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By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
The Book of Judges 5. Samson the Deliverer
God’s Sixth Lesson - the Rise of the Philistines - God Raises Up Samson (13.1-16.31).
The story of Samson is one of the most remarkable in the Bible. It demonstrates quite clearly that God can use the inadequacies of a man within His purposes. When God raised up Samson from birth He knew the propensities that he would have for good or evil. He gave him every opportunity for success but knew that he would eventually fail. Yet from that failure He purposed to produce success. Samson is an encouragement to all, that if the heart is right, God can use a man, even in his weakness, in His purposes.
Chapter 13. The Birth of Samson (13.1-24).
This chapter relates the birth of Samson, another ‘judge of Israel’. His birth was first foretold by an angel to his mother, who then informed her husband about it. On his entreaty the angel appeared again, and this time related the same thing to them both. The Angel of Yahweh, as He turned out to be, was very reverently treated by the man, and was known by him to be indeed the Angel of Yahweh, because of the wonderful things that He did. The chapter then closes with an account of the birth of Samson, and of his being early endowed with the Spirit of God.
13.1 ‘And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of Yahweh, and Yahweh delivered them into the hands of the Philistines forty years .’
The sad story of Israel’s failure was again repeated here. It reminds us how little men learn from history or from what happens to others. For Israel were not unique in this failure. The nations continually did evil in the sight of Yahweh. But Israel were the more blameworthy because they had received the revelation of Yahweh, and had become His own people bound by the covenant of Sinai. For a generation after entering Canaan they had remembered Him, meeting together at the three annual feasts at the central sanctuary and maintaining a general unity. But then they had begun to go astray. And as they went astray so their attachment to the covenant weakened. Not all came together for the periodic feasts, the three gatherings a year before Yahweh, although at times particular situations could arouse them to act together (19-21). The past became a distant memory, gloried in when some of them came together for their united feasts, sung about at their local feasts, but in practical terms almost forgotten by many. They began to compromise with their neighbours; they turned to worship foreign gods or to syncretise them with their own worship of Yahweh; they made light of the requirements of the covenant; their unity was loosened and they failed to live in accordance with God’s requirements (3.6). And yet every now and again something would occur to unite them and bring them back to Yahweh. That this was so comes out in that in the time of Eli (1 Samuel 3.20) the central sanctuary appears to have had a strong influence, while under Samuel it was resurgent. Nevertheless it probably did not include all Israel, for Samuel’s control was mainly exercised in the central part of the land, especially in the hill country west of Jordan, and in Beyond Jordan. There is no mention of the farthest Northern tribes, and it is questionable how many of them were included in 1 Samuel 10.20. On the other hand contacts must have been maintained in order for their later unity to come about.
For we must remember that the children of Israel were scattered throughout the land of Canaan, with some separated off from others by other peoples within the land. Different groupings had seemingly arisen. So for example we have no mention of powerful Judah to the south in the accounts of previous Judges in 3-9, and their absence is especially noticeable in the Song of Deborah, although no blame was assigned to them. They were seemingly not even expected to be there (although that may have been because they were hard pressed by the Philistines).
Against Sisera it was the northern tribes who came together, and even then there were a number of absentees. Those beyond Jordan in the east refused or hesitated, while Asher in the west avoided the call. Ephraim and Benjamin were, however, responsive, although Dan ignored the call. Dan also were probably too involved with the Philistine menace, the Philistines being on their southern border, and indeed within their borders. In 3-9 the accounts have dealt mainly with the more Northern tribes (against Sisera), the central tribes (against Midian) or the tribes in Beyond Jordan (against Ammon), although Ammon had affected parts of Judah (10.9), and thus it is possible that some men from Judah served under Jephthah. But each on the whole faced their own enemies, and when the call to arms has come to the other tribes, only some have responded, often those in their particular (loose) grouping, or affected by the situation.
In this particular situation now in mind we are speaking at the most about Judah, Simeon and the remnants of Dan, all of whom were affected by the Philistines who were their neighbours. Dan were to the north of the Philistines, stretching eastward. Judah and Simeon were to the east and the south. And what is described here may well have been going on at the same time as the invasion of Gilead by the Amorites. Different parts of Israel were being affected by different enemies. The word ‘again’ does not necessarily mean ‘after the Ammonite oppression’, for that was pictured as going on at the same time (10.7). It simply means ‘again’ in comparison with all previous examples of the same. Indeed constant pressure from the Philistines helps to explain why Judah was so rarely able to participate in the call to the tribes.
‘And Yahweh delivered them (mainly Judah and Dan) into the hands of the Philistines forty years.’ The Philistines were not like any other opponents that the Israelite faced at that time. They were not local warriors, but had come across from Crete and the Grecian mainland, and were fierce and uncompromising fighters who were seeking to establish themselves in this new land, and form a military elite over the local inhabitants. Having taken their time establishing themselves in the coastal plain, they had made an abortive attempt on Egypt, but had suffered a retaliatory attack by Raamses III. Slowly recovering from this they were now beginning to expand their empire northwards and eastwards.
The Philistines were a part of the inflow of Sea Peoples from Crete and the Aegean, who had fairly recently invaded the coasts of Syria and Egypt. They wore head-dresses of feathers, and were armed with lances, round shields, long broadswords and triangular daggers. They gradually incorporated iron into their lifestyles and weaponry, something which they had learned from the Hittites and which gave them great superiority. Repelled from Egypt they became a ruling class over the native Canaanites, and at certain stages parts of Israel also submitted to them, especially Dan and those in the lowlands bordering the Coastal Plain. The Philistines quickly acquired Canaanite culture, religion and language, for their gods were Near Eastern, but some of their temples were certainly patterned on similar examples in the Aegean. They were a formidable foe.
The Philistines were a type of foe that Israel had never faced before since leaving Egypt. They were united under five ‘Tyrants’ (seren - used only of Philistine leaders) in their five principle cities, and, as a military ruling class, had to keep together a strong army and maintain firm unity and discipline, carefully watching over those who reluctantly lived and served under them. They maintained a monopoly on working iron, (learned from the Hittites), and were thus more powerfully armed than those around. They were a genuine occupying army, controlling the conquered almost literally with a rod of iron. In the days of Samson’s escapades the territory they controlled was the coastal plains and the surrounding lowlands, and the Danites and parts of Judah at least were crushed under their weight to such an extent that they offered little resistance (Judges 15.11). See 1 Samuel 14.19-21 for a partial indication of what conditions would have been like. They were in complete subservience. That was probably one reason why a large number of Danites had left their inheritance and had settled in Laish (17-18).
The Philistine aristocracy were established in many towns, and were so hated that they had themselves constantly to be on guard, and as a result they would react violently to any attempt to undermine them. Because of this it was indeed difficult to see how they could be attacked in any way, for they held all in iron control under a kind of martial law, and reacted violently. Any disobedience would have been stamped on, and any reaction or retaliation severely dealt with. The country that they controlled was held in thrall. But God raised up a kind of one man army by the name of Samson, an Israelite aristocrat (a judge of Israel) who mingled with the Philistine aristocracy, probably welcomed by them because of his status and his phenomenal strength. And he developed his own way of attacking the Philistines, and did it in such a way that no repercussions were brought on his people. Indeed by the time of his death the Philistines had been severely weakened as a result of his activities.
Later after the battle of Aphek this control by the Philistines would extend further, although areas of resistance held out, and this continued until the mighty Samuel drove them back to the plains (1 Samuel 7). Later they returned again and gained iron control over a wide area (1 Samuel 14.19-21), causing great trouble to Saul, and building forts in the highlands, and this continued until they were finally subdued under David. They do not appear to have troubled the area Beyond Jordan, nor the farther tribes to the north.
‘Delivered into the hands of the Philistines’ indicated that at least Dan and parts of Judah had become tributary to them. ‘Forty years’ indicated a long period of domination, a whole generation and more, longer than any other of the previously mentioned trials. The Philistines would not be so easily dealt with now they were settled in. It should be noted that there was no cry to Yahweh for help from ‘Israel’. Those under Philistine control appear to have been fairly content with their lot, which suggests that the Philistines, while maintaining iron control, did not treat them too harshly. But God knew that left in these circumstances they might well lose their faith in Yahweh altogether and be assimilated into the surrounding peoples.
It should be further noted that Samson did not try to raise the tribes and rebel against the Philistines. They were too powerful for tribes whose faith was as weakened as that of Judah, Simeon and Dan, and the other tribes probably did not want to get involved. This was possibly a part reaction to past attitudes. Samson was instead a provocative one man band, and God used his propensities as tools against them (14.4), in order to weaken them until someone would arise with faith to defeat them (1 Samuel 7.10-11). We can indeed interpret his life as being that of a great buffoon whom God used in spite of himself, but careful examination rather suggests that he had considerable acumen and cleverly played with the Philistines like a fisherman will play with a fish. That is not to deny his weaknesses. But it does help to explain why God used him.
13.2 ‘And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah, and his wife was barren, and did not bare.’
Zorah (modern Sar‘ah?) was a town in the lowlands of Judah (Joshua 15.33). It was on the north side of the valley of Sorek (called Zharka in the Amarna letters). Manoah belonged to those of the Danites who had not migrated to Laish (18.29). Note that it is ‘the clan of Danites’ not the tribe. The name ‘Manoah’ means ‘resting place, condition of rest’. It may be intended to indicate that his spirit was at rest even in the trying circumstances. But he shared one sadness with his wife. She had had no children, she was barren. When God wished to show His power He often chose a barren woman for the purpose (compare Sarah -Genesis 16.1; Rebekah - Genesis 25.21; Hannah - 1 Samuel 1.2, 5; Elizabeth - Luke 1.7). This was to indicate that the resulting birth was God’s work and the child born was thus His in a special way. This was also true in this case.
13.3 ‘And the Angel of Yahweh appeared to the woman, and said to her, “Behold now, you are barren, and are unproductive, but you will conceive, and bear a son.” ’
Once again, as with the needy people in 2.1-5, and with Gideon (6.11), the Angel of Yahweh appeared when God’s people needed deliverance. In other words God Himself came to their assistance. This time His promise was of a special child who would be set apart as God’s, even from the womb (compare 1 Samuel 1.11). But the writer went out of his way to demonstrate that the woman was not aware Whom the Angel represented. As far as she was at first aware (until verse 16) He could have been any divinity. Such was the parlous state of her religious beliefs and those of their countrymen.
13. 4-5 ‘Now therefore beware, I pray you, and drink no wine nor strong drink, and do not eat any unclean thing. For, lo, you will conceive and bear a son, and no razor shall come on his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he will begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.’
The child that was to be born would be dedicated to God from the womb. He was to be a permanent Nazirite. Thus his mother was to abstain from wine and strong drink, and be especially careful of unclean food. Nor was his hair to be cut. For he was to be God’s initial weapon in preparing to deal with the Philistine menace.
Temporary Nazirites (from nazar - those ‘set apart, consecrated’ because Yahweh’s, compare nazir which means ‘untrimmed’) are mentioned in Numbers 6, when men and women (verse 2) who wished for a period to set themselves apart to God took a Nazirite vow. They were to abstain from wine and strong drink, and even from grapes or anything connected with the grape vine (verses 3-4 compare Amos 2.11-12; Luke 1.15), were not to cut their hair but let it grow long (verse 5 compare 1 Samuel 1.11; Judges 5.2 literally), and were to avoid all contact with dead bodies, even of relatives who died (verses 6-7), for they were to be continually ‘holy to Yahweh’. They were in many respects thus similar to the high priest when he went into the Holy Place (Leviticus 10.9; 21.11; compare Ezekiel 44.21). They were especially ‘holy’, set apart to God alone.
But the length of their vow was limited and after that they were released from it. At which point their hair must be shaved off and burnt on the altar with suitable offerings (Numbers 6.18). The hair especially was the sign of their separation and holiness and was thus seen as holy to Yahweh. That was why once the vow was past it had to be shaved off and burnt in a holy place. Similar significance and practise with regard to long hair, as dedication to gods and seeking of divine assistance, is known elsewhere among Semites, and among primitive peoples from ancient times, a practise which was here taken up and refined.
Abstinence from the fruit of the vine was possibly to ensure that the Nazirites never lost their full faculties which might put them in danger of breaking their vows unwittingly. Full dedication can be marred by the influence of wine and strong drink, which can produce unseemly behaviour. This was one reason why ‘the Priest’ must not be under its influence in the Holy Place. But that it symbolised more comes out in that here Samson’s mother was to abstain from wine and strong drink and to abstain from eating any unclean thing. She too was under a vow, although possibly not a full Nazirite one. ‘Unclean thing’ possibly here refers to grapes and other products of the vine (Numbers 6.3), for all Israelites abstained from unclean foods. Or it may simply be in order to emphasise that to the Nazirite wine too was unclean. Either way the parallel shows that wine and strong drink were looked on as ‘unclean’, unworthy of God. It was an earthly pleasure not a heavenly activity.
The abstinence may symbolise a return to the purer wilderness life, away from ‘modern’ influences and the pleasures of the world, to a more dedicated manner of life. Compare how John the Baptiser was to refrain from wine and strong drink (Luke 1.15). But the fact that the mother was to abstain from them emphasises that there was certainly an aspect of ‘uncleanness’ to them. They were not God’s best and unsuitable for His presence. (In the New Testament ‘uncleanness’ from this point of view ceases. Nothing is unclean of itself. Thus wine can take on a new meaning).
We note that the only restraint specifically placed on Samson himself was that his hair should remain permanently long and uncut. This was to be the sign of his consecration to God. But the other requirements for a Nazirite vow would be assumed to apply equally, as witness the requirement of his mother similarly to abstain from wine and strong drink (as also was hinted at in Samuel’s mother - 1 Samuel 1.15). It was simply assumed that they would apply to a Nazirite.
Lifelong separation from touching dead things was not said to be required, possibly because recognised as not feasible (provision was made for short term Nazirites in that if they came in contact with the dead they could begin their dedication again and fulfil the whole term of their vow. This was not possible with a lifelong Nazirite). On the other hand it may again have been assumed. All knew that a Nazirite had to avoid wine and strong drink and contact with the dead. But the essential aspect of Naziriteship was found in the hair. It symbolised a man untouched by human activity. He was God’s man. We can compare how the grapes of untrimmed (nazir) vines in the sabbatical year were not to be eaten (Leviticus 25.5). They too were God’s handywork.
It should be noted that only Samson was called a Nazirite. Neither Samuel nor John the Baptiser were given the title, even though there were similarities. However the growing of the hair unshaven was clearly essential to being a Nazirite and as Samuel too was to be like that it would seem that his mother intended a Nazirite vow in respect of him (1 Samuel 1.11).
‘And he will begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.’ This was the reason for his dedication. He was to be an instrument of Yahweh in beginning to deliver Israel from the Philistines, and it would require the whole of his life to achieve it. But in this word ‘begin’ was intrinsic the fact that final deliverance would take longer than the life of Samson. The Philistines were to be a continual test for Israel as to whether they would obey Yahweh and turn to Him, especially when they saw Samson’s deliverances (3.4).
13.6a ‘Then the woman came and told her husband, saying, “A man of God came to me and his countenance was like the countenance of an angel of God, very terrible.” ’
The woman went to her husband and informed him about the visitation. She informed him that the visitor had been in human form but that his appearance was ‘very terrible’ (awesome). The woman was clearly filled with awe at her experience. This is why to the wife the messenger is ‘the angel of God’. (Possibly here we should translate this as ‘a divine messenger’ as indicating awesomeness and mystery). He had not told her His name, thus He was to her an unidentifiable divine being. On His second appearance to her He thus came as ‘the messenger (angel) of God’ (not Yahweh) (verse 9), the latter referring back to her previous usage and experience, even though He had first come to her (but not with her realising it) as the angel of Yahweh (verse 3). Her concentration was on the ‘otherness’ (that which is beyond human experience and comprehension) of the visitant. To her He was an unknown divine visitant (see verse 22).
13.6b “But I did not ask from where he came, nor did he tell me his name.”
This is her confession of her own failure. She had been so awestruck that she had not asked where He came from. She had been silent before Him and He had not revealed His own identity, He had not revealed His name. To reveal the name would have been as a bond between the two, as it would mean that the angel revealed something of His inner qualities and being. But this had not happened, and thus there was no personal bonding. It is intended to be a condemnation on her, and a sign of her religious syncretism, that she was not aware that He was the Angel of Yahweh.
13.7 “But he said to me, ‘Behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and now drink no wine nor strong drink, neither eat any unclean thing, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.’ ”
All she could do was repeat the message given to her, that she must herself refrain from wine and strong drink, and was to bear a child who was to be a lifelong Nazirite. As we will discover, Samson failed in this, and this stressed the greatness of his sin, for which he paid heavily. But God in His mercy ensured that his hair grew again, and He partially renewed his Naziriteship on the day of his death.
13.8 ‘Then Manoah entreated Yahweh, and said, “Oh my Lord, I pray you, let the man of God whom you sent come again to us and teach us what we shall do to the child who will be born.” ’
Manoah stands out here as the firm believer in Yahweh. He recognised Who it was Who had revealed Himself, and so he prayed to ‘Yahweh’. He was clearly not convinced by his wife’s message as to what should be done and prayed for clarification and confirmation. She had been too vague. The whole circumstance was unusual.
13.9 ‘And God heard the voice of Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field, and Manoah her husband was not with her.’
Again we have the stress that to the woman He was ‘God’. She had yet to appreciate the full truth. ‘As she sat in the field (the countryside).’ She may have been watching the sheep. He wanted her to know that His dealings were in fact with her, for she would be mother to the one who was to be born and was herself to come under a solemn vow.
13.10 ‘And the woman hurried , and ran, and told her husband, and said to him, “Behold, the man has appeared to me who came to me that day.” ’
Immediately she ran back home to find her husband to tell him that the Man whom she had previously described to him had returned.
13.11 ‘And Manoah rose up and went after his wife, and came to the man, and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to the woman?” And he said, “I am.” ’
When Manoah approached the man he asked him whether he was the man who had spoken to his wife. By this, of course, Manoah meant the Man who had given his wife the divine message that she had received. He wanted to know that this was the direct answer to his prayer to Yahweh. But he was not yet aware that this was the Angel of Yahweh Himself. The angel replied positively.
13.12 ‘And Manoah said, “Now let your words come about. What will be the ordering of this child, and what will be his work?” ’
Manoah submitted humbly to Yahweh’s will and sought further guidance on the bringing up of the child. How were they to bring him up? What was his future work to be?
‘The ordering’. The word is mishpat usually meaning ‘judgment’. It may here mean ‘what is to be his mode of life’ or ‘how should we bring him up’.
13.13-14 ‘And the angel of Yahweh said to Manoah, “Of all that I said to the woman, let her beware. She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine, nor let her drink wine, or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing. All that I commanded her, let her observe. ” ’
The Angel of Yahweh renewed His instructions. She was to be under a vow and to abstain from wine and strong drink and unclean foods. This latter stress concerning unclean foods may be an indication that many Israelites had now begun to ignore the dietary requirements of the Law for it is additional to ‘anything that comes from the vine’. Ungodly practises produced ungodly eating.
There is unquestionably an indication here that the total separation to Yahweh of her baby required that she avoid all ‘uncleanness’ that could affect the baby. And yet the same prohibition against wine and strong drink was not specifically enjoined on Samson. It may well, however, have been assumed on the basis of Nazirite requirements. It was part of what was involved in being a Nazirite. It is one of the astonishing aspects of the life of Samson that while he did not fully fulfil the vow under which he was born, he yet experienced the power of God in his judgeship. It is probable, however, that we are to recognise that in his failure he constantly returned for forgiveness, until in the end he had sexual drives and cravings that he just could not fully overcome. The life of Samuel illustrates what he could have become if only he had been more obedient.
We note here that when dealing with Manoah (and when introduced to the reader in verse 3) the angel is the angel of Yahweh, whilst when dealing with the woman he was the angel of God (elohim). This probably reflects her lack of recognition of who the angel strictly was, or it may indicate a less sure response to the covenant (women did not get involved in covenant affairs and she sees Him as the angel of Elohim, whilst Manoah immediately recognises that Yahweh is involved - verse 8), or even her womanhood.
13.15 ‘And Manoah said to the Angel of Yahweh, “I pray you, let me detain you, in order that we may make ready a kid for you.” ’
Aware that his visitor, who appeared to be a man of God, was from Yahweh, although not yet aware of precisely Who He was, Manoah sought to extend hospitality to him. This was a natural reaction in those days when travellers were dependent on hospitality for provision. Manoah desired to honour Him fully. Compare Gideon (6.18).
13.16 ‘And the Angel of Yahweh said to Manoah, “Though you detain me, I will not eat of your bread, and if you will make ready a burnt offering, you must offer it to Yahweh.” For Manoah did not know that he was the Angel of Yahweh.’
The Angel replied that He would not eat food even if it were brought. This would often be a sign of hostility, but in this case should rather have suggested to Manoah the urgency of his errand and that he had come from an untainted place (compare 1 Kings 13.8-9, 16-17). He then suggested that instead he should prepare a burnt offering for Yahweh, as a sign of worship, dedication and obedience. His gratitude was due to Yahweh. We can compare with this where Gideon prepared a meal but it became a burnt offering (6.20-21).
‘Manoah did not know that he was the Angel of Yahweh.’ From verse 8 we know that Manoah thought that the visitor was a ‘man of God’, a prophet, and he still held that view. Thus the offer of the meal. His wife may still not have been sure Who the visitor was, or even what God He represented. Thus the Angel’s reply clarified the situation for the wife, and directed Manoah as to where his main responsibility lay. Honour was not to be paid to the messenger but to God Himself.
13.17 ‘And Manoah said to the Angel of Yahweh, “What is your name, so that when what you have said happens we may honour you?”
Manoah still desired to pay due respect to the messenger. He wanted to be able to give due credit to the prophet once his prophecy came to fulfilment, or even send him some present to express his gratitude. They had been longing for a son for so long (compare 1 Timothy 5.17 where ‘honour’ referred to a gift). So he asked his name.
13.18 ‘And the Angel of Yahweh said to him, “Why do you ask after my name, seeing it is Wonderful?” ’
This may mean that His name was ‘beyond knowing’, because He was beyond knowing in His essence, absolutely and supremely wonderful, or it may mean that it was a secret not revealed to men because it was too high for them, or it may be indicating what he was, ‘Wonderful’, precious and important beyond measure. Compare the name given to the coming Messianic king in Isaiah 9.6.
Both Jacob (Genesis 32.27) and Moses (Exodus 3.13) had earlier sought to know God’s name. Like Manoah Jacob was asked why he wanted to know it. To Moses was revealed the full significance of the name Yahweh, that He was what He would be. But both through it had life-changing experiences. It is doubtful that any of them sought His name to give them power over Him (although in pagan circles that was often the purpose of finding a god’s name), rather it was that they may duly honour Him. Manoah certainly did not have the former in mind. He thought he was speaking to a prophet. But the words would undoubtedly stir questions in his mind.
13.19 ‘So Manoah took the kid with the meal offering, and offered it on the rock to Yahweh, and the angel did wondrously and Manoah and his wife looked on.’
Manoah offered the kid and the meal offering on the rock to Yahweh at the direct command of the Angel of Yahweh. Compare and contrast 6.20-21 where Gideon did not offer the sacrifice but stood by and watched the Angel do it. Here Manoah himself offered the burnt offering. There was no altar which suggests it was not his regular custom. It is possible that he was a priest, for although ‘related’ to the family of the Danites (verse 2) he may have been a priest from a priestly family living among them and adopted by the tribe, a Danite Levite. Alternately under the Angel’s instruction he may have been a priest for the day. Either way this was a unique offering in a place where Yahweh had revealed Himself, offered under His direct instruction. It was not a pattern for others.
‘And the angel did wonderfully.’ His name was wonderful (verse 18) and He behaved wonderfully. He performed a mighty wonder in front of them, inspiring awe and worship. The writer stresses that Manoah and his wife were witnesses to it. These are not just tales. The writer wants us to know that they did happen in front of reliable witnesses.
13.20 ‘For so it was that when the flame went up towards heaven from off the altar, the Angel of Yahweh ascended in the flame of the altar, and Manoah and his wife looked on, and they fell on their faces to the ground.’
Notice the stress again on the dual witness. This incident was seen as so remarkable that such an emphasis was necessary. For as the fire burned, consuming the burnt offering, the Angel of Yahweh seemed to merge with the sacrificial flames and ascended upwards, disappearing from sight. He had returned to Yahweh to whom the offering was offered. Such was the mystery of it that both man and wife fell on their faces to the ground in awe and wonder.
13.21a. ‘And the angel of Yahweh did not appear any more to Manoah or to his wife.’
Once the Angel had ascended in the flames He appeared no more. His visitation was over.
13.21b ‘Then Manoah knew that he was the Angel of Yahweh.’
When Manoah saw the Angel of Yahweh disappear in the sacrificial flames he knew Whom He was, and that they had been face to face with God. And he was afraid.
13.22 ‘And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, because we have seen God.” ’
Manoah was terrified when he realised what they had seen. It was a common perception among the Israelites that to see God face to face was to die. No man could see God and live (Genesis 32.30; Exodus 33.20; Isaiah 6.5; John 1.18). And they were right in fact, for as God told Moses in Exodus 33 none could see the fullness of what He was and live. The awesomeness of His fully revealed presence would be more than the human frame could stand. But as here, His revelation of Himself was always partly veiled, and thus men survived the experience.
13.23 ‘But his wife said to him, “If Yahweh was pleased to kill us, he would not have received a burnt offering and a meal offering at our hand, nor would he have shown us all these things, nor would he, at this time, have told us such things as these.” ’
His wife, happy in the knowledge that she was to bear a son, was wiser. She pointed out that if Yahweh had intended to kill them He would not have sought or accepted their burnt offering, nor would He have revealed such wonderful things to them, nor would He have promised them a son. All this only served to demonstrate that He intended good towards them.
13.24 ‘And the woman bore a son, and called his name Samson (Shimshon), and the child grew, and Yahweh blessed him.’
Eventually the son was born as Yahweh had promised, and they gave him the name Shimshon. Similar names have been discovered in Ugaritic texts of 15th and 14th centuries BC. It was probably a common name in Canaan. The name is based on shemesh, ‘the sun’. It is a diminutive (the -on ending). It may be that it was given to him partly because they lived near Beth-shemesh (the house of Shemesh).
But more emphatically they saw him as the sun rising on Israel, remembering the words of the song of Deborah, ‘let those who love Him be as the sun when it goes forth in its might’ (5.31). For he was dedicated to Yahweh and through him Yahweh had promised some measure of deliverance to Israel from their dreaded enemy. There may also have been some memory of ‘the face of the Angel of Yahweh, very terrible’ (13.6), probably revealing something of the glory of God (compare Exodus 34.29-30).
‘And the child grew, and Yahweh blessed him.’ Samson grew up under his godly father and mother, for we can have little doubt that the visitation had changed their whole lives. They knew now that they were an essential part of the covenant of Yahweh through which He intended good towards His people. And as he grew they taught him in the way of Yahweh, and Yahweh blessed him, especially in giving him a strong body which, especially when inspired by His Spirit, was able to accomplish mighty things.
The birth of Samson is the only birth of a Judge detailed in Judges (but compare Samuel in 1 Samuel 1 who achieved what Samson failed to do). His life began with such promise. Such a great future awaited him. But towards the end at least he became slack in his vow and much of it was frittered away on casual living. It was the grace of God that used his exploits, for they no doubt greatly encouraged his fellow-Israelites who were in no state to fight, and through him He continually weakened the Philistines, preventing them encroaching too far into the hill country, and finally dealing them a devastating blow which kept them from becoming too powerful.
A comparison between Jephthah and Samson is significant. The former was a bastard son of a prostitute, rejected and cast out by his family and countrymen, but disciplining his life, shaping his own future (although we cannot doubt that God had a hand in it), and rising to become a great deliverer and dedicated man of God, who gave his own daughter fully to the service of God and died respected and honoured.
The latter forecast by the Angel of Yahweh, wonderfully born, brought up in a godly home, provided with a good background, given a strength beyond that of normal men, but finally led astray by a woman, and succumbing to her wiles. Yet eventually he would come good in his death, the death of one who was pitifully blind, in the face of much mockery, but triumphant in the end through the grace of God. If only he had had Jephthah’s faith and strength of purpose, what a man he might have been.
This reminds us that God uses all types of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Jephthah provides hope to all who come from unpromising beginnings. But the message of Samson comes home especially to those who find themselves weak, and failing again and again, those who struggle with their sexual desires and almost despair. It gives them hope that the God Who used a Samson, can also use them if only they repent when they have sinned, and constantly return to Him. He is the God of the weak as well as the strong (and Samson was possibly basically weak). Not all are of the stuff of giants.
In contrast again, Samuel had the same beginning as Samson, but he was fully faithful to Yahweh and grew to be the deliverer of Israel and founder of its future.
So we must ask, why was Samson’s life recorded in such detail? It was because it spoke to men in their weakness when they were almost despairing. It was because he was a light in the darkness. They remembered Samson and it gave them hope. It was because his exploits against their enemies encouraged them, and tales about his exploits were spread ‘in the places of drawing water’ and by wandering storytellers to a people feeling burdened and deprived, a subject people, who dared not themselves take on the Philistines but rejoiced in one who did. They liked constantly to remember him. In its own unique way his life spoke to their hearts, and it made them think of Yahweh and return in their hearts to Him. It helped them to continue to have hope in the midst of darkness.
Finally to put his life in context. ‘Israel was delivered into the hands of the Philistines for forty years’ (13.1). We may consider that it is quite possible that this period was seen as ending when Samuel defeated the mighty Philistine forces at Mizpah (1 Samuel 7). This might suggest that Samson and Samuel were to some extent contemporary. Thus Samson’s activities may well have been enough to prevent total Philistine control sufficiently to allow Samuel to grow and become established, for Samson operated in the border areas, in the plains and the lower hills of Dan/Judah, while Samuel operated from Shiloh. Chapter 14 Samson’s Activities Begin.
This chapter deals with the commencement of Samson’s life’s work, with his courtship and marriage of a Philistine woman, his meeting with a young lion as he went courting, his killing of it with his bare hands, and afterwards of his finding honey in it. It speaks of a riddle which he framed out of this incident and put to his companions at his pre-marriage feast to solve as a bet, giving them seven days in which to solve it; of their solving it by means of his wife, who extracted the secret from him, which led him to slay thirty Philistines in order to make good his promise of thirty linen cloths and changes of raiment, and then to leave his newly married wife for a while, only to discover that she was then given to his companion.
13.25. ‘And the Spirit of Yahweh began to move him in Mahaneh-dan (‘the camp of Dan’), between Zorah and Eshtaol.’ The place was called ‘the camp of Dan’ because it was there that the Danites who had previously moved to Laish encamped at the commencement of their journey (18.12). It was close to Kiriath-jearim (city of forests) on the Judah/Benjaminite border.
‘The Spirit of Yahweh began to move (disquiet) him.’ Compare 14.4. Perhaps the memory of the great trek of his ancestors stirred his spirit. As a result of the work of the Spirit within he became disquieted and dissatisfied, and the surprising result was that he sought a Philistine wife. But it may well be that this move was a part of his personal campaign against the Philistines, for in order to attack them without bringing their wrath on Israel he knew that he would have to become familiar with them and find personal reasons for attacking them.
14.1 ‘And Samson went down to Timnah, and saw a woman in Timnah, of the daughters of the Philistines.’
There can be no doubt that Samson was to some extent a womaniser, something which he had to battle with all his life. He found it difficult to leave women alone. (Most men of his day married the woman chosen for them by their parents). Timnah was in Judah (Joshua 15.57), in the lowlands (the lower hill country), but was under the control of the Philistines, and on a trip there he saw a Philistine woman who took his fancy. The woman would be fairly high born for she was of the ruling class, the Philistines. Thus in seeking occasion against the Philistines he was able to combine business with pleasure.
14.2 ‘And he came up, and told his father and his mother, “I have seen a woman in Timnah of the daughters of the Philistines, now therefore get her for me to be my wife.” ’
Samson was quite open about his aims. He had seen a Philistine woman who attracted him and he wanted her as his wife. Being a dutiful son he put the matter to his father and mother who, according to custom, were responsible for the marriage negotiations (compare Genesis 34.4, 8). He may indeed have loved her at first sight, but the speed of his decision suggests a more purposeful motive combined with it. Access to the Philistines without suspicion.
We might ask why a man dedicated to Yahweh would seek to marry a foreign woman. It may, however, be that the woman had approached him seeking to learn from him (he was a judge of Israel) something of the Law of his God, for she was not of a class of women who would just be met walking about. Women were often drawn to the morality of Israel’s God (compare Acts 13.50) which would have been in such contrast to the stern unforgiving religion of the Philistine overlords. This would certainly help to explain his behaviour.
Samson’s motives are difficult to interpret but he unquestionably behaved unusually in a number of ways. He selected a Philistine for his wife, even though he was a Nazirite; prior to the wedding feast he seems to have called only Philistines to his ‘stag’ week although his previous companions must have been Israelites; and all his belligerence was aimed at Philistines. Indeed He appears to have ingratiated himself with them only in order to attack them. The explanation for this is given in verse 4.
14.3a ‘Then his father and his mother said to him, “Is there never a woman among the daughters of your kinsfolk, or among all my people, that you go to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?” ’
His father and mother were upset about his intentions. They were very much aware that he was the chosen of Yahweh, and this intermarriage with a foreigner, even if she was not a Canaanite and therefore forbidden (3.6; Exodus 34.16; Deuteronomy 7.1-3), was displeasing to them. Indeed the Philistines were uncircumcised, which told against them. Most people in Canaan underwent circumcision at some time. Furthermore the Philistines had taken to worshipping Canaanite gods and were to all intents and purposes Canaanite. Could he not choose an Israelite woman for his wife? Was there not plenty of choice there?
14.3b ‘And Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, for she pleases me greatly.” ’
His father would have to conduct the negotiations and agree the dowry and wedding gifts. So Samson ignored their concerns and asked his father to proceed with the matter because of the great esteem he had for her. Here we must read between the lines. Either he knew that she was sympathetic to Yahwism, or he was patently breaking his vows. The fact that God continued to strengthen him even while on the way to his marriage suggests the latter.
14.4 ‘And his father and mother did not know that it was of Yahweh. For he sought an occasion against the Philistines. Now at that time the Philistines had rule over Israel.’
What his father and mother did not know was that his plan was in the purposes of God. Yahweh was at work through the one whom He had chosen. This could hardly have been said if there had been Israelite doubts about what he was doing, confirming our suggestions above.
‘He sought an occasion.’ Many translations suggest that the ‘he’ mentioned here is Yahweh. But in view of 13.25 this may well rather mean that it was Samson who sought the occasion. It suggests that it was the beginning of his plan to put himself in a position where he could attack the Philistines without blame coming on his people. However many see it as referring to Yahweh. It is difficult to see how Yahweh would arrange to marry him off to a heathen Philistine, or indeed why He should want to find an occasion against the Philistines. Yahweh already had an occasion against the Philistines. That was why He had raised up Samson. It was Samson who needed such an occasion, not Yahweh.
Furthermore the subject of a verb in Hebrew would normally refer back to a previous subject, and thus to ‘Samson said’. We should only apply it to a genitival noun when there is no alternative. So while we might certainly see Yahweh as involved in Samson’s aims, it is Samson who is mainly described as seeking the occasion against the Philistines. That would indicate that consciously or unconsciously what he was doing was within God’s purpose against those who lorded it over God’s people. For while it is difficult to see why God should need to ‘seek an occasion’ for something like this (He was sovereign and could act how and when he liked) we can clearly see why Samson would. He had to have a genuine grievance in order later to justify his actions.
The tight control of the Philistines over the Danites (compare 1 Samuel 13.19-21, conditions which no doubt held in Samson’s day), and the Danites fear of them, would necessitate that he acted on his own. He had to avoid bringing trouble on his people. And as a ruling elite who would hit hard at any sign of rebellion against them, he would know that any dealings that he had with the Philistines must be carefully arranged so that no blame could fall on his fellow-Danites. We may see this as the probable reason why he appeared to be almost on his way to becoming an adopted Philistine. As such he would be able to take them on man to man without it harming his fellowcountrymen.
14.5 ‘Then Samson went down, and his father and his mother, to Timnah, and came to the vineyards of Timnah, and, behold, a young lion roared against him.’
It is clear that they made their separate ways to Timnah so that his parents were not with him when he met the ‘young lion’, or possibly that he had lingered behind, gathering grapes, so that they were ahead and were not aware of his doings, hidden by the trees. ‘A young lion.’ This word means a young lion at its most dangerous, eager and ready for the hunt, in the prime of life (Psalm 104.21; Proverbs 20.2; Isaiah 5.29; Jeremiah 2.15). ‘Roared against him’ signified his direct designs on Samson. Perhaps the young lion was intended to strengthen his courage in the face of what was to come, or in order to manifest Yahweh’s approval of his actions, or indeed both. Perhaps he was intended to symbolise the Philistines to Samson. They were in the vineyards of Timnah. It was a land of many lions (1 Samuel 17.34; 2 Samuel 23.20; 1 Kings 13.24) and flourishing vineyards.
14.6a ‘And the Spirit of Yahweh came mightily on him and he tore him as he would tear a kid, and he had nothing in his hand.’
Calling on the One to whom his life was dedicated, and thus endued with the Spirit of Yahweh, Samson exerted his strength against the man-eater and with no weapon in his hand seized it and broke its neck as though it had been a young goat. It was his life or the lion’s. From now on he knew that Yahweh was with him and would be his strength.
Samson’s strength was clearly an unusual phenomenon. We need not doubt that he was of strong build, and even stronger than most men. But it would appear that because of his awareness of his special dedication to Yahweh he was at times able to arouse within himself, with God’s help, a huge amount of adrenalin which made him invincible (we might to some extent compare him with the berzerkers, although the source of their strength was probably demonic). Once his dedication failed he found himself unable to arouse such strength.
14.6b. ‘But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done.’
This may well have been through modesty, but the point behind this is that they did not know what he had done and so could not later give away the answer to his riddle.
14.7 ‘And he went down, and talked with the woman, and she pleased Samson well.’
Further acquaintance with the Philistine woman confirmed his good first impressions. He was satisfied that she would make him a good wife. The fact that he did this prior to his marriage suggests that they had had previous contact. At this stage they presumably became betrothed, which would be why his father and mother had gone to see her and her parents. This might all be seen as further confirming that she had an interest in Israel’s God.
14.8a ‘And after a time he returned to take her.’
It is clear that her parents were satisfied with the arrangements, and with the gifts offered, which confirms that Samson’s parents were also well-to-do. So as the marriage day approached he went again on his way to Timnah to take her as his wife. This was a marriage between two aristocracies, a judge of Israel and the daughter of one of the Philistine elite.
14.8b ‘And he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion, and honey.’
On his way to Timnah he took a diversion in order to see the carcass of the lion he had killed, and found that bees had swarmed there. Bees are averse to flesh and it is thus probable that mainly only the bones were left which provided a nest for the bees in which to produce honey. Scavengers and ants had seemingly meanwhile done their work.
Like many young men Samson did not like turning up with his parents and so here, as previously, he took a separate route. This incident occurred en route, so that when he met his parents in Timnah he was able to give them some honey.
14.9a ‘And he took it in his hands, and went on, eating as he went.’
As a Nazirite Samson had to avoid dead carcasses for they would render him ‘unclean’, but while he was fastidious about his hair he was possibly slacker about the other requirements. Perhaps as a lifelong Nazirite some leeway was given. On the other hand it may be that in collecting the honey he used some instrument and thus avoided touching the carcass, and satisfied his conscience in that way. He would have become used to different methods of keeping ‘clean’. There does not appear to be any condemnation of his action.
14.9b ‘And he came to his father and mother, and he gave some to them, and they ate, but he did not tell them that he had taken the honey out of the carcass of the lion.’
Moving towards Timnah he met up with his father and mother and gave them some honey without telling them where he had obtained it from. This was something he should have done for they may have considered it wrong to eat honey from a carcass, especially his mother who may have seen herself as still ‘dedicated’ to Yahweh. But again the main point is that they would not know the answer to the riddle that is shortly coming, and he did not talk about his feat.
14.10 ‘And his father went down to the woman, and Samson made a feast there, for so the young men used to do.’
His father then continued on to meet the woman to assist with preparations for the wedding, while Samson arranged a pre-marriage feast for the young men. This would seem to have been a feast for men only, taking place before the marriage. It lasted seven days. The fact that it was arranged by Samson himself indicates that it was not the wedding-feast.
14.11 ‘And it happened that when they saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him.’
The Philistines were seemingly quite content for one of their daughters to marry a wealthy Israelite, demonstrating the reasonable relations that existed between the two nations, even though one was tributary and to some extent cowed. Indeed the Philistines may have seen this powerful young man as somebody who could be useful to them and therefore as someone to be encouraged. He was after all, almost becoming one of them. And they brought a full complement (thirty - that is, three intensified indicating completeness) of young men to share his pre-marriage feast. This suggests that he had gained recognition and respectability among the Philistines. They would be his daily companions while the wedding was in final preparation, for the feasting for the wedding that followed would also last seven days. In view of what follows (they were clearly no friends of the girl’s family) it may be that they were professional ‘companions’, hired for such an occasion. There is no mention of any others present at this feast. This in itself is remarkable. It emphasises that Samson is trying to find an occasion against the Philistines in which he does not want Israelites involved.
14.12-13a ‘And Samson said to them, “Let me now propound a riddle to you. If you can declare its solution to me within the seven days of the feast, and discover its meaning, then I will give you thirty linen cloths and thirty changes of clothes, but if you cannot declare it then you will give me thirty linen cloths and thirty changes of clothes.” ’
The pre-feast being in process, and some already being somewhat tipsy, Samson propounded a riddle. This was quite a common feature of such feasts. Riddles were propounded in order to pass the time, especially once the drink had flowed. Whether Samson broke his Nazirite vow by drinking wine and strong drink we are not told. It is not being reasonable to suggest that because he was at a wedding feast he necessarily did so. Many a godly person has been at such a celebration without breaking vows about drinking. He may well have explained it along with his long hair, which no doubt also caused comment. There is no suggestion that he did wrong at the feast. His real problem was with women, not with strong drink.
The "linen cloths" would be large rectangular pieces of fine linen which were worn next to the body by day or night, while the "clothes" would be festal garments which would be very expensive (see Isaiah 3.22-23; Proverbs 31.24). Perhaps he hoped by this to finally arouse the antagonism of the young men so that he had an excuse for fighting them.
14.13b ‘And they said to him, “Propound your riddle that we may hear it.”
It sounded a good bargain to them. They had fourteen days in which to find the answer to the question, which had to be answered at the end of the wedding feast proper, and they were confident that someone would know it.
14.14 ‘And he said to them, “From the eater came food, from the strong came sweet.” And they could not propound the riddle in three days.’
They at first, in their merry state, probably thought that it would soon be solved, but after a few days they became alarmed. No solution that they propounded was correct. ‘In three days’ signifies a standard short period of time, ‘in a few days’.
The riddle was not only a riddle. Samson probably intended by it amusing mockery. He was thinking that from the ‘devouring’ Philistines he would gain both a marriage feast and wealth, and from the ‘strong’ Philistines he would obtain the sweetest of all, a wife.
14.15 ‘And so it was that on the seventh day they said to Samson's wife, “Entice your husband, that he may declare to us the solution to the riddle, lest we burn you and your father's house with fire. Have you invited us so as to take what we have? Is that not so?”’
Time passed by. It passed not only a ‘three day’ period but a ‘seven day’ period, a longer standard period of time (compare the ‘three days’ journey and the ‘seven days’ journey so often found in Genesis). We must remember that the Philistines had no concept of what we know of as a week. That was an Israelite conception.
Then the men began to panic and the situation turned ugly. They could not bear the thought of losing their fine and expensive clothing to an Israelite. (Samson had succeeded in antagonising them. What he had not considered was how they would react). So they pressurised Samson’s ‘wife’, warning her that if she did not entice the answer out of him by the time the wedding feast was over they would burn her father’s house with her inside it (compare 12.1. This was clearly considered a standard punishment by powerful men offended. See also 15.6). These were not pleasant men and their pride was hurt. And they were the warrior ruling class. They accused her of bringing them there with the intention of taking their fine clothes. The threat was real, compare 15.6. We see here the typical Philistine male, proud, aggressive and unyielding, and with a contempt for all others.
It would appear that it was customary in a Philistine marriage for the wife to continue living in her father’s house, being regularly visited by the husband who would bring a gift when he visited (see 15.1 where she was still there even though she had married another and would thus have been otherwise expected to have moved in with the other). This was probably because regularly the husbands would be away on army duty, and it was therefore safer for their wives to be in her family home. Alternately it may be that the husband was expected to move into the bride’s house and become a part of her family. If that be so we find that later Samson, not having done this, brought a gift to rectify matters. Thus she would still be living at home when the wedding was over.
14.16 ‘And Samson's wife wept before him, and said, “Really you hate me and do not love me. You have propounded a riddle to the children of my people and have not told me the answer.” And he said to her, “Look, I have not told it my father or my mother, and shall I tell it you?” ’
Samson was unaware of the threat to his prospective wife. So when she pressed him for the answer he was probably at first a little amused. Quite reasonably he pointed out that he had not even told his parents. But as her tears continued it began to ruin the wedding. Yet he still stood firm. If the solution leaked out he was a ruined man.
His wife must have been living in terror. She knew the threat hanging over her family and she had no doubt that the young Philistine men meant it. She was already looked on as Samson’s wife, for such arrangements as they had were binding. Thus they would blame her for what ‘her family’ had done to them.
14.17a ‘And she wept before him the seven days, while the feast lasted.’
These were the days of the actual marriage feast itself, a time of feasting and merriment probably enjoyed by the whole town. But it was not pleasant for the fearful girl, and it was spoiling it for Samson. It seemed she would just not let go. No doubt constant veiled threats were passed on to her throughout the days of the feast
(As an alternative to fourteen days of celebration, seven with the men alone and seven of the actual marriage feast, some interpret the whole as but seven days. This involves translating verse 15 with the versions (LXX and Syriac) as ‘on the fourth day’. The idea in this verse would then be that ‘the seven days’ means ‘the remainder of the seven days’ during which she pestered him for the answer).
14.17b ‘And so it was that on the seventh day he told her, because she put great pressure on him, and she told the riddle to the children of her people.’
In the end Samson gave way. He did not want the last day of the feast and the final consummating of the marriage to be spoiled by his wife’s weeping. And greatly relieved she passed on the solution to the men in order to save her family.
The story is summarised. He had no doubt warned her not to tell them for it would be a costly affair. However one question that is difficult to answer is whether the marriage was finalised. Samson clearly thought it was (15.1). The fact that she was given to his ‘companion’, possibly to save her from being disgraced, suggests that the father did not think so (14.20; 15.2), although he may have seen Samson’s anger and walking out as an instant divorce from an unconsummated marriage. The Philistines as a whole appear to have considered the marriage valid (15.6). Certainly the whole of the seven day ceremony was over, apart from the consummation, for the Philistine men approached him not long before sunset (verse 18). We know nothing certain from elsewhere about the marriage or divorce customs of the Philistines.
14.18a ‘And the men of the city said to him on the seventh day, before the sun went down, “What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?” ’
Late on the last day they provided the answer to his riddle, and we can hear in their answer their mocking tones, but neither would doubt where the answer had really come from. Samson now saw his hope of added status (compare Genesis 45.22; 2 Kings 5.23) disappear and himself soon to be greatly in debt. As with many riddles once the answer was given it was obvious. See Psalm 19.10; 119.103; Proverbs 30.30.
‘The men of the city.’ These were his companions, who were Philistine inhabitants of Timnah (or had possibly been brought from Ashkelon?), although others may have joined with them to enjoy his discomfiture. The riddle had probably become a talking point in the town. Not all would have known of the threats offered to the girl.
‘Before the sun went down.’ There may be intended to be a hint here that the sun was going down in more ways than one, that things would soon become very dark for Samson, the ‘sun boy’, although the word for sun here is not shemesh, but a rarer word, possibly with the aim of avoiding being too obvious). But the main point was that the riddle was solved just in time. (The alteration to the text to read ‘before he went into the (bridal) chamber’ is unnecessary and misses the point, although it would stress the point that he in fact never did so).
14.18b ‘And he said to them, “If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.” ’
Samson’s answer was abrupt and very vivid. They had put the yoke on his woman to plough up the secret. It indicated both the unfair pressure they had exercised and the foulness of their behaviour. In his view this was both an insult to him, and an act of aggression which justified him in retaliation.
14.19a ‘And the Spirit of Yahweh came on him, and he went down to Ashkelon and slew thirty men of them and took their spoil, and gave the changes of clothing to those who gave the answer to the riddle.’
Time would need to be given to him to provide the clothing for all would recognise that he would not have thirty changes of clothing with him. They would certainly have expected to wait until after the consummation of the marriage. But the matter had become too bitter, and he left the marriage feast without consummating the marriage and disappeared. No wonder the father thought that he wanted nothing further to do with his daughter. Nevertheless he paid Samson a great insult by giving his wife to someone else.
In fact Samson travelled the twenty three miles (thirty seven kilometres) to the major Philistine city of Ashkelon and sought out thirty Philistine warriors, killing them and taking their clothing. We are given no details about how this was accomplished, but it is noteworthy that no repercussions resulted. He may have killed them one by one, after personally challenging them in some recognised way, tracing them by the quality of their houses, or more likely he may have challenged them at some public festal celebration, possibly even at something like a mediaeval tournament, where such challenges were acceptable and expected. This would explain why there would appear to have been no repercussions. Or we may see this activity as similar to that of the Maquis in France during the second world war, a directed attack on an occupying enemy carried out in secret. Whatever way it was done he then returned to Timnah, (probably immediately, in view of what he had done in Ashkelon), and handed the clothing over to the thirty men. Then, probably seething with fury he went to his own home without seeing his wife or father-in-law. He was hardly in a mood to want to consummate the marriage or to see his treacherous bride.
The trip to Ashkelon may have been because he thought it would be easier to cover up his activities in a large city, or because he thought that there he would not be recognised, or it may have been because he knew that there he would find men with the quality of clothing that he required, possibly at some well known local festivity, or it may have been because he knew that they would have some ‘games’ there where competitive fighting took place, or it may have been because the original thirty came from Ashkelon.
But the writer saw in this an aspect of the activity of the Spirit of Yahweh. The Philistines were the enemies of Israel and this was a powerful blow in Israel’s cause, for these thirty would be important as elite warriors. They were part of the elite ruling class. Samson clearly had no compunction in doing this. It was in order to somehow attack the Philistines that he had married the Philistine woman and now he saw his opportunity. Thus the action of the young men had precipitated his campaign against the Philistines. It may well, however, be that there was something in Philistine customs that could be seen as justifying his action, at least to some extent (in his state of mind he would not interpret it too particularly), especially if the young men at the previous pre-wedding feast had come from Ashkelon. Using threats to discover the answer to important riddles may have been heavily frowned on, like cheating at cards today, and they were a warlike nation to whom killing was almost a sport. So by using a personal excuse such as this, and being married to a Philistine, his behaviour would be looked on as a Philistine activity and not as rebellion by Israel. Thus he was safeguarding his people. If the original young men had come from Ashkelon it might even have been seen as a form of rough justice, or it may have been in fair competition. Ashkelon had attacked him, and he had returned the favour. Certainly the Philistines appear to have taken no action against him, just as they took no action against the men who slew his wife and her family. On the other hand perhaps they did not immediately connect Samson with what happened at Ashkelon. There may have been no witnesses.
It may be that the phrase ‘the Spirit of Yahweh came on him’ is intended to refer to the whole passage up to 15.8, for 15.8 was certainly of the greater significance. The thirty were the firstfruits but the great slaughter was the full final result. We can compare how the phrase has always previously referred, not just to one event, but to a series of events that followed the enduing.
14.19b ‘And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father's house.’
His state of mind is made clear, and it is no wonder that he was angry. The fact that he ‘went up to his father’s house’ may indicate that normally he would have remained with his new family.
14. 20 ‘But Samson's wife was given to his companion, whom he had used as his friend.’
Samson had chosen one of the thirty companions to be ‘the friend of the bridegroom’, the one who stood by him during the marriage feast (compare John 3.29). It may be that this man had not participated in the threats to the woman and was her close friend, or perhaps he saw his main opportunity to marry into a wealthy and influential family, for when she was seemingly left stranded and husbandless he stepped in and married her to console her and hide her shame.
Chapter 15. Samson At The Height of His Success.
This chapter goes on to relate how Samson, being denied his wife, gained his revenge by burning the corn fields, vineyards, and olives of the Philistines, and how, as a result of this, the Philistines burned his wife and his father-in-law in return. As a consequence, because of their burning of her and her father, he indulged in great slaughter among them. This brought the Philistines against the men of Judah, who, at Samson’s suggestion, took Samson and bound him, to deliver him to the Philistines. On being so delivered up, he freed himself, slew a thousand of them with the jaw bone of an ass, and being thirsty, was wonderfully supplied with water by God.
15.1 ‘And so it happened that after a while, at the time of wheat harvest, Samson visited his wife with a young goat, and he said, “I will go in to my wife into the chamber.” But her father would not allow him to go in.’
As far as Samson was concerned he was now legally married to the Philistine woman, and once his anger had subsided and he had had time to get over her betrayal, he went to see his wife taking her a present, intending to consummate his marriage (possibly the young goat was a Philistine fertility symbol). But understandably the father would not allow him to go in, for she had been given to another and had consummated a marriage with him. It may even be that the husband was there with her. This no doubt came as a great shock to Samson who seems to have been genuinely fond of the girl.
‘At the time of wheat harvest.’ This time note was important to explain what follows.
15.2 ‘And her father said, “I genuinely thought that you utterly hated her, therefore I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister fairer than she? Take her, I pray you, in her place.” ’
The father was not antagonistic to Samson, indeed was probably a little afraid of him, and pressed on him his offer of her more beautiful younger sister to replace what he had lost. He would probably also have ensured that Samson did not lose by it financially by providing equal dowry and gifts. Furthermore he may have drawn attention to the fact that the man she had been married to had been ‘the friend of the bridegroom’, drawing attention to why the marriage to him had taken place as a stand in for the bridegroom who had walked out. But he had failed to realise Samson’s genuine affection for his elder daughter. Furthermore as Samson considered that he was married to the elder sister, marriage to the younger was not permissible.
15.3 ‘And Samson said to them, “This time will I be blameless with regard to the Philistines when I do them a mischief.” ’
Samson now determined on revenge. Previously he had killed ‘innocent’ men, although as Philistines occupying his country they were not blameless. Yet he had clearly felt a certain sense of guilt. But now he felt that his ensuing actions would be more than fully justified and deserved, because they had stolen his wife from him. Once again he was exercising his God given judgeship and the purpose for which he had been set apart for Yahweh, something ever at the back of his mind, while at the same time ensuring that no blame could come on his countrymen.
15.4 ‘And Samson went and caught three hundred jackals, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand between each set of two tails.’
Samson then caught three hundred jackals, which move in packs and are easier to catch than foxes (the word can mean either fox or jackal), and, tying them in twos, fitted a torch or firebrand between each pair, thus fitting about one hundred and fifty torches in all.
His task was carried out purposefully. The collecting of three hundred jackals would take some time, and he would then require assistance to attach the torches (or firebrands). But he knew what he was going to do and set his face to do it. The torches would smoulder and burst into flame when the jackals started running. And the more they flamed the more the jackals would run. It was not very pleasant for the jackals, and would certainly not have been appreciated today, but such scavenging animals were given little consideration in those days. The fastening in pairs was in order to prevent them from seeking refuge down holes.
‘Three hundred.’ It is noticeable throughout the account that ‘three’ is predominant in numbering men and animals, and that there is progression as his impact increases. Thirty companions (14.11), thirty men slain in Ashkelon (14.19), three hundred jackals released among their crops, three thousand men of Judah who arrested him (15.11) followed by three thousand men and women on the roof of the Temple where Samson died (16.27). The stress is on completeness of judgment and God’s progression towards that completeness.
There may here be another significance in the numbers. The jackals were tied in pairs making one hundred and fifty messengers of judgment, five times more than the initial ‘theft’ from Samson. The Law stated that restitution for theft should be fivefold in the case of an ox (Exodus 22.1). Samson was exacting his own restitution for the theft of his wife.
15. 5 ‘And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines and burnt up both the shocks, and the standing corn, and also the olive orchards.’
Having prepared the jackals he then had them set loose strategically in different places for the greatest effect. The standing corn waiting to be harvested in the fields was burned, the shocks already gathered were destroyed by the fire, and the olive orchards too were set on fire causing great damage. Setting fire to standing corn was a regular way of retaliating against someone who had caused offence, compare 2 Samuel 14.30. The harvests of Timnah would be bare that year.
Similar things have occurred through history. Once thought of it was an obvious way of causing rapid conflagration and was eventually turned to service at sea with the invention of fireships. There was nothing profoundly religious about it. It was simply an easy way of causing great damage with the main culprits not being directly involved.
Samson’s justification might well have been that the fields were common to the Philistine inhabitants of the town so that the produce was very much connected with the errant family.
15.6 ‘Then the Philistines said, “Who has done this?” And they said, “Samson, the son in law of the Timnite, because he has taken away his wife, and given her to his companion.” And the Philistines came up, and burnt her and her father with fire.’
When ‘the Philistines’ (probably the Philistine inhabitants of the town) learned that the devastating damage to their crops and olives had been the result of Samson’s activity because of a quarrel with his wife and her father, and the latter’s precipitate action, their fury knew no bounds. So they took their revenge on them, firstly because they were relatives of Samson, and secondly because they considered that they were largely to blame for bringing his actions to bear against them. They did so by burning them to death, probably in their home. It was a case of ‘a fire for a fire’.
It would seem that burning people with fire was a favourite method of Philistine punishment (compare 14.15). They were a fierce people. In view of the specific mention of the two guilty parties it may be that this was a specific form of execution, with the others, including her sister, being allowed to go free as not sharing the guilt. That they could do this may indicate the savage forms of justice prevalent among the Philistines at this time.
15.7 ‘And Samson said to them, “If you behave like this surely I will be avenged on you, and after that I will stop.”
The incident had all the appearance of a bitter family feud rather than a political rebellion. Samson’s strategy of connecting himself with the Philistines had given him the opportunities he sought without bringing blame on his brothers. And now he had the perfect grounds for killing more Philistines, for he could declare that it was blood revenge for what they had done to his ‘family’. He could stress that their behaviour had brought it on themselves.
15.8a ‘And he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter.’
It is possible that Samson actually appeared while they were doing their foul deed and that when he saw them, having cried out his words above, he attacked them mercilessly. Or it may simply be that he sought them out later. ‘Hip and thigh’ may suggest the wrestling method that he used to deal with them, throwing them and crashing their heads on the ground. The Spirit of Yahweh was on him (14.19) and he was invincible. Not many escaped to tell the tale.
15.8b ‘And he went down and dwelt in the cleft of the rock Etam.’
Realising that his life might now be in danger Samson sought a safe place to hide, going further into the hill country, away from his own people, until things had blown over. He was ever careful to ensure that his people did not suffer for his activities. A city named Etam was situated not far from Bethelehem-judah (2 Chronicles 11.6).
15.9 ‘Then the Philistines went up, and pitched in Judah, and spread themselves in Lehi.’
The Philistines, now very angry and wanting to punish Samson, came to Judah and camped in some considerable force, spreading out in the region of Lehi in Judah. Lehi means ‘jawbone’. Its site is not known.
15.10 ‘And the men of Judah said, “Why have you come up against us?” And they replied, “We have come up to bind Samson, to do to him as he has done to us.” ’
The leading men of Judah sent messages to the Philistine camp to ask the purpose of this invasion by such a force. As far as they were aware they had paid all necessary tribute. The reply came back that they wanted Samson delivered up to them in order that he might be tried and punished for what he had done to the Philistines. They felt that what he had done went far beyond justifiable revenge, and he should have remembered that they were the masters.
15.11a ‘Then three thousand of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam.’
The onus was on the men of Judah to hand Samson over, but they were aware what a great task they had. So they sent three military units down from the hill country to arrest him, and even with that many they were wary.
What a contrast is found between the men of Judah here and those described in 1.2-20. How were the mighty fallen. They were no longer mighty warriors but submissive tributaries pleading with a hero to give himself up. In its disunity and lack of faith in Yahweh the tribal confederacy had failed. It awaited a strong and godly leader. And while Samson’s activities were partially successful he was not a leader of men. He tended to be a loner.
15.11b ‘And said to Samson, “Do you not realise that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?” And he said to them, “As they have done to me, so have I done to them.” ’
Their words were probably tongue in cheek for they had probably had many a good laugh over what Samson had done, but officially they had to express disapproval. So a formal statement was issued to him by messenger. Why had he rebelled against their masters? His reply was simple. He had only done to them what they had done to him. It was just that he liked solid revenge. Both were aware that what he had done had mainly been as an effort to weaken the Philistines. Others were planning a rebellion (1 Samuel 4.1) but he was preparing the way.
15.12a ‘And they said to him, “We have come down to bind you, so that we may deliver you into the hands of the Philistines.” ’
The men of Judah approached the issue with Samson tentatively. They were apprehensive in the extreme. But they had a job to do that they dared not shirk, and that was to arrest Samson. I remember once when I was in the RAF and was in a billet when the wakeup call came. There was one airman who still lay in bed under the covers, and a corporal came in and pointed to me and said, ‘Throw that man out of bed.’ He did not know what he was ordering. The man in question was a rugby league centre and a huge man and I went up to his bed tentatively and tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, I am supposed to throw you out of bed.’ I knew exactly how these men of Judah felt. Fortunately like Samson, he responded graciously.
15.12b ‘And Samson said to them, “Swear to me that you will not fall on me yourselves.” ’
Samson was not afraid of them but he did not want to have to fight his own countrymen. They were his responsibility. They would indeed have had a huge job for only one or two would have been able to enter the cleft in the rock at one time, and they would have had no chance against Samson. But he did not want that. So he asked for their solemn oath that they themselves would not seek to do him harm.
15.13 ‘And they spoke to him, saying, “No, but we will bind you fast and hand you over into their hands. But certainly we will not kill you.” And they bound him with two new ropes and brought him up from the rock.’
What they were offering seemed certain death for Samson, but at least it would not be at their hands. They were caught helplessly between two options. The one to fight the Philistines, the other to fight Samson. They did not like the idea of either. But they hoped that Samson might be reasonable for the sake of his countrymen.
On their assurance Samson submitted to be bound. Was this the result of powerful trust in Yahweh, or was it overconfidence in his own abilities? Possibly something of both. How men chosen by God have to be on constant watch over their motives!
And they bound him with ‘two new ropes’. This probably means ‘a number of new ropes’ not strictly limited to two (compare 1 Kings 17.12 of sticks gathered for a fire). ‘Two’ was traditionally used in this way from the days when men’s use of number words was very limited. Most people rarely used numbers to any extent and kept to the old usages. The ropes were new as indicating to the Philistines that they had used all measures possible to safeguard Samson. Or they may have been new because they recognised that Samson was a Nazirite. Then they led him up from the rock.
Etam was in the hill country but clearly in a defile or valley for they ‘went down’ to him and then ‘brought him up’.
15.14a ‘And when he came to Lehi, the Philistines shouted as they met him.’
On seeing this ferocious man, who had killed so many of them, bound and helpless, the Philistines let out a shout of triumph and gloating. Now they could exact their revenge. He was theirs for the taking.
15.14b-15 ‘And the Spirit of Yahweh came mightily on him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands melted from his hands. And he found a new jawbone of an ass and put out his hand and took it, and smote a whole military unit of men with it.’
Once again Yahweh acted through him, and he burst the ropes that held him which seemed to melt away in front of them. Then he seized a new jawbone of an ass, its newness ensuring that it was solid and effective, not brittle, and used it as an effective weapon. With it he effectively destroyed a whole large military unit, presumably the one that had come to receive him from the hands of the men of Judah. They were, of course, taken by surprise and probably panicked for he had a fearsome reputation.
So were Samson’s effective actions against the Philistines increasing in magnitude. First thirty men (14.19), then ‘a great slaughter’, possibly nearly a hundred (15.8), and now ‘a large military unit’, well over a hundred.
But the seizing of the jawbone was a careless act, for as a Nazirite he was under a vow not to come into contact with dead things. Perhaps this was a sign that he was becoming careless with regard to his vow. He was beginning to feel that he was above restriction (contrast 15.8 where he used his wrestling ability and his bare hands).
15.16 ‘And Samson said, “With the jawbone of an ass, heap upon heap. With the jawbone of an ass have I smitten a large number (an eleph).”’
Samson exulted in his victory with a war song. He was an educated man and enjoyed composing verses (14.14; 14.18). ‘Heap upon heap’ is literally ‘one heap, two heaps’. It is not possible in English to bring out the play on words, for ‘ass’ (chamor) and ‘heap’ (chamor) have the same consonants. The first line tumbles out very expressively in four consecutive words (with ch pronounced as in loch) ‘bilchi hachamor chamor chamorathayim’. It was a song that would be sung often in Judah when spirits were low.
15.17 ‘And so it was that, when he had finished speaking, he cast away the jawbone out of his hand, and that place was called Ramath-lehi.’
Ramath-lehi means ‘Jawbone Hill’, but also ‘Tossed-away-jawbone’, a play on two Hebrew words. The Israelites had a vivid sense of humour. The seizing of the jawbone as a weapon may well have been instinctive, but he was a dedicated Nazirite and should have been very conscious of the need to avoid contact with such things. He had ignored the fact that to touch a dead thing was against his vow. Possibly at this stage he recalled the fact and so flung it from him. Or perhaps his careless toss of it indicated his lack of concern.
15.18 ‘And he was extremely thirsty, and called on Yahweh and said, “You have given this great deliverance by the hand of your servant, and now shall I die of thirst and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?”
These pettish words summarise Samson’s life. A dedicated man, a servant of Yahweh, and yet easily swaying from one extreme to the other. We can compare this aspect of him with Elijah when after his great victory at Carmel he despaired on the mountain (1 Kings 19.4, 10), (although Elijah was of sterner stuff than Samson). There is something of it within us all.
‘Extremely thirsty.’ A hot country and a fierce battle were enough to dehydrate any man, and Samson was no exception. He needed water. But there was a petulance here that suggested that he felt that God owed him something for what he had done, which goes along with his careless attitude to the jawbone. We sense here the beginning of his slide downwards.
‘You have given this great deliverance by the hand of your servant.’ We must not lose sight of the fact that Samson was a dedicated man, consecrated to Yahweh. He was conscious of serving Him and of the fact that he owed his great gifts to Him. And up to this point he had mainly been worthy of those gifts. While he had sought out a Philistine wife it had been with the purpose of fulfilling his destiny (14.4), and he had taken every opportunity to weaken the Philistines, while the escalating violence had been a response to the dishonesty, double dealing and violence of the Philistines. And we must remember that they were his natural enemy. He had thus largely been faithful.
‘And now shall I die of thirst and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?” He was still a hunted man and was aware that weakness might result in his capture. So, while exaggerated, his words contained some truth. He needed water to restore him to fighting fitness. But the tenor of his words was petulant. He seemed to be suggesting that he could have been better looked after. He was getting above himself, and that usually leads to disaster in the life of a godly man.
The thirst should have reminded him that without God he was nothing. All his strength depended on God’s continual supply. Instead it made him feel ill-treated. How do we respond when God puts us to the test? That is the test of what we are.
15.19 ‘And God clave the hollow place that was in Lehi and there came water from it, and when he had drunk his spirit returned and he revived. That is why the name of the place was called En-hakkore, which is in Lehi up to this day.’
En-hakkore means ‘the spring of him who called’. From a hollow place in Lehi God by some means caused a spring to flow out, and Samson was thus able to drink and revive himself.
It was ‘God’ not Yahweh who responded. Was this because he had broken his vow by using the jawbone of a dead ass? In Israel’s eyes and the writer’s eyes that would be no light thing. Or was it due to his petulant attitude? Or was the writer signalling that a new chapter was beginning in Samson’s life? His love of women would prove his downfall and the writer traces it back to this moment. From now on he would go continually downwards. Possibly all were true. He had perhaps begun to see himself as able to do anything he wanted. And that is always dangerous for a man.
15.20 ‘And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.’
This may indicate that he was seen as a deliverer of his people rather than that he actually exercised authority, for his final imprisonment is included in it (16.31), although he may well have exercised local authority over this period. We actually know little about his life apart from two short bursts (14-15 and 16.4-22) and this may be intended to indicate that from now on he ruled respectably and wisely, and certainly with authority. He had given Israel back some of its pride. The Philistines probably decided to leave him alone. He was not good news for them. He judged for ‘half a generation’, cut short in his prime. There is a further hint in that of what was to come.
Had Samson’s life ended here he might well have been judged differently. He is often described as a loveable rogue and a trickster, but while he behaved as men do at a wedding most of the remainder of what he did was with deadly serious intent. It is noteworthy that it was only ever against Philistines (they did not see them as tricks from a loveable rogue), and it proved very effective. Whether he drank wine or not to break his vow is a matter of pure conjecture. There is no evidence for it. There is also no evidence that he actually touched the dead carcass of the lion, and the killing of the enemy would be seen as a justifiable and not as defiling. So as far as we can know his vow appeared intact until this last incident of touching the jaw bone. And even then there was always a way back if he was willing to take it.
Commentators take up many different opinions on Samson. Some see him as a wild, uncontrolled, loveable rogue who achieved little. Others recognise in him a man who was fulfilling his destiny, revealing a total devotion to Yahweh and achieving what would stand Israel in good stead, until in his latter days he faltered. In our view the latter would appear to be nearer the truth, while acknowledging some of the former. But the fact is that the writer simply gives us the bare bones. We are left to read into the gaps.
Chapter 16. Samson’s Decline, Downfall and Final Triumph.
By including 15.20 the writer deliberately divided his story into two halves. The first part was, as we have seen, a story mainly of triumph against the odds, the second will be one of triumph in the face of disaster. The first began with him going in to a respectable Philistine woman with a view to responding to the Spirit of Yahweh (14.1 with 13.25), and constantly speaks of His activity by the Spirit. The second begins with him going in to a prostitute with a view to following the lusts of the flesh (16.1). There is no mention of the Spirit of Yahweh in this section, only of the final departure from him of Yahweh (16.20). But in the end it is ‘Yahweh’ Who acts through him for he is partially restored to his vow.
Furthermore 16.1 can be seen as parallel to previous times when ‘Israel went a-whoring after strange gods’ (2.17) and ‘did evil in the sight of Yahweh’ with the Baalim and Ashtaroth (2.11; 3.7). This would then signify good times followed by bad. But Samson’s gods were women. Samson had lost his effectiveness.
The account begins with his going in to a harlot in Gaza, and his subsequent removal of the gates of Gaza, followed by his dalliance with Delilah who tempts him to divulge the secret of his strength. This is followed by his subsequent arrest and blinding, and his being committed to hard labour in the prison mill. But the regrowth of his hair strengthens his faith and he finally destroys a packed Philistine Temple killing many of the enemy hierarchy.
16.1 ‘And Samson went to Gaza and there he saw a prostitute and went in to her.’
Gaza was the southernmost of the five major cities of the Philistine confederacy, near the coast to the south. Some years had possibly passed since the previous incidents, and many Israelites would visit the city, so that he was not necessarily expecting problems, although it was always going to be risky. Again he ‘saw a woman’. But this time she was a prostitute and he went in to her.
Perhaps he was now a disillusioned man as far as women were concerned so that all that they meant to him now was sex. It was a sign that his dedication to Yahweh had dimmed and that he now felt that he could do as he wished, although his strong sexual desires may have been overruling his will. But if so, that could only happen because of the dimming of his dedication. This time it would appear that the wrong spirit was moving him. He was no longer the man he was. Possibly it was the middle-age syndrome.
It may be that he used the woman in order to gain information about the city, or his intention may from the start have been to destroy the gates about which he needed knowledge, but there was no excuse for his behaviour, which was contrary to his vow. On the other hand any who have known strong sexual desire will understand the temptation, and appreciate what her drawing power was to him if she was very desirable. Even Nazirites were men, and the constant nagging of sexual desire has led many good men astray. But he knew his own weaknesses and it was something that he should have guarded against, as should we.
16.2 ‘And it was told the Gazites, saying, “Samson has come here!” And they compassed him in and laid wait for him all night in the gate of the city, and were quiet all night, saying, “We will wait for morning light. Then we will kill him.” ’
The leading men of Gaza learned that Samson was there. Possibly he had been spotted, or perhaps the prostitute had sent a message informing them of his presence, hoping for a reward. He may well have boasted about who he was, for he had lost his humility. Either way they decided that they would wait until morning, when approaching him might be less dangerous because then they could see what they were doing. They knew that there was only one way out of the walled city, through the huge city gates, and those would not be opened until the morning. And so they knew that they had him safe. They knew that they would be able to take him when they wanted and in a place where they themselves had set an ambush.
So in order to ensure success they gathered men in and around the gateway, trapping him in the city, ready to take him the next day when he came at the time of the opening of the gate. He could not after all kill the whole town. They ‘were quiet all night.’ That is, they did not seek to disturb him and themselves took the opportunity of resting.
‘The Gazites.’ This may have been the official name of their council, or they may have been so proud of their city that that was how they liked to be known. Each large Philistine city was semi-independent and had pride in its own status. They did not think of themselves as ‘Philistines’ and some, those for example in Beth-shan, were in fact Tjekker and not strictly Philistines, although of similar stock (they used different pottery).
16.3 ‘And Samson lay till midnight, and arose at midnight, and took the doors of the gate of the city, and the two posts, and plucked them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them up to the top of the mountain which is before Hebron.’
Samson, however, probably had a good idea of the situation, and took them by surprise. He finished his ‘adventures’ at midnight and then he left the house where he was and made for the city gates.
Probably most of the liers in wait were asleep, not expecting him to come at that time, for it would be pointless in view of the fact that the gates were fastened and would not be opened until the morning, and if anyone did spot him they seemingly waited to see what he would do. They knew that he could not possibly escape, and he was not a man to tamper with. None of them expected what actually did happen. For with his huge strength Samson quietly demolished the outer gate and the two gateposts and then lifted the whole on his shoulders and carried them off into the night. They may well have been nail studded with metal coverings which would have added to their weight.
No doubt the sight stunned the watchers to silence and wonder, so that they did nothing. They could probably not believe their eyes. They were probably also unnerved in the darkness, for his fearsome reputation was well known, although they had never seen it at first hand. Perhaps they heard the clatter and noise but were not sure what he was doing. Nor were they going to interfere. The last thing they had expected was for the gates to disappear. And now it was accomplished before their eyes. They must have wondered what powers of darkness were at work. Certainly they would consider that they were to be avoided.
And he carried the gates ‘to the top of the hill which is before Hebron’. Hebron was thirty eight miles (sixty kilometres) from Gaza, but this hill may have been a few miles from Gaza going towards Hebron, with Hebron seen in the distance. The feat however was stupendous and left Gaza open to attack. Perhaps that was part of the plan, but if so it would seem to have come to nothing. Alternately it may be that he was expecting them to attack him so that he could use his strength and fighting ability to dispose of a good few more Philistines.
Furthermore he may have intended it as a portent. The gates of cities would often be carried in triumphal processions and that may be what Samson was hinting at here, that this was an omen that the Philistines were doomed. He was preparing the way for Samuel’s ultimate victory.
(It was commonplace in those days for trials of strength to take place before main battles, between selected men or between champions, compare for example David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17.4). Great importance was put on the final result. It may be that Samson saw this in the same way).
This event suggests that Samson was naturally hugely strong for there is no thought of the activity of the Spirit of God here, nor would we expect it. His activities with the prostitute, following his connection with death through the use of the jaw of the ass, serves to demonstrate that his dedication as a Nazirite was waning. Pride and arrogance had taken over. All that was left of his vow was his long hair. That would go next.
It is not accidental that the incident of the jaw bone when he came in contact with dead matter, his behaviour with the prostitute, and the shaving of his hair come in sequence. They were the downward steps he took, resulting finally in the destruction of his consecration to Yahweh. First he was careless about touching dead matter, then he sank into sexual misconduct and finally he played fast and loose with his ‘holy’ hair. He had become complacent.
16.4 ‘And it was so afterwards that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.’
The Valley of Sorek lay between Jerusalem and the sea, commencing twelve miles (twenty kilometres) from Jerusalem. It was a valley famous for its vines (sorek is a type of vine). Delilah was probably an Israelite, otherwise we would have been told that she was a Philistine. On the other hand some think that she must have been a Philistine because if she had been an Israelite she must at some stage have realised that his long hair indicated that he was a Nazirite, and would have guessed his secret. Either way she proved a strong attraction to Samson with his waning dedication to Yahweh.
He seems especially to have been attracted by Philistine women, and certainly he was completely besotted with her. On the other hand she may simply have been very sexually desirable, or very beautiful. To all appearances they were having an affair using her home as the base, although the ease with which the writer speaks of it may suggest that it was simply just a courtship. Either way she was the final trap. She may well have been a high class prostitute for what other kind of woman of the time would have offered the use of her home and boudoir like she did? Or she may have been a widow with her eyes fixed on marrying someone influential. Either way she was open to bribery.
16. 5 ‘And the lords of the Philistines came up to her, and said to her, “Entice him and discover in what his great strength lies, and by what means we may prevail against him, so that we may bind him to afflict him. And we will each one of us give you eleven hundred pieces of silver.” ’
Probably the destruction of the gates of Gaza had been the last straw. If he could do that nowhere was safe. So the five Tyrants of the Philistines were probably initially determined to kill him. But they put it more gently to Delilah as though they only wanted to punish him. They did not want it to appear unpalatable to her.
Although he was a powerfully made man they recognised that there was some extra secret to his amazing strength and they wanted to discover it. Then they would be able to overcome him and do what they wished with him. So they offered her five thousand five hundred pieces of silver (1,100 x 5) in return for the secret. This was a huge sum. (Ten pieces of silver was a year’s wage for the Levite who was being enticed to act as a priest for Micah - 17.10). It demonstrated how seriously they saw him as a threat. And she was probably impressed by, and fearful at, the presence of these five hugely important men. It is possible, however, that they sent five lesser representatives, but even they would have been seen as important men by Delilah.
‘Entice him.’ As men themselves they knew the impact of a beautiful woman and what she could learn from a man, especially in bed.
16.6 ‘And Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me, I pray you, wherein your great strength lies, how you may be bound to afflict you.” ’
This was the essence of the question but it would have been put in a fine and innocent context so as to allay his suspicions. He had no doubt boasted about his great exploits, as men will to women from whom they seek admiration and love, and she may have brought up his exploits and then asked this seemingly innocent question. What was the secret of his strength? Was there any way that those evil men could have bound and afflicted him?
16.7 ‘And Samson said to her, “If they bind me with seven fresh (green) withes that were never dried, then I will become weak, and be as another man.” ’
A withe is a flexible branch of willow or the desert shrub thymelaea hirsuta or some such tree, used for binding bundles. The combination of the divine number seven with the possible sacredness of trees, still containing their sap, would sound impressive to a superstitious woman, for she thought that she was dealing with magic. Samson was unquestionably joking with her with that superiority that men generally felt for womankind in ancient days. After all the matter was not serious.
16.8 ‘Then the lords of the Philistines brought up to her seven fresh (green) withes, which had not been dried, and she bound him with them.’
When he next came to see her he was probably amused to see that she had some fresh withes in her room. Little did he realise that they had been supplied by the Philistine Tyrants. And as they lay and made love and caressed she probably playfully bound them round him and let him sleep, joking that he was her captive. Or she may have done it while he was asleep. It says something for the fear that they had of him that the Philistines did not attempt to have their strongest men do it for her.
16.9 ‘Now she had liers-in-wait waiting in her inner chamber. And she said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson.” And he broke the withes as a string of tow is broken when it touches the fire. So his strength was not known.’
It is clear that Delilah played it as a game. The Philistines dared not enter until they were sure the method would work, and thus Samson never knew of their presence, but rather Delilah cried out that the Philistines were there, to see his reaction and the result. This first time he may well have thought she meant it so he broke the withes but found no one there. And she no doubt laughed as though it were a game. But underneath her heart was beating rapidly and she was afraid. And she knew that he had not told her his secret, and that she did not know in what his strength lay.
16.10 ‘And Delilah said to Samson, “Behold, you have made fun of me, and told me untruths. Now tell me, I pray you, how you might be bound.” ’
On another visit Delilah tried the same tack, although this time ‘lovingly’ pretending to be a little hurt and chiding him. Now she urged him, if he loved her, really to tell her the truth.
16.11 ‘And he said to her, “If only they bind me with new ropes which have never been used, then shall I become weak and as another man.”
By now Samson in his innocence was probably enjoying himself as he thought out new ways by which to make gentle fun of his beloved mistress. This time he suggested that new ropes would do what she wanted. But we know that the men of Judah had already tried that and it had been unsuccessful (15.13). However, the present company did not know that.
16.12 ‘So Delilah took new ropes, and bound him with them, and said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson.” (And the liers-in-wait were waiting in the inner chamber). And he broke them from off his arms like a thread.’
Once again she took advantage of love play and sleepiness to bind him, and then when he was drowsing told him that the Philistines were upon him. This time he probably did not believe it, but wishing her to enjoy her game, and wanting to impress her, he easily broke them off in front of her.
She did not show it but by now Delilah was getting somewhat annoyed as she thought of all that money within her grasp which she could not get because of this silly man. And she must also have been wondering what the Philistines might do to her after he was gone. And there was always the fear that Samson himself might find out what she was doing. She must have been in quite a state. But she hid it well. She was used to playing with men and was totally hardened.
16.13a. ‘And Delilah said to Samson, “Up to now you have made fun of me and told me untruths. Tell me in what way you might be bound.” ’
These words were no doubt hidden in much love play and tender caressing, and said with gentle chiding as from one amused by her lover’s jesting. But underneath she was deadly serious.
16.13b ‘And he said to her, “If you weave the seven locks of my head with the warp threads.” ’
The idea here was that she had to weave the seven locks of his hair in with the warp threads. The pinning of verse 14 is then to be seen as her own idea.
But because there is no mention of her pinning it, some, in view of verse 14, see it as more likely that some letters have dropped out of the text in copying, for LXX (the Greek Old Testament) has a much longer version, probably based on a Hebrew text. It reads, ‘if you weave the seven locks of my head with the warp threads, and fasten them up to the beam with the pin, then I will be weak like other men.’ The idea would then seem to be that she would need to use her loom to weave his hair together with the warp threads of the loom and then pin it to the beam of the loom.
On the other hand that may simply have arisen from LXX wanting to explain a difficult reading. The words may be a technical description using technical words whose meaning was lost prior to the LXX translation, but which would have been perfectly understood by Delilah. The gist of it is quite clear.
16.14 ‘And she fastened it with the pin, and said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson.” And he awoke from his sleep and plucked away the pin of the beam and the warp threads.’
While he was asleep Delilah carried out the process he had described, finally fastening his hair to the beam with the pin. Then she gave him warning of the presence of Philistines. Immediately he woke up and freed his hair, possibly breaking the loom in the process. He thought it was all part of the continuing game. He did not dream that previously Philistines had actually been present, just in case it worked.
Ominously ‘fastened the pin’ are the same words as ‘drove the nail’ in 4.21. The blows were just as deadly for both had the same purpose in mind, the destruction of a man.
It will be noted that this time the Philistines are not said to have been present. Perhaps she had decided that she had to make sure that she had found the secret before she called on them. Or it may be that their presence was just to be assumed.
LXX has here (following what is cited above), ‘and it came about that when he slept, Delilah took seven locks of his head, and wove them in the warp threads, and fastened them with a pin to the beam." Note that even in LXX there is no mention this time of Philistines actually being present. So perhaps this time she really had decided to try to find his secret without the Philistines being present. It would be getting somewhat difficult having to explain to them each time why she had failed. She could then pass on the secret later and arrange to do it another time. That is certainly what she did in the end.
16.15 ‘And she said to him, “How can you say, I love you, when your heart is not with me? You have made fun of me these three times, and have not told me in what your great strength lies.” ’
Now she was getting very angry, but disguised it as hurt love. Always beware of a man or woman who says, “If you loved me you would --.” They are using deceitful tactics as Delilah was here. She accused him of not loving her with all his heart. “These three times.’ A complete set of jests. And still she did not know the answer.
16.16-17a ‘And it came about that when she pressed him daily with her words, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death, and he told her all his heart.’
What sad words these are. Pressed and urged day after day by a woman who professed deep love for him, while all the time her only aim was betrayal, until he could stand against her no longer because of his deep love for her, he opened his heart and told her the truth, the truth that would destroy the remainder of his life.
16.17b ‘And he said to her, “There has not come a razor on my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If I am shaved, then my strength will go from me, and I will become weak, and be like any other man.” ’
At last he divulged his secret. His strength lay in the fact that he was a Nazirite, dedicated to Yahweh, which was why his hair was uncut. Should his hair be shorn then his vow would be broken and he would become like anyone else.
Yet there are grounds for thinking that he had become so arrogant in his strength that he did not really believe it. Consider the facts. Each time he had suggested some method to her he had woken to find that she had tried it out, whether with withes, with ropes or with loom. Could he then doubt that she would also cut his hair? Possibly then he was fondly aware of what she would do but did not think that it would matter. His vow had become so unimportant to him, and his strength so natural, that he did not think that the vow mattered.
This is confirmed by the fact that when he woke up with his head shaven, and he must surely have realised the fact immediately, he still did not believe that Yahweh would have left him (16.20). After all, using the jawbone of the ass had done no harm, and sleeping with a prostitute in Gaza had done no harm, both acts contrary to his vows, why then should the cutting off of his hair? We must beware of treating God’s patience as an excuse for further sin.
16.18 ‘And when Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart, she sent and called for the lords of the Philistines, saying, “Come up this once, for he has told me all his heart.” Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her, and brought money in their hand.’
This time Delilah realised that he had really bared his heart, and she felt justified in again calling the Philistine Tyrants for one last attempt. And she convinced them too, for they came bringing the promised reward with them.
For ‘he has told me all his heart’ there is an alternative reading ‘he has told her all his heart’. If this be read then it signifies the words of the messengers whom she sent.
16.19 ‘And she made him sleep on her knees, and she called for a man and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head, and she began to humble him, and his strength went from him.’
Here was the height of treachery. This woman who had pretended to love him lulled him to sleep on her knees, then she called for a man (this was servant’s work or women’s work - the Philistines had probably brought a barber with them) and directed him to shave off Samson’s seven locks of hair while he slept. The seven locks of hair symbolised the divine perfection of his vow. Now he would lose all that it had meant to him. He was no longer a Nazirite.
‘And she began to humble him.’ That is, at this stage she began the humbling of him, his total humiliation. It was a humbling that would go on and on. The same verb is found in 16.5, 6 (‘afflict’). What would follow would be humiliation and affliction, and it would be her work. These words are looking forward to his future. It was what the Philistines had been planning from the beginning. And here by her actions she had started off the process. This would be the result of his losing his special strength.
Alternately it may even indicate that, having bereft him of his strength, she attacked him viciously, getting her own back for his previous prevarication.
‘And his strength went from him.’ Not his natural strength but that special extra, that inspiration which had come from the Spirit of Yahweh. He would still be strong, but without that added extra that came at times of special need. Many men have known extra strength in time of need as adrenalin has worked overtime. Some have found in battle that their bodies seem to be taken over so that they fought almost mechanically in a ferocious and effective way. Others have worked themselves into a religious frenzy to achieve the same (consider the wild Norse warriors, the Berserkers). But this that Samson had known had been beyond this, for it was provided by the divine Spirit at work within. Now it would be no more.
16.20 ‘And she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson,” and he awoke from his sleep and said, “I will go out as at other times, and shake myself ”. But he did not realise that Yahweh had departed from him.’
Again she alerted him to the Philistine presence, and again he was unconcerned. What did it matter if they were there or not? He realised that his hair had been cut off, but what had changed? A quick shake and all would be well. What he failed to recognise was that he had lost not only his hair but his consecration. In a sense it had already been happening, slowly, but his readiness to allow her to shave his locks was the final fall. He was no longer Yahweh’s man. He no longer had the extra strength provided by Yahweh.
‘But he did not realise that Yahweh had departed from him.’ This was it. The final departure of Yahweh from his life. This was what his sin, and his continuing arrogance and his final contempt for his vow had brought him to. He had exchanged God for a deceitful woman. But it was really the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3.13; 2 Corinthians 6.18-19; 2 Timothy 2.21-22). And why did he not realise it? Because he was now so self-sufficient that he did not look to Him for empowering. It was not that he sought but did not find. It was that he no longer sought. It was not only his hair that he had lost, but his whole attitude of consecration. That is why he had not been bothered about his hair.
Samson’s life was a mirror of what had happened to Israel. They too had been dedicated to Yahweh under the covenant. They too had been separated to a holy life. They too had known the Spirit of Yahweh working through them. They too had slowly declined and allowed themselves to drift from the covenant. They had whored after false goddesses. And that was why they were as they were this day, tributaries and servants instead of being the masters.
Sadly someone who reads these words might be in the same situation. Once wholly dedicated to God, and separated to a holy life, experiencing the work of the Spirit, but now having declined, and even having reached rock bottom, being totally enslaved by sin or indolence.
16.21a ‘And the Philistines laid hold of him.’
He saw the Philistines enter the room, their strongest and their best. He exerted himself anticipating that his battle strength would be there for him. But though he fought bravely they had him down and bound him, for Yahweh was no longer with him, and he had ceased to look to Him. He had become dependent on himself. His ‘battle Spirit’ no longer came.
16.21b ‘And they put out his eyes, and they brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of bronze, and he did grind in the prison house.’
We can compare Zedekiah in 2 Kings 25.7. The putting out of the eyes was the final punishment from which there was no return. Its purpose was total humiliation and degradation. From then on men to whom this had happened stumbled in darkness. It was also here possibly a safeguard because the Philistines were still a little unsure of Samson. It was a symbol of what had happened to him. He had become blind and enfettered spiritually. Now it had happened literally. The word means ‘bored out’. Compare Numbers 16.14.
‘And they brought him down to Gaza.’ To Gaza where he had known his greatest feat. To Gaza where his decline had first become apparent (16.1-3). It was ‘down’ because it was on the coastal plain below the hills, but it was also down because that was the direction of his spiritual journey. He had reached rock bottom.
‘And bound him with fetters of bronze.’ They wanted no risk of his escaping or causing trouble. They were fetters that would never be moved. Every clink of the metal was a reminder of what he had lost. And they were very painful causing chafing, wounds and sores (Psalm 105.18). Note that the fetters were of bronze. They were still in their early stages of using iron.
‘And he did grind in the prison house.’ It may be that he was called on to push or pull round the great grinding stone in the prison mill, a job usually reserved for oxen, but more probably he ground a hand mill in his cell. Grinding a hand mill was the lowest kind of slave prison labour (see Exodus 11.5 with 12.29). For a man it was menial and humiliating, for it was woman’s work. And possibly he lived in squalor and never left his airless prison.
We must not overemphasise this but it is interesting that in Scripture sexual activity is spoken of in terms of the grinding of grain. ‘If my heart has been enticed to a woman, and I have laid wait at my neighbour’s door, then let my wife grind to another, and let others bow down on her’ (Job 31.9-10; possibly also Isaiah 47.2; Jeremiah 25.10). This may thus be seen as a suitable punishment for one who had sinned like Samson had. Does he like ‘grinding’ with the Gazite prostitute and with Delilah? Then let him now grind in the prison house.
16.22 ‘However, the hair of his head began to grow again after he was shaven.’
‘However.’ The word is full of significance. It was a reminder that there was hope because God was observing the situation. ‘The hair of his head began to grow again.’ And who among them noticed? The Philistines did not. Or at least they did not appreciate its significance. But Samson noticed. And we need not doubt that it reminded him of his vow, and of his glory days, and that he bitterly regretted how he had failed God, and that in his heart he repented. And need we doubt that he found forgiveness and possibly even called on God to renew his vow, even though now that he was blind he could not be fully sanctified to Yahweh (Leviticus 21.18; 22.20, 22).
16.23 ‘And the lords of the Philistines gathered themselves together in order to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and to celebrate, for they said, “Our god has delivered Samson our enemy into our hand.”
The taking of Samson was seen as a cause for great celebration. So at their next great festival at which great sacrifices would normally be offered to Dagon, the god that they had adopted from the Canaanites, they declared a celebration. He it was, they believed, who had handed Samson over to them.
Dagon was possibly a corn god from which came the Hebrew dagan (‘grain, corn’). He was worshipped in Mesopotamia from at least 2500 BC and had a temple at Mari (18th century BC) adorned with bronze lions. In 14th century BC there was a temple to him at Ugarit and their texts depicted him as the father of Baal. The mention of more than one Beth-dagon (‘house of Dagon’ - found in two areas - Joshua 15.41; 19.27) demonstrates that there were also at some time temples to him in Canaan. Raamses II mentions a Bth-Dgn in his Palestinian lists (around 1270 BC). (There are no genuine grounds for seeing him as a fish god. That was an invention of a later post-Christian age). Saul’s head would later be displayed in the house of Dagon (1 Chronicles 10.10).
Dagon was not their only god (1 Chronicles 10.9-10), they also worshipped Ashtaroth (at Beth-shan - 1 Samuel 31.10 - but these would strictly be a confederate Sea People called the Tjekker) and Baalzebub (at Ekron - 2 Kings 1.1-6, 16) among others, but at this time he appears to have been the prime favourite with a temple at Ashdod (1 Samuel 5.1-2) and this one in Gaza (Judges 16.27). It was at Ashdod that Dagon would shortly fall before the Ark of Yahweh (1 Samuel 5.3).
16.24 ‘And when the people saw him, they praised their god for they said, “Our god has delivered into our hand our enemy, and the destroyer of our country who has killed many of us.” ’
The order in which the verse comes is not strictly chronological. They would see him first when he was led bound through the streets in triumph, and then when they visited the prison house to gloat over him, and finally when they called for him to be brought to the temple of Dagon. Blinded and fettered he appeared to be a triumph for them and for their god, for they remembered how he had burned their crops and olive orchards and how he had slain their dead. Note how the rejoicing and celebration is stressed. They made a great show of it and this is in fact a victory song which we might render:
16.25 ‘And so it was that when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call for Samson, that he may make us sport.” And they called for Samson out of the prison house, and he made sport before them, and they set him between the pillars.’
Drunk with wine and success they brought Samson out, dirty and in rags, blind and fettered, with hair beginning to grow unnoticed, led by a small boy. A sight of total pathos. How they must have cheered as they made a mockery of him in the courtyard in front of the sanctuary. We do not know what sport they had with him but the great jester had become the laughingstock, a butt for humour and probably a target for rubbish and spittle. The Philistines had brought their keenness for ‘sport’ from the Aegean. Now deriding Samson was their sport. Then they set him between the two main supporting pillars where all could see him, apart from those on the roof, especially the nobles in the covered section directly under the roof.
Three successive temples have been discovered at Tel Qasile which have similarities with temples found in the Aegean and in Cyprus. It is possible that the temple of Gaza was of a similar pattern. In all probability the Tyrants and officials were in a covered portion looking out on the courtyard where Samson was made a spectacle, separated from the courtyard by a series of wooden pillars set on stone bases, which supported the roof on which the large crowd was gathered for a good view. Once Samson was taken between the pillars the spectators on the roof, pressing forward to gain a good vantage-point, would make the whole structure, already overcrowded, dangerously unstable.
16.26 ‘And Samson said to the lad who held him by the hand, “Allow me to feel the pillars on which the house stands so that I may lean on them.” ’
He may have looked an abject picture, a figure of ridicule, but his mind was busily working on the question as to how he could take advantage of the situation, and his heart was reaching up to God. So he made an excuse for being able to feel the pillars. He was ready for one last attempt to fulfil his mission.
16.27 ‘Now the house was full of men and women, and all the lords of the Philistines were there, and there were on the roof three thousand men and women who watched while Samson made sport.’
This was a special occasion and it is stressed that the temple was dangerously packed. The crowded roof, with the crowds peering over to watch Samson, was probably already affecting the temple’s structure, especially when he was led to the pillars and they had to lean over to see him. Everyone was there to see him, including the five great Tyrants of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath and Gaza.
‘Men and women.’ The mixing of the sexes like this was not a Semitic custom, but was well accepted in Crete from where the Philistines came.
‘Three eleph.’ Three large groups. The number is probably a rough approximation, based on divisions of the crowd. An ‘eleph’ is a large group.
16.28 ‘And Samson called to Yahweh, and said, “Oh Lord Yahweh, remember me, I pray you, and strengthen me, I pray you, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.”
This is the only record we have of Samson praying, although like all true Israelites he would regularly have participated in covenant worship. But that lack may only be because of the nature of the narrative. Previously it was assumed because he was the dedicated of Yahweh. The record of his prayer here was necessary to explain why God acted powerfully for one who had forfeited the right to expect it.
The sight must have had its own magnificence. The excitement and baying of the crowd, the sense of expectation as the main acts of worship approached, then suddenly that bent, defeated, pathetic, blind figure between the pillars from whom they had obtained such entertainment straightening himself up and crying out in the Hebrew tongue. And some around would recognise his words.
His plea was impassioned. They would hear him refer himself to the ‘Lord Yahweh’ and then to ‘God’. He was calling on Him both as Covenant Lord and Creator.
First he prayed to be remembered. As a vow breaker he was concerned lest God would not ‘remember’ him, that is acknowledge him and be responsive to him in the way that He used to be. Then he prayed for strength. The strength that he could once have relied on but had lost by his disobedience. Humbly he asked for it just once more. He recognised his own undeserving and threw himself on the mercy of God. Finally he prayed for revenge for his two eyes that they had taken from him, thereby deforming him and preventing him from being again dedicated to Yahweh as a Nazirite or being fully acceptable to Yahweh ( Leviticus 21.18; 22.20, 22). The phrase may have included the idea that as judge he was ‘the eyes’ of his people (Job 29.15; compare Psalm 32.8) and that they had taken them away thereby taking away his people’s hope. Or perhaps his thought was that he could no longer lift up his eyes to Yahweh (Psalm 123.1).
‘At once for my two eyes’ could be translated ‘for one of my two eyes’ (either is possible as a translation). The significance of the latter would then be that their sin was so heinous that what he aimed to do would only be sufficient to avenge him for one eye, so great was their sin in blinding him.
16.29 ‘And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars, on which the house rested, and leaned on them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left.’
The pillars were probably wooden pillars on stone bases. Thus they could be slid off their bases and would then cease to satisfactorily fulfil their function of holding up the roof which was already overloaded and unstable, and on which were large numbers of excited people. Samson apparently took hold of both with the intention of dragging them off their bases.
16.30a ‘And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” And he bowed himself with all his might, and the house fell on the lords, and on all the people who were in it.’
It was an act of war and revenge. He gave his life to destroy the Philistine power. For by dragging the pillars off their bases, with part of the roof, already unstable because of the hundreds of people on it, collapsing on those below, the weight of the people would bring down further parts of the roof, especially as many desperately tried to scramble for safety before falling to their deaths, crushing also those hopelessly seeking safety below.
16.30b ‘So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.’
The writer does not exaggerate by claiming too much, for he did not have the statistics. He merely stated the obvious that a large number died, certainly more than those slain by Samson in his lifetime. And many others were badly injured. It may or may not have included all the Tyrants, and their heirs. In such disasters some do escape, seemingly almost miraculously. But it was certainly devastating for the future of their military power and they would certainly take a long time to recover from the disaster. It would ease the pressure on Israel for years to come.
16.31 ‘Then his brothers, and all the house of his father, came down, and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol, in the burying place of Manoah his father. And he judged Israel twenty years.’
Samson’s body was collected by his near kin and was given a respectable burial, and he was gathered to his fathers in the family tomb. It was to the Philistines credit that his body was released. Possibly it was due to the great respect that they had for him as a notable enemy once he was dead. Or it may have been due to the chaos while new Tyrants were appointed. But more likely it was a fear in view of his terrible cry that they had been punished by the God of Israel for their treatment of Samson and did not want any more of it. Respectable burial was considered very important in ancient days, and they wanted him buried and out of the way and at rest where he could do no more harm.
‘And he judged Israel twenty years.’ Repeated from 15.20 this summed up his life, cut short in its prime. For most of his life he was seemingly faithful to his vow as a Nazirite, and after his vivid beginning he appears to have ruled soberly until he went astray towards the end when his sexual proclivities proved too much for him. Possibly his ventures with women at the end were an attempt to revive the glories of his youth, and were intended to result in further activity against the Philistines, but if so they backfired dreadfully for he was no longer a vibrant man of faith. However on his repentance God did turn them to good so that Samson retained his reputation as a man of faith and achieved a remarkable final contribution towards the deliverance of Israel.
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