Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Samson, an early Israelite hero. The traditions about Samson depict him as a judge who assisted his tribe, the Danites, in their struggle against the Philistines, although most of his heroic exploits were personally motivated and resemble a private vendetta. The stories present him as a Nazirite from birth, but his passion for foreign women compromised the Nazirite vow, which required him to refrain from cutting his hair and to avoid wine and any unclean food. The tales also attribute his extraordinary power to momentary seizure by the divine spirit, and they thereby point beyond the human hero to the true source of superhuman strength.

A religious spirit colors the stories from first to last, despite their racy theme and legendary character. This exalted tone is greatest in the birth announcement and its sequel, an account of the marvelous disappearance of the revealing angel in the fire of an altar (Judg. 13:1-25). Although the name of Samson’s father is given (Manoah), no comparable information is supplied about his mother. Nevertheless, she stands out in the story as the real heroine, and Manoah receives instruction from her.

Mighty Exploits: Samson’s mighty exploits were occasioned by his erotic involvement with three women. The first object of his affection was an unnamed woman from Timnah, a few miles southeast of Beth-shemesh (located between Jerusalem and Ashdod). At their wedding festivities a riddle contest had grave consequences. Furious that her countrymen had secured the answer to his riddle by threatening his bride, Samson took revenge on local Askelonites from whom he stole garments to cover his wager. Since Samson then returned alone to his home in Zorah, his bride was given to the best man. This act in turn precipitated further revenge on Samson’s part, the destroying of grain fields by catching three hundred foxes and setting fire to their tails, then releasing them in the fields. Angry Philistines retaliated by burning Samson’s bride and her father, whereupon Samson smote a large number of them. Naturally, the Philistines sought revenge, and by threatening the local tribe of Judah, obtained its assistance in locating a hiding Samson. Bound by his countrymen, he was turned over to the enemy; but the spirit came upon him and he slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Samson then composed a victory song and prayed for water to quench his thirst. Appropriate names are given for the sites of battle and prayer: Hill of the Jawbone and Partridge Spring (14:1-15:20).

The second woman with whom Samson became entangled was a harlot in the Philistine city of Gaza (located near the Mediterranean seacoast). The local residents learned of his presence and surrounded her house, anticipating victory over an exhausted Samson. But he arose early and walked off with the doors of the city gate on his shoulders, depositing them some distance away on a hill opposite Hebron (16:1-3).

Samson’s downfall came when he fell in love with Delilah, presumably a Philistine. Their innocent flirtation quickly became a serious matter, and she toyed with Samson until he finally divulged the secret of his strength. Delilah’s motivation is said to have been greed, and she summoned the Philistine lords to come for a shorn Samson. They put out his eyes and set him to work grinding at a mill in Gaza. In due time they celebrated their good fortune with a victory song and made sport of Samson during a sacrifice to their god, Dagon. Resolving to get revenge once more, Samson asked to be situated by the two pillars holding up the house and prayed for renewed strength just once more. God granted his wish, and Samson died with the multitude of Philistines (16:4-31).

Traditions and Stories: The traditions about Samson have been brought together with great skill; they probably circulated orally for some time before achieving written form. Various motifs combine to enhance their popularity: the barren wife, a helpless hero in the arms of a woman, the quest for a deity’s hidden name, a hero’s death wish, loss of charisma, and terror accompanying a theophany (i.e., the appearance of the divine). The stories also make use of many different literary forms, for example, three prayers, three riddles, two aetiologies, two victory songs, and five heroic deeds, a birth story, and a recognition scene. The stories reflect the period described in Judges, a period when tribal jealousies divided Israelites and when rivalry existed between the Philistine population and Israelite clans.

The figure of Samson presented a problem to many later interpreters, who found it difficult to condone his behavior. Nevertheless, comparisons with Jesus and Heracles became common, and Samson was viewed as a type of Christ. The English poet John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) transforms Samson into a tragic hero and gives a psychological analysis of suffering. The exploits of this biblical strong man have thus entertained and inspired others throughout the ages, despite Samson’s weakness where women were concerned.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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