The Old Testament of the Bible harbors many strange and earthy reflections of human nature. One such story is that of Samson, in particular the moment of his downfall.
For those who might not be familiar, Samson was a folk hero of the Israelites during the time of Judges (around 1100 B.C.E.). According to the biblical narrative, God blesses Samson with superhuman strength—a gift contingent on his strict adherence to a Nazirite vow. To take this vow meant that Samson couldn’t become ceremonially unclean, imbibe alcohol, or (and here’s the kicker) shave or cut his hair.
And with this power, Samson became a man of great influence—and of great violence. Throughout his life, Samson’s strength allowed him to lead the Israelites to awesome victories in battle, including the single-handed defeat of an entire army using nothing but a donkey’s jawbone.
The historicity of Samson’s story is an interesting topic on its own, but I’m not going to parse out whether Samson literally or poetically did all the things his story tells. For example, when Samson catches foxes and ties them in pairs by their tails around torches to sabotage the Philistine farmers, it doesn’t make much difference to me if there were exactly 300 of them, as the story says.
The reason I think about Samson often is that he was a legend, but he seems just as human as the rest of us. He was selfish, deceptive, and disobedient, and yet, we remember him as a hero.
Samson’s true hamartia, his fatal hero’s mistake, came in his relationship with a woman named Delilah. As a Philistine, Delilah was culturally off-limits to Samson as a romantic prospect. But Samson didn’t really care much. He was brutish and stubborn and was taken by her beauty.
The story tells us that after Samson married Delilah, the Philistines forced her to seek out the secret of Samson’s strength by threatening her family. She begs him to tell her, and even though she has already proven to be under the influence of hostile forces, Samson eventually caves.
His choice was essentially suicide. The first two times she asked him, he had given a false answer, and both times she had tried to use that answer to hand him over to the Philistines. Each time, he had awoken and fought off his assailants, and yet, when she asks a third time, he tells her.
Once weakened and captured, the Philistines mutilated Samson. They gouged out his eyes and forced him to do manual labor, parading him around as a trophy. He was brought to the temple of Dagon for a festival that was attended by some 3,000 Philistines. Samson’s moment of redemption in the story comes when God restores his strength so he can bring down the pillars of the temple with his hands alone, killing all the Philistines and himself in the process.
Maybe Samson knew about the risk to her family, and decided to give in to his fate for that reason. The story tells us he was apparently “sick to death” of her asking him, and that’s why he told her. But it makes no sense, still. Could he really be nagged to the point of suicide?
I’d like to think that Samson told Delilah because he somehow knew his redemption wouldn’t have meant as much without his fall. I’d like to think that the potential for redemption is just as inherent to human nature as depravity. But the story doesn’t give us those answers. The meaning is obscure, unknowable.
And yet this archetypal narrative of the hero’s inevitable fall persists in and pervades our culture. I worry the reason is that this story reminds us that the heart of humanity is chaos. I wish I could disagree with more confidence.