1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Samson

SAMSON (cf. Heb. shémesh, “sun”), in the Bible, the antagonist of the Philistines, reckoned as one of the “judges” of Israel (Judg. xv. 20, xvi. 31), the story itself (Judg. xiii. 2–xvi. 31a), however, represents him not as a judge but as a popular hero of vast strength and sarcastic humour. He is consecrated from his birth to be a Nazarite or religious devotee (ch. xiii., cf. Samuel), and it is possible that this was conceived simply as a vow of revenge, which is the meaning it would have in an Arab story (W. R. Smith). But he is inspired by no serious religious or patriotic purpose, and becomes the enemy of the Philistines only from personal motives of revenge, the one passion which is stronger in him than the love of women. The stories of his exploits are plainly taken from the mouths of the people and have all the appearance of folk-tales, not unmixed with mythical motives. Samson commenced his career by strangling a lion on his way to visit a Philistine woman. On his return he found that the carcase, like the skull of Onesilus (Herod. v. 114), was occupied by a swarm of bees; he took the honey and the incident suggested a riddle. The narrative of Samson’s marriage and riddle is of peculiar interest as a record of manners; specially noteworthy is the custom of the wife remaining with her parents after marriage.[1] His next exploit, an act of revenge for the faithlessness of his wife, was to catch 300 foxes and set them loose in the fields with firebrands tied to their tails. (Analogous customs, e.g. the Roman Cerealia, are referred to in G. F. Moore’s Commentary, p. 341.) The Philistines retaliated by burning her and her father’s household, and Samson in his turn smote them “hip and thigh” and slew a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass.[2] The story has apparently been influenced by the existence of a rock, called by reason of its shape, “Ass’s Jawbone,” from which issued a fountain called En-haḳḳōrē, “the spring of the caller” (a name for the partridge). 'The well-known removal of the gates of Gaza to Hebron, 40 m. distant—“no journey of the Sabbathday” (Milton, Samson Agonistes)—has been rendered still more marvellous by a later exaggeration (xvi. 2). Finally the Philistine Delilah (q.v.) worms out of Samson the secret of his strength, and by shaving his head[3] renders him an easy captive. He is blinded and put to menial work, and as his hair grows again his invincible strength returns. At a festival of Dagon he is led out before the Philistines in the temple, and by pulling down the house upon their heads kills more at his death than in all his life-time.

Points of similarity between Samson and the Babylonian Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Horus-Ra and Hercules, have been observed by many writers, and it has been inferred that the whole story of Samson is a solar myth. His name, and the proximity of Beth-shemesh (“house of the sun”) to his father’s home, favour the view that mythical elements have attached themselves to what may have been originally a legendary figure of the Danites, the tribe whose subsequent fortunes are narrated in the chapters immediately following (Judg. xvii.–xviii.).

On the mythological interpretations, see further Ed. Stucken, Mitteil. d. vorderasiat. Gesells. (1902). iv. 54 (with references) Völter, Ägypten und die Bibel (Leiden, 1909), pp. 119-132; A. leremias, Alte Testament im Lichte des alten Orients (Leipzig, 1906), pp. 478 sqq., and the commentaries on the Book of Judges (q.v.).  (S. A. C.) 

  1. In Judg. xiv. 1-10 the narrative has been revised; originally Samson went down alone to Timnath to contract his marriage. The metrical riddle and its answer are thus translated by G. F. Moore (Sacred Books of the Old Testament: Judges):
    Out of the eater came something to eat,
    And out of the strong came something sweet."
    If with my heifer ye did not plough,
    Ye had not found out my riddle, I trow.”
    No doubt the Hebrews, like the Arabs, were fond of enigmas; see 1 Kings x. 1, and Ency. Biblica, s.v. “Riddle.”
  2. The punning couplet of the original is thus rendered by G. F. Moore: “with the jawbone of an ass, I assailed my assailants” (more literally “I piled them in heaps,” or perhaps “flayed them clean”).
  3. For the hair as the seat of strength cf. J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough,” iii. 390 seq. In ch. xiii. the consecration of the hair is regarded differently.