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SAMSON , or, in Hebrew, Shimshon; legendary Israelite hero who flourished, according to tradition, circa the twelfth century bce. The thirteenth to sixteenth chapters of the Book of Judges recount the adventurous life of Samson, a charismatic leader, or "judge," of the tribe of Dan. His name, Shimshon, means "one of the sun." Endowed with superhuman strength, an impetuous nature, and a penchant for verbal wit, Samson delivered the Israelites from their enemies to the west, the Philistines, in a series of personal vendettas. While biblical traditions may have crystallized around an actual figure, the present narrative is encrusted with mythological (especially solar), folkloristic, and literary motifs and patterns that obscure whatever historical facts underlie the story.

Samson was born to a childless Israelite couple. His birth was announced by a messenger from God in the manner of other traditional heroes. He performed a number of feats, all of them paralleled by such heroes of the ancient world as the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh and the Greek Herakles. Samson ripped apart a lion with his bare hands, burned Philistine fields by unleashing three hundred foxes with torches fastened to their tails, slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and hoisted the city gates of Gaza. He succumbed to a lust for Philistine women three times. The third woman, Delilah, tricked him into revealing the secret of his strengthhis unshorn hairand sold him to his Philistine adversaries. In the end, blinded by his captors, he collapsed the temple of the Philistine god Dagon upon himself and upon a crowd of the enemy who were taunting him and the God of Israel.

As the primitive saga took on its biblical shape, the unshorn Samson was transformed into a Nazirite, a person dedicated to God by vows, chief among which was abstention from cutting or shaving one's hair (see Nm. 6:26). His story follows the pattern of the people Israel as described in Judges: bound to God by vows, enjoying the divine spirit, he broke vow after vow and lost divine favor, but in a final moment of returning to God, he regained his strength.


For a fairly comprehensive discussion of the Samson story, highlighting its literary elements, see James L. Crenshaw's Samson: A Secret Betrayed, a Vow Ignored (Atlanta, 1978). A close literary reading of the story with discussion of its literary history is Yair Zakovitch's The Life of Samson (Judges 1316): A Critical-Literary Analysis (in Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1982). The solar interpretation of Samson is summarized by Abram Smythe Palmer in The Samson-Saga and Its Place in Comparative Religion (1913; reprint, New York, 1977). Hermann Gunkel's "Simson," in Reden und Aufsätze (Göttingen, 1913), pp. 3864, sees Samson as the Israelite "nature man," in conflict with the Philistine civilization. The parallel between the stories of Samson and the people Israel is drawn most extensively in my own "The Riddle of Samson," Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 1 (September 1981): 237260. For a folkloristic analysis, see Susan Niditch's "Samson as Culture Hero, Trickster, and Bandit: The Empowerment of the Weak," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990): 608624.

Edward L. Greenstein (1987 and 2005)

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