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God had clearly forbidden the Israelites to intermarry with the Canaanites (Ex 34:11-16; Deut 7:1-4). The Philistines, not technically listed as Canaanites, were actually cousins to the Egyptians (Gen 10:14). Nevertheless, it would seem that the principle of avoiding intermarriage would apply to the Philistines as well as to the Canaanites, since the rule was based not on race but on religion. Believers were not to marry unbelievers.
Furthermore, there is an ambiguity in verse 4. Who sought the occasion against the Philistines: God or Samson? The Hebrew text simply says "he." Some commentators, such as George Bush, J. K. F. Keil and Andrew Robert Fausset, take Samson as the intended reference; others, such as Dale Ralph Davis, Leon Wood and Luke Wiseman, make God the antecedent.
The story of Samson serves as the thematic climax to the book of Judges. The refrain of the book is "everyone did as he saw fit" or "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judg 17:6; 21:25). The narrator of Judges uses the same refrain to describe Samson in chapter 14. A literal translation of verse 3 would render his demand as "Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes." Again, Judges 14:7 comments, "She was right in Samson's eyes" (NIV "he liked her"). In this respect, Samson was typical of his period of Israelite history--it was the day for doing one's own thing.
It is probably best to assume that the antecedent of who or he in Judges 14:4 is meant to be Yahweh, since to think otherwise would strain grammatical construction. Samson appears to be governed more by his glands than by any secret purpose on behalf of his nation. He was doing his own thing. The purpose was not his but God's.
But that will only seem to make the difficulty of this passage worse. How could the Lord go back on his own rules in order to accomplish some other goal, even a high purpose?
James Jordan argues that God was guiding Samson to move toward marriage, even though Samson was doing his own thing. The purpose of such a marriage, in Jordan's view, was evangelism. Had the nation of Philistia accepted the olive branch symbolized by this marriage and recognized that they were occupying Israel's land, the war would have ended. But instead, the riddle Samson put forth at the banquet (14:10-20) allowed the Philistines' true colors to show. Most of the Israelites had failed to see the domination of the Philistines for what it was; they needed to be stirred up. Since the Philistines were cousins to the Egyptians, the captivity of Israel to the Philistines was equivalent to captivity in Egypt. The lionlike Sphinx is the guardian of Egypt, and it was a lion that attacked Samson as he went down to Philistia.
But Jordan's argument seems obscure and depends too much on symbolism--especially since a particularly difficult theological issue has been raised. His solution seems contrived when judged from the standpoint of an outsider.
Better is the approach of Dale Ralph Davis. For him, the one who was seeking an occasion against the Philistines was Yahweh. But that does not mean God condoned everything Samson did or the way he did it. Says Davis, "Many Christian parents have stood in the sandals of Manoah and his wife. They have, though realizing their own sinful inadequacies, faithfully taught, prayed for, disciplined, and loved a son or a daughter only to see that child willfully turn from the way of the Lord. No one can deny it is anything but devastating. Yet one should not forget verse 4: `But his father and mother did not realize it was from Yahweh.' What we don't know may yet prove to be our deepest comfort."
The sin of Samson must not be attributed to the Lord, but the deliverance of the Israelites by Samson was from the Lord. Remember, scriptural language frequently attributes directly to God what he merely permits.
Samson surely was directed by God to seek an occasion against the Philistines and to lead the Israelites in breaking out from under their yoke. But Samson did not take the time to inquire of the Lord how, or in what legitimate ways, he might do this. We do not find him asking, as his successor Samuel did, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." Nor did he seek divine guidance when his parents questioned his seeking a bride among the Philistines. All that mattered was whether he was pleased--whether his choice was "right in his own eyes." Little wonder, then, that he would only begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines. Perhaps his potential for greatness was truncated by his vices, his partaking too deeply of the cultural appetites of his day.
My conclusion is that Samson was neither directed nor tempted by God to do what God had specifically prohibited in his Word. God wanted the defeat of the Philistines, but that did not give Samson carte blanche. Moreover, God's blessing on one or more aspects of a person's life is no indication that everything that person does is approved. Samson was plain bullheaded about this decision, and he refused to listen to his parents or to God. But neither Samson's foolishness nor his stubbornness would prevent the design of God from being fulfilled.
Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1990), p. 172.