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Samson by A. Paige Rawson

The story of Samson is nothing if not riveting. In fact, Samson has been the subject of paintings, movies, and docudramas, not to mention pop, folk, and reggae songs. While Samson is best known for both his supernatural strength and his illicit relationship with Delilah, he and his story are much more complex than popular representations reflect.

We read of Samson in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament’s book of Judges. One of twelve officials appointed to judge Israel, Samson is never overtly named a judge, nor is it clear just what judging entails or that he is qualified for the task. Samson is, however, identified as a Nazirite—one set apart to God (see Num 6:1-14)—when his barren mother is visited by an angel of the Yahweh and commanded to consecrate her son to God (Judg 13:5). The reader soon finds that, as a result, Samson has extraordinary divine powers, but not before learning of Samson’s complicated relationship with the Philistines, the sworn enemy and oppressor of Israel (Judg 14:4). Though Samson is consecrated to God and must follow a stringent purity code, he repeatedly violates his vow. Samson marries a non-Israelite (Philistine) woman, eats what is unclean, parties, touches a carcass, sleeps with a sex worker, falls in love with another woman named Delilah, and, finally, cuts his hair. Many of these breaches directly involve the Philistines, who are determined to destroy Samson due to his desire to defy them. The story is a veritable cat-and-mouse game, where Samson and the Philistines go blow for blow, neither able to overcome the other, until the story’s conclusion. In the penultimate scene, Samson divulges “his whole secret” to Delilah, affording the Philistines the opportunity to take him captive. “If my head were shaved,” he confesses, “then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like everyone else” (Judg 16:17). The protagonist is shaven, blinded, shackled, and incarcerated by the Philistines. While Samson is enslaved, however, his hair begins to grow. In the final act, Samson is forced to “entertain” the Philistines during the celebration of their conquest (Judg 16:25). Chained between two pillars, as the Philistines revel, Samson beseeches Yahweh to stir and strengthen him one last time. Samson cries, “Let me die with the Philistines,” and he does (Judg 16:30).

Divine Hero, Mercurial Megalomaniac, or Village Idiot?

In the popular and ecclesiastical imagination, Samson is either a blundering buffoon, who is as baffled by his spectacular strength as his assumed adversaries (and throws it all away for a seductive minx), or the strongest man in the Bible. Such binaries, however, are unhelpful and can actually be detrimental when reading the Bible, and particularly Samson. Samson might be read as neither, both, or much more. One of the unfortunate effects of reading Samson’s tale as a solely written text is that we have missed out on its origins in oral tradition. The layered quality of Samson’s oral story is scintillating and sensational and is meant to be as entertaining as it is informative. By reading it simply as literary, rather than oral, readers tend to literalize, thereby missing the hyperbole, humor, and absurdity of this enigmatic narrative. Not only so, but much of the irony and entendre is lost in translation. For example, in retaliation, Samson catches three hundred foxes, ties them together by their tails, sets them on fire, and then releases them into Philistine fields and runs to hide in Judean territory (Judg 15:4-8). If this is not fantastic enough, exasperated that his mercuriality has now put them in danger (rather than protected them), his own people turn him over to the Philistines in Lehi, which means “jawbone” or “cheek.” While there, Samson finds a donkey’s jawbone and, unable to turn the other cheek, he destroys one thousand Philistines with his lehi (cf. Lam 3:30). Samson is a paradox, which is why scholars and reader-hearers of the Bible have debated the strata and genre of his tale for decades. It reads like historiography, yet the story is full of irony and drama that could as easily be interpreted as comedy—or dramedy in common parlance. 

Did Samson commit suicide in order to take revenge on the Philistines? (And did God give him the strength do it?)

The primary conflict in the story is the ongoing strife between Samson and the Philistines. The Philistines perpetually attempt to annihilate Samson because this heavyweight judge is zealously seeking to subvert their rule over his people. Each time Samson is incited against the Philistines, the text makes it clear that Yahweh infuses him with strength. The Hebrew word used to describe the act when Yahweh empowers Samson is, in most translations, either translated “stir” or “rush on.” Interestingly, it could also be rendered “disturb,” and his episodes resemble a sort of disturbance, a possession or epilepsia where Samson is seized by the spirit of the Lord (see Judg 15:15-20). After his hair is cut, however, when Samson calls upon Yahweh in order to destroy himself and the Philistines, ending this enduring rivalry once and for all, the text does not employ this terminology. The narrator shares that even as Samson is incarcerated, his hair grows, leading the reader to believe that he is regaining strength from God. Surely, while chained between the pillars of a Philistine temple, Samson cries out to Yahweh for strength and he indubitably has the strength to collapse the pillars, but the text is not explicit about Yahweh’s involvement in this final suicidal-homicidal act. In fact, Yahweh is not mentioned at all outside of Samson’s request. What this implies, then, is that while each previous attack against the Philistines may have been divine, Samson’s combination murder-suicide was no divine act. It was a totally self-motivated and autonomous endeavor. In the blink of an eye, Samson is empowered and, like an ancient Israelite kamikaze, Samson sacrifices himself in order to kill the Philistines, but, unlike Samson’s previous divine exploits, Yahweh is MIA. And so, the Philistines and Samson alike are crushed under the weight of the temple, and this haunting scene leaves the reader emphatically aware of the ambivalent and interdependent relationship between Samson and the Philistines.

A. Paige Rawson , "Samson", n.p. [cited 12 Dec 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/main-articles/samson

Contributors

Rawson-A Paige

A. Paige Rawson
Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion, Wingate University

A. Paige Rawson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Wingate University in Wingate, N.C. She is the author of “(Re)Membering Samson OtherWise: Resistance, Revolution, and Relationality in a Rastafari Reading of Judges 13-16,” in Human Rights, Race and Resistance in the African Diaspora (2016). Her research eschews traditional Western European methodologies in favor of the oraliturary interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, Africana and Afro-Caribbean epistemologies, and Affect and Queer theories.

 

Samson was a judge known for his supernatural strength.

Did you know…?

  • Samson, in Hebrew is pronounced “shim-shon” and is a masculine proper name derived from shemesh, which means “sun” and has been correlated to shamash, the ancient Mesopotamian sun god who, like Samson, was a diviner of justice. Some scholars have drawn parallels between Samson and sun gods (e.g., Helios and Apollo) due to his seven locks, and others have proposed that his story might even be related to the constellations.
  • The Nazirite vows Samson breaks are as follows: he tears into a lion with his bare hands, eats honey from the lion carcass, marries a non-Israelite, kills with the jawbone of a donkey, comes into contact with grapes and wine, and allows a razor to touch his head. While lighting the foxes on fire is not an explicit violation of his vows, it certainly gives reason for pause.
  • The lack of actual historical referents as well as deliberate historical inaccuracies signal that Samson’s story is fiction.
  • Samson’s story is included in the book of Judges, implying that he is one of Israel’s twelve judges, appointed before Israel’s monarchic period. Of the twelve, none but Deborah operates as a “judge” in the judicial sense. Rather, the remaining eleven appear to be temporary hero/delivers, like Samson. Never explicitly deemed a judge, Samson neither embodies nor engages in activities that resemble proper judicial temperament. His actions do, however, quite ironically, reflect a robust desire for revenge, as he repeatedly takes justice into his own hands.
  • Interpreters argue about whether Samson was an exemplary biblical figure or an example of “what-not-to-do” for hearers/readers. While some decry Samson for his inconsistency, others see him as a brave liberator, and still others read Samson and his story as a representation of Israel’s own issues with identity, purity, and precarity.
  • Readers have often blamed Delilah for Samson’s demise rather than reading the entire narrative and seeing his death as the logical conclusion to such a tale. Of course, it bears noting that Delilah was actually Samson’s second love interest, the first of whom he married. At least one was non-Israelite and both, arguably, sought Samson’s demise through trickery (Judg 14:15-20; Judg 16:5-6).
  • The Rastafari perceive Samson’s Nazirite vow and seven locks as evidence that he was the original Rastaman.

dedicate

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.

Num 6:1-14

The Nazirites
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When either men or women make a special vow, the vow of a nazirite, to ... View more

Judg 13:5

5for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver ... View more

Judg 14:4

4His father and mother did not know that this was from the Lord; for he was seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines had d ... View more

Judg 16:17

17So he told her his whole secret, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If my head we ... View more

Judg 16:25

25And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, and let him entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. They ... View more

Judg 16:30

30Then Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” He strained with all his might; and the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So tho ... View more

Related to the church.

A category or type, often of literary work.

the study or writing of history

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

volatile, constantly changing

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Judg 15:4-8

4So Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took some torches; and he turned the foxes tail to tail, and put a torch between each pair of tails.5When he ... View more

seizures

a suicidal mission, historically related to the suicidal plane crashes of Japanese pilots against enemy targets during World War II

missing in action

Judg 15:15-20

15Then he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, reached down and took it, and with it he killed a thousand men.16And Samson said,
“With the jawbone of a donkey,
he ... View more

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

a religious movement originating in Jamaica in the early twentieth century

The god of the sun and justice in ancient Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultic tradition, whose chief cult-centers were at Sippar and Larsa in the Fertile Crescent.

Judg 14:15-20

15On the fourth day they said to Samson's wife, “Coax your husband to explain the riddle to us, or we will burn you and your father's house with fire. Have you ... View more

Judg 16:5-6

5The lords of the Philistines came to her and said to her, “Coax him, and find out what makes his strength so great, and how we may overpower him, so that we ma ... View more

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