A healthy way to face bitterness and loss – Characters: Ruth, Part 3

20 Nov
Photo by Toimetaja tõlkebüroo on Unsplash

Have you ever been bitter and angry about the pain that life has brought your way. If so, you’re not alone. So often we are dealt a horrible hand, and at no fault of our own, we are faced with loss, ruin, or sickness. In those moments, bitterness can take root. Maybe its not you. Maybe you are close to someone who is struggling with bitterness. Whether it is you or a friend, is there anything you can do to move in a healthy direction? As we continue the story of Ruth, there is something we can do, and Ruth will show us.

In the previous post we observed Ruth’s amazing reaction to tragedy. In our world we see many different reactions to tragedy.  We have felt them within ourselves.  In this post let’s discover Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi’s reaction to the tragedy when she and Ruth return to Bethlehem. If you want to read for yourselves, open a Bible to Ruth chapter 1, verse 19 and following.

Some of your Bibles will have text notes connected to some of the words in this section because Naomi, in her reaction to tragedy, uses some creative wordplay regarding the meaning of her names.  Naomi means “pleasant”, but she says, “Don’t call me that.  Instead call me ‘Mara’,” which means “bitterness.”  Why? Naomi is upset at God.  When she left Israel with a husband and two sons, a full family, now ten years later, she has returned to Israel, empty. 

If you’ve been through loss, you get what Naomi is saying. Just the loss of one person is deeply painful. But Naomi has just had her husband and two sons taken from her. If you were walking with Naomi through this, what would you say to her? How would you counsel her? Many of us get extremely angry or bitter at God for lesser things. When we hear Naomi pouring out the pain in our soul, then, we don’t blame her.

Let’s not forget, Ruth, however. She is right there hearing Naomi say this. I wonder what was going through Ruth’s mind as she listened to her mother-in-law.

Ruth could potentially hear Naomi say, “Call me ‘bitter’ because I have returned empty,” and think to themselves, “Why is Naomi saying that?  What about me?  Am I worth nothing to her?  She shouldn’t say ’empty”! She has me!” 

It would be very easy for Ruth to join right in with Naomi’s bitterness but direct it back at Naomi.  How many times have you experienced something like that in your family relationships?  Have you ever thought, “I can’t believe they said that!”  Or “They are taking me for granted.”  Or “I’m not being treated right.”  Or “Look at all I have done for them, and this is the thanks I get?”  Ruth could easily have thought to herself “Wow, lady, I just lost my husband too, and yet I decided to leave my homeland, my people, and travel all this way to start a whole new life, just to support you…and you give me this.  You call yourself ’empty’?  I’ll show you ’empty’…I’m out of here.”  And Ruth could head back home.

But Ruth doesn’t do that!

No, her reaction shows no sign of bitterness.  Instead look at chapter 2, verse 1.  We meet a new character: Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. Into the pain and bitterness, Ruth says, “I’ll go to work.”  She decides to pick up grain to make ends meet for herself and Naomi.  When she goes to work, she ends up in Boaz’ fields.  Boaz shows up and does a double-take when he sees Ruth, saying “Who is that?”  He learns her story, and he is amazed. Here again, I urge you to read the story for yourself in Ruth chapter 2, starting at verse 8 and following. Ruth and Boaz have a very nice conversation. After the work day is over, Ruth returns to Naomi with a bundle full of food.  At home, when Naomi learns what happened, her mood shifts dramatically from bitterness to joy! The two widows have been in Bethlehem for only one day, and the Lord has provided. 

Did Ruth get noticed because she is beautiful?  Maybe.  We don’t know.  Did she get noticed because she was new?  Maybe, certainly Boaz realizes someone new is there, and if Ruth was beautiful, I’m sure that didn’t hurt.  But when Boaz hears her story, then his heart is warmed.  He learns about a foreign lady who has left her people to help her mother-in-law!  Through this we learn about the kind of person Boaz is, as he is willing to help a foreigner, which was something else that God put in the law.  God’s people were to welcome the foreigner into their land. 

So just as Ruth has gone out of her comfort zone, sticking her neck out for Naomi, Boaz decides to the do the same thing for Ruth!  Even though she is a foreigner and immigrant, he welcomes her and blesses her with loads of food.

Naomi also responds with joy because she has inside information about Boaz.  She knows who he is.  She tells Ruth, “Boaz is one of our kinsman-redeemers.” 

What is Naomi talking about?  What is a Kinsman Redeemer?  Remember the Levirate marriage I mentioned in Part 2?  Widowed girl marries her brother-in-law?  By the time of the era Ruth lives in, it seems that Levirate marriage had expanded to be even more generous than the specific law required.  That’s a good thing. That means the people of Israel got not only the Law, but the heart behind the law.  They got the principle that God was trying to teach them: help those in need!  Just because there wasn’t a brother-in-law available, that didn’t mean the other relatives were off the hook.  Instead, the levirate practice extended outward to other relatives.  Cousins and uncles could be counted upon to care for Naomi and Ruth.  They were kinsman, family, who could redeem or rescue her. 

For Naomi and Ruth, therefore, Boaz, as a relative of Naomi’s husband, Elimilech, was one of their kinsman-redeemer. 

At this point we learn that Ruth continues her job with Boaz.  As we continue reading in Ruth chapter 3, the author doesn’t tell us how much time passes.  It is enough time, though, that Naomi seems to have gotten over her bitterness, and she begins to play matchmaker for her daughter-in-law.  Naomi knows that Ruth is young enough to get remarried and start a family, and perhaps Naomi saw romantic sparks fly between Ruth and Boaz. So Naomi concocts a plan.  Get ready.  It might sound bizarre.  …And we’ll learn about the plan in the next post!

An amazing response to tragedy – Characters: Ruth, Part 2

19 Nov

Have you experienced tragedy and loss in your life? How have you responded to it? It’s not easy to respond well to the difficult situations in life. As we continue the story of Ruth, we will see an example of an amazing response to tragedy, a response we would do well to follow.

In our previous post, we met the family of Elimilech and Naomi as they fled famine-stricken Israel to find food in neighboring Moab. There Elimilech and Naomi’s two sons marry women from Moab. In the next ten years, we learn that Elimilech and his two sons die, leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law in a widowed state.

The book of Ruth, then, begins as a story of three ladies in the midst of great tragedy. Think about it from Naomi’s point of view. She is left in Moab, a country foreign to her. She also lost her husband and her two sons. Imagine the pain.

Some of you know that pain, because you too know what it is like to be a widow or widower. 

We have joked in my family about my wife Michelle being a “widow”… temporarily.  When I was in seminary, she was a “widow” because I was so often gone to class, or off in another room in our house studying.  When I was training for the marathon, she was a marathon widow, because every Saturday morning for 18 weeks I was out for hours on long runs. 

Now I am a Cambodia widower, because her work with Imagine Goods takes her to Cambodia or meetings and events multiple times a year! 

We joke about these kinds of “widows”, but it is nothing like the situation of being a true widow.  You who are widows and widowers know this. You know how hard tragedy and loss can be. You know the feeling of loneliness.

Widows in Ruth and Naomi’s day were at much higher risk than those today.  In the world of the Ancient Near East there was a very real threat that being a widow could mean that you were at risk of being out on the street, homeless, or worse, abused and taken advantage of.  To deal with this, the Lord created laws for his people; caring, loving laws to helps widows. 

In the Old Testament Law, for example, there was a practice called Levirate marriage.  If a man died, leaving behind a widow, his brother was to marry the widow.  Thus she would be cared for, and hopefully she would bear a son, symbolically sustaining the dead man’s line.  It might sound really odd to us, but in that day, it kept them alive, cared for.  This showed God’s heart of love!

In verse 11, we see there is a major problem though.  Naomi has no other sons for her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah!  Naomi remarks, humorously I think, that she herself would have to get married, bear and raise up a new son, and then have that son marry one of her daughter-in-laws. How long would that take? Naomi knows it is a ridiculous proposal. 

In Naomi’s eyes, the best situation for Ruth and Orpah is to stay with their own people, the Moabites.

Orpah agrees and stays.  But Ruth disagrees with her mother-in-law.  Any of you ever disagreed with your mother-in-law?  It can be a risky thing to do!  But Ruth’s is a disagreement of support! 

Look at Ruth chapter 1, verse 16.  In this we see an amazing statement from Ruth.  Though Ruth is in her homeland, once she realizes that Naomi will have to leave Moab and return to Israel, Ruth, with no more formal connection to Naomi, still says “I’m sticking with you.”

Here is what Ruth says, which is so wonderful:

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

With that, Ruth convinces Naomi. Now think about this from Ruth’s perspective: she is a Moabite, traveling into what was, for her, enemy territory in Israel.  Thus she is making an astounding gesture to Naomi.  What is at the heart of her kindness?

Naomi had tried to convince Ruth in verse 15 when she said to Ruth: “Look at Orpah, she is staying in Moab with her family and her gods.” 

Ruth’s response gives us a glimpse into where she was at in her faith: “No, no…may your God be my God.  May the Lord (and here she uses the name of God, Yahweh, capital LORD) deal with me if we separate.”  Ruth is showing that her actions are rooted in her faith in God.  She has come to meet the one true God, knows his name, and is committed to him.  Now she wants to maintain this commitment by leaving her people, where she would have a much greater chance of remarriage, leaving her Moabite gods, and traveling to Israel to be a widow with her mother-in-law.  Amazing, isn’t it?  What a testimony of committed relationship.

It is refreshing to hear about Ruth’s reaction to tragedy.

What tragedy have you encountered in your life? How have you reacted? How can Ruth’s choice inform your future reactions to tragedy?

Do you dread holiday family gatherings? – Characters: Ruth, Part 1

18 Nov
Photo by Jordan Arnold on Unsplash

I recently heard a news report about a family fighting their home owners association because the family put up Christmas decorations on November 1st, and the home owners association said it was too early.  I don’t know if there is a right or wrong time to put up holiday decorations.  Our local Lowes was selling Christmas inflatables months ago.  But what I do know is that when we see the lights going up, we know the holidays are just around the corner, and that means we think about family gatherings.  Of course we can think about family all year long, but in the holiday season there is often a focus on family gatherings.  For some of you that thought is joyful. For some it is ho-hum, no big deal.  For some it is painful.  When we look at our family trajectory, we might be very frustrated.  In fact, some of you might think, “My family is so messed up, why do I put myself through family gatherings at the holidays?  Why not just get together with people I actually enjoy?”  Many do just that, actually, as Friendsgivings are becoming quite popular.

Today in our series on Characters, all about flawed people that God uses, we meet our first woman, Ruth, who was in a bad family predicament. Not only was she a women, which meant she started off life in the Ancient Near East at a disadvantage, but she was widowed, AND she was an immigrant. Yet her story is amazing. 

To start, it is really important that we understand the historical context of this story.  When is this taking place?  Read verse 1 of the Book of Ruth, and you’ll notice that the author tells us the story occurs in the time of the Judges.  The people of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for over 400 years.  But God raised up Moses, and eventually he helped lead the people to freedom.  After wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, once a new leader, Joshua, had taken over, they entered into the Promised Land, called Canaan.  After Joshua, there was a period of about 300 years, in which a succession of men and women called judges led Israel.  Samson, the long-haired strong man, we studied a few weeks ago was perhaps the most famous.  It was a time of great upheaval for the people of Israel as they were regularly disobedient to God and faced threats from surrounding enemy nations.  The story of Ruth takes place near the end of the period of Judges. 

We learn in verse 1 that there was a famine in the land of Israel, and a man from Bethlehem went to Moab.  The word Bethlehem means, “House of Bread”.  So the author is telling us that there was no bread in the House of Bread!  This man, Elimelech, moves his family to find bread. In other words, we are reading a refugee story.  A family is displaced by a natural disaster.

They go to Moab, across the Dead Sea from Israel.  Not too far actually.  If you’re walking fast and took a boat across the Dead Sea, you could get there in a long day’s travel.   

Moab and Israel were cousins.  Distant Cousins.  They had a common great-grandfather in Abraham’s father, Terah.  Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is a rather notable Old Testament character as well, primarily because his wife turned into a pillar of salt. Moab was Lot’s son, but not from his wife. Instead Moab was from an incestuous relationship with his daughter (Genesis 19).  Throughout their history, Israel and Moab did not always get along.  In Deuteronomy 23, for example, God decreed that Moabites were not to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.  There are also many times in the Old Testament when we read that Israel and Moab engaged in armed conflict with one another.  At the timeo of the book of Ruth, it seems that the political situation between the two countries was calm, but Elimilech has to take into consideration the historical ethnic and political conflict between Moab and Israel as he emigrates his family into what was not always friendly territory. How will it go? Check back in tomorrow as we continue the story of Ruth.

How to recover when you’ve squandered your potential – Characters: Samson, Part 5

9 Nov
Photo by Fernando Dearfer on Unsplash

Samson is an illustration of a man with unbelievable potential for good, yet who allows himself to be degraded by his lusts and revenge.  There is such a lack of desire in his life to follow God, to keep his Nazarite vow, which could have and should have guided him to lead Israel back to God.  Instead Samson’s story is not that of a godly leader, but of a flawed individual who has some amazing individual victories, and a lot more individual failures.

Like Samson, any of us can squander our potential.  We can make choices that ruin what God wants to do in us and through us.  In this third installment of our Characters series, we learned that God wanted Samson to be a godly leader. Samson had been set aside, given the gift of the Spirit of God who empowered him with legendary strength, but Samson used this gift for selfish passions.  This reminds us that we are not robots.  God gives us good gifts, but we have the choice to use those gifts for good or bad.  Consider how different Samson’s story could have been if he had used his gifts for good!

When we think about gifts, we must remember that we are made in God’s image, loved by God, and he is everything we need in life.  We can live out of the deep satisfaction that only God can give us, thus transforming our hearts to follow the ways of Jesus.  Samson, however, was constantly enthralled by anger, revenge and lust, rather than being enthralled by God. He didn’t give credence or credit to God for the gifts he’d been given, and he did not choose to use them for God’s glory.

Yet in the midst of squandering his potential, God is still a redeeming God. It was messy and far from perfect, but God used Samson to free Israel from the Philistines.  It wouldn’t last, though.  If you continue reading Judges, you’ll see how bad it gets.  Samson’s leadership did nothing to bring the people closer to God.  Sure, they had temporary relief from the Philistines for 20 years.  But the deeper issue of who they were went unchanged. The story of Israel as told in Judges goes from bad to worse after Samson.

In what ways has God gifted you? We are all made in His image. We all, whether following God’s ways or not, have attributes of God within us.  How can we use our gifts for Him?  You have time, gifts, talents. Are you using them in ways that benefit the Kingdom of God? Are you intentional in your thoughts and actions?  It will likely take sacrifice for that to happen, for you to grow in your knowledge and understanding of what a kingdom mindset looks like. Then work to follow that. It might go against the cultural flow and assumptions of how to live life. It might go against your family’s wishes for you.  But you will have the peace and joy of knowing that you will be in line with God’s ideas.  

So we should be people who practice confession, repentance, if we are not line with the lifestyle of God’s Kingdom.  We should seek to be humble and teachable, even when you are on the heights. 

Think of the example of President Jimmy Carter who has taught Sunday school for decades, and who has spent years serving with Habitat for Humanity, even now into his 90s. 

Think of the example of Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl winning coach, and who has committed to All Pro Dads and other ministry.

Even on the heights it is possible to be humble. Even when we have gifts that give us laud and attention, we can use them for God’s glory. What gifts has God given you? How will you use them for his Kingdom?

When God leaves you (and what to do about it) – Characters: Samson, Part 4

7 Nov
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

How close do you feel to God? Do you know if he is a part of your life? Is it possible that he has left you? Today we read that God leaves Samson. Yes, you read that right. God leaves Samson. Is that wrong of God? Is God allowed to do that, based on the character of God himself? What is going on?

In the previous post, we learned about the devastating blow Samson dealt to the Philistines, the people who had occupied and ruled Israel for 40 years. The conclusion of that part of Samson’s story, as told in Judges 15, was that Samson led Israel for 20 years. In Judges 16, the writer of Judges fast-forwards to the end of those 20 years.

We read that Samson goes to Gaza, which is another Philistine area.  As we have seen in this series of posts on Samson’s story, it seems he loves to spend time around the enemy, doesn’t he? In Gaza he spends the night with a prostitute.  In so doing, Samson again shows no concern for God’s law.  I say, “again,” because he has been playing fast and loose with God’s law numerous times in the account.

The Philistines hear that Samson is in their town.  They surround the house where he is staying, and they wait, planning to kill him when he leaves the next morning. But Samson awakes in the middle of the night and slips away, though not before ripping their town gate from its foundation and carrying it away to the top of a hill.  I guess he just loved to mess with the Philistines. 

Sometime later, the writer of Judges next tells us, Samson falls in love with a woman named Delilah.

The Philistines come to her secretly, hoping to entice her to conspire against Samson.  Five Philistine rulers each offer her a huge amount of money to learn the source of Samson’s strength and tell them. For 20 years they have been not been able to unseat him, and they are at their wits end.  Delilah agrees to the scheme, cluing us in to the kind of woman she was: a massive bribe was enough for her to betray Samson.

She asks Samson for the source of his strength.  He lies to her, and she, believing him, tells her co-conspirators, and ties Samson up one night, thinking she is trapping him in his sleep.  When the Philistines come to grab him, he easily breaks the bindings and is free, and the Philistines scatter.  This goes on multiple times. 

It would be obvious to Samson that Delilah is betraying him. Why does he stay with her? Why did Samson not at least ask Delilah, “Why are you doing this?”  Instead, he just goes along with her schemes, lying to her each time.  Why?  Maybe he just arrogantly thinks he can toy with her and nothing will ever happen to him.  He has been undefeated for two decades.  Perhaps it was like a game for him.

After multiple rounds of this bizarre game, Delilah is frustrated. She has dollar signs in her eyes, and Samson is blocking her ability to collect on the bribe! Finally, though, in verse 15 she plays on his emotions.  She tells him that in a loving relationship, they should be totally open.  A good argument, isn’t it?  On one level, she is right. In a healthy, trusting relationship, there should be no secrets. She nags him day after day, until the writer tells us Samson was tired to death, and he divulges the source of his strength, his hair that had never been cut since birth. (That would be some world record length hair, I would guess, right?)

Think about this with me a minute. What should Samson have done?  Well, he shouldn’t have told her the source of his strength.  But shouldn’t he be honest with her?  Yes, except that the reality is that he shouldn’t have been in with her in the first place.  The text never says they were married, so Samson was in another inappropriate sinful relationship.  Yet we can go back further, he shouldn’t have been in any of those bad relationships, and he shouldn’t have been so arrogant and prideful.  We could go back further, he should have followed the Lord’s way all his life.  He had allowed his life to go so far beyond what God desired.  The reality is that there is something deeply wrong inside Samson.

Finally he gives up the truth to Delilah.  Was he being flippant or arrogant, thinking he had defeated the Philistines for years and so there was no way he would lose?  Was his arrogance deceiving him about his ability to keep winning?  Could be. 

I suspect he was self-deceived by his arrogance.  The source of his strength was not truly his hair, but God.  When he disobeys God, he is showing his disrespect and arrogance, and ultimately his self-deception about the source of strength.

Delilah has a man come shave off the seven braids of Samson’s hair one night while he was asleep, and in verses 19-20 we read that his strength left him, but more importantly God left him, and Samson had no idea, blinded by his arrogance.  From birth God had set Samson up to be a great leader of his people, and now things have degraded to the point where God leaves Samson, and Samson is not aware of it. What a sadness.

The next day, his strength gone, God done with him, the Philistines capture Samson, gouge out his eyes, and imprison him, where the Philistines put him to work turning a stone wheel for grinding grain.

The story concludes at a Philistine banquet to their god Dagon.  It’s packed in the temple, with 3000+ people there.  They bring Samson out to entertain and he performs for them.  But standing by the load-bearing pillars of the temple, he offers a prayer to God, pushes over the pillars and kills all the Philistines in the banquet, and killing himself.

A quick read can leave us mistaken thinking that Samson has finally returned to the Lord and is sacrificing his life on behalf of his people. But look closely at Samson’s prayer. Yes, he is reaching out to God, and that is good. What he says, though, is that he wants revenge on the Philistines for gouging out his eyes. Once again, Samson war is lonely, bitter and vengeful. Never in his entire life do we read that Samson is concerned about following God’s ways, or that Samson wants to lead Israel back to faithfulness to God. Never do we read that his war with the Philistines is anything but one man with a superpower, drenched in anger and revenge, controlled by his passions. In the end, God left Samson.

The story of Samson is serious caution for all of us. Is God with you? Would you know if he left you? What should you do to find out? Examine Samson’s life, first of all: his lust, anger, revenge, deceit, foolhardiness. Does that describe you at all? If you’re like Samson, the problem is that you wouldn’t even know it. He had very little self-awareness. So who in your life can tell you the truth about yourself? Maybe you need to see a professional counselor, asking them to be honest with you.

Second, nurture a warm heart to God through spending time with him. Samson seems not to have done much to build his relationship with God. Learn to pray, listen to God, meditate on his word, fellowship with other Christians in a church family. Serve him.

These are all ways to avoid the self-deception of Samson, and the destruction that can follow in the wake of the self-deceived.

Anger, Revenge and War – Characters: Samson, Part 3

6 Nov
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

Anger can lead to awful revenge. Revenge can escalate to retribution. Warring parties can strike at each other, over and over. We see this in conflicts between nations and ethnicities. Political parties unwilling to see one another in any way except negatively. Husbands and wives that fall apart in nasty divorces. Friendships taking sides. Churches split.

In this series of posts, we are learning the story of one of ancient Israel’s most famous characters, Samson, and as we’ll see, it is a story of anger and revenge. After a birth and childhood (Judges 13) that was wonderfully ordained by God, which we learned about in Part 1, Samson makes some choices that are decidedly ungodly (Judges 14), as we saw in Part 2. The writer of Judges has just told us that Samson lost a bet with Philistines who attended his wedding feast. We pick up the story at the beginning of Judges 15.

Imagine you are Samson’s new wife’s father. You hear that her Israelite husband has just killed 30 of your Philistine people in order to pay up a ridiculous bet.  Think about that.  One man kills 30 men.  I wonder how that happened. One man is no match against 30 men.  The 30 will always win.  An extremely talented soldier might be able to handle 2-3 in a fistfight.  But 30?  Or maybe Samson didn’t face all 30 at the same time. Maybe like Batman he took them out covertly one by one? We don’t know.

Either way, when the Spirit of Lord came upon him, Samson is no longer an ordinary man.  This is brutal stuff we’re talking about here.  It is war.  And war is ugly and awful.  If you are the father of that Philistine girl, you would not want her marrying the man who just killed 30 of your people.  That’s like allowing your daughter to marry a mass-murderer.  Or allowing your daughter to marry an enemy super soldier. Nope. Not going to happen.  So Samson’s father-in-law gives his daughter to one of the Philistine guys at the wedding.

Bold move, right?

That means Samson’s marriage is over 7 days after it began, because he committed a mass atrocity.  Again, this leaves us scratching ours head about Samson.  He clearly has deep inner issues. And we’re only just getting started in his story.

Like I said, this was the beginning of war.  In Judges chapter 15 as the story continues, things go from bad to worse.  Samson goes to find his wife, as he would.  He doesn’t know that his father-in-law gave her away to another man, and Samson believes he is married. At the house, his father-in-law tells Samson that he gave Samson’s wife away, but he says Samson can have her younger sister, because apparently she is more beautiful anyway. 

What?  That’s a very odd offer.  He won’t give away one daughter, but he will give away the other?  Was he afraid of Samson?  It’s crazy.  This gives us an indication, perhaps, of what Philistine society was like. Still, it seems like an awful offer, especially from the viewpoint of the younger daughter!

Considering what we know of Samson thus far, how do you think Samson is going to respond to the news that his Philistine father-in-law gave away Samson’s wife?  Think Samson will be calm, level-headed, answering, “Yeah, I didn’t want her anyway…she betrayed me…Ok, I’ll take the sister.  Thanks.”?  Nope.  Not even close.

Samson is angry!  Get this.  He catches 300 foxes or jackals.  Not one or two.  300.  300?  That alone raises so many questions.  How?  Just how?  Where do you get that many?  How long did it take?  Where did he keep them once he caught them?  I can hardly imagine the logistics of this. 

Then he makes a 150 teams of two foxes, tying them together by their tails, attaching torches to their tails, and he sets them loose in the Philistines’ grain fields, vineyards and olive groves.  This is scorched earth warfare in the ancient world.  From a military perspective, I have to admit that it is very strategic.  The resulting fires would have caused massive economic devastation to the enemy.  If you can’t feed an army, that army can’t fight.

The Philistines find out that it was Samson who burned their fields, and guess what they do?  Run away defeated?  Nope.  They murder his wife and her father, which are their own people!  Who knows?  Maybe they blamed the father-in-law for handling things poorly. 

Will that calm things down?  Maybe it would calm some people or make them scared.  You often hear about that kind of thing in movies, right?  People threaten to kill your family to scare you, quiet you, get you to run or stay away.  But this is Samson we’re talking about.  Look at Judges 15:7, where we read that he is now even angrier than before.  He says he will not stop until he gets revenge on them, and that is exactly what he does slaughtering many of them.  The war is escalating.

The Philistines respond by mustering an army to get Samson.  They ride out to Judah, one of the Israelite tribal areas, where Samson was staying in a cave.  The men of Judah are really concerned about this troop movement of the Philistines.  Remember that the Philistines have been ruling them for 40 years.  This was a menacing move on the part of the Philistines, and the men of Judah could easily be thinking that the Philistines had come to make trouble, especially when you consider the devastation Samson has just done to them.  But the Philistines say, “No, we’re just here for Samson.”  The men of Judah, then, gather together a force of 3000 men to capture Samson.  That’s a huge number of men.  Apparently they knew that Samson was a force to be reckoned with! 

They find him and agree with Samson not to kill him, but just to tie him up and hand him over to the Philistines.  They do just that, and when they deliver him to the Philistines, the Philistines rush toward Samson with a war cry.  They are filled with revenge.  What happens next is unparalleled. 

The Spirit of the Lord comes on Samson again.  He breaks free of his bindings, picks up a jawbone of a donkey, and uses it as a weapon, again breaking his Nazarite vow not to touch dead carcasses.  Samson doesn’t care, and he uses the jawbone to strike down 1000 Philistines!

I wonder what that looked like.  He must have been moving so fast and so forcefully, empowered by God, that he was a blur of supernatural power, mowing people down.  No arrows, no slingshots, no swords, no armor, nothing could stop him.  It didn’t matter if they encircled him with a 100 men.  Nothing they could have tried would have worked.  My guess is that they tried many tactics, but nothing was stopping Samson.  After losing 1000 men, my guess is the Philistines gave up and retreated.

Throughout the story of Samson, the body count numbers have been increasing, haven’t they?  We are way, way beyond the killing of a lion.  This is now all out war, and Samson, all by himself defeats an army of the Philistines.  It is an astonishing feat of individual victory.  For the first time in 40 years, Israel is free from Philistine rule.    

But look at verse 18.  Imagine the physical toll it took on Samson to be a soldier fighting all by himself.  Yes, the Spirit empowered him.  For sure.  There is no other explanation.  But we also learn he is thirsty.  That is an understatement!  He is thankful for the victory God gave him, but he is also impatient and gruff with the Lord.  God opens the place making water pour forth, and Samson can drink.  Still, Samson clearly shows his immaturity and disrespect for God.

As the chapter concludes, we learn that Samson leads Israel for 20 years. But as we did in Part 2 of this series, we have to ask what we are learning about Samson. Though he has amazing victories over the enemies of Israel, empowered by God, the victories are completely individual. Samson isn’t leading the nation back to God. He is just getting revenge, flowing from his anger. Israel is free, but are they moving in God’s direction?

So far Samson’s story has been one of moving away from God, fueled by a vicious anger and revenge. Samson’s story continues in the next post. Perhaps Israel’s newfound freedom will see Samson lead them to God. What about you? Is there any anger and revenge in your life? What would it look like for you to move in God’s direction?

How the godly fall – Characters: Samson, Part 2

5 Nov
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

A fall from grace. Maybe you’ve experienced it. Or maybe another’s fall has affected you. There have been a number of high profile such failures, and countless more lower profile examples that don’t get reported in the news. No matter the situation, they impact people deeply, leaving us wonder, “How did that happen?” Parents split up. A pastor commits an atrocity. A friend betrays you. Sometimes we fail ourselves, when we don’t live up to our own expectations. How does this happen? And where is God in this? As we continue the story of our third character, Samson, in our current series, we find the answers are sometimes far from easy.

In the first post in this series on Samson, everything surrounding his birth and early years is amazing.  God has intervened, even before Samson is born, setting him up to be a powerful, godly leader. Perhaps most significantly, we learned that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson, a very rare occurrence for ancient Israelites, and a clear indication that God had high hopes for Samson.

Then we come to Judges 14.  Look at verses 1-2.

Huh?  Samson goes to get a wife from the Philistines? That’s the enemy, remember.  Worse, Samson isn’t just making a bad decision in fraternizing with the enemy, he is breaking God’s law.  Both Exodus 34:16 and Deuteronomy 7:3 forbid the Israelites from marrying outside of their own people.  What is going on here?  Has something happened in Samson’s life between chapters 13 and 14?  After setting us up for Samson to be a godly deliverer, the writer now has us scratching our heads.  Unless, Samson isn’t going to be the hero we thought. 

As we continue reading in chapter 14, Samson’s parents are disappointed, and they push back, trying to get him to obey God’s law. Samson is having nothing of it, basically demanding that they get the Philistine woman for him to marry. 

Then the writer curiously tells us in verse 4 that, “this was from the Lord.”  Again, we readers could really be confused by this.  Is God condoning sin?  Or is there another way to look at this?  At this point in the story, there are no answers to these questions.  As Samson’s story unfolds, however, the writer will lead us to some answers.  For now, suffice it to say that even though Samson is a flawed character, God is still at work. Let’s continue the story, and what we discover is that the Spirit of Lord comes upon him twice in this chapter, showing God’s presence in his life.

The first occurrence is in verse 6, when the Spirit of Lord comes on Samson to protect him, as Samson kills a lion that attacked him.  That alone is astounding.  He kills a lion.  With his bare hands.  It is okay to think, “That’s not normal.”  Lions kill people.  Not the other way around.  Something is going on with Samson.  We know what is going on: the Spirit of the Lord is on him.  Essentially Samson has a superpower. 

Days or weeks later he passes by the dead lion, and he notices that it has honey in its carcass. Samson not only eats it, but he also gives some to his parents to eat.  This might seem like a random detail, but it is important at this stage in the story.  In the first post, we learned that God wanted Samson to have what was called a Nazarite vow for life. There were three main rules a Nazarite would follow, as they were specially dedicated to God: no alcohol, no touching dead things, and no cutting their hair. Also God’s law forbade any Israelite from touching a dead carcass, let alone eating from it.  So Samson not only broke his vow to God, he also brings his parents, though unwittingly on their part, into breaking a law.  What does this tell us?  Just as he was flippant with God’s law by marrying a foreign woman, here again he shows disregard for God.  Take a pause with me and let’s consider what we are learning about Samson thus far. We have a guy with super strength, but he seems to disregard the source of that power, God’s Spirit, as he is repeatedly trampling on God’s law.  This is not a good pattern; it’s called biting that hand that feeds you. 

Then we come to the wedding feast, which was a typical seven-day-long drinking party.  Again we need to remember his Nazarite vow: no alcohol.  The text doesn’t tell us that he drank, but at a seven-day long party that would normally feature alcohol, and knowing Samson’s proclivity for disregarding his vow, it seems highly likely to me that he drank. 

I think this is especially likely when we consider the ridiculous drama he gets into with his new bride and her people.  30 Philistine men were given to Samson as companions, and some scholars speculate that these men were there to protect the proceedings from Samson.  Perhaps they were a kind of security detail, making sure Samson stays in line. 

So Samson proposes a riddle to them.  If they could solve his riddle by the end of the feast, he would give the men 30 sets of clothing and 30 linen garments or capes, but if they can’t figure it out, they would have to give Samson that much clothing.  Here’s the riddle:

Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.

Judges 14:14

Do you know what Samson is talking about? Samson clearly thought no one would figure it out.  And it seemed for a while like he was right.  Actually, he was right. There was no way anyone was figuring it out, because it was about the honey in lion that he had previously killed.  It’s cool that the translators made his riddle rhyme in English, but is it even a riddle?  It is more like an impossible guess. How could the Philistine men ever know what he is talking about?  They can’t know and they are frustrated about that, so these men start going behind Samson’s back, trying to get his new bride to help them.  She is one of them, a Philistine.  Will she be loyal to them or to her new husband who is an Israelite, enemy of the Philistines? 

His new bride cries the whole seven days of the wedding feast because Samson won’t tell her the answer to a riddle. Finally, after she begs him repeatedly, he divulges the meaning of the riddle. With little time left before the feast is over, she gives the answer to her people.  They in turn tell Samson the answer, and he is angry, because now he owes them 30 sets of clothing. 

At this moment, Samson’s story shifts into darkness.  It is also at this moment we learn of the second time the Spirit of the Lord comes on Samson in this chapter, but this time it is not for protection like it was with the lion.  This time he travels to a Philistine city, Ashkelon, where he kills 30 Philistine men and strips them of their clothes to pay up.

Samson’s war with the Philistines has begun. While it might seem like God has given Samson a victory over Israel’s enemies, we’ve also watched Samson begin a fall from grace. Yes, he struck a blow to the enemy who had been ruling over Israel for 40 years. Yes, God empowered him. But Samson actions were dark, betraying his vow, acting in anger and disregard for God. These are warning signs.

Perhaps you’ve seen that pattern in yourself or in others around you. The slow fade into darkness. The lack of concern for what might seem like small things, little lies, selfish purchases, and the like. These actions often reveal a direction of life, and that a larger fall could be coming.

As God is gracious with Samson, not abandoning him even when he disregard’s God’s law, God is gracious with us. Merciful. Patient. Return to him before the fall. Confess and repent. Will Samson? Will you?