Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


'Love conquered the unconquerable Hercules and great hearted Achilles. And then what has the whole wide world ever produced that was stronger than Samson [son of Goliath]? Single handed love was able to lay him low!’1

The Book of Judges is a strange book for the Holy Scriptures.  It follows the Book of Joshua which suggests that the Israelis conquered the lands of Canaan by killing all or most of its inhabitants (Josh. 11:12-15). And yet Judges opening verse is ‘Which of us is to march on the Canaanites first to make war on them’ (Jg. 1:1). The book continues with wars against various Canaanite tribes and in fact 200 years later David is still fighting the same tribes.

Violence is one of the central themes of the Book of Judges. The book as a whole seems to suggest that the Hebrews instead of rejecting the idolatry and pagan morality of the newly conquered population adopted them. Note the last sections of the Book of Judges; the chopping up of a woman into twelve pieces (Jg. 19:29-30), the raping of women of Shiloh (21:22-23) and the war by Israeli tribes against their brothers the Benjamites (20;12-48). One commentator suggests that Jephthah sacrificing his daughter is a quintessential symbol of this moral degeneration.  The final verse of the Book is ‘everyone did as he saw fit (21:25). It suggests that Israel had adopted its own weakness and perversity.

Some have considered Samson the most problematical personality of the Judges; he was captured due to his need for sexual gratification and then died seeking personal revenge.  Jephthah who might have competed for this position is a leader but not a Judge.  Jephthah appears to keep a foolish vow while Samson breaks a serious vow of nazir-hood.

The origin of the name ‘Shimshon’, the Hebrew for Samson stems from the root ‘shmsh’ meaning sun as do two villages mentioned in the story Beit Shemesh and Ain Shemesh. The word suggests that a sun God was worshiped in the area. Sun worship was a major element of pagan and particularly Greek mythology. The Greek demi-god Hercules was a warrior whose strength was his virtue not his wisdom. Hercules has twelve feats to accomplish. In an ancient myth one of Jason’s brother’s was named Samson. Roskoff 2 has suggested that Samson was similarly faced with twelve tasks.  Hercules started his labors by killing a lion with his bare hands. The Greek god Sandor – a sun god – frequently killed lions.   Pterecaus, grandson of Poseidon super power comes from his golden hair and when it was shaved off he lost that power.  His hair as is well known is the source of his strength – he wears his hair into seven locks (Jg. 16:13). As noted by Mobley 3 other Mesopotamian ‘wild men’ Lahmu and Senkidu wore their hair in several locks.

Samson was born to a powerful but unnamed mother who has an annunciation from an angel of God (twice); her husband Manoah expected to die while his wife expected as a result of the theophany to bear a child. ‘We will surely die, since we have seen God’ (Jg. 13:22).

Samson is a wild man endowed by nature and God with enormous strength but equally with a vice; his love and attraction for forbidden women. This vice led him to act foolishly and impetuously in a manner appropriate perhaps to an adolescent.

What theology are we intended to learn from Samson?

The story begins with a barren unnamed woman telling her husband Manoah the message delivered to her by an angel of God; he appears to disbelieve her and instead calls on the angel to speak directly to him. (The mother is not only unnamed and barren; we do not know her age, she does speak to her husband like Rachel about the fertility problem, does she pray like Hannah.) The angel however chooses to revisit the unnamed woman once again and she summons her husband, an apparent insult to Manoah. The angel instructs Manoah to follow all the instructions he has delivered to Manoah’s wife – similar to Abraham being told to follow the words of his wife Sarah (Gen. 21:12). Manoah remains firm in his disbelief and invites the angel to eat. When met with refusal (Jg 13:16) Manoah then asks him for his name; he replies why do you ask my name (13:17); these are the precise words the ‘angel/man’ said to Jacob when he is asked his name (Gen. 32:30). Manoah finally convinced of the sanctity of the event sacrifices a lamb and the angel disappeared in the flames. Manoah utters we have seen God and will die. She responds pragmatically how can we die if we are to have a child? The unnamed mother is clearly the woman of faith not Manoah.  

The woman is told that her son is to be Nazir. The definition of a Nazir is in the Book of Numbers: If a man or woman chooses to make a Nazir vow [for a period of time] he shall abstain from wine or any thing coming from wine (Num. 6:2) and no razor shall touch his head for the time of his Nazirhood (6:4-5) he shall not go near a corpse (6:6); he is consecrated to God (6:8). If he does become defiled his hair becomes unclean and he must shave it on the seventh day and bring a sacrifices and return to his Nazirite vow. The key to being a Nazir seems to be abstaining from wine and the growing and not cutting of hair (6:21). The only example in the Hebrew Bible is in fact Samson, a poor example for a man consecrated to God as a nazir.

A certain similarity can be drawn to the case of Samuel whose mother is told that her son shall not cut his hair, nothing is said about the drinking of wine, although the High Priest Eli, while she was silently praying for a son, believed she was drunk. Samuel (like Samson) is not called a Nazarite in the Hebrew text; although the Septuagint does call Samuel one.  The idea of Samson being a Nazir is found in many Jewish medieval tales. (1)

We are told early in the tale of Samson is to be a Nazir with a specific mission: ‘No razor is to touch his head for the boy is to be God’s Nazir from his mother’s womb and he will start rescuing Israel from the Philistines’ (Jud.13:5). He is born as a Nazir to his dying day. (13:7). His mother is to ‘drink no wine or fermented liquor and eat nothing unclean’ (13:7). One might expect if his mother to refrain from drinking intoxicating drinks before his birth surely it would apply to Samson. Or is Samson to share his Nazir-hood with his mother a strange form of the Oedipus complex?

 Samson is noted as participating in a long seven day wedding feast (mishteh – to drink) to his Philistine wife in Timneh (noted for its vineyards 14:5) with his male friends (14:10-17); it is highly unlikely that wine was not served.  How many people did Samson kill and therefore how many corpses was he in contact with?  Samson marries a Philistine from Timneh - one of the enemies; visits a women noted as a prostitute (16:1) and finally ‘loves’ (16:4) Delilah who sells Samson to the Philistines for a significant amount of money. While having sexual relations with forbidden women is not explicitly forbidden for a nazir can one consider those actions a man consecrated to God ought to do?

Samson’s Nazir-hood appeared doomed from the beginning - He did not choose it; did he ever accept it? Did he share it with his Mother?

He never seems to have accepted being consecrated to God and consequently never really began his mission to start rescuing Israel from the power of the Philistines (13:5). This despite at the moment of his telling Delilah the secret that will destroy him he finally admits ‘I have been God’s nazir from my mothers womb' (16:17). In fact since early in his life he chose gratuitous violence against Philistine men (the thirty men he killed because he needed their clothing, the 300 foxes he lit on fire in a very dry land and cannot resist sexual impropriety with Philistine women, a seeming inconsistency.

Does Samson ever understand that his own flaws brought down his disaster? What kind of story is this for the sacred scriptures? The Rabbis understood ‘Samson went after his eyes, therefore the Philistines poked out his eyes’ (BT Sotah 9b). Is this intended as a form of biblical justice ‘an eye for an eye’? Samson does not seem to learn from previous experience, particularly regarding women. This is more like a Greek tale than about a Hebrew Judge.  In an article Dr. Eric Altschaler 4 suggests that based on the evidence in the text - his torching Philistine fields by putting a fire to 300 foxes,  refusing arrest, lying to his parents and gloating about killing – Samson can be defined as a psychopath.

There are three major incidents in Samson’s life, his marriage to a Philistine woman in Timneh, his killing 1000 Philistines and the incident with Delilah.

After reaching maturity Samson noticed an unnamed woman from the uncircumcised Philistines (14:3) and ‘went down [to Timnah] and talked to her and he became fond of her’ (14:1,5,7). Went down implies in biblical terminology going away from God. Similar language can be found when Judah ‘went down’ (perhaps out of guilt) from his father’s estate immediately after the brother’s imply to Jacob that Joseph is killed; when in fact they had sold him into slavery. Judah then married a Canaanite woman (Gen. 38:1-2). Judah later goes to Timnah and finds a prostitute, his own daughter-in-law (38:15).  Jonah went down to Jaffe to escape God, to the bottom of the ship, into a deep slumber, into the bottom of the sea and into the belly of a great fish.

Samson ‘became fond of her’ is a euphemism for intimate sexual relations with his unnamed woman. We are beginning to see Samson’s flaw, his unbridled lust of forbidden women. The statement that the Lord approved of this marriage (14:4) appears inconsistent with the statement that he ‘went down’ and it seems unlikely that God would approve of sexual relations with a daughter of the uncircumcised; they were the enemies of God’s chosen people. This appears as an editorial comment to justify Samson’s behaviour.

On his way to visiting and fondling this woman we are told of his strength when a young lion approaches him and he tore a lion to pieces with his own hands. After his fondling he goes back to the carcass of the lion - a non-kosher animal -  and ate honey that bees had made there.
'This is the first time he has killed a lion.
Inside the ribs a swarm of bees lies
nested there, and honey comes.
He reaches down inside the ribs
to where a sweetness runs,
and he thinks of the woman he has seen today.

The bare form of her face today
came in stronger than this lion.
Now he takes one rib, and a foam of bees runs
around his wrist—a smell so strong he lies
down. Still in his mind her eyes black open, small ribs
rounding her heart. She comes and comes.' 5

Bees do not create honey in a carcass. Perhaps this was a sign of God’s unhappiness of his Nazir coveting intermarriage. For Samson violence and sexuality seem connected.

Before the wedding feats he feeds his father and mother from the ‘unclean’ honey which was clearly forbidden to her if not to all of them. 6 Samson’s father Manoah then ‘went down to the woman’. (Jg. 14:10) rather than the usual ‘knew’ her. The woman is Manoah’s wife (and Samson’s mother) but she is not named or even called his wife. His father did not appear to have a close intimate relation with his mother.

Samson tells a riddle for a wager of the clothing of thirty Philistines. After accepting the riddle the Philistines tell Samson’s new wife that they will burn her and her family unless she gets the answer from Samson. The woman cried for seven days and Samson tells her and she promptly told the Philistines. Samson lost the wager. Samson understood ‘if you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have discovered my riddle’ (14:18); an interesting sexual innuendo. Samson kills thirty Philistines (in the spirit of God – can God approve ‘holy rage’? (Jg. 14:19), took their clothing and brought the clothing to the thirty winners of the riddle. Even after being married he may have continued living with his parents, called in mid eastern culture a ‘tzadiqah’ marriage – a form of prostitution.  The Philistines married her to another Philistine.

Samson then visits his ‘wife’ and discovered she had remarried to his best man. The father offers her younger sister (Jg. 15:2). Samson refused; he caught three hundred foxes,  tied them together, put fire on their tales and burnt the fields of the Philistines. In his anger he irresponsibly lit a fire, always dangerous in a dry country; perhaps similar to Absalom lighting the fires of Joab’s fields to get his attention (II Sam. 15:30). The Philistines burnt the father and the wife.

After Samson used the foxes to burn Philistine land the Philistines went to war against the Hebrew's in Lehi in response.  The men from Judah agreed to hand Samson over to the Philistines. Samson accepted and they bound him and handed him over to the Philistines. At the field with the Philistines Samson broke the rope and with the jawbone of an ass killed 1000 Philistines.

This story ends with our being told that Samson Judges for twenty years (15:20). It follows with Samson going to the capitol city of the Philistines Gaza and going to a prostitute (16:1). Again the Philistines awaited to capture him and again in an act of great strength and violence he ripped off the gates of the city and took them with him.
Samson is a very strange personality to be a Hebrew judge and Nazir – a holy man.

Samson falls in love with Delilah, a presumed Philistine woman. She, on the other sees him as a source of money. The introduction of Delilah’s name is connected with the Philistinian leaders knowing her (16:4-5). The leaders of Gaza agree to give her each eleven hundred shekels of silver, a very significant amount of money. She can be considered a more expensive prostitute that the precious one in Gaza. She asks him three times where lies his strength. Each time he lies to her Philistine men come in the room to capture him. In an exact symmetry to the riddle he told at his wedding feasts he allows Delilah to cajole the secret that will destroy him. While he will shortly be blinded he is already blind to reality.

She says to him ‘how can you say you love me . . . and tell me where your great strength comes from (16:15)? We recall his wife of Timneh screaming at him in attempting to get the answer to the riddle ‘’You only hate me, you do not love me’ (14:16). This is the fourth part of what seems like a sexual bondage game being played. We have no information how long the game went, it may for more than a week – ‘day after day she pestered him’ (16:16).

Samson finally succumbs to Delilah and tells her – in the only time Samson himself used the term Nazir – that by shaving his head he will lose his supernatural power (16:17). With his head in her lap she has his hair cut off. The Philistines take him and blind him. As the Rabbis said he was blinded because he followed his eyes. Then the Philistines metamorphically castrate the great hero and womanizer by forcing him to do women’s work, grinding mill. Delilah on the other took the money and left.

Why does he finally tell her the secret that indeed dooms him? It seems like a Romantic tragic comedy; Samson does not seem like a nazir-Judge!

At a sacrifice for their god Dagon they bring Samson to their Temple and make fun of him. He prays to God, puts his arms around the pillar of their Temple saying to God ‘Let me be revenged on the Philistines at one blow for my two eyes. Let me died with the Philistines’ (16:28-29). He pleas for vengeance not to begin his mission. In his death we are told he killed more Palestinians than he had killed during his lifetime (16:30).

Samson in the last of the Judges; the last verse in the Judges is ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyman did that was right in his own eyes’ (21:25). Clearly Samson’s mission has failed!

John Milton authored a dramatic poem entitled Samson Agonistes in which he depicts Samson as a tragic hero. The poem begins with Samson already in prison and blinded. Samson understands that he has failed as Judge/Nazir.  

Samson Agonistes is based on the conversations of Samson in captivity due to his own foolishness and being forced to labor in pain. The heavy labor and embarrassment of grinding a mill, a task often given to oxen or donkeys, is added to the pain from the scars of savage beatings and blindness after the Philistines gouged out his eyes. ‘Blind among enemies, O worse than chains.’ (line 66)

This physical pain is coupled with the mental anguish (that is the agony in ‘Agonistes’) brought on by knowledge that his current low estate is a direct result of his broken vow to God (his secret revelation of the source of his God-given strength) and subsequent betrayal by Delilah, the woman he loved.

Milton dramatizes a conversation between Delilah and Samson in prison. The Talmud comments on the word ‘grind’ (16:21) and suggests a meeting in prison for the purpose of intercourse; the Philistines brought Delilah into his prison to cohabitate with Samson  and grow another Samson they could control (BT Sotah 10a). To force the former womanizer to perform on demand when blinded and milk his prowess is truly an agonizing event.

In the Milton passage he tries to paint Delilah as a mere innocent observer, a woman who foolishly betrayed a man and then regrets it. This foolishness is attributed to her inability to overcome emotion as a result of her status as the weaker sex, a theme Milton mirrored in his discussion of Eve in his classic ‘Paradise Lost’.

Milton describes Samson as being "Eyeless in Gaza", a phrase that has become its most quoted line. Milton himself was loosing his sight as he wrote Samson Agonistes and later became blind and it becomes a major thematic point in his work including in Paradise Lost and his 16th Sonnet.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) composed the opera entitled ‘Samson et Dalila’. He depicts Samson carrying the gates of the city after his liaison with a prostitute, leaving the city wide open; some have detected a sexual motif there. Saint Saens by emphasizing the three times Samson told Delilah that of different sorts restraints all of which failed suggests a bondage that went out of hand. Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon (thirteen century commentor known as the Ralbag) suggested a similar motif.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Israeli right wing ideology wrote in the 1920’s a novel entitled ‘Samson the Nazarite’  suggesting Samson would represent the new Israeli Jew. David ben Gurion named Israel’s nuclear option the ‘Samson Option’.

In recent times the city of Gaza has become known again.  The conquering of Gaza in 1967 is apparently not unrelated to the Samson story. Moshe Dayan did not want to conquer Gaza, he was concerned about the responsibility for its refugees. However Levi Eshkol the usually reasoned and moderate Prime Minister told the members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that "I have an uncontrollable passion for Gaza; possibly because of Samson and Delilah." He admitted that he understood that the rose had many thorns.

As a Judge one would hope he would display the qualities that would qualify him for his role. As a Nazir he is violent, seeks out prostitutes and eventually prays not for life (‘choose life’ Deut. 30:19) but death. Is Samson’s bequest yet one more impulsive and impetuous act?

It appears that Samson may have been suffering from a personality disorder or at least some intra-psychic conflict. In addition there seem to be some problems In the relationship between his father Manoah and his unnamed half nazirite wife (Samson’s mother).

Samson’s excessive masculinity seems to exclude real intimacy. His father did not appear to have a close intimate relation with his mother. Samson may have been umbilically connected to his mother and may not have known how to relate to women in a true authentic  intimate manner.

Hence his impulsive ADHD style - pure brawn no brains- no well thought out plan, purely instinctual acting from the most primitive animalistic part of his brain/essence.
Sexual addiction can be used as form of acting out, a way for avoiding anxieties of the repressed feelings; especially since such addictions are characterized by a fear of intimacy.

In the post-modern world the Freudian definition of the Oedipus complex is no longer acceptable, it that definition ever ways. However, the Oedipus complex itself has not been obliterated, particularly when one attempts to explain the socialization of boys into young adult men. Students of Jaques Lacan have made a convincing case for debunking the penis envy theory - to the point of it being regarded an irrelevant approach about to human sexuality.

However, in the real modern world a young man who grows up in the shadow of a powerful mother or powerful father indeed is at risk to becoming obsessive and congruent with his mother or father in positive or negative ways.

Franz Kafka was the son of a powerful father and wrote him attempting to define his own identity. 'But with their posterior legs they were still glued to their father's Jewishness and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground.' Kafka was one the greatest writes of the twentieth century for whom commentary continues in an almost biblical way (even today seventy five years after his death) could never found his grounding. We know very little about Kafka's mother; as is equally true of Samson's mother.

The Biblical Isaac was the son of both a powerful Mother and a powerful Father- the latter who in a very famous biblical story attempts to sacrifice him. Perhaps as a result he defined his new wife Rebekah or perhaps himself as 'Isaac loved her and thus found comfort after his mother’s death' (Gen. 24:67). Isaac had two powerful twin sons but was not himself powerful. How could he possibly be powerful after his post traumatic experience? That his new wife/mother helped him survive is obvious. They she was able to controlled his choice of the child to be 'chosen' against his express wishes is also obvious. Given the way the children grew up; one as Mommas boy and one as Poppas boy it is not clear that God's wishes were even necessary.

Samson always acts alone out of self centerness. His story seems of a man doomed to failure, in the Greek sense or perhaps of a psychological disorder in the Hamlet sense that he cannot control his emotions or be decisive. Samson did not grow up in the modern world but in a mid-eastern Arab culture that is very honor bound, tribal and aggressive – macho – in modern terms. Samson did not grow up in the modern world but in a mid-eastern Arab culture that is very honor bound, tribal and aggressive.

1    Erasmus, D., Cupid with a Quiver, ed. H. Vredeveld, Poems, Toronto University Press, Toronto, Pg. 233, italic added.
2     Roskoff, Gustov, Die Simsonssage nach ihrer Entstehung (Leipsig, E. Bredt, 1860), quoted in Crenshaw, James, L., 'Samson, A Secret Betrayed', (London, SPCK, 1979), pg. 182, ft. 7.

3    Mobley, Gregory, Samson and the Liminal Hero in the Ancient Near East, (N.Y., T & T, 2006), pg. 121.     
4     Altschaler, Eric, Archives of General Psychiatry, February 2001.

5     Elizabeth Cox; 'Samson in Love' Atlantic Magazine, June 2006
6    Certainly the current Israeli Chief Rabbinate would not approve the kashrut of bees made in a lion's carcass.