Samson is the strong Israelite who fights against the Philistines. The Bible book of Judges, formerly called Judges, tells its story in flavors and colors. It is remarkable how many details are given about his life. The author of the book gives a colorful picture of Samson. He is a man called to fight the Philistines, but he has a great weakness: women. Time and again it is his love for women that gets him into trouble. When he meets Delilah and falls in love with her, things come to a dramatic climax.
Before Samson is born, his parents, Manoah and his wife, who remains unnamed in the Bible, receive news from an angel that they are having a son. They had been childless for a long time and that son was more than welcome. It will be a special child. Manoah and his wife had to raise their son as a Nazarite, as one devoted to the God of Israel. Samson is not allowed to drink alcohol or eat unclean food, and he is not allowed to have his hair shaved. The remainder of his story shows that his long hair makes him invincible to the Philistines. In Hebrew the name Samson is associated with the word for sun. The meaning of the name Samson could then be little sun or sun child.
Samson and Delilah / Source: José Echenagusia Errazquin, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
Delilah is a special woman in the story told about Samson. There are more women in that story, but only Delilah is mentioned by name. The other women remain nameless. They are only named by their function for Samson: his wife from Timnah (Judges 14) and the prostitute from Gaza (Judges 16:1). So Delilah is called by her name. The name Delilah is associated with the night. ‘Queen of the night’ is the meaning of her name. Like ‘night’ she casts a shadow over the ‘little sun’. There is also another explanation for her name. Then her name is associated with the Hebrew word ‘ dildelah’ , which means weakness. A Jewish Rabbi said about the meaning of Delilah that she gets the name she deserved, because: ‘she weakened ( dildelah ) his strength, she weakened ( dildelah ) his deeds, weakened ( dildelah ) his heart’.
Philistine or Israelite woman?
The text in the Bible about the story of Samson and Delilah does not explicitly indicate her origins. In the stories told about him, Samson appears to have a soft spot for Philistine women. Delilah delivers Samson to the Philistines. So it is obvious to see her as a Philistine woman. However, Delilah is a good Hebrew name and she lives in an area, the Valley of Sorek (Judges 16:4), which lies between the territory of the Philistines and the Israelites.
Narrative similarities of the story of Samson and Delilah and that of the riddle at Timnah
‘A donkey doesn’t hit the same stone twice’, so the saying goes. Samson does. The author of the Judges shows this clearly in the structure of the story of Samson and Delilah, because it has a number of clear similarities with what happened at the wedding at Timnah. The story about the riddle at the wedding at Timnah covers Judges 14:1 through 15:20 and that of Samson and Delilah is found in Judges 16:4 through 16:31. Several parallels can be distinguished in these two stories.
Both women, the woman from Timnah and Delilah, try to get Samson to reveal his secret. In Timnah it is about the answer to the riddle he has given: ‘It is strong and it always devours, but now it offers a meal of sweetness’ (Judges 14:14). Delia is about the secret of his strength. Both women increase the pressure on Samson to tell his secret (Judges 14:16; 16:6, 10, 13). In both cases, Samson reveals his secret after the women continue to bombard him with accusations.
But throughout the festival week she continued to reproach him with tears, and on the seventh day he finally relented, thus she had bombarded him with her reproaches (Judges 14:17).
So she continued to bombard him with reproaches day after day and pressed him until he could no longer bear it and gave in (Judges 16:16).
In both the story of the riddle at the wedding at Timnah and the story of Samson and Delilah, it is the Philistines who commissioned the women to uncover Samson’s secret. In both stories, Samson manages to free himself from the bonds that bind him (Judges 15:14; 16:9, 12) and in both stories he strikes out and makes many victims among the Philistines. At Lehi the Philistines bound Samson with “two new ropes” (Judges 15:13). Delilah took new ropes and bound him with them (Judges 16:11-12).
Prayer to God
Both stories end with a prayer from Samson to God. In each of those prayers, Samson’s death is a central theme (Judges 15:18; 16: 28-30). In both stories it appears that despite all his strength, Samson cannot save himself. In chapter 15, it is God who saves him by giving him water so that he does not have to die of thirst. In chapter 16 his life comes to an end when he avenges his life on the Philistines in his death. Ultimately, it is God who gives him victory both in life (Judges 15) and in death (Judges 16). Both pericopes end with the announcement that Samson had led Israel as judge for 20 years.
An Exegesis of Judges 16
In the story of Simon and Delilah as written in the Bible, Delilah asks Samson three times the question with which he can be captivated. Samson gives a different answer each time. In the first two answers he also talks about handcuffs. The third answer talks about weaving his hair in a loom. Finally, after much insistence from Delilah, he gives a clue for the fourth time. He reveals that if his hair, the sign of his Nazariteship, is shaved off, he will lose his supernatural power. The story contains numbers that have a symbolic meaning. For example, Samson has seven braids and is bound with seven fresh, flexible sinews (Judges 16: 7 and 13).
The Philistines are Delilah’s client. She is offered a large sum of money if she can figure out how to break Samson’s enormous power. Delilah is not pressured like the bride of Timnah. She was threatened with death: ‘otherwise we will burn down your house and you and your family will die in the flames’ (Judges 14:15). Delilah will receive a generous reward if she manages to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. The Philistine princes, and there were at least five of them, gave her the prospect of more than five kilos of silver: a princely reward.
Samson is aware of the Philistines
In the story with Delilah, Samson seems to be aware from the beginning that the Philistines are behind this. This is evident in the first answer that Samson gives: ‘Samson says to her: If they bind me with seven fresh sinews that are not dried up, I will become weak and be like any other man!’ (Judges 16:17 Dutch Bible Translation). Samson answers in the plural. He knows that behind Delilah’s question the Philistines are waiting to overpower him.
Samson overpowered by the Philistines / Source: Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
Overpowered in his sleep
Samson was attacked and overpowered by the Philistines while he slept (Judges 16: 19-21). In the entire story between Delilah and Samson there is also a structure in how he is repeatedly attacked by the Philistines. The first two times are while he is staying in Delilah’s inner chamber. On the Philistines’ third attempt, he is sleeping when they find him. And the fourth and last time, when Delilah is sure that his outpourings are true, she lets Samson fall asleep in her lap. Samson is completely passively at her mercy.
Samson and the power he receives from God
The stories of Samson in the Bible are not primarily about Samson and his feats of strength, but it is about what God does. At critical moments, such as at the end of chapter 15 when he is thirsty and at the end of chapter 16 when he is completely powerless and being jeered by the Philistine people, Samson does not naturally have access to his strength. It is God who gives it to him.
God is the acting God
Samson’s birth is a miracle of God (Judges 13:3). Samson’s entire life is dominated by God’s actions, even if Samson seems to choose his own paths. It is God who gives him the strength to defeat his enemies. Twice Samson’s prayer is answered by God. Samson’s own honor is at stake when Dagon, the god of the Philistines, turns out to be the conquering god. Through the power of God, Samson can once again show who the mighty God is when he pulls the two pillars on which the temple of Dagon rests and the building collapses.