Posted by: mattcolvin | July 14, 2012

“Seeking an Occasion” in the Samson Story

Gerrit von Honthorst, “Samson and Delilah”, c. 1615

5th week after Trinity: Judges 13-16.

(This is a bit belated. I was on the road without good internet access for the first three days of the week, and was busy with a Bible study on Galatians and a wedding sermon. The ideas have been percolating throughout the week, but I’ve only now written them out.)

The story of Samson is a story about revenge. The story begins with Samson asking his parents to get him a wife from Timnah of the Philistines. They object, wondering why an Israelite girl wouldn’t do just as well. Samson insists, with irresistible teenager-logic: “Get her for me, for she pleases me well.” (14:3) Then we are given notice of something that will be a theme throughout the Samson saga: “But his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord — that He was seeking an occasion (תֹאֲנָ֥ה) to move against the Philistines.”

An “occasion” in this case is something like what Herodotus mentions in connection with Croesus’ attacks upon the Ionian Greeks (Hdt. 1):

Afterwards, on some pretext or other, he made war in turn upon every Ionian and Aeolian state, bringing forward, where he could, a substantial ground of complaint; where such failed him, advancing some poor excuse.

That is, God is seeking against the Philistines precisely what King Ahab perceives the king of Syria to be seeking against him when he sends Naaman to him for healing (2 Kings 5:7): ” “Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy? Therefore please consider, and see how he seeks a quarrel (מִתְאַנֶּה) with me.” Other possible renderings: “he is trying to collide with me” or “he seeks an encounter with me, an occasion for hostility against me.” (Cf. David Daube, “Direct and Indirect Causation in Biblical Law”, CWDD 3, p. 424) The same root is used of a female animal’s heat, i.e. “her occasion” for mating (Jeremiah 2:24).

The idea of an “occasion” in this sense of “grounds for doing someone harm” will prove to be a theme in the Samson story. It reminds me of a chess game with my 6-year-old son in which one captured piece leads to another in a series of 6 or more trades… except that in this instance, YHWH is the chessmaster, and He comes out ahead at the end.

This theme is highlighted by the fact that Samson’s caps each of his violent acts of revenge with a little poem about the “occasion” that he took as his pretext for the act. The first, about the Philistines’ cheating in the riddle contest (14:18):

If you had not plowed with my heifer,
You would not have solved my riddle!

Next, Samson finds that his Philistine father-in-law has given his wife to his companion (15:2), and reacts by tying foxes together and torching the Philistines’ grain harvest. His couplet on doing so makes direct reference to his justification by an “occasion”:

This time I shall be blameless regarding the Philistines if I harm them!

The Philistines’ retaliate by burning alive Samson’s bride and her father. This is a further “occasion” for Samson (15:7):

Since you would do a thing like this, I will surely take revenge on you, and after that I will cease.

He also justifies his act to his fellow Israelites, saying that, ““As they did to me, so I have done to them.” (15:11)
Samson’s final deed is another act of revenge: “Strengthen me, I pray, just this once, O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes!” (16:28)

Thus, the entire Samson narrative is a story of a cycle of vendetta and mutual revenge into which YHWH draws the Philistines in order to find “occasions” against them.

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