Friday, August 10, 2012

The Suicide of Samson

One of the challenges in reading the Old Testament is reconciling the behavior of some Old Testament characters with the moral imperatives of the natural law as revealed in the New Testament. Classic examples of this problem are the polygamy of the Old Testament patriarchs, the genocide of the Canaanites depicted in the Book of Joshua, or the slavery Solomon imposes upon the conquered peoples of his kingdom.

There are various explanations to these problems. Usually these types of quandaries can be resolved by appealing to the imperfect moral development of the Israelite people and the incomplete nature of God's revelation to them; we could also call to mind the fact that the Bible does not approve everything that it reports; sometimes, as in the case of Joshua's genocide, we just have to work through several underlying theological issues to get to the root of the question (e.g., Does God have sovereignty over human life or does He not?).

Another one of these problems is the suicide of Samson, which is undoubtedly portrayed in a glorious light in the Old Testament Book of Judges. How can this be the case when, according to natural law and the Church's perennial teaching, suicide is always wrong? Recall that, since suicide is condemned absolutely as against the natural law, this means that it is now and always was wrong, whether in the Old Testament or the New. How then can we square this teaching with the obvious fact that Samson's suicide is portrayed as a noble action in the Old Testament?

As far as I can tell, there are only seven suicides in the Bible:

  • Abimelech, son of Gideon, orders his servant to thrust him through with a sword when he realizes he is mortally wounded (Judges 9:50-57). This is indirect, but we will count it as a suicide because Abimelech deliberately chooses to terminate his own life.
  • The suicide of King Saul, narrated in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1. 
  • The suicide of Saul's armor-bearer in 1 Samuel 31.
  • The suicide of Ahithopel in 2 Samuel 17:23. Ahitophel, an adviser of Absalom, kills himself after he sees that Absalom has not followed his advice.
  • King Zimri, in 1 Kings 16:18, kills himself by setting his house on fire and letting it burn with himself inside.
  • The suicide of Samson in Judges 16:4-31.
  • The suicide of Judas, depicted in Matthew 27:3-10.

Samson is the only one of these who is righteous; he appears in Hebrews 11 as an example of faithfulness. Therefore, among the suicides of the Bible Samson's is the only we really have to develop an apologetic for because he is the only one who is depicted as a hero. The other six suicides were of wicked men whose suicide was part of their very wickedness (Saul, Judas) or acts of despair or pride (armor-bearer, Abimelech, Ahithopel, Zimri). Not so with Samson. In Samson's case we have a man whose life was marred but many faults but who redeems himself and appears most heroic in the very act of terminating his own life, and taking his foes with him.

The problem with Samson's suicide can be easily resolved if we note that Samson's suicide is different from all the others depicted in the Bible. In the cases of Abimelech, Saul, Judas and the others, the primary intention of each agent in their suicide is the ending of their own life. In Samson's case, we can easily see that his primary motivation in pulling down the Temple of Dagon was not to end his own life but to destroy his Philistine opponents. Ths is evident in his prayer:

But he called upon the Lord, saying: O Lord God, remember me, and restore to me now my former strength, O my God, that I may revenge myself on my enemies, and for the loss of my two eyes I may take one revenge.” And laying hold on both the pillars on which the house rested, and holding the one with his right hand, and the other with his left, he said: “Let me die with the Philistines.” And when he had strongly shook the pillars, the house fell upon all the princes, and the rest of the multitude that was there: and he killed many more at his death, than he had killed before in his life. (Jud. 16:28-30).

Though Samson knows that his action will bring about his own death, he is not acting primarily to end his own life. His motivation is the destruction of the Philistine leadership and he sees his death as a secondary effect of this destruction. Therefore, the principle of double-effect comes into play here; namely, that it is permissible to cause harm as a side effect (or “double effect”) of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such harm as a primary means to bringing about the same good end.

For example, it is always wrong to kill innocent people. Yet, in war (presumably a just one), a naval ship may fire on the enemy's ship knowing that there may be innocent people on board (reporters, etc). Yet, his primary intention in attacking the enemy ship is not to kill innocent reporters, but to disable or sink the enemy's warship. If he could do so without killing any reporters who might be on board, he would do so. The firing on the ship is justified because the potential death of non-combat personnel on the ship is not willed as the primary end of the attack but only tolerated as an unavoidable and undesirable secondary effect.

Were the captain of the ship attacking specifically to kill non-combatants, or if he willed the death of non-combatants as a positive good, the situation would be different. The crux of the matter is whether the evil act (killing of non-combatants) is the primary end of the attack or a tolerated secondary-effect.

St. Thomas formulates the principle in his discussion on self-defense in the Secunda Secundae Partis of the Summa:

Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one's life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 7).

This principle would come into effect in Samson's case. His primary intention is the destruction of the Philistine leadership, which would cripple his enemies and ensure the safety of the Israelites. He only tolerates his own death as proceeding from the act of destroying the Philistines. Thus, the killing of himself is willed indirectly and is not suicide in the proper sense.

In the Douay-Rheims footnote to this episode, written by Bishop Richard_Challoner (1749-1752), we read the following gloss, which also emphasizes the indirect nature of Samson's death and reminds us that this was an act inspired by God and a typification of Christ's own death:

Samson did not sin on this occasion, though he was indirectly the cause of his own death. Because he was moved to what he did, by a particular inspiration of God, who also concurred with him by a miracle, in restoring his strength upon the spot, in consequence of his prayer. Samson, by dying in this manner, was a figure of Christ, who by his death overcame all his enemies.

We could think of other moral actions in comparison to this: A soldier who jumps on a grenade to save a comrade – this would not be suicide because his primary end is to save his comrade, not kill himself, though he recognizes the act will undoubtedly result in his own death. The same could be said of a military pilot who flies a dangerous “suicide mission” into enemy territory from which he knows there will probably be no return. Or a fireman who rushes into the Twin Towers on 9-11 knowing he may die but that his death will allow others to live.

It ought to be noted that this principle would not apply to so-called suicide bombers or kamikazee style military attacks. A fundamental principle of double-effect is that the evil act is tolerated as an unavoidable consequent of the primary action; the agent would avoid the evil act if he could. In a suicide bombing or a kamikazee attack, the evil of self-destruction is not merely tolerated as an unavoidable evil that the agent would avoid if he could, but is in fact the primary means by which end of the act is attained. It is intimately bound up with the act itself. It thus is no longer an effect but a means, and a primary means at that. In our above example about a naval ship, it is the difference between a captain tolerating the unfortunate potential death of a reporter as a secondary effect of attacking the ship and a captain intentionally killing reporters as a means of destroying the ship. Don't know how that would look exactly (turning reporters into human torpedoes?) but you get the idea.

In all this we can clearly deduce that Samson's death is not suicide in the strict sense. Yes, he knows that his action will bring about his own death, but he does not will this as the primary end of his act. Thus his death should be seen more as an act of self-sacrifice rather than of suicide.


Anonymous said...

Interesting - Samson is a curious fellow, and I find it hard to see exactly how he was a "judge".
Your quote from Challoner reminds me of how helpful he is. He helped me answer a question my son had about where Cain found his wife. The NAB didn't mention this, nor did another translation we had, but the Douay-Rheims did, via a comment by, I presume, Challoner.
Love your site!

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

One small quibble (with Challoner, not you), although I will accept that this point could be contended either way.

God signified the strength of Samson through his hair; when Samson's hair was shorn, betraying his Nazirite vow, his strength left him. Yet, "the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with bronze fetters; and he ground at the mill in the prison. But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved." (Jg 16:21-22)

The following verse sets the next scene as a sacrificial ceremony to Dagon for delivering Samson into their hands. I believe that a significant period of time passed between verses 21-22 and verse 23. Why have him grinding at the mill for a day? Why mention that his hair began to grow again?

I think Samson's hair had grown a bit (perhaps not quite so long as the depiction at the top of this blog post suggests). So I think it was not so much that God suddenly restored Samson's strength, but that God began restoring Samson's strength as his hair began to grow again.

Again, this is a quibble, and not relevant to the substance of your post. I just think it's worth pointing out that the majority of depictions of Samson "bringing down the house", he is shown with more hair than would be found on a freshly-shorn head.

John said...

There is another suicide, which if I remember correctly was seen as a good suicide, albeit the Challoner commentary says "not to be emulated." I can't remember where, but it was under a persecution against the Jews and one out of several threw himself off a high place rather than to be captured. I thought it was with the martyr-brothers in Machabees, but I didn't find it there.

Unknown said...

There is indeed another suicide in the Bible, in 2nd Maccabees 14 starting at verse 37. It's much more puzzling to me than Samson's suicide. In this case, a man commits suicide "counting it better to die honourably than to fall into the hands of sinners, and suffer outrage unworthy of a free-born man." (Knox Bible) I don't know what Challoner says about it, but Knox says "Some have attributed this action of Razias to a special inspiration; but we are liberty to suppose he was no conscious of a divine law against self-destruction, and to admire his courage accordingly." That seems to be an insufficient explanation that doesn't take natural law into account.

Do you have any thoughts on this, or explanations by others?


Boniface said...


I will do another post about this in the near future and link it up to this post when it is complete.


Boniface said...

I know this is an old thread, but I finally did the article on the suicide of Razis: