Chapter 16

                                                                                       Samson’s death


The tragic death of Samson in Judges 16evoked a positive reaction from the rabbis. They refused to condemn him for committing the forbidden act of suicide. Captured by the Philistines who blinded[1] and mocked him by making him stand as a display in their temple, Samson prayed to God and “said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ So he pushed with all his might and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were there. So the dead that he slew at his death were more than they that he slew during his life.” The rabbis saw Samson’s act as a triumphal deed of leadership and martyrdom. Yet, a careful view of Samson’s final days seems to contradict the rabbinical view and reveal that Samson acted improperly.


Samson’s second passionate adventure

Samson travels to Gaza, perhaps after serving twenty years as a judge, since the end of chapter 15 states he judged Israel for twenty years, has sex with a prostitute, and stays with her until the middle of the night.[2] Cohen notes that Gaza “was thirty miles from Samson’s hometown. For him to go to this place reveals the recklessness which was a trait in his character.” Perhaps he went so far from home to visit a prostitute shows he did not want fellow Danites to know what he was doing.

The Philistines hear that he arrived and laid a trap for him.[3] They locked the gates of Gaza and awaited his attempt to exit the city in the morning when they planned to capture him.[4] But Samson rises in the middle of the night,[5] finds the gates locked, rips them off their hinges, and carries the heavy gates together with all its parts on his shoulders to Hebron, “a distance of nearly forty miles” (Cohen).[6]

The episode with the prostitute provoked no retaliation by Samson since the Philistines did not harm him.[7]


Samson falls in love and dies

Soon thereafter, Samson sees a third Philistine woman, Delilah,[8] and falls in love.[9] Representatives of the five Philistine lords visit her and offer to pay her a huge sum of money, 1100 shekels,[10] if she would entice Samson to reveal the source of his strength.[11] She agrees. During her first three attempts to discover the source of his strength, Samson tells Delilah he would lose his power if she did certain thing to him. A careful scrutiny of these three acts reveals they are associated with superstition and magic, attempts to dilute Samson’s magic with stronger magic.[12] The first is to bind him with seven new bowstrings – seven was considered a magic number, and new objects were thought to have magical powers.[13] The second was to bind him with new ropes, which Kimchi explains were fortified ropes made of three strands (three being another magic number). Then Samson apparently begins to give in and for the first time mentions his hair. He told her that if she weaves the seven locks of his hair into her loom, he would be weakened. Then, following three failures and constant needling, Samson reveals that his strength is based on his observance of the mandates the angel placed upon him, which include the prohibition against cutting his hair.[14] She shears his hair while he is sleeping with the result I described above.[15]


Is it true that Samson’s strength lay in his hair?

Many rabbis and rational thinkers reject this notion; it smacks of magic and superstition. The rabbis say that he was powerful only as long as he conformed to the angel’s requirements.

We can interpret the episode as follows: When Samson told Delilah about the cutting of his hair, he must have known she would shear him – for when he told her the three other methods in the past, she tried them out. This may have been another of his deceptions, for he knew that it is nonsense to think that people are deprived of energy when their hair is shaven. But what he failed to remember is that his might came from God, and God would remove it if Samson disobeyed the angel’s rules. Thus, Samson told Delilah about his hair without fear that when he awakened from his sleep he would be weak.

When he woke, he knew that his hair was gone, but he said, “I will go out as other times, and shake myself (from the bonds that Delilah tied me). But he knew not that the Lord had departed from him.” The text is stating that his abilities departed because “the Lord departed from him.” It does not say, because he was bald. Furthermore, the angel never says in chapter 13 that Samson’s power will depart if his hair is cut.

Similarly, after being imprisoned for some time, until his hair grew back, this chapter does not say that his vigor resumed. Instead, it states that Samson prayed for the resumption of his might and it returned only because of his prayer.[16]

This understanding of the Samson saga assumes that God removed Samson’s powers when Samson acted improperly. Yet we saw that Samson committed many improper acts, the most explicit being his sexual affairs with three Philistine women. The rabbis answer this critique by saying he always acted properly until he met Delilah. His behavior with the women was designed to provoke an excuse to take revenge on the Philistines for oppressing the Israelites. Besides, forbidden sex was not prohibited by the angel. He is punished here for what the angel prohibited. In regard to contact with the dead, the angel did not prohibit it, In regard to eating forbidden foods, there is no explicit statement that Samson did so.

In short, there are two ways that people can understand the Samson saga: (1) We can understand the story as the rabbis say: he did no wrong until he met Delilah and told her about his hair, and (2) God was involved in his life and helped him as long as he acted properly, and hindered him when he strayed from the divine will.

Alternatively, we can interpret the tale that (1) God was never involved, (2) the story is filled with symbolisms,[17] and (3) the cutting of the hair should not be taken literally.

We have seen that the Bible uses exaggerations very frequently. Examples in this chapter are “all” of Samson’s family members came to secure his body for burial when we can assume that the family sent a delegation. Also it states that Samson judged “Israel,” implying all twelve tribes, while we know the tribes were not united; he probably only served as a judge for his tribe Dan. Three thousand people were on the roof gathered to watch the mocking of Samson should probably be understood as three groups of people since it is unlikely that so many people would stand on the roof.[18] Once we note the existence of hyperbole, we may want to consider that Samson was not as strong as the book portrays him and his feats were overstated.


[1] Just as the Babylonians did to King Zedekia when they captured him (II Kings 25:7).

[2] The Hebrew word zonah, “prostitute” could also mean an innkeeper, and this is how Targum Jonathan, Abarbanel, Kimchi, and others see it, Samson came to a hotel and stayed most of the night. They say he did no wrong. Targum Jonathan, Rashi, Kimchi and others also translate Rahab the zonah in Joshua 2:1 as innkeeper.

The Interpreter’s Bible, which often views Jewish history negatively, writes: “From our point of view, morals (at the time) were exceedingly low. But the writer shows no disappointment. Samson’s morals were not out of the ordinary, and the storyteller obviously delighted in his process…. Samson faced enemies stronger than the Philistines. They were his own passions, his own careless disregard of the high gifts God bestowed upon him. And now his strength is to ebb away as he fails to use it for worthy ends.”

[3] They probably search for Samson, but were unable to find him (Elitzur).

[4] Ehrlich supposes that the Philistines did not want to attempt to capture Samson during the night lest they accidently kill the woman, a fellow Philistine.

[5] Supposedly “in the darkness Samson slipped through their lines” (Moore).

[6] The chapter does not reveal why he did this. Presumably to show his strength to the Philistines, to mock the Philistines who thought they could capture him, and to make it difficult for them to retrieve their gate. Many scholars doubt that even a strong man could accomplish such a feat and suggest that the Hebron where he deposited the gates was a different  Hebron than the Hebron in Judah, a place close to Gaza.

[7] As pointed out in Olam Hatanach, there is a literary connection between Samson’s affair with the prostitute and with Delilah. He came to Gaza willingly to visit the prostitute, but was dragged unwillingly back to Gaza after he was weakened. In the first tale, he shows great power by carrying the Gaza gates, in the second he is weak and prays to God for strength. In the first, he holds the gates of the city, in the second he holds the temple pillars.

[8] We have no idea what Delilah’s name means. There are many speculations. Boling suggests “Flirtatious,” Martin “Devotee” or “Worshipper.” For the rabbinical homiletical view, see the next chapter.

[9] This is the first time that the word “love” is used in respect to Samson. Since this woman did not live in the Philistine territory, some scholars suppose she was not a Philistine, but a Canaanite. The chapter tells us nothing about her origin. Kimchi, Abarbanel, and others state that Delilah converted to Judaism.

[10] Most commentators say that the sum is 1,100 shekels from each lord, a total of 5,500, a huge sum that reflected the Philistine fear of Samson. Other commentators interpret the verse as saying Delilah would be paid 1,100 shekels which would come from the five lords, each paying 220. Some commentators think the sum 1,100 is strange; we would have expected a round number such as 1.000.  However it seems that 1,100 was a customary usage at that time; it is used by Micah in 17:1.

[11] They presumed that his strength came from magic since it was not normal. Samson mocks this notion by telling Delilah that the way to reduce his power is by counter-magic involving new items, for new items have magic, and using the magic numbers three and seven.

[12] Ehrlich reminds readers that even the Israelite prophet Elisha used a new vessel to miraculously purify water in II Kings 2:20.

[13] These may have been “cords made from the intestines of animals” (Moore).

[14] Elitzur take the opposite view. While chapter 13 does not describe the angel saying Samson would lose his power if his hair was cut, perhaps chapter 13 only relates the main points of the angel’s instruction, but they included the warming about the shearing of Samson’s hair.

[15] Other biblical heroes were imprisoned but rose from their confinement to greatness (Joseph in Genesis 41 and Daniel in Daniel 1-6), but not Samson.

[16] Abarbanel takes this approach: there was no magic associated with the hair; Samson was strong only when he obeyed God’s will. Radak states the opposite; Samson’s strength lay in his hair. He understands that Samson realized that his strength returned with the growth of his hair.

[17] For many events in the story are impossible. For example, how could Samson reach the two pillars that held up the Dagan temple; pillars that hold up a building that can contain thirty thousand people must be far apart.; how could Samson unhinge the gates of Gaza which were a complex structure without the Philistines who were standing guard watching for Samson not noticing him; how could 30,000 people who were on the temple roof, who came to see Samson humiliated, see him (the Septuagint changes the number to seven hundred; does this help)?

[18] We would understand eleph, which could mean “thousand” or “units” in regard to the military, as “groups” here. Ehrlich imagines that Samson was made to perform first for the Philistines assembled below the roof with the idea that he would repeat his performance for the people on the roof later, but he killed the Philistines before the second performance.