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
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.
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 (
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