I didn’t realise how well my six-year-old could read until she asked, ‘Daddy, why do men want to watch women take their clothes off?’ I cowardly referred her to her mother.
The Bible doesn’t hide the seedy side of life ? it portrays the whole spectrum of fallen human nature. However, sometimes we fail to read between the lines. For example, I only recently realised how bad Samson’s reputation was. He wasn’t just feared as a thug with a violent temper; his father-in-law was afraid he was going to pimp out his daughter.
Prostitutes and ‘Girlfriends’
We usually edit the stories of Samson (as found in Judges 14-16) when we tell them to our children. We tell them the ‘sweetness from strength’ riddle about the honeycomb in the lion carcass, and how Samson offered all his wedding guests a set of clothes if they guessed the answer. Some of us might go as far as telling the children that he stole those clothes when his new bride gave the secret away, but we probably gloss over the fact that he killed all the people he’d stolen the clothes from.
But what kind of spin do we put on the prostitutes? There’s the one he was sleeping with when he escaped being captured by ripping the town gates off their hinges. And, of course, there is Delilah. Well, perhaps we can get away with calling her his ‘girlfriend’.
I’m in favour of age-appropriate honesty. Children will come across the ‘unsavoury’ aspects of life soon enough, so perhaps it is better to prepare them in terms they will understand now and be able to interpret later ? and Bible stories do this job very well. But there are some things we may not want to talk about, such as the ancient custom where a husband could prostitute his own wife. The Bible hints that Samson was expected to take this kind of revenge on his new bride for telling her friends the secret of his riddle.
We find evidence for this custom in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This law says that a woman who has gone through two divorces can marry anyone except her first husband. This is strange, because you’d think that if they both wanted to restore their marriage, this would be a good thing. Perhaps it was just to make people pause before getting divorced, knowing they may not be able to reverse it. But the law doesn’t simply say remarrying your first husband is a bad idea ? it calls it an ‘abomination’ (KJV). This word is normally reserved for the very worst kinds of religious crime, such as idolatry. This woman could marry any other divorcee, so why was it an ‘abomination’ to remarry her first husband?
The best explanation I’ve come across is that this refers to the custom of a man pimping out his wife. He would ‘divorce’ his wife in the afternoon so that a visitor could ‘marry’ her for the night. The visitor would then ‘divorce’ the woman in the morning so that the husband could ‘marry’ her again.
As difficult as it is for us to imagine that this could be regarded as legal, there are other instances of this practice. Sunni Muslims used to have similar ‘temporary’ (orfi) marriages, and some Shi’ites still allow a temporary ‘pleasure’ (Mut’ah) marriage. In Islamic law, the woman has to wait a couple of months before taking another temporary husband to ensure that she isn’t pregnant, but the ancient world didn’t have this restriction, so it could legitimate prostitution with a veneer of piety. Moses’ law stood against this and outlawed it as abominable.
Hate and Divorce
This practice may also explain the strange behaviour of Samson’s father-in-law when he gave his daughter to one of the wedding guests soon after Samson stormed out. Didn’t he know that this would anger Samson when he returned for the bride he had paid for? The text says that her father ‘gave’ her away ? implying that he didn’t gain financially from this. He must have known Samson’s reputation, and that he would wreak violent revenge, so why did he provoke Samson in this way?
The Bible doesn’t hide the seedy side of life
The clue lies in the language of his reply when Samson came back bearing gifts: ‘I was so sure you hated her’ (The word ‘hate’ ? Hebrew sana ? is a technical term meaning ‘divorce’. One of the most significant places we find it in the Bible is in the law against prostituting your wife in Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Actually, the father-in-law’s answer in Hebrew is so emphtic that it is almost comical. In English the equivalent would be: ‘I said to myself, I said, you divorced her, you definitely divorced her!’ It was almost as if he was trying to convince himself, as well as desperately trying to protest his innocence to Samson. But Samsonknew it wasn’t true. He certainly hadn’t divorced her; he hadn’t given her a divorce certificate or even spoken the words ‘I hate you’ ? the ancient verbal way to end a marriage.
Samson’s father-in-law was probably trying to protect his daughter. He realised that having accused her of betraying him, Samson was likely to prostitute her in revenge; but if he could convince everyone that she was divorced and married to someone else, then Samson couldn’t do that to her. However, this frantic father’s plan went disastrously wrong. Samson’s vengeance was as violent as it was creative; he caught hundreds of foxes and tied them in pairs by their tails to flaming torches, just before harvest time. When their neighbours saw their whole year’s crop go up in flames, they turned on Samson’s father-in-law and burned the whole household.
This event initiated a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge with escalating violence on both sides. After many hundreds had died, Samson was caught, imprisoned and blinded. He is a ‘hero’ of Bible history merely because he killed so many enemy Philistines ? especially in his final act. He was brought to the enemy temple to be taunted, but he prayed to God for a final burst of strength and pushed apart the pillars holding up the roof. Many regard this as Samson’s finest moment because he turned to God. However, his prayer didn’t rehabilitate him in my mind because he didn’t want justice but a final act of revenge ? he prayed for a chance to ‘get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes’ (Judges 16:28).
Children have a great deal to learn from this story. First they can be forewarned about the realities of sexual exploitation ? protecting them from this kind of information leaves them vulnerable in the real world. And just as important is the lesson that revenge only results in escalating violence and never in justice. In a TV and film culture that makes casual sexual relationships look beautiful and revenge honourable, the Bible gives us a powerful reality check…one that our children need just as much as we do.