Difference Between Samson and a Suicide Bomber

“He pushed with all his might, and the temple fell on the leaders and all the people in it. And the dead he killed at his death were more than those he had killed in his life.”  — Judges 16:30b (HCSB)

It wasn’t all that long ago — certainly within my lifetime — that instances of suicide bombers were few and far between and not exactly a regular topic in the news, let alone in conversation among average citizens. At least, not in “the West”. But, with the rise of radical Islam and its jihadist ideals, such methods of inflicting death, destruction, and terror on their perceived enemies has become common — certainly in the Middle East, but also on occasion even in the United States and Europe.

Aftermath of suicide bombing in Kabul

Now, where does the biblical character of Samson come in? Well, as God often uses very flawed characters to carry out His will, He used Samson to wipe out a large number of Philistines. The supernaturally strong Samson had on previous occasions wreaked havoc (though not without provocation) on the Philistines, who dominated the region at the time. But, once they managed to capture, mutilate, and make a spectacle of him, Samson was still able to commit one final, suicidal act that literally brought the house — well, a pagan temple — down on thousands of Philistine leaders and nobles. (Judges 16:21-30) Doesn’t this sound like what today’s Muslim suicide bombers would do? We call them evil. Why is Samson any better?

I listened to a Stand to Reason podcast with Greg Koukl a few weeks ago that addressed this very question. An American soldier who had been previously stationed in Iraq called in and spoke of a situation where his unit had to respond to the aftermath of a suicide bomber attack in a nearby city. One of his buddies challenged him with the question, “What’s the difference between a suicide bomber and Samson in the Old Testament?”. The caller didn’t tell what he said at the time, but he did say that he was never able to come up with an answer that even he found satisfying. I probably would’ve been unsure, too.

Koukl admitted up front that this is the sort of question that is a bit more difficult to answer, since the circumstances are “somewhat obscure” and explanations can be “messy” or incomplete. When the caller pointed out that the manner of God’s judgment (via Samson) seemed similar to what a suicide bomber does, Koukl pointed out that the manner of judgment is somewhat irrelevant; the important thing is the nature of the action.

Before proceeding, he backed up a bit and asked the following:

Q: Why do suicide bombers bomb innocent civilians? What is their theological rationale?
A: Among the final commands that Muhammad gave (Surah 9 of the Qur’an) are instructions to fight (even kill) the infidel. These abrogate (i.e., cancel out or have priority over) earlier revelations about some sort of peaceful coexistence.

Koukl continues:

“In the case of the Muslim terrorist, he is following a command left by his leader to bring destruction upon those who don’t believe in virtue of their unbelief. That is, if they would conform and become [Muslim] believers, then they would be spared this kind of judgment.

But, you see, that kind of thing actually never happened in the Bible. That is, people are not being destroyed in virtue of their unbelief. There are lots of people God brought no judgment on, yet they were not believers [in Him]. What God brought judgment on, like in the case of the Canaanites [of which Philistines are a subset], is for grotesque immorality that they lived in for centuries.

In the case here in the Book of Judges, we have an individual, Samson (who, by the way, is not the godliest character around), and we have no command that Samson has been given to kill unbelievers in virtue of their unbelief. But, he is dealing with Philistines, who are a pretty gross group. These are amongst the people who were supposed to be destroyed by the armies of Israel. They were under the judgment of God but were not completely eradicated….”

Despite his flaws, Samson (last of the “judges”, aka “leaders” or “chieftains”, during this period of Israel’s history) was an agent of God, fighting back against the local oppressors of God’s chosen people. Oppressors who were already under God’s judgment. In Samson’s particular case, the Philistines finally captured him, gouged out his eyes, forced him to hard labor, and occasionally used for their “entertainment”. (Years earlier, they had also burned his wife and father-in-law to death in retaliation for Samson’s actions, because the Philistines held them partially to blame.) When brought out to “entertain” the drunken leaders at a celebratory sacrifice to their god Dagon, he saw (pardon the pun) an opportunity, and

“He called out to the Lord: ‘Lord God, please remember me. Strengthen me, God, just once more. With one act of vengeance, let me pay back the Philistines for my two eyes…. Let me die with the Philistines.'”  — Judges 16:28,30a (HCSB)

God returned Samson’s great strength to him, so that he was able to topple the supporting pillars of the Temple of Dagon, killing the Philistine leaders and everyone else in it.

Koukl notes that there are really only three similarities here to the Muslim suicide bomber: 1) people die, 2) there’s a religious element to it, and 3) the killers knowingly give their own lives in the process of taking the lives of others. Also, though Koukl didn’t point this out, in both cases the individual’s motives are a mix of self-interest and (in their eyes) “greater good”. (That’s tied to the “religious element”, of course.) But, the circumstances are very different, and as Koukl reminds us, it is the differences that matter. There are morally relevant distinctions.

Even the fact that Samson knew he would die in the act is not the same. He wasn’t even seeking a “suicide mission” (which are not in themselves wrong, given a just cause). But, he knew that, in striking this blow against the evil and oppressive regime, he would most likely perish, as well. (Btw, Koukl says that Samson was chained to the pillars themselves, but that isn’t clear from the text. What is clear is that about 3000 men & women were reveling and observing from the roof section, which came crashing down.) It would be like if an Iraqi tribal leader was captured by ISIS and taken to their headquarters or maybe a huge mosque, and before being executed he saw a way to blow up the place with their own explosives. He knows that, whether he succeeds or fails, he won’t survive. But he seizes the moment to take as many of the enemy as he can with him. (That was my analogy, not Koukl’s.)

Bottom line, Samson sacrificed his life in taking down the enemies of God, who were already under His judgment. Again, God is not allowing the Philistines to be destroyed just because they wouldn’t convert to Judaism. They were incredibly evil, as they had been for many generations, and He had already ordered their destruction decades earlier. There were no “innocent civilians” among the casualties, as there often are with the victims of suicide bombers.

P.S.  And I’ll bet you thought I was gonna write on the SOTU address or the FISA memo this week. Hah!

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