The Story of Samson in the Bible: Good or Bad?

Samson is often painted as a heroic figure in the Bible. Should he be?

I remember in Sunday school as a kid being taught the story of Samson. Who can forget the Bible’s strongman known for ripping the limbs off a lion, slaughtering roughly 1,000 people with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:15), or setting the tails of 300 foxes ablaze as a weapon?

As an eight year old boy, I thought that those stories were awesome. After all, who doesn’t love a bit of action done in God’s name?

But were Samson’s Jean-Claude Van Damme-like actions righteous in God’s sight? Knowing the biblical backdrop behind the book of Judges would have been helpful in understanding those stories. For a Jew reading these Scriptures, instead of marveling in the ‘manly’ acts of Samson, they would have shuddered to see the Samson’s utter disregard for God’s law (specifically Deuteronomy).

Samson was God’s appointed leader for Israel, he unfortunately was the best example of the theme of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6).

Here are a few examples of Samson’s utter disregard for the law of God:

  • In Judges 14:6-9, Samson tears a lion limb from limb defending himself, but fails to cleanse himself from touching the carcass of the animal (touching a dead animal makes him ceremonially unclean). Samson then goes back later to find the carcass filled with honey and eats honey from the carcass, again breaking the law of Deuteronomy 14. This is why it says in verse 6 and 9 that “he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done.” Nobody likes confessing sin to their parents!
  • Later, in Judges 15, Samson seeks revenge on the Philistines by catching 300 foxes, tying their tails together, and setting them through the Philistines crops with a torch to destroy their crops. This disobeys the command of Deuteronomy 32:35 against seeking revenge. This act also destroyed much of the food supply for the Philistines and hurt them badly economically, destroying a  staple in their economy.
  • Samson’s relationship with Delilah, the Philistine woman shows Samson’s disobedience to the laws of Deuteronomy 7:3-4 by seeking a foreign wife. Samson’s parents try and stop him from doing that in Judges 14:1-3, but replied by saying the only thing that mattered to him: “…She is right in my eyes.”

Even Samson’s death was characterized by an inward bent. He was captured by the Philistines in Judges 16:21 and his eyes are plucked out.

When he is tied up to pillars as a spectacle, his desperate plea to God is all about him: O Lord GOD, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes(Judges 16:28).

In one short prayer, Samson references himself four times! It is not wrong to pray for yourself (we are commanded to!), but it is ironic indeed that after all of these disobedient acts where Samson did what was right in his own eyes, God allowed Samson’s enemies to pluck out those very eyes.

Disobedience is a terrible legacy to leave. If the nation’s leader cannot show high regard for the law of God—what would become of the people?

Blog: Jonathan Edwards’ Powerful Example of Leaving a Godly Legacy

Instead of doing what is right in our own eyes, we are to do what is right in the eyes of God. One of the benefits of doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord is that He grants us greater spiritual vision coming from a deeper knowledge of God. Consider the words of Jesus in John 14:23:

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

God rewards those who obey Him with a greater experience of God, a greater knowledge of the truth, and a true sense of the freedom that is ours only in Christ (John 8:31-32).

The story of Samson is a vivid reminder to not just hear God’s word, but obey it. Let it be our prayer to understand God’s Word and apply it to our lives, being characterized by lives of doing what is right in the Lord’s eyes.

And even though Samson had many flaws, the author of Hebrews listed him in Hebrews 11 (Hebrews 11:32) as a great example of a person of faith. Does this make Samson a good example or a bad one? A future post on the Unlocking the Bible blog will discuss Hebrews 11 and how God can use sinful people to accomplish His purposes.


Related Resources:

Bible Study Resources and Tools for Church Small Groups
Sermon Series: Keeping Yourself in Spiritual Shape: 7 Workouts for a Healthy Christian Life
Sermon: Being a Man After God’s Heart On YouTube: Sermon on Biblical Manhood
YouTube: An Encouragement to those Fighting Sin and Temptation
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Kevin Halloran is a Christian, blogger, and coffee aficionado. He serves with Leadership Resources International, training pastors to preach God’s Word with God’s heart. Follow Kevin on Twitter or visit his blog.

Date Posted: Oct 18th, 2012

  • Jean Jacques Fabien


    I have read your comments but would also like to point out something important . Here are the verses :
    Judge 13:5 – For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head:for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb:and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.
    Judge 14:3 – And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well. But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the Lord,
    Judge 14:19 – And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle.
    Judge 15:14 – and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands. And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.

    According to these verses, it was God himself by his spirit who lead Samson to do those things. It was according to the plan of God.

    • UnlockingtheBible

      Hi Jean Jacques, thank you for your thoughtful comment. The story of Samson, and really the entire book of Judges is sometimes very hard to interpret.

      A major theme of Judges is that Israel needs a king. This is shown by the failure and disorder of many of the judges who rule over Israel. As the book of Judges progresses, the troubles faced and caused by the judges only gets worse, and it all comes to a head with Samson.

      You are right in saying that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson several times to do some very interesting things (killing 30 men like you said in 14:19). The Spirit of God is not mentioned coming upon Samson to do the things I mentioned above. David was a man after God’s own heart that was moved by the Spirit of God–but still committed adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11). In a similar way, Samson was able to sin as well and was not directed by the Spirit to do so.

      Because of the failure of the judges (like Samson) and the kings (like David), Israel needed a greater king, which is one of the reasons Jesus came to be the perfect king, able to fulfill God’s law, and reign over all the earth.

      Isaiah 9:6-7 says of Christ’s reign,

      “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”

      Thank you for your comment, and I pray that God continues to use His word in your life!

      Let me recommend the sermon “Deliverer” from the Unlocking the Bible in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth” series or “King” from the “Unlocking the Bible in Samuel” series (all available for free on this site).

  • Elaine

    I am watching the Bible on TV and they had Samson portrayed as a black man…was he? Where did they get that from?

  • Adam

    Samson is a terrible role model, but I think your opinion is based on the wrong reasons. Well, seeking revenge, yes, but I’m astonished that you’re more upset about the fact that he wanted vengeance than the fact that he did it by setting 300 foxes on fire. Maybe there’s not a bible verse prohibiting the incineration of live animals (and not even eating them!), but it’s still a horrid thing to do. And are you not taken aback by the fact that he murdered 30 people just to take their clothes and give them to his groomsmen? I’m shocked that you omitted that in favor of telling us he married a foreign woman; I don’t believe that’s even a sin, let alone a sin comparable to mass murder and theft.

    • UnlockingtheBible

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Adam. I agree that setting 300 foxes ablaze was a terrible thing to do, as well as killing 30 people, but I chose to highlight the sin of Samson choosing a foreign wife.

      The dynamics of Samson’s situation are different than if you or I today chose a wife of a different nationality. Under the Old Covenant, Israel’s relationship with God was based on obedience to his law, and one of God’s laws was for Israel not to take foreign wives so that they would not be tempted to follow their pagan gods (as it says in Deuteronomy 7:3-4 as mentioned above). What makes this even worse, is that Israel’s leader (Samson) would do such a visible thing in disobedience to God before all of the people. That is not something we can directly compare to our current situation in the New Covenant. You could compare that situation to a pastor marrying an unbeliever, something wrong for Christians to do in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 6).

    • Fred Abbot

      How can someone, having the Spirit of God empowering him for 20 years to do such amazing exploits as Samson did be termed a terrible role model. I think Samson did what was necessary at the time to accomplish the will of God, The fact that God’s Spirit was with him on all of these occasions bares this out. Christ dying on the cross was a curse upon any Israelite man but it was eternally necessary for our salvation at that time. The fact that something receives God’s seal of approval makes all of the difference.

  • Fred Abbot

    When God choose a man even when the accepted norms of religion does not go along with the methods he employs, he is still Gods choice. Samson was such a man, chosen even before his birth and separated unto God to wage war against the enemies of the people of God. It is obvious that God approved of Sanson’s exploits because it was God’s Spirit which empowered him even though the war tribunals of this world would find it easy to condemn him, but then when all is said and done they condemned Christ also.

  • jacob

    To me Samson was a very bad judge. He was not completely wicked but I don’t think he fits the role of judge over Israel. All of the other judges we know before hime were blessed with multitude of children but Samson had none that we know of. This could have been his punishment

  • Joey

    God used Samson in a peculiar way due to peculiar circumstances. Notice that Samson was completely alone in his mission. No one else was willing to stand against the Philistines. Notice that at what we think are Samson’s most sinful moments it says “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him” or “the Spirit of the Lord took control of him.” God used him as a sacrifice for the freedom of his children to give a beautiful picture of the coming savior who would give his life as a ransom for us. God does call us to emulate Samson to the extent that he gave his all to Christ.