In 1956, Humphrey Bogart played sportswriter Eddie Willis in the last movie he made, The Harder They Fall. After many ups and downs, Bogart’s character achieves greatness. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I don’t want to try too hard because I don’t need to be wildly successful,” or, “I don’t want to rise too far because the tallest tree catches the wind”? Many of us have impeded our own progress by warning ourselves that reaching for the sky can bring a great fall.
While there may be some good reasons not to clamber up the cliff, that old Humpty Dumpty rationale isn’t it. Impeding our progress by warning ourselves that reaching for the sky can bring a great fall leads to not reaching our potential, a crime against ourselves and our Creator. It is so easy to succumb to wrong-headed thinking and sabotage our own potential that Scripture projects a powerful message to deter us.
Whenever a specific phrase is found in more than one location in Scripture, we are intended to compare and contrast the instances in which it appears.
For instance, the phase: הִנָּ֥ךְ הָרָ֖ה וְיֹלַ֣דְתְּ בֵּ֑ן
appears in two places in the Bible; once in connection with Abraham’s first son, Yishmael, and again in connection with Samson.
The phrase has two meanings:
Behold you have conceived and will give birth to a son
(Yishmael; Genesis 16:11)
Behold you shall conceive and will give birth to a son
(Samson; Judges 13:5)
Since the tense of the English translation varies, many people with no access to Hebrew (and no rabbi) remain oblivious to the fact that both verses contain the identical phrase.
In fact, these are the only two instances in the Tanach of an angel directly informing a woman that she will soon give birth. But that is where the similarities end. Among many other differences, the two sons marry differently.
Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, finds her son a wife:
…and his mother took him a wife from Egypt
Samson finds his own wife, despite his parents’ disapproval of her (but in concert with God’s plan):
…get her for me as a wife
Yishmael’s life follows a steady trajectory from his birth in Genesis 16 until his death in Genesis 25.
Samson’s life is clearly divided into two sections.
From his birth in Judges 13 until the end of Judges 15, we see the Lord is with him constantly.
The second part of Samson’s life begins with him consorting with a harlot (Judges 16:1) and concludes with his death (Judges 16:30). During this time the Lord appears to have abandoned him.
Contrast the two phrases which conclude the two parts of Samson’s life:
And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.
…and he judged Israel twenty years.
Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that during the first half of his life his purpose and mission was defeating the Philistines and protecting Israel from them. During the second part of his life, he largely forgot his mission.
Yishmael, even though he and his progeny were promised blessing by God, lived a largely uneventful life.
Samson, the heroic Hebrew Judge, lived a turbulent life the beginning of which he lived in accordance with God’s wishes and enjoying His blessings. Tragically the latter part of his life was lived without his mission, without God, and without His blessings.
The contrast is between two men both of whose births were heralded by an angel and both of whom were blessed. One became an ordinary man who never achieved any great good and never did any great wrong. The other became a larger-than-life figure, a giant man with giant abilities and giant appetites. He played a vital role in Israel’s history, achieving enormous triumphs but also sinking to tragic depths.
Samson remains a Hebrew hero; flawed but heroic. His passion for life led him to heights and his weaknesses led to his downfall. But it wasn’t inevitable and he serves as a far better model than Yishmael.
God created us with the potential for greatness. We all possess the potential for doing great good, but also for failing disastrously. Being great doesn’t mean never desiring to do wrong or never doing wrong. It means developing our resistance to wrongdoing. With the lesson of Samson fresh in our minds, we can throw ourselves into the struggle for greatness confident that we will reap its blessings and fight its dangers.
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