THE SAMSON MYTH
Brian De Kretser
(Investigator 55, 1997 July)
From the 13th to the 11th century BC Judah (Jews) and Israel (Israelites) were ruled by sheiks or judges. One of the judges of Judah was Samson (Shamshown). His history has been clouded by myths and legends added on long after his death.
The Samson myth was copied from an icon showing the exploits of the Sun God. The beams of light from the Sun God's head were mistaken for long, uncut hair.
The Hebrew mythologian created a hero-god, whose downfall was brought about by not obeying the Nazirite law never to cut his hair.
Samson's name was a variant of Shamash the Babylonian Sun God. It was also the Hebrew name for the Sun.
Samson was born in Tsorah near Beth-shamash (house of the Sun) which was an ancient centre of Sun worship.
We all know the story of how Delilah caused Samson's hair to be cut and Samson blinded. Similarly the Sun loses its long beams before setting (blinded) into the lap of victorious night (Lilah). The Sun lost its beams which were its strength but this loss was temporary - lasting only during the night. Similarly Samson's hair grew again (the Sun rose) and his strength renewed so that he could perform his final act of destroying the temple, killing his enemies and himself.
The final modification was necessary since, while the Sun God would never die, the historical Samson died.
The myth of a heavenly messenger who appears to humans (e.g. to the virgin Mary) was recycled many times in the Bible and applies also to the birth of Samson. (Judges 13:5) It also applies to Abraham and Sarah. (Genesis 18:3-10)
Samson killed a lion with only his hands. Herakles of Greek mythology did the same. The riddle "Out of the strong came forth sweetness… etc" in the Samson story was also in the Oedipus story. The Greek lion killer used a club; Samson killed one thousand men with the jaw-bone of an ass.
Samson brought down the Philistine temple by pushing against the two main supporting pillars. An excavated Philistine temple has the pillars 2½ metres apart. One would have to be a giant for one's extended arms to even touch both pillars simultaneously, leave alone the force to push them over!
The excavated temple would have accommodated about 30 or 35 people. Even if a larger temple was to be found it would not hold more than a fraction of the 3,000 people the myth says were killed by Samson. (Judges 16:26-30)
Samson's attacks against the Philistines during a period of truce brought reprisals on the Jews. To buy peace the Jews arranged that the Philistines capture their greatest enemy. Researchers think that this is a historical possibility as the Jews would not invent a story unfavourable to themselves.
Samson was probably handed
over to the Philistines
for execution to appease them. That was the real ending. The Bible
the mythical ending. So, how can any thinking person believe the Bible?
Harwood, William Mythology's Last Gods
Isaac The Flaming
SAMSON: MYTH OR FACT?
(Investigator 55, 1997
The Bible in Judges
chapter 16 says:
And Samson grasped the two middle pillars upon which the house rested, and he leaned his weight upon them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines." Then he bowed with all his might; and the house fell upon the Lords and upon all the people that were in it.
It had metre-thick mud walls and the roof was supported by two wooden pillars which stood on round stone bases.
Magnussen (1977) wrote:
Now, if one were built like a gorilla, it would be possible to reach both pillars in the Tell Qasile temple with one's outstretched arms… And then, in the Biblical phrase, one would bow oneself with all one's might and pull down the temple, killing all the Philistines who had gathered in and on it.
The only snag with this rather attractive scenario is the size of the temple itself. It is unexpectedly small. The main hall measures only 7.5 metres by 5.5 metres – not much larger than a good-sized living room. By no stretch of the imagination could one pack 3000 festive Philistines either inside or on top of the temple; and although this is the only Philistine temple that has been discovered, there is no reason to suppose that any others will turn out to be larger…So how did the story come about? Obviously one can dismiss it out of hand as the kind of far-fetched legend that accretes around any strong-arm folk hero. (pp. 112 - 113)
The name "Samson" may derive from the Hebrew word "semes" meaning sun. Samson's birth-place, Zorah, was close to Beth-shemesh – shemesh again linked to the word "sun". Therefore some scholars originate the Samson story in sun-mythology and sun worship and perhaps link it to stories about the labours of Hercules or of Gilgamesh. The Bible, however, makes or gives no such connections. The few incidental similarities of myths of other nations to Samson are outweighed by differences and by the historical setting.
The name "Samson" was common in Canaan and appears in the Ugaritic texts of the 14th century BC. (Ugarit, an ancient trading centre 1km inland near Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast, was excavated by archaeologists 1929-1939 and 1948-1973.)
Most of the geographical locations named in the Samson story (Judges 13-16) have archaeological support.
These include Dan (a tribal area), Zorah (town of Samson's birth), Timnah (town where Samson's first wife lived), Rock of Etam (where Samson lived after burning the Philistines' fields), Hebron (a city 30km south-west of Jerusalem); Valley of Sorek (residence of Delilah); and Eshtaol (near where Samson was buried). Lehi where Samson killed 1,000 Philstines "with the jawbone of an ass" has tentative identification. Two of the five major cities of the Philistines are also mentioned: At Ashkelon Samson killed 30 Philistines (Judges 14:19). At Gaza Samson was imprisoned and died.
Concerning Timnah, for
example, Mazar (1990)
"Tel Batash – on the bank of the Sorek Brook, 9 km south of Gezer and 7 km east of Ekron — is identified with Timnah… Only one Philistine occupation level has been distinguished (stratum V). It was a densely built town and thrived for a lengthy period. There is some evidence of a fortification system, and Philistine painted pottery is abundant." (p. 312)
We can easily calculate an approximate date for the Samson events.
About 1100 BC Egypt was in decline. This gave the Philistines opportunity to expand into Israeli territory and oppress the Israelites.
Excavations 1962 - 1972 at Ashdod (one of the five major Philistine towns) show that Ashdod expanded quickly from 20 acres to 100 acres around 1100 BC. Samson was bound with bronze fetters (Judges 16:21) suggesting that the Iron Age which started about 1200 BC was not in full swing.
Correct locations plus
gives Samson a historical context. But there is more.
The Philistines of the Bible inhabited an area about 80km along Israel's coast and 25km inland. Distinctive Philistine pottery identifies their territory.
Keller (1974) described discovery of Philistine beer mugs. The Bible indicates the Philistines were great drinkers. (Judges 14:10; 16:25) A major Philistine deity, Dagon, is mentioned in the Samson story. (Judges 16:23)
The Bible has God saying:
"Have not I
Israel out of the
land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor?" (Amos 9:7)
According to history the Philistines were one of seven groups called "Sea Peoples".
These apparently destroyed the Hittite Empire before 1200 BC. Then a vast two-pronged attack upon Egypt — by sea and by land — was defeated about 1190 BC. Total war deaths on all sides are estimated at 500,000. In battle scenes depicted on walls of the temple of Pharoah Rameses III at Thebes in Egypt, Philistines are shown bearded and wearing "feather helmets".
Philistine survivors settled in the plains of Palestine near Gaza. They formed a confederation of five main city states – Ashkelon, Ashdod and Gaza by the coast and Ekron and Gath inland.
Early 20th-century authorities tried to link different branches of Sea Peoples to the Etruscans (Italy), Sicilians, Sardinians, Achaeans (of mainland Greece), etc. Apparently almost any north Mediterranean area except what the Bible says – Crete.
Later writers placed the origin of the Sea Peoples including Philistines in Anatolia – particularly the southern coasts of Turkey. (Melaart 1965)
Magnussen (1977) wrote, "There is no conclusive evidence at present, but the odds seem to be shifting in favour of an Anatolian origin for the Philistines." (p. 103)
Mazar (1990) described an ivory box, featuring a feather-helmeted warrior in a chariot, found in Cyprus. Also a seal with a feather-helmeted warrior holding a battle axe. (p. 304) Early Philistine pottery uncovered at Ashdod and Ekron is identical with pottery in Cyprus. (p. 307)
Most of the evidence points to the Anatolian coast (Ionia) and/or the Aegean world as the homeland of the various Sea Peoples. Some Philistine personal names and terms recorded in the Bible are related to Luvian languages of western Anatolia, but the evidence is far from concrete. The archaeological data…is a prime source and would indicate a Mycenaean origin for the Philistines at least. Cyprus featured prominently in the eastward movement of these peoples, but probably was not their homeland. (pp. 306-307)
Mycenae (south west of Corinth in Greece) and the Aegean world gets us close to Crete! It's probable, by current evidence, that the Philistines originated around the Aegean and that Crete and Cyprus were major stopping points in their migration. (New Bible Dictionary 1982 p. 933)
A more direct connection
with Crete remains
to be proven.
The Bible book of Judges describes six periods of oppression against the Israelites and the activities of 12 deliverer-judges.
The twelth judge was Samson.
Samson was under a Nazirite vow, which included no hair cuts, no drinking of wine and no touching of corpses. (Numbers 6:1-21)
But Samson did touch corpses. Perhaps his becoming a Nazirite by appointment (Judges 13:7) instead of by choice made a difference.
At Gaza "Samsom…saw a harlot, and he went in to her." (Judges 16:1) On this basis some commentators depict Samson as a womanizing ruffian. However, harlots' houses functioned not only as brothels but also as hotels. Centuries earlier, two Israeli spies at Jericho, "came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there." (Joshua 2:1)
According to the Bible
strength came from God and depended on him living according to the
vow i.e. not cutting his hair.
OUT OF THE EATER CAME SOMETHING TO EAT
On one occasion Samson killed a lion. When "after a while" Samson passed that location again the lion carcass had become a beehive. He took and ate some of the honey.
This has caused comment. After all, the Roman writer Pliny The Elder (23 - 79 AD) wrote, "Bees do not settle on dead flowers, let alone dead bodies." (Penguin Classics 1991)
The phrase "after a while", however, does allow for a year or so to pass.
In The Age
(Melbourne) H A Lindsay
In Palestine there was – and still is – a dearth of hollow trees in which wild bees can establish colonies. As a result, they use rock crannies, recesses in caves, and even holes in the ground.
In the dry climate of this region, especially in the summer, the carcase of any animal with a tough skin, if left unburied, soon becomes a skeleton with a dry hide stretched over it. Lacking a better site, wild bees use the chest cavity as a site for the hive.
This is not a theory, because I can quote a parallel case. Booborowie, South Australia, is a wide, treeless plain covered with paddocks of lucerne. This fodder plant provides good flows of honey during summer months.
In 1927 I was walking over a hill on the south side of the lucerne fields and I came to the carcase of a horse which had died months previously. It was now a sun-dried hide stretched over a skeleton. What I had taken for a cloud of blowflies proved to be a flight of bees… I was able to do what Samson had done over 3,000 years ago; I ate some honey from a hive which had been established in the carcase of a long-dead animal.
A beehive in a dead animal
is a rare event.
However, many things in the Bible are mentioned for the reason they
rare or unusual.
To give an alleged action of God, a miracle, a natural explanation is to some extent self-defeating. A natural explanation would make the "miracle" believable, but the Bible would then be wrong in attributing the event to God.
This problem having been pointed out let's nevertheless consider whether "rare or unusual" circumstances or conditions could have contributed to Samson's successes.
Judges 16:3 says:
But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city (of Gaza) and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is before Hebron.
The tallest true (non-pathological) giant of modern times was Angus Macaskill (1823 - 1863). He was born on the island of Berneray in the Western Isles northwest of Scotland and died in Nova Scotia, Canada. Macaskill was 236 cm tall and has been described as "the strongest man in the world." His most impressive reported feat was to lift a 900kg anchor above his head.
Let's imagine a Samson with strength like these men – the sort of strength possessed by perhaps one man in five billion.
Gates of towns at the time were usually made of wood and were metal plated. We don't know the size or weight of the doors but if dragged on Samson's shoulders a weight of about 1½ tons would make the story plausible. As regards pulling the door-posts out it helps if we assume the posts were either in bad repair or tampered with before the stunt.
Hebron is 60km from Gaza. The writer probably meant that Samson took the doors "to the top of the hill" in the direction of Hebron without actually going the entire distance.
The story of Delilah and how she arranged Samson's haircut is well known. The weakening effect on Samson could in part be psychological. To break his Nazirite vow and also live with a Philistine woman was disobedience to his God twice over. This two-fold realization at a time of crisis could significantly reduce his motivation and therefore his strength. Being blinded would add to the effect.
Samson was put to work at Gaza – "he ground at the mill in the prison". This would be muscle building activity. Meanwhile his hair grew again.
Then came the celebration in honour of the god Dagon. Samson stood between the two pillars. The Philistines' "hearts were merry" and 3,000 were on the roof. (Judges 16:25 - 27)
Mazar (1990) described two more excavated temples at Tell Qasile besides the one mentioned by Magnussen. The larger one is twice the size of the one Magnussen referred to. Its roof originally rested on two cedar-wood pillars set on limestone bases. (pp. 319-320)
This temple would still be too small for 3,000 spectators on the roof.
However, the Bible calls the structure in which Samson was "to make sport" a "house" and a house is not necessarily a temple. Some excavated secular buildings of the time measured 30 x 30 metres. Some houses had a row of wooden pillars to support the roof, others two pillars.
The Bible says the people on the roof "looked on while Samson made sport." There is something relevant about the house which the Bible omits to tell. How could they watch Samson from the "roof" while he stood by the pillars which supported the roof?
There are examples in recent years of buildings or grandstands collapsing due to shoddy construction or due to use by too many people. We can therefore imagine Samson being helped by the wooden pillars being rotten or/and the roof and balconies being overloaded with people. It could be significant that we're told the number on the roof but not the number who died!
With a few minor and
the feats of Samson were not impossible even if we omit reference to
What eventually happened to the Philistines as a people? After Samson's time they were conquered by King David. Their civilization revived in the 7th century BCE but was then destroyed by Babylon.
Time magazine says: "It is unknown what happened to the Philistines after that – whether they died out or were assimilated by surrounding nations. There is no connection between them and the modern Palestinians." (Thompson 1988)
The prophet Jeremiah wrote
about, "the day
that is coming to destroy all the Philistines." (47:4)
There is a long trend of more and more points in the Bible being proven.
In 1837 and 1852 Edward Robinson, a New York orientalist, went to Palestine and identified hundreds of ancient sites. Nowadays over 300 locations out of 900 named in the Old Testament have archaeological/historical corroboration. (Anonymous 1996)
Two silver scrolls found
in Jerusalem in
1979 and dated 600 BC contained a benediction from the Bible book of Numbers.
Commented Time magazine:
The discovery made it clear that parts of the Old Testament were being copied long before some skeptics had believed they were even written. (Lemonick 1995)
A brief report in The
Australia) titled Statue dates circumcision said:
JERUSALEM: A recently discovered 3cm fragment of a stone statue was the first material proof that Israelites practised male circumcision as early as 3000 years ago, archaeologist Adam Zartal said yesterday on Israeli radio. (1989 September 16)
By generalizing this
observation of more
and more of the Bible being proven, i.e. by reasoning inductively, we
predict that more information regarding Samson will eventually be
Anonymous 1996 Names In The Old Testament, Investigator September pp. 14-21
Douglas, J D (Organizing Editor) 1982 New Bible Dictionary: Entries: Philistines; Philistia; Judges; Samson. Inter-Varsity Press, Britain pp. 931 - 933
Keller, W 1974 The Bible As History, Hodder & Stoughton, Britain, Chapters 17 - 18
Lemonick, M D 1995 Are The Bible's Stories True? Time December 18 pp. 48-56
Lindsay, H A 1960 The Age (Melbourne) Naturalist's Diary, November 21, p. 17
Magnussen, M 1977 BC The Archaeology of the Bible Lands, Book Club Associates, Britain
Matthews, P 1994 The New Guinness Book of Records 1995, Guinness Publishing
Mazar, A 1990 Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, Doubleday, USA
Melaart, J 1965 Earliest Civilizations of the Near East, Thames & Hudson, Britain
Nur, A 1991 And the walls came tumbling down, New Scientist July 6 pp. 39-42
Pliny The Elder 1991 Natural History, A Selection Translated by J F Healy, Penguin Books, Britain, p. 150
Kudos to Anon regarding his Samson article!
(Investigator 113, 2007 March)
I recently watched a television program which focused on the issue of the historicity of the biblical Samson. I was really interested in the subject so I did about 4 - 6 hours of research on the subject on the Internet but I didn't find much. And then suddenly, I hit the jackpot! I found Anonymous' article entitled: Samson: Myth or Fact? I just wanted to offer kudos to Anonymous for a well-researched and well written article. I told a Christian site which gets over 100,000 Internet hits a month about the article and it might be linked to soon as the site has featured many articles which I suggested.
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