Making a Biblical epic is a difficult task, in part because of the army of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who stringently defend a kind of faithfulness to the Biblical text. So a movie like Aronofsky’s Noah (which I loved), was crucified by Evangelicals for how much it added to the 5 chapters of Genesis that detail Noah’s story. Or Ridley Scott’s much less-interesting take on Moses’ story, Exodus: Gods and Kings, was similarly decried in part for its hyper-naturalistic take on the plagues and Red Sea crossing.
The most recent biblical epic to hit the multiplex is Samson, a biopic of the strong man from the book of Judges. What makes Samson different is that it’s produced by Pure Flix, the Evangelical movie studio that’s produced profitable hits like the God’s Not Dead franchise, Woodlawn and The Case for Christ. These films meet with exceptionally poor reviews from critics, but rave reviews from Evangelical movie goers. So will they have a hit on their hands with their first film that retells an actual biblical story?
As with other Pure Flix films, Samson is not great – the obvious low budget and overwrought script would be better served by actors committed to leaning into the cheese (as much as Billy Zane and Jackson Rathbone as the Philistine king and prince, respectively, do. Their scenes are always the best). But Pure Flix has always been a studio that puts message ahead of acting, writing and production value.
If the message is good, the rest can be mediocre (at least for the audiences to whom their films are designed to appeal). So is the message of Samson a good one?
The Problem with (Re)Telling a Bible Story
The Bible’s narrative style is minimalist, especially in the Old Testament. The stories lack so many details that the stories practically beg us to fill in the gaps – which is what these Biblical films have to do if they want stories that are longer than about 15 minutes. It’s how the stories get filled in that can make or break the story, especially for persons of faith.
In recreating the story of Samson and Delilah for my book, Empathy for the Devil, I had to make up a number of details. Who was Delilah? Where did she come from? What was the name of Samson’s Philistine wife? These sorts of inventions are inevitable. The question isn’t, “Did a movie/story add stuff?” It’s “Do the additions of the movie/story undermine the integrity of the Biblical account?”
And in this regard, Samson fails spectacularly. The film makes four major choices that actively subvert the character of Samson as portrayed in the Bible.
1. Samson is not the hero of Judges 13-16. He’s the villain.
The biggest problem with Samson is that it makes Samson the hero of the story. Nothing could be further from the Biblical account. By ignoring the larger context of the book in which Samson’s story is told, Pure Flix offers a muddled, confused moral that is wholly absent from the Biblical story they claim to present. Their sanitized Samson disrespects the source material they claim to care so much about.
Samson’s villainy comes as a shock to those of us who were raised on felt-board Sunday School stories of Biblical heroes. In those presentations, Samson is plucked from the larger narrative of which he’s a part and presented as a hero of the faith. Without the larger context of the book of Judges, it’s easy to imagine Samson is a reluctant hero, as the film depicts him. He fits our mold of the superhero origin story we’ve seen again and again in the multiplex. His birth is heralded by an angelic messenger. He possesses impossible strength (and a secret weakness!) that he uses to fight against the enemies of God’s people – the Philistines. And like every good hero, he has a tragic flaw – in this case, he’s too horny for his own good.
(Which actually isn’t a big deal for many Evangelicals because it contributes to Samson’s hyper-masculine image. If there’s any sin of which a man of faith might be forgiven, it seems to be liking women too much. After all, what that really proves is how much of a man Samson is. His only flaw is being too manly, really.)
In this context-free reading of Samson’s story, the real villain is Delilah, who exploits this brave man of God’s unfortunate weakness (‘moral failing’ for the G-rating). She is not only a Philistine, but a woman who manipulates Samson and causes his undoing.
But place Samson back in the book of Judges as he’s intended to be and it becomes immediately clear that Judges is not interested in giving Samson a pass for his virility. Judges doesn’t want to excuse him as a flawed hero who finally does the right thing.
For the book of Judges, Samson is a villain who embodies Israel’s failure to be faithful to God.
Judges comes between Joshua and 1 Samuel in the historical canon (the book of Ruth is almost like a deleted scene – it’s set during the time of the Judges, but deals with entirely different themes. In the Jewish Bible, it’s part of the Writings, not collected with the historical books). Joshua is the story of how Israel conquered and settled the Promised Land. Samuel is the story of how Israel transition from a loose confederation of tribes to a monarchy. And Judges is the story of why Israel needed a monarchy.
Why? Because again and again, rather than be faithful to the Way of God (given to them at Mt. Sinai), the Israelites all “did what was right in their own eyes”. Judges is a cycle wherein 1) God’s people ‘do what is right in their own eyes so 2) God allows them to be conquered by a neighboring tribe. After a time of oppression, 3) the people cry out to God for deliverance and in response 4) God raises up a judge who delivers them. But eventually, after a time of peace, 1) the people go back to doing ‘what is right in their own eyes’ and the cycle starts all over again.
But Judges isn’t just a cycle. It’s actually a downward spiral. Because the judges get worse and worse and worse. They start out awesome – judges like Ehud and Deborah handle business, liberate Israelites and remain faithful to God. Their faithfulness calls not only the Israelites, but even other peoples around them to be faithful to God (like Jael in Judges 4).
But as the book wears on, the judges are less and less impressive. God has to prove himself to Gideon twice before Gideon will even sort of follow. (That whole ‘putting out the fleece’ story gets used these days as a way to talk about being faithful.) In Judges, it’s a sign Gideon is a weak judge. Then comes Jephthah, who sacrifices his own daughter to honor a vow God didn’t ask for and doesn’t approve of.
Last – and certainly least – comes Samson.
Of all the Judges, he is the most powerful. He has impossible strength given to him by God’s Spirit. But despite having more advantages than any of the judges before him, Samson does the least. He never once uses his great strength to defend his people or God’s honor. Rather, Samson takes whatever he wants. Judges makes this very clear by focusing on Samson’s eyes – he sees his Philistine wife, the honey in the lion’s corpse and Delilah. Samson embodies the refrain from Judges that everyone “did what was right in his own eyes.” Samson is more interested in the Philistines than his own people, and at no point considers what God wants until the moment he is blinded (again with the eyes!).
The context of Judges paints Samson as a villain: the man who should be God’s champion instead wastes his great power on feeding his own appetites until they destroy him.
2. Samson didn’t love his Philistine wife
The real heart of the film is Samson’s love for his Philistine wife. They get a dating montage and even have a conversation about how they’re “both slaves” to the Philistines. But the Bible never tells us that Samson loved the Philistine he tried to marry. It tells us only that she “looks good” to him (Judges 14:3).
In fact, the only woman Samson is said to love is Delilah (Judges 16:4). Not his mother, not his Philistine wife, not the prostitute he visited in Gaza.
In Judges, Samson’s first wife is never presented as anything more than an object he desires. And it matters that he doesn’t care about her, because his vengeance (the bit with the foxes) has nothing to do with her. It’s about avenging the shame he feels at having been bested by the Philistines as his wedding. (In fact, after his wedding, Samson abandons his wife, skulking off to pout.)
These are not the actions of a man in love, which is why Judges is careful never to claim Samson loves her.
3. Samson never uses his strength for good.
All of Samson’s infamous acts of strength are depicted in the film, from killing a lion with his bare hands to tying torches to the tails of foxes to killing a thousand Philistines with a mule’s jawbone to tearing the gates off the city of Gaza. In Judges, it’s all done because Samson is angry, bored or hurt. He always and only acts selfishly.
But the film goes out of its way to present Samson as conflicted (or faithful, or heartbroken… the film actually seems pretty confused as to Samson’s motivations). When, after his wedding he slays 30 Philistines for their tunics, he only does so because they attacked him first. Oh and also because they had captured three Israelite women. And after he kills them, he begs for help getting their tunics off because, as a Nazarite he can’t touch a corpse (even though by this point he’s already eaten honey from the corpse of the lion).
Perhaps most egregious is how Samson’s visit to the prostitute in Gaza is whitewashed. In the film, Samson goes to Gaza to sue for peace. On his way out of the city, he has to go into hiding, and is taken by a bold woman to her “hotel”. We next see Samson with his head in his hands, insisting that had he known “what kind of establishment you run, I’d never have come here!” That couldn’t be further from Judges’ depiction of him – 16:1 tells us specifically that Samson went to Gaza, “saw a harlot there, and went in to her.”
Pure Flix’ Samson is a fundamentally good guy who’s trying to honor God and do the right thing. Such a depiction of Samson shares nothing in common with the man described in Judges
4. Samson left no legacy but faithlessness.
The film ends with a monolog from Samson’s (invented) brother describing how Samson’s sacrificial death inspired the Israelites to rise up and cast off their Philistine oppressors. We get a shot of David the shepherd king scooping up a rock to face down a Philistine giant as proof that the spark of Samson’s death fueled the flames that finally consumed the Philistines.
This is entirely unsupportable from Scripture. Judges ends not with victory, but defeat. Samson is the last judge not because he frees Israel, but because after him, they become so faithless that they don’t need an outside nation to oppress them. Rather, they descend into Civil War. No judge can deliver Israel from themselves.
And this is where Pure Flix really misses the mark: by insisting Samson be a hero, they have to tell a story of victory. But Samson’s story ends in defeat. The book of Judges ends in defeat. It’s meant to be an illustration of the insidiousness of human evil, of the consequences of faithlessness. Judges insists – loudly and repeatedly – that character matters, that God requires faithfulness of leaders above all.
If you’re going to retell a Biblical story, artistic license is a must. Samson‘s screenwriter and I made several similar artistic choices, including having Delilah know Samson’s wife and having Delilah cut Samson’s hair herself rather than having a slave do it as Judges indicated. Even the addition of a brother in the film doesn’t question the integrity of the narrative in Judges.
But the changes I enumerated above go beyond artistic license. They offer a fundamentally different story – one about a flawed-but-faithful hero whose example should inspire us. Judges offers Samson as the opposite: a man who should be a hero but choses his own way instead. He’s not an example to be emulated but a warning to be avoided.