By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Who is being described here, in this Bible verse?
For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb
This is from the Book of Judges 13:5, in which the birth of Samson is foretold. ‘Nazarite’ (sometimes Nazirite) refers to a group of nomads who followed Yahweh, the Old Testament God, and adhered to a strict ritual involving no wine, no unclean food, and no shaving of the head. It is this last feature which has become inextricably linked with Samson.
But there’s more to the story of Samson and Delilah than this, and it’s worth analysing the legend in more detail. If you think that Delilah cut off Samson’s hair, you need to read on. There are some surprises lurking in the Samson myth.
Samson and Delilah: summary
The story of Samson is found in chapters 13-16 of the Book of Judges, in the Old Testament. Samson’s birth is foretold to a childless couple, so his conception is something of a miracle.
At the time of Samson, the Philistines dominated this part of Canaan, and the various peoples living in that region lived under the Philistines. This included the Nazirites, to whom Samson belonged. Because of their clashes with the Israelites – notably in the David and Goliath story – the Philistines attracted a reputation for being loutish and uncivilised, to the extent that their name became a byword for these qualities.
In his hugely informative Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov likens Samson to Robin Hood or Superman: a folk hero rather than a consecrated or crowned leader of his people. He fought his campaign against the Philistines using his brute strength as his best weapon, and his strength was linked to his long hair – which, because of his Nazarite identity, he never shaved.
Despite their enmity with the Philistines, Samson the Nazarite had a fondness for Philistine women. The Book of Judges recounts a number of Samson’s exploits: he kills a lion with his bare hands, and after losing a wager, he lashes out and kills thirty Philistines in anger. In what is perhaps his most famous exploit before he meets Delilah, Samson kills an entire Philistine army with just the jawbone of an ass.
He’s like the superhero of any a comic or boy’s own magazine: at one point, he breaks free from binding ropes, using his strength to break loose, and kills large numbers of his Philistine enemies. In another adventure, he is locked inside a city but breaks free by lifting the city gates and carrying them away with him. Anyone who has read the Asterix comics of Goscinny and Uderzo will recognise something of Samson in Obelix, the trusty companion of the title character.
But then one day, Samson clapped eyes on another Philistine woman, named Delilah. And Delilah’s Philistine compatriots persuaded her to use her position to learn the secret of Samson’s strength. Sure enough, he eventually weakens and tells her that his hair is the key to his strength:
16:17 That he told her all his heart, and said unto her, There hath not come a razor upon mine head; for I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother’s womb: if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man.
The Philistines reward Delilah by paying her money. Judges 16:19 then tells us that Samson’s hair was cut off – but not by Delilah, as is often believed, but by a man whom Delilah called for:
16:19 And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him.
Significantly, given the symbolic properties of Samson and Delilah (see below), Samson is handed over to the Philistines who gouge out his eyes and put him to work grinding grain in Gaza. The phrase ‘eyeless in Gaza’, from Milton’s poetic retelling of the Samson story Samson Agonistes (written after Milton himself had lost his sight), gave Aldous Huxley the title for his 1936 novel:
Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves …
Samson and Delilah: analysis
Although the story of Samson is a famous one in both Judaism and Christianity, the legend may have had its roots in early sun-worship. The name Samson is thought to be derived from the Hebrew shemesh, meaning ‘sun’, and ‘Samson’ may in fact mean ‘sun man’. In this interpretation, Samson is, like Phoebus Apollo or Ra from Egyptian mythology, another personification of the sun, with his long hair representing the sun’s rays.
Although hard evidence for such a theory hasn’t been found, Samson’s associations with the sun are suggestive, to say the least.
What lends credence to this theory is the fact that Samson’s home, Zorah, was located close to Beth-shemesh, a place which literally means ‘house of the sun’. And Delilah’s name has its roots in a word for ‘night’, so that the story of Samson and Delilah takes on new symbolic significance, with ‘night’ vanquishing ‘day’/the sun.
So although Judges presents Samson as the ruler of the Israelites for twenty years (see 15:20 and 16:31), he does not appear to have been recognised as official leader. And as the authors of the Dictionary of the Bible observe (while dismissing the Samson-as-sun-deity theory as unlikely), his actions are motivated by ‘selfish interests and private revenge’ and the events of the Samson story are extremely local in their significance.
Nevertheless, because of their inclusion in the Bible, the Samson stories have attracted wider historical value, conjuring the social and political conditions of that period of Canaanite history. The Samson story deals with a chaotic period in the history of Israel, between the death of Joshua and the arrival of Saul and David.