Samson: A Secret Betrayed, A Vow Ignored

Written by James L. Crenshaw Reviewed By John Goldingay

I have had cause to study the Samson story in Judges 13–16 from various angles. I recall as a student labouring over aetiological tales, floating traditions, and the contributions of Rje, when it was a set text. I have worked through it as part of my devotional study of scripture. I have studied Philistine temples and been annoyed by Magnus Magnus-son’s dismissal of the story’s historical value merely on the grounds that you couldn’t get 3,000 Philistines on top of one. But neither the tradition-critical, nor the devotional, nor the historical motivation seems to provide the right entree to the Samson story’s own burden.

Professor Crenshaw’s approach is the currently fashionable interest in what he calls ‘aesthetic criticism’ or ‘sensitivity to the beauty and art of a literary piece’ (p. 21). He notes five features of this method: to suspend disbelief and try to appreciate the story at its face value (which means that, after the disclaimer about historicity on page 22, there are few things that a modern reader who still takes it at its face value will have to disagree with); to look for the rhetorical devices whereby the text offers the clues to its meaning; to seek to recover the taken-for-granted background which the narrative assumes but which is for us a lost world; to study the light thrown on a text by the juxtaposition of another text that deals with similar motifs and by the juxtaposition within the text itself of words, ideas, and moods; and to look for the continuities at the deeper levels of existence between ancient people and their modern counterparts.

The four main chapters of the book approach the narrative from different angles. The first examines its literary and stylistic features. It considers other OT examples of the last words of a dying man and examines the form of Samson’s prayers (‘Such unexpected petitions from Israel’s strongest hero merit close scrutiny, precisely because they admit that even one who scoffed at convention, laughed at danger, and courted ruin did not escape the necessity of prayer’ [p. 30]). It surveys the story’s narrative forms and the common motifs which appear (the barren wife, the hero helpless before a woman’s wiles, the quest for a deity’s name, the hero’s death wish, the loss of charisma, the terror over theophany). It studies the narrative’s rhetorical features, and its context in Judges.

Chapter two examines the story as a study in conflicting loyalties, in ‘the tension between filial devotion and erotic attachment’ (p. 65) and that between charisma and passion (p. 98). It shows how the story in four episodes pictures four types of relationships with a woman—Manoah’s marriage with ‘an ideal Israelite woman’ and Samson’s experience of the power of physical attraction, sexual lust, and unrequited love.

Chapter three studies Samson’s riddles in the light of the conviction that this skill completes Samson’s prowess, for ‘the lion of the village must be first in success with the female sex, first in bodily strength, courage, and fondness for brawling, and first in mother wit’ (p. 99, quoting Budde in HDB).

Chapter four considers ‘the tragic dimension’ to the story of Samson and the other characters in the story. They make their own decisions, but they are involved with forces much bigger than them and somehow play parts in a drama someone else has scripted. The story reflects ‘the complexity of human events’ (p. 125) and Samson ‘differs little from classic tragic heroes who cannot turn their backs upon danger although they know it will destroy them’ (p. 127). Yet the story also keeps breaking into comedy, alternating between the ludicrous and the whimsical.

Coming finally to the explicit religious perspective of the story, Professor Crenshaw describes Samson as the anti-hero whose real failure is the broken Nazirite vow. Thus the story’s actual hero is Yahweh himself. ‘He alone can deliver Israel once and for all time, for he does not sleep on Delilah’s knee. Neither the theme of a broken vow nor even the conflict between filial devotion and erotic attachment adequately characterizes the Samson saga. Important as they are, these themes point beyond themselves to the mystery of divine compassion for a barren woman and a fallen hero’ (p. 135).

I have one issue I would like to discuss with Professor Crenshaw. He warns against psychologizing (p. 23), of which he agrees with Marjorie Nicholson in her study of John Milton that Samson Agonistes is guilty (p. 146.) But is not a fair amount of Professor Crenshaw’s study of the characters in Judges 13–16 psychologizing, too? If the narrative does not discuss feelings and motivation, is it really part of narrative appreciation to do so?

This is a rich and attractively written book.


John Goldingay

Fuller Theological Seminary