Judges 14-16: Samson!

Three chapters are devoted to the wild and crazy adventures of the He-Man from Mahaneh-dan. According to the OSE, “modern criticism considers these stories choice examples of early Israelite folklore.” The story of Samson and Delilaha is the most well-known narrative from the Book of Judges.


Chapter 14 contains, as best I can tell, two stories about Samson which are meshed around verses 5-9. The text before and after this stretch is coherent, but during 5-9 something weird is going on.

14:1 Samson went down to Timnah, and there he saw a woman, one of the Philistines. When he came back up, he told his father and mother that he had seen a Philistine woman in Timnath and asked them to get her for him as his wife.”

He asks his parents to score him some sweet Philistine tail, but they refuse. I won’t bother to type all of it up (you should really read these three chapters for yourself) but the opening section (14:1-4) is internally consistent. Then it gets weird:

14:5 Samson and his father and mother went down to Timnath and, when he reached the vineyards there, a young lion came at him growling. The spirit of the LORD suddenly seized him and, having no weapon in hand, he tore the lion in pieces as if it were a kid. He did not tell his parents what he had done. Then he went down and spoke to the woman, and she pleased him. After a time he went down again to take her to wife; he turned aside to look at the carcass of the lion, and he saw a swarm of bees in it, and honey. He scraped the honey into his hands and went on, eating as he went. When he came to his father and mother, he gave them some and they ate it; but he did not tell them that he had scraped the honey out of the lion’s carcass. His father went down to see the woman, and Samson gave a feast there as the custom of young men was.

(The NEB translates v. 14:5 as “Samson went down to Timnath…” It asserts this is the “probable reading”, while the Hebrew adds “and his father and mother.” I can only guess this “probably reading” was invented to remove one of many obvious inconsistencies. The translators attempt to “fix” the text in this manner quite frequently.)

I haven’t been able to come up with a satisfactory answer for this passage’s disunity. The movement of Samson’s parents is contradictory and the bits about the lion don’t mesh with the bits about his wife. But I can find no clean way to “split” the passage.

What follows this is a lengthy tale regarding Samson at his wedding feast. Samson’s wife and his encounter with the lion are still major plot elements.

Samson goes down to Philistine and he gives a feast. He’s shown “thirty young men to be his escort”. He asks them a riddle, saying that if they can guess it, he will give them 30 lengths of linen and 30 spiify outfits. Samson’s riddle:

14:14 Out of the eater came something to eat;
Out of the strong came something sweet.

The men can’t get it, so they threaten Samson’s wife, demanding she coax the answer from him. In turn, she gets upset with Samson because he won’t tell her the answer. Samson consoles her: he didn’t tell his folks either. Samson is serious about his riddles. Nonetheless, Samson’s unnamed wife (this isn’t Delilah, if you’re wondering) cries for seven days straight, until he gives in and tells her. Immediately she passes on the answer to the male escorts. Then, just as she and Samson are about to consummate their wedding, the thirty men rush up to Samson and give him his answer:

14:18 What is sweeter than honey?
What is stronger than a lion?

Samson is livid, because he realizes his wife has betrayed him. (‘If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle’) Plus, now he had to go all the way down to Ashkelon and kill 30 people to get the 30 pairs of clothes he promised. Yeah, the bastard promised stuff he didn’t have.

So, back to the weirdness of 14:5-10. What was going on? I think perhaps vv. 1-4 were originally a separate story fragment. The style seems different; it seems a little more “big picture” than the rest of the folktale:

14:4 His father and mother did not know that the LORD was at work in this, seeking an opportunity against the Philistines, who at that time were masters of Israel.

The wedding feast tale originally began with Samson slaying the lion; it’s content dovetails directly into the wedding feast tale in several ways. (Note the references to Samson concealing the lion from his parents, which is acknowledged later.) The opening story, while thematically relevant, doesn’t really contain any salient details. I believe it was integrated into the larger story by careful (sloppy?) editing of the lion story.


Chapter 15 describes escalating battles between Samson and the Philistines. I think it might be a fusion of two stories, with the split being after verse 8. Samson goes to visit his wife, but her dad has decided Samson didn’t like her, so he gave her away Samson’s groomsman. (Yay for traditional marriage?) Samson takes this out on the Philistines:

15:4 So he went and caught three hundred jackals and got some torches; he tied the jackals tail to tail and fastened a torch between each pair of tails. He then set the torches alight and turned the jackals loose in the standing corn of the Philistines.

Brilliant plan, brilliant execution. The Philistines, in retaliation, torch Samson’s wife and her father. Good riddance to the in-laws, I guess, but what did she ever do? Then it says Samson “smote them hip and thigh with great slaughter”.

The second story finds Samson living at the Rock of Etam. Philistines are encamped up in Judah- apparently intent on capturing the dreaded Samson. The men of Judah beg Samson to surrender, and he does so graciously, as long as they keep him alive for the Philistines to dispatch themselves. He’s brought to Lehi (לחי‬), a place in Judah with a name very close to the word for “jawbone” (לחי‬). There, he does a real he-man stunt, bursting his ropes and melting his binds and then killing lots and lots of Philistines with, yep, the jawbone of an donkey. Then he names the place Ramath-lehi  (רמת~לחי) “Jawbone Hill”, which is a bit redundant considering the place was already called Lehi.

There is an interesting translation difficulty. This is the given translation of 15:16:

With the jaw-bone of an ass I have flayed them like asses;
with the jaw-bone of an ass I have slain a thousand men.

For the first line the OSE gives the following alternate translations:

With the jaw-bone of an ass I have reddened them blood-red.
With the jaw-bone of an ass I have heaped them in heaps.

Then, in desperation, it just gives the Hebrew: חֲמֹור חֲמֹרָתָיִם “hamor himmartim”. Basically, nobody has any idea what 15:16 is saying. It’s a pun of some kind. “Hamor” means donkey (unless it doesn’t) and “himmartim” is a similar but not identical word with a masculine plural suffix. All we have here are the translator’s best guesses. (Note that the KJV translaton is “heaps upon heaps.”)

Those who think the Bible is God’s word should ask him what “hamor himmartim” means, because currently his message is incomplete.

Chapter 15 ends with the formulaic conclusion to Samson’s reign as judge, which we’re told lasted twenty years.


Oh, that was just shitty editing. Samson’s story isn’t over.

The first three verses of 16 are an unconnected and rather opaque story about Samson going to meet a whore in Gaza and then carrying the city’s gate to Hebron. Moving on…

Enter Delilah.

For all the press it gets, the famous story of Samson and Delilah is about a page long and rather simple. It is also remarkably similar to the wedding-feast story we just heard. Like before, a group of men (here the “lords of the Philistines”) try to get Samson’s ladyfriend to coax an important secret out of him. But rather than being a trivia game for clothes, these men want to learn the secret to Samson’s power. Spoiler: like any good Nazarite, it’s his hair.

16:6 So Delilah said to Samson, ‘Tell me what gives you your great strength, and how you can be bound and held captive.’ Samson replied, ‘If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings not yet dry, then I shall become as weak as any other man.’

This is, needless to say, a lie. Delilah yells “OMG PHILISTINES” and Samson breaks himself free and isn’t killed by the men Delilah already has staged in the other room. So Delilah asks him again, and for some reason they play this game several times, with Samson lying and Delilah trying to get him killed and I don’t know why he just didn’t leave already.

Finally, stupidly, Samson tells her the real secret: if you shave my hair, I’m boned. Guess what happens?

16:19 She lulled him to sleep on her knees, summoned a man and he shaved the seven locks of his hair for her. She began to  take him captive and his strength lefth him. Then she scried, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ He woke from his sleep and said, ‘I will go out as usual and shake myself’; he did not know that the LORD had left him. The Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and brought him down to Gaza.

I don’t want to be crass, but does “she lulled him to sleep on her knees” really mean what I think it means? (And what exactly is “shake myself” a euphemism for?)

So Samson is brought to Gaza, which is on the coast to the southwest of Judah, basically Philistine country. (Can you tell I just bought a Bible atlas?) Here Samson is made to pay dearly for all his Philistine-slaughtering antics. Now blind, he is first forced to grind corn in prison. Then, during some sort of festival for the god Dagon, he is forced to fight (who or what is not described) for the amusement of the Philistines.

16:25 So they summoned Samson from prison and he made sport before them all. They stood him between the pillars, and Samson said to the boy who held his hand, ‘Put me where I can feel the pillars which support the temple, so that I may lean against them.’

“The pillars” are mentioned there for the first time, as if we should know they are there. It turns out they are holding up a temple, which contains 3,000 Philistines “watching Samson as he fought.” A couple problems involving the science of OPTICS. First, isn’t Samson blind? How’s he know about the pillars? And two, how can the pillars be holding up a temple so that the people in the temple can see Samson standing between the pillars? Was he taking a little breather in the shade during his deathmatch?

Okay, anyway, Samson grabs those pillars and pulls them down on himself and kills the 3,000 people. And himself. And there ends the story of Samson. He sure killed a lot of Philistines!

The CBC radio show Wiretap did an episode devoted to Samson; look for “Samson and Delilah” in the season 2 archive. Jonathan Goldstein delivers an interesting retelling of Samson’s story, one that perhaps improves on the Bible’s garbled account.


This entry was posted in Judges and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s