Jilted, Jackals and a Jawbone


            This week, we continue to explore the amazing exploits of Samson who is portrayed in Judges as an emotional and spiritual spoiled brat but whose feats of physical strength are not unlike what you would expect to read of a superhero in a Marvel comic book.  The author’s telling of Samson’s exploits combine both these thrilling and tragic elements.  As we have said before, few people in the Old Testament receive more fanfare, more divine preparation than Samson.  God called him to be a deliverer of Israel from before his conception and after his call on Samson; he miraculously opened his mother’s womb to give him life.  Yahweh also placed Samson under a uniquely stringent set of personal and spiritual constraints that far exceeded the already demanding requirements of the Nazirite vow detailed in Numbers chapter six.  God called him to be uniquely set apart for his purposes and part of that setting apart was to be seen in a profoundly holy life.  Last week however, we saw that Samson, in spite of all of God’s preparation lived much more like the Philistines he was called to deliver Israel from than one who had been set apart by God.  He consorted freely with the Philistines and even demanded his parents arrange a marriage for him with a pagan Philistine woman.  Instead of delivering the Jews from the Philistines, he passionately wanted to join himself with them through marriage.  In the story we heard last week, Samson repeatedly breaks his Nazirite vow and shows himself to be thoroughly paganized.

            With all of that however, God’s sovereign hand still operates in the midst of all this pagan debauchery.  We saw in verse four that God interprets for us Samson’s godless desire for a pagan wife by saying, “His parents did not know this was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over the Philistines.”  God shows his sovereign control over the sinfulness of Samson because instead of being checkmated by his rebellion, he actually uses Samson’s waywardness as a weapon against the Philistines.  Before Samson was conceived God declared that this one would “begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines” [13:5] and that is precisely what this self-centered, spiritually unfit man did as we will see more fully this morning.  You’ll recall Samson has been married for seven days when his wife divulges to his Philistine guests the answer to his riddle about eating honey from a lion’s carcass.  Thanks to his wife, Samson loses his bet but he “pays back” these Philistines by giving them the clothes he had taken from 30 other Philistines he had personally killed. 

            Samson is so angry over his wife’s betrayal that before he is even able to consummate his marriage to her (that happened according to custom on the seventh night of the feast) instead of communing with his new bride, he goes back home to his mother and father.  That poor decision by Samson occasions the next series of events.  Let’s begin reading in 14:20,And Samson's wife was given to the friend who had attended him at his wedding. 15:1Later on, at the time of wheat harvest, Samson took a young goat and went to visit his wife. He said, "I'm going to my wife's room." But her father would not let him go in.   2"I was so sure you thoroughly hated her," he said, "that I gave her to your friend. Isn't her younger sister more attractive? Take her instead."   This is obviously the flash point that sets off a chain reaction of events God uses to bring partial deliverance of his people from the Philistines.  At some point in time as Samson is brooding at his mother and father’s house over his lost wager, he comes to the conclusion that he is married and it would be a good idea to actually BE with the wife he insisted his parents get for him.  So, he shows up at the house of his bride expecting to see her but her father prevents him from seeing her. 

            It’s clear that Samson’s earlier behavior in storming out of the wedding banquet communicated to the father that he was not interested in having his daughter as his wife.  We don’t know how much time had elapsed between his enraged exit and his return for his wife, but enough time had passed for this man to give his daughter to another man in marriage.  You can imagine the terror this man must have felt to have this man who he knew had killed 30 men with his bare hands show up on his doorstep and request the honor of being with the daughter you have recently given away to be the wife of someone else—someone Samson evidently knew.  The father shows his true colors by trying to “pawn off” his younger daughter to satisfy this dangerous man.  Don’t miss the callousness this man shows toward his daughter by offering her to him without ever speaking to her about this arrangement.  His daughter is nothing more than a bargaining chip he offers to placate Samson.  The scholars tell us this was typical of the slavish way in which the pagans viewed women—quite different from the honor generally given to women within Judaism.

            Samson is less than enchanted with this offer and we read in verse three, “3Samson said to them, "This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them." 4So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail-to-tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, 5lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

Notice the difference between the driving influence behind most of the other judges and Samson.  With all their faults and weaknesses, the other judges did what they did with the motive of delivering Israel from their oppressors.  Samson’s motives, which the author explicitly and repeatedly reveals to us, never go beyond his own selfish interests and sense of personal vengeance.  All of Samson’s encounters with the Philistines were rooted in the fact that they had wronged him personally.  In this encounter, he sees it as his personal right to take vengeance on his enemies.  The irony here is--although Samson would have had a perfect, divinely approved right to kill as many of these pagan Philistines as possible if he were doing it in his role as the deliverer of Israel, he has no legal right to work out of a heart of personal vengeance.  Paul in Romans 12 quotes Deuteronomy 32:35 which prohibits operating out of personal vengeance, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay…"   Still, God uses this sinful man.  We’ll see by the way in which Samson picks this fight with the Philistines tells us that although he was short on personal virtue, he was a person of great resourcefulness.

            We know from verse one that this is the time of harvest—a time when the grain would be ripe and placed in large piles and the ripened grapes and olives were hanging from the plants that had produced them.  Instead of attacking the Philistines directly, he instead goes after their food supply thus affecting many more people than he would never be able to destroy single-handedly.  The way he goes about doing this is remarkable.  He finds 150 of what the NIV translates as “foxes” and ties them together by the tails and at the union of these pairs of animals; he places a torch, which he proceeds to light in such a location as to place living fire bombs near these Philistine food stores.  So what Samson creates here is 150 living, scurrying incendiary devices.  This account raises several questions and concerns.  First, we know from the Hebrew and from the animals that live in Palestine, these were probably not foxes, they were jackals or wild dogs.  Jackals live in groups whereas foxes live solitary lives.  It would have taken forever to find 300 foxes without divine help and there is no mention that God does anything explicit to assist Samson whereas it does mention that when God intervenes in other places.  It also raises questions about Samson’s respect for God’s creatures—he not only uses these jackals to do his bidding, he uses them in a way that will cause them to suffer—there were probably more than a few singed jackals by the time this was over.

This incident also makes you wonder why he had to tie these animals together rather than just tie one torch to each individual animal—this was twice as much work—why would Samson do this?  In light of what we have seen of the cunning of this man, it is best to assume there is a method to his madness as to his method of choice.  Dan Block suggests a plausible explanation when he says, “Presumably the animals’ attempts to separate would force them to zigzag up and down the fields and to stop periodically, long enough for the torches actually to light the crops, rather than hurrying off in straight lines and snuffing out the torches.” Samson, at least in the area of plundering his enemies, is no fool—he’s very accomplished at making those who cross him regret it—at least up to this point.  It says something very telling that Samson would arrive at this ingenious method of arson—this is a very resourceful, cold, calculating destroyer, driven by personal vengeance.

A final issue related to this incident is--even if these were jackals that live in larger groups, this was still a very labor-intensive plan.  The thought of rounding up 300 wild dogs and tying their tales together and uniting them around a torch stretches our ability to imagine, yet as one scholar writes, “the rapid succession of verbs creates the impression that his actions took no effort at all.” [Block, 441]  Again, we see the amazing abilities of Samson—so amazing it makes you wonder what he could have done if he had been leading the armies of Israel as their a deliverer who was uniquely separated to God.  It’s a tragedy that, instead of leading the armies of Yahweh, Samson was instead using his strength and resourcefulness to chase down wild dogs to gain personal vengeance on his own personal enemies.  When you see this incident in the light of what Samson could have done for God, the humor is drained out of it and is replaced by a sense of disgust.  In any case, the “jackal strategy” works like a charm because verse five tells us that the fire destroyed all the Philistine harvest Samson had targeted.  This man was clearly not someone any sane person would want mad at them. 

The conflict only escalates from here on. In verse six we read, 6When the Philistines asked, "Who did this?" they were told, "Samson, the Timnite's son-in-law, because his wife was given to his friend."  So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death. 7Samson said to them, "Since you've acted like this, I won't stop until I get my revenge on you." 8He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.  The tragic twist in this part of the story is that you’ll recall Samson’s wife had earlier, along with her family escaped being burned as the Philistines had earlier threatened, but are now finally incinerated as a result of their relationship with Samson.  Again we see the raw power of Samson when it says, “he attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them.”  Samson was a wrecking machine and God used him once again, in spite of his idolatrous heart to destroy his enemies. The cycle of attack and counter-attack continues in verse nine.

9The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. 10The men of Judah asked, "Why have you come to fight us?"  "We have come to take Samson prisoner," they answered, "to do to him as he did to us."  11Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, "Don't you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?" He answered, "I merely did to them what they did to me." 12They said to him, "We've come to tie you up and hand you over to the Philistines." Samson said, "Swear to me that you won't kill me yourselves."  13"Agreed," they answered. "We will only tie you up and hand you over to them. We will not kill you." So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock.

         This text, perhaps as clearly as any other in this story shows just how paganized these Jews have become.  A Philistine detachment comes up to Judah to retaliate against Samson and when the Jews here about it, 3000 of them assemble and search out Samson and tell him, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us?  What have you done to us?”  Do you hear what they are saying?  They are railing against one of their own countrymen for killing people whom God had clearly told them as far back as chapter one, they were supposed to kill.  They are terrorized by the fact that Samson has brought them into conflict with people they SHOULD have been in conflict with.  Also, don’t miss that these cowering Jews say that the Philistines are rulers over us.  Who is supposed to be the ruling over Israel?  Yahweh, their King!  It is a travesty that these apostate Jews were not in a state of deep grief and anguish over the fact that these uncircumcised Philistines had been able to assume rule over them.  Instead of showing appropriate disgust over that tragedy, they instead show disgust for Samson, who, although he is motivated by his own carnality, represents a solid hope for them to see the reign of Yahweh restored to them.  They are angry over the fact that Samson has brought the wrath of their Philistine rulers on them, but are seemingly oblivious to the fact that by their spiritual adultery, they are bringing on themselves the wrath of God—their true Ruler.  Do you hear how twisted this is? 

         Samson, is not quick to trust these men and so he, presumably trusting in his own strength and craftiness to escape from the Philistines, gets a commitment from his countrymen that THEY will not murder him themselves but will instead bind him with new ropes and hand him over to the Philistines.14As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. 15Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men.  16Then Samson said,  "With a donkey's jawbone I have made donkeys of them. With a donkey's jawbone I have killed a thousand men."  17When he finished speaking, he threw away the jawbone; and the place was called Ramath Lehi. 

         For the first time in this episode, God manifests himself explicitly.  Notice it does not say that Samson broke these strong, new ropes—there is no indication of Samson’s work in this at all.  This is God who cause the ropes to become “like charred flax...the bindings dropp[ing] from his hands.”  The rest of the story is well known to us but don’t miss the author’s point.  In verse 15, the author gives a very important detail about this donkey’s jawbone, which Samson uses to bludgeon these 1000 Philistines. First it tells us that this was a less useful blunt instrument for killing because the Palestinian sun had not yet hardened it and that fact emphasizes that this was a miraculous, God-empowered victory. The lesson we must take away from this story is not that Samson wielded a wicked donkey jawbone.  The Spirit of God comes upon him and that is the reason for Samson’s incredible destructive power.  But more than that, the fact that it was a “fresh” jawbone meant that Samson was picking up part of what was still considered a corpse, which means that he is once again running roughshod over his vow as a Nazirite.  This remarkable detail which is easily overlooked is that Samson, in destroying these enemies of God is doing so—is empowered to do so in a manner that violates God’s call on his life. 

Again, the author is going to some pain to show us that God is using Samson, not BECAUSE of his methods, which are carnal and godless, but IN SPITE of his utter disregard for the law of God.  Also, notice that God uses Samson to kill 1000 men but earlier 3000 Jews were cowering in fear of these Philistines.  We have come a long way from the time of Gideon when God used 300 men to kill 135,000 pagans.  At this point, 3000 Jews are afraid of 1000 Philistines.  Finally, notice that Samson takes the credit for this slaughter and manifests that by composing a little ditty to honor his accomplishment.  “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys out of them.  With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.”  No one else is left alive to celebrate this slaughter so Samson spends some of his mental energy composing this self-tribute.  This detail helps us to see the final chapter in this episode in better perspective.

         The sad epilogue to this story begins in verse 18. “18Because he was very thirsty, he cried out to the Lord, "You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?" 19Then God opened up the hollow place in Lehi, and water came out of it. When Samson drank, his strength returned and he revived. So the spring was called En Hakkore, and it is still there in Lehi.  20Samson led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.”  As we have seen repeatedly with other judges and Samson as well, you must measure what they say about God by their actions, not their words.  We know that Samson had already taken credit for this victory so this profession lacks genuineness.  Beyond that, in his first words to God recorded in this episode, the author has Samson complaining to God.  Again, notice his complaint is not on behalf of his oppressed fellow Israelites which is what the other Judges complained about.  Once again, Samson’s complaint is purely personal—he is thirsty.  Also, notice the contradiction between Samson’s willingness to earlier defile himself with a dead animal corpse and his disgust at the possibility of him falling into the hands of the “uncircumcised.”  If Samson were all that concerned about falling into the hands of the uncircumcised, why did he insist on marrying a Philistine woman?  Do you hear the hypocrisy here? 

         Incredibly, God dramatically responds to his request and miraculously supplies Samson with water.  In honor of this provision Samson calls the spring “En Hakkore” which literally means “spring of the caller.”  Notice that the name he gives this place does not commemorate God’s provision but instead exalts the fact that this is the place he called out to God.  Do you hear how Samson once again takes a miracle of God and makes it all about himself?   That brings us to our point of application.  How are we to apply these truths about Samson to ourselves?

         The point we need to make this morning is we must ruthlessly kill our obsessive self-centeredness. We see our self-centeredness in a thousand ways.  Here are a few examples of our own self-centeredness.  When I give these don’t think about someone else who you know is guilty of these--allow the Holy Spirit to apply them to your own heart.  We do something for someone and they don’t give us much if any recognition or accolade so we pout because in truth we weren’t really doing it for them, but for the applause and how that makes us feel. Someone else we know is blessed in some way and instead of rejoicing with those who rejoice, our first response is, “what about me—where is MY blessing?”  When someone else is going through a rough time, instead of weeping with those who weep our impulse is often to think—“what are they so upset about—MY life is ten times harder than theirs.”  When someone does something nice for you, do we choose to simply enjoy the gift they have given or is our first impulse to think something like, “Is this it?” Or, “Well, I HAVE done an awful lot for you.”  Those attitudes filled the heart of Samson and too often they fill our own.

         If you want to live a life of repentance of these sins of the heart, here are three ways to show the fruit of repentance by ruthlessly killing these self-centered attitudes.  First, crush the underlying lie behind much of our self-centeredness which is—“I deserve better.”  When we become jealous over the blessing someone else has been given, the underlying lie is, “I deserve it, too.”  When we are going through a hard time and we complain and gripe and whine, at the root of those behaviors is often the lie, “I deserve better—I deserve more comfort, less pain, more ease, less travail.”  Carve that lie up with the sword of the Spirit which says, “The wages of sin is death” and “the soul who sins is the one who will die.”  The truth is, we don’t deserve any better at all—as sinners, we deserve hell—the eternal fire of condemnation. 

The other night I had drawn a bath and walked away and I had managed to accidentally fill the tub with water that was about 20 degrees too hot.  Without thinking I stepped into the tub.  My foot wasn’t in there for very long!  I pulled this throbbing, lobster-red appendage out of the tub and the thought came into my head as I winced with pain, “this is a small picture of hell.”  I began to think about what it would be like if that scalding pain I felt in my foot were all over my body and that pain never, never stopped.  That’s a picture of hell.  Now, we know hell will be much worse than that because the image of a lake of fire is finite but hell is infinite.  THAT’S what we deserve. And we need to spend some good time thinking about hell for this very reason—to reawaken within ourselves the powerful image of what it is we truly deserve.  As we replace the lie which says, “I deserve better than what I have now” with the truth of, “I deserve an eternal hell,” its amazing how that short-circuits our self-centeredness because we are seeing ourselves according to truth which liberates us from the tyranny of the lie. 

A second way to kill our self-centeredness is simply to refuse to complain.  This sounds like heresy in a day when complaints in the body of Christ has become part of the self-sanctified vocabulary of the church but Paul is clear on this point, “Do EVERYTHING without complaining.”  Every time we complain or whine or gripe we fortify the stronghold of self-centeredness in our heart—we are reinforcing this wicked heart attitude.  The whines and gripes and complaints are the fruit of a heart that believes the lie that “I deserve better.”  That’s the root lie and we must kill this attitude at the root, but we must also zealously whack off this bitter fruit of complaining.  We must guard our mouths with great care and urgency not only against complaining but also against deceitful qualifiers.  By deceitful qualifiers I mean, “I don’t mean to complain, but… 

         When we qualify ourselves like that what we are really saying is, “I don’t mean to complain but…here’s my complaint.”  We must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves and understand that when we say, “I don’t want to sound like a whiner but,” you are at that moment poised to commence whining.  If there is a choice between complaining and saying, “I don’t mean to complain but” and then complaining—choose to just complain.  Because when you complain, its one sin, when you give a deceitful qualifier and then go ahead and complain, there’s two sins.  We must refuse to complain.  Now complaining and sharing a need are two different things.  We are called to share our needs with each other—we are not called to gripe at the way God is running our lives.

         A third and final way to kill our self-centeredness is to exchange self-centeredness with God-centeredness.  This again hits at the root of this sin.  When you hear of someone else’s blessing and you are tempted to think, “What about me?” replace that thought with, “What about God?”  You see, you just can’t stop being self-centered, you have to displace your self-centered desires and impulses with God-centeredness.  Our hearts are like nature, they abhor a vacuum.  You will either be self-centered or God-centered.  You have to be one or the other so make a conscious choice to be God-centered.  When someone else is going through a tough time and we are tempted to look down at their “comparatively paltry” tribulation—displace that with the God-centered response of praying for them and asking God what you can do to help them out.  That’s the cross—that means death to self, but that is what it is to be a follower of Christ.  When we ourselves are going through a time of trial, instead of complaining or looking at others and scorning their comparatively “easier” lives—be God centered and say in the midst of the pain, “OK Lord, what do you have for me here?”  “What are you working in my life?”   Live for the glory of God.

         We know that all this goes against the grain of our flesh.  But the truth is-- people who gripe and whine and complain—people who live self-centered lives never find joy unspeakable and full of glory.  If you want joy—if you are pursuing joy as we should be, the pathway to joy is in replacing self-centeredness with God-centeredness—its in not complaining, which is the rotten fruit that springs from the root lies like, “I deserve better.”  They way to joy and the way to God is found in ruthlessly killing our self-centeredness.  May God give us the grace to learn how be like Jesus, not Samson.


Page last modified on 10/27/2002

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