Of all the persons that appear in the Old Testament, Samson and Ruth exist high in the rankings of polarized figures operating on different ends of the spectrum of faith. Samson’s story is tragic and demoralizing despite being filled with references to “the Spirit of the Lord” (Jgs 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14), and yet Ruth’s story is cheering and redeeming despite having no explicit reference to God’s activity at all. It might seem odd to hold these two books in juxtaposition to one another. However, their position in the canon is no accident. The ending of Judges seems hauntingly unfulfilled: “There was no king in Israel.” (Jgs 21:25) The narrative of Ruth, though, is about to change that reality in, perhaps, the most remarkable way possible. (Ruth 1:1; 4:18–22)
To put matters bluntly, Samson in no way represents a character worthy of emulation, while Ruth demonstrates an ordinary fidelity that ought to be indicative of those bearing the insignia of the saints. Ruth’s testimony is one of total trust, love, and obedience. (Ruth 3:5) She exemplifies an inimitable devotion and dedication to Boaz and Naomi (Ruth 1:16–17; 2:23; 3:9–10) — traits which are severely lacking in Samson. The colloquial memorialization of Samson’s life focuses primarily on his “feats of strength” recorded throughout Judges 14—16. Yet, as one juxtaposes these remarkable engagements with the fundamental assignment with which he was entrusted (Jgs 13:3–5), the tragedy of Samson appears in greater relief. His hubris is readily apparent throughout all of his recorded exploits, which were driven more out of a heroic self-interest and appetite for retribution than any nationalistic or redemptive concern. Samson brazenly disregards the decalogue (Jgs 14:4) and disavows himself of the Nazarite code to which he had been committed. (Jgs 13:4–5; 14:9; Num 6:6) He lives a deeply flawed life in which he seemingly does everything wrong, becoming more infamous for his “dalliances with Philistine women”1 than for his integral prefigurement of the Redeemer.
In that way, then, the tragedy of Samson serves a symbolic function for the nation of Israel itself. “Samson,” P. E. Satterthwaite writes, “is symbolic of Israel in this period: he compromises his holy calling, blunders around, finds himself in difficult situations, is rescued by God, presumes on God (Jgs 16:20), and is seemingly deserted by him, but not in the end abandoned.”2 By the conclusion of the record of Judges, all of Israel had become “Samson-like” in their decline from the statutes of God.3 Hubris reigned over humility. “Everyone did whatever seemed right to him.” (Jgs 17:6; 21:25; cf. 14:3) Ruth, likewise, represents Israel on a national level, but in a much different timbre — one which permeates with the hope of a kinsman redeemer and a coming king. (Ruth 2:12; 3:9; 4:10–14)
To broaden the outlook even more, however, Samson and Ruth are both indicative of what God does in the hearts and lives of humanity. Namely, he abases the proud and exalts the humble. (Prv 29:23; Eze 21:26; Mt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14; Jas 4:6, 10; 1 Pt 5:5–6) Notwithstanding the obstacles or hardships man’s rebellious hubris erects, the redemptive purpose of God cannot be thwarted. Through Samson, one is made to recognize that “Yahweh again was able to overcome the weaknesses of the leader to fulfill his designs.”4 And through Ruth, one comes to grips with God’s hiddenness in the ordinary. Indeed, the God of the Bible is one whose activity in this world has never ceased. His intent to recreate what has been fractured has never let up, and it never will.
R. J. D. Knauth, “Israel,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 517.
P. E. Satterthwaite, “Judges,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 588.
L. G. Stone, “Book of Judges,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 602.
S. A. Meier, “History of Israel 1: Settlement Period,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 436.