The twelfth century BC was a bleak one for ancient Israel. The nation had been on a veritable roller-coaster ride of ups and downs in relation to neighboring nations since Joshua’s death. Now, in the aftermath of Gideon’s death, the unity of the nation seemed to fracture.
One of Gideon’s sons by a concubine had tried to kill all of his brothers and to install himself as king over the central part of the land. Ammonites from the east occupied the Trans-Jordan area of Israel and dominated there for the next 18 years. The greatest danger, however, came from the Philistines who gained dominance over the southern and western parts of the nation. For the next 40 years the Philistines controlled vast portions of Israel.
It was at this crisis time that God brought about two miraculous births in the land. Two baby boys, both dedicated to God from their mothers’ wombs as Nazarites, were to have a great impact on the future of their nation. It is important to note that when events in the world around looked bleakest, God already had a plan in motion that was going to provide a solution.
In Numbers 6, Moses was inspired of God to lay out the requirements of a vow of special consecration to God, called a Nazarite Vow. Generally men took this vow for a specific period of time, after which, there was a ceremony marking its conclusion. During the time of their vow, the men were not to cut their hair or shave, nor were they to taste any grape product, including wine, fresh grapes, or raisins, nor were they to touch anything that would make them ceremonially defiled.
There are three men mentioned in the Bible who were born under a Nazarite Vow. All three were conceived as a result of God’s miraculous intervention in their parents’ lives, as their parents had been unable to have children previously. These three men were Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist. Samson and Samuel, though it is not generally recognized, were contemporaries. They were both conceived at the beginning of Israel’s oppression by the Philistines and were to play an important role in that phase of Israel’s history.
Before proceeding further, we first need to understand how we know that Samson and Samuel were contemporaries. The key is putting the chronology of Judges together with that contained in Samuel and Kings. 1 Kings 6:1 tells us that the fourth year of King Solomon was 480 years after the exodus from Egypt. Since Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness before entering the land, it was therefore 440 years since the entrance into Canaan under Joshua. This was Solomon’s fourth year and since King Saul and King David had each reigned 40 years, kings had replaced judges in Israel 84 years earlier. Therefore, the time from Israel’s entrance into the land until Samuel anointed Saul as king was 356 years. Judges 11:26 shows us that Jephthah began his judgeship 300 years after Israel’s entrance into the land, 56 years before Saul was crowned king. Jephthah came to power at the end of 18 years of Ammonite oppression.
The Ammonites began their oppression at the same time as did the Philistines (Judges 10:7). The Philistines oppressed Israel 40 years (Judges 13:1). Samson was born at the beginning of this time and grew to maturity under Philistine rule. He judged Israel for 20, which coincided with the last
20 years of Philistine oppression (Judges 16:30–31). 1 Samuel 7:13 reveals Samuel’s role in defeating the Philistines and ending their dominance over Israel. 20 years earlier, a disastrous battle had taken place that resulted in the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines and the deaths of the sons of the High Priest, Phineas and Hophni, as well as that of the High Priest Eli himself. Based upon this chronology, Samuel would have been 74 when he anointed Saul as king (cf. 1 Samuel 8:5).
When we put the whole story together, it is clear that Samson and Samuel were each born at the beginning of the 40 years of Philistine oppression of Israel. Twenty years into that period the Ark was captured. After a brief sojourn in the land of the Philistines it was returned to Israel where it remained at Kirjathjearim for the next 20 years. This second 20-year period coincided with Samson’s judgeship. At the end of it he collapsed the temple of Dagon and destroyed the entire leadership of the Philistines, though he also died in the collapse. Immediately afterward Samuel assembled Israel at Mizpeh, led them to confess their sins and rededicate themselves to serving God. He then led them against the Philistine armies, which were completely subdued for the remainder of Samuel’s active rule of the nation (1 Samuel 7:13).
In many ways, the lives of Samson and Samuel are a study in marked contrast. Two men, both called of God for a special purpose, responded very differently to their calling. Though God accomplished His purpose through each of these men, we find that one learned his lessons the easy way while the other had to learn everything the hard way. As we examine more closely the lives of these specially chosen contemporaries, we need to look for lessons that we can apply in our own lives. We have also been specially chosen and called of God to do a job. Will we respond willingly and readily as Samuel did, or will we have to go through great tribulation as Samson did before we finally get our perspective straight?
The Life of Samson
Judges 13 opens with the appearance of an angel to the wife of Manoah at the onset of the Philistine oppression of Israel. Clearly God had not forgotten about His people, though He had allowed severe trials to come upon them. When we put the story in Judges together with that in 1 Samuel, it becomes clear that the priestly leadership of Israel was corrupt. Their example had obviously affected the entire nation and discouraged respect for God and His ways.
Yet the faithfulness of Manoah and his wife show that it is possible to serve God in spite of the conduct of other people. This faithful older couple, unable to previously have children, was overwhelmed at the appearance of an angel of God. They were given a promise by God and instructions for the future of the son that they were destined to have.
Though Samson was brought up with knowledge of his destiny, and of the special Nazarite vow to which he had been consecrated from his mother’s womb, he grew up a very self-centered young man. This is evidenced in his determination to marry a Philistine woman, though his parents tried to dissuade him. Samson told his father in Judges 14:3 that “she is right in my eyes” (Soncino Commentary). This, of course, is the catch phrase of the entire book of Judges. God, knowing Samson’s character and attitude, worked through the circumstances of several different Philistine women to stir him to battle against the Philistines. Serving his people by leading them to freedom was not a motive enough for Samson to fight the Philistines. He was stirred to action by a desire to revenge himself of some personal affront.
God gave Samson the miraculous gift of supernatural strength. Though he was the strongest of men, yet in another way, he proved himself the weakest! After marrying a Philistine woman, contrary to his parents’ wishes, his marriage quickly fell apart. Samson became enraged when he found that his bride had revealed a secret to the Philistines. He left her and stayed away for several months. When he returned, after having decided to reconcile, he found that she was now married to another man, the best man at his wedding. Again, Samson was enraged and took action to revenge this insult.
In Judges 16 we learn that Samson paid a visit to a Philistine harlot. After the Philistines used the occasion to try and capture him, Samson again wreaked havoc. He proved a veritable one-man army in challenging Philistine supremacy. However, we read nothing of Samson trying to rally Israel to a rededication to the true worship of God during the period of his judgeship. He was a self-centered, self-indulgent, self-willed leader. In spite of his motives, however, God used him to weaken Philistine power.
The final chapter of his life opens with Samson’s encounter with yet another Philistine woman, Delilah. She was actually in the pay of the lords of the Philistines to help them subdue and capture Samson. In order to accomplish this, she whined and cajoled trying to get Samson to reveal the secret of his remarkable strength.
Three different times Samson made up a story and told her that it was the secret of his great strength. Each of those times she tried it out to see if that was, indeed, the way to deprive him of his super-human powers and make him like other men. After the third deception she began to cry and complain that Samson did not love her or else he would tell her the truth. Very foolishly, he finally acquiesced. Of course, she did again as she had done before, only this time it worked. His uncut hair and beard were the outward symbols of Samson’s consecration to God. Once these were shorn, God removed the miraculous power with which Samson had been entrusted. He was now easily subdued by Philistine soldiers, was taken captive and blinded.
The soldiers took Samson to a place of imprisonment where he was chained to a pole and made to walk around in a circle like an ox in order to turn a gristmill. Undoubtedly as he walked around and around over the coming weeks and months, aching with fatigue and unable to see, he had much time to reflect on the wasted life that lay behind him. As time passed and his hair and beard began to grow long once again, an idea came to Samson’s mind.
He prayed to God, asking for one last time opportunity to fight against the Philistines. Hebrews 11 lists Samson as a man of faith. It appears that it was only after he was blind that Samson could really see! Opportunity came when the Philistine leadership was assembled for a celebration. They decided to bring Samson to their assembly so that they might ridicule this once mighty Israelite leader. Asking to be positioned between two of the main support pillars of the temple, Samson made one last heartfelt prayer to God. He did not ask for personal deliverance, but rather for a final chance to fulfill his calling, even though it would mean his own death.
Feeling the supernatural strength flow into him once again, Samson gave a great push and the pillars fell, thereby collapsing the temple of Dagon. In this final act, Samson destroyed more Philistines than in the rest of his lifetime combined. He sought to redeem a life filled with wasted opportunities in one last act of faith and courage.
The Life of Samuel
Samuel was born to Elkanah the Levite and his wife Hannah. For several years they had wanted children, but Hannah had been unable to conceive. One year, having gone to Shiloh for the Feast, Hannah went to the Tabernacle to pray. Moved with grief, she prayed fervently to God. When Eli, the High Priest, first saw her, he thought she was intoxicated. After talking to her, however, he realized that she was merely emotionally distraught and was a deeply God-fearing woman. In her prayer, she had made a vow to God that if He would grant her a son, she would return that son to God and he would be consecrated as a Nazarite (1 Samuel 1:11). Eli told her that her prayer would be answered.
Prior to the next Feast, Hannah conceived and bore a son, whom she named Samuel. Waiting until Samuel was weaned, probably at about the age of six or seven, as is still customary in areas of the Middle East, she took him to Shiloh the next time the family went up to the Feast. Presented to the High Priest in fulfillment of his mother’s vow, Samuel remained behind when his family returned to their home. In the years following, Samuel grew up as a dependable helper to the elderly priest Eli. Eli’s own sons, however, were quite a contrast to young Samuel. They were greedy and immoral. In fact, their conduct caused people to disrespect God’s servants and to dread coming to the Tabernacle. Eli’s sons, Phinehas and Hophni, even committed fornication with women who had come to the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22). Though Eli knew of his sons’ behavior, he never took action to remove them from office and to bring them to judgment. He fussed at them (vv. 23–25) from time to time, but did nothing further.
One night after young Samuel had gone to bed, a voice called out to him. Immediately he got up and went in to Eli to respond to the summons. Eli told him that he had not called and to go back to bed. This scenario was repeated three times. After the third time, Eli realized that it was God who was calling Samuel. He told him to respond if the voice called again by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” When the voice again called and Samuel responded, he was given a message of judgment for the house of Eli from God. The next morning Eli asked him about the message and Samuel told him.
Over the years of Samuel’s adolescence, people coming to Shiloh to worship took increasing notice of him. He was greatly respected for his sincere dedication to God (1 Samuel 3:19–21).
At about the same time as Samson began his judgeship, a battle took place between the Israelite and Philistine armies that had disastrous results for Israel. Having suffered an initial defeat, the Israelites asked Phinehas and Hophni to bring the Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle out to the battlefield. Doing so over the objections of the elderly Eli, his corrupt sons brought the Ark. The battle ended with the utter defeat of Israel, the capture of the Ark by the Philistines, and the deaths of Phineas and Hophni. When Eli heard the news, he had a stroke, fell off a seat on a raised platform, and died.
God took care of getting the Ark back from the Philistines by sending plagues upon them. For the next 20 years the Ark was in the Israelite town of Kirjathjearim. At the conclusion of that time, Samuel called the people together and exhorted them to repentance and renewal of their covenant with God. The result was the utter defeat of the Philistine army, coming right on the heels of Samson’s collapse of the temple of Dagon, which destroyed much of the Philistine leadership.
Over the 34 years following, Samuel judged Israel making a regular circuit throughout the course of a year. By the time he was in his mid-seventies he had made his sons judges, but they did not conduct themselves with the same integrity as did Samuel. The people used this as an excuse to demand a king so that they could be like all of the nations. God told Samuel, who was feeling hurt and rejected by the people, that he had faithfully served for virtually his entire life, that he was to anoint a king for the nation (1 Samuel 8:7). “They have not rejected you,” God told him, “they have rejected Me.”
Samuel continued faithfully to serve God and God’s people. He anointed Saul as Israel’s first king. He sought to advise Saul and to help him succeed. Saul, however, was not really committed to truly obeying God and disqualified himself from the kingship. When God finally rejected Saul from being king, He used Samuel to anoint David, a man after His own heart, to become Israel’s next king. Throughout Samuel’s long life of just over a hundred years, he remained faithful and loyal to God, regardless of the circumstances around.
Samuel and Samson made quite a contrast during the course of their lifetimes. One was eagerly responsive to God, focused on doing the work that God had called him to do, while the other was self-indulgent and self-focused. They both started life with a special calling from God; one developed a deep, personal relationship with God early, while the other waited until his life came crashing down around him before he did so.
Today, all of God’s people, at baptism, have made a vow of special consecration to God. Some are like Samuel in taking their vow seriously. Others are like Samson and take their vow lightly. You and I, in studying the contrasting story of two Nazarites, must answer the question of which example we will follow. Will we choose to learn our lessons of life the easy way by seeking God’s will and eagerly responding to it, as did Samuel? Or, will we go through life allowing self-will to run rampant and wonder why God is not blessing us more?
Now and in the years ahead, our approach to doing God’s Work and in how we conduct our own personal lives will demonstrate which Nazarite we have chosen as a role model. What about you? Have you picked Samuel or Samson?