SAMSON (săm’sŭn, Heb. shimshôn, probably little sun, Gr. Sampsōn, Lat. and Eng. Samson). One of the judges of Israel, perhaps the last before Samuel. The record of his life is found in
Zorah, where he was born, was about halfway between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean, along the coast of which the Philistines lived. His birth was announced by the angel of the Lord beforehand to his mother, who was barren. The angel told her that she would have a son, that this son should be a Nazirite from his birth, and that the Lord would begin to use him to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines. Nazirites were under a special vow to God to restrain their carnal nature, thus showing the people generally that if they would receive God’s blessing, they must deny and govern themselves and be faithful to their vows of consecration as God’s covenant people. The preternatural strength that Samson exhibited at various times in his career was not his because he was a natural giant, but because the Spirit of the Lord came on him to accomplish great deeds.
At the time of his birth the Israelites had been in bondage to the Philistines for forty years because they had done evil in the sight of the Lord. After his birth “he grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was in , between Zorah and Eshtaol” (
This act of vengeance only provoked another and a greater vengeance from Samson. He “attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them” and went to a cave in a rock called Etam. The Philistines invaded Judah and demanded the surrender of their archenemy. Samson agreed to allow the Israelites to deliver him into the hands of the Philistines; but on the way he broke the cords that bound him and, seizing the jawbone of a donkey, killed one thousand men with it. With this great feat Samson clearly established his title to the position of a judge in Israel. The historian says in this connection, “Samson led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines” (
Samson next went down to Gaza, a Philistine stronghold, and yielded to the solicitations of a harlot. When it became known that he was in the city, the Philistines laid a trap for him; but at midnight Samson got up, took the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and carried them a quarter of a mile to the top of the hill before Hebron. God in his mercy continued to give him supernatural strength in spite of his evil actions.
Continuing his life of self-indulgence, Samson before long became enamored of a Philistine woman named Delilah, through whom he lost his physical power. The Philistine leaders bribed her with a large sum of money to betray him into their hands. By their direction she begged him to tell her in what his great strength lay. Three times he gave her deceitful answers, but at last he gave in to her importunities and revealed that if only his hair were cut he would be like other men. She lulled him into a profound sleep, his hair was cut, and when he awoke and heard her derisive cry, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” he found that not merely his strength but also God had departed from him. Now at the mercy of his enemies, he was bound with chains, his eyes were put out, and he was sent to grind in the prison of Gaza.
How long Samson continued in this state of shameful bondage is unknown—perhaps some weeks or even months. On the occasion of a great feast to the god Dagon, his captors resolved to make sport of him before the assembled multitude. The temple of Dagon was filled with people—with three thousand on the roof to watch the sport. Meanwhile, his hair had grown again, and with his returning strength he longed for revenge on his enemies for his two blinded eyes (
With all of his failings he is listed with the heroes of faith in
SAMSON săm’ sən (שִׁמְשֹׁ֑ון; LXX Σαμψών, G4907, meaning debated; sunny, sun’s man or sun’s child have been proposed). Judge and hero of Israel famous for his prodigious strength displayed against the Philistines (
The Biblical account gives no explanation, etymology, or significance to the name Samson. Nevertheless, it derives from shemesh, meaning “sun.” This is not unexpected, since Samson was born only a few m. from Beth-Shemesh, the city whose name means “house of the sun.” The city was presumably once the site of a shrine of the sungod. Probably both names are survivals from earlier Canaanite, which reflect Canaanite sun worship before Israel settled the land. This has led some to interpret the Samson story as a solar myth. However, this interpretation cannot be sustained (see Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the, 434ff. for refutation).
While the derivation of Samson from shemesh is clear, the function of the -ōn ending of the name is not so clear. It prob. indicates a meaning like “sunny, solar,” or “sun’s man,” though it could be a diminutive ending meaning “sun’s child.” In any event, Ugaritic names with a similar ending are common. This would also support the suggestion above that Samson was originally a Canaanite name.
Samson was born during the period of the judges, prob. around the beginning of the 11th cent. b.c. During this period God raised up national heroes to deliver His people from their enemies. These deliverers were termed judges (שֹֽׁפְטִ֑ים); Samson is the last one mentioned before the transition of Eli and Samuel to the monarchy. Israel’s most formidable enemy at this time was the Philistines, whom God had used to oppress Israel because of their evil deeds (
The four chs. of Judges (
Central to the promise of a son were the instructions which the angel gave. The boy to be born was to be consecrated to God as a Nazirite from birth. The Nazirite vow involved three prohibitions: (1) against eating or drinking the fruit of the vine; (2) against contamination by any unclean thing; (3) against cutting the hair. Three times the injunction was repeated, each time addressed to his mother (
The regulations for a Nazirite are given in
Samson’s life was the story of his breaking of the three prohibitions of the Nazirite vow. Hebrew storytelling is at its best in describing how Samson violated these prohibitions, climaxing with Delilah cutting his hair.
Samson’s first adventure, or misadventure, involved a trip down to Timnah (
Two additional trips to Timnah to see his girl friend brought the first violation of his Nazirite vow (
Samson’s fourth trip to Timnah was to marry the Philistine woman (
Also at the wedding festivities Samson proposed a riddle which turned on a play of words (
When he returned to Timnah to visit his wife, he was prevented by her father; she had been married to Samson’s best man (
Samson’s second woman was a harlot he found in Gaza (
Samson was not the only one whose long hair was associated with heroic strength. Achaean warriors often were called the “long haired” (lliad 2:323, 443, etc.). The fighting strength of the god Phoebus was associated with his unshorn hair (Iliad 20:39). Finally, the Gilgamesh Epic states that the mighty Enkidu had long hair like a woman; and the glyptic art bears this out.
Samson’s death came with his final heroic deed. To celebrate Samson’s capture and give glory to Dagon, their god, the Philistines assembled at a temple in Gaza. Samson was called out of prison to make sport before the assembled body. Led by a little lad to a position between two pillars, Samson asked to feel the pillars. He then prayed to God for strength to avenge himself. God answered, and Samson pulled down the supporting pillars of the temple. Though it resulted in his own death, he killed more Philistines with this act than during all of his life. He had judged Israel for twenty years (
Samson was a somewhat enigmatic figure, with very little similarity to other judges. He resembled them only by being possessed of the Spirit, which seized him suddenly and drove him to violent action, exhibiting itself in extraordinary strength. But his exploits were always individual. He called no one else to his aid, led no troops to battle, and was in no sense a national leader. In fact, all he did was to avenge his own personal wrongs on the Philistines. Yet the key to the understanding of Samson is to be found in these individual exploits. They are of such extraordinary proportions that Samson must be understood as a heroic figure, living in a heroic age, and recorded in heroic lit. (For evidence, see the writing of C. H. Gordon, esp. The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations and the dissertation of C. E. Armerding, The Heroic Ages of Greece and Israel: A Literary-Historical Comparison.) Comparisons with other heroic figures, such as Hercules and Gilgamesh, are very illuminating. But comparisons do not mean point for point parallels. It is stretching the evidence to find twelve labors of Samson to parallel the twelve labors of Hercules, as some have done.
The setting of Samson’s exploits was along the border between the Philistines and the tribe of Dan. Thus the primary historical significance of the story is the insight it gives us into life along the border. This information is largely sociological—marriage customs and wedding festivities, relationships with women, riddles, bribes, etc. There is also information about the Philistine domination of Israel. The tribe of Dan at one time had expanded out to the Mediterranean coast (
Since Samson is a heroic figure living in a heroic age, one must be careful in drawing religious significance from his life. His exploits resulted from the circumstances of a rough and ready life. Thus his virtues and vices were those of the heroic age in which he lived, and should not be imitated or avoided, as the case may be. Samson broke his Nazirite vow and disobeyed God, and therein is his religious significance. His life is a negative example of a charismatic leader who came to a tragic, yet heroic, end. Nevertheless, his partial victory over the enemy was reason to be named with the heroes of the faith (
G. F. Moore, Judges, ICC (1895), 312-365; P. Carus, The Story of Samson and Its Place in the Religious Development of Mankind (1907); A. S. Palmer, The Samson-Saga and Its Place in
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
Derived probably from shemesh, "sun" with the diminutive ending -on, meaning "little sun" or "sunny," or perhaps "sun-man"; Sampson; Latin and English, Samson): His home was near Bethshemesh, which means "house of the sun." Compare the similar formation shimshay (
Samson was a judge, perhaps the last before Samuel. He was a Nazirite of the tribe of Da (
3. Story of His Life:
The story of Samson’s life is unique among the biographies of the Old Testament. It is related in Judges 13-16. Like Isaac, Samuel and, he was a child of prayer (13:8,12). To Manoah’s wife the angel of Yahweh appeared twice (13:3,9), directing that the child which should be born to them should be a Nazirite from the womb, and that he would "begin to save Israel out of the hand of the Philistines" (13:5,7,14). The spirit of Yahweh first began to move him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol (13:25). On his arriving at manhood, five remarkable circumstances are recorded of him.
(1) His marriage with a Philistine woman of Timnah (Judges 14). His parents objected to the alliance (
`Out of the eater came something to eat,
And out of the strong came something sweet’ (
The Philistines threatened the life of his bride, and she in turn wrung from Samson the answer; whereupon he retorted (in Dr. Moore’s version):
`If with my heifer ye did not plow,
Ye had not found out my riddle, I trow’ (
Accordingly, in revenge, Samson went down to Ashkelon, slew some 30 men, and paid his debt; he even went home without his wife, and her father to save her from shame gave her to Samson’s "best man" (
(2) When he escaped to Etam, an almost vertical rock cliff in Judah (by some identified with `Araq Ismain) not far from Zorah, Samson’s home, the Philistines invaded Judah, encamped at Lehi above Etam, and demanded the surrender of their arch-enemy. The men of Judah were willing to hand Samson over to the Philistines, and accordingly went down to the cliff Etam, bound Samson and brought him up where the Philistines were encamped (
(3) Samson next went down to Gaza, to the very stronghold of the Philistines, their chief city. There he saw a harlot, and, his passions not being under control, he went in unto her. It was soon noised about that Samson, the Hebrew giant, was in the city. Accordingly, the Philistines laid wait for him. But Samson arose at midnight and laid hold of the doors of the gate and their two posts, and carried them a full quarter of a mile up to the top of the mountain that looketh toward Hebron (
(4) From Gaza Samson betook himself to the valley of Sorek where he fell in love with another Philistine woman, named Delilah, through whose machinations he lost his spiritual power. The Philistine lords bribed her with a very large sum to deliver him into their hands. Three times Samson deceived her as to the secret of his strength, but at last he explains that he is a Nazirite, and that his hair, which has never been shorn, is the secret of his wonderful power. J. G. Frazer (Golden Bough, III, 390 ff) has shown that the belief that some mysterious power resides in the hair is still widespread among savage peoples, e.g. the Fiji Islanders. Thus, Samson fell. By disclosing to Delilah this secret, he broke his covenant vow, and the Spirit of God departed from him (
"Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves."
Howbeit, the hair of his head began to grow again; but his eyes did not! (
(5) The final incident recorded of Samson is in connection with a great sacrificial feast which the Philistine lords gave in honor of Dagon, their god. In their joyous celebration they sang in rustic rhythm:
`Our god has given us into our hand
The foe of our land,
Whom even our most powerful band
Was never able to withstand’ (
This song was accompanied probably, as Mr. Macalister suggests, by hand-clapping (Gezer, 129). When they became still more merry, they called for Samson to play the buffoon, and by his pranks to entertain the assembled multitude. The house of Dagon was full of people; about 3,000 were upon the roof beholding as Samson made sport. With the new growth of his hair his strength had returned to him. The dismantled giant longed to be avenged on his adversaries for at least one of his two eyes (
4. Historical Value:
5. Religious Value:
Not a few important and suggestive lessons are deducible from the hero’s life:
(1) Samson was the object of parental solicitude from even before his birth. One of the most suggestive and beautiful prayers in the Old Testament is that of Manoah for guidance in the training of his yet unborn child (
(2) He was endowed with the Spirit of Yahweh--the spirit of personal patriotism, the spirit of vengeance upon a foe of 40 years’ standing (
(3) He also prayed, and Yahweh answered him, though in judgment (
(4) He was passionate and therefore weak. The animal of his nature was never curbed, but rather ran unchained and free. He was given to sudden fury. Samson was a wild, self-willed man. Passion ruled. He could not resist the blandishments of women. In short, he was an overgrown schoolboy, without self-mastery.
(5) He accordingly wrought no permanent deliverance for Israel; he lacked the spirit of cooperation. He undertook a task far too great for even a giant single-handed. Yet, it must be allowed that Samson paved the way for Saul and David. He began the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines. He must, therefore, be judged according to his times. In his days there was unrestrained individual independence on every side, each one doing as he pleased. Samson differed from his contemporaries in that he was a hero of faith (
(1) Comma. on Jgs, notably those by G. F. Moore, ICC, 1895; Budde, Kurzer Handkommentar, 1897; Nowack, Handkommentar, 1900; E. L. Curtis, The Bible for Home and School, 1913; Bachmann, 1868; Keil, 1862; Farrar in Ellicott’s Commentaries; Watson, Expositor’s Bible. (2) Articles on "Samson" in the variousand Encyclopedias; in particular those by Budde, HDB; C. W. Emmet, in 1-vol HDB; S. A. Cook, New Encyclopedia Brit; Davis, Dict. of the Bible.
George L. Robinson