In his provocative book Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the Bible’s violent verses (HarperOne, 2011), Philip Jenkins makes a provocative comparison between Samson’s final modus operandi and that of the contemporary Palestinian suicide bomber. He writes:
“If Christians or Jews needed biblical texts to justify deeds of terrorism or ethnic slaughter, their main problem would be an embarassment of riches. Is someone looking for a text to justify suicide terrorism? The Qur’an offers nothing explicit, beyond general exhortations to warfare in the name of God. Some passages of the Bible, in contrast, seem expressly designed for this purpose. Think of the hero Samson, blinded and enslaved in Gaza, but still prepared to pull down the temple upon thousands of his persecutors:
And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they were wich he slew in his life.
“Could a text offer better support for a modern-day suicide attack, in Gaza or elsewhere?” (6-7)
Of course we know the apologetic responses. “Those Philistines weren’t innocent.” “They’d all gathered to worship Dagon, a false god.” “God gives life and he takes it away.” In fact, those rationales should be familiar to us since many of us have heard similar things from so-called “radical Islamists” who had a militaristic theology and a long list of grievances justifying their attack on civilians on September 11th. To say nothing of Palestinians who bomb buses and fire rockets from the crumbling core of Gaza.
That’s the problem. Or you might say that’s the cost of reading Samson’s act as morally exemplary. You provide a principled ethical basis for acts of terrorism against civilian population. And that’s a high cost indeed.