson’s story because it appears to be the greatest of all his sins: self-murder. But it is this act that is the greatest riddle of all.
You see, Samson did not kill himself out of despair but out of a passion for his God and people, a people that had been slaves to the Philistine’s for 40 years. So far from being self-murder, Samson was the only person in the Old Testament to sacrifice himself. This is the riddle of Samson. Self-sacrifice.
Now we are prepared to see why Matthew connected Samson to Jesus.
Jesus will also touch dead things, but not violate the law, drink wine and be accused of being a drunkard, he will speak in parables designed to hide the truth from some. And in the end, his death is something that he brought upon himself. But like Samson it was not a capital crime or a suicide but a sacrifice. Jesus sacrifices himself for his God and people. Freeing his people from servitude to sin, death, and the devil.
In each of these cases, you would only think that Samson and Jesus broke the law if you didn’t know the law very well. And that is precisely what Jesus’ opponents will accuse him of. And that’s precisely the point.
Samson was puzzling because the Israelites were puzzling. They have traded the one, true living God for statues they have made themselves. Samson serves as a mirror, an image for the Israelites. Because perhaps if they ponder over his strangeness, they will begin to see that he is not actually strange and that they are.
The Israelites in Jesus and Sampson’s time needed to look more closely at themselves and at the Scriptures and discover that Jesus and Samson were not breaking the law, but they were. Samson and Jesus did not die the death of evil men, but selfless men, giving themselves for the life of the world. And that, my friends, is why the Bible is Art.