For most Avrahamic religions, the story of the shofet Samson is one of a hero. Samson’s life has all the hallmarks of a mythical hero: superhuman in his strength, a close relationship with the divine, a flawed and difficult personal life that ends in the ultimate self-sacrifice. But was Samson the hero he’s cracked up to be? Looking at the story of this shofet in light of the Torah, I have my doubts.
Not all Avrahamic faiths see Samson as a hero. The Samaritans (who observe the Torah, but view the Neviim and Kethuvim simply as cultural and historical documents) think of Samson as a villain in Israelite history. They interpret Samson’s infamous dalliance with Delilah as a metaphor for Samson falling into idol worship. While I am not sure they’re interpretation is correct, the story does stand out from the other biographies provided in Shoftim. The Samaritan view of Samson roused my curiosity and led me to take a closer look at the familiar tale.
A knowledge of Torah is vital to understanding Samson. Because of the circumstances of Samson’s birth, he is a Nazarite from the womb. A Nazarite is, essentially, a kind of monk; they avoid alcohol (and anything to do with grapes), refrain from cutting their hair or shaving, and go to extremes to avoid physical and ritual uncleanliness. Generally, being a Nazarite is a temporary thing that a man or woman may choose to do. For Samson, a messenger of G-d visits his mother and tells her the the child in her womb is already a Nazarite, always will be, and that she should avoid uncleanliness and alcohol during her pregnancy. Samson is supposed to be a holy man.
But does he live up to that expectation? People who are born into a restrictive lifestyle often have trouble adhering to it or decide to rebel. Such seems to be the lot for Samson. As a young man, he spends time among the Philistines. The Philistines are foreigners, not even semitic. They worship many gods, eat unclean animals, and use sexual interaction for ritual purposes. Just by spending time with the Philistines, Samson is making himself physically and ritually unclean in a very deliberate way. Then he chooses to marry one of their women.
Unable to persuade Samson to a path that is more suitable for his office, Samson’s father arranges for the marriage. On his way to court the woman, Samson encounters a lion in a vineyard. Being unarmed, he fights the lion with his bear hands, and final succeeds in tearing it apart. A lion is an unclean animal, and contact with blood and dead things makes an individual unclean. While Samson’s action in fending off the lion is appropriate, the correct follow-up would have been go and cleanse himself as prescribed by the Torah. Not only does he fail to do so, but he neglects to tell anyone of his uncleanliness, meaning that he almost certainly made his family and his father’s household unclean through his contact with them after he returns home.
Later, he returns by the same way, stopping to look at the rotting carcass. Again, the lion is an unclean animal, and it died in an unclean manner (being torn apart). As such, the Torah forbids eating it, touching it, or eating/touching anything that has come in contact with it. As a Nazarite, Samson was well-educated in the Law; and as an Israelite, these Laws were a way of life. Samson sees that a colony of bees has taken up residence in the carcass, and he takes some honey from them, making himself unclean. Again, he neglects to tell his parents, and this time he compounds the misdeed by giving them some of the honey to eat as well.
Then he marries the Philistine woman in her own land, surrounded by her own people. One must assume the marriage is solemnized with Philistine, not Israelite rites. Now he has taken part in idolatry.
During the wedding feast, Samson poses a riddle to thirty Philistine guests inspired by the lion/honeycomb incident. When the wedding guests are unable to answer the riddle, they have the bride get the answer for them on pain of death for herself and her family. When the cheating is discovered, Samson assumes his wife has been unfaithful to him in other ways as well and gives her to his friend (in essence, having his wife play the whore). He then kills the thirty guests (having followed them to their homes in Ashkelon) and takes their belongings. He fails to go through the legal procedures laid out in the Torah, and taking justice into his own hands, fails to mete out the prescribed consequences for their crimes.
Later, he repents divorcing his wife and goes to visit her in her father’s house. When he demands a conjugal visit, her father refuses, explaining that she has been remarried to Samson’s friend. According to the Torah, a man cannot take back his estranged wife once she has slept with another man, which is precisely what Samson believes he is proposing to do. Then the woman’s father suggests that her sister might be a suitable replacement. Marrying the sister would also be illegal under the Torah, and Samson isn’t interested in the offer. Instead he sets fire to the Philistine’s fields and ruins their crops in an incredible temper tantrum. When the Philistines place the blame on Samson’s ex-wife and her father (and kill them), Samson responds with massacre, which the Philistines take as an act of war. In the end, Samson is able to win the ensuing battle using the jawbone of an ass as his weapon.
After the battle, having worked up a thirst, he prays for water. Water pours from the jawbone, and he drinks his fill. Again, an ass is an unclean animal and carcasses are unclean. This time, though, the uncleanliness is taken to a new level when he drinks from his weapon, something presumable covered with human blood. And in all of Samson’s raids and killings, he is never mentioned as taking the week of recuperation outside the village demanded by the Torah of men returning from war.
After this story, Samson goes to another Philistine town and visits a prostitute (quite possibly a priestess). Then the famous tale of Samson and Delilah begins. Delilah is another Philistine woman, and she is urged by the elders of her community to find out why Samson is so strong. Understandably, the Philistine leaders want to capture Samson. She asks him the source of his strength three times, and three times he gives her a false answer. Each time the Philistine men try to capture Samson by the method he told Delilah, and each time the Philistines fail to hold him. This is where we learn that Samson is not very bright. Where a moderately intelligent fellow would have figured out the first time that Delilah is out to capture him, Samson falls for it three times and then reveals the truth. It’s not a crime to be stupid, but it’s hardly endearing either. The other interpretation is that his long hair was the only part of being a Nazarite to which Samson had adhered. Perhaps he wanted to find a way to be rid of the hair of a Nazarite but did not want the responsibility for the final violation of his commitment.
Finally, the cutting of Samson’s hair could represent his conscious decision to take up the responsibilities of a Nazarite. When a Nazarite becomes unclean, he must have his head shaved by a priest and start his tenure anew. By being shaved and taken captive (relieved of opportunities for uncleanliness and control over it), Samson may have been seeking a fresh start.
However it came about, Samson is stripped of his hair and taken captive. His eyes are gouged out, and he is sentenced to hard labor. As with so many people who live in a dissolute manner and then fall on hard times, Samson finds his faith in G-d in his misery. As a prisoner, Samson is unable to cut his hair, carouse with foreign women, murder, or participate in idol worship. Moreover, he has no control over his diet as a prisoner, so his uncleanliness from any unclean food is of lesser consequence than his prior deliberate violations. At the end, when his hair is regrown, he prays to G-d for the strength to avenge his humiliation at being disfigured when he is brought out as a spectacle during a Philistine religious feast to Dagan (a Babylonian grain and fertility god, subordinate to El). His strength returns, and he collapses the temple, killing himself and all the others at the feast.
While Samson’s end creates a satisfying story, it certainly does not make him a hero. Read in light of the role of the Nazarite and the laws of cleanliness, the end of the story of Samson satisfies, not only the requirements of a classical tragedy, but, more importantly, the moral imperative created by the Torah.