Judges 15.9-20; Matthew 5.38-48
When we decided a few months ago to use the summer to tackle violent Old Testament passages and ethical issues to which our lectionary seldom normally leads us, we did not envisage just how near the knuckle we would be taken. Today we have an excerpt from the story of Samson in Judges: a figure whose life was spent around southern Judea and Gaza, engaged in horribly destructive conflict with neighbouring peoples whose name of 'Philistine' bears a more than coincidental similarity to 'Palestinian'. We will all have been tormented in recent weeks by the reports from that area, and the catastrophe of the modern Gaza Strip is unavoidably going to sit in the background of what I say and what you hear.
But can we keep it in the background for a moment, and first think about Samson and his place in the Scriptures? We're in the Book of Judges here, and its place in the sweep of the Old Testament narrative is this: having escaped from Egypt, the Israelites have wandered in the wilderness led by Moses, before conquering their Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. The long period which follows, when the Israelite tribes were settled in villages and towns in the hill country, with no strong organisation and no common leadership is recorded in the books of Judges, Ruth and to some extent I Samuel. So Judges isn't a connected narrative, more a kind of compendium of separate stories about local heroes, community leaders, strong warriors, courageous examples to their people. With the retrospect of the historical compiler, these very disparate figures are together described in the way we heard of Samson - 'And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.' In later times the Israelites got more organised and came under the kingdom first of Saul then of David and his descendants.
Now say what you like about Samson, he doesn't come across as a natural member of the judiciary. In the four chapters devoted to him, he is a huge personality with vast appetites, a Rabelaisian attitude, roistering humour, and an immense capacity to kill. He wasn't a judge in any sense we would recognise, but a heroic figure such as gives encouragement to downtrodden people in every society - like Robin Hood, the Magnificent Seven. These characters make such good stories that they lend themselves to films, such as Cecil B Demille's 1949 'Samson and Delilah', described by one critic of the time as the first film in which the hero had bigger breasts than the heroine.
We hear of him killing a lion with his bare hands, posing riddles to vex his opponents, breaking all the ropes and chains which bind him and killing a thousand at one go with a makeshift bone weapon, pulling down a temple in a suicide mission, and killing all the idol worshippers within it. The very next verse after the end of our reading is this: 'Once Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and went in to her.' Within a few sentences a thousand dead enemies, a miraculous spring of water, and a visit to a prostitute: this about sums up Samson. Yet this is a man whose birth has involved angels and who is described at the end of chapter 13 as blessed by The Lord and in whom the Lord's spirit stirs.
This is not a man from whom you would seek moral advice; there is no ethical content in these stories of Samson. The positive glosses which attach to him and his legendary actions are only there because the people telling the story see him as on their side. No people tells stories in this way about their opponents; and in truth even if he was on our side, we probably would not want to live next door to someone like this.
The problem we have is that this is in our Bible. It's part of the long narrative we Christians have borrowed from and share with the Jewish people, a narrative with all kinds of episodes and all types of literature, a narrative through which we seek to discern the involvement of God with people and history, and to throw light on our present task. Just how dangerous a certain kind of distorted reverence for our scriptures can be is shown in this, which comes from an American website and follows an apparently learned discussion of whether the Old Testament Philistines are the same as today's Palestinians.
"Many of the Arabs are descended from Ishmael. One tradition says that Ishmael is destined to do repentance and implies that his descendants of their own free will will accept a form of servitude under Israelite rule. This tradition is an uncertain one but even if correct it does not contradict the Biblically-derived and Scripturally-justified principle that most of the "Palestinians" will have to be flown elsewhere."
Let's be clear. The stories of Samson are just that - stories. At best, because they describe God sticking up for his people when they were weak and downtrodden and humiliated, they give encouragement to the little people. These stories do not in any way read across in the way that American writer would assume, into the circumstances of the people of Israel and Gaza now. Samson in Gaza is a story. Gaza in 2014 is an all too real human tragedy, a place of misery and fear and loss, for which there seems to be a negligible prospect of effective resolution.
Before we turn away as impotent and maybe a bit bored with it all, we should remember that we aren't simply detached observers of this. All of human history is interconnected. This weekend marks a century since Britain declared war on Germany. That war led to the Balfour Declaration by the British Foreign Secretary, and the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 in many ways contributed to the Second World War; the horrors inflicted on the Jewish people during that war played a major part in the creation of the state of Israel in part through violence and the displacement of Palestinian communities, some of whom have lived as refugees ever since.
If nothing else, the fact that we are reading about Samson 3,000 years ago should remind us that the impacts of a sense of oppression, and the cult of heroic resistance, are astonishingly long-lived. What is happening now will not go away.
No doubt in Gaza, when this bout of slaughter and destruction has finished, and a kind of uneasy peace returns, there will be people passing on stories of heroic resistance, of catching their more powerful enemies unawares, bringing the smile of revenge to faces of people living with humiliation. That's the way with weak people in the face of stronger enemies. In today's instance, the tales may be told not of Samson with his ox's jawbone, but of Hamas fighters with their rockets or their heroic ambushes from hidden tunnels.
Which is of course why there needs to be another way. Why the normal, natural, human responses to bad treatment and aggression - the bristling defence and the crushing counter-attack - are not the solution, and are not the way of God. 'You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' You and I, even our country as a whole, have very little influence over what happens today or tomorrow in Gaza. But, as Christians we have a duty to mould our behaviour after a different pattern; not just to seek peace, but to make peace.
Ours is not the enduring cycle of grievance and revenge, but the challenge to be different.