(Heb. šimšôn; Gk sampsōn; likely a diminutive of šemeš, “sun,” i.e., “Sunny”) The larger-than-life long-haired warrior from Israel's frontier period whose miraculous birth, bawdy and violent adventures, and heroic death are narrated in Judges 13–16. Though never mentioned outside of Judges 13–16 in the Hebrew Bible (and in the New Testament once, Heb 11:32), Samson is among the handful of biblical characters who transcends the realms of biblical interpretation and Jewish and Christian religious cultures. In a manner rivaled only by his Greek counterpart Hercules, the character Samson through the ages has become an emblem for brute strength, physical desire, and foolish love, often paired with his equally memorable consort Delilah, herself a caricature of seductive hyper-femininity. Samson belongs to the roster of the world's legion of heroes.
Samson is unattested in nonbiblical sources, and both the epic scale of his feats and his similarities to a menagerie of hairy men and legendary heroes render elusive attempts to locate him historically. In the book of Judges, he is portrayed with ambivalence. In the narrative sequence of Judges, Samson is the final, and wildest, judge of the era, and his interest in foreign women (e.g., “But Samson said to his father, ‘Get [the Timnite woman] for me, because she pleases me’ [Heb. “because she is right in my eyes”], Judg 14:3) and chaotic personality lead up to an era when “there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6). On the other hand, as an angel announced to his mother in the birth account of Judges 13, Samson begins “to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judg 13:5), linking him to the heroes—Saul, David, Joab—of the books of Samuel and making him one of the cornerstones of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Samson receives one of the fullest biographical treatments in the Hebrew Bible. In the birth account of Judges 13, the unnamed barren wife of a Danite man named Manoah receives an angelic annunciation of the imminent birth of a special child who must observe the diet (abstinence from spirits and unclean foods) and appearance (uncut hair) of the Nazirite code. Long hair worn in seven braids (Judg 16:19) will be the adult Samson's trademark.
A series of three adventures follow in Judges 14–16 revolving around Samson's search for female companionship across the border in Philistia: Samson and the woman from Timnah (Judg 14–15), Samson and the prostitute from Gaza (Judg 16:1–3), and Samson and Delilah (Judg 16:4–31). These may have been originally separate episodes, combined by an editor. In each case, the Philistines attempt to thwart the liaison, and this initiates a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals that inspire Samson to engage his superhuman strength against Israel's ethnic rivals. Motivated on the surface by no greater purpose than amorous wanderlust (cf. Judg 14:4 for the divine purpose), Samson is a one-man army who violently careens through Philistia torching fields, toppling buildings, and killing people. The Danite beast is eventually tamed by Delilah, who seduces him to reveal that his uncut hair is the key to his superhuman strength. In the final scene, after Samson had been shaved, captured, and blinded, he is exhibited like a trophy in the Philistine's temple of Dagon in Gaza. “But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved” (Judg 16:22), and Samson regains his strength and performs his ultimate feat, pulling down the pillars of the temple, killing thousands of the enemy and himself in the process.
This wild hero received equal measures of censure and celebration from early biblical interpreters. In Heb 11:32, he is listed as a paragon of faith. In Rabbinic sources, he is a dangerous but alluring hero whose boastful hubris was eventually deflated even while the sages inflated his appearance and feats, portraying him as a giant, fancifully making him the sire of the Philistine's own giant Goliath. Through the ages, Samson's implied mass, unshorn feral appearance, prodigious libido, and extraordinary feats have led interpreters to compare him to scores of legendary wild heroes such as Hercules, medieval hairy men, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and even the Irish hero Cú Chulainn. Always an alienated antihero, Samson emerges across the spectrum of culture, from John Milton (Samson Agonistes, 1671), to African American spirituals (“Samson and Delilah”), to Hollywood (Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, 1949), to comic books (Gold Key's Mighty Samson series in the 1960s).
In modern biblical scholarship, some nineteenth century interpreters viewed Samson as the personification of a solar deity with ray-like hair, whose day was extinguished by Delilah, her name dubiously related to the Hebrew word for night (layelah). In the early twentieth century, Hermann Gunkel's groundbreaking work in field of oral tradition led him to compare Samson to a perennial character in folklore, the wild man. In the 1960s Yigael Yadin's proposed his “Danite hypothesis,” that the biblical Danites be identified with the Homeric Danaoi and considered Late Bronze/Early Iron Age Mycenaean immigrants to Syro-Palestine who, unlike their Philistine cousins, assimilated to early Israelite culture and brought tales of their Hercules-like hero with them. In some recent work, Samson has been compared to a specific mythological character in Mesopotamian literature and art, the laḥmu, “hairy hero,” who embodies chaos, and to the outlaw heroes of Anglo-American and African American balladry.
Samson is best seen as a rough and rowdy character of the Israelite frontier era whose exploits were transformed into near-mythic proportions by storytellers. The composers of the Deuteronomistic History likely added the didactic touches that have inspired so many subsequent moralistic readings, about how both foreign women and pride come before a fall, and how God answers the prayers of humbled heroes. In the end, the Samson narrative must be judged as one of the world's great stories and its enduring popularity must be based on two facts. The first is that this biblical story is a pool fed by and connected to many other stories. But the second reason for Samson's staying power is the unique way that Judges 13–16 portrays the compellingly human contradictions of its protagonist. Who does not marvel at this superman strong enough to manhandle a lion, best battalions, and shake the earth? Who cannot sympathize with a man so weak, who lost so much—his mane of hair, his strength, his eyesight, and finally his life—because he searched unwisely for love?
[See also Dan, Deuteronomy, and Judges.]
- Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Book of Judges. Old Testament Writings. London: Routledge, 2002.
- Bynum, David E. “Samson as a Biblical φὴρ ὀρεσκὦς.” In Text and Tradition: The Hebrew Bible and Folklore, edited by Susan Niditch, pp. 57–73. Semeia Studies. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.
- Crenshaw, James. Samson: A Secret Betrayed, A Vow Ignored. Atlanta: John Knox, 1978.
- Exum, J. Cheryl. “Aspects of Symmetry and Balance in the Samson Saga,” JSOT 19 (1981): 3–29.
- Margalith, Othniel. “The Legends of Samson/Heracles,” VT 37 (1987): 63–70.
- Marks, Richard G. “Dangerous Hero: Rabbinic Attitudes toward Legendary Warriors,” HUCA 54 (1983): 181–194.
- Mobley, Gregory. The Empty Men: The Heroic Tradition of Ancient Israel. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005.
- Mobley, Gregory. Samson and the Liminal Hero in the Ancient Near East. New York: T & T Clark, 2006.
- Niditch, Susan. “Samson as Culture Hero, Trickster, and Bandit: The Empowerment of the Weak,” CBQ 52 (1990): 608–624.