Let me say this first:
Samson is a horrible example of a human being.
He’s petty, vengeful, abusive, and he doesn’t keep his promises.
What he has going for him as traits that are admirable in some way, kind of, I guess are: he’s strong.
So why, in the name of all that’s good and holy, do we promote him as a hero of the Bible?
The story of Samson begins by explaining that Samson’s father Manoah and his wife (unnamed) are childless, and an angel appears to them, promising that they’re going to have a son who will do great things for God, and be dedicated as a Nazirite.
For anyone who’s not familiar with this part of the Law, a Nazirite was a person who made a special vow to God to set themselves apart by not coming in contact with dead things, consuming grape products or anything fermented, or cutting their hair for the duration of their vow (dedication as a Nazirite was typically a temporary thing done as an act of exceptional piety). In Samson’s case, his parents are told that he’s to be a Nazirite for his entire life.
That kind of sucks for Samson, because he clearly has the heart of a party animal, and while maintaining a perpetual mullet might be pretty cool, not being allowed to drink is a major buzz kill.
So Samson just kind of ignores all of his vows except for the hair cutting one. On his way to get himself a wife from the nearby Philistine city of Timnah, Samson kills a lion. After that incident, he arrives in Timnah and arranges his marriage to a poor Philistine girl, then on his way back home to tell his parents about the good news, he finds honey in the carcass of the lion he killed (which he eats). That’s violation of the vow not to have contact with dead things.
After he returns to Timnah for his wedding, since he’s from out of town and doesn’t have any friends, his wife’s parents hire a bunch of local guys to be his bridal party. Samson, because he’s a massive jerk, decides it’d be fun to have a bet with these guys that they can’t answer a riddle of Samson’s devising. The fact that the only way to know the answer to the riddle is to be Samson (since he never told anyone about finding the honey in the lion’s carcass) doesn’t strike him as an unfair part of the game. The locals are furious with the riddle, and as the time limit to figure it out draws to a close, they physically threaten his wife so that she’ll tell them the answer. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, she complies, which makes Samson angry because he can’t afford to pay the bet either. Since the prize is thirty sets of garments, Samson travels to another nearby town, Ashkelon, and murders thirty Philistines so he can take their clothes. After paying his debt, Samson leaves Timnah in a huff without his new wife, whom her father marries to one of the other wedding guests.
The women in Samson’s story all get royally screwed over by him, by the way.
This affront to the Philistines (which Samson started with his idiotic riddle) escalates into a feud that seems to exist exclusively between the entire Philistine nation and Samson. The text says that Israel’s oppressed by the Philistines at this time, but as far as this story goes, Samson seems to be the only one actually making trouble between these nations (it should be noted that the tribe of Judah try to turn Samson over to the Philistines for punishment, but then he breaks free and kills a thousand men by himself, instigating an Israelite rebellion). He sets fire to their wheat fields, kills several hundred Philistines with an ass’s jawbone (I didn’t realize he could talk people to death, but, you know) and is just all around vengeful towards them because of an insult that could have been avoided if he hadn’t been such a jerk.
The story of Samson’s downfall is pretty famous with the betrayal by Delilah and all (though I think Delilah gets a bad wrap, because seriously, Samson’s pretty much the single biggest threat to the Philistines ever).
Of course, up to this point in Samson’s story, the only vow he hasn’t broken is cutting his hair, so God still honors his Nazirite dedication with superhuman strength, but once Delilah takes care of that Samson becomes as weak as a kitten.
Now, I think the significance of the story of Samson is supposed to be how God is willing to take you back, even after you’ve done a lot of crap. A major part of the Nazirite vow was that if it was accidentally violated, the person could start over again, and God would still be pleased with the act of worship. Even Samson, who by all intents seems to be a Nazirite against his will, receives God’s favor again after he’s gone through a symbolic atonement in the form of regrowing his hair and suffering as a slave to the Philistines. The fact that Samson doesn’t seem to learn anything from this experience probably isn’t the point. His story is an extreme example of the acts of sin and contrition that people carry out all the time.
I think it’s that core idea that got him included in the Book of Judges, or at least it’s the best reading available to us for understanding what’s going on here through the lens of Christ.
I still think he’s a horrible role model though.
Bonus thought: The best pop culture portrayal of Samson that I’ve ever seen is in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. In one issue, Superman gives Lois Lane a serum that grants her superpowers for her birthday, and they go on a super date that gets crashed by the time traveling super cads Samson and Atlas. Samson’s portrayed as a gigantic, beautiful man with long flowing locks who wants to compete with Superman over Lois’s affections. Lois entertains the idiocy (and Superman completely shames Samson and Atlas in a contest of strength by beating them both in arm wrestling at the same time), though she does accept a fancy necklace (made of some super deadly radioactive material that would kill her if she didn’t have temporary superpowers) Samson apparently stole from a guy named the Ultrasphinx. He was just trying to get rid of the thing so he wouldn’t be in trouble, and true to character he screws over a woman so he can get away.