Derived probably from shemesh, "sun" with the diminutive ending -on, meaning "little sun" or "sunny," or perhaps "sun-man"; Sampson; Latin and English, Samson): His home was near Bethshemesh, which means "house of the sun." Compare the similar formation shimshay (Ezra 4:8,9,17,23).
Samson was a judge, perhaps the last before Samuel. He was a Nazirite of the tribe of Da (Judges 13:5); a man of prodigious strength, a giant and a gymnast--the Hebrew Hercules, a strange champion for Yahweh! He intensely hated the Philistines who had oppressed Israel some 40 years (Judges 13:1), and was willing to fight them alone. He seems to have been actuated by little less than personal vengeance, yet in the New Testament he is named among the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:32), and was in no ordinary sense an Old Testament worthy. He was good-natured, sarcastic, full of humor, and fought with his wits as well as with his fists. Milton has graphically portrayed his character in his dramatic poem Samson Agonistes (1671), on which Handel built his oratorio, Samson (1743).
The story of Samson is a faithful mirror of his times:
"Every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6; 21:25). There was no king in those days, i.e. no central government. Each tribe was separately occupied driving out their individual enemies. For 40 years the Philistines had oppressed Samson's tribal compatriots. Their suzerainty was also recognized by Judah (Judges 14:4; 15:11). Samson was the hero of his tribe. The general historicity of his story cannot be impeached on the mere ground of improbability. His deeds were those which would most naturally be expected from a giant, filled with a sense of justice. He received the local popularity which a man of extraordinary prowess would naturally be given. All peoples glory in their heroes. The theory that the record in Judges 13-16 is based upon some "solar myth" is now generally abandoned. That there are incidents in his career which are difficult to explain, is freely granted. For example, that he killed a lion (14:6) is not without a parallel; David and Benaiah did the same (1 Samuel 17:34-36; 2 Samuel 23:20). God always inspires a man in the line of his natural endowments. That God miraculously supplied his thirst (Judges 15:19) is no more marvelous than what God did for Hagar in the wilderness (Genesis 21:19). That Samson carried off the doors of the gate of Gaza and their two posts, bar and all, must not confound us till we know more definitely their size and the distance from Gaza of the hill to which he carried them. The fact that he pulled down the roof on which there were 3,000 men and women is not at all impossible, as Mr. Macalister has shown. If we suppose that there was an immense portico to the temple of Dagon, as is quite possible, which was supported by two main pillars of wood resting on bases of stone, like the cedar pillars of Solomon's house (1 Kings 7:2), all that Samson, therefore, necessarily did, was to push the wooden beams so that their feet would slide over the stone base on which they rested, and the whole portico would collapse. Moreover, it is not said that the whole of the 3,000 on the roof were destroyed (Judges 16:30). Many of those in the temple proper probably perished in the number (R. A. S. Macalister, Bible Side-Lights from the Mound of Gezer, 1906, 127-38).
Not a few important and suggestive lessons are deducible from the hero's life:
(1) Samson was the object of parental solicitude from even before his birth. One of the most suggestive and beautiful prayers in the Old Testament is that of Manoah for guidance in the training of his yet unborn child (Judges 13:8). Whatever our estimate of his personality is, Samson was closely linked to the covenant.
(2) He was endowed with the Spirit of Yahweh--the spirit of personal patriotism, the spirit of vengeance upon a foe of 40 years' standing (Judges 13:1,25; 14:6:19; 15:14).
(3) He also prayed, and Yahweh answered him, though in judgment (Judges 16:30). But he was prodigal of his strength. Samson had spiritual power and performed feats which an ordinary man would hardly perform. But he was unconscious of his high vocation. In a moment of weakness he yielded to Delilah and divulged the secret of his strength. He was careless of his personal endowment. He did not realize that physical endowments no less than spiritual are gifts from God, and that to retain them we must be obedient.
(4) He was passionate and therefore weak. The animal of his nature was never curbed, but rather ran unchained and free. He was given to sudden fury. Samson was a wild, self-willed man. Passion ruled. He could not resist the blandishments of women. In short, he was an overgrown schoolboy, without self-mastery.
(5) He accordingly wrought no permanent deliverance for Israel; he lacked the spirit of cooperation. He undertook a task far too great for even a giant single-handed. Yet, it must be allowed that Samson paved the way for Saul and David. He began the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines. He must, therefore, be judged according to his times. In his days there was unrestrained individual independence on every side, each one doing as he pleased. Samson differed from his contemporaries in that he was a hero of faith (Hebrews 11:32). He was a Nazirite, and therefore dedicated to God. He was given to revenge, yet he was ready to sacrifice himself in order that his own and his people's enemies might be overthrown. He was willing to lay down his own life for the sake of his fellow-tribesmen--not to save his enemies, however, but to kill them. (Compare Matthew 5:43; Romans 5:10.)
The story of Samson's life is unique among the biographies of the Old Testament. It is related in Judges 13-16. Like Isaac, Samuel and John the Baptist, he was a child of prayer (13:8,12). To Manoah's wife the angel of Yahweh appeared twice (13:3,9), directing that the child which should be born to them should be a Nazirite from the womb, and that he would "begin to save Israel out of the hand of the Philistines" (13:5,7,14). The spirit of Yahweh first began to move him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol (13:25). On his arriving at manhood, five remarkable circumstances are recorded of him.
(1) His marriage with a Philistine woman of Timnah (Judges 14). His parents objected to the alliance (Judges 14:3), but Samson's motive in marrying her was that he "sought an occasion against the Philistines" At the wedding feast Samson propounded to his guests a riddle, wagering that if they guessed its answer he would give them 30 changes of raiment. Dr. Moore felicitously renders the text of the riddle thus:
`Out of the eater came something to eat, And out of the strong came something sweet' (Judges 14:14). The Philistines threatened the life of his bride, and she in turn wrung from Samson the answer; whereupon he retorted (in Dr. Moore's version):
`If with my heifer ye did not plow, Ye had not found out my riddle, I trow' (Judges 14:18).
Accordingly, in revenge, Samson went down to Ashkelon, slew some 30 men, and paid his debt; he even went home without his wife, and her father to save her from shame gave her to Samson's "best man" (Judges 14:20). It has been suggested by W. R. Smith (Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, 70-76) that Samson did not from the first intend to take his bride to his home, his marriage being what is known among the Arabs as a tsadiqat, or gift marriage, by which is meant that the husband becomes a part of the wife's tribe. This assumes that the social relations of the Hebrews at that time were matriarchate, the wife remaining with her family, of which custom there are other traces in the Old Testament, the husband merely visiting the wife from time to time. But this is not so obvious in Samson's case in view of his pique (Judges 14:19), and especially in view of his parents' objection to his marrying outside of Israel (Judges 14:3). Not knowing that his bride had been given by her father to his friend, Samson went down to Timnah to visit her, with a kid; when he discovered, however, that he had been taken advantage of, he went out and caught 300 jackals, and putting firebrands between every two tails, he burned up the grain fields and olive yards of the Philistines. The Philistines, however, showed they could play with fire, too, and burned his wife and her father. Thereupon, Samson smote the Philistines in revenge, "hip and thigh" (Judges 15:1-8).
(2) When he escaped to Etam, an almost vertical rock cliff in Judah (by some identified with `Araq Ismain) not far from Zorah, Samson's home, the Philistines invaded Judah, encamped at Lehi above Etam, and demanded the surrender of their arch-enemy. The men of Judah were willing to hand Samson over to the Philistines, and accordingly went down to the cliff Etam, bound Samson and brought him up where the Philistines were encamped (Judges 15:9-13). When Samson came to Lehi the Philistines shouted as they met him, whereupon the spirit of Yahweh came mightily upon him, so that he broke loose from the two new ropes with which the 3,000 men of Judah had bound him, and seizing a fresh jawbone of an ass he smote with it 1,000 men of the Philistines, boasting as he did so in pun-like poetry, `With the jawbone of an ass, m-ass upon m-ass'; or, as Dr. Moore translates the passage, `With the bone of an ass, I ass-ailed my ass-ailants' (Judges 15:16). At the same time, Samson reverently gave Yahweh the glory of his victory (Judges 15:18). Samson being thirsty, Yahweh provided water for him at a place called En-hakkore, or "Partridge Spring," or "the Spring of the Caller"--another name for partridge (Judges 15:17-19).
(3) Samson next went down to Gaza, to the very stronghold of the Philistines, their chief city. There he saw a harlot, and, his passions not being under control, he went in unto her. It was soon noised about that Samson, the Hebrew giant, was in the city. Accordingly, the Philistines laid wait for him. But Samson arose at midnight and laid hold of the doors of the gate and their two posts, and carried them a full quarter of a mile up to the top of the mountain that looketh toward Hebron (Judges 16:1-3).
(4) From Gaza Samson betook himself to the valley of Sorek where he fell in love with another Philistine woman, named Delilah, through whose machinations he lost his spiritual power. The Philistine lords bribed her with a very large sum to deliver him into their hands. Three times Samson deceived her as to the secret of his strength, but at last he explains that he is a Nazirite, and that his hair, which has never been shorn, is the secret of his wonderful power. J. G. Frazer (Golden Bough, III, 390) has shown that the belief that some mysterious power resides in the hair is still widespread among savage peoples, e.g. the Fiji Islanders. Thus, Samson fell. By disclosing to Delilah this secret, he broke his covenant vow, and the Spirit of God departed from him (Judges 16:4-20). The Philistines laid hold on him, put out his eyes, brought him down to Gaza, bound him with fetters, and forced him to grind in the prison house. Grinding was women's work! It is at this point that Milton catches the picture and writes,
"Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves."
Howbeit, the hair of his head began to grow again; but his eyes did not! (Judges 16:21,22).
(5) The final incident recorded of Samson is in connection with a great sacrificial feast which the Philistine lords gave in honor of Dagon, their god. In their joyous celebration they sang in rustic rhythm:
`Our god has given us into our hand The foe of our land, Whom even our most powerful band Was never able to withstand' (Judges 16:24).
This song was accompanied probably, as Mr. Macalister suggests, by hand-clapping ( Gezer, 129). When they became still more merry, they called for Samson to play the buffoon, and by his pranks to entertain the assembled multitude. The house of Dagon was full of people; about 3,000 were upon the roof beholding as Samson made sport. With the new growth of his hair adversaries for at least one of his two eyes (Judges 16:28). He prayed, and Yahweh heard his prayer. Guided by his attendant, he took hold of the wooden posts of the two middle pillars upon which the portico of the house rested, and slipping them off their pedestals, the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were therein. "So the dead that he slew at his death were more than they that he slew in his life" (Judges 16:29,30). His kinsmen came and carried him up and buried him near his boyhood home, between Zorah and Eshtaol, in the family burying-ground of his father. "And he judged Israel twenty years" (Judges 16:31).