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Samson is the biblical Hercules, a man of super-human strength who nonetheless could not escape tragedy. Samson’s story is found in the Book of Judges chapters 13-16. He is the last of the major judges who led the Israelites, but he is hardly an ideal role model or savior. Samson breaks vows, marries outside of the people of Israel twice, and functions more as a vigilante than a leader.
The details of Samson’s birth already signify him as a mythical figure. Chapter 13 of Judges tells the story of Manoah and his wife, who is barren. One day, an angel of God appears to Manoah’s wife promising that she will bear a son. But this comes with a warning: She cannot contaminate her body with any alcohol, because her child will be a nazirite–dedicated to God from birth. She also learns that her son will save the Israelites from the Philistines.
Samson’s destiny, and his connection to the Philistines, is explicitly laid out by God even before he is born. The idea of God granting a child in order to dedicate that child to save the Israelites foreshadows a famous birth that appears in the first book of Samuel. There, the prophet Samuel is born to a previously barren woman, and he is dedicated from a young age to serve in the Temple. (Samuel I, 1)
Samson’s story skips from his birth to his adulthood, where his first distinguishing act is to ask his father to bring him a certain Philistine woman to be his wife. Samson’s parents object, asking him to find a woman among the Israelites. But the text justifies Samson’s choice, explaining that by marrying a Philistine woman Samson would have opportunities to infiltrate and fight the Philistines, who were the current oppressors of the Israelites.
In fact, it is on his way to claim this non-Israelite bride that Samson first discovers his super-human strength: “Suddenly a young lion roared at him. The spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded” (14:5-6). Shortly thereafter he uses this strength to kill 30 Philistine men in a fit of rage, fulfilling the angel’s prophecy from the previous chapter(14:19). This first act against the Philistines exemplifies Samson’s revenge-based vigilantism.
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