Samson the P.R. Master

So I’ve been reading an amazing book: Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, by Nogah Hareuveni (trans. Helen Frenkley). Doesn’t sound amazing to you? Well, it’s the height of perfection for me in my drive to make the David and Saul series as specific and realistic as possible. I’ve finally found the source for trees and plants that David would’ve seen and had available to him for kindling, food, shade, water, etc. It’s full of the kinds of details that bring back the life, the humor in biblical stories that audiences at the time would’ve gotten. Like in this one about Samson, the P.R. master. [ETA: Tree and Shrub gave me the information about the plant and discussed what that meant for the story of Samson and the seven new ropes, but I gave it the imaginative retelling after the starred break below.]

Here’s how we’re going to imagine Samson: Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock — big, strong, charming. Also, the long hair.

She’s not in my telling of the story much, but if you want to imagine Delilah, let’s say she’s Nicole Scherzinger.
The Israelites, at this time, are ruled by the Philistines. Samson is the Israelites’ Judge, which doesn’t mean he was wise. He just killed lots of Philistines because the Lord gave him immense physical strength. He also goes after women he shouldn’t. Early in his history, he fell in love with a Philistine woman from Timnah (5 miles down the road from where he lived in Mahaneh-dan). On the way to Timnah with his parents to arrange the marriage, he killed a young lion and ripped its jaws apart with his bare hands. On the return trip for the wedding, he saw that bees had nested in the lion’s jaws, scooped out some honey, and ate it.
In Timnah, Samson threw a 7-day pre-wedding party. He told a riddle to 30 young Philistine men. If they solved it, he’d give each of them one plain linen and one fancy robe. This was a big deal. These guys would’ve had one or two plain robes; only the rich would’ve had a fancy robe. “From the one who eats came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet.” Oh, he was sure of himself, that Samson. Nobody knew about the lion and the honey, not even his parents.
The 30 guys couldn’t figure it out, so they threatened the wife-to-be. She wept and moaned every time she was with Samson until he told her. When the 30 guys answered the riddle he made an unflattering analogy (“if you hadn’t plowed with my heifer, you wouldn’t have figured it out”), went 20 miles to the coastal (Philistine) town of Ashkelon, killed 30 guys there and took their stuff, which he then gave to the 30 guys in Timnah. And then left in a huff without actually marrying the woman although believing she was his wife. See, not wise.
Later, he burned the entire wheat crop of Timnah, killed 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, and hefted up the city gates of Gaza by its two posts to escape the leaders plotting to kill him in the morning after he was through with the prostitute he was “visiting.”
None of that is our story, though. It’s just the set-up.
Mahaneh-dan (between Zorah and Eshtaol, in the foothills of the Judean mountains), between 1,200 & 1,100 BCE
Samson sauntered over to the window overlooking the front of his house. He could’ve shaken Delilah for trying to put one over on him. Again. But she got gorgeously angry when he acted like it was all a big joke, so that’s what he did.
He crossed his arms and leaned one shoulder against the wall, watching the Philistine leaders and flunkies flee his house, muttering to themselves. He stayed even after they were out of sight.
Delilah came near enough for him to smell her. The late afternoon heat intensified the scent of the olive oil she’d shined herself up with for her performance today. “Are they coming yet?”
She huffed. He didn’t have to look at her to know she was pouting.
And there came the crowd. Mostly men he knew from the village, but not all. They called to him before they reached his gate. “Samson!” “What’s going on?” “What happened?” “What did you do this time?”
Should he make them wait until evening, when everyone was in from the fields and hills? Nah. He flattened his palms on the wall on either side of the window. “I’ve been in my house all day. What could I have done?”
“Don’t play with us,” someone shouted. “Tell us, tell us.”
He shrugged and tried to look innocent.
“Come now.” Elder Raddai stepped forward with the usual scowl on his face. “The Philistines commandeered a dozen of our men yesterday, keeping them out of the fields all day today, and sent them with a dozen on their men on some fool journey to make seven fresh yitran ropes and deliver them here without drying out. They didn’t let our men in and just now ran out of here with their robes in a bunch. Last week the bow strings. Now this. What kind of trouble are you making?”
Delilah snickered. Samson gritted his teeth to keep the smile on his face.
“You mess with them, but we’re the ones who pay.” Raddai shook his finger as if Samson were a little boy.
Some members of the crowd shouted him down, but not enough. Samson stepped to the side and hooked his arm around Delilah’s shoulders and tried to pull her into view, but she twisted away and scooted to the other side of the room.
“Stop it,” she whispered. “They’ll stone me.”
She was right. Better to keep her out of sight. The only reason he got away with her was because they assumed, after he left for two weeks and then returned with her, that he and Delilah were married.
Samson went down the ladder and opened his front door. “I’m not the one creating trouble.” He grinned. “It’s those Philistines. They can’t kill me outright so they keep trying to capture me.”
Some of the men laughed and elbowed each other at that. Samson chuckled with them until they clamored for the story. “We’re all men here, aren’t we?” He made a show of checking the crowd. “Don’t want tender ears hearing this story. So I was enjoying some time with my lady and she asked how to tie me down securely.”
The crash of pottery hitting the wall came from upstairs. Samson cocked one eyebrow. “I thought we were having a little fun, so I told her seven fresh bow strings would do it. Last week, she brings some out and ties me up and we….” He winked and continued. “And then out pop the Philistines to take me away. Obviously, I’m still here.”
“They said he ripped through them like they were nothing,” someone shouted.
Samson shifted his arms away from his body and flexed a bit. “So then yesterday, she’s after me to get tied up again. I knew what she was about this time, so I gave the Philistines such a job. Anyone here want to tell us what they went through? Anyone?”
A hand went up and a young guy was pushed up to the front. “Sorry you got roped into it,” Samson said to him before turning him around to face the crowd.
“The Philistines–” The kid was still young enough that his voice cracked, but he cleared his throat and kept going. “They dragged me and my brother and some others away from the fields yesterday. They were going on about where they could find yitran bushes, but everyone knows they don’t grow around here, so we had to go with them back to their towns, a half day’s walk away. They split us into seven teams, one group for each rope. We slept on the ground by our bushes. They didn’t even let me stop at home to get my cloak, so I got soaked with dew.”
The men muttered about such disrespect before Samson hushed them.
“As soon as there was enough light to work by, we stripped the bark. They were in such a hurry they yelled at us to girdle the plant, but we wouldn’t do it, so that meant running around to several bushes. Then we couldn’t even sit to clean the strips and they wouldn’t give us knives. We had to pick off the twigs and leaves with our thumbnails.”
More outrage from the crowd and Samson clapped his bear paw of a hand on the boy’s shoulder in false solicitude.
“They kept poking us in the back to keep us walking while we folded the strands and rubbed them together while the Philistines twisted them until there was a rope long enough to wrap around my lord, Samson.” The boy sent up a shy glance.
Samson nodded down at him.
The kid relaxed a little more and yelled over the crowd. “They poured more water over the yitran to make sure it didn’t dry out than they gave us to drink!”
“And in this late summer heat.” Samson joined in the scolding of the Philistines.
“Those were really good ropes,” the kid said. “How did you get out of them?”
Samson let a smile build slowly and then snapped his fingers. “Like flax in a flame. Wine all around to celebrate!” He hauled out two jugs and passed them around until the atmosphere was festive. It had worked perfectly. The crazy errand had attracted so much attention, the story would be all over the region in two days, max.

Wonderful: Holy Laughter

I don’t always appreciate puns, but I love this book title: Between Heaven and Mirth. Appropriately, given the title, it’s about Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I requested this book after seeing the author on the Colbert Report. It’s wonderful: full of jokes, but also discussion of why Christians have often thought they needed to be dour, and analysis of Scripture to restore what would’ve been funny to the people at the time.

It also reminds me of one of the best prayers I’ve been part of. When we lived in New York City, we belonged to All Angel’s Episcopal Church and were part of a great small group that met once a week for talk, Bible study and prayer. This night, we’d broken up into smaller groups for prayer. I was with two friends in a little hallway by the washing machine. One friend was praising God for His sweetness, which was lovely, but when she went on, “for your sweetness, your gooeyness, your frothy goodness,” we cracked up. Our friend was trying to give up sugar and, momentarily related all goodness to desserts. We couldn’t stop giggling and ended up thanking God for laughter and calling it a night. That prayer makes me happy every time I think of it.

Several years ago, on a tough Sunday of children’s church, unstoppable laughter during prayer was exactly what I needed. It was the first Sunday for a new three-year-old. A sweet little girl who didn’t care at all about what we were doing. She just wanted to do her own thing and explore the room and talk constantly about what she was experiencing. Which would have been fine, except that I also had to deal with 9-year-olds in the same group, and try to tell the story and keep order. I also believe no teenagers were in church that Sunday, so I didn’t have a helper. By the end of the service, I was frazzled. And then, during our intercessory prayer time, that same little girl burped. It was such an adorable little noise that I laughed. And, of course, the kids laughed. It was a cleansing laugh. I thanked God for it at the time, and I still do.

More recently (and before I read Between Heaven and Mirth), I went against type in my portrayal of the prophets in the David and Saul book. The usual image of an Old Testament prophet is of an angry man yelling at people to repent. My prophets are lighthearted and quick to laugh, not out of frivolity, but out of security.

David has escaped out his back window in the middle of the night and run away from King Saul, straight to the prophet Samuel. Saul figures out where David is and sends soldiers to capture him, but things take a surprising turn:

Samuel and Caleb strode towards the well, gathering other men along the way. There were fourteen of them by the time they reached Ramah’s outskirts. As the soldiers got closer, all the prophets did was stand arm-in-arm in a circle and sing. David couldn’t tell what they were singing, but snatches of melody made their way back to him and raised the hair on his forearms.

The army commander gave the signal, and the soldiers spread out in formation and unsheathed their weapons. The bronze and iron glinted like lightning in the sunshine, but the prophets didn’t acknowledge the soldiers in any way. When Saul’s men were mere steps away, the prophets broke apart and formed a line, but it was like no defensive line David knew of. Some of them stood with their arms raised to the heavens, others fell on the ground, pounding the earth with their fists, and still others whirled in wild circles, the hems of their robes flashing above their knees.

David watched, slack-jawed, as, one by one, the soldiers dropped their weapons and joined the men of God in their worship. Tears fell unchecked as he watched these rough soldiers be overcome by the Spirit of the Lord.

And then he laughed – not because the soldiers were making fools of themselves, but out of utter security in the Lord’s protection.

Anyone got any funny church stories to share?