Judges 16-18, Psalm 78, John 12
Our love for superheroes
Judges 16 – 18
The story of Samson is one of the best-loved stories of the Bible, because it moves from being comical to tragic and ends with spectacular revenge. Shakespeare no doubt must have loved it. After slaying 1,000 Philistine soldiers in our last reading, Samson visited the Philistine town of Gaza near the Palestinian coast. While there he visited a prostitute. When his enemies learned of this, they surrounded the house and waited to kill him when he departed in the morning. After a night of love-making, however, Samson surprised them by leaving at midnight. As he left, he tore out the city gates and carried them some 40 miles and deposited them on a hill near Hebron.
During the Iron Age I, many cities did not have walls. Instead, two stone gates were set into stone sockets buried in the ground. The posts flanked the gates with a bar running across the top. Houses were built around the perimeter of the city to create a wall of fortification. Ripping out the city gate and carrying it 40 miles was the stuff that we see in today’s movies with superheroes. Captain America!
For many of us, reality is not enough. We search heroes and seek entertainment that will help us escape our problems and forget about our daily lives. We watch crime shows, baseball games, the golf channel, adventure films and read murder mysteries and best-sellers to distract and entertain ourselves. The story of Samson, however, entertains while also imparting a few lessons.
The story of Samson and Delilah is particularly engaging. Samson had a penchant for selecting dubious women. His relationship with Delilah is the original fatal attraction, as the Philistines bribed her with a king’s ransom to discover the source of Samson’s superhuman strength. They suspect there is a magical source for his power. They offered her 1,100 pieces of silver to discover it. In 2 Samuel 18:12 David’s General Joab refused to kill Absalom, the king’s son, saying, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son…”
Truly, 1,100 pieces of silver was a king’s ransom. Ten shekels or pieces of silver were the standard annual wage of a laborer. If a person earned $35,000 annually, then 1,100 shekels would be worth $3,580,000. This was clearly ample motivation to discover Samson’s strength and betray him.
Delilah boldly set about her work. After being misled several times, Samson finally revealed the secret of his strength to her. He confided, “A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else.” (Judges 16:17)
Samson had already broken most of his vows by eating honey from a corpse and drinking wine, but these vows could be atoned for and the vow could be reinstituted. By allowing his head to be shaved, however, he would destroy his covenant with God. So, too, each of us is in a covenantal relationship with God through baptism. God imparts spiritual gifts to us as we faithfully exercise our ministries. As we connect each day with God through Scripture reading and prayer, we are filled with spiritual power. We trust that no matter what we face this day, God is with us, and it gives us enormous confidence.
Just as Samson’s wife told his secret earlier to the Philistines, so Delilah informed the Philistines who promptly paid her. When Samson fell asleep on her lap, she summoned a man to cut off his locks. The Philistines captured him, gouged out his eyes, took him captive and set him to work grinding grain in a mill. As his hair grew back, however, his strength returned. In a final scene worthy of a movie, Samson asked to be positioned between the two pillars holding up an enormous house where 3,000 Philistines gathered to celebrate their god Dagon, the god who had helped them capture their enemy Samson.
Dagon was worshipped by peoples in the region where the Philistines settled. Belief in Dagon can be traced back to the third millennium B.C. He was one of the most important figures in the Semitic pantheon of gods. The Assyrians worshipped Dagon and Ugaritic literature depicts Dagon as the father of Baal Haddu. Dagon may have been the god of grain or of a storm, but we are uncertain.
While Samson’s prayers were often selfish, he trusted God and Yahweh answered him. Hence, the author of Hebrews lists Samson along with Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, David and Samuel as a man who “won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” (Hebrews 11:34)
Samson’s last prayer was selfish and demonstrated that he had not lost his thirst for revenge. “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.” With that he pulled down the two pillars that held up the house. Three thousand Philistines died as the building collapsed on Samson and his enemies. Samson killed more Philistines in dying than he had in living. He “judged Israel for 20 years.” (Judges 16:31)
Samson was a one-man army. God used him to advance that cause of Israel, which would not be fulfilled until sometime after 1,000 B.C. when King David finished the work that Samson crushed the Philistines ending their dominance over Palestine.
The story that follows is somewhat odd. IT revolves around Micah, who stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. This is the same enormous sum that the Philistines offered Delilah to betray Samson. Micah had stolen it from his mother, who had uttered a curse in his hearing upon anyone who had stolen it.
When he acknowledged his theft, instead of becoming angry she rejoiced and rewarded his repentance by giving 200 pieces of silver to a silversmith in order to create an idol cast in metal. Archeologists have uncovered molds for the casting of idols at several Canaanites sites. Michal then hired an itinerant Levite to serve as the priest to the shrine that he erected. Since Levites were not allocated property, it was likely that some of them served as itinerant priests for hire by other tribes and families.
Five spies from the migrating tribe of Dan visited Micah’s home and received an oracle from the Levite promising success on their journey. After the spies found a new tribal homeland, soldiers were sent to Micah’s house. They seized the priest, the idols and elements of Micah’s shrine and took them with them. This story explains the cult of Dan and how it spread. It also highlights the religious and political anarchy of the day that the Israelite and Canaanite tribes experienced.
Psalm 78 is one of the great psalms. In verse 2 we read, “I will open my mouth in a parable…” This is one of the first uses the word “parable” in the Bible. (See Num. 23:7, 18; 24:3, 15, 20, 21 and 23 and Psalm 49:4) The Hebrew word for parable is mashal. It has a wide range of meanings that include “poem” (Num. 21;27), “oracle” (Num. 23:7) and “allegory” (Ezek. 17:2) In this case as in Proverbs 10:1, it means “instruction” from God warning the Israelites but the warning applies to all who read it. Hence what we discover that its wisdom speaks to us today just as it did 2,500 years ago. The Psalmist writes,
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done. (Ps. 78:2b-4)
What is particularly important is the focus of transmitting heritage, history and values to our children and rooting them in God’s story and love for us as God’s people. The author writes,
He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded to our ancestors
to teach to their children.
That the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God. (Ps. 78:6-8)
We are told to look back at our ancestors not as exemplars of perfection, but as sinners who strayed from the ways that God commanded. We are called to learn from their mistakes and not to repeat them. The Psalmist recounts the Exodus and God’s care for the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness. God was faithful and provided for them. We have reason therefore to trust God today, and unlike our ancestors we must not put God to the test. Rather, we must act faithfully when God tests us.
This is one of the great chapters of the Bible. It is rich in insight and easily bears reading a second or third time. Jesus dined at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. What an experience that must have been to dine in the home of a man who had been resurrected to life and restored to his family. Out of enormous gratitude, Mary took a pound of costly perfume and anointed Jesus’s feet. Judas, however, who kept the disciples’ money purse, was angered, “because he was a thief.” (John 12:6)
He challenged Mary for her generous act saying, “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5) This remains a theological dilemma. How much should the church spend on itself? Episcopalians are laughingly said to suffer from an “edifice complex.” We love our buildings. As Christians we must balance our need to maintain our buildings while upholding our commitment to help those in need. Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8) We will probably never eradicate poverty, especially if we fail to operate strong churches that create Christian disciples committed to caring for the poor. The solution is not an “either or” but a “both and.” We must maintain our buildings while serving those in need.
A great crowd assembled, hoping not only to see Jesus but also to glimpse Lazarus, whom Jesus has raised from the dead. Our culture is fascinated with death. Most of us do not want to contemplate our own death. We live as though we will never die. A large percentage of Americans die each year without a will. We simply find it too hard to contemplate our own mortality.
In contrast, we have produced a culture of voyeurs fascinated by death. We watch television programs and movies about serial killers, deadly assailants and violent conflict. This has little place in a Christian life. Those who claim to have no time to read the Bible find plenty of time to read murder mysteries, watch crime shows and read grizzly newspaper accounts. The Church needs to question this practice!
The Pharisees sought to eliminate not only Jesus but Lazarus as well, because the resurrected Lazarus was causing people to believe in Jesus. The trouble with evil is that it often masquerades as good and tries to convince others that what it is doing is for the good of others.
The Palm Sunday celebration then ensues with Jesus riding a king’s animal, the donkey, into Jerusalem, as the crowds wave palm branches and throw them down at his feet. This was to fulfill, “It is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’” (John 12:15) The gospels are undecided about whether Jesus came riding a colt or a donkey. John covers both bases and has Jesus riding a donkey’s colt! He quotes Zechariah 9:9, where the prophet writes, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Zechariah adds, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse of Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zech. 9:10) Certainly, some in the crowd were thinking along these lines. They viewed Jesus as a leader who commanded people’s attention, communicated with authority and could topple the Roman army.
We are told that his disciples remembered these things after “Jesus was glorified.” John was the last to write his gospel, and when he wrote it he offers some of the best theology and understanding that we can find of who Jesus was and why he did what he did.. John added verses not found elsewhere which offer great insight. We read, “The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’” (John 12:19) No playwright could offer a better line.
Some Greeks came to see Jesus, demonstrating that even the Gentiles were attracted to him. John is pointing to the beginning of what by the time he wrote his gospel was becoming the norm. It was the Gentiles who received Jesus’s message and followed him. Jesus told his followers, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow, me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:24-26) These three verses would be worth memorizing and meditating upon through this day.
As in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus struggled with his own ensuing death but only briefly. “And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name.” (John 12:27) Immediately, a theophany occurred. We read, “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” (John 12:28)
In no gospel does Jesus better prepare his disciples for his death and departure than in John’s Gospel. Jesus told his followers, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) The remaining part of chapter 12 and the final eight chapters deal principally with Jesus’s final teaching and preparing his disciples to carry on without him and be his body in the world.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. (John 12:8)
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32)
While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light. (John 12:36)
What vows have you made? How scrupulous are you in keeping them? Is your word your bond? Can you be trusted at all times? What are the critical stories, values and truths that you strive to pass along to your children and grandchildren? How honest are you about sharing your mistakes with those who come after you? How does Jesus shine light in your life? Are their ways in which you reject Jesus?
Gracious God, we are all amateurs taking small steps towards becoming more faithful disciples. Like the disciples of old, we often fail to grasp what you are trying to teach us. We look for signs and wonders, not recognizing the miracle of being in your very presence. Be patient with us and help us to be patient with ourselves and persevere in our journey and pilgrimage with you. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania