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In the summer blockbuster that is Judges, Samson is the leading man. Tall, dark, and hairy, he might be played today by Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame. And it wouldn't be too much of a stretch for Hemsworth to channel the Norse God of Thunder during some of Judges' most thrilling scenes.
But Thor is just the beginning. We can find elements of Samson's character in Superman, the Punisher, James Bond, the Hulk, and even the ultimate Christian superhero, Jesus.
If you're a student of the New Testament, you may have gotten déjà vu reading Samson's origin story, because it's darn-near identical to that of John the Baptist: a childless couple is told by an angel that they'll have a son who will do a great work for God (compare Luke 1:5-17 with Judges 13:2-5). Samson's work is to "begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines" (13:2-5). John's work, of course, was to prepare Israel for Jesus, their ultimate deliverer. By divine command, Samson was raised (like John would be over 1,000 years later) as a Nazarite—a man set apart from the world to serve the Lord (13:5). This came with a few rules: no alcohol, no grapes, no haircuts, and stay away from dead things. Any of these would make a Nazarite unclean, and thus un-holy (see Numbers 6:1-8).
Samson's parents, who are devout Israelites, take their heavenly mission seriously (13:8), like Joseph and Mary in the Gospels (or John and Martha Kent for that matter). Although little is said about Samson's childhood (13:24-25), it's probably safe to say that he's taught the laws of Israel and understands his holy calling. What must have been a burden, especially in his youth (C'mon mom! All the other Israelites are getting mohawks! Why can't I?), gives Samson certain benefits as well. Most notably, he's a very burly lad.
At least, that's our traditional view of him. But his superhuman strength really didn't come from mere genetics or bodybuilding. Samson's secret sauce is "the Spirit of the Lord" (13:25), which comes upon him, Hulk-like, whenever he's angry or in trouble (see 14:6, 19; 15:14). But like the Hulk, Samson doesn't always use his powers responsibly, and this is where he's most different from the John the Baptist/Jesus/Superman heroes that come later.
Mild-mannered Clark Kent this ain't. Samson is a flesh-and-blood man-child who, though surely well-intentioned, has a real problem bridling his physical appetites and his temper. From the moment he stubbornly insists on marrying a Philistine until his spectacular final act, his every move is seemingly motivated by either lust or revenge. He doesn't even seem to take the Nazarite club bylaws very seriously—he hangs around "heaps upon heaps" of dead bodies, for one thing (15:15-16). True, he killed those bodies himself, but that's no excuse. And eating honey out of a dead lion's carcass? Not allowed, Samson. No wonder he doesn't tell his parents about it (14:8-9).
So wait a second. This totally impious rabble-rouser is a judge sent from God? What gives? Part of what makes Samson so awesome is that he might be the only bad-boy in the Bible that apparently even God can't help but like—at least, as long as he's got that fabulous hairdo. Interestingly, it's only when his hair is cut that the magic spell suddenly breaks. Of course, throughout history, this episode has hogged all the attention, and for good reason: The most interesting of Samson's foibles has always been his tragic weakness for women.
Judges has two other sensational accounts of men meeting their doom at the hands of supposedly weak women: Jael and Sisera, and Abimelech and that lady with the rock. But this time is different—Samson's the good guy! We're supposed to be rooting for him, and watching his slow downfall through Delilah's machinations is positively Macbethian.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that Samson's Achilles's heel is exploited by a woman. He's just so darn unlucky in love. His Philistine wife had already duped him in an almost identical fashion (14:15-17), and was promptly stolen by his friend (14:20), then burned to death (15:6). Thereafter, the guy's got some serious relationship baggage. Is anyone shocked if he has a hard time establishing a healthy relationship and resorts to spending time with prostitutes? The Philistines almost trap him during one of those vulnerable moments, and he only escapes because of his ridiculous gate-lugging abilities (16:1-3).
But of course, third time's the charm, and Delilah—perhaps the quintessential femme fatale—succeeds where others failed. Throughout Judeo-Christian history, we've been understandably obsessed with Samson and Delilah's story. The Bible, though, is pretty brief in describing their relationship: "After this he fell in love with a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah" (16:4). That's it. No joke. Is it love? Mere lust? Or just another con for an experienced honeytrap? Does she regret betraying her boyfriend, or does she not even look back as she counts her silver? Opinions differ widely, but one thing's for sure: What makes this classic tale of seduction so interesting is that it leads to the climactic fulfillment of Samson's God-given mission.
Like all of the judges, Samson is meant to inspire Israel. But just as much, if not more so, Samson was also sent by God to be a pain in the Philistine's rear end, and was he ever. With his super strength, Samson is the ultimate visceral symbol of the Lord's superiority over the Philistine gods. It's almost like God gave this really angry guy super-power cheat-codes and turned him loose just to see how much GTA-style damage he could do. So while God might wish Samson didn't make some of the religious missteps that he does, none of them keep him from accomplishing his purposes.
So who was Samson, then? He's a hero after our own hearts, and he's definitely a prototype for almost any Sylvester Stallone/Bruce Willis/Arnold Schwarzenegger/Jason Statham protagonist. The tantrums, the foolishness, and the tragic heartaches all combine to make him imminently relatable for all of us imperfect humans trying to find our own destinies. Phigurative Philistines often stand in the way of our happiness, and they might lie, seduce, betray, and blind us, but by golly we'll burn their crops and topple their temples along the way without even looking back.
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