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Samson

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Samson

    Samson (whose name is derived from the word for “sun”) was the twelfth and last judge of Israel (Judg. 13–16) before civil war threatened to tear the tribes apart (Judg. 17–21). He harassed the Philistines in the border country between his native Dan, Judah, and Philistia. Besides killing thousands of Philistines, Samson ripped a lion apart with his bare hands (14.5–6) and told a riddle about it (14.14), loved two women who betrayed him for very different reasons (14.15–17; 16.5–6), burned Philistine crops (15.4–5), visited a Philistine prostitute and carried off the city gates of Gaza on the same night (16.1–3), was blinded and enslaved by the Philistines (16.21), and caused his own death by toppling the pillars of the Philistines' temple upon himself and his foes (16.28–30).

    With his powerful libido, Samson resembles other judges who fell outside the behavioral norms of Israelite society (left‐handed Ehud, the woman Deborah, young Gideon, the bastard Jephthah). Unlike other judges, however, Samson was neither an adjudicator nor (despite Judg. 13.5) a “deliverer” of his people. Personal vengeance was the motive for his single‐handed forays against the Philistines. Samson's obliviousness to the requirements of his Nazirite status (Judg. 14.8–9, 10; 15.15) suggests that it is not original to the Samson legend, although it is important in the literary framework of the biblical narrative.

    The Samson story reflects an early stage of actual Philistine‐Israelite confrontations, but it is rooted in Danite folktales and perhaps Philistine story traditions. It resembles tales of intertribal relations told in other areas where neighboring groups borrow story lines from each other. The Philistines were related to Homer's Mycenaean Greeks, and the Samson saga has motifs in common with Greek and other Indo‐European literatures. Samson also resembles Gilgamesh, as well as tricksters like Jacob.

    Josephus is typical of early Jewish and Christian interpreters in his verdict that Samson's heroic death transcended the sins of his life (Ant. 5.8.317). Samson's questionable morality could even be glossed over (Heb. 11.32), or, as later for Milton in Samson Agonistes, superseded by his heroic death.

    Judges 13–16 is one of the most artfully composed tales in the Bible. It is framed by a prediction of Samson's birth to his barren mother (Judg. 13; cf. Gen. 17.15–19; 18; 1 Sam. 1) and his spectacular death (Judg. 16.22–30), episodes that mirror each other (e.g., in the obtuseness of both Manoah and the Philistines, and the rituals for Yahweh and Dagon). There is an exuberance of wordplay, including etiologies (15.17, 19), riddling couplets (14.12–14, 18), and ring compositions (especially Judges 13). One finds foreshadowing (13.7), crisp characterizations (Samson, his mother and father), and clever inversions from episode to episode (compare the restraining of Samson by the men of Judah and by Delilah). Most of all, the narrative presents a subtle study of deception and betrayal, by humans and by God, for good and for ill.

    See also Judges, The Book of

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    Mary Joan Winn Leith

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    Oxford University Press

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