Sunday, May 01, 2016

Biblical superheroes

5 Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah. And behold, a young lion came toward him roaring. 6 Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done (Judges 14:5-6). 
4 So Samson went and caught 300 foxes and took torches. And he turned them tail to tail and put a torch between each pair of tails. 5 And when he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines and set fire to the stacked grain and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards (15:4-5). 
14 When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands. 15 And he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, and put out his hand and took it, and with it he struck 1,000 men (15:14-15). 
18 And he was very thirsty, and he called upon the Lord and said, “You have granted this great salvation by the hand of your servant, and shall I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” 19 And God split open the hollow place that is at Lehi, and water came out from it. And when he drank, his spirit returned, and he revived. Therefore the name of it was called En-hakkore; it is at Lehi to this day (15:18-19). 
3 But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron (16:3). 
17 And he told her all his heart, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.”
20 …But he did not know that the Lord had left him. 21 And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes and brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles. And he ground at the mill in the prison. 22 But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved (16:17,20-22).

i) I'm going to comment on the credibility of Samson's exploits. There must be people, including Christians, who read the accounts of Samson and can't help thinking that they move in the same mythological world as Gilgamesh, Hercules, Perseus, Theseus, Homeric heroes (Iliad), Jason & the Argonauts (Argonautica)–or Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Likewise, we have lots of comic book superheroes. Some of these make their way into blockbuster films. So is that a legitimate comparison? Is Samson a legendary superhero, on a par with these other figures? 

ii) As a basis of comparison, let's begin by raising some naturalistic objections to his exploits:

a) Even if a man had the physical strength to tear a lion apart with his bare hands, how would he be able to get past the teeth and claws in order to get a good grip on the lion? Couldn't a lion disembowel him with its claws? 

b) Wouldn't catching 300 foxes (or jackals) be extremely time-consuming? 

c) You can only strike your foes down one at a time. If you're surrounded by hundreds of soldiers, they can attack you from all sides. And they don't have to get within striking distance. They can spear you with a javelin.

d) Isn't water from the rock a rather frivolous miracle in this situation? For that matter, why does God protect Samson when he indulges in so much sinful, egotistical behavior?

e) The human body can't be muscular beyond an upper limit. There must be a balance between muscle mass and bone density, as well as the bond between bones, ligaments, and tendons.  

iii) Having set the stage, let's respond. Paul Bunyan and his blue ox are consciously fictional. 

iv) Demigods have innately superhuman abilities, because they are, indeed, superhuman. A hybrid. But Samson is merely human. His superhuman exploits aren't an innate ability. Rather, this represents divine empowerment or enablement. His hair is just a token of divine enablement. 

It might be objected that in the Iliad, the gods sometimes come to the aid of combatants. But the combatants aren't doing anything humanly impossible. Rather, this is a case of the gods taking sides, tipping the scales. 

v) Samson isn't just a muscleman like Hercules. Samson is very clever. Take his riddles. Or the way he sets fire to the grain fields. 

vi) There's an intentionally comical element to some of Samson's exploits. The reader is meant to find some of this humorous. It's a mistake to read the accounts too straight. God is using Samson to mock the Philistines. 

vii) Although Samson is very cocky, he pays dearly for his impiety and impudence. 

viii) The problem with naturalistic objections is the assumption that all the natural objects retain their natural properties. That all the interactions between natural objects operate according to normal physics. That all the standard dynamics were kept in place. 

But there's no reason to impose that rigid framework on the accounts. God needn't empower Samson directly. God can locally suspend certain physical constants to bring about these feats. It doesn't even require direct contact. For instance:

a) The weight of the city gates depends on the gravity. What if God levitates the gates? Reduces their weight by reducing the gravitational force at that particular point? Like an astronaut in space.

Or what if God grants Samson temporary psychokinetic abilities? The narratives don't attribute his phenomenal feats to phenomenal musculature. That interpretation is based on supplementing the accounts with a mental picture of Steve Reeves in Hercules, or beefcake actor Victor Mature. 

But the narratives say nothing about his physique. He could be the proverbial 90-pound weakling. 

Rather, it comes and goes, based on the Spirit "coming upon him" or "leaving" him. Not a permanent endowment, but temporary enduements to do what's required at the time. 

b) Did God strengthen Samson or weaken the lion?

c) God can prompt the foxes (or jackals) to congregate, making them easier to catch.

d) There's the thorny issue of how to construe large numbers in the OT. 

e) How Samson struck down so many soldiers depends in part on how we visualize the scene. Suppose he leads them or lures them into a narrow passageway (e.g. crevice) where they must approach him single file. This isn't groundless speculation. The account mentions a rocky location in reference to the miraculous spring. 

It forces them to form a line. Those behind can't spear him with a javelin because it's blocked by a soldier ahead of them. They must climb over a mounting heap of bodies to get to him, which makes them even more exposed. Fighting at close quarters in a bottleneck, they can never put sufficient distance between Samson and themselves to take advantage of their superior numbers. 

Or God may disorient them. The OT gives examples. 

When we read a passage like this, we tend to fill in the details by forming our own mental picture. Nothing necessary wrong with that. But there are many different ways it could happen. Our imagination has to supply what's missing, which may be wide of the mark. 


  1. "Suppose he leads them or lures them into a narrow passageway (e.g. crevice) where they must approach him single file."

    Armies would often starve out fortresses/castles instead of assaulting them for this very reason. A handful of men properly placed can take out dozens of enemy troops. The disparity will be even more apparent if the match up is between well fed, seasoned troops and malnourished, under equipped peasant conscripts.

    Furthermore, at a certain point their morale would break and Samson could attack them as they ran away in a blind panic.

    I also don't see any reason to suppose he only used the jawbone to carry out finishing blows. For example, he could have pushed several at a time off tall rocks. Or he could have caused a panic where the front line retreats and stampedes soldiers behind them. There are several plausible tactical explanations.

    I don't know OT numbers as well as I would like. I assume "1,000" would be an approximation, something like saying he cut down an entire company of soldiers? A rhetoric of completion/domination?

    It's still incredible, but hardly impossible.

    1. Other examples include the D-Day invasion, where we stormed the beaches of Normandy. We succeeded through overwhelming force, but suffered hellacious casualties because the Nazis were so well positioned. Likewise, when we retook Okinawa and Iwo Jima. The Japanese were so dug in and well-prepared. In both situations, our troops fought at a great disadvantage.

    2. Likewise the Battle of Thermopylae where a smaller group of soldiers (including the famed 300 Spartans) held off a much larger Persian invasion force for a time largely due to confining the fight to a narrow passageway.

    3. Increased strength may also include an increase in speed. Even if only enough to out run his enemies so that he can catch them. There's also the matter of pride (both personal and national) that can keep an army attacking. Also, the fear of what might happen to their families and relatives at home if they didn't contine attacking Samson despite the apparent suicide mission that it was. One can imagine a general promising to lavishly reward anyone who successfully kills Samson, and punishing deserters by killing their relatives.

      BTW, the atheist YouTube channel DarkMatter2525 has a trilogy of a parody criticizing the Samson story. The criticisms are answerable, but I can see how Biblical illiterate people and young Christians can be affected by DarkMatter2525's videos. Though I have to admit that the trilogy on Samson is hilarious, witty and creative. If only the creator of the video used his God given talents to defend Christianity. :(

  2. Regarding the 300 foxes, we have to remember that Samson was a judge (Judges 15:20). Whether he was a judge at that time or not doesn't really matter. His great strength alone would have caused him to have had followers (judge or no judge). In which case, Samson may have had help in rounding up the foxes and tying them up with torches. Also, catching foxes doesn't entail that all the foxes need to have been caught from the wild. Maybe some were domesticated/penned and stolen from the Philistines (who had no qualms about unclean animals). Samson may have taken days or weeks to carry out the arson. It doesn't say that Samson did this all in one day or night (though, Judges 15:6 might possibly be interpreted that way, but not necessarily).

  3. I forgot to add that there are modern accounts of soldiers who have hundreds of confirmed kills. They are usually snipers (except this guy with 2,700+ kills), but that demonstrates the advantage of tactically superior positioning.

    Simo Häyhä ("The White Death") is an interesting case: the Finnish sniper took advantage of natural terrain to kill over 500 Soviet troops over three months.

    Häyhä also used clever tricks to outsmart enemy snipers: using iron sights to avoid scope glint and present a lower profile, firing on padded snow to prevent flakes from revealing his position, putting snow in his mouth to hide his breath.

    I am sure there were cunning ancient warriors as well.

  4. Interesting:

    "The English advance was then delayed by the need to pass through the choke-point presented by the bridge itself. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it that a giant Norse axeman (possibly armed with a Dane Axe) blocked the narrow crossing, and single-handedly held up the entire English army. The story is that this axeman cut down up to 40 Englishmen and was only defeated when an English soldier floated under the bridge in a half-barrel and thrust his spear through the laths in the bridge, mortally wounding the axeman."