On The Shimshon Cycle

Of all the narratives in Judges, the cycle which features its last great figure, Shimshon, is the most puzzling at first blush. While the immediately preceding judge, Yiftah, was presented as flawed, he at least fit the book’s standard leadership profile by leading Israelite troops against their enemies. Shimshon, on the other hand, makes no inspiring speeches and heads no armies. The hero’s “call” in chapter 13 consists mainly of a revelation to Shimshon’s parents before his birth, and his consciousness of any kind of broader mission in life seems severely limited. And what are we to make of the bizarre, even burlesque elements of the cycle, which include an angel who disappears in sacrificial fire, an enigmatic riddle about fierceness and sweetness, the hero’s slaughtering of a thousand Philistines with an ass’s jawbone, his over-the-top feat of strength after a visit to a prostitute, a seduction scene followed by the most famous haircut of all time, and a final violent spectacle that seems tailor-made for opera or film? Simply put, there is nothing quite like it in the Bible.

Thanks to such entertaining and popular elements, audiences have delighted in these stories for centuries. At the same time, interpreters have struggled mightily with them. In the late nineteenth century it was fashionable to read the cycle as a “solar myth,” based, first, on the fact that the name Shimshon resembles shemesh, “sun,” and second, that various motifs in the text, not to mention the name of the local town ofBeit Shemesh, suggest an origin in pagan tales about the sun or sun god. Another school of interpretation has sought to locate the story in Greek traditions about Herakles (Hercules), whom Shimshon resembles in many respects, from his anger to his weakness for women, and in some of the details of the story. But these kinds of comparisons, while initially attractive, do not explain the distinctively Israelite character of the Shimshon tales. As so often happens, it may be more fruitful to look at the narrative through the Bible’s own thematics and wording.

Initially, the overarching theme of the cycle appears to be the breaking of the Nazirite vows laid out in Num. 6 and indicated in the opening lines of our story. In this biblical practice, a person could take on a special vow for a certain period, necessitating abstention from consuming alcohol, hair cutting, and contact with the dead. Shimshon’s actions, however, systematically violate every Nazirite rule; by the end of the story, the reasons for his downfall are manifest. The theme of Naziriteship thus suggests that Shimshon is an individual in control of his own destiny. But despite the trappings of a hero story, the narrative makes it clear from the beginning that, as usual, it is really God who is at the center of events. All of Shimshon’s inappropriate behavior—his violations of the vow, his rages, his lusting after foreign women—serve in this text as vehicles for fulfillment of a divine plan. In what amounts to a classic biblical pattern, people act upon their own impulses and emotions, but the end result is what God, not they, had intended. Our text points to God’s hand behind the scenes: “Now his father and his mother did not know that it was from YHWH, / that he was seeking an opportunity from the Philistines” (14:4). Even more strikingly, as has often been noted, the hero’s selfish reasoning in 14:7, “Take her for me, for she is right in my eyes,” is integrated into the larger theme of Judges, pre-monarchical chaos, which appears several times in the subsequent, final chapters of the book, and notably at its very end (21:25): “In those days there was no king in Israel, / each would do what was right in his eyes.”

This tension between the divine and the human is maintained by the theme of secrecy, which permeates the entire narrative and holds it together. Everything points toward two dramatic revelations: uncovering the secret of Shimshon’s strength to Delila and its final fatal revelation to the assembled Philistines. On an ongoing basis, the thread of secrecy is underscored by the use of three major leading words in the text: tell, know, and see. Secrets are withheld from every major character at some point or other, from parents to women to enemies. Dominating them all is the muscle-bound figure of the hero, ironically the most unaware character in the entire cycle. Significantly, the narrator rarely uses the verb know in relation to Shimshon himself, preferring instead to utilize seeing as the central metaphor.

To stress see as a key word is to make a loaded choice. The “seer” in the Bible is usually the man of God (see Avraham and Moshe), one who is perfectly and painfully aware of what God wants of him. But Shimshon is more voyeur than visionary, rarely seeing beyond his anger or his lust. Not surprisingly, Talmudic interpreters felt that Shimshon’s downfall was connected to his sight; in their words, “he who was led astray by his eyes, lost them” (B. Sotah 9b).

So Shimshon is the perfect anti-hero, largely unconcerned with his obligations to his people or his God. Like Herakles, he is motivated chiefly by his sexual drive and his anger. But the quality of Shimshon’s obliviousness to the Bible’s main concern, the covenant between Israeland God, may be a clue to something else that is going on below the surface of the text. Greenstein, in a perceptive analysis, has focused on Shimshon as a figure who mirrors the people of Israelas a whole. Like Shimshon with his Nazirite regulations, Israelhas a defined series of rules. Just as Shimshon repeatedly breaks his vows, Israelis characterized in both the Torah and The Early Prophets as constantly backsliding and breaking the covenant. Indeed, notes Greenstein, the name “Shimshon,” so often linked to the Hebrew term for the sun, may also be punning on shem, “name,” and suggesting that Israel’s identity is the key issue of the story.

Also noteworthy in the vocabulary of the narrative, as suggested above, is the repetition of the verb “bind” (Heb. ‘-s-r), which first appears in the jawbone episode and is prominent in the Delila story. Not only is it used in the Bible to indicate physical restraint, but it also frequently carries the connotation of prohibition or the setting of rules. Viewed from that perspective, the Shimshon cycle is very much about a classic “wild man” who breaks society’s rules and lives by his own. If Greenstein is right, then the Bible has transformed an ancient hero into a symbol for the book’s “wild society,” which it will indeed prove to be in the chapters that follow Shimshon and conclude the book.

One last aspect of Shimshon is striking, already noticed by scholars such as Wellhausen. True to the chapters of Judges that follow it, the Shimshon cycle indirectly indicts a major character in the upcoming book of Samuel: King Sha’ul (Saul). Like Shimshon, he does not possess the character traits necessary for true and successful leadership. He can only lay the groundwork for the eventual defeat of the Philistines and the rise of a unified kingdom (similarly, Shimshon can only “begin” to defeat the Philistines). Both men, at least, are granted a heroic death, yet it is striking how similarly they are portrayed—a picture of the divine spirit gone awry. Neither man has control over his overwhelming gift, and both suffer personal tragedy. In Shimshon’s case, it is not the tragedy portrayed by later Western interpreters; as he appears in Judges he is neither a symbol of despair turned into faith and resistance (Milton’s Samson Agonistes), nor a national liberator who sadly forgets himself in the bedroom (Saint-Saens’ opera Samson et Dalila). Instead, he functions in the end as the symbol of the straying, suffering, and, for the biblical writer, ultimately redeemed folk from which he stems. With the cycle of stories around Shimshon, the book of Judges is almost ready to draw to a close.

For a detailed look at the uses of verbal and thematic repetition in the Shimshon cycle, see “Appendix” at the end of Judges.