Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bringing Down the House

The first opera I ever saw was Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. I was 16 and just starting to take voice lessons, with no interest or view at all to taking on opera as a potential career. I just thought maybe I should go hear what "real" singing sounded like, and figured this one was safe because even though I didn't speak French (and this was pre-supertitles), I knew the basic story.

I was transfixed.

The real Samson saga, however, as told in the book of Judges, is pretty appalling. Samson strikes me as a thoroughly unlikeable person. Maybe it's because he took three hundred foxes, tied them two-by-two, tail-to-tail, set them on fire and sent them running through the Philistines' crops. (15:4-6) That, and he was a philandering mass-murderer.

For no apparent reason the other day I found myself thinking about him.

We all know how his story ends; seduced and betrayed by the Philistine woman Delilah, Samson is captured, blinded, shorn of his hair (the secret source of his strength) and chained up between two columns in the pagan temple to be mocked and abused by his captors. After a final prayer, he regains his strength, pushes against the pillars, collapsing the temple on himself and the Philistines.

It is awfully hard to reconcile ugly stories like this with the God who sent us Jesus who taught us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, turn the other cheek, etc. What to make of this passage? Does God sometimes show His love and righteousness by empowering people to a mass-murder/suicide?

Then that still, small voice asked me to step back a pace from the details of this story and see it in more symbolic terms. Samson at this point is a deeply troubled, broken, penitent person. Despite his many failings, it remains that he himself has been betrayed by someone he trusted, tortured and humiliated. Robbed of his strength (literally), he turns to God. Now we may not like much what happens next in the story; it certainly fills me with discomfort. But what I began to understand in my meditation was that Samson didn't just casually lean against the columns and with a gentle nudge knock them over, though that might have been the case in his earlier days. No, in great pain, using every last fiber of his strength, both mental and physical, battling his own certain fear of ugly, imminent death and straining against his limitations, he did the unthinkable: with his bare hands he brought down a building.

The lesson, I think, is not that God empowers us in our desperation to commit awful crimes as long as the intended victims are judged even less worthy than ourselves. I think what we are to take away here is that when we are at our absolute nadir of weakness, God gives us the strength that is necessary, not so that things are easy, but merely so they are possible.

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