Samson (Heb. שִׁמְשׁוֹן; from shemesh, “sun”) was the son of Manoah, a Danite living in Zorah, a judge in Israel. Samson’s heroic exploits are recounted in Judges 13–16.
His father was married to a woman who long remained childless. An angel of the Lord appeared to her to announce that she would give birth and that since the son whom she was carrying was to be a Nazirite from the womb, she herself was forbidden to partake of wine or strong drink or to eat anything unclean; it is possible that her husband was under the same restriction. Once the child was born, she was not to allow his hair to be cut (cf. Num. 6; see also 4Q Sam. 1:23 where Samuel is similarly described as a Nazirite from birth). The angel also announced that this child was destined to “begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” In a second appearance, this time before Manoah as well as his wife, the angel substantially repeated his earlier message and then rose to heaven in the flames of Manoah’s burnt offering, to the awe-struck wonder of the couple (Jud. 13:2–25).
All the incidents recorded from the life of Samson stem from his involvement with three women. The first was a Philistine woman from Timnah (not to be confused with the Judahite town of that name). Samson demanded that his parents arrange his marriage to her. They were reluctant to have their son marry a woman from among the “uncircumcised” Philistines, but they were unaware that this was part of the Lord’s plan by means of which an excuse to attack the Philistines would be obtained (14:1–4).
Samson’s first heroic adventure took place on his way to Timnah to arrange the marriage. About to be attacked by a lion, he was seized by the spirit of the Lord, and he slew the beast barehanded. He later returned to the scene of this adventure and, finding that a swarm of bees had collected in the carcass of the lion, lustily partook of their honey, even bringing some to his parents, whom he did not inform of its origin (14:5–9).
Arriving at Timnah, Samson held a wedding feast at which he posed a riddle based on his adventure with the lion, and bet with the guests that they would not be able to solve it. The Philistines, unable to solve the riddle, enlisted the help of Samson’s bride, who cajoled him into telling her the answer. When the Philistines responded correctly, Samson realized that his secret had been betrayed. He was again infused with the spirit of the Lord and rushed to Ashkelon, where he single-handedly slew 30 men in revenge and then angrily returned to his parents’ home, leaving his wife behind to be given to a companion (14:10–20).
When Samson returned to discover the fate of his wife, he vented his rage on the Philistines by tying 300 foxes in pairs by their tails with firebrands inserted between them and letting them run loose through the fields of the Philistines. When the latter took revenge on the family of his Timnaite wife, Samson in turn wreaked terrible vengeance upon them and then withdrew to the rock of Etam in Judah (15:1–8).
When the Philistines then encamped at Lehi, the Judahites, fearful of attack, sent a 3,000-strong delegation to Samson demanding that he surrender himself to the enemy. Samson agreed on a Judahite promise of safe-conduct. He was bound with two new ropes and brought to the Philistine camp where the spirit of the Lord came upon him, enabling him to snap the ropes and to kill 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone (lehi) of an ass. This story is an etiology for the place name. A second etiology explains the name of a spring at Lehi. This spring is said to have appeared after Samson called upon the Lord to provide water with which to quench his great thirst after the battle. Accordingly, the spring was called En-Hakkore, “the spring of him who called” (15:9–20).
The second Philistine woman with whom Samson became involved was a prostitute from Gaza. The Philistines surrounded her house in the hope of seizing Samson when he emerged in the morning, but the plan was foiled when he arose in the middle of the night, uprooted the city gate, and carried it off to a hill in the vicinity of Hebron, about 40 miles away (16:1–3).
The third woman, who caused Samson’s ultimate downfall, was Delilah. Although not specifically identified as a Philistine, she conspired, for a price, with the Philistine rulers to ascertain the source of Samson’s strength. After three unsuccessful attempts, she finally induced him to divulge that the secret lay in his unshorn locks of hair. Thereupon, she (see Sasson) shaved off his seven locks while he slept. Deprived of his strength, Samson was seized by the Philistines, who blinded and incarcerated him (16:4–21).
Later, the Philistines gathered in their temple for a religious festival and had Samson entertain them there. Samson, whose hair had meanwhile grown again, had his guide place his hands on the temple pillars. Then, uttering a final prayer to the Lord for vengeance, he seized them and brought the building toppling down, killing himself and the 3,000 worshipers (16:22–30). The final note of Samson’s burial in his ancestral tomb between Zorah and Eshtaol closes the narrative (16:31).
The Samson stories are significant in that although their present form contains late linguistic features, they paint a picture of life in the Shephelah on the border between Judah, Dan, and Philistia during the late 12th or early 11th century B.C.E., before the Danite migration to the north. At this time, although Philistine pressure was beginning to be felt, as is reflected in the narrative, there was still open intercourse and trade between the Philistine and Israelite populations, a fact attested by the numerous Philistine artifacts found in the excavations of the Israelite settlement at Beth-Shemesh from this period. Since Israel at this time was not engaged in full-scale hostilities with the Philistines, Samson, unlike all the other judges, is never depicted as leading an army in battle or as having “saved” Israel from the Philistines. Rather it is told that he “began to save Israel” from them (13:5). He is the only judge who fell into enemy hands and who died in captivity. He is said to have “judged” Israel for 20 years (15:20; 16:31).
Elaborate theories about the possible mythical nature of the Samson narratives have been widespread, inspired particularly by the fact that the name Samson obviously contains the word for sun (shemesh) and that Samson’s home was in Zorah which was situated on a mountain ridge north of the Wadi Sorek, directly opposite Beit Shemesh, a place whose very name means “Temple of the Sun.” Further evidence of mythology has been sought in the name Delilah, in which the Hebrew word for night (laylah) may be construed to appear. However, although some elements in these narratives may have been inspired by mythological heroic tales, their overall nature with their exuberant earthiness seems to point overwhelmingly to their folk origins as tales of the daring adventures of a superhuman hero against the foreign oppressor.
[Myra J. Siff]
In the Aggadah
Samson’s birth is a striking example of the shortsightedness of humans. The judge Ibzan (identified as Boaz) had not invited Samson’s parents to any of the 120 feasts in honor of the marriages of his 60 children because he thought that “the sterile she-mule” would never be able to repay his courtesy. However, Samson’s parents were blessed with an extraordinary son, while Ibzan’s 60 children died during his lifetime (BB 91a).
Samson’s strength was superhuman and the dimensions of his body were gigantic. He measured 60 ells between his shoulders, but was maimed in both legs (Sot. 10a). He uprooted two great mountains and rubbed them against each other as though they were pebbles. Whenever the Holy Spirit rested on him, he emitted a bell-like sound which could be heard from afar. While the spirit remained with him, he could cover the distance between Zorah and Eshtaol in one stride (Lev. R. 8:2; Sot. 9b–10a). Samson’s supernatural strength made Jacob think that he would be the Messiah (Gen. R. 98:14). Abraham’s covenant of peace with the Philistines was only valid for three generations (Gen. R. 54:2), and for this reason Samson was permitted to wage war with them.
Samson was not without virtues. He was totally unselfish and never asked for the smallest service for himself. When Samson told Delilah that he was a “Nazirite unto God,” she was certain that he had divulged the true secret of his strength since she could not imagine that Samson would couple the name of God with an untruth. But he allowed sensual pleasures to dominate him, with the result that “he who went astray after his eyes, lost his eyes” (Sot. 9b). He continued his profligate life in prison, and the Philistine women set aside all consideration of marital bonds in the hopes of gaining offspring who would inherit his strength and stature (Sot. 9b–10a).
Before his death, he entreated God to realize in him the blessing of Jacob (Gen. 27:28) and to endow him with divine strength (Gen. R. 66:3). He expired with these words upon his lips: “O Master of the Universe, vouchsafe unto me in this life recompense for the loss of one eye. For the loss of the other I will wait to be rewarded in the future.” So great was the fear he inspired that the Philistines did not attack the Israelites for 20 years after his death (TJ, Sot. 1:8, 17b). Identified with Bedan (I Sam. 12:11), and so called because he belonged to the tribe of Dan, he is regarded as one of the most unworthy of leaders. Nevertheless “Bedan in his generation is as Aaron in his” (RH 25a–b).
In the Arts
Samson, as one of the classic heroes of the Jewish people, has inspired innumerable writers, artists, and musicians. In the early literature of the Church, he was generally seen as a prefiguration of Jesus and this interpretation was particularly evident in Christian works of the Middle Ages, although he was sometimes also equated with Hercules in classical legend. However, Samson was not given special prominence in the medieval mystery plays and only began to figure prominently in the works of Renaissance writers. Among these were Alessandro Roselli’s Italian miracle play, La Rappresentatione di Sansone (Florence, 1551); the German Meistersinger Hans Sachs’s tragedy, Simson (1556); a Hungarian verse play by Péter Kákonyi (1550–60); and Samson (1599), a Danish play by H.J. Ranch of Vibourg. The theme became increasingly popular in the 17th century, particularly among Protestant writers who tended to regard Samson as a symbol of the Reformation’s struggle with the tyranny of Rome. In England, Sam(p)son, a biblical drama by the writers Rowley and Jewby, was staged in 1602 and in one scene Samson appeared carrying the town gates on his neck, to the delight of the Elizabethan audience.
In Germany, the baroque writer Philipp von Zesen turned to a new literary genre with his novel, Simson (1679). Interest in the subject was not, however, confined to Protestants. The English Catholic Stonyhurst Pageants (c. 1625) include one about Samson, and in Holland Joost van den Vondel, a Protestant convert to Catholicism, published the five-act tragedy Samson (1660). The Converso writer Juan Pérez de Montalván (1602–1638) wrote El divino nazareno Sanson (published in Seville, c. 1720) and, in the Marrano diaspora, the playwright Antonio Enriquez Gómez published a biblical epic, El Sansón nazareno (Rouen, 1656).
The outstanding 17th-century treatment of the theme – and, perhaps, the loftiest interpretation in Western literature – was John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671), a drama in the strict Greek classical tradition that has been more studied than performed. In the blind Hebrew judge Milton clearly saw a representation of his own plight, and echoes of the story reverberate throughout his writings. Milton’s Samson is, by comparison with the figure portrayed in the Bible, highly idealized; and his drama has been acclaimed as the zenith of biblical playwrighting in the Protestant tradition, the English of the Puritan Commonwealth representing the “New Israel.” In the late 19th century, a Hebrew translation of Samson Agonistes was published by the Manchester writer J. Massel (Shimshon ha-Gibbor, 1890).
Apart from oratorios, a five-act opera by Voltaire (1733) that never reached the stage, some Spanish Relaciones burlescas of the 1760s, and a poem by William Blake (in Poetical Sketches, 1783), the only significant treatment of the 18th century was Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s early verse play, Shimshon ve-ha-Pelishtim, best known as Ma’aseh Shimshon (1724), a product of the Italian Hebrew revival written in a colorful style. However, the political and literary conflicts of the 19th century revived serious interest in the theme. A. Carino’s Italian poem, Nascita, vita, e morte di Sansone (Naples, c. 1820), was followed by S.S. Raschkow’s Hebrew poem, Hayyei Shimshon (1824) and by another in Hungarian by Mihály Tompa (1863).
An unusual interpretation of the biblical story was the French poet Alfred de Vigny’s “La Colère de Samson” (in Les Destinées, 1864). Here the betrayed and outraged Hebrew expresses Vigny’s own stoicism and violent misogyny. There have been many treatments of the subject by writers of the 20th century, notably dramas such as Frank Wedekind’s Simson oder Scham und Eifersucht (1914); the Albanian Fan S. Noli’s Israilite dhe Filstine (1907); Sven Lange’s Danish Samson og Dalila (1909); and a five-act tragedy by the Russian dramatist Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev (translated by Herman Bernstein as Samson in Chains, 1923).
Predictably, the theme has proved especially attractive to modern Jewish writers, who have laid varying interpretations on the character of Samson. Two early 20th-century works, Jaroslav Vrchlický’s dramatic Czech Trilogie o Simsonovi (1901) and Hugo Salus’ German biblical poem, “Simson,” led the way, to be followed by Samson Zuckermandel’s four-act Hebrew drama, Gevurat Shimshon (1906), and the more original Samson (1907), a French drama by Henri-Leon Bernstein, in which Delilah, a gold digger, is typical of the writer’s unattractive anti-heroines.
Most of the later literary treatments by Jews have been in the form of the novel. These include Simson de Godgewijde (1927–29) by the Dutch writer Israël Querido; Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Samson nazorey (1927; Samson the Nazarite, 1930); Felix Salten’s Simson, das Schicksal eines Erwaehlten (1928; Samson and Delilah, 1931); and Saul Saphire’s Hebrew novel, Shimshon ha-Gibbor (1935). Two works on the theme by writers of the post-World War II era were Kazimierz Brandys’ Polish novel, Samson (1948), which forms part of a tetralogy (Miedzy wojnami, 1948–51), and Ahavat Shimshon (1951–52) by the Israeli poet Lea Goldberg.
In art, too, the Samson theme has enjoyed an enduring popularity. The story of Samson is represented in five fourth-century bas-reliefs in marble from the Santa Restitute chapel in Naples Cathedral. It is later found in many manuscripts including scenes in Hebrew manuscripts such as the 13th-century French British Museum Miscellany (add. 11639) and the 15th-century Second Nuremberg Haggadah (Schocken Collection, Jerusalem). The story was also illustrated in stained glass and in the round. Later the subject held a particular fascination for Rembrandt, who painted many pictures of Samson. Early works by Rembrandt are his Samson’s wedding (Judg. 14:10; Dresden), in which the sprawling giant propounds the riddle to his guests, and Samson threatening his father-in-law (Judg. 15:3; Berlin Museum). In the Middle Ages, Samson was regarded as one of the many prototypes of Jesus. The most popular episode in medieval art was therefore Samson rending the lion (Judg. 14:5–6) because it was understood to represent Jesus triumphing over Satan and breaking the jaws of Hell. It was very common in 12th-century sculpture and enamelwork throughout Western and Central Europe.
Samson and Delilah (Judg. 16:4–20) has been a favorite subject of artists in recent centuries. There is a grisaille painting by Mantegna (1431–1506; National Gallery, London) and a painting by Tintoretto in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire. The subject was particularly popular in northern Europe. In a painting now in the Augsburg Museum, Lucas Cranach showed Samson asleep on Delilah’s lap against a mountainous landscape. There are paintings by Rubens (private collection), Van Dyck (1599–1661; Dulwich Gallery, London), and Rembrandt (Berlin Museum). Max Liebermann painted a violent, sensual, and strangely modern study of Samson and Delilah, with both characters in the nude, and Jacob Steinhardt made a similarly erotic woodcut of the subject. The capture and the binding of Samson (Judg. 16:21) and the final scene of the story, Samson tearing down the temple of Dagon (Judg. 16:29–30), were often favorite subjects for artists.
A musical dialogue between Samson and Delilah, Samson dux fortissime, appears in the Harleian Ms. 978 (13th century) and is something of a historical enigma (cf. G. Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (1940), 244). In the second half of the 17th century there were stock Italian oratorios, including La caduta de’ Filistei by Veracini (1695; libretto only survived) and Samson vindicatus by Alessandro Scarlatti (1696; music lost). Voltaire’s Samson was set by Rameau (1732), but not performed; another setting was made at the beginning of the 19th century by Stanislas Champein, and a third in 1890 by Wekerlin. Milton’s Samson Agonistes was the basis of Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto for Handel’s oratorio, Samson, which had its première at the Covent Garden Theatre, London, in 1744. Works on the subject composed at the end of the 18th and beginning of 19th century are notable only for the fact that they mark the transfer of the subject to the stage. Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera, Samson et Dalila (text by Fernand Lemaire), had its first performance at Weimar, in a German translation, in 1877. Delilah’s aria, “Softly awakes my heart…” has remained a standby for every mezzo-soprano. Rubin Goldmark was the composer of a symphonic poem, Samson (1913); Nicholas Nabokov wrote incidental music to Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1938); and Bernard Rogers devoted a one-act opera, The Warrior, to the Samson and Delilah story (1947). At the beginning of the Israeli War of Independence Marc Lavry wrote his Ze’ad Shimshon (text by Avigdor Hameiri) for tenor solo, three-part men’s choir, and orchestra (“March, Samson, towards Philistia… march, thou regiment of a desperate nation…”) as a topical choral piece.
G.F. Moore, Judges (ICC, 1895), 312–65; P. Haupt, in: JBL, 33 (1914), 296–8; C.F. Burney, Judges (1930), 335–408; Pedersen, Israel, 1–2 (1926), 72, 102, 222–4, 380–2; 3–4 (1940), 35–37, 205–6, 264–5, 487–8, 493; A. van Selms, in: JNES, 9 (1950), 65–75; Albright, Arch Rel, 111–2; Albright, Stone, 283–4. IN THE AGGADAH: Ginzberg, Legends, index. IN THE ARTS: K. Gerlach, Der Simsonstoff im Drama (1929); W. Kirkconnell, Invincible Samson (1964), deals with the theme in world literature; M. Roston, Biblical Drama in England (1968), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: N.H. Tur-Sinai, Ha-Lashon ve-ha-Sefer, 2 (1959), 58–93; E. Greenstein, in: Prooftexts, 1(1981), 237–60; J. Sasson, in: Prooftexts, 8 (1988), 333–46; J. Crenshaw, in: ABD, 5:950–54; A. Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible (1994), 112–39 (incl. bibl.); Y. Amit, Judges (1999), 218–56.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.