Samson: Good or Bad?

For my weekly quiet time, I studied Judges 14. In this chapter, Samson goes into a vineyard and encounters a ferocious lion, which he kills through the spirit of the LORD. When he returns to see the lion’s corpse, he notices bees and honey on the lion’s body. He eats the honey and gives some to his parents, but he doesn’t tell them where he got it, or that he killed a lion, for that matter.

As I listened to sermons and read the Protestant E-Sword commentaries, I noticed a difference of opinion about the character of Samson: was he bad or good in Judges 14?

Most said that he was bad. Samson was a lifelong Nazirite (see Judges 13:5, 7). According to Numbers 6:3-6, Nazirites are not supposed to eat grapes or touch a corpse. Moreover, touching the carcass of an unclean animal makes an Israelite impure until the evening, meaning he must wash his clothes (Leviticus 11:27-28).

The anti-Samson crowd argues as follows: here’s Samson, who’s not supposed to eat grapes. But he’s putting himself in the path of temptation by strolling into a vineyard! He’s like a lot of Christians, who go places they’re not supposed to be. Then, he eats honey that’s been defiled through its contact with a corpse (and of an unclean animal, no less!). And, to make matters worse, he gives some of that impure honey to his parents, without informing them that it’s defiled! He seeks to justify his own sin by dragging his parents down with him. Sin loves company, after all! And Samson doesn’t even have the courtesy to give his parents a chance to purify themselves. They’re unclean, and they don’t even know it!

Matthew Henry, by contrast, is a lot more charitable towards Samson. For Henry, Samson didn’t tell his parents that he killed the lion because he was modest. And he was a pretty nice guy to share his honey with them. He knows how to honor his father and mother! Plus, Henry denies that the honey was even defiled, for he states, “He ate himself, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for the dead bones of an unclean beast had not that ceremonial pollution in them that the bones of a man had.”

I’m not sure if Henry’s right about an animal carcass being unable to pollute food. According to Leviticus 11:31-38, we read that an unclean swarming thing can defile stoves, clothing, water-jars, cisterns, and wet seeds. In this case, an unclean animal can pollute things, which can in turn defile the Israelites who use them. So maybe that applied to the lion’s honey.

I’ve not combed through all of the Mishnah’s rules on animal corpses and second-grade uncleanness, so I don’t know off-hand if it thinks that all carrion can defile food. But M. Tohoroth 1:1 says that the carrion of a clean bird can convey food uncleanness, provided it’s an egg’s bulk in quanity. And Herbert Danby notes that “if it is an egg’s bulk in quanity it is like other unclean foodstuffs and conveys uncleanness to clean foodstuffs, making them suffer ‘second-grade uncleanness.'” So maybe a dead lion can defile honey!

But I find it interesting that there aren’t a lot of Jewish sources that struggle with Samson’s eating of the honey (as far as I can tell). Rashi doesn’t wrestle with it. John Gill usually cites Jewish sources in his commentary, and he doesn’t mention any that’s troubled by Samson’s deed (though he tries to force something like that out of Josephus’ Antiquities 5.292). Am I missing something? I’d expect Jewish sources to be especially concerned about purity!

I’m also puzzled by Samson’s status as a Nazirite. Yairah Amit in the Jewish Study Bible notes that “Samson is never depicted as a Nazirite in chs 14-15.” I guess that’s his answer to how a Nazirite like Samson can do seemingly un-Nazirite things: Judges 14-15 is independent of Judges 13, so it (Judges 14-15) doesn’t assume that Samson was a Nazirite.

But even the chapter in which Samson is a Nazarite is puzzling to me. In Judges 13, where Samson actually is a Nazarite, the angel tells Samson’s mother that her son will deliver Israel from the Philistines (v 5). Won’t Samson have to kill Philistines to do that? And doesn’t that mean he’ll have contact with corpses, which Nazirites are not to have? I Maccabees 3:49 invites the Nazirites who had completed their vows to join the battle against the Seleucids. The implication is that Nazirites could not have gone to war during their vows, since they had to avoid corpses. Did God’s command for Samson to be a Nazirite conflict with his overall purpose for Samson: that he deliver Israel from the Philistines?

There are a lot of puzzles here. I wonder if Jewish sources wrestle with them anywhere.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Samson: Good or Bad?

  1. Ryan says:

    (sorry about the deleted comment… I forgot to subscribe to receive email replies. 🙂

    Hey James,

    Regarding the issue of defilement, Have you seen Haggai 2:11-13?

    “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: If a person carries consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’ The priests answered, ‘No.’ Then Haggai said, ‘If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?’ ‘Yes,’ the priests replied, ‘it becomes defiled.'”

    So it would seem that the honey would be made defiled by being in contact with a dead carcass.


  2. James Pate says:

    That’s a pertinent reference, Ryan! Thanks for bringing it up. I’ve encountered it before in other contexts, but it didn’t enter my mind when I wrote the Samson post.


  3. creampuff_sugar says:

    My husband is a deacon at our local church. We have a significant Egyptian population at our fellowship. Our family is reading “Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes” and so my husband told P about what we had been reading about Middle eastern thought on “bruised reeds” and what they were used for in that culture. P said that the passage about “bruised reeds” and “dimly burning” weeds were frequently preached about as was the passage about Samson tearing apart the lion under the control of the
    Spirit and coming back and eating the honey there. P told my husband that in Egypt this passage is frequently preached on in a similar “positive” way as you related the Jewish sources stated. It is preached thusly, and please forgive me for not “fleshing it out”: We, as believers often go through very difficult struggles that are misunderstood, yet these are the very struggles the Spirit leads us into, and in the same way, we are able to savour a sweetness after the struggle and even share with others that sweetness.


  4. AT says:

    There are a few types of nazarites and one of them is Nezirut Shimshon or Samson Nazirite.

    The difference between the Samson Nazarite and other types is that one who takes on this vow may defile himself by coming into contact with the dead. He/She may not consume grape products such as wine and may never cut his / her hair.

    The Jewish view is that nothing he did was in contempt with the exception of lusting after his eyes. And therefore he lost his eyes.

    Christians often see him in a bad light as they are not aware of all the Jewish legal technicalities, and Jews see him as a hero who went too far. Someone who had the potential to be the Messiah. In fact he is considered to be the Messiah of his generation.

    If you ever take a trip to his tomb in Israel, you will find inscribed “Messiah of his generation” on it.

    He is one of the most misunderstood personalities of the Bible, and as we know from our own lives, misunderstood people receive a lot of negative press.

    He was performing clandestine operations, and lost control of the situation resulting in him falling in love with an enemy woman who turned him in.

    You find similar stories amongst spies during the second world war and cold war.

    The moral is that even the strongest man is weak before a seductive woman.


  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thank you for your informative comments, AT.


  6. Pingback: Phinehas and Corpse Contamination « James’ Ramblings

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