There is no one quite like Samson in the Bible. His life is one of violence, anger, and impulse. He had so much promise, only to waste it on women and pleasure. He did whatever was right in his eyes, even though God had chosen him to be a deliverer before his birth.
Why? Why would God let such an…oaf…be His chosen man?
Because the Philistines (who, if you remember from Tuesday, were actually the transplanted Mycenaean Greeks) had their own “oaf” to contend with: Heracles.
Heracles has taken on a more noble appearance in our times (probably an influence of Rome). The ancient Greeks, however, saw him as more of a buffoon, and placed him in many of their comedies and satires. However, he was without a doubt their greatest hero because of his strength and because he alone was a mortal who became a god (not to mention he had about a million kids, many of whom were the ancestors of the ancient Greek kings).
Most people are familiar with their general stories, but I want to show how God orchestrated their similarities. For there are many, and it is no accident but rather divine providence…
Lions (and other animal stories)
Animals feature prominently in the stories of both Samson and Heracles. Heracles fought lions, boars, hinds, bulls, mares, cattle, and monsters. Samson only has two stories (three if you count a donkey jawbone), but God didn’t have to give Samson all the animals and monsters Heracles fought; rather, He just had to do one: the lion.
One of Samson’s first experiences with the Spirit of the Lord was when a young lion jumped out and attacked him. He instantly tore the lion apart with his bare hands (Judges 14:5-6). Heracles’ first labor was to overcome the Nemean Lion, who could not be killed with ordinary weapons. Heracles wrestled it, strangling it, and skinned it, wearing it’s hide as a pelt for the rest of his days. Thus, in iconography he is almost always pictured with a lion’s skin around him.
Ergo, lions and Heracles were tied together in the Greeks’ minds. Granted, we don’t know how far back this association went; but I’d say judging from Samson, it probably went very far back in history. After all, as Christians we cannot believe in coincidences or accidents. This was intentional.
God made sure the Philistines found out about Samson’s lion-killing, too, through Samson’s own bragging about his deeds (Judges 14:12-18).
Heracles’ strength was legendary. It’s what made him special and showed him to be a son of Zeus. It was a part of his identity that came across in all his feats. Likewise, Samson’s strength became legendary, his feats clearly equating him with Heracles’ legendary strength. Besides the lion, Samson commonly broke out of bonds (Judges 15:14, 16:9, & 16:12), used a donkey jawbone to kill 1,000 Philistines (Judges 15:15), carried the gates of a city up a mountain (Judges 16:3), and finally toppled a temple of Dagon onto over 3,000 Philistines (Judges 16:30).
So yah…they were both strong in a crazy, super-human way.
Both also had a weakness for lovers. Heracles had a myriad of paramours, but his most notable ones were Megara (whom he killed), Omphale (whose slave he was, and humiliated him in various ways), and Deianira. Samson had a Philistine wife (who was killed because of him), a harlot, and Delilah (who humiliated him in various ways).
What’s more, their weakness for women was their undoing. Heracles’ wife Deianira was jealous of his concubine, Iole, and so sent him what she thought was a love potion…but it was actually poison (years before this, she was tricked into thinking it was a love potion by a centaur whom Heracles had killed). And everyone knows how Samson was tricked into revealing the secret of his strength by Delilah (Judges 16).
For both men, women were their downfall…and yet it was their poor decisions and callous actions that led to their demise. If both had treated people with more kindness, none of these things would have happened.
Why would God choose such a man to judge the Philistines, and why did He allow so many parallels between him and Heracles? I think Judges 14:4 sums it up: “He [the Lord] was seeking an occasion against the Philistines. Now at that time the Philistines were ruling over Israel.” (Judges 14:4).
Basically, God was intentionally picking a fight. It’s almost as if He wanted to insult them. After all, having been driven out by Heracles’ descendants, the Mycenaeans wouldn’t have been too fond of Heracles…and yet here was a man from a different God who resembled him! It would have enraged them, to be sure, and they would have wanted desperately to assert their own god’s superiority over this quasi-Heracles, Yahweh-inspired man.
Or, it would have made them think and ponder the truth of Yahweh. I don’t know if this happened, but that was the opportunity the Mycenaeans-turned-Philistines had. Judges is filled with the dichotomy of God’s justice and mercy, and it goes both ways. While justly punishing Israel for their sins, He is merciful to the other nations in letting them come into contact with Him through Israel. He gives them the chance to repent. They don’t, and Israel cries out to God, which is enough repentance to cause Him to act. Thus, God shows his mercy to Israel and delivers them, while showing His justice to the offending nations who did not repent.
Sometimes God sends a baby in a manger, but sometimes He sends Samson. It just depends on whether you repent and seek Him.