The mighty Samson (Shimshon, in Hebrew) was a judge who led and rescued the people of Israel from Philistine oppression. A nazarite from birth, Samson was endowed by G‑d with herculean strength, which he used to fight the Philistines who were occupying the Land of Israel. Samson led the people for 20 years until he was betrayed by his wife, Delilah, and captured by the Philistines. Blinded and mocked by his captors, Samson’s life ended when he knocked down the pillars supporting the building he had been taken to, killing himself and the thousands of Philistines inside.
After Moses’ successor, Joshua, passed away, he was followed by a series of Jewish leaders known as the shoftim, “judges.” The period of the judges lasted for approximately 350 years, from 2516-2871 (1245-890 BCE). Samson was the seventh judge, and ruled his people for 20 years, from 2811-2831 (951-931 BCE).
The story of Samson is recorded in the book of Judges, chapters 13-16. And although little is recorded regarding his role leading the Jews, the verses recount many stories of his great strength and his various skirmishes with the Philistines. Note that the Philistines have no connection to the current day Palestinians.
Birth of a Leader
From the tribe of Dan, Samson was born to his parents, Moanoah and Zealphonis, in their old age, after they had been childless for many years. One day, in the small town of Zorah, an angel appeared to them and declared that Zealphonis would give birth to a son who would grow up to save the Jews from the marauding Philistines. The angel told the couple that the boy was special, and that from his birth he was to be dedicated to G‑d as a nazirite for his entire life. He was not to consume any wine or other grape byproduct, and no razor was to ever touch his hair.
In due course, Zealphonis conceived and gave birth. She named him Shimshon (Samson), from the term shemesh u’magen, “wall and protector,” or from the word shemesh, “sun.” His name foreshadowed the man he would become: a mighty sun who would shield and protect his people.1
Even in his early youth, Samson displayed remarkable physical strength. One day, as he wandered through the woods, a lion pounced on him. Feeling the spirit of G‑d resting upon him and strengthening him, Samson slew the lion with his bare hands. Realizing that he had been endowed with this strength in order to help his people, Samson sought an occasion to engage the Jews’ enemy, the Philistines.
The Philistines were a nation of marauders living in the west of the Holy Land. They were constantly harassing and pillaging the Jews. For 40 years,2 the Jews suffered terribly under the heavy Philistine hand until, finally, Samson took a stand.
Samson was too modest to undertake leadership of a Jewish army. He also did not want to provoke the Philistines into further terrorization of his Jewish brethren. He decided that he would avenge them himself by engaging in personal conflicts, intimidating them and preventing them from harassing the Jews. He began seeking ways to get into close contact with the Philistines.
The Wedding and the Riddle
The first occasion for him to confront the Philistines arrived when, one day, on one of his frequent roaming expeditions, he arrived in Timnah, a Philistine village. There he saw a Philistine maiden whom he decided to take as a wife. Although his parents attempted to dissuade him, Samson resolved to marry her (after she converted).3
At the wedding feast, Samson saw an opportunity to put his plan into action. He challenged 30 Philistine guests to answer a riddle he would pose to them. If they could guess the answer, he would give them a each a suit of clothes, and if they could not, they would give him 30 suits. The Philistines agreed. Samson presented his riddle, and the Philistines were unable to answer it.4 On his way to Timnah, Samson had passed the spot where he slew the lion, and he noticed that a swarm of bees had turned the carcass into their hive. Samson scooped out some honey, ate, and went on his way. As a result, he posed the following riddle: “From the eater came out food, and out of the strong came out sweetness. What is it? The eater refers to a lion, the predator of all predators, and the sweetness refers to honey. Thus on the seventh day, when the Philistines came to Samson they answered him “What is sweeter than honey and what is stronger than a lion?”
Requesting a few days to come up with the answer, the Philistines approached Samson’s bride. They demanded that she coax the answer from her husband and deliver it to them, or they would burn down her father’s house. Samson’s wife pressured her husband to tell her the answer to the riddle, and so he did.
When the Philistines came to Samson and presented the answer, he understood at once what had transpired. Leaving the city in anger, Samson went to Ashkelon, another Philistine town, and killed 30 Philistines. Then he stripped them and sent their robes to the men who had won the wager.
Samson returned to Timnah for his wife, but in his absence, she had been given to another man. When he confronted his father-in-law, he offered Samson her younger sister instead. Samson grew incensed to discover that not even one person had protested the scandalous act. It was the time of the wheat harvest, so Samson rushed into the fields and caught 300 foxes. He tied them in pairs, and placed burning torches in their tails. Then he let them loose, and they ran in all directions, setting the crops ablaze.
In addition to avenging his own grievance, he did this to teach the Philistines a lesson for their frequent pillaging of the Land of Israel.
Samson the Tzaddik
The sages of the Talmud teach that Samson was not simply a man of brute strength. He was a nazirite, a man whose entire life was dedicated to G‑d. His strength was supernatural, and hinged on his ultimate commitment to G‑d. Everything he did he was commanded by G‑d, including his marriage to Philistine converts. The Talmud describes how the Divine Presence would ring before him like a bell, escorting him wherever he went. He was incredibly modest, and in the 20 years of his rule, he never once took advantage of his position by asking anyone to do anything for him.5
Some say the Samson was in fact lame in both legs, and struggled to walk. Yet, when necessary, the spirit of G‑d would rest on him, and for that moment he would be healed, supernaturally strengthened to fight the Philistines.6
Remarkable Strength of Samson
The scriptures tell many other stories involving Samson’s strength. One night, when he had wandered into Gaza, one of the chief Philistines cities, his enemies surrounded the walls and barred the gates, intending to attack and kill him in the morning. Samson guessed their evil designs, so he arose at midnight, unhinged the two giant gates, placed them on his shoulders bar and all, and carried them far away.
Another time, after the incident with the foxes, the Philistines tried to mollify Samson’s anger by burning the houses of his unfaithful wife and her father. But when Samson heard what they did, he refused to accept their belated repentance. He attacked the Philistines and killed a great number of them.
The Philistines amassed a great army and camped by the Judean town of Lehi, where Samson was hiding out. They sent a message to the Jews threatening them to either hand Samson over or be killed
When the frightened men of Judah related to Samson the Philistines’ threat, he was unperturbed. At Samson’s own suggestion, they bound him and brought him to the Philistine camp. The joyful Philistines rose to capture him, but at that moment he tore off the cords as though they were burnt flax. Grabbing the first thing he saw, a donkey’s jawbone, he killed a thousand men.
After that spectacular victory, the Jews realized that Samson was chosen by G‑d to lead them, and they appointed him as judge over them.
Delilah and Samson’s Downfall
Samson’s downfall ultimately came at the hands of another Philistine convert he married, Delilah.
One day, the Philistine lords came to Delilah and offered her great wealth if she were to discover the secret to her husband’s strength. If she would aid them in capturing him, they would reward her handsomely. Delilah agreed.
Every day, Delilah would torment her husband, trying to lure his secret from him. A few times, Samson gave her made up explanations, but Delilah was relentless.
“If you bind me with seven moist ropes, then my strength will dissipate,” Samson told her. “If you bind me with new ropes that were never used, I will become like an ordinary man.” “If you place my hair on a weaving rod, I will become weak.” Each time, Delilah would try the methods on Samson while he slept. Each time, she would cry, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” and Samson would rise to his full might, completely unaffected by whatever she tried.
Tearfully, Delilah told him, “How can you say ‘I love you,’ while your heart is not with me? These three times you have mocked me, and you have not told me wherein is your strength so great.”
Finally, Samson told her the secret of his strength. “A razor has never come upon my head, for I am a nazirite to G‑d from my mother’s womb. If I will be shaven, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any man.”
This time, the treacherous Delilah knew that Samson was telling her the truth. She hastened to summon the Philistine lords to her house. When Samson was asleep, one of the men cut his locks off, and then Delilah cried: “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”
Samson jumped up, prepared to defend himself. But the Divine strength he had possessed had departed from him, and the men who lay in wait easily overcame him. The heartless Philistines gouged out his eyes and led him to Gaza in chains.
The Talmud teaches that Samson was punished in his eyes because he looked at the Philistine women and desired them. Although G‑d desired that he marry them, nevertheless, his personal motives were not entirely pure, as he also desired them for himself.7
Death of a Hero
Gathered in the great hall in Gaza, the Philistines made a great feast to celebrate their victory over Samson. They sang and danced and gave thanks to their gods for delivering him into their hands. Then they sent for the blind Samson to entertain them. Tormented and cruelly humiliated, he could not bear their rude jests and idol worship.
Turning to his guide, he said, “Lead me to the pillars, so that I may lean upon them and rest for a minute.” The boy obeyed.
Samson, afire with anger and pain, prayed to G‑d: “O, G‑d, give me strength this once. Let me avenge myself on these cruel Philistines that they may know that you are the only G‑d. It matters not if I die with them!”
Suddenly, he once again felt the spirit of G‑d in him. Samson stretched out his hands, tearing down the pillars supporting the building. The next instant, the walls and the roof came crashing down, destroying the entire building. Every single Philistine, together with Samson himself, was killed in the great crash. That day, Samson killed more Philistines than he had throughout his entire life.
Later, his body was brought home, and he was buried on the land he had fought so valiantly to defend. Samson was the acknowledged judge of the people of Israel for 20 years.
Samson was the fulfillment of Jacob’s blessing to his son Dan, Samson’s ancestor: “Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a serpent by the road, a viper on the path. He bites the horse’s heels so that the rider is thrown backward”.8 He was a warrior, his method of attack similar to a snake who bites at the heel. He lived among the Philistines, and attacked them from behind, crippling them. Yet, at the same time, as our sages teach, Samson was a great judge who led and judged his people as G‑d himself would, with perfect justice.9
How Long Did Samson Rule?
Tradition records that Samson ruled for 40 years, although in actuality it was only 20.10 The reason, explains the Talmud, is because his influence, both on his own people and on the Philistines, was so powerful, it was felt for another 20 years after his death. His teachings continued to inspire and guide the Jews long after he passed away, so much so that he is considered to have actually ruled in those years. Additionally, the fear he had implanted into the Philistines was so powerful, his intimidation so intense, that for 20 years after his death they were afraid to harm the Jews and left them alone.