The Life of Samson
Judges Chapters 13 through 16 comprise what is probably the best known section of the Book of Judges for it contains the account of the exploits of Samson's judgeship which lasted for twenty years after he reached manhood, terminating with his death in approximately 1055 B.C. We read in Judges 13:1 that the Philistines oppressed Israel for forty years because they sinned against the Lord again and thus He allowed another enslavement. This was the longest oppression that Israel experienced during the time of the judges. The Philistines did not play a major part in the book of Judges until this time for good reason. Nearly a century earlier they had been repelled by Shamgar (Judges 3:31) although the invasion by these Sea Peoples continued for nearly two centuries. The bulk of the Philistines arrived in Canaan during the first half of the twelfth century, and by Samson's time they were well settled and prepared to assume the role of aggressors.1 In the meantime, they had been repelled by Rameses III of Egypt and had settled on the Palestinian coast, while Israel held the mountain area. They established lords as the rulers of their five-city Pentapolis (Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath) and began to push eastward into the Shephelah border and foothills of Judah. At this point they came into direct contact with Israel, and God raised up Samson to begin to deliver (v5) Israel from the Philistines.
These Aegean intruders were far superior to the Hebrews and Canaanites in culture and military craft. Their city-state government, ruled over by the lords of the Pentapolis, provided a strong central power against the loosely organized tribal government of the Hebrews. The Philistine monopoly on the use of iron also kept the Israelites in subjection (cf. I Samuel 13:19-22). The Israelites were not permitted to make iron swords or spears and, later we find Saul's army is said to have been devoid of such weapons. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that Israelite warriors used such strange weapons during this period, e.g., Shamgar's ox-goad, Samson's jawbone, and David's sling; these simple weapons also made it clear that the power of God gave the victory to Israel and not the might of their weaponry or numbers.
The Philistines' greater military prowess enabled them to dominate the Canaanites, whom they had conquered on the coast, and by the time of Samson (early eleventh century BC) their military confederacy was entrenched. The Philistine penetration reached its peak in their victory at the Battle of Aphek which was disastrous for Israel who were badly defeated some twenty years before the Battle of Mizpeh (I Samuel 7:2). Aphek was located about twenty-five miles north of Ekron, their northernmost city, and from here the Philistines penetrated Israelite territory all the way to Shiloh, where they destroyed the tabernacle.
Samson was born into the family of Manoah of the city of Zorah and the tribe of the Danites. It appears1 that the Philistine pressure on the Amorites led to a corresponding pressure on the Israelites, which in turn forced the migration of the Danites to the extreme north (Chapter 18) - and we will see later how the progressive affect of sin led to disastrous idolatry for the Danite tribe. Zorah was a small border town in the eastern Shephelah, on the border between Dan and Judah, but it was on the ever-changing border between Israel and Philistia that Samson came into early contact with his people's enemies. Samson spent the major part of his life around the Philistine city of Bethshemesh and his recorded exploits generally place him between Zorah, on the high ridge, and the Philistine town of Timnath (or Timnah) down in the valley.
But how did Samson's life begin? We read that the angel of the Lord appeared to Samson's parents and announced his birth in a formula similar to that found in Isaiah 7:14. The angel explained that the promised son was to become a "Nazarite unto God" from birth. The spelling "Nazirite" is to be preferred over the Authorised Version reading "Nazarite", since the term derives from a Hebrew word (Nazir, sometimes spelt Nazar in commentaries) meaning "devoted", "separated"" or "consecrated" The stipulations of the Nazirite vow found in Numbers 6 are parallel to the restrictions placed on Samson's mother in v4-5. The three stipulations were: (1) not to drink "wine nor strong drink"" (i.e., drink made from grain, rather than from grapes); (2) not to eat any unclean thing or touch any dead body; and (3) not to cut his hair during the period of the vow. The restrictions given to the mother were apparently intended only for the time of her pregnancy while she would be carrying the child but, afterward, they would apply to the child himself. The Nazirite vow becomes the theological focal point of the story of Samson and gives it its meaning and purpose.
Two important facts should be observed. First, the strength of Samson is clearly said to lie ultimately not in the length of his hair, but in the fact that he was moved by the "Spirit of the Lord" (Judges 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). Secondly, the events of Samson's life clearly show that he broke each of the three stipulations of the Nazirite vow and thus lost his power (Judges 14:8-10; 16:19). Many commentators have attempted to interpret the Samson narrative apart from the significance of this vow and therefore miss the entire point of the story.2 The ordinary Nazirite vow was entered voluntarily for a temporary period, and thus the restrictions for the vow were also temporary. However, in Samson's life the vow was neither voluntary nor temporary and placed him in a unique category of his own. The purpose of this special son was that he was to "begin to deliver" Israel from the Philistine oppression. This was extremely important in light of the fact that Israel had lapsed into a complacent co-existence with the Philistines, who were now infiltrating through trade and intermarriage. Israel's uniqueness as the people of God would have eventually been lost entirely had it not been for Samson's resistance to the Philistines. He engaged in a one-man war against the Philistines, with surprisingly little support from his own countrymen. We learn from Manoah's wife something about the appearance of the angel, for she also refers to him as "a man of God" (Judges 13:6-83):
6 Then the woman came and told her husband, saying, "A man of God came to me and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome. And I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name. 7 "But he said to me, 'Behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and now you shall not drink wine or strong drink nor eat any unclean thing, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.'"
Manoah entreated the Lord for a second visit by the man of God in order to more clearly explain the promise which had been given and the angel of God appeared again to the woman, but her husband was not with her. This time, a little more composed, she ran to get him and they returned to the place where the angel waited. The angel reminded the couple of the seriousness of the vow that was to be kept by her during her pregnancy and then by the son throughout his life. Manoah's offer of fellowship and a meal is typical in light of the Near Eastern concept of friendship and hospitality, but the visitor would not accept their offer of a meal and requested that they offer a sacrifice to God instead. The father-to-be then requested the name of his unusual guest that he might honour his prophecy when it came to pass. However the angel replied that "my name is secret" (v18). This does not fully translate the meaning of the adjective (Hebrew, pili, or peli) meaning wonderful or ineffable (cf. Isaiah 9:6). Commentators4 note that the word is not the proper name of the angel of the Lord, but expresses the character of His name and denotes the peculiarity of His nature as well. Thus, it is to be understood in the absolute sense as a predicate belonging to deity, absolutely and supremely wonderful. In response to the offering, the angel left them in little doubt as to the nature of the One whom they had been "entertaining":
20 For it came about when the flame went up from the altar toward heaven, that the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground. 21 Now the angel of the Lord appeared no more to Manoah or his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the Lord. 22 So Manoah said to his wife, "We shall surely die, for we have seen God."
The couple's sacrifice of a kid was accompanied by a meal offering (Hebrew minchah, meaning meal or cereal offering as in Leviticus 2). The miraculous disappearance of the angel caused Manoah to realize who He was (v21) for this divinely-authenticating sign was necessary to convince them in the months, and even years, ahead of the unique nature and purpose of the vow. Since the angel had refused to eat a meal and would only allow the offering to be made unto the Lord (v16), which He then accepted, it must indicate the legitimate conclusion of Manoah: "we have seen God." There can be no doubt that the text indicates that the appearance of the angel was a Theophany (or, rather, Christophany).
Just as the angel of the Lord predicted, the woman bore a son whom she named Samson (Hebrew distinguished or strong). Samson's birth and early childhood are clearly stated to have been blessed of the Lord (v24) and we see that God was clearly involved from the very beginning of his life in the exploits that will follow and, apparently, even during his youth, the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times for we read Judges 13:25: "And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol." Like the other judges, he received this anointing for the task to which he was called and, in Samson's case, this meant spectacular human strength to wage a one-man campaign against the Philistines. This initial activity is said to have happened in the camp of Dan, which probably implies a temporary habitation or displaced person's camp, since the tribe of Dan had given up its tribal territory. It seems incredible that Israel's strongest man came from her weakest tribe, showing us again that God chooses the weak and foolish things to do great things to bring glory to His name.
The events in Samson's life fall in two categories: (1) those prior to the incident at Gaza; and (2) those afterwards. However, the narrative divides itself in relation to the three women in Samson's life: the girl at Timnath, the prostitute at Gaza, and Delilah of the Valley of Sorek. From the start it becomes obvious that a love for women was his weakness. His mighty deeds proved that the God of the Israelites was still alive and powerful and capable of helping His people, but Samson's personal actions bear the stamp of immature adventure, foolhardiness, and willfulness, wrapped up in the pursuit of women. We also note that his personal weakness reflected the natural character of the nation of Israel to continually fraternize with the pagan nations they had chosen to live among. His frivolous attitude toward his vow of separation led to the insufficiency of his judgeship to procure a lasting supremacy for Israel over her foes but, by his manifestation of supernatural power, he nonetheless clearly showed Israel the possibility of deliverance.
The first woman in Samson's life was the girl from Timnath (Judges 14), a Philistine town only four miles down the valley from Zorah. The proximity of the Danites to the foreigners probably weakened the attitude of separation among the younger generation of Israelites, for Samson had no hesitation about marrying the girl, even though he was breaking the Mosaic law regarding mixed marriages (Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-4). Some commentators5 have argued that such a marriage was not forbidden by the law of Moses, as the Philistines did not form one of the seven doomed Canaanite nations, but the principle of remaining holy to the Lord and avoiding the polluting effects of nations who follow other gods clearly supercedes other customs and arguments. It was unusual for Hebrew children to disobey their parents' wishes, yet Samson dismissed their displeasure with his choice of the girl by demanding that they get her for me "because she pleaseth me." His poor and impatient choice is reflected by the fact that the marriage was to be a somewhat less than desirable situation. She is described by the common word "woman" and is not designated as a virgin or maiden. Later, we find Delilah (Judges 16:4) called by the same term. Samson then travelled down the valley with his parents to Timnath to contract the marriage. Evidently he became separated from his parents and at that time a young lion roared against him. Moved mightily by the Spirit of the Lord, he required no weapon, and probably could not easily obtain one because of the disarmament by the Philistines, to tear the lion in half. Sometime after talking with the girl at Timnath, Samson returned alone to the carcase of the lion to find that a swarm of bees had made honey in the dehydrated body. By eating the honey, Samson deliberately broke one aspect of his Nazirite vow, for he was not to touch a corpse. This is the reason he did not tell his parents the source of this gift he made to them (v9).
It was not long until the second part of the vow was also broken for verse 10 states that Samson made a feast at the wedding according to Philistine custom, and probably came under some pressure from the girl's family and friends. Feast (Hebrew mishteh) may refer to a meal as in Genesis 19:3, or a drinking feast. There is abundant evidence that the Philistines were given to drinking and carousing. Several beer mugs used for barley beer were found at Tell Abu Hureira (Gerar: a city of Arabia Petraea, under a king of the Philistines, 25 miles from Eleutheropolis beyond Daroma, in the south of Judah), jugs and chalices were found at Tell el-Far'ah and Tell en-Nasbeh,6 suggesting that the Philistines' were given to excessive drinking. We learn later that this was part of the scenario of Samson's greatest triumph. It is also strange that this wedding feast was at the bride's house, rather than the home of the groom. Perhaps Samson's marriage feast was not held in his home because his parents would not sanction the marriage. The length of the feast was seven days, at the end of which the marriage was actually consummated. In this case thirty companions ("sons of the bride-chamber") were selected as a bodyguard (v 11) against any who might attempt to plunder the wedding party. Evidently, the parent's chose the bodyguard because Samson had not brought any friends with him. During the opening festivities (v12-14) Samson proposed a riddle to the thirty Philistines to exalt his wisdom. Such procedure was common to the Near East and also to ancient Greece. Because of the Philistines' Aegean origin, Samson may have wanted to vindicate himself before them on their own level. The secret of the riddle related to the lion in which he had found the honey: "Out of the eater came something to eat, And out of the strong came something sweet." (v143).
Unable to discern the meaning of Samson's riddle, the Philistines turned to threatening the girl to find out the secret for them. Their threat was to burn her family's house with them in it so she wept before Samson to persuade him to tell her the answer. The Philistine men had told her to "entice" (Hebrew patah, fool or trick) her husband, and only her constant recourse to tears moved him to reveal the answer to the riddle. The Philistines triumphantly announced to Samson, "What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?" (v183) In bitter reply, he made it clear that he was aware that there could be only one source of their information and said: "If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle." We might have thought that the experience would have forewarned him of a similar, but far worse, fate at the hands of a deceiving Philistine woman that was yet to come. The debt he now owed was substantial for the sheets (v 13) he had wagered were fine linen festival garments, such as those worn to the wedding. Enraged by the events that had transpired he left the wedding to secure payment for the thirty garments, which he obviously did not possess himself. He went to Ashkelon, which lay in a rich, fertile, and densely populated area, about twenty miles away on the coast and one of the main cities of the Philistine Pentapolis. The Philistines took the city from Judah in the twelfth century B.C. and from there subjugated the tribe of Dan and pushed them into the Judaean hills and this could give good reason why Samson, a Danite, would choose Ashkelon as the site of his wrath. Perhaps the distance from Timnath, and the fact that Samson was not yet infamous as an opposer of the Philistines, made it unlikely that the Ashkelonites would be able to trace him back to the events at the remote outpost of Timnath. We note again the fact that, although Samson was guilty of breaking several vows (and even making a wager based on an act of disobedience!), God still chose to use this fallible human vessel for "the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily" (v19) so he could accomplish the feat of slaying thirty Philistines and using their garments in payment of the answered riddle. Thus, Yahweh God had used all these circumstances, good and bad, to "seek an occasion against the Philistines" (v4) who had dealt treacherously with Samson. In the meantime the Philistine girl's father was apparently offended by Samson's abrupt departure and instead gave the girl to the companion (best man) of Samson so that he "gave the changes of clothes to those who told the riddle and his anger burned, and he went up to his father's house." This marriage seems to have been a temporary arrangement in which Samson did not intend to live with the girl permanently, but, rather, to visit her upon occasion - reminiscent of the attitude to marriage of much of Western society today, and certainly an inauspicious beginning to his life as a faithful Nazirite husband!
At the time of the wheat harvest (probably during late May or early June) Samson returned to visit his wife at Timnath bringing the gift of a kid (young goat), perhaps as the offering prescribed by the marriage in which the wife remained in her parents' home, but visiting her in the same way one would visit a prostitute (cf. Genesis 38:15-17 where Judah took advantage of Tamar for what he thought was to be only the price of a kid!) It was now that he discovered that his bride had been given to his best man and, in response to the girl's father offering her younger sister to Samson in an admission that he had acted too hastily, Samson retaliated against all the Philistines in the region by burning their entire wheat crop ingeniously (Judges 153):
4 And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took torches, and turned the foxes tail to tail, and put one torch in the middle between two tails. 5 When he had set fire to the torches, he released the foxes into the standing grain of the Philistines, thus burning up both the shocks and the standing grain, along with the vineyards and groves.
In doing this he turned his personal wrong into an exploit of national importance against the enemies of his people. Until this time Samson had been disobedient in his association with the Philistines but the disastrous attempted marriage to one of their women turned his attitude against them in such a way that God could now use him to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines (as predicted in Judges 13:5). At this point there seems to be a definite break in Samson's relations with the Philistines which lasted for several years, for he was now so angry that he was ready to make war and, having no soldiers at his disposal, he turned to the natural resources. The destruction caused by his use of the foxes (or jackals, from the Hebrew shual) constituted an act of national aggression and made Samson the chief enemy of the Philistines for the burning of the enemies' crops was always a common method of war in the ancient Near East and in an agrarian culture a very serious matter.
The reference to shocks (v5) indicates that the grain was already being harvested and stacked in sheaves. The fire spread from the shocks to the standing grain and then to the olive trees. Samson's identity was no secret to the Philistines, but they blamed the unwise action of his father-in-law for Samson's retaliation upon them. It is interesting that they did not try to harm Samson, who was evidently still in the area (cf. v7). Instead, they burned the girl and her father with fire, perhaps burning their house with them in it, the very fate she had tried to avert by exposing Samson's riddle! Whatever Samson used in his vendetta, we see again and again the greater cruelty of the Philistines.
In reaction to the Philistines' cruel murder of the girl and her father, Samson turned upon them. His words to them ("Since you act like this, I will surely take revenge on you, but after that I will quit"- v73) imply that the cowardly Philistines had sought to pacify Samson by their act of cruelty but he then turned on those who had burned the girl and her father and "struck them ruthlessly with a great slaughter." (v8) Realizing the danger he was now in, Samson fled to a cave in the top of the rock Etam (v8), which was probably located in the cliffs above Timnath. The Philistines dispatched a reconnaissance force to capture the Hebrew renegade, and they brought soldiers to encamp against Judah in whose territory Samson was hiding. The narrative gives thorough evidence of the timid attitude of the Hebrews to the Philistine menace, as experienced by previous judges such as Gideon, and the men of Judah criticized Samson for his acts: "Knowest thou not that the Philistines are rulers over us - what is this that thou hast done unto us?" (v114) Thus, the one-man army found no support, even from among his own people for, fearing the threat of war, they begged Samson to leave them and the Philistines alone. This reveals the cowardly attitude among the Hebrews of Samson's day. It also indicates the powerful control and influence of the Philistines over Judah and the failure of the Jews to trust their God. The Philistine encroachment was an ever-threatening menace in chose days and it is clear that Israel needed a deliverer. The subtle Philistine approach would soon have permanently overpowered Israel and threatened the life of the nation.
The Philistines camped in the valley before the face of the cliff in which Samson''s cave was cut. The method of entering these Judaean caves was by descending from the top of the cliff and swinging into the mouth of the cave. Evidently, the "three thousand men of Judah went to the top of the rock Etam" (v11) and called down to Samson to surrender. When they promised not to attempt to slay him, he permitted them to bring him up, bind him, and take him to the Philistines.
As the Philistines met him in Lehi they shouted in triumph but the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson mightily so that the ropes that were on his arms were "as flax that is burned with fire," and his bonds dropped from his hands. Lehi means jawbone and is used prophetically by the writer of Judges in a paronomasia or, rhyming words, based upon the word chamor, "an ass," which also signifies "a heap" so that, from the Hebrew: bilchee hachamor, chamor chamorathayim, we get the translation, "With the jawbone of an ass, a heap upon two heaps." (cf. Numbers 16:15). Thus, our hero Samson seized the jawbone of a freshly slain ass and attacked the Philistines with it with devastating results demonstrating, again, that the power of God working in a man is greater than any natural power man may think he can rely on.
The Philistines prided themselves on their knowledge, and monopoly of, the iron industry. Presumably they had acquired this knowledge as they passed through the northern lands which had been under domination of the Hittites, who are thought to have been the first people to produce iron. Control of the iron industry meant military dominance by virtue of superior weapons and military control gave them economic and commercial control as well. The Philistines recognized a good thing when they saw it and refused to allow any iron production in subject lands, thus preventing the development of weaponry comparable to theirs. This also meant they could charge high prices for selling and repairing iron farm tools (See I Samuel 13:19-22). The Philistines kept this monopoly, and with it the control of most of Palestine, until they were defeated by Saul and David. Then, Israel was able to exploit the iron industry to her own great advantage.
But, again, we see a Judge of the Hebrews using the most unusual of weapons, in this case a fresh jawbone of a donkey, to show observers that the God of Israel was able to give victory to His people over all opposing advantages. Using this unusual weapon, Samson slew a thousand Philistines and put the rest to panic and flight. Commentators6 have speculated that the number, one thousand, may be a round number for a great host, for no details are given of the battle, and the reference to heaps may imply that he slew the thousand in several encounters as he pursued the fleeing army, but we are talking supernatural events here and there is no reason, except unbelief, for a Christian to doubt the figures. When he had finished speaking he threw the jawbone from his hand and named that place Ramath-lehi (i.e. the high place of the jawbone). The pursuit of the Philistines left Samson exhausted with thirst, for the weather would normally be hot during this season of the wheat harvest (v1), and we read (Judges 15:18-204):
18 He called to the Lord and said, "Thou hast given this great deliverance by the hand of Thy servant, and now shall I die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?" 19 But God split the hollow place that is in Lehi so that water came out of it. When he drank, his strength returned and he revived. Therefore, he named it En-hakkore, which is in Lehi to this day. 20 So he judged Israel twenty years in the days of the Philistines.
Samson gave an expressive name, En-hakkore, "the well of him that cried,""7 to the miraculously springing water as a memorial of the goodness of God to him and to keep him in remembrance both of his own distress, which caused him to cry, and the favour of God to him in answer to his cry. Our overwrought warrior-judge had much to fear if he stepped outside of the protection of God, for he stood alone in his conflict with the enemy. The passage gives adequate evidence of the apathetic attitude of the men of Judah who were not ashamed to drag their bound hero into the enemy's hands, who remained unmoved when the Philistines shouted against Samson and, even worse, apparently made no intervention to aid Samson in the conflict. Their faith in God was so weak that they feared to trust Him even under these circumstances. As great as the triumph of Samson was the failure of Israel was even greater, for Samson was fully conscious that he was fighting for the Lord when he referred to himself as the Lord's servant (v18), and yet the so-called people of God gave him no aid. It should be noted that the above incident reveals that Samson's strength was dependent upon the Lord alone and not upon his own strength and ability. Apparently he did not learn this lesson very well for even in his victory there was a note of defeat because it was wrought by the jawbone of a dead animal which was unclean according to the Law and his Nazirite vow should have precluded its' use!
The fifteenth chapter concludes with the note that Samson judged Israel in the days of the Philistines for twenty years. The Philistine oppression lasted forty years, but during the major part of Samson's judgeship it appears that he was able to maintain relative peace between Israel and the Philistines and there appears to be a considerable time lapse between chapters 15 and 16. We may suppose that, following the humiliating defeats inflicted by Samson's single-handed efforts, the Philistines no longer attempted to confront him and their penetration of the Judaean hill country would have been temporarily halted. Israel probably enjoyed relative peace and security during these years as a result of the partial deliverance accomplished by Samson who remained among his people during these years as a judge. However, just as unconfessed sin holds back the wide profession of the only true gospel message to the people of Britain from our churches today, the lack of repentance of the Israelites resulted in the return of oppression through the Philistines.
Samson either remained in the vicinity of Zorah or possibly lived in Hebron, the unofficial capital of chose days, and we read that "he judged Israel twenty years in the days of the Philistines" (v20). Although he had these bursts of zeal for the Lord and was equipped by God with every necessary potential to be a great leader in Israel, he continued to squander his greatest opportunities to serve the Lord. The hero who could strangle a lion and kill a thousand men single-handedly could not conquer his own passion and lust and his fall began with a trip to the Philistine city of Gaza, which was southernmost of the Philistine Pentapolis. Tell el-Ajjul has been identified as the most likely site of ancient Gaza. Excavations there in the 1930s by Sir Flinders Petrie revealed substantial amounts of Philistine pottery.8
One of the great lessons of the spiritual life has always been that one must take heed when he thinks he is standing sure, lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:12), thus Samson came to Gaza and was tempted by a harlot (Hebrew zanah) and lusted for her in his heart and "went in unto her" (v1). This Hebrew euphemism almost always means that he entered her chamber for the purpose of sexual intercourse. We also notice that he lay till midnight. Those who try to excuse him and say he only intended to lodge for the evening in this house should ask why he arose at midnight to leave? It seems more likely that he went to her house for the single purpose of engaging the woman sexually and then leaving when he was finished. Even at this low point of Samson's life, God was ready to deliver him from the Philistines. When the men of Gaza found out that Samson was in their city, they came to the gate of the city to wait out the night and ambush him in the morning. Many have questioned how Samson could have carried off the gate while they were there but the clear purpose of the record is to show that, despite Samson's repeated sin, God was willing to cause great and humiliating victories through him. In verse 2 we find that the Gazites laid in wait for him all night and slept by the gate, supposing to take him in the morning when he left the city. Thus, the phrase they were quiet all the night indicates that they lapsed into careless repose and fell asleep. Arriving at midnight, Samson took them by surprise and carried away the entire gate in which they were trusting so greatly. In ancient times the gates of walled cities were locked at night and the Gazites probably imagined that Samson could not get out until the gate was opened in the morning, at which time they would be ready for him.
Taking the doors of the gate, the two posts, bar and all, he broke it loose from the wall and carried it away to the top of a hill that was before Hebron. Hebron was the chief centre of the tribe of Judah in those days and may have been Samson's residence during his judgeship. However, Hebron was nearly thirty-eight miles from Gaza, a straight climb uphill from the coastal plain to 3,300 feet above sea level on the crest of the mountains of Judah - this was clearly another extraordinary supernatural feat! Commentators have argued whether the text means that Samson carried the gate to the foothills that are before Hebron, to the top of a hill near Gaza towards Hebron, or that he actually carried the gate to Hebron, but we must consider these factors: (1) having taken the gate of Gaza as his trophy he may have wanted to keep it in mockery of the Philistines; (2) for the gate of Gaza to lie before the Israelite city of Hebron would have marked a sign of triumph over the powerful Philistines; (3) a man with the supernatural strength to attack an entire army without a weapon (v2,12) could surely carry the gate of Gaza, however heavy it might have been, up to the summit of Hebron.
Despite this triumph, Samson's weakness for Philistine women had again been aroused and would lead to his humiliation. The beauty and voluptuousness of these women of Greek descent proved more than he could handle, and the Hebrew hero who sent fear into the hearts of the Philistine warriors would be conquered by a woman, at least partially, just as the enemies of Israel had been conquered by women in the days of Deborah and Barak (Judges 4). The simple statement (v4) of the text says she was a woman in the valley of Sorek and most commentators have assumed she was a Philistine, though she is not definitely specified as such. Living in the Valley of Sorek, where both peoples freely mingled, indicates she could have been either Philistine or Hebrew. However, Samson definitely had a passion for Philistine women and it seems unlikely that the five Lords of the Philistines would venture into Hebrew territory to bribe an Israelite girl. Though her name is Semitic in form, the Philistines often borrowed names from the Semitic peoples about them. Whoever this girl was, she was the instrument of Samson's great downfall.
God will not permit His own children to continue indulging in sin without soon receiving its stinging results. Twice before, Samson's passion had led him into great danger and this second amorous adventure was to be the last. The escape at Gaza had taught the mighty warrior nothing about God's patience to deliver his erring soul. From the nature of the encounter it seems likely that Delilah was another prostitute, or "a woman of ill-repute," and her residence in the Valley of Sorek placed her near the hometown of Samson at Zorah. Almost immediately the Lords of the Philistines (probably of the Pentapolis) came to bribe Delilah into discovering the secret of Samson's strength. They each offered to give her 1,100 pieces of silver, which would have amounted to a colossal fortune of 5,500 pieces of silver for betraying Samson into their hands. They must have learnt from the beatings they had taken at the hands of Samson that his abnormal strength came from a supernatural source. As a nation who went into battle (II Samuel 5:21) carrying their portable images or idols (Hebrew `atsab) with them they would have recognised spiritual power at work. But they could not have recognised that Samson's strength was the result of the moving of the Spirit of the Lord upon him; and this was related to the provisions of his Nazirite vow, although they were intent on discovering a physical source of the power through human cunning.
Delilah immediately set out with ruthless efficiency to procure the "secret" from Samson (v6). Moved by the desire to satisfy his own lustful passion, Samson became blinded to the motives behind her continuous questions. It would appear from her repeated attempts to find the answer that he was in the habit of visiting her regularly and so she continually pursued the matter. Cunningly she lulled Samson into sleeping passivity and her continual pleading to know the source of his strength brought out the juvenile nature that Samson had long displayed as he teased her in a deadly lovers' game. The first suggestion he gave her was to bind him with seven fresh cords (fresh bowstrings in the RSV). After this disclosure, the Lords of the Philistines brought her the bowstrings to try on Samson and left men to lie in wait to ambush Samson once the secret was discovered. Upon her next opportunity, Delilah bound Samson as he slept and called: "The Philistines be upon thee" (v9), but, awaking from his sleep, he immediately snapped the bowstrings. We should note that, unlike the works of art portraying this moment in history, the text does not say that those lying-in-wait in an inner room actually came upon him, but only that she screamed out these warning words. Had these men rushed into the room the three times we read that Samson pretended to have disclosed his secret, he would certainly have been suspicious of Delilah's treachery, so we can assume with reasonable certainty that the Philistines didn't try to seize him until he had finally revealed the truth.
The second mischievous suggestion by Samson was to bind him with new ropes, which had failed to hold him years earlier (15:13) and, again, Delilah tied him up and cried out in pretense of attack upon him. Attempt number three brought Samson perilously close to the truth when he told her to pin his hair into the mechanism of a weaver's loom. The loom in her house was probably vertical with the two posts fixed in the ground and fastened by a crossbeam from which the warp threads were suspended. Perhaps by weaving Samson's long hair into the warp she pinned it in the web so that it resembled a piece of cloth. Upon her screaming her warning of a Philistine attack again, Samson awoke and jerked his head free from the fixing that had been made. Delilah was now tired of Samson's disarming replies and began to put even more pressure on him: "Thou hast mocked me these three times. How canst thou say, I love thee, when thine heart is not with me? Thou hast mocked me these three times, and hast not told me wherein thy great strength lieth." (v154). One can easily imagine her tears flowing freely to reinforce her plea to the ever more tender-hearted Samson! Her nagging became so incessant that she pressed him daily with her words so that his soul was ""vexed unto death" (v16). Delilah almost literally "nagged him to death." Like many a man before and since Samson acquiesced to a woman's demands and revealed all his heart to her concerning the Nazirite vow and, possibly, the fact that the uncut hair was the only remaining sign of his consecration to Yahweh.
We read in verse 18 that Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart and sent for the Lords of the Philistines, saying, "Come up this once, for he hath showed me all his heart." Poor unsuspecting Samson! His disregard for his consecration to the Lord now lead to the removal of the last sign of the Nazirite vow and rendered him useless to the Lord's service. Many suggest that Samson thought his strength lay in his uncut hair alone, but we should notice that every mention of his physical prowess is accompanied by the remark that "the Spirit of the Lord came upon him" and this was the source that moved him to such great physical strength. The importance of the uncut hair was that it was one of the signs of the vow, but the only one of the three signs that was outwardly observable. He had told Delilah that a haircut would break the vow and render him powerless because physical strength was the particular gift he had from God as a result of his consecration to Him. His loss of strength afterwards was clearly attributed to the departure of the Spirit from him (v20) for, when he awoke, Samson thought he could shake himself as before, but the end of verse 204 has to be one of the saddest comments in all Scripture: "And he wist (knew) not that the Lord was departed from him." The special manifestation of the Spirit of God as the fulfilment of the Nazirite vow was now gone, for the last stipulation of Samson's consecration had been broken. Samson's experience may be said to parallel that of Israel during those times (cf. Judges 2:11-15), as well as later (cf. 1 Samuel 4:21, 22; 28:15, 16; Ezekiel 10:18-11:23; Hosea 7:8-15).
God had patiently dealt with Samson after he touched the dead lion, drank wine at the feast, and fought with the jawbone of a dead ass; but now, as the outward sign of Samson's Nazirite vow disappeared, His patience turned to judgment, and Samson was utterly powerless without the help of the Lord. The Lords of the Philistines rushed into Delilah's chamber for the first time and took Samson, cruelly put out his eyes, bound him with fetters of brass, and brought him to Gaza in this state of utter humiliation. The very city whose gate he had recently carried away now welcomed its blind captive. Samson's future potential was now apparently annulled for his uncontrolled lust had placed him in a condition where God could no longer use him to battle the Philistines hand to hand, for he was blind. He had disqualified himself by his selfish sin. The Philistines allowed him to live, but not out of any sense of kindness, for they chained him to the grinding mill where he ground out the grain by hand. This was the most tedious and lowest form of slave labour and was usually the work of women slaves (cf. Judges 9:53). It is unlikely that he ground at an ox or ass mill, as depicted by artists through the centuries, for his strength was no longer abnormal, and such large, animal-powered mills did not even exist until the fifth century B.C.8 The treatment Samson received was not unique to him, for ancient Akkadian texts suggest that it was a common practice for conquered warriors to be blinded and shackled so that they could not escape and then to be forced to grind grain in the prison.
There was another reason for Samson's humiliation grinding grain. The Philistines credited their new acquisition to their principal god Dagon as a victory over the God of the Hebrews. Dagon was the Semitic grain deity (cf. 1 Samuel 5:1-7; 1 Chronicles 10:8-10) whom the Philistines had "borrowed"" from the Canaanites. Earlier commentators thought Dagon to be a fish deity (Hebrew dag, "fish"), but recent Semitic studies have shown Dagon to be derived from the Hebrew word dagan (grain). Therefore, he was probably part of the fertility pantheon of the Canaanites and Temples of Dagon have been identified at eighteenth-century B.C. Mari, in Mesopotamia, and at thirteenth-century Ugarit, in northern Phoenicia. Dagon appears in name forms as early as the third third millennium B.C. and, in Ugaritic literature, he appears as the father of Baal. It is interesting to note the Philistines believed that by grinding out the grain, Samson was acknowledging the supremacy of their god, Dagon, over him!
Thus, the Philistines brought Samson to the depth of utter humiliation. In the now empty sockets of his eyes he carried the mark of his shame and unfaithfulness as God's servant and, although his hair is said to have begun to grow again, he was not in prison very long before the Philistines brought him forth to celebrate their victory. There is no evidence at this point that the growing of his hair caused him to receive any strength, as some commentators mistakenly assumed, until after he called upon the Lord (v28), but the Lords of the Pentapolis who gathered the people at Gaza for a great feast to praise their God had made the great mistake of thinking that their god had delivered Samson into their hands (v23)! The God of Israel would not permit this illusion for long! He had delivered His faithless servant into their hands, but He would yet find one more occasion against the Philistines because of Samson. At the peak of the revelry of the feast to Dagon, they called for Samson to entertain them. Every Philistine would have the opportunity to mock and curse the helpless blind hero who was made to put on a performance for the crowd.
The feast was probably the pillared temple of Dagon and the Lords and rulers were in the covered section below, while the crowd of guests was upon the roof (v27) watching Samson in the courtyard below. Cundall notes that the great host of people upon the roof may have made the whole structure unstable,9 but there is no need for us to suppose that God required any help in the way of man-made structural damage in order to bring about His purposes. After his humiliation, Samson was chained to the pillars just under the edge of the roof, being led by a young boy to emphasise how the once mighty warrior of the Danites was now dependent on a child! Critics argued for years about the details of the temple's structure, and about the impossibility of pulling out two pillars to collapse the whole structure. Such pillars, though, were common to Philistine temples built around courtyards. A recent discovery of a Philistine temple at Tell Qas in 1972 revealed that the structure was made of sun-dried mud-bricks laid as stone foundations, with a central hall whose roof was supported by two wooden pillars set on round stone bases, proving that the Bible writer knew his facts.10
Samson asked the lad who guided him to place him at the central pillars. The humiliating consequences of Samson's sin must have caused him to do some serious thinking and had probably moved him to repentance as evidenced by his prayer to the Lord (v283):
Then Samson called to the Lord and said, "O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes."
This is the only recorded prayer of Samson that we have in Scripture and surely our hearts melt at his sincere request to God to allow him to do the only thing that he could now do in his state of blindness? He called upon God using three different titles, Adonai, Yahweh, Elohim as (v29-30) he "grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left. And Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the Lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life." How many were killed is not specified, although we know that there were 3,000 on the roof alone (v27), and, because we read that the number was more than he had previously killed during his life-time we know that it was certainly more than 1,000! Archaeologists have discovered remains of Philistine temples and buildings which were erected during the twelfth century B.C. The type of construction consisted of two main pillars which supported the entire building and, in the excavation, they have found husks, and husks with strainers, among the various artifacts.8 These show that they drank strong beverages made from products with husks which required straining before drinking as part of their worship system, and we know there was drunken revelry going on when Samson was being humiliated in the Philistine temple. The proximity of the pillars to one another has been shown to be such that a man could touch both pillars and Samson's supernaturally imbued strength enabled him to lean upon them and collapse the entire structure of the building.
The death of the Philistine Lords, who were also the military leaders, corresponds to the defeat of the Philistines by Samuel in I Samuel 7. God in His sovereignty, allowed Samson to destroy the military leaders with his own death. That act helped Samuel as he rallied the people to defeat the Philistines who were left without adequate military leadership. The two events parallel and reinforce the overlap of the final years of the book of Judges with the first few chapters in 1 Samuel.
After Samson died, his brothers and all his father's household came down to collect his body and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father in the hill country overlooking the Valley of Sorek, the very scene of his greatest triumphs and his greatest failures! This is the first hint of any action on their part and may have been their first glimpse of the need to stand up for their God against the enemy. The Philistines evidently made no attempt to refuse Samson a proper burial in his family tomb, though they were not so kind to Saul in later times (I Samuel 31:9 10) - perhaps they were too utterly devastated by the way in which their triumphant feast had been turned into a disaster by the blinded and supposedly helpless servant of the God of Israel who had humiliated their impotent grain god, Dagon!
The biblical writers do not hesitate to record valid history that includes both the victories and defeats of its heroes, and no attempt is made to conceal the moral impurities of Samson. Thus, Garstang11 concluded that there is no reason to doubt the original authenticity of Joshua-Judges. Samson's spiritual failures are not condoned by the text, but are the means of his downfall. He is a tragic picture of a man of God fully equipped to serve the Lord, but whose service was often rendered ineffective by his passion and lust.
(Continued on page 525)