OLD TESTAMENT ESSAYS
The Religious Significance of the
Judges Samson and Deborah
(2 May 1983)
by Christopher C. Warren, M.A.(Oxon)
Samson was perhaps the strangest and yet most interesting of the Judges of Israel whose activities give us a detailed picture of the religious conditions that prevailed during his life. He was born and raised a Nazirite by his father Manoah who had been promiosed by an angel that his son would deliver Israel from Philistine oppression. Unlike some of his predecessors, Samson did not unite the nation but acted independently, waging a personal war against his Philistine neighbours. We are told in the biblical account that the Spirit of Yahweh rested on him from the beginning, giving him super-human powers so long as he kept his Nazirite vow. It was only when he surrendered the secret of his strength to Delilah that the favour of Yahweh was withdrawn, his strength having apparently been conditional upon his retaining his long hair. (Nazirites were not allowed to cut their hair). Samson also poses a moral problem. How could such an immoral man have been blessed by Yahweh? We need to remember that Samson was born at a time when Israel was in a state of national apostacy; previous Judges had tried to stirr Israel into remembrance of Yahweh and His law with only limited success. Brief periods of national remembrance of Yahweh and His law with only limited success. Brief periods of national repentance were followed by even worse periods of national apostacy, so much so that by the time Samson enters the Israelite scene, there is more worship of pagan gods than of Yahweh. We must therefore presume that whilst Samson received a rudimentary education in the Law of Moses, he lived at a time when religious syncretism was common and pagnism as much a part of every day life as Yahwism. we should not, therefore, be surprised to find Samson to be such an immoral character since harlotry was a common feature of Canaanite worship. We must conclude that Yahweh tolerated Samson's excesses so long as he was faithgul to the law as he knew it. Indeed, most of the Judges seemed to be in Samson's predicament. In the circumstances we learn that samson, and the other Judges, were primarily justified by FAITH. Samson's strength came in his faith in Yahweh, and so long as he had faith and kept his Nazirite vows, the spirit of Yahweh was upon him. Thus we see that though Israel was in a state of apostacy, Yahweh still worked through certain charismatic ledaers like Samson, justifying them according to their faith. The lesson we can learn from this is that Yahweh will act with a person according to the portion of spiritual light and understanding that he has. But as soon as the greater light is given, as though a prophet, the person is expected to obey or suffer the consequences. Samson's disobedience came in turning away from that portion of the Law which he understood, resulting ultimately in his death in the Temple of Dagon after one last heroic effort of faith.
Deborah was quite a different character from Samson and was truer to the tradition of the 'Saviour-Judges'. The biblical account seems to indicate that her record was clean for nowhere so we find references to immorality or paganism that seem to darken Samson's life. She became the first and only woman judge in Israel, not by virtue of any temproal authority, but by virtue of the 'divine charisma' that was the gift of Yahweh to those of His servants who possessed His Spirit. Her authority was thus spiritual in nature. Her ability as a prophetess was proven on the battle field when she directed her military commander, Barak, to defeat the armies of Sisera, commander of Jabin II of Hazor. It is significant that a woman could rise to such a high position in an essentially male-orientated society, and that she possessed the gift of prophecy. Only Miriam, the sister of Moses, seems to have had this gift before her. What we do not know is whether a woman could have arisen to such importance under the Mosaic Law or whether she assumed this position because the Mosaic law was not being enforced or lived at the time. What is significant, though, is not whether or not the Law of Moses provided for female leadership but the fact that the Spirit of Yahweh was with her. Yahweh raised her up and used her to save the nation in the absence of any capable men who might otherwise have been called by default to the task. The Song of Deborah, a piece of prophetic poetry, is one of the most beautiful in the Old Testament and is known definitely by scholars to have been written during Deborah's time. We must rpesume that once again Deborah was justified by faith. For 40 years after Sisera's defeat Israel enjoyed peace until apostacy once again set in. It is clear that the Law of Moses was only obeyed by the people so long as there was a 'strong hand' to enforce it, a righteous Judge. Left on their own, the people soon rebelled and sought after pagan deities. This was therefore a time of great religious and political instability. lastly, it should be pointed out that Deborah was not a ruler over the whole of Israel but over a portion only. In the emergency she was only able to get support from the tries of Naphthali and Zebulon. It not only seems, therefore, that the tribes were loosely united under the Tribal Confederacy, but that the Levites were pretty ineffective too. Indeed they donŠ't seem to have played any part in the religious life of Israel. The only clue of their activities we have comes from the story of Micah the Levite where we learn that the religious syncretism was well under way. Certainly, the Levites played little or no part in maintaining religious standards under the Judges; it took non-Levites like Samson and Deborah to fight Yahweh's wars and maintain correct worship.
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