Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Irrational Rage of the "Spirit of the Lord": Judges 14-15

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Samson is referred to later on as a judge or leader of Israel, which makes no sense at all, because he's never shown leading or judging anything. He was also supposed to be a Nazirite, so holy that even his mother wasn't allowed to drink during the pregnancy, but by the time he's grown up clearly that's gone by the wayside.

The author of Judges seems to have decided to begin deliberately mocking the supposed connection between the powerful Israelite soldier and his God. Before, it was merely subverted; now, it's a joke. Whenever Samson begins to fight, the author solemnly pronounces that "the spirit of the Lord came upon him," whereupon he performs stunning feats of physical might and destroys Israel's enemies, usually the Philistines. On the one hand, this is not a story about the dangers of the unchecked Israelite military. On the other, it is apparently a story about the dangers of the unchecked violent power of the divine. Has the author of Judges moved from criticizing the military to criticizing God?

Samson is in town one day and sees a cute Philistine girl who he decides to marry. In theory this is forbidden for any Israelite, and certainly for a Nazirite one, but Samson doesn't give a damn. He orders his parents to "get her for me as my wife." They protest, not on moral grounds but quite literally by voicing aloud why he couldn't find a nice Jewish girl instead. Eventually he gets his way.

On his way back to Timnah to pick up his girlfriend, Samson is challenged by a lion in the middle of a vineyard. This seems mildly implausible, but never fear! The "spirit of the Lord" descends upon Samson, and he tears the lion apart with his bare hands, "as he might have torn apart a young goat." What fun!

Samson gets engaged to the girl, and on the way to the wedding, he visits the rotting carcass of the lion, which some honeybees have turned into a nest. Samson makes up a riddle about this which he tells to 30 men present at the wedding, none of whom are able to guess the answer. The men get progressively more upset at being stymied until they go to his new wife and threaten to burn her alive unless she tells them the answer. Eventually she gets the answer from him, and immediately tells the other Philistines.

The Philistines tell Samson, and he flies off the handle. Once again, "the spirit of the Lord" descends upon Samson. He goes to another town, named Ashkelon, and kills thirty men at random. Then he takes their clothes and carries them back to Timnah as "prizes" for the men who solved his riddle. He also seems to believe they've had sex with his wife, because he accuses them of getting the answer to the riddle by "plowing with my heifer." His fiancée's father, understandably concerned at the maniac his daughter is engaged to, withdraws his permission for the wedding and promises the girl to Samson's best man.

The only obvious characteristics of the "spirit of the Lord" in this story are that it is irrational and prone to extreme violence. The lion story could go either way, but it's hard to believe "the Lord" would be interested in random mass murder over a riddle. Especially seeing as how Samson's marriage to a Philistine was legally illegitimate in the first place.

The story becomes even more ridiculous. Samson arrives at his would-be wife's house and goes into get her, but her father blocks his way. He says he thinks Samson hates her. Samson decides he has "a right" to revenge, so he gets 300 foxes from somewhere, ties torches to their tails, and chases them into the Philistines' grain fields, causing massive fires and wiping out their crops.

The Philistines retaliate for this act of terrorism by killing Samson's woman, as well as her father. Samson then vows revenge and begins to "attack viciously and slaughter" large numbers of Philistines. Eventually a large group comes up into Judah to arrest Samson. The Judeans tell Samson he should know better than to challenge the Philistines, tie him up, and hand him over.

The Philistines come to pick up the prisoner, but once again, "the spirit of the Lord" descends upon Samson. He breaks the ropes. Absurdly, he continues his drunken rage by picking up a donkey's jawbone and killing one thousand men with it. Then he orders God to give him free water, so God gives him some water to regain his strength.

The marriage massacre was extreme, but the violence in this one is almost cartoonish in its ridiculous extremes. Supposedly it comes from God, but Samson doesn't serve God in any obvious way. He drinks and parties with Philistines, which he shouldn't be doing as a Nazrite. He even tries to marry one, which God says is a death penalty offence for all Israelites. He doesn't worship pagan idols - but that's largely because he doesn't worship anything, including God. All of this mad random violence is perpetrated by Samson in retaliation for what he perceives as the Philistines harming his woman - but that woman is also a Philistine! Samson isn't protecting Israel from foreigners: he's motivated purely by rage and a desire for personal vengeance. He's a brutally violent, possibly insane individual whom God repeatedly bestows with magic strength in order to perform impossible and grossly immoral deeds.