(This post was inspired by a recent sermon from Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. Credit where it’s due!)
I never really got the story of Samson. It seems to break all the rules, and not in a good way – here’s a guy who’s been blessed from birth with supernatural strength, strength that’s supposed to be used in the service of God, in saving the fledgling nation of Israel from its oppressors. And yet he spends most of his life getting into fights over women and screwing up, but there he is, in a list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.
It’s not that I have a problem with a hero having feet of clay, but Samson just doesn’t seem to care that his life’s going off the rails. He’s the nearest thing the Bible has to a superhero, and yet it seems like he hasn’t learned that great spiritual lesson, “With great power comes great responsibility” (I think that one’s from 4th Thessalonians or something).
But here’s the thing – the key to the whole story is in one little verse. After Samson has been captured, blinded and humiliated by the Philistines, Judges 16:22 tells us that “the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved”.
See, Samson’s hair is often seen as his Kryptonite but that’s the comic book slant on things. It’s really part of a wider vow that was made on Samson’s behalf before he was even born – the Nazirite vow outlined in Numbers 6, which basically meant that Samson was meant to stay away from wine and grapes, avoid contact with dead bodies, and not cut his hair.
Throughout his story, told in Judges 13-16, he breaks the first two fairly quickly. All that’s left of his vow in the end is his hair, a tenuous symbol of his relationship with God, a relationship that consistently takes third place to sex and vengeance. Those two finally catch up with him when he meets Delilah – she asks him the secret of his strength so that she can betray him to the Philistines.
And maybe there’s something in his response to this, because he lies to her three times, and each time Philistines come to imprison him, and each time he fights them off. He’s either arrogant, thinking that his strength is his own and that it’ll never really be taken away, or he’s completely self-destructive, continuing in a relationship with someone set on betraying him. Either way, he tells Delilah that his strength will go if his hair is cut, and there it goes, not because it’s a fundamental vulnerability but because it finally breaks the Nazirite vow and God leaves him.
And so his eyes are gouged out and he’s made to grind grain, but while he’s doing this, the writer of Judges goes out of his way to note that Samson’s hair begins to grow back. It’s a tiny detail, and fairly obvious – that’s what hair does after you cut it – but there’s more to it than that. Breaking the Nazirite vow wasn’t a permanent thing – if it was broken, then you could cut your hair and started again from scratch.
Because soon after this, the Philistines are offering a sacrifice to the god Dagon, and as part of this, Samson’s brought out to be humiliated. But Samson seems to now understand what’s been going on. Throughout his story, God has been at work, but it almost seems to be behind the scenes – Samson doesn’t really have a clear understanding or interest in the divine hand behind events; the narrator refers to God but Samson rarely does. Now, with his hair grown back, he seems to have stumbled towards humility and redemption: “O Sovereign Lord, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more…”
He’s still motivated by revenge, and that’s never healthy, but there’s humility here, an understanding that God is genuinely behind his great power and that the vow was something that should have been taken seriously. God honours this prayer, even though it’s belated and still somewhat self-serving – Samson’s strength is restored (notice it doesn’t return simply as a result of his hair growing back) and he destroys the temple of Dagon, ending the oppression of Israel. In his moment of self-sacrifice, he finally achieves the role he was meant to play from birth.
So in amongst the sex and violence and inspiration for a Tom Jones song lies a story of grace and redemption. Samson screwed up – he screwed up royally – and yet he was still able to start again with God. In a messy sort of way he returns to God and that’s honoured, and despite the catalogue of mistakes that make up his life story, maybe it’s that moment of redemption that really gets him into Hebrews 11, not because he was a superhero, but because he messed up and still reached out to God, even when it may have seemed too late.
Because it’s never too late to start again.