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Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?

Although this is a picture of Samson and Delilah, let's pretend it's Samson and the Gaza Prostitute since such pictures are hard to find!
Although this is a picture of Samson and Delilah, let’s pretend it’s Samson and the Gaza Prostitute since such pictures are hard to find!

Samson’s visit to the prostitute in Gaza has usually been considered as one example, among many, of his misadventures. Recently, several scholars have questioned this interpretation, suggesting that Samson has been misunderstood. How should the brief episode between Samson and the Gaza Prostitute be read? Is Samson a “good guy” whose intentions at the prostitute’s house have been misrepresented, or is this story just another example of his “bad boy” behavior?

Before beginning, I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to two of my colleagues for introducing me to this debate. They have both written about it on their blogs. Lindsay Kennedy has summarized an article written by Gordon P. Hugenberger entitled, “Samson and the Harlot at Gaza (Judges 16:1-3)” contained in the volume From Creation to New Creation. You can read his post at “Why Samson May Have Not Visited a Prostitute” at mydigitalseminary.com. Spencer Robinson has joined in the conversation by noting what Rikk Watts has to say on this topic. You can read his post at “Was Samson a Good Judge?” at spoiledmilks.wordpress.com. Besides Hugenberger and Watts, Miles Van Pelt has also joined the discussion with his post “What was Samson Doing with a Prostitute in Gaza?” at thegospelcoalition.org. Having read Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post, my purpose is to lay out their arguments for Samson as a “good guy.” However, while many of us would like to believe that Samson’s visit to the prostitute at Gaza has some “redeeming social value,” in the second part of this post I will attempt to explain why I disagree with Hugenberger’s  and Van Pelt’s arguments. Although I’m using the “good guy/bad guy” vocabulary, I must caution that neither I, nor any scholar I am familiar with, thinks that Samson is all bad or all good. Like all of us, he is a mixture of both.

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Positive Interpretation

from creationThe following list is a summary of Hugenberger’s arguments regarding a positive reading of the Samson story as a whole, as well as the story of Samson and the Gaza prostitute:

1.”The biblical text nowhere states why Samson went down to Gaza” (p. 63) and, therefore, the reader should not be influenced by speculations that he was lonely or had an “irrepressible libido.”

2. The expression “he came to her,” is ambiguous and, “In the vast majority of cases the expression refers to one entering into the company of another without any sexual implication” (p. 64).

3. 16:1-3 “offers no hint of moral rebuke,” and the feat of removing the doors, doorposts, and bar from the city gates implies, “if anything, divine approbation” (p. 65).

4. The progammatic text of Judges 2:6-23 suggests a “positive view of the judges” (p. 67). Hugenberger argues that, “many of the texts assumed to offer incontrivertible proof of egregious moral failure or infidelity toward God on the part of the judges are often susceptible to less negative interpretations” (p. 67).

Gordon Hugenberger, pictured above, along with Miles Van Pelt and others, argues for a positive interpretation of the Samson and the Gaza prostitute story.
Gordon Hugenberger, pictured above, along with Miles Van Pelt and others, argues for a positive interpretation of the Samson and the Gaza prostitute story.

6&7. Hugenberger’s two main proofs that the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode should be read positively are based on the parallels between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2, and the contrasts between Judges 16:1-3 and Judges 18. For a more detailed look at the comparisons between these stories, click the link to Kennedy’s post above.

7. Hugenberger also questions why God hears Samson’s prayers after the Delilah episode if he is the bad character that some paint him to be.

Van Pelt shares some similarities with Hugenberger’s arguments for a more positive interpretation of the Samson and Gaza prostitute story. He adds that Samson may have visited a prostitute to mask his true intent. He also notes that the similarities between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2 may be “the author’s way of preparing us for the eventual destruction of that town.” He questions what the author’s point would be in recording that Samson had a one night stand and argues that “Samson goes to Gaza to do what Israel was failing to do.”

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Negative Interpretation

In this section I will respond to the arguments cited above made by Hugenberger and Van Pelt and demonstrate why, despite their reasonings, I continue to view the episode in Judges 16:1-3 negatively. The numbers in parenthesis below correspond to the arguments laid out above.

(1) I am in agreement with Hugenberger’s statement that the biblical text does not state why Samson went to Gaza. This is not an argument for a positive or negative interpretation, however. It is simply an assertion that we should remain open-minded as we approach the text.

(2) It is true that the expression “he came in(to) her” is used in various ways in the Hebrew Scriptures and that in a majority of cases it does not have any reference to sexual activity. However, when this expression is accompanied by other sexual references in the text it is certainly suggestive of sexual intimacy. Hugenberger notes that this phrase occurs 15 other times in Judges and, with the possible exception of Judges 15:1, it never refers to sexual intimacy. He also states, “a majority of modern English translations and commentaries do not favor this option” for 15:1. This is a bit of a “straw man” however. If I were to argue that “came (in)to” in a majority of cases throughout the Hebrew Bible does not refer to sexual intimacy (which is true, as noted above), therefore, it probably doesn’t refer to sexual intimacy in Genesis 38:16, I would be wrong. Just because a word doesn’t mean something in a majority of cases, does not rule out that it could carry that meaning in a context that specifically suggests such a meaning. For example, “came (in)to” has the regular meaning of approaching in the context of the Angel of the Lord “coming to” Manoah’s wife (Judg. 13:6, 9, 10). That is its natural meaning and there is nothing in the context to suggest otherwise. However, throw in the word “prostitute,” or other sexually charged words, and “came (in)to” quite naturally carries a sexual connotation. Whether Samson did or didn’t engage in sexual activity with the prostitute may be debated, but the atmosphere of the text is certainly sexually charged by the language used. We will return to this phrase when discussing Joshua 2 below, but for now I note that Hugenberger’s argument regarding “the usual meaning based on number of occurrences makes the less usual meaning doubtful,” as erroneous.

Samson carries the gates of Gaza - Judges 16 3 - Henri Motte The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3. edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908
Samson carries the gates of Gaza – Judges 16 3 – Henri Motte
The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3. edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908

(3) I agree, as Hugenberger points out, that this episode “offers no hint of moral rebuke.” But this doesn’t mean that we should automatically conclude that it demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation.” One of the characteristics of Hebrew narrative is to tell the story and leave the judgment up to the reader’s perception. For example, there is no moral rebuke for Abram’s action in taking Hagar and conceiving through her (Gen. 16). In fact, God protects Hagar and the child and commands them to return to Abram and Sarai after they had been driven away. Yet every reader knows that Abram’s actions are wrong. Closer to home in the Book of Judges, we could cite numerous examples. Whether one thinks Jephthah offered his daughter as a sacrifice, or simply doomed her to perpetual virginity, it can not be argued that his vow was anything except foolish. However, no moral censure is recorded and God still gives Jephthah victory. To argue that God blesses Jephthah with victory and that this demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation” of his vow, is clearly nonsensical.

(4) There is certainly truth to the contention that Judges 2:6-23 puts the judges in a more positive light than the rest of Israel. However, this does not mean that the judges are shining examples of virtue. The judges exercise faith and they are God’s instruments to deliver his people, but the evidence shows that they were very human and were affected by the environment they were a part of. Most, if not all, commentators will give high marks to the first few judges–Othniel, Ehud, and Barak & Deborah. Even here some raise their eyebrows at Ehud’s methods and Barak’s unwillingness to go to battle without Deborah; but, largely, these judges are positive role models. While there are good qualities in all of the judges, there does seem to be a turning point for the worse with Gideon and those who follow after him in the book. In spite of the good that Gideon accomplishes, are we really expected to cheer him for torturing and slaughtering fellow-Israelites (Judg. 8:13-17), or creating a golden ephod that leads Israel back into idolatry? (Judg. 8:27). We have already noticed the problem of Jephthah’s vow; should we also congratulate him for his civil war against the Ephraimites where he is said to slaughter 42,000? (Judg. 12:1-6). The point is, although the judges are capable of great good, they are also capable of great evil, and this includes Samson.

Is Joshua's sending of the spies in Joshua 2 positive or negative?
Is Joshua’s sending of the spies in Joshua 2 a positive or negative story?

(5&6) Hugenberger, as well as Van Pelt, are quite correct to notice the similarities of Judges 16:1-3 with Joshua 2 and Judges 18. However, how one interprets the relationship between these passages is up for debate. Both Hugenberger and Van Pelt see Joshua 2 comparing favorably with Judges 16, and thus presenting a positive picture of Samson. A number of commentators on Joshua would disagree. For example regarding Joshua 2, J. Gordon Harris states, “Note how the narrator reports that God ordered Joshua to arise and cross the Jordan, but instead Joshua orders spies to go to Jericho and Canaan. By sending spies, Joshua risked the success of the mission” (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, NIBC, p. 27). Robert Polzin is even more direct when he says, “In reponse, Joshua timidly sends out spies to reconnoiter the country, and we are immediately alerted that Joshua may not be as strong and resolute as God and the people had encouraged him to be” (Moses and the Deuteronomist, p. 86). If these commentators are corrrect, the spy story in Joshua 2 is actually a negative comment on the faith of Joshua and the Israelites. The fact of the matter is, it seems that most spy stories in the Hebrew Bible have a negative bent to them (Num. 13; Deut. 1:21-32; Josh. 7:2-5; Judg. 1:22-26.

It is also argued that the sexually charged language of Joshua 2 raises suspicions about the rightness of this mission. Creach states, “Sexual innuendo permeates the story and is a driving force in its plot” (Joshua, Interpretation Commentary, p. 32). Hugenberger argues strenuously that the spies did not engage in sexual promiscuity (pp. 71-73). I agree with him, but this misses the point. The sexually charged language of Joshua 2 is not meant to suggest that the spies had sexual relations with Rahab; it is meant to color the narrative so that the dubious nature of this mission is exposed. In other words, it is one more way that the narrator suggests that Joshua made a mistake in sending out the spies. Based on the assertion that the spies were not guilty of sexual misconduct in Joshua 2, Hugenberger makes a huge leap when he states, “it seems plausible that the same presumption of innocence should obtain for Samson at Gaza” (p. 72). Not only is this a huge jump in the interpretive process, but I would make two observations: 1) Early in his article, Hugenberger states “It is hardly persuasive to build an argument on what an author or editor ‘did not say'” (p. 66). Yet Hugenberger seeks to argue that if the spies didn’t, then Samson didn’t! 2) Hugenberger is also assuming that the spy story of Joshua 2 is positive. If it is negative, however, as noted above, then, using Hugenberger’s logic, the negative qualities of Joshua 2 color the narrative in Judges 16:1-3 making a negative interpretation of Samson’s actions more likely.

There is a further problem with Hugenberger’s application of both Joshua 2 and Judges 18 to the episode in Judges 16:1-3. Because Hugenberger interprets the story in Joshua 2 positively, he sees the similarity in language with Judges 16 as evidence for a positive interpretation of the Samson story. Again, there are two problems: 1) Even if, for the sake of argument, we agree that Joshua 2 is a positive story about the spies, how do we know that the Samson story is not a parody on the spy story of Joshua 2? In other words, in Joshua 2 the spies don’t have sex with Rahab, but in Judges 16 Samson does what the spies didn’t do! It’s all a matter of perspective as to whether the story is a parallel to Joshua 2 or an anti-parallel. 2) If the story in Joshua 2 is a negative story, then the parallel that Hugenberger argues for must be seen as a negative for the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode. Otherwise, Hugenberger must change his intepretation and say Joshua 2 is an anti-parallel story! My point is this process, although helpful, is also very subjective. The same can be said of the similarities between Judges 16 and 18. Here, Hugenberger sees the story in Judges 18 as a contrast to Judges 16:1-3, whereas, I would argue that it is a parallel. One of the reasons I would argue for it being parallel is that the story in Judges 18 is the second half of a story that begins in chapter 17 with the words “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). This is a familiar refrain repeated throughout the end of the book (Judg. 21:25). In the Samson narrative (Judg. 13-16), the first words out of his mouth are when he demands his parents to get him the woman from Timnah as a wife for, “she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This statement suggests that Samson has a lot in common with the people of Judges 17-21.

In his blindness, Samson was made to see.
In his blindness, Samson was made to see.

(7) I also believe that Hugenberger’s and Van Pelt’s argument for a positive Samson overlooks an important motif in the story. The author is clear that Samson has a “seeing” problem. As just noted, Samson has an eye for the ladies and the first words he utters include, “I have seen a woman” (Judg. 14:2), “Get her for me because she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This “seeing” problem is what leads Samson to the house of the Gaza prostitute. Judges 16:1 begins, “Now Samson went to Gaza and saw a harlot there, and went in to her” (NKJV). Ironically, Samson’s eye problem is cured when he is blinded by the Philistines. It is only when he is blind, that he truly begins to see (as the hymn says!). While blind, Samson seeks the Lord and prays for strength to avenge himself for his two eyes (Judg. 16:28). It is Samson’s dependence on the Lord that renews his strength, not his upright character (as Hugenberger suggests) in relation to the prostitute or anyone else. An important mistake made by Van Pelt, along these lines, is that he argues that Samson went to the prostitute’s house so that he would not be detected, and so that he might mask his true intent. This is wrong on two counts: 1) As Hugenberger notes, the house of a prostitute did not guarantee masking your intentions–both Samson and the spies are found out by the people in the city (so much for masking one’s intent!). 2) Hugenberger also notes that Samson’s original destination in Gaza was not the prostitute’s house. This is made clear in 16:1 when it says that Samson only went to the prostitute’s house after he “saw” her. As Barry Webb states, “What the text clearly implies, however, is that he did not go to Gaza with the express intention of visiting a prostitute” (Judges, NICOT, p. 393). Thus, Van Pelt’s supposition that Samson went to the prostitute’s house  to spy out the town (like the spies of Joshua 2) is incorrect. Although Hugenberger’s comments help to undermine Van Pelt’s supposition, he comes to the same conclusion that Samson’s visit to the prostitute, like the spies of Jericho, is an “appropriate step that would enable the divinely approved work of dispossession to begin” (p. 79). From an authorial perspective of the Book of Judges, I can see how the biblical author’s parallels to Jericho might suggest this, but from a historical or practical viewpoint, I find it hard to understand how visiting the house of a prostitute announces the dispossession of a city! Again, from a literary point of view I can understand how Samson’s visit to a prostitute would recall the story of Joshua 2, and thus prepare the reader for Gaza’s destruction. However, to suggest that this was Samson’s motive, not only rings hollow to me, it doesn’t fit reality.

Finally, the Conclusion!

To make a long post, longer, let me conclude by saying that Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post are well worth reading. Not only should one read it for him/herself to judge whether I have represented them fairly, but also one should read it because, like Samson himself, there is good as well as bad in them (ha!). I also want to say that I greatly look forward to Hugenberger’s forthcoming commentary on Judges in the Apollos series (Judges Commentary in the Apollos series). I’m confident that, not only will this commentary be full of insight, but it will also give Hugenberger more space to develop and defend his thesis about Samson and the rest of the judges. Meanwhile, I remain convinced that the overall structure of Judges consists of a downward spiral where the spiritual life of the people of Israel and the judges themselves continues to deteriorate to the end of the book. For an excellent treatment and defense of this thesis see the commentaries by Daniel Block in the NAC series and Barry Webb in the NICOT (see link above). Since this topic seems to be a lively debate at the moment, I would welcome all comments that any readers might want to share. After all, it is in the give and take of exchanging our understanding of a biblical passage that we sharpen each other and strive to get at the real meaning of the text.

Biblical Narrative: How Motifs Enrich a Story

Biblical Narrative: The Use of Motifs

A Viking embroidery motif. Biblical narratives use a similar pattern of repetition.
A Viking embroidery motif. Biblical narratives often  use imagery with similar patterns of repetition.

A motif is a recurring pattern or design, or a familiar image that is repeated in a piece of writing such as a biblical narrative. In my last post on “Helpful Suggestions for Bible Study,” I focused on the importance of paying attention to the details of a story (you can read that post here). Another detail that is often overlooked in Bible study is the recurrence of motifs within a story, or even a whole book. Biblical narratives commonly use motifs. These motifs spice up a story and not only increase the “entertainment” value of the story, but usually contribute to the understanding of an important theme, message, or character within the narrative. This is a “detail” worth pondering, and so I would like to take the opportunity in this article to look at various stories and the motifs found in them. With some stories, the reason for the motif is obvious. With other stories, the reason for the motif is more obscure. In this article I will explore the meaning of some motifs while asking all of you who read this blog to offer insights and suggestions about others. I hope you’ll join me by sharing your comments. So let’s have some fun exploring various motifs in biblical narratives and see what we might learn from them.

A stone becomes Jacob's pillow and that night God appears to him in a dream.
A stone becomes Jacob’s pillow and that night God appears to him in a dream.

Stones are a common motif in some biblical narratives. For example, the story of Jacob, in the Book of Genesis, frequently refers to them. When Jacob has his famous dream of the “ladder” that reaches from heaven to earth, we are told that he uses a stone for his pillow (Gen. 28:11). The following morning he takes the same stone and sets it up as a sacred pillar (yes, his pillow becomes a pillar) for a memorial of the occasion (Gen. 28:18, 22). The stone here is obviously a motif that suggests God’s provision, protection, and blessing on Jacob, as he flees from his brother Esau and goes to Syria where he will meet his future wives (Leah and Rachel) and encounter his diabolical uncle Laban, but it also suggests Jacob’s lack of certainty about God. Upon Jacob’s arrival in Syria (Paddan Aram), he comes to a well which has a large stone that covers it (Gen. 29:2). The narrator spends several verses talking about this stone and the shepherds’ reluctance to remove it quickly (Gen. 29:3, 8). However, when Rachel arrives on the scene and Jacob sees her for the first time, we are informed that he rolls the stone away by himself and waters the flocks (Gen. 29:10)! The contrast between the lazy shepherds and the energetic Jacob, the heaviness of the stone and the appearance of Rachel, seems to suggest that Jacob is showing a little machismo and flexing his muscles for the little beauty he has just met! In this case, the stone represents Jacob acting in the flesh. Up to this point in the story it must be admitted that Jacob relies on himself, rather than on God. Jacob secures Rachel as a wife by showing off, working hard, and bargaining with Laban (Gen. 29:18-19). It is all done in his own strength. By contrast, his father Isaac had received his wife through the fervent prayer of Abraham’s servant who sought God’s guidance each step of the way (Gen. 24). Jacob never prays about a wife. He flexes his muscles, works hard, and negotiates.

Stones are a biblical narrative motif. The heap of witness (Gen. 31:44-55)
The heap of witness (Gen. 31:44-55) One example of the use of stones in the biblical narrative of Jacob

After years of mistreatment at the hands of his father-in-law, stones reappear again in the story of Jacob as he and his family flee from Laban. The stones in this story represent a covenant (Gen. 31:44-46), but the covenant is based on hostility and mutual mistrust (Gen. 31:51-52). For Jacob they also appear to have the deeper meaning of recognizing God’s protection over him (Gen. 31:53). In Genesis 35, Jacob finally returns to Bethel (where he had his original dream). God appears to him and reiterates all of the promises He had made to Jacob. When God is finished speaking, the Scripture tells us that Jacob set up a “pillar of stone” to commemorate where God had talked with him (Gen. 35:14). This scene brings the story full-circle demonstrating both God’s faithfulness to Jacob and Jacob’s trust in God. The first stone pillar at Bethel (Gen. 28) was set up by a lying and deceitful Jacob who trusted in his own wits and strength. The final stone pillar at Bethel (Gen. 35) is set up by a Jacob who has learned humility, trust, and dependence on God. Jacob’s trust in God is declared one final time through this “stone” imagery. On his deathbed, as he is blessing his son Joseph, Jacob refers to God as “the stone of Israel” (Gen. 49:24). Thus by following the “stone” motif in the story of Jacob we can not only discover significant insights into the personality of Jacob, but we can discover the message of how God transforms a self-sufficient man into one who depends on Him.

Saul's spear was his constant companion and is an example of another literary motif in a biblical narrative.
Saul’s spear was his constant companion and is an example of another literary motif in a biblical narrative.

Another motif that Bible commentators frequently draw attention to is the spear of Saul. Following the story of David and Goliath, a spear becomes Saul’s constant companion (1 Sam. 18:10-11; 19:9-10; 20:33; 22:6; 26:7-22). Some wonder about the frequent reference to Saul’s spear but have no explanation for it. Others suggest that it is a sign of his kingship. To a certain extent this is true, but this insight needs to be taken further. The real key to understanding the significance of Saul’s spear is found in David’s statement to Goliath, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts” (1 Sam. 17:45). Most significantly, David states, “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands” (1 Sam. 17:47). David’s statements to Goliath cast a shadow over one who puts his trust in a sword or a spear. As mentioned above, it is after these statements by David that the biblical narrative constantly draws attention to the spear that accompanies Saul. The spear becomes a symbol of Saul’s trust in the flesh and his lack of trust in God. This is especially clear when he attempts to use this spear to rid his kingdom of David, God’s anointed (1 Sam. 18:10-11; 19:9-10). Thus, Saul’s spear represents his conflict with God. By seeking to kill David, he is opposing God and God’s plan for the kingdom. This is part of the significance of David taking Saul’s spear (1 Sam. 26:7-22). God (through David) disarms Saul and demonstrates who the true king of Israel is. Reflecting on the people’s original request for a king (who turned out to be Saul), we are reminded that they asked for a king “to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). Saul’s trust in his spear rather than in God, suggests that he is a king “like all the nations” and, therefore, the people got the kind of king that they asked for!

Biblical narrative: Samson sets the Philistine fields on fire.
Samson sets the Philistine fields on fire. Fire is a frequent motif in the biblical narrative of Samson.

Samson’s name is from the Hebrew word for “sun” and fire is a recurring motif in his story. When Samson’s wedding guests are not able to solve his riddle, they threaten to burn his wife and father-in-law with fire (Judg. 14:15). The most famous incident involving fire in connection with Samson is when he captures 300 foxes, ties torches to their tails and releases them into the fields of the Philistines to destroy their harvest (Judg. 15:5). In retaliation for this incident, the Philistines fulfill their threat against his former wife and father-in-law by burning them with fire (Judg. 15:6). After Samson responds by attacking more Philistines, they demand that the tribe of Judah hand him over. Samson agrees to allow his fellow-Israelites to tie him up, but when he is handed over to the Philistines we are told, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him; and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that is burned with fire” (Judg. 15:14). Similarly, when Delilah ties Samson up with bowstrings and says “The Philistines are upon you Samson,” he breaks the bowstrings, “as a strand of yarn breaks when it touches fire” (Judg. 16:9). What we are to make of all of these references about fire, and Samson’s name (which actually means “little sun” or “sunny”) is uncertain. However, fire is clearly a motif of the story. Because many in the ancient world worshipped the sun, some see Samson’s name in a negative light (no pun intended!). Certainly, he was the worst of the Judges. But in spite of his self-indulgent ways, he does bring partial deliverance to Israel. The fire motif is connected with this theme of deliverance from the Philistines. So what should we make of this motif in the story of Samson? I would be interested in hearing what some of you think.

I find the motifs of various biblical narratives an interesting way to approach Bible study. I’ve even thought of one day writing a book on some of the motifs of 1&2 Samuel. We have already looked at the motif of the spear in 1 Samuel. Let me conclude this article by mentioning two more. The motif of feet and lameness appears in the early chapters of 2 Samuel. Asahel is said to be “fleet of foot” (2 Sam. 2:18), while David laments the death of Abner by stating, “Your hands were not bound; Nor your feet put into fetters” (2 Sam. 3:34). In 2 Samuel 4:4 we are introduced to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth who is “lame in both feet.” In 2 Samuel 5 when David attacks Jerusalem, the Jebusites taunt him by saying “You shall not come in here; but the blind and the lame will repel you” (2 Sam. 5:6). More talk about the blind and the lame continues in 2 Sam. 5:8. By the end of 2 Samuel 9, Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, is sitting at the king’s table (2 Sam. 9:13).

Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, eats at the king's table.
Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, eats at the king’s table.

Speaking of the king’s table, another very interesting motif that runs through the biblical narrative of 1&2 Samuel, is the motif of eating and not eating. This motif is so widespread that I will only mention a few examples (for a fun study, see how many others you can find!). In 1 Samuel 1:8 Hannah refuses to eat. In 1 Samuel 2, Eli and his sons cannot help but eat everything in sight, including the sacrificial meat that belongs to God (1 Sam. 2:12-17; 27-30). There is definitely a contrast being made between Hannah who refuses to eat what she is entitled to, and Eli and his sons, who eat what they are not entitled to. Other examples include: Saul putting the army under a vow of fasting until he defeats the Philistines, but Jonathan eats some honey unaware of Saul’s command (1 Sam. 14:24-30); Jonathan refusing to eat at the table with Saul because he is grieved over Saul’s desire to kill David (1 Sam. 20:34); Saul’s visit to the “witch” at Endor where he is persuaded to eat after initially refusing (1 Sam. 28:20-25); as noted above, Mephibosheth is invited to eat continually at King David’s table (2 Sam. 9:7-13); David refuses to eat as he prays for the child that Bathsheba has given birth to, but once the child dies, David eats (2 Sam. 12:16-23); and Amnon requests food from his sister Tamar, but then refuses to eat it (2 Sam. 13:5-11). These are only a few of the many stories that contain the theme of eating and not eating in 1&2 Samuel. This motif seems to have different meanings depending on the context and I look forward to exploring it in more depth in the future. Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts regarding this motif or others not mentioned in this article, I would welcome hearing them.

Hopefully this brief survey of a few of the motifs in biblical narrative will encourage you in your Bible study. The Bible speaks at many different levels and motifs can be an interesting way of entering into the meaning of a story.

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

This past summer I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Robert B. Chisholm Jr., department chair and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. The interview was primarily about his new commentary on 1&2 Samuel (you can see the entire interview here). However, I did take the opportunity to ask him about his views on Violence in the Old Testament. As part of my on-going series, I thought I would repost his comments on this topic. Bob’s comments particularly focus on the idea of justice and the biblical concept “you reap what you sow” (see my treatment of this idea here). I have reproduced Bob’s comments as they originally appeared in the interview. The only change I have made is to include Scripture references that were not part of the original interview so that the interested reader does not need to look them up. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read these comments, or if you’ve never read the entire interview, I hope you enjoy the following recap.

Here is my question followed by Bob’s answer.

I am currently writing a series of articles on my website entitled “Violence in the Old Testament.” This seems to be an important topic given the publications of books by the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Christians are often embarrassed about the violence in the Old Testament and many shy away from reading and studying it. I know this is a big topic but do you have any comments you’d like to share on this subject, especially as it relates to the books of 1&2 Samuel?

This is also a topic of great interest for me and I hope to do more writing on it in the days ahead. At the 2011 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I delivered a paper entitled: Fighting Yahweh’s Wars: Some Disturbing Acts of Violence in Judges-Samuel. It should be published soon; I’m still working on the logistics of where. I study six different episodes where God endorses violence. I am not as apologetic as some and prefer to give God the benefit of the doubt. It’s a messy fallen world filled with a lot of evil people and sometimes God rolls up his sleeves, so to speak, and enters into the fray as the just Warrior-King. Here’s the conclusion to my paper: A close reading of these six accounts reveals that in each case the act of violence involved the implementation of divine justice against the object. In two instances (Adoni-Bezek–Judg. 1:5-7, and Agag–1 Sam. 15:32-33) an individual was treated in a way that mirrored his crimes against others. In four cases a people group (the Amalekites–1 Sam. 15) or representatives of a people group (the Moabite king Eglon–Judg. 3:14-25, the Canaanite general Sisera–Judg. 4-5, the thirty Philistines murdered by Samson–Judg. 14:15-19) were, at least from Yahweh’s perspective, the objects of violent acts of justice in response to crimes committed or intended (in the case of Sisera) against Israel. In Goliath’s case (1 Sam. 17), David refused to view the Philistine’s taunt as simply a verbal assault against Israel’s army. Yahweh identifies with his people and so he was the ultimate target of the Philistine’s slander. Consequently, David’s victory over Goliath was an act of justice that vindicated Yahweh’s honor by punishing a blasphemer.

Though these violent acts are disturbing at an emotional level, they are, as acts of justice, gratifying at a deeper, more elemental level. Ultimately, it is not worth living in a world in which there is no justice. Such a place would be nothing more than a jungle in which superior strength breeds arrogance and evil, and the strong take what they want, dishing out pain and suffering with reckless abandon. But justice, to truly be justice, must be implemented fully and appropriately. To use a contemporary example, when the Harry Potter saga finally reaches its climax, Nagini, Bellatrix Lestrange, and, of course, Voldemort cannot just die; they must be killed the “right way” for justice to be satisfied and for some sense of moral equilibrium to be realized. Bellatrix cannot be pitied as long as the image of a dying Dobby persists in the mind’s eye.

So it is in the biblical story: Those who cut off the thumbs of others or make mothers childless eventually discover that what goes around comes around. Those who attack, oppress, and abuse Yahweh’s people eventually pay the price in “the right way.” Those who dare defy the living God and challenge him to step into the arena may end up a decapitated torso. And though the scene may make one want to vomit, in the end the image prompts a sigh of relief and more. As the psalmist declares: “The godly will rejoice when they see vengeance carried out; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then observers will say, ‘Yes indeed, the godly are rewarded! Yes indeed, there is a God who judges the earth!’” (Ps. 58:10-11) In conclusion I leave you with this scene: “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev. 19:11). Even so, come Lord Jesus!

For a list of some of Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s works click on the links here for Amazon USA / UK

Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head With Hair!

Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head With Hair!

Absalom's hair caught in a tree
Although the biblical text says that Absalom caught his head in the tree, it is probably a reference to Absalom’s hair.

Did you know that in the ancient Near East long hair was frequently a picture of a warrior’s prowess and strength? The most obvious example from the Bible is Samson whose long hair is explicitly connected with his strength (Judges 16:17). Samson’s long hair symbolized his separation to God (the true source of his strength––Judges 13:5) and when his hair disappeared, so did the Lord’s presence (Judges 16:20). But Samson is not the only long-haired warrior mentioned in Scripture. In fact, the man I have in mind is very Samson-like in some respects. He is spoiled, likes to burn other people’s fields (Judges 15:4-5; 2 Sam. 14:30), and is well-known for his long luxuriant hair (2 Sam. 14:26). His name is Absalom, one of David’s sons. Absalom had so much hair that when he cut it each year it was said to weigh between 4-5 pounds! (2 Sam. 14:26). We are familiar with Samson’s connection to hair, but why does the biblical author draw so much attention to Absalom’s hair? There are probably several reasons.

The Significance of Absalom’s Hair

The mention of Absalom’s hair prefaces the story of his rebellion against David. Since long hair was associated with strength, this could be considered an ominous sign, suggesting that Absalom will be successful in overthrowing his father. However, Absalom not only has a fertile head of hair, he is also quite fertile in other ways, having fathered 3 sons and 1 daughter (14:27). Earlier in the story, David’s potency as a father is also connected with the strength of his rule (see 2 Sam. 3:1-5). Therefore, the long-haired, and virile Absalom appears to pose a real threat to the kingdom of David. Add to this his good-looks and charming ways (2 Sam. 14:25; 15:2-6), and Absalom appears to be a winning candidate for the kingship. This is often the basis for choosing today’s politicians. If they look good, and have the ability to schmooze the people, then they are surely the right person for the job!

Looks Can Be Deceiving!

Absalom’s story is just one of many recounted in 1&2 Samuel that teaches us “looks can be deceiving.” In reality, Absalom is none of the things he appears to be. His desire to destroy his father tarnishes his good-looking image. In fact,  Absalom’s hair conspires with the branches of a tree to do him in (2 Sam. 18:9-10–the text reads “head” which in this case is another way of speaking of his hair). Far from being a strong warrior, Absalom proves to be quite inept. Even Absalom’s potency as a father is challenged at his death when we are told that he set up a monument for himself because he had no son (2 Sam. 18:18). Wait a minute! I thought Absalom had 3 sons? I will offer an explanation of this apparent contradiction in my next article, or, for a full treatment of this problem you can read the chapter on Absalom in my book Family Portraits (especially pages 364-365 and 379-380). Meanwhile, we should take the Bible’s advice seriously and not believe everything we see. Patience and discernment are important ingredients of wisdom, and time is a great revealer of the truth!

My Book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press and other internet outlets.

Family Portraits