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(Derived from the Hebrew word for "sun").
The last and most famous of the Judges of Israel. The narrative of the life of Samson and his exploits is contained in chapters xiii-xvi of the book of Judges. After the deliverance effected by Jephte, the Israelites again fell into their evil ways and were delivered over to the Philistines for forty years. An angel of the Lord in the form of a man appears to the barren wife of Manue of the tribe of Dan and promises her that she shall bear a son who shall deliver Israel from the oppression of the Philistines. He prescribes abstinence on the part of both mother and son from all things intoxicating or unclean, and that no razor shall touch the child's head, "for he shall be a Nazarite of God". The angel bearing a similar message again appears to Manue as well as to his wife, and it is only after his disappearance in the flame of a burnt offering that they recognize with great fear his celestial nature. The child is born according to the prediction and receives the name Samson, and the narrative informs us that the "spirit of the Lord" was with him from his youth. Strangely enough this spirit impels him in spite of his parents' opposition to choose a wife from among the ungodly Philistines (Judges, xiv, 1-4). On a visit to Thamnatha, the town of his intended bride, Samson gives the first evidence of his superhuman strength by slaying a lion without other weapon than his bare hands. Returning later he finds that a swarm of bees have taken up their abode in the carcass of the lion. He eats of the honey and the incident becomes the occasion of the famous riddle proposed by him to the thirty Philistine guests at the wedding festivities: "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." In their inability to find the answer the guests, toward the end of seven days' feast, induce Samson's wife to coax him to reveal it to her, and not sooner has she succeeded than she declares it to her countrymen. Samson, however, in order to provide the thirty garments pledged in the wager, goes down to Ascalon in "the spirit of the Lord" and slays thirty Philistines whose garments he gives to the guests who had declared the answer to the riddle. In anger he returns to his father's house, and his bride chooses one of his wedding companions for her husband.
He returns later to claim her and is informed by her father that she has been given to one of his friends, but that he may have instead her younger and fairer sister. Samson declines the offer and catching three hundred foxes he couples them tail to tail, and having fastened torches between their tails turns them loose to set fire to the corn harvests of the Philistines which are thus destroyed together with their vineyards and olive-yards. The Philistines retaliate by burning the faithless wife and her father, whereupon Samson makes a "great slaughter of them" and then retires to dwell in a cavern of Etam in the tribe of Juda. Three thousand Philistines follow him and take up their quarters at Lechi. The men of Juda, alarmed, blame Samson for this invasion and deliver him up bound to the enemy. But when he is brought to them the spirit of the Lord come upon him; he bursts his bonds and slays a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Being thirsty after this exploit, he is revived by a spring of water which the Lord causes to flow from the jawbone. Later while Samson is visiting a harlot in Gaza the Philistines gather about the city gate in order to seize him in the morning, but he, rising at midnight, takes the gate, posts and all, and carries it to the top of a hill in the direction of Hebron. Subsequently he falls in love with a woman named Dalila of the valley of Sorec, who is bribed by the Philistines to betray him into their hands. After deceiving her three times as to the source of his strength, he finally yields to her entreaties and confesses that his power is due to the fact that his head has never been shaved. The paramour treacherously causes his locks to be shorn and he falls helpless into the hands of the Philistines who put out his eyes and cast him into prison. Later, after his hair has grown again he is brought forth on the occasion of the feast of the god Dagon to be exhibited for the amusement of the populace. The spectators, among whom are the princes of the Philistines, number more than three thousand, and they are congregated in, and upon, a great edifice which is mainly supported by two pillars. These are seized by the hero whose strength has returned; he pulls them down, causing the house to collapse, and perishes himself in the ruins together with all the Philistines.
Because of certain resemblances some scholars have claimed that the biblical account of the career and exploits of Samson is but a Hebrew version of the pagan myth of Hercules. This view, however, is nothing more than a superficial conjecture lacking serious proof. Still less acceptable is the opinion which sees in the biblical narrative merely the development of a solar myth, and which rests on little more than the admitted but inconclusive derivation of the name Samson from shemesh, "sun". Both views are rejected by such eminent and independent scholars as Moore and Budde. The story of Samson, like other portions of the Book of Judges, is doubtless derived from the sources of ancient national legend. It has an ethical as well as a religious import, and historically it throws not a little light on the customs and manners of the crude age to which it belongs.
LAGRANGE, Le Livre des Juges (Paris, 1903); MOORE, The Book of Judges in The International Critical Commentary (1895); VIGOUROUX, Dict. de la Bible, s.v.
James F. Driscoll.