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Samson: The Hebrew Version of the Strong-Man Myth
by Farrell Till




Judges 15:15 claims that Samson killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, but according to the mythology of other nations of biblical times, Hercules and other strong-man heroes did similar feats, defeating entire armies and such like single-handedly. Now if Samson had killed 20 or even 10 of a thousand men rushing to overwhelm him, that would have been remarkable enough, but the entire thousand? That's just too incredible to believe.

His final feat, however, taxed common sense and credulity even more. After being tricked by Delilah into revealing that his uncut hair was the secret of his strength, an unlikely aspect of Samson' story that I will say more about later, she cut off his hair so that the Philistines could overpower him. He was then blinded and taken as a captive to a prison-house, where he was put to work turning a grinding stone. After his hair had grown back, his captors put him on display between two pillars in Dagon's temple. While the Philistines were making sport of him, Samson cried out to Yahweh, who gave him the strength to pull the temple pillars down to cause the structure to collapse on the people inside and on the temple roof.

Yes, that is what the story claims. Samson pulled the pillars down, and the Philistine temple fell on all the people in it "so that those whom Samson killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life" (Judges 16:30). That's how the story ends, but just how likely is it that the events attributed to Samson really happened just as the Bible says they did?

Well, for one thing, there is obvious exaggeration in this final exploit of Samson.   The claim is that "the temple was full of men and women" and that standing on the roof alone, there were three thousand men and women (Judges 16:27). Archaeologists have excavated Philistine temples from that period of biblical history, and so far none has been discovered that even comes close to being big enough to accommodate this many people. The article just linked to told of the excavations of three Philistine temples at Tel Qasile (near modern Tel Aviv), which had been built in succession on the same site. The first one was only 22' x 22', but the size was gradually increased until the third and last one measured 48' x 26', which would have had an area of 1248 square feet. If three thousand people had stood on the roof of this temple, each person would have had less than one half of a square foot to stand on. The magnificent temple that Solomon built years later to his god Yahweh was only 90 feet by 30 feet (1 Kings 6:2), and archaeology tells us that, as far as temples of that time are concerned, this was larger than most of them, but if 3,000 people should climb onto the roof of a building this size, they would have less than one square foot of standing space per person. The Philistine temple in the Samson tale may have been "full of men and women," but it is very unlikely that there were also three thousand people standing on the roof.

A  more reasonable view of the story of Samson is that it was just the Hebrew version of a myth that was widely circulated in the various cultures of biblical times. The Greeks and Romans had Hercules, the Cilicans Sandon, the Babylonians and Assyrians Izdubar, the Hindus Bala-Rama [known also as Rama, the Strong], the Norsemen Thor, and  so on. Some Siamese myths about a strong man named Cadom say that, years before Samson was born, he pulled down the pillars of a pagoda and caused it to collapse on his enemies. Now what is the likelihood that two feats of such prodigious strength so strikingly similar as these both happened at different times in separate parts of the world? Is it more likely that they both happened or that they were both myths?

Furthermore, these mythological strong men all shared common characteristics. Samson was born to a woman who had been barren until an angel of God announced to her that she would have a son, but all of the strong men in the other myths were also born of miraculous circumstances that involved  some kind of intervention of the gods. Samson's first great physical feat was the killing of a lion with his bare hands, but the first labor of Hercules in the Greek and Roman versions of this myth was the barehanded killing of the Nemean lion. In fact, all of the heroes in the ancient strong-man myths were depicted as men who could kill ferocious animals with their bare hands. Samson pulled up the gate and posts of the city of Gaza and carried them to the top of a mountain near Hebron, but so what? The Greeks believed that the columnlike rocks at the Strait of Gibraltar were "the  pillars of Hercules" that he had carried there on his journey to the land of  Geryon.

As already noted, Samson killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, but the parallel myths in other societies also contained incidents in which the heroic strong men had single-handedly fought and killed enemy forces that greatly outnumbered them. So on what grounds can one reject those other stories as obvious mythology but accept the Samson story as the infallible truth of God?

Finally, just a common-sense analysis of Samson's relationship with Delilah is enough to show that this is mythology and not history. After  Samson became involved with Delilah, the Philistine lords each offered to pay her 1100 pieces of silver if she would discover the secret of his strength. To make a long  story short, three times she begged Samson to tell her his secret,  and each  time he gave her a false reason for his strength. But each time that Delilah thought she had the secret of his strength, she tried to betray him to the Philistines, only to learn that he had lied to her. Finally, after days of nagging and pestering Samson and whining that he didn't love her, Delilah coaxed  him into telling her the real source of his strength. And what did she do? She lured him to sleep, sheared off his hair, and betrayed him to the Philistines.

Now,  let's just look sensibly at this part of the story. If all of this happened in the way the Bible tells it, then Samson's strength was exceeded by his stupidity. One might conceivably imagine that after one betrayal, Delilah could have persuaded Samson to trust her again, but after two times or three times and even four times?

No, it just isn't believable. This story is Hebrew mythology, purely and simply, just as its parallels in surrounding cultures were also mythology.  Go to the next article in this series.



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