Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Judges 16:1-3. Samson’s escape from Gaza. Judges 16:4-5. Delilah, bribed by the Philistine lords, endeavours to entrap him. Judges 16:6-14. He thrice deceives her. Judges 16:15-21. At last he reveals to her the secret of his strength, is seized, blinded, and forced to grind for the Philistines. Judges 16:22-31. His final revenge, death, and burial.
Then went Samson to Gaza, and saw there an harlot, and went in unto her.(1) Then went Samson to Gaza.—Rather, And Samson, &c. The narrative is brief and detached. Gaza is near the sea, and was the chief town of the Philistines, in the very heart of their country. It is useless to inquire how Samson could venture there in safety, or whether he went in disguise, or what was his object in going there; to such side-questions the narrative gives us no reply.
And it was told the Gazites, saying, Samson is come hither. And they compassed him in, and laid wait for him all night in the gate of the city, and were quiet all the night, saying, In the morning, when it is day, we shall kill him.(2) And it was told.—Our version rightly supplies these words. They are found in all the versions, and there can be no doubt that the word vayyuggar (Genesis 22:20) has in this case accidentally dropped out of the text.
They compassed him in.—They apparently did not know in what house he was. The word might mean “they went round the city” (Psalm 59:7), i.e., to look for him.
Were quiet—i.e., they made no attack. Thinking that they had secured him, they seem to have retired to rest. (Comp. Acts 9:23-24.)
And Samson lay till midnight, and arose at midnight, and took the doors of the gate of the city, and the two posts, and went away with them, bar and all, and put them upon his shoulders, and carried them up to the top of an hill that is before Hebron.(3) Arose at midnight.—Apparently—but here again the narrative omits all details—he had been told of the plot, and found the gates unguarded; unless we are to suppose that he slew the guards, without awaking the city.
Took.—Rather, grasped or seized.
The two posts—i.e., the side-posts.
Went away with them, bar and all.—Rather, tore them up, with the bar; the bar was the bar which fastened the two valves together. Gaza, as we see from the site of its walls, had several gates. The site of the gate traditionally pointed out is on the south-east. It may have been the smaller gate, by the side of the main gate, which he thus tore up. In Mohammedan legend Ali uses the gate of Chaibar as a shield, which may be a sort of confused echo and parallel of this event (Po-cocke, Hist. Arab., p. 10).
That is before Hebron.—It is not implied that Samson walked with the gates and bars on his shoulders nine miles to Hebron; but probably (as the local tradition says) to El Montar, a hill in the direction of Hebron, from which the hills of Hebron are visible. Pliny, in his Natural History (vii. 19), adduces many instances of colossal strength, but in this narrative it is distinctly implied that the strength of Samson was a supernatural gift, arising from his dedication to God. The carrying away the gate of his enemies would be understood in the East as a very peculiar insult. “When Almansor took Compostella, he made the Christians carry the gates of St. James’s Church on their shoulders to Cordova in sign of his victory” (Ferraras, Gesch. von Spanier, iii. 145, quoted by Cassel).
And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.(4) He loved a woman.—Delilah was not, as Milton represents, his wife. Josephus (Antt. v. 8, § 11) says that she was one who played the harlot among the Philistines, and the fathers all speak of her in similar terms. Nor is it at all clear—as is generally assumed—that she was a Philistine.
In the valley of Sorek.—The English Version here follows the Vulgate, but the word for valley is nachal, and the words may mean (as the LXX. take them) “on the brook of Sorek.” Sorek was not in the Philistine district, but was near Samson’s native town of Zorah (Judges 13:2). It seems to have derived its name from the “choice vines” that grew there (Genesis 49:11; Isaiah 5:2; Jeremiah 2:21, Hebr.).
Delilah.—The “tender” or “delicate.” Ewald thinks it means “the traitress,” referring to Journ. Asiat., 2:389. The Rabbis refer it to the root daldal, “to debilitate.”
And the lords of the Philistines came up unto her, and said unto her, Entice him, and see wherein his great strength lieth, and by what means we may prevail against him, that we may bind him to afflict him: and we will give thee every one of us eleven hundred pieces of silver.(5) The lords of the Philistines.—The five “satraps.” (See Note on Judges 3:3.) If she were what Josephus asserts, the Philistines might both get access to her, and tempt the cupidity of an unprincipled and degraded mind. Had she been of their own race, threats would probably have been even more effectual with her than with the lady of Timnath (Judges 13:15). The LXX. here begin to call the Philistines allophuloi, or “aliens.”
Wherein his great strength lieth.—Rather, wherein his strength is great. They attributed his strength to some amulet which might be removed.
Eleven hundred pieces of silver.—That is, “eleven hundred silver shekels.” The same sum recurs in Judges 17:2 as the amount laid by for the construction of teraphim by the mother of Micah. If the five lords each gave 1,100 shekels, the amount would be nearly two talents of silver (Exodus 38:25-26)—a most enormous bribe for that age, and especially to such a woman as Delilah. It may be regarded as an almost conclusive proof that Milton is mistaken in making her a Philistine.
And Delilah said to Samson, Tell me, I pray thee, wherein thy great strength lieth, and wherewith thou mightest be bound to afflict thee.(6) And wherewith thou mightest be bound.—The narrative, if taken as a full account of all that took place, would leave in the mind an impression of almost incredible fatuity on the part of Samson. The general lesson is that of 1 Esdras 4:26 : “Many have gone out of their wits for women, and have become slaves on account of them; many have perished and erred and sinned by reason of women.” (Comp. Proverbs 7:26.) Eastern legends constantly show how women have deceived even prophets. But there was no reason why the sacred historian should linger over the details of scenes so unworthy. If Delilah spoke thus plainly at once, we can only imagine that she was professing to treat the whole matter as a jest. Josephus says: “When Samson was drinking, or at other moments, expressing admiration of his deeds, she kept scheming how to ascertain in what way he was so pre-eminent in valour.” An illustration may be found in 1 Esdras 4:29 : “I saw Apame taking the crown from the king’s head and setting it on her own head; she also struck the king with her left hand, and yet for all that the king gaped and gazed upon her with open mouth. If she laughed upon him, he laughed; if she took displeasure at him, he flattered her, that she may be reconciled to him.” The genius of a great poet has depicted such wiles in the idyll of Merlin and Vivi-enne, and it is only by supposing that such wiles were put forth in this instance that we can retain credit for even the most ordinary sense on the part of the Danite hero. But his fault was not stupidity—it was sensual infatuation; and in the ruin and shame which this sensual weakness brought upon him, and the way in which, step by step, it led him to forfeit the great gift of God, lies the chief moral of the story. We find the same lesson in the legend of Hercules and Omphale; and even if this legend was not influenced by the story of Samson’s life, yet there is a general analogy between the character of the Greek and the Jewish hero. Samson was no Solomon, and yet the heart of even Solomon—
“. . . . though large,
Beguiled by fair idolatresses, fell.”
And Samson said unto her, If they bind me with seven green withs that were never dried, then shall I be weak, and be as another man.(7) Green withs.—The meaning of the words is uncertain. Probably the LXX. and the Vulg. are right in taking them to mean moist, i.e., fresh sinews (Psalm 11:2) (LAX., Neurais hugrais; Vulg., Nerviceis funibus necdum siccis et adhuc humentibus). Josephus says “vine shoots,” but fresh vine shoots would be ridiculously inadequate. The number seven is used as the sacred number implying perfectness; and it is one of the signs that even thus early Samson is playing about on the confines of his secret.
As another man.—Literally, as one man, i.e., as an ordinary man.
Now there were men lying in wait, abiding with her in the chamber. And she said unto him, The Philistines be upon thee, Samson. And he brake the withs, as a thread of tow is broken when it toucheth the fire. So his strength was not known.(9) Men lying in wait.—Literally, and the spy sat in the room for her, i.e., to help her. It is doubtful whether there was more than one spy, who could be easily concealed. It is implied that she bound Samson while he slept, as in Judges 16:19.
When it toucheth the fire.—Literally, when it smelleth the fire. (See Note on Judges 15:14.) So in Job 14:9 : “through the scent of water it will bud.” Of course the writer leaves us to infer that the spy or spies did not appear, seeing that the plan had failed.
And Delilah said unto Samson, Behold, thou hast mocked me, and told me lies: now tell me, I pray thee, wherewith thou mightest be bound.(10) Now tell me, I pray thee.—Delilah would, of course, tell Samson that the scene had been merely playful jest, and that she had said “Philistines upon thee, Samson!” only to be delighted with one fresh exhibition of his great strength, if he really had not revealed the secret. She would represent her desire to know as due only to loving curiosity.
And he said unto her, If they bind me fast with new ropes that never were occupied, then shall I be weak, and be as another man.(11) New ropes.—As in Judges 15:13.
That never were occupied.—“Occupied” is an old word for “used.” (See Exodus 38:24, “All the gold that was occupied for the work;” Luke 19:13; Hebrews 13:9; “Like a new bright silver dish never occupied “—Ascham, Schoolmaster.) Here, again, Samson distantly touches on the consecration which is the secret of his strength.
And Delilah said unto Samson, Hitherto thou hast mocked me, and told me lies: tell me wherewith thou mightest be bound. And he said unto her, If thou weavest the seven locks of my head with the web.(13) If thou weavest the seven locks of my head with the web.—The illustrious and “sunny locks of the Nazarite” did not, as Milton imagines, “lie waving and curling about his god-like shoulders,” but were plaited into seven locks. The word for “locks”—machelephoth—occurs here only. The LXX. render it “curls” (bostruchous) and seiras, which appears to mean “plaits,” like the Greek plokamous. The word for “web” is a technical word, and perhaps means warp. The LXX. and the Vulg. add, “and drive them with the peg into the wall,” which is implied in the next verse. With almost incredible levity and folly, Samson here goes to the very verge of the true secret, and suffers his sacred hair to be woven in a harlot’s loom. (Tertio de mysterio deprompsit jam lapsuro propior. St. Ambrose.)
And she fastened it with the pin, and said unto him, The Philistines be upon thee, Samson. And he awaked out of his sleep, and went away with the pin of the beam, and with the web.(14) She fastened it with the pin.—Unless the additions of the Vulg. and the LXX. to the last verse were in the original text, she had not been told by Samson to do this, but did it to make assurance doubly sure. The versions add that she drove the pin “into the wall” (LXX.) or “into the ground” (Vulg.).
Went away with.—Rather, tore up, as in Judges 16:3.
With the pin of the beam, and with the web.—The words are technical, but the “pin” or “plug” seems to be the wooden peg with which the web was fastened down; and the “beam” was certainly not the “weaver’s beam” of 1Samuel 17:7, but apparently “the comb.” The loom was doubtless one of a simple kind in ordinary domestic use (like that described in Livingstone’s Travels), and Samson, startled from sleep, tore away his locks with the plug which fastened them down and the warp into which they were woven.
And she said unto him, How canst thou say, I love thee, when thine heart is not with me? thou hast mocked me these three times, and hast not told me wherein thy great strength lieth.(15) How canst thou say, I love thee . . .?—Samson had undergone all these wiles before, and experienced their hollowness (Judges 14:16), yet he had not learnt wisdom.
And it came to pass, when she pressed him daily with her words, and urged him, so that his soul was vexed unto death;(16) His soul was vexed.—He at last reveals the secret, because he is wearied—literally, his soul is shortened—to death. (Comp. Numbers 21:4-5.) Even the dangerous use which Delilah had made of his last revelation did not rouse his mind from its besotted stupefaction.
“Swollen with pride, into the snare I fell
Of fair fallacious looks, venereal trains,
Softened with pleasure and voluptuous life,
At length to lay my head and hallowed pledge
Of all my strength in the lascivious lap
Of a deceitful concubine.”—Milton, Sams. Agon.
If he thrice proved his vast strength, he also thrice proved his immense folly. To use his strength in the mere saving of his own life was to squander it, and now, “as if possessed by insanity, he madly trifles with the key of his secret. He risks even the tampering with his hair. From this there is but one step to the final catastrophe” (Ewald).
And when Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart, she sent and called for the lords of the Philistines, saying, Come up this once, for he hath shewed me all his heart. Then the lords of the Philistines came up unto her, and brought money in their hand.(18) Saw that he had told her all his heart.—She could not mistake the accent of truthfulness, nor was Samson so far gone as to be able to reveal the great secret without some sense of awe and shame.
Money.—Rather, the silver (Judges 16:5).
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.(19) Made him sleep upon her knees.—As his locks could hardly be shaved off without awaking him from any ordinary sleep, the expression looks as if she had administered some “drowsy syrup,” like mandragora.
She called for a man.—Probably the concealed spy (Judges 16:9). “Laying down his head amongst the strumpet flatteries . . . while he sleeps and thinks no harm, they, wickedly shaving off all those bright and weighty tresses . . . which were his ornament and his strength, deliver him over . . .” (Milton, Reason of Church Government). Whether the pagan legends of the lock of Nisus or Pterolaus were distant echoes of this incident we cannot say. But the hair of Samson was no magical amulet. It was only a sign of dedication to God. While he kept his vow the strength remained; it only departed when the vow was shamefully broken.
And she said, The Philistines be upon thee, Samson. And he awoke out of his sleep, and said, I will go out as at other times before, and shake myself. And he wist not that the LORD was departed from him.(20) And he wist not that the Lord was departed from him.—A deeply tragic clause. Men do not know how much they are changed “when the Lord departs from them” until they feel the effects of that departure in utter shame and weakness. (Comp. Numbers 14:43; 1Samuel 16:14.) Samson was under a vow, but was, alas! too weak to resist the current which ran counter to his vow, particularly when he had come to rely on the mere external sign of it. For his strength was in no sense in his hair, but only in the dedication to God of which it was the symbol.
But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house.(21) Put out his eyes.—the margin, “bored out,” is more correct. The Arabic version has the curious gloss that they burnt out his eyes with the red-hot style with which stibium (see Job 42:14) is applied to the eyes. To blind a man was the most effectual humiliation (2Kings 25:7). The story of Evenius, a priest of the sun-god, who is blinded by the people of Apollonia, who thereby incur the anger of the gods, seems to move in a similar circle of ideas to this.
Fetters of brass.—Literally, two brasses—i.e., pairs of brazen fetters (nechushtarim).
He did grind in the prison house.—This was the degrading work of slaves and females (Exodus 11:5; Isaiah 47:2). Grotius in a curious note says that slaves thus employed were blinded by the Scythians to save them from giddiness (see Herod. iv. 2). The end of Samson was mournful; “his whole powerful life was only like a light, blazing up brightly at moments, and shining afar, but often dimmed, and utterly extinguished before its time” (Ewald).
Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand.(23) Unto Dagon their god.—Comp. 1Samuel 5:1-2; 1Chronicles 10:10. This was the
“ Sea-monster:—upward man,
And downward fish.”
In 1Samuel 5:4 we have an allusion to his stump or fish-part. Dag means “fish,” and the same root is found in Tagus. A goddess of similar form and attributes was worshipped under the name of Atargatis or Derceto (2 Maccabees 12:26). How widely the worship was spread we see from the commonness of the name Beth-dagon in the Shephelah (Joshua 15:41). His chief temple at Azotus was burned by Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 10:83). The only other Philistine god mentioned in Scripture is Baal-zebub, god of Ekron (2Kings 1:2-16).
And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars.(25) When their hearts were merry.—Comp. Judges 9:27; 1Samuel 25:36; Esther 1:10.
That he may make us sport.—Whether by his forced jests, or by feats of strength, or merely by being made to submit to insults, we cannot tell. Josephus says that they sent for Samson “that they might insult him over their wine.”
He made them sport.—The LXX says (Cod. B), “And he played before them, and they beat him with rods.”
And Samson said unto the lad that held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them.(26) That I may feel the pillars.—The temple of Dagon had a flat roof; but further than this we are unable to conjecture what was its architecture. An attempt to explain it is found in Stark’s Gaza, p. 332, seq.
Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport.(27) The house was full of men and women . . . upon the roof about three thousand men and women.—The words for “men and women” in the first clause are anashim and nashim, and in the second eesh and eeshsha. The more distinguished people were with the lords in the house itself; the common people were on the flat roof.
There were upon the roof.—The temple may have been like a Turkish kiosk, “a spacious hall, of which the roof rested in front upon four columns, two of them standing at the ends, and two close together in the centre. Under this hall the chief Philistines celebrated a sacrificial meal, whilst the people were assembled above upon the top of the roof, which was surrounded by a balustrade” (Faber, Archäol. d. Hebr., quoted by Keil). “His puissant locks,” as Milton says, “sternly shook thunder with ruin upon the heads of those his evil counsellors, but not without great affliction to himself.” In the life of Samson and the incidents of Judges 18 we find the chief illustrations of the character of his tribe as described in Jacob’s blessing Genesis 49:16-17). Hence, perhaps, he is called Bedan in 1Samuel 12:11, if we follow the improbable gloss of the Targum in making the word there mean a Danite.
And Samson called unto the LORD, and said, O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.(28) O Lord God . . . O God.—Three names of God—Adonai, Jehovah, Elohim.
That I may be at once avenged of the Philistines.—Again we see that Samson stood at a comparatively low level of spiritual enlightenment as well as of moral purity. One cannot help feeling that Milton has read into the hero’s character an austere grandeur which it did not possess. His Samson of the Samson Agonistes is rather Milton himself than the Jewish hero. That stern classic poem is the “thundering reverberation of a mighty spirit, struck by the plectrum of disappointment.”
For my two eyes.—The words rendered “at once” in the previous clause may be rendered “that I may avenge myself the revenge of one of my two eyes.” If so, there seems to be in the words a grim jest, as though no vengeance would suffice for the fearful loss of both his eyes (LXX., “one revenge for my two eyes”), “one last tremendous deed, one last fearful jest.” There is a curious parallel to this achievement of Samson in the story of Cleo-medes of Astypalæa, who in revenge for a fine pulls down a pillar, and crushes the boys in a school (Pausan. Perieg. Vi. 2, 3). Cassel tells us that on July 21st, 1864, many people were killed by the breaking of a granite pillar in the Church of the Transfiguration at St. Petersburg.
And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left.(29) And on which it was borne up.—Rather, as it is given in the margin, and he leaned himself upon them.
Then his brethren and all the house of his father came down, and took him, and brought him up, and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the buryingplace of Manoah his father. And he judged Israel twenty years.(31) His brethren and all the house of his father.—Probably Manoah and his wife were dead. The religious terror caused by the catastrophe may well have prevented the people of Gaza from offering any opposition to the removal of his body.
“Samson hath quit himself
Like Samson, and heroically has finished
A life heroic.”—Milton.