The story of Samson must surely be one of the most famous tales in the Bible. Found in the Book of Judges (chapters 13-16), it is a fascinating (and slightly weird) tale of conflicts—internal and external. The mighty hero of Israel's story is so famous that his name was once a popular slang term for a strong person* and it is still a common name for large animals (such as big dogs or horses).
A man of wisdom, Samson served as one of the Judges of Israel for 20 years—yet he is shown to be a man of violence and impulse who succumbs to temptations of the flesh repeatedly, and they eventually lead to his downfall. He was the last of the Israelite Judges and his is a tale of endings.
The name Samson (Shimshon in Hebrew) comes from the word for sun (shemesh). This very likely connects him, at least distantly, with the ancient Mesopotamian sun god Shamash. Many efforts have been made by scholars to connect him with the Greek hero Heracles and/or the Babylonian Gilgamesh.
Samson was the son of Manoah of Zorah (about 14 miles / 22.5 km west of Jerusalem), of the tribe of Dan. His parents had no children until an angel announced to Manoah's wife that she would bear a son who would be a great hero and who would help to deliver the Children of Israel from their foes, the Philistines. From birth, Samson was held to the strict Nazarite code which governed many of his habits (he was, for the most familiar example, never allowed to allow his hair to be cut). So long as he kept these codes, he was possessed of superhuman strength and prowess, an invincible warrior.
Like so many heroes, Samson had a weakness—he liked the ladies. Over the objections of his family, Samson was betrothed to a Philistine woman. While he was courting her, he killed a young lion with his bare hands. When he returned to the place, a swarm of bees had made a hive in the remains and it was flowing with honey (the killing of the lion reminds many comparative mythology folks of Heracles and Enkidu—those old-world heroes were always throwing lions around to show how tough they were!). Bees don't normally nest in the carcasses of dead animals, so this is sometimes seen as a poetic allusion to goodness coming out of death, rather than a historical account.
At his seven-day wedding feast, Samson posed a nearly impossible riddle to his guests:
"Out of the eater came something to eat, And out of the strong came something sweet."**
His impromptu riddle contest did not exactly please his guests— they threatened to burn up his home and his wife begged him to tell them the answer. When he wouldn't relent, she snuck the answer to them. Samson was none too happy about any of this.
Tensions escalated when Samson destroyed the crops of the Philistines by tying torches between the tails of 150 pairs of foxes and set them loose in their fields. The Philistines invaded and took him captive, but the mighty man broke his bonds and killed 1,000 Philistine soldiers when he was armed only with the jawbone of an ass. That place became known as Ramath-lehi 'the Hill of the Jawbone.'
Samson then traveled to Gaza for a little R & R (although his Nazarite vows kept him from drinking). While he was enjoying some quality time with a lady of easy leisure, his foes shut and barred the gates, thinking that they could keep him prisoner in that way, but he uprooted the gates and carried them up to a nearby hill.
The Philistines paid a beautiful woman named Delilah to seduce the hero, a task which proved to be very easy. Interestingly, her name may put her at odds with the solar hero. Some scholars claim that Delilah is a form of de-leilah = 'of the night,' although a convincing argument can be made that her name is in fact a form of delal 'to weaken.'
Delilah tried several gambits to get him to divulge the secret of his invulnerability. Each time she asked, he told her a lie and she tried whatever he told her, as though to give him over to his enemies. Now, one might think that he would, after a couple of times, get a clue that she was planning to betray him to his foes, but each time she was like "If you really loved me you'd tell me your secret," and so he made up some other falsehood. This game went on time after time, but eventually he let slip the truth about his vows being the source of his strength. She shaved his head while he slept and gave him over to the Philistines, who put out his eyes and put him to work at a grinding mill.
A short time thereafter, the captured hero was brought to the temple of Dagon in chains and a feast was held to celebrate his capture. He prayed for a final chance to smite the foes of Israel and felt his strength return a bit—his hair had also grown out a bit by this time. Standing between the support pillars for the huge stone roof, he used his strength to drop the roof on his foes (and himself, of course). It is said that in death, he killed more foes than he had ever done in life.
As a result of the way this story is sometimes told, it can sound as though Samson had magical power locked in his long hair—this of course misses the point. His hair represented a covenant, and when it was removed he was no longer in fulfillment of that covenant. The hair was only symbolic, not magical.
This story is a bit ambivalent about the hero and later scholars, both Jewish and Christian, have had similarly mixed feelings regarding Samson. He is hardly a paragon of virtue and some Rabbis have cast doubt on his status as a Nazarite, since those vows are supposed to be entered into voluntarily, rather than imposed from birth. Most Talmudic scholars seem to hold the hero's life up as more of a cautionary tale—a warning about the dangers of lifelong asceticism and self-denial.
Samson's story remains a favorite biblical tale and has been re-told in countless plays and movies over the ages, not to mention such differing fare as comedy sketches, cartoons, television shows, scholarly papers and novels. The last of the Judges will doubtless remain a cultural archetype for generations to come.
*One can just picture a chap with a handlebar moustache calling out to a big fellow, "Say there Samson, could you help a chappie get his velocipede out of that quagmire?" If the reader can not picture this, my apologies for the digression.
**The answer, of course, had to do with that lion he killed! Honestly, some heroes, they tear one lion apart "as he might have torn a young goat" and they won't shut up about it. I actually think this was an unfair riddle as you kinda had to be there in order to understand it, and his new Philistine pals obviously weren't.
Beck, Mordechai, "Wherein Lies Your Strength", Parabola Magazine, Winter 2002, pp58-61
Davis, John D. "A Dictionary of the Bible" (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1942).
Martin, William C., "A Layman's Bible Encyclopedia" (the Southwestern Company, Nashville, 1964).
Buttrick, G.A. et al, "the Interpreter's Bible" volume 2 (Abingdon Press, New York, 1953).