A Nation of One

September 29, 2019
Judges 13:1-5, 15:1-11 
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Let’s begin by getting the bad joke out of the way.  Who was the greatest comedian in the Bible?  Samson — because he brought down the house!

Most people, even the biblically illiterate, have heard of Samson and the long hair that gave him superhuman strength and many can probably even name his mistress, Delilah.  If they know the full story of Samson and Delilah, or have seen the Cecil B. DeMille film of 1949, they will get that opening joke because they will know that Samson was betrayed by Delilah, imprisoned by the Philistines, and ended his life by pushing over the pillars of the temple to bring the roof crashing down on his enemies.  Samson is for most of us, especially those who went through Sunday School, a man of folkloric dimensions who was betrayed by the woman he loved and who sacrificed himself to save the Israelites.  So if I were to ask you, “Was Samson a hero or a lout?” most of us would answer, “A hero, albeit a flawed one.”

This is not, however, the way the Biblical authors would answer.  For the Biblical authors, Samson was not a hero at all but was representative of everything that was wrong with Israel during the period of the Judges.  Though his sacrifice at the end of his life might have made up for some of his more reprehensible conduct, the Bible makes sure to point out that it was too little too late because while other Judges had managed to bring at least short periods of peace to the land of Israel, Samson never defeated the Philistines.  They continued to plague Israel until King David finally put them in their place.  The only legacy Samson left behind was a story of lust and intrigue perfect for a lavish Hollywood movie.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.  Of all of the Judges, Samson had the most promising beginning.  He was set aside by God before he was even born, pledged as a Nazarite.  Nazarites were men and women who demonstrated their loyalty to God and Israel by taking three simple oaths — they abstained from alcohol, avoided contact with dead or unclean things, and did not cut their hair.  Most people taking Nazarite vows did it temporarily, similar to the way we give up things for Lent.  A few people, however, such as John the Baptist, the prophet Samuel, and Samson, took vows for life and such people were highly respected for their devotion to God.  It is with great dismay, then, that the biblical writers tell us that the first thing Samson did when he was old enough to leave his parent’s home was to take a foreign wife from among the hated Philistines and then party hard at his wedding.  So much for his vow not to drink.  And on the way to the wedding, the Bible says, Samson passed the carcass of a lion and scooped honey out of a hive that bees had built in its body, thus violating his second vow to avoid contact with corpses or unclean animals.  He hasn’t been out of his parents’ house for very long and he’s already broken two of his three vows.  Samson shows no remorse for these broken oaths, nor any sign that he takes his responsibility to lead Israel as a Judge seriously.  Samson is just all about Samson.  And it only gets worse.  We read in chapter 15 that a week after his wedding, he gets angry at his new wife; he makes crude remarks about her in front of her friends and family and then abandons her.  A little while later, his bed is feeling cold, so he decides he wants her back, but her father, to no one’s surprise but Samson’s, isn’t interested in having this hot-headed impulsive oaf as a son-in-law anymore and refuses to force his daughter to return to Samson’s house.  Samson explodes in anger and lashes out by setting fire to the Philistine crops and olive groves.  In return, the Philistines set fire to Samson’s wife and her father, burning them alive.  This enrages Samson further, but not because his wife and father-in-law suffered horrific deaths by fire but because he takes their murder as a personal insult to him.  He retaliates again by slaying 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.  This battle, which we often glorify as Samson’s rout of Israel’s dreaded enemy, was actually just a personal vendetta.  When this horrific cycle of violence is finally exhausted, the Bible says that Samson relaxed by spending the night with a prostitute.  Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that we didn’t hear Samson’s full story in Sunday School.

Though the Bible tells us that God had chosen Samson for special service, it also sadly reports that Samson demonstrates no respect for that call.  He shows no concern for God or for Israel, or frankly for anyone but himself.  The only reason he even manages to keep one of those three vows for so long is because it is his long hair that gives him superhuman strength, something he enjoys too much to sacrifice easily.  In the end, however, his sexual appetites overcome him, Delilah betrays him, and when the Philistines cut his hair, that last vow too, is broken.  Samson has completely failed God and the people.  The Philistines blind him with a hot poker and chain him to a millstone to work like a donkey grinding grain in the prison.

One commentator summed up Samson’s story by saying, “More than any other Judge, Samson is special — chosen by God from birth…Nevertheless, despite these great and auspicious beginnings he is one of the worst Judges, marrying a Philistine, drinking with the enemy, consorting with a foreign prostitute, breaking all of his Nazarite vows, carrying out personal vendettas without regard for the welfare of Israel.  [His] selfish rage, reluctance to lead, inability to rally the tribes of Israel into a united community, covenants with foreigners, and breaking of covenant vows [is the downfall of the last of the Judges.]”

Samson was given authority over the people of Israel by God but he didn’t understand the responsibility that came with it.  He believed that his special status as a Judge of Israel gave him the right to indulge his own whims and feed his own appetites to the neglect of the people God had called him to protect.  The story of Samson feels eerily appropriate to our modern day world.  The day after I had read that commentary’s description of Samson, news broke about the latest crisis in the White House and the headlines were suddenly full of the same debates that I had been reading about in the pages of the Bible. 

“How much latitude should a leader have by virtue of his office?  What is the proper balance between power and responsibility?”  Although the parallels may be particularly apt this week, the story of Samson is one that can find parallels at almost any time in human history because the tension between the power of office and the responsibility of office go back to the earliest human societies.  I would argue that that tension is the predominant theme of the Old Testament.  Israel had a unique understanding of its leaders: unlike Egypt, for example, where the Pharaoh was Egypt — where the Pharaoh’s will was absolute and Egypt was essentially a nation of One — the Pharaoh — in Israel, every leader was just as subject to the laws of God’s covenant as the people over whom he or she ruled.  When God freed the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt, God brought them to Mount Sinai and gave them the Ten Commandments saying, “This is who I want you to be as a nation and this is how I want you all to act.”  Their identity was communal from the very beginning.  In order to function, they needed leaders — Moses, the Judges, the Kings — but those leaders were always understood to be bound by the same laws that held all of the people together.  There was in Israel never a Nation of One; Israel was always a Nation of Many.  Israel always understood itself to be a community — a community of God’s people all living under the same laws first delivered through Moses on Mount Sinai:  “You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not abuse the widow or orphan.  You shall care for the stranger.”  These laws were what made Israel Israel no matter who happened to be leading them, no matter where they were, and it was these laws that continued to hold them together even after the political institution of Israel fell at the hands of Assyria and Babylon.  Samson’s sin was that he saw himself as a nation of One rather than as a leader of a community of many to whom he was responsible.

But the Bible’s condemnation was not just of Samson; it says that as it went with Samson, so it went with all of Israel:  all of the people were doing what was right in their own eyes instead of obeying the dictates of the community covenant.  Each person, the Bible says, from the highest to the least, had become a nation of One, each doing what felt good, each indulging in their own whims, and each feeding their own appetites without any regard for the needs of their neighbor.  And when each of us succumbs to the temptation to become a Nation of One, the Bible warns, the roof will come down on top of us all. 

In the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” a middle aged woman drives to the grocery store and waits patiently and politely for a parking spot.  Just as she is about to pull in, two young women zip into the spot in front of her.  As they get out and walk by her car, she says, “Excuse me, I was waiting for that space.” They just laugh and say, “Yeah?  Tough.  Face it lady.  We’re just younger and faster.”  They walk off while she sits in distress, feeling used and mocked, but then, with a gleam in her eye, she throws her car into gear and rams it into the back of their car over and over again.  

They run out of the store in shock, yelling, “What are you doing?  Are you crazy?”  

She shrugs and says, “Face it girls.  I’m older and I have more insurance.”

We laugh at her act of revenge but we also know that indulging our appetite for vengeance, no matter how justified we may feel, only adds to the chaos and the breakdown of community.  We are not each a Nation of One; we live in a nation of many and the only way that we can find peace as a people is to recognize our responsibilities toward our neighbor, even if it means sometimes swallowing our own impulses and appetites.

Jesus was constantly trying to combat the self-elevation of those who lived life as if they were a nation of One.  He condemned the Pharisees for their constant concern about their own salvation rather than their concern for the welfare of their neighbors.  When people talked about the Kingdom of God as if it was a future reward bestowed on the pure and pious, he said, “The Kingdom of God is among you,” and invited the poor, the forgotten, the sick, and the sinners to be a part of it.  The peace we seek, Jesus declared, will not be found in the scramble to the top or in the isolation that results from each living as a if we are each a Nation of One but only in the identity that we discover through community, through rubbing elbows with people who are very different from ourselves, by knowing the joy of helping another, through the discovery of whole worlds that we didn’t know existed until we found them in the eyes of our neighbors.  

A pastor tells the story of a time he was cutting his lawn and suddenly his riding lawnmower stopped working.  He could see the problem and knew how to fix it but he didn’t have the right tools, and, as many of us have experienced, trying to fix it with the wrong tools only succeeded in making him increasingly frustrated.  A neighbor from down the street, a man the pastor had yet to met, happened by and saw him under the tractor, swearing under his breath.  The neighbor returned home and came back a few minutes later with a well-stocked toolbox, and the two of them quickly got the tractor running again.  As the pastor thanked the man, he said, “You have some impressive tools in your box there!  What do you make with all those tools?” 

The neighbor replied with a smile: “Mostly friends!”

The story of Samson is a warning to us that no matter how special we might feel, no matter what our position, status, wealth, or power might be, if we act as if each of us is a Nation of One, indulging our whims and appetites to the neglect of the needs of our neighbors, there can be no peace in our future.  Peace is found in submitting ourselves in obedience to the covenants we make with one another.  Peace is found in honoring our promises to God and to others.  Peace is found in welcoming the many into our lives and hearts.  Peace is found not in the isolation of one but in the bonds of many; in community.