Redefining Masculinity

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ICON SET-02As long as I’ve known about Samson, I’ve had questions about the dude. The story we were given as kids was that he was a super-macho, incredibly strong man whose Achilles heel was his hair. We knew if he cut said hair, all of his super-man strength would disappear and he’d be left weak and human like the rest of us.

It’s one of the stories in the Bible that plays out like a fairy tale. Samson losing his hair and thus all of his strength really sits in an adjacent storytelling pocket as the mermaid who gave up her voice in exchange for legs. His story wouldn’t be out of place on the pages of Aesop but there it is in the Bible with all its muscles and brawn and magic and deep, arrogant tragedy.

As a kid, the mental picture I had of Samson was that he was as hot and tan as Brad Pitt in Troy but with Brenden Fraser’s George of the Jungle hair and the roided-out muscles of Sylvester Stalone in Rocky. I also presumed he wore only a loincloth and walked around with his hair perpetually blowing in the breeze like Pocahontas singing “Colors of the Wind.” I had no basis for believing any of this but it’s what I thought. But before he was any of that, the Bible tells us Samson was a miracle baby. His parents were barren but after an angel showed up and told them, “Surprise! You’re having a boy who will be a Nazirite so no barber shops, okay?,” Samson made his debut. The lack of haircuts was traditional for Nazirites so besides being a wine-abstaining, dead-body-avoiding group of people, they were also super hairy.

Once he grew to be all big and brawny, Samson found a Philistine woman he wanted to marry. “Get her for me as my wife,” he commanded his parents. [Judges 14:2] I don’t love this. No person is anyone’s property to “get” and though I understand this wasn’t a progressive time to be alive, I don’t cosign on this way of thinking. In some parts of the world, people still operate this way—treating women as a man’s property to do with as he pleases—and it makes my head and my heart hurt both for the women who will never reach the infinite heights of which they are capable and for the men whose outlook is so obtuse they can’t see the wonder of the women around them.

Samson’s parents didn’t love this either but for a different reason: they didn’t want him to marry a Philistine woman. As an alternative, they asked if there was anyone “among your relatives or among our people” he could wed instead. [Judges 14:2] I love my siblings and my cousins but the thought of marrying any of them grosses me out. Again, we have to chalk this up to it being a different time. Samson insisted she was the one and commanded they go get her.

Samson’s is a story with many detours—episodes-within-the-episode—before it gets to the part in which we are most familiar. These detours act as a chain of events without which the haircut heard ‘round the world would never have taken place, but unlike Star Wars Episodes 1-3, these prequels are actually interesting.

Episode One: Samson the Dummy

ICON SET-02As Samson traveled to claim his bride-property, he was attacked by a young lion. Rather than running, he tore the lion apart with his bare hands, an incident he decided against recounting to his parents. Upon arrival, he talked with the woman he’d already claimed for marriage and decided he liked her. I choose to believe this was because she was smart and funny and had a great laugh. On a return trip, this time to marry his bride-property, he saw that same lion’s carcass rotting on the side of the road. Upon closer inspection, he discovered a swarm of bees had taken up residence inside Leo’s disintegrating body and within the hive they’d built—again, inside the dead animal’s carcass—was some honey. Feeling peckish after his long journey, he reached in, scooped out some honey with his bare hands and ate it. Yowza.

During a vacation when I was younger, my father, brother and I went on an afternoon canoe trip. Lined with red rock cliffs and sleepy trees full of hawks, we paddled our way down the small river of peculiarly clear water. We found ourselves staring down into the river to examine what lay below us and as we floated along, I noticed something much larger than the other rocks among the pebbles and stones on the river’s floor. Through the crystalline water, I spotted an armadillo which had somehow met its demise in the river and now sat beneath it like the carcass of a hurricane-swept pirate ship.

That poor armadillo became a sort of folk legend on that trip. After we’d passed it by, we concocted a riverfront version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” substituting the traditional song’s cast of characters—the drummers drumming, the lords a-leaping, the five golden rings—with what we saw from the vantage point of our canoe. This was lovingly anchored by “…and one dead armadillo” in the place of the partridge and its pear tree.

But, however fabled that armadillo became for me, I would not, for any reason, fish it out of the river to eat it. Not even if I was starving. But for Samson, this apparently wouldn’t have been a deal breaker. Not only did Sam break all kinds of laws and customs by touching a dead body, on a more basic human level, he ate out of a rotting animal corpse. Again, he didn’t tell his parents he’d done this. I don’t blame him.

Episode Two: Samson Tells a Dad Joke

ICON SET-02The whole “fetch me that woman” bit was the first sign Samson’s male-privileged machismo was dialed up to 100, but it only grew from there. In the second episode, Sampson really steps into his own arrogance and solidifies himself as an entitled ass. He decided a feast given for his father would be the perfect setting to dick around with the people in his circle and as such, he told his companions—of whom there were thirty and all were men—he had a riddle for them. As it’s written, this idea came seemingly out of the blue but I imagine they were in celebration mode and our dear friend Samson was feeling really good about himself. Of course he was, he got the girl, he looked like Thor, and all of the attention was on him just like he liked it. He told the men if they were able to decode his riddle within the seven days of feasting, he’d give them thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes; a high wager. But, if they couldn’t crack it, they had to give the same number of garments to him. They agreed and he told them the riddle.

“Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.”

He was obviously referencing the honey in the dead lion which personally, I wouldn’t bring up out of embarrassment but we’ve already established Samson to be a dummy blinded by his own sense of  inflated self-worth. Still, I’ve got to hand it to him, he stumped the crowd. Three days went by and none of them could come up with the answer. On day four, the men were becoming increasingly nervous at the prospect of having to fork over such expensive garments to a meat-head like Sam so they cornered his wife-property and told her to get the answer out of him or they would burn her entire household alive. It really goes from zero to sixty with these folks astonishingly fast. The men accused her of inviting them for the sole purpose of stealing their property which really underscores the through-line in Samson’s story: property. And property equaled power. He claimed his wife as his property and now these men couldn’t stand the thought of parting with their property. You can see the cycle of his narrative beginning to spin.

Samson’s wife-property, in an attempt to keep her family safe, threw herself on her husband, crying, “You hate me! You don’t really love me. You’ve given my people a riddle but you haven’t told me the answer. How could you?” [Judges 14:16] This is an incredible morsel of foreshadowing to the main event of Samson’s story and it also shows just how dumb Samson was to fall for the same trick twice in one lifetime.

After a few more days of relentless and melodramatic badgering, he gave in and told her. Again, the men had threatened to burn her entire family alive so in fearing for their lives, she told them the answer. Of course, they then told Samson. As much as Sam was a moron, he knew enough to know his wife-property sold him out so in a fit of rage, he killed thirty men from another town, took the clothes off their dead bodies and handed them over to the men who’d answered his riddle. Still pissed at his wife-property after all the killing, he left in a huff to stay with his parents and cool off.

Not missing a beat, Samson’s wife-property was then “given” to another man by her father. I mean, I understand Sam didn’t have the ability to text her “BRB,” but this seems like it’s jumping the gun quite a bit. But Sam eventually did cool off and when he returned for his wife-property, her father informed him it was too late, he’d already given her to another man. “But,” Samson’s used-to-be father-in-law said, “would you like her sister? She’s hotter anyway.” This story really is an awful example of how to treat women.

Samson didn’t want the hot sister though; he wanted the wife-property he’d claimed a while back. Her father’s “no” infuriated him even more than his being tricked into giving up the answer to his riddle and in an attempt to exact his revenge, he caught 300 foxes, tied their tails together in pairs, attached a torch to each, and let them run loose through the Philistines’ fields, vineyards and orchards. While this is an inventive and effective way to destroy their biodegradable property, where is PETA when you need them? This feels like an unnecessary assault against the fox community.

When the Philistines found out the flaming foxes (Solid band name: The Flaming Foxes) were an act of retaliation against Samson’s father-in-law, they set fire to both the father-in-law and Samson’s wife-property, burning them to death.

So, to recap: Arrogance leads to anger which leads to destruction which leads to retaliation which leads to death. This trope plays out over and over in Samson’s life and he refused to break the cycle.

Episode Three: Hey There Delilah

ICON SET-02Rather than licking his wounds and vowing the rest of his life would be different, Samson allowed the deaths of his wife-property and her father to ignite a back-and-forth between himself and the Philistines, each fight becoming bloodier than the one before. At one point, Samson was so enraged that he used the jawbone of a donkey to kill 1000 men. I’ll confess that sounds like a tall tale, but that’s okay, it’s not the point of the story. It did provide Samson with the opportunity for the droll remark, “With a donkey’s jawbone, I have made donkeys of them.” [Judges 15:16] Not exactly Shakespeare or an Obama ’08 slogan, but he then led Israel for twenty years so I guess it did the trick.

Now we finally get the part people actually know: Delilah. Samson fell in love with her but upon seeing an opportunity to best him in their never ending war of retaliation, the Philistine rulers bribed her into finding out the secret of his strength. The Philistines are basically Lex Luthor and Samson’s hair is the kryptonite.

Delilah, not very high on tact, said to Samson, “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.” [Judges 16:6] Kinky. I’m into it. Samson continued his shtick of thinking he was The Riddler and regaled her with various ways in which he could be subdued, a list that included bowstrings, ropes, and even braiding his hair into a loom of fabric. That last one really should’ve been a tell but she fell for it and every time she tried to ensnare him, he broke out easily. Fed up, she finally said, “How can you say you love me when you won’t confide in me?” [Judges 16:15] and after nagging and prodding day after day, he eventually got sick of her asking and told her the hairy truth. Dummy. You had one secret besides using a dead lion as your TV dinner tray and you gave it up? Well without fail, she lulled him to sleep, shaved off his hair, tied him down and sold him out.

Which brings us to the really gory sad part where the Philistines captured weak-Samson and gouged out his eyes. Then, in a darkly poetic callback to that odd episode with the donkey’s jawbone, the Philistines chained weak-blind-Samson to a grain grinder in prison to walk in circles—becoming a human slave labor machine like a donkey. Yes, Samson was an ass, but this is an incredibly sad picture.

Episode Four: Samson’s Revenge

ICON SET-02But hair is hair and it began to grow back.

The Philistines praised their Game of Thrones-style god Dagon for Samson’s defeat and while partying like ‘90s club kids, they shouted for weak-blind-Samson to be brought out to entertain them. In an ironic twist of fortune, Samson was now the property. The Bible says he “performed for them” [Judges 16:25] and while I don’t really know what that means, I choose to believe he was an astonishingly capable moonwalker.

So after a long stretch of moonwalking, weak-blind-Samson asked to be put where he could feel the pillars that supported the temple because he was tired and wanted something to lean on. Hundreds of people were there to lampoon him as he danced blindly (Since it doesn’t say what exactly he was doing, I’m sticking with the dancing bit) and Samson, humiliated to the point of being truly humbled for the first time in his life, prayed for strength just once more. His prayer was the cry of a desperate man, a man who felt he had literally nothing left to lose. He’d lost his first wife-property, his second, his empire, his sight, his strength and now his freedom. Putting a hand on each of the support pillars, he began pushing with all the power he could muster and just like the Grinch whose heart grew three times that day, Samson’s strength came rushing back to him. But instead of saving Christmas, he knocked over the stone pillars, causing the temple to collapse and crush both the Philistines and himself.

My favorite comic book character has always been Thor so when he arrived on the big screen, the buildup in my head made it impossible for me to view the movie objectively; I knew I’d love it from the jump. In that film, Thor was an entitled brute. And a brat. A brutish brat who embodied the trope of the brawny, entitled, alpha male. Tony Stark had his science, Captain America had his convictions, and Thor had his bratty brawn.

Upon rewatching that first Thor film, I realized Thor’s arch isn’t all that different than Samson’s. His arrogance coupled with his tendency to always look for a fight led him to disgrace. Banished to Earth, he lost his power and everyone he cared about. The only way he could find his redemption was to sacrifice himself, just as Samson did, and just like when Thor’s hammer came flying back to wake up Chris Hemsworth and restore him to all his mighty Thor-ness, Samson’s strength surged through him to destroy the evils both around and inside him.

The moral of the story in Sunday School was that God will show up for us, no matter how far we’ve fallen. I think. Quite frankly, I’m not sure if the moral of the story was ever part of the equation as a kid. It was a fanciful story about the power of God in an imperfect human, which is solid, but mostly it was about the hairy man who was given a haircut against his will but regained his strength just in time to kill the bad guys. But Samson’s is also a story of pseudo-redemption through revenge. More graphic than many of the biblical epics, its lousy with pit stops to hook up with prostitutes and many, many murders. Its denouement isn’t a resurrection or an ascent to the throne, but the gauging out of his eyes and his decision to take out his enemies at the expense of his own life.

Yet it’s one of those biblical stories with a reach that extends much farther than Sunday School classes—it’s become an archetypal reference of a devious woman and the man she hoodwinked. Even on Friends, at the mention of Delilah as a potential baby name, Rachel responds, “Oh great, suddenly she sounds like a biblical whore.”

But that’s such an imperfect characterization of this woman. Though she’s been painted as a cunning trickster, the reality of her situation was that Samson had wreaked murderous havoc on countless people and those he’d wronged wanted their revenge. They offered her tons of money and she took it. Did she ever really love him, was she simply an opportunist, or was she a feminist scorned—pissed about the women-as-property culture of the day and saw this as her way to fight “the man?” I don’t know, but I’ve never truly seen her as a villain. Especially in the way patriarchy is so embedded into Evangelical culture, she’s used as an illustration of a “wicked woman” who took down the powerful, godly man. Rereading the episodes that led up to his haircut, it seems like Samson got exactly what he had coming to him—reaping what he sowed during a life of chauvinism, murder, and brute-force entitlement.

Despite how it’s been employed as a way to reinforce the narrative of the inherent wickedness and untrustworthiness of women in the same way Eve’s has been, Samson’s story isn’t really about Delilah’s selling him out. I think one of the most present takeaways is its being a cautionary tale about toxic masculinity. Yes, during the time of its writing, women as property was a cultural norm but while those cultural norms are unconscionable today, the poison of toxic masculinity has endured century-after-century, often sanctioned and reinforced by the church itself. It’s an evil that lives inside people; inside someone’s thoughts, biases, dogma, outlook and perception of themselves and others. It becomes wedged deep within our learned identities and in order for us to find our redemption both as a people and as a person, it has to be weeded out and destroyed.

The news is perpetually full of extreme cases of toxic masculinity but it’s not always as overt as what makes a headline or a tweet takedown. More often than not, it’s subtle, creeping in like a slow-climbing vine, and it usually begins when we’re young. That said, it doesn’t have to be something that’s automatically embedded into we men; it doesn’t have to be a forgone conclusion in our makeup.

In high school, I spent most of my free time with my church friends and often that revolved around our youth pastor’s house. They lived a few minutes from my school so it was an easy place for us to congregate away from our parents and with the people we both looked up to and loved. One such evening while myself and a few guys played video games and a handful of the girls sat on the couch, our youth pastor’s wife announced she needed to go shopping for a new dress. The girls said they’d go with her and as they were leaving, she asked if I wanted to come.

My youth pastor, a man I looked up to in basically every way, asked why she’d take me with the girls when all the guys, including me, were playing in a tournament.

“Oh it’s just Ryan, he’s practically one of the girls,” she said with a chuckle.

He didn’t laugh. He knew then what I know now: Do not assign or lump someone in with a name or moniker that can get stuck in the tarred sludge of their adolescent self-esteem. The tar is unavoidable, we’re all coated in it between the ages of 12 and 19. Maybe that’s why our faces and skin are always broken out and zitty; self-esteem sludge. I didn’t want to be one of the girls. I was, every single day, working on feeling grounded in my own skin as a man. While shopping was fun and I enjoyed their company, I didn’t need nor did I want to be considered “one of the girls.”

A neophyte in the ways of self-preservation, I laughed it off, said I would stay put, and picked up the Playstation controller for my turn in the tournament. I may have sucked at most video games but I enjoyed trying to play. The girls left to go shopping and we ordered pizzas.

My youth pastor could tell I was shaken up by what was said and when my turn was over—something that happened quickly because I really did suck—he turned, looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re the man God created you to be. Know that.”

He changed my life in many ways over the years, but none more than on that day. He didn’t tell me to be macho and he didn’t tell me it wasn’t my place to like shopping. He didn’t imply anything Paleolithic like, “Men do this, women do that.” He just spoke the truth of my being back into me after it’d been knocked out of my chest for a moment. He gave me the space to collect myself on my own terms. I was a young man growing into myself; fearfully and wonderfully made.

His words provided me with a shield against much of the toxic masculinity that’s so pervasive in our culture. He could’ve bent the conversation in a different way, reinforcing the “we do this, they do that” attitude that serves as fertilizer for so many Samsons to grow but he didn’t. Those specific words have fortified and lifted me year after year, in every season and chapter of my life.

We need more men like him; men who are not afraid to teach young men they don’t have to be a certain type of man in order to succeed, fit in, or be worthy of their manhood. Men who will tell boys they’re worthy because they’re themselves and they’re worthy because they treat every person they encounter with equilateral respect. This flies in the face of the concept of “getting ahead” in business and in life at any cost. It flies in the face of partitioning women’s voices in the church, in the boardroom, in the home, and in the culture at large. It flies in the face of the “man up” mentality. But it’s necessary in order to save ourselves. If we don’t, we’ll cultivate and foster yet another generation of Samsons who look at women as second class and in need of saving.

Today, Samsons are preventable. We need to stop electing them, stop empowering them, and stop allowing them to spread their poison on social media, in pulpits, and at home. But mostly, we need to train and educate young men in the basic tenants of human equality. It’s as simple as that. We owe it to them, to their future spouses and children, and to their future friends, coworkers, and strangers with whom they’ll share the same sidewalk, park bench or church pew. The Bible tells us so. “Train up a child in the way they should go: and when they are old, they will not depart from it.” [Proverbs 22:6]

Samson, Delilah and the dead lion can be found in the book of Judges.

So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here. 

Illustrations by freepik.com

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