Samson among the rabbis


Maimonides wrote in his “Chelek” that people who accept rabbinical imaginative Midrashim as being true are fools, those who reject Midrashim entirely because they are not true are also fools. The proper approach to Midrashim is to realize that they are not true and were not meant to be taken as the truth, but realize that the rabbis told these parables to teach lessons, and to mine the tales to see what they are teaching. With this caveat in mind, what did the rabbis say about Samson? The following is from the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 9.


Samson rebelled against God with his eye when he said in 14:3 that the Philistine woman was “pleasing in my eyes,” so he was punished that the Philistines put out his eyes in 16:21.


The beginning of Samson’s degeneration happened in Gaza (16:1), therefore he was punished in Gaza (16:21).[1]


Delilah’s name fit her (16:4). Playing on her name, the Talmud says the name implies that she weakened Samson’s strength, heart, and actions.


Delilah realized on the fourth time that Samson told Delilah the source of his strength that he was telling her the truth because, according to one rabbi’s opinion, “words of truth are recognizable” and according to another rabbi’s view, she heard Samson include God’s name (in 16:17)[2] in his explanation and she knew that a pious man like Samson would never use God’s name in vain.


Delilah “urged” Samson by detaching herself from him at the time of sexual consummation (16:16).


The angel’s statement “not eat any unclean thing” (13:4) means not eat what Nazirites are forbidden to eat.


Samson lusted after that which is “unclean” (Philistine women), so when he was thirsty after killing many Philistines with an ass’s jaw bone, he drank water from an unclean thing, the jaw bone (chapter 13).


Rabbi Chama ben Chanina interpreted “And the spirit of the Lord began” (13:25) as a reference to and fulfillment of Jacob’s blessing (which the rabbi interpreted as a prophecy (in Genesis 49:17) “Dan (meaning a descendant of Dan) shall be a serpent in the way.”


Although Genesis 21:23 states that there was a peace alliance between Abraham and the Philistines, Rabbi Chama ben Chamina explained that the alliance ended during the time of Samson.


Why did Samson use foxes when he placed torches on their tails to burn Philistine crops (15:4)? It was symbolic. When they are hunted, foxes run in a roundabout course; so too did the Philistines who went back on the oath that the Philistine Abimelech made to the patriarch Isaac. (This rabbi’s view contradicts the rabbi’s view that the alliance ceased.)


Rabbi Assi interpreted 13:25 as saying that Samson stood between two mountains, uprooted them, and ground them against each other.


Focusing on 13:24, Rab said Samson’s physique was like that of other men, but his strength was like a fast-flowing stream (a hyperbole referring to his amorous passion).


What did Samson pray when he sought strength to destroy the Dagan temple and the Philistines in it (16:28)? God,” remember the twenty years that I judged Israel when I never once ordered anyone to carry my staff from one place to another.”


The width of Samson’s shoulders was sixty cubits (about ninety feet) for he was able to carry the gates of Gaza on his shoulders and there is a tradition that the gates were more than sixty cubits wide.


Verse 16:21 states that the Philistines forced Samson to “grind” in the prison house. This is a euphemism for sex. “Every man brought his wife to the prison so that she would bear a child by him” who had his strength.


Rabbi Johanan said: “Samson judges Israel just as their father in heaven; as it (Genesis 49:16) reports, ‘Dan (meaning Samson who was from the tribe of Dan) shall judge his people as one” (with one being understood as a reference to God).


It would be a mistake to suppose that one could look at these many Midrashim and find a common thread among them because each Midrash was developed by a different rabbi. Although all were religious Jews, being human, each had a somewhat different view of the responsibilities of humans, what it means to be Jewish, and the role God plays in the world. However, we can see frequent use of hyperbole, treating events as allegories and details as symbols, a belief in punishment fitting the crime, the involvement of God in human events, and a lack of fear in discussing sex.


[1] The Talmud notes that he had a prior amorous affair in Timnah, but says “Nevertheless the start of his degeneration was in Gaza.”

[2] God has no name. The “names” of God in Scripture are descriptions of God: that God is observable in the laws of nature that God created. The use of “name” here should be understood as “what people call God.”