Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Samson's Life, and Conflicts with the Philistines - Judges 13-16
Whilst Jephthah, in the power of God, was delivering the tribes on the east of the Jordan from the oppression of the Ammonites, the oppression on the part of the Philistines continued uninterruptedly for forty years in the land to the west of the Jordan (Jdg 13:1), and probably increased more and more after the disastrous war during the closing years of the high-priesthood of Eli, in which the Israelites suffered a sad defeat, and even lost the ark of the covenant, which was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam 4). But even during this period, Jehovah the God of Israel did not leave himself without witness, either in the case of His enemies the Philistines, or in that of His people Israel. The triumphant delight of the Philistines at the capture of the ark was soon changed into great and mortal terror, when Dagon their idol had fallen down from its place before the ark of God and was lying upon the threshold of its temple with broken head and arms; and the inhabitants of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron, to which the ark was taken, were so severely smitten with boils by the hand of Jehovah, that the princes of the Philistines felt constrained to send the ark, which brought nothing but harm to their people, back into the land of the Israelites, and with it a trespass-offering (1 Sam 5-6). At this time the Lord had also raised up a hero for His people in the person of Samson, whose deeds were to prove to the Israelites and Philistines that the God of Israel still possessed the power to help His people and smite His foes.
The life and acts of Samson, who was to begin to deliver Israel out of the hands of the Philistines, and who judged Israel for twenty years under the rule of the Philistines (Jdg 13:5 and Jdg 15:20), are described in Judg 13-16 with an elaborate fulness which seems quite out of proportion to the help and deliverance which he brought to his people. His birth was foretold to his parents by an appearance of the angel of the Lord, and the boy was set apart as a Nazarite from his mother's womb. When he had grown up, the Spirit of Jehovah began to drive him to seek occasions for showing the Philistines his marvellous strength, and to inflict severe blows upon them in a series of wonderful feats, until at length he was seduced by the bewitching Delilah to make known to her the secret of his supernatural strength, and was betrayed by her into the power of the Philistines, who deprived him of the sight of his eyes, and compelled him to perform the hardest and most degraded kinds of slave-labour. From this he was only able to escape by bringing about his own death, which he did in such a manner that his enemies were unable to triumph over him, since he killed more of them at his death than he had killed during the whole of his life before. And whilst the small results that followed from the acts of this hero of God do not answer the expectations that might naturally be formed from the miraculous announcement of his birth, the nature of the acts which he performed appears still less to be such as we should expect from a hero impelled by the Spirit of God. His actions not only bear the stamp of adventure, foolhardiness, and wilfulness, when looked at outwardly, but they are almost all associated with love affairs; so that it looks as if Samson had dishonoured and fooled away the gift entrusted to him, by making it subservient to his sensual lusts, and thus had prepared the way for his own ruin, without bringing any essential help to his people. "The man who carried the gates of Gaza up to the top of the mountain was the slave of a woman, to whom he frivolously betrayed the strength of his Nazarite locks. These locks grew once more, and his strength returned, but only to bring death at the same time to himself and his foes" (Ziegler). Are we to discern in such a character as this a warrior of the Lord? Can Samson, the promised son of a barren woman, a Nazarite from his birth, be the head and flower of the Judges? We do not pretend to answer these questions in the affirmative; and to justify this view we start from the fact, which Ewald and Diestel both admit to be historical, that the deep earnest background of Samson's nature is to be sought for in his Nazarite condition, or rather that it is in this that the distinctive significance of his character and of his life and deeds as judge all culminates. The Nazarite was not indeed what Bertheau supposes him to have been, "a man separated from human pursuits and turmoil;" but the significance of the Nazarite condition was to be found in a consecration of the life to God, which had its roots in living faith, and its outward manifestations negatively, in abstinence from everything unclean, from drinking wine, and even from fruit of the vine of every description, and positively, in wearing the hair uncut. In the case of Samson this consecration of the life to God was not an act of his own free will, or a vow voluntarily taken; but it was imposed upon him by divine command from his conception and birth. As a Nazarite, i.e., as a person vowed to the Lord, he was to begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines; and the bodily sign of his Nazarite condition, - namely, the hair of his head that had never been touched by the scissors, - was the vehicle of his supernatural strength with which he smote the Philistines. In Samson the Nazarite, however, not only did the Lord design to set before His people a man towering above the fallen generation in heroic strength, through his firm faith in and confident reliance upon the gift of God committed to him, opening up before it the prospect of a renewal of its own strength, that by this type he might arouse such strength and ability as were still slumbering in the nation; but Samson was to exhibit to his age generally a picture on the one hand of the strength which the people of God might acquire to overcome their strongest foes through faithful submission to the Lord their God, and on the other hand of the weakness into which they had sunk through unfaithfulness to the covenant and intercourse with the heathen. And it is in this typical character of Samson and his deeds that we find the head and flower of the institution of judge in Israel.
The judges whom Jehovah raised up in the interval between Joshua and Samuel were neither military commanders nor governors of the nation; nor were they authorities instituted by God and invested with the government of the state. They were not even chosen from the heads of the nation, but were called by the Lord out of the midst of their brethren to be the deliverers of the nation, either through His Spirit which came upon them, or through prophets and extraordinary manifestations of God; and the influence which they exerted, after the conquest and humiliation of the foe and up to the time of their death, upon the government of the nation and its affairs in general, was not the result of any official rank, but simply the fruit and consequence of their personal ability, and therefore extended for the most part only to those tribes to whom they had brought deliverance from the oppression of their foes. The tribes of Israel did not want any common secular ruler to fulfil the task that devolved upon the nation at that time. God therefore raised up even the judges only in times of distress and trouble. For their appearance and work were simply intended to manifest the power which the Lord could confer upon His people through His spirit, and were designed, on the one hand, to encourage Israel to turn seriously to its God, and by holding fast to His covenant to obtain the power to conquer all its foes; and, on the other hand, to alarm their enemies, that they might not attribute to their idols the power which they possessed to subjugate the Israelites, but might learn to fear the omnipotence of the true God. This divine power which was displayed by the judges culminated in Samson. When the Spirit of God came upon him, he performed such mighty deeds as made the haughty Philistines feel the omnipotence of Jehovah. And this power he possessed by virtue of his condition as a Nazarite, because he had been vowed or dedicated to the Lord from his mother's womb, so long as he remained faithful to the vow that had been imposed upon him.
But just as his strength depended upon the faithful observance of his vow, so his weakness became apparent in his natural character, particularly in his intrigues with the daughters of the Philistines; and in this weakness there was reflected the natural character of the nation generally, and of its constant disposition to fraternize with the heathen. Love to a Philistine woman in Timnath not only supplied Samson with the first occasion to exhibit his heroic strength to the Philistines, but involved him in a series of conflicts in which he inflicted severe blows upon the uncircumcised. This impulse to fight against the Philistines came from Jehovah (Jdg 14:4), and in these conflicts Jehovah assisted him with the power of His Spirit, and even opened up a fountain of water for him at Lehi in the midst of his severe fight, for the purpose of reviving his exhausted strength (Jdg 15:19). On the other hand, in his intercourse with the harlot at Gaza, and his love affair with Delilah, he trod ways of the flesh which led to his ruin. In his destruction, which was brought about by his forfeiture of the pledge of the divine gift entrusted to him, the insufficiency of the judgeship in itself to procure for the people of God supremacy over their foes became fully manifest; so that the weakness of the judgeship culminated in Samson as well as its strength. The power of the Spirit of God, bestowed upon the judges for the deliverance of their people, was overpowered by the might of the flesh lusting against the spirit.
This special call received from God will explain the peculiarities observable in the acts which he performed, - not only the smallness of the outward results of his heroic acts, but the character of adventurous boldness by which they were distinguished. Although he had been set apart as a Nazarite from his mother's womb, he as not to complete the deliverance of his people from the hands of the Philistines, but simply to commence, it, i.e., to show to the people, by the manifestation of supernatural heroic power, the possibility of deliverance, or to exhibit the strength with which a man could slay a thousand foes. To answer this purpose, it was necessary that the acts of Samson should differ from those of the judges who fought at the head of military forces, and should exhibit the stamp of confidence and boldness in the full consciousness of possession divine and invincible power.
But whilst the spirit which prevailed in Israel during the time of the judges culminated in the nature and deeds of Samson both in its weakness and strength, the miraculous character of his deeds, regarded simply in themselves, affords no ground for pronouncing the account a mere legend which has transformed historical acts into miracles, except from a naturalistic point of view, which rejects all miracles, and therefore denies a priori the supernatural working of the living God in the midst of His people. The formal character of the whole of the history of Samson, which the opponents of the biblical revelation adduce for the further support of this view, does not yield any tenable evidence of its correctness. The external rounding off of the account proves nothing more than that Samson's life and acts formed in themselves a compact and well-rounded whole. But the assertion, that "well-rounded circumstances form a suitable framework for the separate accounts, and that precisely twelve acts are related of Samson, which are united into beautiful pictures and narrated in artistic order" (Bertheau), is at variance with the actual character of the biblical account. In order to get exactly twelve heroic acts, Bertheau has to fix the stamp of a heroic act performed by Samson himself upon the miraculous help which he received from God through the opening up of a spring of water (Jdg 15:18-19), and also to split up a closely connected event, such as his breaking the bonds three times, into three different actions.
(Note: On these grounds, L. Diestel, in the article Samson in Herzog's Cycl., has rejected Bertheau's enumeration as unsatisfactory; and also the division proposed by Ewald into five acts with three turns in each, because, in order to arrive at this grouping, Ewald is not only obliged to refer the general statement in Jdg 13:25, "the Spirit of God began to drive Samson," to some heroic deed which is not described, but has also to assume that in the case of one act (the carrying away of the gates at Gaza) the last two steps of the legend are omitted from the present account, although in all the rest Diestel follows Ewald's view almost without exception. The views advanced by Ewald and Bertheau form the foundation of Roskoff's Monograph, "the legend of Samson in its origin, form, and signification, and the legend of Hercules,"in which the legend of Samson is regarded as an Israelitish form of that of Hercules.)
If we simply confine ourselves to the biblical account, the acts of Samson may be divided into two parts. The first (Judg 14 and 15) contains those in which Samson smote the Philistines with gradually increasing severity; the second (Judg 16) those by which he brought about his own fall and ruin. These are separated from one another by the account of the time that his judgeship lasted (Jdg 15:20), and this account is briefly repeated at the close of the whole account (Jdg 16:31). The first part includes six distinct acts which are grouped together in twos: viz., (1 and 2) the killing of the lion on the way to Timnath, and the slaughter of the thirty Philistines for the purpose of paying for the solution of his riddle with the clothes that he took off them (Judg 14); (3 and 4) his revenge upon the Philistines by burning their crops, because his wife had been given to a Philistine, and also by the great slaughter with which he punished them for having burned his father-in-law and wife (Jdg 15:1-8); (5 and 6) the bursting of the cords with which his countrymen had bound him for the purpose of delivering him up to the Philistines, and the slaying of 1000 Philistines with the jaw-bone of an ass (Jdg 15:9-19). The second part of his life comprises only three acts: viz., (1) taking off the town gates of Gaza, and carrying them away (Jdg 16:1-3); (2) breaking the bonds with which Delilah bound him three separate times (Jdg 16:4-14); and (3) his heroic death through pulling down the temple of Dagon, after he had been delivered into the power of the Philistines through the treachery of Delilah, and had been blinded by them (Judg 16:15-31). In this arrangement there is no such artistic shaping or rounding off of the historical materials apparent, as could indicate any mythological decoration. And lastly, the popular language of Samson in proverbs, rhymes, and a play upon words, does not warrant us in maintaining that the popular legend invented this mode of expressing his thoughts, and put the words into his mouth. All this leads to the conclusion, that there is no good ground for calling in question the historical character of the whole account of Samson's life and deeds.
(Note: No safe or even probable conjecture can be drawn from the character of the history before us, with reference to the first written record of the life of Samson, or the sources which the author of our book of Judges made use of for this portion of his work. The recurrence of such expressions as יחל followed by an infinitive (Jdg 13:5, Jdg 13:25; Jdg 16:19, Jdg 16:22), פּתּי (Jdg 14:15; Jdg 16:5), הציק (Jdg 14:17; Jdg 16:16, etc.), upon which Bertheau lays such stress, arises from the actual contents of the narrative itself. The same expressions also occur in other places where the thought requires them, and therefore they form no such peculiarities of style as to warrant the conclusion that the life of Samson was the subject of a separate work (Ewald), or that it was a fragment taken from a larger history of the wars of the Philistines (Bertheau).)
Birth of Samson. - Jdg 13:1. The oppression of the Israelites by the Philistines, which is briefly hinted at in Jdg 10:7, is noticed again here with the standing formula, "And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord," etc. (cf. Jdg 10:6; Jdg 4:1; Jdg 3:12), as an introduction to the account of the life and acts of Samson, who began to deliver Israel from the hands of these enemies. Not only the birth of Samson, but the prediction of his birth, also fell, according to Jdg 13:5, within the period of the rule of the Philistines over Israel. Now, as their oppression lasted forty years, and Samson judged Israel for twenty years during that oppression (Jdg 15:20; Jdg 16:31), he must have commenced his judgeship at an early age, probably before the completion of his twentieth year; and with this the statement in Judg 14, that his marriage with a Philistine woman furnished the occasion for his conflicts with these enemies of his people, fully agrees. The end of the forty years of the supremacy of the Philistines is not given in this book, which closes with the death of Samson. It did not terminate till the great victory which the Israelites gained over their enemies under the command of Samuel (1 Sam 7). Twenty years before this victory the Philistines had sent back the ark which they had taken from the Israelites, after keeping it for seven months in their own land (Sa1 7:2, and Sa1 6:1). It was within these twenty years that most of the acts of Samson occurred. His first affair with the Philistines, however, namely on the occasion of his marriage, took place a year or two before this defeat of the Israelites, in which the sons of Eli were slain, the ark fell into the hands of the Philistines, and the high priest Eli fell from his seat and broke his neck on receiving the terrible news (Sa1 4:18). Consequently Eli died a short time after the first appearance of Samson.
Whilst the Israelites were given into the hands of the Philistines on account of their sins, and were also severely oppressed in Gilead on the part of the Ammonites, the angel of the Lord appeared to the wife of Manoah, a Danite from Zorea, i.e., Sur'a, on the western slope of the mountains of Judah (see at Jos 15:33). Mishpachath Dani (the family of the Danites) is used interchangeably with shebet Dani (the tribe of the Danites: see Jdg 18:2, Jdg 18:11, and Jdg 18:1, Jdg 18:30), which may be explained on this ground, that according to Num 26:42-43, all the Danites formed but one family, viz., the family of the Shuhamites. The angel of the Lord announced to this woman, who was barren, "Thou wilt conceive and bear a son. And now beware, drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean: for, behold, thou wilt conceive and bear a son, and no razor shall come upon his head; for a vowed man of God (Nazir) will the boy be from his mother's womb," i.e., his whole life long, "to the day of his death," as the angel expressly affirmed, according to Jdg 13:7. The three prohibitions which the angel of the Lord imposed upon the woman were the three things which distinguished the condition of a Nazarite (see at Num 6:1-8, and the explanation given there of the Nazarite vow). The only other thing mentioned in the Mosaic law is the warning against defilement from contact with the dead, which does not seem to have been enforced in the case of Samson. When the angel added still further, "And he (the Nazarite) will begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines," he no doubt intended to show that his power to effect this deliverance would be closely connected with his condition as a Nazarite. The promised son was to be a Nazarite all his life long, because he was to begin to deliver Israel out of the power of his foes. And in order that he might be so, his mother was to share in the renunciations of the Nazarite vow during the time of her pregnancy. Whilst the appearance of the angel of the Lord contained the practical pledge that the Lord still acknowledged His people, though He had given them into the hands of their enemies; the message of the angel contained this lesson and warning for Israel, that it could only obtain deliverance from its foes by seeking after a life of consecration to the Lord, such as the Nazarites pursued, so as to realize the idea of the priestly character to which Israel had been called as the people of Jehovah, by abstinence from the deliciae carnis, and everything that was unclean, as being emanations of sin, and also by a complete self-surrender to the Lord (see Pentateuch, p. 674).
The woman told her husband of this appearance: "A man of God," she said (lit., the man of God, viz., the one just referred to), "came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very terrible; and I asked him not whence he was, neither told he me his name," etc. "Man of God" was the expression used to denote a prophet, or a man who stood in immediate intercourse with God, such as Moses and others (see at Deu 33:1). "Angel of God" is equivalent to "angel of the Lord" (Jdg 2:1; Jdg 6:11), the angel in whom the invisible God reveals himself to men. The woman therefore imagined the person who appeared to her to have been a prophet, whose majestic appearance, however, had produced the impression that he was a superior being; consequently she had not ventured to ask him either his name or where he came from.
Being firmly convinced of the truth of this announcement, and at the same time reflecting upon the obligation which it imposed upon the parents, Manoah prayed to the Lord that He would let the man of God whom He had sent come to them again, to teach them what they were to do to the boy that should be born, i.e., how they should treat him. היּוּלד, according to the Keri היּלּד, is a participle Pual with the מ dropped (see Ewald, 169, b.). This prayer was heard. The angel of God appeared once more to the woman when she was sitting alone in the field without her husband.
Then she hastened to fetch her husband, who first of all inquired of the person who had appeared, "Art thou the man who said to the woman" (sc., what has been related in Jdg 13:3-5)? And when this was answered in the affirmative, he said still further (Jdg 13:12), "Should thy word then come to pass, what will be the manner of the boy, and his doing?" The plural דּבריך is construed ad sensum with the singular verb, because the words form one promise, so that the expression is not to be taken distributively, as Rosenmller supposes. This also applies to Jdg 13:17, Mishpat, the right belonging to a boy, i.e., the proper treatment of him.
The angel of the Lord then repeated the instructions which he had already given to the woman in Jdg 13:4, simply adding to the prohibition of wine and strong drink the caution not to eat of anything that came from the vine, in accordance with Num 6:3.
As Manoah had not yet recognised in the man the angel of the Lord, as is observed by way of explanation in Jdg 13:16, he wished, like Gideon (Jdg 6:18), to give a hospitable entertainment to the man who had brought him such joyful tidings, and therefore said to him, "Let us detain thee, and prepare a kid for thee." The construction לפניך נעשׂה is a pregnant one: "prepare and set before thee." On the fact itself, see Jdg 6:19.
The angel of the Lord replied, "If thou wilt detain me (sc., that I may eat), I will not eat of thy food (אכל with בּ, to eat thereat, i.e., thereof, as in Exo 12:43; Lev 22:11); but if thou wilt prepare a burnt-offering for Jehovah, then offer it."
Manoah then asked his name: שׁמך מי, lit., "Who is thy name?" מי inquires after the person; מה, the nature of quality (see Ewald, 325, a.). "For if thy word come to pass, we will do thee honour." This was the reason why he asked after his name. כּבּד, to honour by presents, so as to show one's self grateful (see Num 22:17, Num 22:37; Num 24:11).
The angel replied, "Why askest thou then after my name? truly it is wonderful." The Kethibh פלאי is the adjectival form פּלאי from פּלא, for which the Keri has פּלי, the pausal form of פּלי (from the radical פּלה = פּלא). The word therefore is not the proper name of the angel of the Lord, but expresses the character of his name; and as the name simply denotes the nature, it expresses the peculiarity of his nature also. It is to be understood in an absolute sense, - "absolutely and supremely wonderful" (Seb. Schmidt), - as a predicate belonging to God alone (compare the term "Wonderful" in Isa 9:6), and not to be toned down as it is by Bertheau, who explains it as signifying "neither easy to utter nor easy to comprehend."
Manoah then took the kid and the minchah, i.e., according to Num 15:4., the meat-offering belonging to the burnt-offering, and offered it upon the rock, which is called an altar in Jdg 13:20, because the angel of the Lord, who is of one nature with God, had sanctified it as an altar through the miraculous acceptance of the sacrifice. לעשׁות מפלא, "and wonderfully (miraculously) did he act" (הפליא followed by the infinitive with ל as in Ch2 26:15). These words form a circumstantial clause, which is not to be attached, however, to the subject of the principal clause, but to ליהוה: "Manoah offered the sacrifice to the Lord, whereupon He acted to do wonderfully, i.e., He performed a wonder or miracle, and Manoah and his wife saw it" (see Ewald, Lehrb. 341, b., p. 724, note). In what the miracle consisted is explained in Jdg 13:20, in the words, "when the flame went up toward heaven from off the altar;" that is to say, in the fact that a flame issued from the rock, as in the case of Gideon's sacrifice (Jdg 6:21), and consumed the sacrifice. And the angel of the Lord ascended in this flame. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell upon their faces to the earth (sc., in worship), because they discovered from the miracle that it was the angel of the Lord who had appeared to them.
From that time forward the Lord did not appear to them again. But Manoah was afraid that he and his wife should die, because they had seen God (on this belief, see the remarks on Gen 16:13 and Exo 33:20). His wife quieted his fears, however, and said, "Jehovah cannot intend to kill us, as He has accepted our sacrifice, and has shown us all this" (the twofold miracle). "And at this time He has not let us see such things as these." כּעת, at the time in which we live, even if such things may possibly have taken place in the hoary antiquity.
The promise of God was fulfilled. the boy whom the woman bare received the name of Samson. שׁמשׁון (lxx, Σαμψών) does not mean sun-like, hero of the sun, from שׁמשׁ (the sun), but, as Josephus explains it (Ant. v. 8, 4), ἰσχυρός, the strong or daring one, from שׁמשׁום, from the intensive from שׁמשׁם, from שׁמם, in its original sense to be strong or daring, not "to devastate." שׁדד is an analogous word: lit. to be powerful, then to act powerfully, to devastate. The boy grew under the blessing of God (see Sa1 2:21).
When he had grown up, the Spirit of Jehovah began to thrust him in the camp of Dan. פּעם, to thrust, denoting the operation of the Spirit of God within him, which took possession of him suddenly, and impelled him to put forth supernatural powers. Mahaneh-dan, the camp of Dan, was the name given to the district in which the Danites who emigrated, according to Jdg 18:12, from the inheritance of their tribe, had pitched their encampment behind, i.e., to the west of, Kirjath-jearim, or according to this verse, between Zorea and Eshtaol. The situation cannot be determined precisely, as the situation of Eshtaol itself has not been discovered yet (see at Jos 15:33). It was there that Samson lived with his parents, judging from Jdg 16:31. The meaning of this verse, which forms the introduction to the following account of the acts of Samson, is simply that Samson was there seized by the Spirit of Jehovah, and impelled to commence the conflict with the Philistines.