Friday, June 27, 2008

In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver (Judges 17)

Seriously, SAB? No notes on Judges 17? Even if you're not a follower of the God of Israel, you've got to see how messed up this is. The fact that there were no notes on this chapter as well as no notes concerning the treatment received by Samson at the end of his life makes me wonder if the SAB is showing its prejudice in an odd manner, although I'm not sure what we're prejudiced against. Seriously, based on the pattern elsewhere, this text should be pointing out that clearly if this story is in the Bible, then the message is:
17:2 (Contradiction, Family Values) While the Bible says it's not okay to steal, apparently, if you steal from your own family, that's a good thing!

17:3, 12-13 (Contradiction) Micah's mother makes an idol, and Micah's cool with it, this mysterious Levite is cool with it, and apparently God is cool with it, because He doesn't kill them all then and there.
...and so forth. I mean really, there's primo material here! The SAB should be all over this. I'm sure we'll get back to it in a couple chapters (the next chapter is pretty devoid of commentary as well) but for now, I'm left on my own to comment.

The last few chapters of the book of Judges are really some of the nastiest in the Bible. While I think I did say Samson was bad, there are a number of other people who appear in the following chapters that, well, it's been suggested by many that they are so vile that there's a reason it's one of the longest stretches of the Old Testament without names being named. The thing that may not be realized by detractors is that in many ways this little episode with Micah and his idolatry is pretty nasty in its own way.

I feel like I've said it a million times, although it's probably only about four or five, but religious morality is ranked right up there with sexual morality in importance to God. It may even surpass the significance of violence. It's fitting both due to its importance in and of itself and in the fact that there is a presented idea behind most of the Bible that spiritual sin leads to more obvious worldly sin, that this story be the beginning of a set of stories that illustrate the depravity of the Israelites during this period. We even see that a Levite is brought into the mix, as apparently this idolater thinks having a Levite priest is going to validate his practice, an ironic and sad statement of the state of the culture and the ancient priesthood. Really, it's better to be an atheist than the follower of a false god, something that I think skeptics can agree with me concerning.

Don't get me wrong in what I am about to say; I am not one of those people who claims that atheists are incapable of being moral, in fact an atheist is at least far more likely to take personal responsibility for their morality, which is a good thing in its own way. What is a problem with the sort of idolatry we see here and throughout this age of Israel's history is that these people do largely take their moral cues from their religion, and if their religion is simply made up, then so is their morality. If your moral responsibility is to a lump of metal you keep in your living room, how much are you dedicated to honoring a "god" that can be picked up and carried away?

But then, that's the next chapter...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

And great was the fall of it (Judges 16)

Ah Judges 16, and the story of Samson finally defeated. Here we see him fall to what must be his greatest weakness, his lust for women, and apparent unfailing trust of them despite all evidence against doing so. Yes, Samson goes to visit a prostitute in Gaza, but this is not his downfall yet, although one might wonder if the whole thing was a set-up for a trap. The Philistines fully expect to catch him in the morning and kill him, but in the middle of the night (I assume while the soldiers are asleep) he gets up and rips the city gate out of the wall and carries it to a nearby hill. There may have been an actual purpose to this act, such as the possibility that's easily suggested by the text that they were trying to trap him in the city by barring the city gate. The SAB marks the act as absurd, and asks, "Did God make him do it or was he just showing off?" I'd lean towards showing off, as practically, all he really needed to escape was to knock the door down. It's possible that the practical purpose was to leave the city unprotected, as fixing a city gate that is knocked over is easier than fixing one that's been carried off. All of the angry, showy things that Samson does in his life end up being to the general detriment to the Philistines in the end.

Into the story comes Delilah, a Philistine woman that Samson has a crush on. The Philistines continue their campaign to take advantage of Samson's weakness for women, and offer Delilah a reward if she can help them take Samson down. She proceeds to question Samson as to the source of his strength, to which Samson makes up several answers. Seriously, this has got to be the stupidest guy in the Bible; every time he tells her what can be done to defeat him, she proceeds to immediately do it. To tell this woman the true source of his power has got to be the biggest bonehead move ever. (Actually, for the first time I find myself wondering if, in fact, Samson didn't even mean it when he said his hair was the source of his power. In truth, the Bible never says it's the case that his hair is giving him power; I've always thought the possibility existed that this was all psychological on Samson's part.) Whatever Samson expected to happen, I truly marvel that he didn't know Delilah was out to get him. Despite what Hollywood has portrayed, there's also no evidence in the story here that Delilah was in it for anything but the money.

The SAB says of his hair being the source of his strength, "And I thought his strength was from God." Well, everything comes from God, particularly Samson's strength, which seems to be supernatural, but his hair seems to have been a part of it for whatever reason. The fact that his eyes were gouged out probably didn't help Samson much either (an act which the SAB does not mention as being cruel or violent, and I'm curious as to why).

Samson ends up killing more than 3,000 people (Wells, you may want to update your tally, as 3,000 is the number of people upstairs alone, while many others were downstairs, no doubt) in his death, taking down the building on top of them all. The SAB does not miss the chance to mark this as violent, cruel, unjust and intolerant, but I must question some of those. Sure, Samson was an awful guy, but does that make it alright to gouge his eyes out and bring him out to publicly humiliate him? Are the Philistines right in oppressing the Israelites? (Unlike many of the nations the Israelites had to contend with in Canaan, the Philistines were not locals, but invaders.) Violent? Yes, but as for the other things Samson is accused of here, this final thing is really the closest he comes to a noble act in his spotty life. This one time especially, the Philistines really have it coming.

So, what is the final lesson of the life of Samson? What is the answer to the question I put off answering a few chapters back? Why does God take one of the worst moral examples in the Bible and continue to give him power and blessing time after time? Actually, I already answered this question in the beginning of the book. The book of Judges and the life of Samson in particular should be an inspiration for anyone who is hoping to find favor with God. Why? Because if God wants to use your life to make a great thing happen, He's not going to allow your failings, even if they are catastrophic ones like Samson's, to stand in the way of that. No doubt God could have taken Samson, had he been an upright and moral man, and made him a brilliant military leader and inspiration to his people who would than have rallied around him like a king and rose up to drive out their oppressors. Instead, God used Samson's very weaknesses to maneuver him into a place where he would end up destroying the leadership of the Philistines in a surprise attack from within. Samson was chosen from before birth for this purpose and, despite his own free will subverting the best opportunity for resolving the conflict, the purpose of God was served. I'll say it again: the Bible is a book full of massively screwed-up people that God used to do great things despite themselves. It gives hope to billions around the world and throughout history. If I don't have the moral fiber to be a Daniel, maybe I have just enough faith in God that he'll make me a Samson? Something to think about, anyway.

Friday, June 06, 2008

They were burned with fire (Judges 15)

So with each new chapter in Samson's life, he looks worse and worse. Aside from Samson's one supposedly redeeming feature of hating the Philistines, we see what might be considered a redeeming feature by some, but in his case is perhaps a bit of foreshadowing to his downfall: Even after his wife has betrayed him, he forgives her and goes back to her (whether it be a sexual betrayal or not, the thing that we see about Samson here is that he can't seem to fathom the idea of a woman being bad or dangerous, which is a different sort of sexism than we usually see in the Bible, but sexism nonetheless). It turns out that Samson's father-in-law has assumed that Samson wanted a divorce, and married her off to someone else. The following offer of the younger sister is, I think, an act of self-preservation on the part of Samson's father-in-law, whatever else you might think of it. Samson is known for having a nasty, violent temper, and he's certainly not above killing.

Samson's response to this is that he's decided to get revenge on the Philistines as a whole for this grave injustice done against him. (I actually find myself wondering if he's really so angry, or if he's just looking for an excuse to commit violence against the Philistines. You can almost imagine a typical day for Samson: gets up...eats breakfast...toast doesn't have enough butter, so he bludgeons 20 Philistines to death with a stale loaf of bread...checks out the newspaper, etc.) He somehow catches 300 foxes for a Rube Goldberg-esque plan of revenge that destroys the Philistines' crops. (The SAB marks this passage with the Absurd icon, and I tend to agree, whether it be the strangeness of Samson's plan or the thought of a single man catching 300 foxes, this is pretty weird.) Destroying the crops leads to an escalation: The Philistines burn up Samson's wife and father-in-law, and Samson takes this as an excuse for more violence, and some unknown number of Philistines are killed.

The Philistines get smart, and realize that they have to deal with the root of their problem, and move in to capture Samson himself. The men of Judah are willing to give up Samson to save themselves, so they go to him and ask him to surrender. (You know, despite the fact that Samson is supposed to be some sort of leader in Israel, there's not much to suggest that even his own people liked him.) Samson agrees to go peacefully if his own countrymen promise not to harm him, and they agree. So Samson is handed over to the Philistines tied up with two ropes.

Of course, this is one of the more well-known parts of the story of Samson: it was all just a ruse. Samson knows that he's too strong to be bound by mere ropes, so once he's tied up and unarmed in the midst of his enemies and they think they have the upper hand, he breaks his ropes, picks up a donkey's jawbone (once again, a no-no for a Nazarite), and kills 1,000 men with it. (1,000 is such a round number that it may be an exaggeration, but surely, he killed several hundred.) Then he makes a pun about the whole thing, saying, "I made a chamorah (heap) of bodies with the jaw of a chamor (donkey)!" That's not just messed up morals, but a sick sense of humor.

Then, to end this little story, Samson whines to God that darnit, mass murder is thirsty work! So God gives him some water out of the hill where he found the bone (not out of the bone itself, despite the confusing language of the translation). He calls the place "Enhakkore", or "the spring of the one who calls". Why is God helping Samson? I hope as I finish his story, I can explain on some level, but it's not bound to be pretty.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

It is not good to eat much honey: so for men to search their own glory is not glory. (Judges 14)

So with Judges 14, Samson's personal story begins. If Samson seems like an unlikely Biblical hero, that's because he is. He's a jerk, a drunk, a womanizer, and he's prone to fits of violent outburst that have a lot more to do with a sense that he's been personally wronged rather than a desire to see the will of God carried out, as with most of the other characters we've seen in this book. I'm not going to defend Samson much, as he's admittedly not a very nice person.

The story of Samson is an early example of what has been come to be called in our age the "anti-hero". The first time I'd heard the term used, I thought it was a modern concept, but I soon realized that history and literature is littered with such people. There is no doubt that Samson is the hero of the story that unfolds here and in the next few chapters, but unlike the sort of heroes we ideally expect from the Bible (squeaky clean paragons of virtue such as Joseph or Daniel) or even the sorts of heroes that we more realistically expect from the Bible (mostly good folks who have personal flaws, but a strong faith in God such as Noah and Jacob), this guy has pretty much no redeeming features other than the fact that he really hates the Philistines, who happen to be Israel's oppressors. Is that one thing enough to redeem him? In the end, it's really a matter of opinion.

Now despite the fact that Samson is so often portrayed as a strong, forceful man, you might note that when he gets the hots for a Philistine woman, instead of going after her himself, he whines to his parents about her. The violence, lust and drunkenness are obvious character flaws of Samson, but a more subtle one that we really see a lot of is that despite his strength, he's sort of an emotional wimp. He can't just go and talk to the woman himself? You get the impression (or at least I do) that while Samson's parents seemed like good folks at first, they don't seem to be very good parents; I think Samson is a spoiled brat, even as a grown man.

Samson is very strong, though, and in the middle of this story, he manages to kill a lion with his bare hands. At a later date, passing by the carcass of the lion, he finds that some bees have made a hive inside its dead body, and he eats some of the honey. Aside from being sort of gross, this is the first instance we see of Samson doing something expressly forbidden of a Nazarite: touching a dead animal. (The SAB marks the passage with the Science icon, although I'm not sure why. Maybe Wells knows something about bees that I don't.) Actually, eating something that had come from the body of a dead animal would be unkosher to anyone, and yet he feeds some of the honey to his parents, not telling them where he got it.

Later, at a feast, he takes the story and makes a riddle out of it. It seems to me that this riddle is akin to Bilbo Baggins' famous riddle, "What have I got in my pocket?" It was really not an acceptable riddle, it was essentially unsolvable, and in the end, the person challenged with the riddle solved it, but the poser of the riddle didn't abide by the rules of the original challenge. Really, would anyone have been able to solve this riddle without cheating? I don't know if the phrase "plowed with my heifer" really is meant to imply that Samson thought his wife was having sex with the men, but he certainly knows that she's the only one who knew the solution.

Samson, being a sore loser, goes off and kills thirty men and takes his payment off of them. The SAB is pretty much right here in that whenever "the Spirit of the LORD came upon him", he seems to do something nasty and violent. What's up with that? Honestly, I don't know.