Samson was the 15th and most famous judge of Israel and reigned for two decades, some 3,000 years ago. Judges were people that served roles as military leaders in times of crisis, before an Israelite monarchy was established.1 He never did completely free his people from Philistine bondage, but did provide some relief. Samson gave the enemy a lot of trouble as, even alone, he could successfully fight a thousand men in hand-to-hand combat.
Samson’s adventures were many. He was a very strong man who was dedicated to freeing the Israelites from the Philistine’s dominance, but he was a weak man in matters concerning women. Our study will briefly cover his birth (Judges, chapter 13), his marriage (chapter 14), and his fights against the Philistines (chapter 15), before he meets Delilah (chapter 16). When you have the time, I encourage you to read Judges 13–16, because all of Samson’s exploits can’t be covered in this article.
Even after God saved the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and miraculously fed them with manna during their wandering years and then brought them into the promised land, they continued to complain and worship other gods and break the promises they made. God decided to punish the Israelites for their continued failure to follow his laws, so he withdrew his protection allowing them to come under Philistine control for forty years. It was during this time that Samson was born.
There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children. And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son” (Judges 13:2-5, NRSV).2
This “predicted child was to be a Nazarite [or Nazirite].3 The mother was, therefore, for the sake of her promised offspring, required to practice the rigid abstinence of the Nazarite law.” Nazarite is a Hebrew word meaning “a separated one,” and used to designate a class of person — man or woman — who renounces the pleasures of the world to dedicate themselves to divine service. It was usually for a limited time, but could be for life.4 God indicated that Samson was to be a Nazarite for life starting from conception, as indicated by God demanding the mother to begin the special practices while pregnant.
The rules for a Nazarite were, according to Numbers 6:2-21, that throughout the period of sanctification, the person could not drink wine or juice from grapes or anything made from them. They could neither cut their hair, nor go near a dead body.5 (According to traditional Rabbinic interpretation, there was no prohibition of alcoholic beverages that are not derived from grapes,6 but some others disagree.)
God blessed Samson and he grew into a very strong man dedicated to freeing his people of the Philistine’s rule. He went to Timnah, a town occupied by Philistines some distance away, and saw a woman which he desired. He asked his parents to obtain her for his wife, “but his father and mother said to him, ‘Is there not a woman among your kin, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’ But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, because she pleases me.’ His father and mother did not know that this was from the LORD; for he was seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel,”(Judges 14:3-4).
Many say his parents objected because marriage with a non-Israelite was expressly forbidden by Mosaic Law (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3), but it should be noted that according to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, that is not true. The marriage was not forbidden by Mosaic Law, because the Philistines did not form one of the seven doomed Canaanite nations (Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-4).7 Whether or not true, Samson insisted and got his own way in the matter.
Samson took his parents to Timnah to arrange the wedding. While he waited during the negotiations between families, he decided to visit the vineyards of the city where he was attacked by a young lion, which he killed with his bare hands. He did not tell anyone of this event. Later, after the wedding arrangements were completed, they returned to their own home. Samson did not return for the marriage ceremony until about a year later — the usual interval between betrothal and marriage at that time.8
When he did return to Timnah for the planned week-long wedding, he passed the old lion’s carcass and he saw that bees had taken over the carcass, using the bare bones as structure for their beehive. Scooping out some honey, he ate it. Some commentators point out that “touching the carcass of even a clean animal made a person ceremonially unclean (Leviticus 11:39–40), [and] probably Samson’s scooping the honey from the lion’s carcass was a violation” of his Nazarite vow.9
Others believe this was not the only infraction of the oath and explain that visiting the vineyard on his first trip was indicative of him desiring grapes to eat. Even after breaking the Nazarite vows several times, God still used him to help his people. But as we will see in the end, Samson’s arrogance will cause him great trouble.
During the wedding feast (basically a drinking celebration for the bridal party, including Philistinian friends of the bride’s family),10 Samson told his companions a riddle, the meaning of which he made more interesting with a wager. “Samson said to them, ‘Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can explain it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments. But if you cannot explain it to me, then you shall give me thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments,’” (Judges 14:12-13).
They accepted the challenge and Samson, remembering his encounter of the lion and the bees said, “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet,” (Judges 14:14). He had never mentioned this event to anyone, not even his parents, so he knew they would never be able to solve it. This was part of his plan to provoke hostility against the Philistines.
For three days, they could not explain the riddle. So, on the fourth day, Samson’s bride was blackmailed. The Philistines, who could not solve the riddle, threatened his wife and her family with harm if she did not provide them with the answer, so she begged Samson for the answer, but he would not give it to her. However, as the feast was about to end, her tearful pleading finally changed Samson’s mind and he finally told her the answer. Shortly thereafter, his bride relayed the answer to the Philistines.
As the feast came to its climax, the group gave their answer to Samson: “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Then knowing full well that it was impossible for them to know the answer, Samson said, “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle,” (Judges 14:12-14).
“In calling her a ‘heifer’ he was ridiculing her for her untamed and stubborn spirit.”11 It was a fitting “metaphor borrowed from agricultural pursuits, in which not only oxen but cows and heifers were, and continue to be, employed in dragging the plough, . . . but probably means no more than that they had resorted to the aid of his wife.”12 Some scholars have a different opinion. According to biblical scholar Adam Clarke, Samson’s reply suggests, “If my wife had not been unfaithful to my bed, she would not have been unfaithful to my secret; and, you being her paramours, your interest was more precious to her than that of her husband. She has betrayed me through her attachment to you.”13
To fulfill his obligation in the wager, Samson attacked 30 Philistines at a town some 23 miles (37 km) distance from the wedding site and used the spoils of the attack as payment of his debt — 30 changes of clothing. He may have traveled that far, so the people at Timnah would not know of his violent deed. Tired from traveling and fighting, and still angry from how his wife treated him, he returned to his father’s home without returning to his wife.14
At a later time, Samson returned to Timnah with a present for his wife. But he finds out that “the bride’s father, to avoid the disgrace of what he perceived as an annulment, gave her to another man.” Because of this unwelcome news, Samson sets fire to the city’s grain crops, vineyards, and olive groves. When the Philistines learn what caused the destruction, they retaliated by burning Samson’s wife and her father to death.15
First a Prostitute — Then Delilah
Over time, many Philistines are killed, but life goes on for Samson and he continues to display his physical strength, as well as his moral weakness. Shortly after visiting a prostitute in Gaza and escaping before the town’s leaders could capture him (Judges 16:1-2), Samson fell in love with a woman in the valley of Soreek, whose name was Delilah (Judges 16:4). Many believe she was also a prostitute.
Delilah is the only woman in Samson’s story who is named, but no other background information is given, except the location where she lived. Like many people in the world today, her motivation was not love, but money. As we will see, she was a heartless destroyer of a mighty man.
The Philistines knew Samson’s terrible moral character and offered Delilah an enormous amount of money to discover the secret of his great strength and betray him. Delilah immediately begins to earn her reward. The rulers hid nearby to capture him when he lost his strength, but three different times she questions him and all three times he gives her an answer that proves untrue.
Finally, Delilah said, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times now and have not told me what makes your strength so great,” (Judges 16:15). And to keep from being pestered and nagged every day, he told her his secret. He explained that he was a Nazarite and said, “If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else,” (Judges 16:17b).
Most people believe Delilah cut Samson’s hair, but that is not quite true. The Bible says, “She let him fall asleep on her lap; and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. He began to weaken, and his strength left him,” (Judges 16:19). There is, however, a non biblical Hebrew source that makes mention she did cut Samson’s hair, while others versions mention a ‘barber’ or ‘servant’ did the deed.16
Samson loses his strength, not because of his hair being cut, but because God removes his protection and leaves him to face the consequences of his irreverence. Commentator Matthew Henry wrote: “God left him to himself to do this foolish thing, to punish him indulging himself in the lusts of uncleanness. The badge of his consecration was the pledge of his strength; if he loses the former, he knows he forfeits the latter.”17 Samson is captured and put into chains and his eyes are gouged out — he is thrown into prison where he is forced to work by grinding grain in a mill.
Delilah had beauty, charm, mental ability, and nerve, but used these attributes for only one purpose — to make money. “Deluding Samson into believing she really loved him, Delilah sold him to blindness, bondage, and [eventually] death . . . Samson became a traitor to himself because he could not resist a woman’s charm.” She was the female Judas of the Old Testament.18
While imprisoned, his hair gradually grew back and he develops a bit of moral insight and faith. “It is ironic that Samson has to be blinded before he can see spiritual issues. Separated from his sensual, debauched lifestyles, Samson is forced to reflect on spiritual realities.” As his hair grows back, his strength returns. “The critical issue in the return of Samson’s strength is the stature of his spirit, not the length of his hair.”19
The Philistines believe that it was their own god, Dagon,20 that allowed them to capture Samson, saying, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand,” (Judges 1:23b). They hold a festival to celebrate this victory. At one point, Samson is brought out to entertain his captors. In his blindness, he maneuvers into a place between the two massive pillars supporting the temple roof where three thousand people stand for the duration of the festivities. He turns to God for help and uses his strength to move the pillars and bring down the ceiling thereby killing all in attendance, including himself.21
Then Samson called to the LORD and said, “Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.” And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. Then Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” He strained with all his might; and the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life. (Judges 16:28-30)
Moral and Conclusion
Many people see Delilah’s relationship with Samson as an example of how the devil exploits people’s weakness. She was responsible for Samson revoking his Nazarite restrictions. Rabbis recognize “that Delilah harmed Samson in three realms that are central to any male, and especially to Samson: physical strength, intellect, and religious beliefs. By falling in love with Delilah, Samson lost his strength, his independence as a man, and his spiritual fortitude. It was not the shearing of his locks that caused the Lord to leave him, but his forging a bond with this foreign woman.”22 “A whore is a bottomless pit; a loose woman can get you in deep trouble fast. She’ll take you for all you’ve got; she’s worse than a pack of thieves,” (Proverbs 23:27-28, The Message).23
The story of Samson and Delilah reminds us just how important it is to guard our hearts and follow God’s way. To a Godly person, a worldly person is “an enemy in the camp, who will watch every opportunity to betray . . . no union can be comfortable or lasting, where secrets cannot be intrusted, without danger of being divulged. Satan, in his temptations, could not do us the mischief he does, if he did not plough with the heifer of our corrupt nature. His chief advantage against us arises from his correspondence with our deceitful hearts and inbred lusts.”24
“This narrative is the very heart and soul of dramatic tragedy. The bright promise of Samson’s early life, the carefree slipping into temptation, the deepening tragedy, the wiles of Delilah and the gigantic climax have always stirred the imagination of even those who have scant regard for the Bible as the word of God.”25 There have been books, art work, music, movies, and even a television mini-series dramatizing this legendary strongman and the woman who took him down.
Also, ‘Samson and Delilah’ is an opera by Camille Saint-Saëns that premiered in Germany at the end of 1877. It is a French opera, but had been previously rejected in Paris because of its biblical subject matter. Most famous, probably, is the opera’s excerpt ‘Bacchanale’ from Act III. This is a grandiose scene when Delilah dances a wild and provocative dance before everyone is crushed as Samson pulls down the temple columns and walls.
My favorite performance piece of the Bacchanale musical composition is executed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Since it is an instrumental only, you must use your imagination for any action as “the piece opens with a sensuous oboe solo before a steady pulse develops in the orchestra itself. Over that pulse, light woodwinds and strings carry the dance theme forward, with percussion emphasizing the action” to its climax.26 (See the video link in References and Notes at the end of this article).27
Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- “Biblical judges,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 15 September 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_judges
- Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Nazirite [or Nazarite], נָזִיר. — The term nāzīr is derived from nāzar, ‘to consecrate, [not to be confused with Nazarene].
Eaton, David, “Nazirite,” in A Dictionary of the Bible: Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology, (Ed.) James Hastings, et al., (New York; Edinburgh: Charles Scribner’s Sons; T. & T. Clark, 1911–1912), vol. 3, p. 497.
- Jamieson, Robert, et al., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), vol. 1, p. 167.
- Ibid., vol. 1, p. 98.
- “Nazirite,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 15 June 2018), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazirite
- Easton, M. G., Easton’s Bible Dictionary, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893).
- Jamieson, Robert, et al., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, (see above), vol. 1, p. 168.
- Lindsey, F. Duane, “Judges,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Ed.) J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 1, p. 405.
- Jamieson, Robert, et al., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, (see above), vol. 1, p. 168.
- Clarke, Adam, Commentary on the Bible, Unabridged, (Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins, Sons, & Company, 1878), Judges 14:18.
- Lindsey, F. Duane. “Judges,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (see above), vol. 1, p. 405.
- Ibid., pp. 405-406.
- Exum, J. Cheryl. “Delilah: Bible.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, 20 March 2009, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/delilah-bible
- Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on then Whole Bible, (Peabody, MA: Henrickson Publishers, 1991), vol. 2, pp. 171-175.
- Lockyer, Herbert, All the Women of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967), p. 43.
- Bowling, Andrew C., “Judges,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, pp. 173–174.
- Note: Dagon was the principal deity of the Philistines and was worshiped by the general Canaanite peoples. You can read more about this god in an interesting article posted by OBS.
Hermann, Ray, “Did God really cause those hemorrhoids?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 11 November 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/did-god-really-cause-those-hemorrhoids/
- Bowling, Andrew C., “Judges,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, (see above), p. 174.
- Bechtel, Lyn M., “Delilah: Midrash and Aggadah,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, 20 March 2009, Jewish Women’s Archive, (retrieved on August 16, 2018), https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/delilah-midrash-and-aggadah
- Peterson, Eugene H., The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, (Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Group, 2002).
- Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, (see above).
- Blackburn, J. S., “Samson and Delilah,” (Bible Centre, retrieved 25 September 2019), http://biblecentre.org/content.php?mode=7&item=403
- Schwarm, Betsy, “Samson and Delilah: Opera by Saint-Saëns,” (Encyclopædia Britannica, retrieved 15 August 2018), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Samson-and-Delilah-opera-by-Saint-Saens
- “Dudamel plays the Bacchanale by Camille Saint Saens,” Music: Bacchanale; Artist: Berliner Philharmoniker, Gustavo Dudamel; Licensed: UMG (on behalf of Deutsche Grammophon (DG)), and 1 Music Rights Societies, 2010) – VIDEO, https://youtu.be/QbkCfxnoY4A