Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

18. Samson’s Exploits (14:1-16:3)

“And the Spirit of the Lord began to move Samson in Mahaneh-dan between Zorah and Eshtaol.” Here, as the narrative repeatedly insists (14:6,19 and 15:14), was the true source of Samson’s strength, and not in his long hair, as careless reading has often wrongly inferred. The further implication behind the words just quoted is that at first Samson operated locally, in the immediate vicinity of his own home. It was only later that he carried the offensive into the camp of the enemy.

Divergent interpretations

It is difficult to be sure which is the correct way to interpret the story of Samson’s first Philistine encounter. Certainly in later days he seems to have become a self-indulgent unsanctified character, obsessed with a craving for women; and it may be that this first highly-coloured episode at Timnath is to be interpreted on those lines.

But it is also possible to read it very differently, as a deliberately-contrived incident, guided by the Holy Spirit, to challenge Philistine domination in that area: Samson was now for the first time being pointed out to his fellows as the most recent “saviour” raised up by God. Such a view is not fully-established, but these hints are worth considering:

  1. “It was of the Lord, that he (the Lord?) sought an occasion against the Philistines.” And so also in 15:1; 16:1,4?
  2. Samson’s words: “Get her for me; for she is right in mine eyes” (this is the literal rendering). The phrase could mean something very different from satisfaction of his own inclination.
  3. Samson must have known of the Law’s prohibition of Canaanite marriages (Deut. 7:3,4), and these Philistines reckoned as Canaanites (Josh. 13:3 context). The unheeded reminder from his parents argues either a high degree of wilfulness or a very strong secret purpose.
  4. The riddle of lion and honey takes on special point when it is realised that ‘the mouth of the lion’ is a neat play on the name Philistine. And the word used for a “swarm” of bees in precisely that which is used scores of times for the congregation of Israel.
  5. The fact that Samson went to his betrothal feast alone, unsupported by a crowd of Israelite friends and relations, seems to point to a similar conclusion (unless this was their way of expressing strong disapproval).
It would be with grief and bewilderment that Samson’s parents, acceding to his seeming wilfulness, went down to Philistine Timnath to make all the necessary arrangements for betrothal and dowry.

Samson and the lion

Samson went to Timnath also, but alone. Near his journey’s end he encountered a fully-grown young lion, such as would have been a terror to any armed man. But Samson met and slew it with his two hands: “he rent him as he would have rent a (boiled) kid.” Yet, of set purpose he kept the news of the exploit to himself.

The months went by. At the end of the harvest season, or maybe a full year later, Samson returned to Timnath to arrange for the formal betrothal feast to take place. On the way he remembered the lion that he had slain and looked to see what had become of it. There it still lay, but now dry and shrivelled by the sun and taken over as the busy home of a swarm of bees. One old commentator sees proof here that it was a land overflowing with honey, when bees found it necessary to set up house in the carcase of a lion.

Samson regaled himself with their honey and carried away more, so that his parents also might enjoy the unexpected feast. He was now beginning to see this extraordinary incident as a symbolic prophecy of the work he was to achieve. He, Samson, alone and unaided, was to grapple with the Philistine lion and slay it, so that his own people might enjoy the riches of Philistine prosperity. Out of the strong enemy was to come forth much sweetness for the people of Israel. The word “riddle” means also “parable” (as in Ezek. 17:2ff).

Samson’s riddle

The betrothal feast, which duly took place, was a strange affair, for here was a solitary friendless Israelite in the midst of a crowd of Philistine roisterers. Israelites disapproved of this unnatural engagement.

Since Samson brought no guests of his own, thirty young Philistines were hastily added to the party. It was the kind of situation that this boisterous self-confident Israelite revelled in. He twitted these last-minute guests with having brought no wedding gifts (a deliberate snub, doubtless), and with mock joviality scarcely masking his dislike, he jokingly propounded a solution to their embarrassment.

‘Answer my riddle,’ he cried, ‘and instead I’ll provide gifts for you. But if not, you shall each give me a linen garment and a change of raiment.’1

To this they agreed. What other could they do without loss of face? They they had their riddle: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”

It was a problem not impossible of solution, for what other “strong eater” could be referred to except a lion? And what “sweet meat” was known to the people of that land save honey? And had not the carcase of the lion, noisy with the busy-ness of bees, been lying there in a near-by vineyard these many weeks?

For three days the celebrations continued, Samson bringing off many a witticism at the expense of these numbskulls of Philistines. Very probably he half hoped that they would light on the answer to his riddle, so that he might have the pleasure of expounding triumphantly its parabolic meaning.

On the fourth day (according to both Septuagint and Syriac versions), they sought to turn the tables on this oddity of an Israelite with his seven long plaits of hair, by bringing pressure to bear on his fiancee: “Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and they father’s house with fire: have ye called us to impoverish us? Not so! (i.e. not if we can help it!).”

The maiden was not at all loth to comply with the request. Their threats were unnecessary, for her sympathies were actually more with them than with this strange husband she was to wed. So for the rest of the feast she privately coaxed and badgered Samson, after the persistent manner that women have, until at last in desperation he blurted out the explanation to her.

The Philistine guests, now confident of their triumph, waited until the last possible moment before gloatingly announcing their solution to the riddle. Upon this Samson, with what seemed ungovernable rage, vented his chagrin (if it was that!) against them. Suiting his words to the company, he lapsed into the coarse language of harlotry: “If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle.” And he went forth from the presence of them all, his strength and anger harnessed by the Holy Spirit for the discomfiture of the Philistines.

A reign of terror broke out in Philistine Ashkelon as, day after day, citizens were found dead and stark naked. Before long thirty dead Philistines had paid off Samson’s bet for him. It must have been with a grim, sardonic satisfaction that he despatched those soiled, blood-stained garments to Timnath.

Frustration and revenge

The experience at his betrothal did nothing to cure or alter Samson’s intentions. Some time later he went down to Timnath again to claim his bride but only to find (though the news must surely have reached him indirectly before this!) that she was his no longer. Fearful of becoming a local laughing-stock at the conclusion of the ill-fated betrothal feast and perhaps passing it off as a great scheme to humiliate Israelite Samson, her father had gladly bestowed her on the young Philistine gallant who was to have acted the part of best-man for Samson. And now, even more fearful of the rage of this quixotic uncontrollable Israelite, he desperately sought to patch up the situation by offering his younger daughter. Astutely and accurately weighing up his man, he recommended her charms: “Is not her younger sister fairer than she?” But Samson was in no wise disposed to play second fiddle to a man he despised, and he went off meditating further vengeance: ‘This time shall I be quits with the Philistines when I do them a mischief,’ he declared openly.

None but a man of his unlimited exuberant physical energy would have chosen such a means of balancing the account. By luring a pack of wild dogs with the prospect of food (probably a dead Philistine or two?), he was able to capture (with friendly assistance?) a tremendous number of them, and to set them free again in Philistine crops and vineyards up and down the country with burning brands fastened to their tails.

Another debt paid off

The consternation and wrath created by all this havoc and destruction found immediate and savage expression in the burning of Samson’s wife in her own home. The very fate that she had sought to avoid by the betraying of the secret came back on her. Evidently she was suspected of playing a double game. Hearing about this, Samson, oddly enough, felt that there was yet another debt to discharge. So he went to Timnath and “smote them hip and thigh”. The familiar Biblical phrase so frequently used without understanding of its precise significance, should actually be ‘hip on thigh’. It is a wrestler’s term, and here means‘at close quarters, in hand to hand fighting’. Samson disdained the use of any weapons save his own thew and sinew.

After this he was no longer welcome amongst his own tribe. Philistine retribution which was powerless to harm Samson was doubtless savage against his brethren of the tribe of Dan. So, for some time he lived an outlaw life in a cave near Bethlehem. But the Philistines were not content to let the matter lie. Sooner or later this wild Israelite would burst forth again and do them further serious damage. Prudence indicated the need for prompt and drastic action against him. So they invaded the territory of Judah in force.

The weakness of the men of Judah in face of this trouble is a sorry commentary on the miserable decline of morale in the Israelites at this period. Instead of rallying round Samson, and gladly following his confident lead, they immediately were willing to barter his life for some easement from Philistine oppression. Reflection on this shameful fact will make more apparent the magnitude of the task confronting Samson. The people had no will for freedom. Yet without Samson could there have been a Samuel, and with Samuel a Saul, or a David?

The fight at Lehi

The Israelites then took action against him, probably trading on his marked unwillingness to bring any harm to people of his own nation.

“Knowest thou not that the Philistines are rulers over us?” It was a strange reproach to be brought by Israelites against an Israelite! Nevertheless Samson acquiesced in their scheme to curry favour with the Philistines. He specified only one condition — that they should be content to deliver him alive, rather than dead, to their overlords. His words here almost seem to suggest that he could not have resisted effectively, even had he chosen to do so. But when after being bound securely, he was handed over the Philistines, “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him”. He burst like charred flax the new ropes with which he was bound, and then faced the host of the enemy with no weapon save a jawbone from the whitening skeleton of an ass which was lying there in the pass.

It was a long and bloody struggle that day as Samson, with his back to a rock, fought and slew all who came against him. At length, all that remained of the enemy withdrew, leaving a multitude of slain.

There is difficulty in this incident. For, even allowing for the extraordinary intensification of Samson’s physical powers imparted by the Spirit of the Lord, it is difficult to imagine how the battle took place. Is it possible that Samson’s valour and power rallied the craven cowards of Judah to join in the struggle with him? Certainly it is hard to conceive of them as standing inactive, whilst such an unequal contest was in progress.

At no other time except in the last moments of his life does Samson show to such advantage as in this encounter with the Philistines at Lehi. He had displayed the utmost unselfishness and consideration for the unworthy men of Judah, and now he acknowledged with unstinted thankfulness the power of the Lord by his hand.

Further, in his extremity of thirst at the end of a long fight through the heat of the day, he threw himself on the providence of his God. And his prayer met with immediate response. “God clave the hollow place that is in Lehi (not, as AV, in the jaw bone), and there came water thereout.” This added blessing Samson likewise acknowledged by the name which the spring bore from that day forward: ‘The well of him that cried (unto Jehovah)’.

This day’s exploit fully established Samson’s divine right to lead and guide his people. For twenty years he, under God, was their bulwark against Philistine domination. There was, doubtless, many another mighty deed wrought on Israel’s behalf, but until the last and greatest almost nothing further is recorded.

Another woman!

Emboldened by these exploits, and by others, doubtless, Samson on a later occasion ventured right into Gaza, the great stronghold of the enemy, simply that he might indulge himself with the seductive pleasures of a harlot there. It has been distressing to the faithful of many generations since that day to read of the way in which Samson’s zeal for the deliverance of his people was so vitiated by this weak streak in his character. To be sure, all men of God, whose lives and doings are recorded in Scripture, are revealed as men of weakness in some respect or another. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David — the giants of Old Testament faith — all had their periods of faithlessness. Moses came near to open blasphemy, Hezekiah indulged in the vainglory of politics, Noah shamed himself in drunkenness, and Lot in incest. The catalogue is almost endless. Only Joseph — wonderful type of Christ — has no blot against his name. Yet all these names are in the Book of Life. And so, too, is Samson (Hebrews 11:32), though not because of these sins of his, but in spite of them and by the grace of God. Those who wrestle despairingly against similar odds might take courage from the force of his example and so renew faith in their own ultimate victory.

Gates of Gaza

The Philistines were resolved that this latest opportunity must not be let slip. But by this time their respect for their formidable opponent was so great that they were glad of the excuse to postpone their daunting task until the light of dawn. They had little stomach for facing a raging Samson in the dark. But in any case, they argued, he would not bestir himself before morning; and even if he did, were not the city gates securely barred?

But Samson chose to take his departure at midnight, and city gates meant nothing to him. Instead of bursting them open, as he doubtless could have done, he blithely lifted them clean out of their sockets — gates, bars, posts, frame and all — and carried them to the top of the “mountain that is before Hebron”.

If this must be taken to mean the mountain adjacent to Hebron, the feat of transport was even more phenomenal than that of hoisting the gates from where they were fastened. But this can hardly be meant, for it would imply that Samson was carrying the gates of Gaza the whole of that night and all through the next day, and all to no purpose. ‘The mountain that looks toward Hebron’ might well have been the first hill on the Hebron road, no more than two miles away. Deuteronomy 32:49 has a parallel to this. There Mount Nebo is described as being “over against Jericho” (same phrase in Hebrew as Judges 16:3), although Jericho is approximately twenty miles away.

This episode of the gates of Gaza is perhaps the best illustration of all of the grotesque, boisterous humour which characterized so many of Samson’s doings. This particular feat has something of the flavour of a school-boy’s practical joke.

But there was also a deep religious seriousness behind it. Had not the Promise been made to Abraham: “Thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies”? So in a very literal fashion Samson demonstrated to these Philistines that it was useless for them to seek domination over Israel, for had not God told the father of his nation that they — Israel — were to have all that Land and to rule all the peoples they found there? In token of which the gates of this Philistine enemy were carried out on the Hebron road where they could, so to speak, look to the place of the tomb of Abraham to whom this great gate promise was made. Even the “gates of hell” could not prevail against the Saviour raised up by God.

Samson did this extraordinary feat, and nearly everything else, with a freakish, irrepressible sense of fun. It shouts from every part of the narrative. His teasing of his Philistine guests, his eccentric device with the foxes and firebrands, his long drawn-out leg-pulling of Delilah (one can almost hear his schoolboy guffaw echoing round that house in Sorek!) — all of these incidents are of one piece. Even the grim way in which he paid his bet, and the dramatic situation envisaged when he let the men of Judah bind him — these too show something of the same mentality. There was no lack of personality about this Samson.


Chapter 14

Get her for me: i.e. not only arrange the wedding, but also provide the dowry.
He told not. Lev. 11:39 bears on this also, surely.
After a time. Literally: ‘from days’, which might mean ‘at the end of the year’ or ‘a year later’; e.g. Jud. 11:4,40; 17:10; Num. 9:22; 1 Sam. 1:3; 27:7.
When they saw him, i.e. alone, unaccompanied.
Lest we burn thee. And they did! 15:6.

Is it not so? There might be a confusion here between Hebrew lo and lo’, as in a number of other places. In that case, the meaning would be: ‘to impoverish us for him!’
Ashkelon was a long way off. Deliberately chosen for that reason? But it has been suggested that there was another Ashkelon close by Timnath.

The Spirit of the Lord....anger. Compare 1 Sam. 11:6.

Chapter 15

Foxes. A place called Shaalabbin (= the foxes of the cunning one) was located close by (Josh. 19:42). Did it take its name from this incident, or did it supply the idea for Samson’s weird prank?
Her father. LXX: her father’s house.
Do to him as he hath done to us. Compare v. 11. In time of war both sides justify themselves in this way.
The Spirit....came mightily upon him. Here, of course, and not in his long hair, was the true source of his amazing strength. True all the time.
Jawbone....a thousand. Psa. 3:6,7 seems to allude to this. David in a parlous strait, and with his own people turning against him, gains comfort and strength from Samson’s success in a bad situation.
There is typical play on words here. “Heap” and “ass” are the same in Hebrew. So the same word comes four times.

A thousand men. If indeed Samson was fighting all alone, then must not aleph be read as meaning a squad, and not a literal thousand? See “Bible Studies”, 10.15.
Called on the Lord. “By faith Samson....”: 16:28.
Kore is also the partridge. Was that the original force of the name here?

Chapter 16

The doors of the gate. There was a place called Shaaraim — Two Gates — associated with the Philistine war (1 Sam. 17:52), but geographically it is difficult to link with this incident.

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