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More to the Eye than Meets the Eye

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A Protest against Empire in Samson’s Death?

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The patriarchal authority is undermined from the beginning of Samson’s story when Manoah is depicted as playing no role in Samson’s birth. The erosion of patriarchal authority is augmented by an assault on male identity when Samson is forced to play the role of a woman, or rather to become one. Samson’s story thus far may reflect anxiety and fear among men who have lost their male identity and authority in the exile. But the story takes an intriguing and unexpected turn when it questions whether it is fair for the Philistines to gauge both of Samson’s eyes. Perhaps the Philistines meted out more than what Samson deserves. If so, how do we account for the extra suffering he endured? The unnecessary violence to Samson’s other eye attests to the empire’s cruelty and abuse. In Samson’s death, the victims have their say. The people acknowledge their sins but also protest against the collective violence of empire. 


1. FN11See T.C. Römer, The So-called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical, and Literary Introduction (London: T&T Clark, 2007), for an elaboration of this strategy. 

2. FN22R.A. Horsley (ed.), In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008); and M.G. Brett, Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008).

3. FN33V.H. Matthews names “Samson as a symbol of the nation” as one of the central themes in the scholarship on the Samson narrative (Judges & Ruth [Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2004], p. 133).

4. FN44After noting that Gideon and Samson are the only figures in Judges who are buried, each in his father’s tomb, R.G. Boling argues that Joash (Gideon’s father) and Manoah (Samson’s father) are the heads of their own splinter groups (Judges [AB; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1975], p. 164). Moreover, Manoah “is represented as a one-man assembly conducting his own cultus wherever it was that he lived” (Boling, Judges, p. 223). This is to say that it is more than merely a literary convenience to label Manoah a patriarch. 

5. FN55J.C. McCann, Judges (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), pp. 96-97.

6. FN66Boling, Judges, p. 224.

7. FN77M.Z. Brettler, The Book of Judges (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 45.

8. FN88R.B. Chisholm Jr., “Identity Crisis: Assessing Samson’s Birth and Career,” BSac 166 (2009), pp. 147-62.

9. FN99Chisholm, “Identity Crisis,” p. 150.

10. FN1010L.R. Martin, “Power to Save!? The role of the Spirit of the Lord in the Book of Judges,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 16 (2008), pp. 21-50.

11. FN1111Martin, “Power to Save,” p. 43.

12. FN1212R.G. Bowman, “Human Purpose in Conflict with Divine Presence,” in G.A. Yee (ed.), Judges & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2nd edn, 2007), pp. 19-45. 

13. FN1313L. Rowlett, “Violent Femmes and S/M: Queering Samson and Delilah,” in K. Stone (ed.), Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2001), pp. 106-115. 

14. FN1414Rowlett, “Violent Femmes,” p. 112.

15. FN1515Quoted in Rowlett, “Violent Femmes,” p. 111.

16. FN1616Rowlett, “Violent Femmes,” p. 111. 

17. FN1717In contrast, the Philistine father still has some patriarchal authority to deal with his daughter as he sees fit. He gives Samson’s bride to another man and offers his younger daughter to Samson in her stead (15:1-2). 14:10 is problematic because it doesn’t make sense that Manoah, rather than Samson, goes down to see the woman. Although Manoah could have gone down to meet her in order to negotiate a marriage for Samson, it is improbable since the woman has her own father for such a negotiation. 

18. FN1818R. Ryan, Judges (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), p. 106. Ryan sees Samson as the initiator of conflict between the Philistines and Samson (Israel): “I argue that he seeks the company of Philistine women in order to enter their society in order to create conflict opportunities” (Judges, p. 127).

19. FN1919K. Stone, “Gender Criticism: The Un-Manning of Abimelech,” in G.A. Yee (ed.), Judges & Method (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2nd edn, 2007), pp. 183-201; more on this point below.

20. FN2020This same verb is used in Judg. 7:6 to describe the kneeling of the soldiers who were disqualified from remaining in Gideon’s army.

21. FN2121LXX seems to presuppose היכרב ןיב (“between her knees”). J.M. Sasson suggests a “post-coital torpor” as in the Jael and Sisera episode (Judg. 5:27), which also uses the expression הילגר ןיב. (“Who Cut Samson’s Hair? (And Other Trifling Issues Raised by Judges 16),” Proof 8 [1988], pp. 333-46). Sasson continues, however, that the phrase היכרב לע in MT does not necessarily suggest a sexual connotation, as attested in 2 Kgs 4:20, which has the same phrase in a circumstance that is sexually innocent (p. 334). In other words, the meaning of היכרב לע is ambiguous. 

22. FN2222LXX has Delilah call a barber to cut Samson’s hair and the barber is the one who begins to “humble” Samson. I am, however, following MT. Sasson prefers MT over LXX or makes emendations. If we were to follow MT, then who is “the man” Delilah calls? Sasson thinks it is Samson: “Delilah, in sum, shouts at Samson; and reassured by how deeply he sleeps, she wields the razor” (“Who Cut Samson’s Hair?,” p. 338).

23. FN2323Rowlett, “Violent Femmes,” p. 106.

24. FN2424S. Niditch, Judges (The Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pp. 167-71.

25. FN2525S. Niditch, Judges (The Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 144.

26. FN2626S. Niditch, Judges (The Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 145.

27. FN2727S. Niditch, Judges (The Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 171.

28. FN2828J.C. Exum, “Feminist Criticism: Whose Interests Are Being Served?” in G.A. Yee (ed.), Judges & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2nd edn, 2007), pp. 65-89 (80).

29. FN2929Stone, “Gender Criticism,” p. 196.

30. FN3030Ibid.

31. FN3131Rowlett, “Violent Femmes,” p. 111.

32. FN3232Suggesting that Delilah quits the S/M game, Rowlett writes, “She disappears from the story altogether, leaving him in other hands, Divine as well as human. First the Philistines have their way with him, then Yahweh does” (“Violent Femmes,” p. 111). 

33. FN3333Niditch, Judges, p. 166. 

34. FN3434R.B. Salters, Lamentations (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2010), p. 339.

35. FN3535R.B. Salters, Lamentations (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2010), p. 360. See also, Karel van der Toorn, “Judges XVI 21 in the Light of Akkadian Sources,” VT 36 (1986), pp. 248-53.

36. FN3636Boling, Judges, p. 250.

37. FN3737Niditch, Judges, p. 171.

38. FN3838Niditch remarks that “the sexual nuances of ‘sporting’ (16:25) continue the theme of the feminization of the hero,” and notes that the term קחשׂ/צ may have sexual connotation (Judges, p. 171).

39. FN3939C. Halton, “Samson’s Last Laugh: The Ś/ŠḤQ Pun in Judges 16:25-27,” JBL 128 (2009), pp. 61-64.

40. FN4040C. Halton, “Samson’s Last Laugh: The Ś/ŠḤQ Pun in Judges 16:25-27,” JBL 128 (2009), p. 64.

41. FN4141C. Halton, “Samson’s Last Laugh: The Ś/ŠḤQ Pun in Judges 16:25-27,” JBL 128 (2009), p. 64.

42. FN4242C. Halton, “Samson’s Last Laugh: The Ś/ŠḤQ Pun in Judges 16:25-27,” JBL 128 (2009), p. 63.

43. FN4343G.J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (trans. D.E. Green; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1978), vol. 3, pp. 195-208.

44. FN4444Exum, “Feminist Criticism,” p. 82.

45. FN4545When the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead ask Nahash the Ammonite for a treaty, he agrees to make one on the condition that he would gouge out everyone’s right eye (1 Sam. 11:2). Nahash wants to humiliate them – “to put disgrace upon all Israel” (1 Sam. 11:2). Gouging eyes as a symbolic castration has already been mentioned above. 

46. FN4646Van der Toorn, “Judges XVI 21 in the Light of Akkadian Sources,” p. 249.

47. FN4747Van der Toorn, “Judges XVI 21 in the Light of Akkadian Sources,” p. 249.

48. FN4848Van der Toorn, “Judges XVI 21 in the Light of Akkadian Sources,” p. 252.

49. FN4949J. Neusner (ed.), The Jerusalem Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (trans. J. Neusner and T. Zahavy; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2009). CD-ROM.

50. FN5050Matthews, Judges & Ruth, p. 152.

51. FN5151Rowlett asks a troubling question: “If Yahweh has enormous divine powers, sufficient to establish his or her will globally many times over, then why does he or she allocate just enough of it to various heroes to keep the cycle of violence going?” She suggests, “Perhaps he or she derives pleasure from the game, or perhaps the sadistic pleasure belongs to his or her (literary) creator, the DH” (“Violent Femmes,” p. 116). 

52. FN5252A. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 149.

53. FN5353A. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 151.

54. FN5454D.M. Gunn, “Samson of Sorrows: An Isaianic Gloss on Judges 13-16,” in D.N. Fewell (ed.), Reading Between Texts: Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), pp. 225-53.

55. FN5555Gunn, “Samson of Sorrows,” p. 245 (Gunn’s translation).

56. FN5656Gunn, “Samson of Sorrows,” p. 247. Gunn juxtaposes Judg. 16:30 and Isa. 53:9-10.

57. FN5757Gunn, “Samson of Sorrows,” p. 246.

58. FN5858R. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (trans. J.G. Williams; Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), especially Chapter 9 (“The Uniqueness of the Bible,” pp. 103-120).

59. FN5959R. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (trans. J.G. Williams; Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), especially Chapter 9 (“The Uniqueness of the Bible,” p. 118).

60. FN6060R. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (trans. J.G. Williams; Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), especially Chapter 9 (“The Uniqueness of the Bible,” p. 108).

61. FN6161R. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (trans. J.G. Williams; Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), especially Chapter 9 (“The Uniqueness of the Bible,” p. 109).

62. FN6262Understanding Samson as “the wild man” rather than as the victim, G. Mobley comes to a conclusion similar to Girard’s (“The Wild Man in the Bible and the Ancient Near East,” JBL 116 [1997], pp. 217-33). Mobley compares Samson with the “wild man” tradition in the ancient Near East, showing that Samson had many characteristics of the “wild man,” including having long hair, exerting control over wild animals (foxes in Samson’s case), and abstaining from urban foods like wine and beer. But Mobley notes that the point of view of the Samson story is strange and different: “A very common folktale is one in which a devastating monster threatens the city, but a hero emerges to defeat the agent of chaos. But this story in Judges adopts the point of view of the monster, the wild man, who comes down from the highlands to threaten urban society in the lowlands. This subhuman Other is the hero … . This adoption of the wild man as Israel’s own hero is an inversion of the expected point of view, which pits ‘Us’ – settled, ordered, cultured – against ‘Them’ – the crude barbarians” (pp. 231-32).
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/content/journals/10.1163/15685152-0221p0001
2014-01-01
2015-08-29

Affiliations: 1: Hartford Seminary, USAukim@hartsem.edu

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