The Power of Point of View

Solving Samson’s Riddle

by BRYAN NASH   The stories of Samson are some of the most beloved of Scripture. For the person in the pew, reading about Samson’s flowing locks and Herculean strength is more entertaining than the latest attempts of Hollywood on the big screen. And for the moralistic preacher, the Samson cycle of the book of Judges is like a homiletical goldmine. Revenge, lust, deceit—all of the congregation’s vices are to be found.

For the narrative critic, however, the Samson stories provide an interesting case study of sorts. How is it that the implied reader seems to sympathize with a bloodthirsty womanizer? Referring to Samson as a bloodthirsty womanizer might be a bit of an overstatement. Nonetheless, my congregation has been reading through the Samson narratives lately and we have come away from the stories a bit perplexed. It almost feels a bit wrong to be cheering for Samson and yet we find ourselves doing so. Despite his insatiable thirst for revenge, we want this raucous character to overcome the Philistines.

Why do we cheer for Samson? Some commentators think it is because we know that Samson’s activity is a part of God’s plan, and as such, the Spirit is with him (Judges 14:4, 6, 19; 15:14). Yet, even the most conservative of commentators note that these verses (especially 14:4) are likely editorial emendations by an editor attempting to reconcile Samson’s behavior with “clan etiquette and the national religious code.”[1] Interestingly, this interpretative move attempts to explain the effect that the text has on the reader by appealing to an author-oriented hermeneutic. However, if these editorial additions were to be removed, the reader will still sympathize with Samson. To put it bluntly, according to this approach, readers were sympathizing with Samson and thus these verses were added to ease the reader’s conscience for doing so.

I wish to briefly propose how perspective criticism might shed some light on the reader’s tendency to sympathize with Samson. To do so, I will appeal to the informational plane of point of view. Yamasaki notes that readers can have either more or less information than a character in a narrative.[2] When the reader is privy to more information than a character in the story, this leads the reader to “feel a sense of distance” from the character.[3]

Early in the Samson narratives, the reader has more information than the Philistines. In Judges 14, the reader has followed Samson closely as he sees a woman in Timnah, kills a lion while traveling to her hometown, and then eats honey from the carcass of the lion at a later period.[4] When Samson challenges the bridal party to a riddle contest, the reader knows the answer to the riddle.

“Out of the eater came something to eat,
And out of the strong came something sweet.” (14:14)

The reader knows the answer to the riddle because the reader has the same amount of information as does Samson. However, the Philistines are out of the loop. They have not followed Samson as he killed a lion and then ate the honeycomb of the bees that settled in the lion’s carcass. Thus, the riddle narrative presents an example of the reader having more information than the Philistines.

The reader is distanced from the Philistines and therefore more likely to sympathize with Samson’s following actions. This narrative is the first direct conflict between Samson and the Philistines. As such, the informational plane is used to merge the reader with Samson while distancing the reader from the Philistines. This prepares the reader for subsequent judgments regarding Samson and the Philistines. Because the reader is able to solve Samson’s riddle while the Philistines are not, the reader, for example, does not condemn Samson for killing 1,000 of these ignorant folks with a jawbone (15:15).

[1] Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris, Judges and Ruth, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), 157.

[2] Gary Yamasaki, Perspective Criticism: Point of View and Evaluative Guidance in Biblical Narrative (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012), 55.

[3] Ibid., 62.

[4] Although I am primarily concerned in this article with the informational plane, clearly the spatial plane and psychological plane are also at work.

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