I noted a few weeks ago that Jephthah’s story reminded me of a pantheonic myth anthropomorphised as Israel moved toward monotheism. I got the same feeling from Samson, so imagine my surprise when I read the following in my study Bible notes:
The story that Samson was a Nazirite (ch. 13) seems to be a late attempt to make Samson respectable; none of his exploits show him as a religious enthusiast. The motif of the unshorn hair is probably derived from mythology rather than high religion. The name Samson is connected with the Hebrew word for “sun”; some scholars believe the stories originally go back to pre-Hebrew sources in which the hair represented the sun’s rays, i.e. its strength. (p.316)
So I thought I’d look at the Samson story again with that perspective in mind. What if Samson was originally some sort of sun god, or even perhaps a Herculean demi-god?
When Samson is first displeased with the Philistines, he burns down their crops. If he is some sort of sun god, it seems plausible that this would be a reference to a draught fire.
I don’t know why foxes would feature in that story, though. Foxes seem to be related to trickery in many cultures, but any narrative that gives that as the reason for their presence feels like far too much of a stretch. I did find that they were considered sacred to the Sumerian fertility goddess Ninhursag, which seems a little more likely.
I also found a reference to foxes in the Song of Solomon (Song 2:15). I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean or to refer to, except that the Song’s foxes, like Samson’s, come as destroyers of agriculture.
The other interesting detail is the presence of Dagon in Judges 16:23. It’s important to note for this thesis that Dagon was, as my study Bible puts it, “an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). It’s possible, then, that the original story featured some battle or disagreement between Samson and Dagon, since Dagon would have been worshipped in the area for long enough.
According to Claude Mariottini, “some scholars have identified Dagon as a “grain” god while others have identified him as a “fish” god.” So it’s a little ambiguous and, in an agricultural society where most mythologies will have something to do with grain, it might be a bit of a stretch, but what if Samson’s vulpine adventure was originally an attack on the grain god Dagon?
If we’re going to take this angle, a possible moral of the story would be that the sun and the grain must work together, and that society crumbles (much like Dagon’s temple with its 3,000 people) when they get into a tiff.
Hot Faith Injection
At some point, Samson (whether originally a god or just a regular folk hero) was brought into the monotheistic fold. As with most of Judges, Samson gets only a few edits to put him on Team YHWH, but otherwise seems largely left to his own devices.
To start with, there’s the Nazirite thing. There’s really very little in Samson’s story that suggests that he was a Nazirite, as they are described in Numbers 6. He isn’t shown drinking alcohol, but that’s the case for a great many of the characters we’ve seen so far. He’s also dedicated as a Nazirite from (pre-)birth, which contradicts the purpose of the vow outlined in Numbers.
Collins offers one possibility:
[I]t may be that the significance of the nazirite vow evolved over time. Originally, it may have pertained to the status of special warriors, related to their exceptional strength. Later it became a way of expressing a particular type of piety. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.113)
I think it more likely that the Nazirite references were written in, inspired by the hair motif, as a way of easily bringing Samson into the holy fold, so that he would make sense (to an extent) in the context of the editor’s worldview.
It’s notable that Delilah doesn’t seem know what a Nazirite is, or at least that Samson is one. Samson is able to fool her three times because she doesn’t know the rules of Samson’s super powers. This suggests, to me at least, that Samson’s story either pre-dates the Nazirite concept, or that it was originally completely unrelated to the Nazirites.
We see another hint of the editing when Samson is able to pull down Dagon’s temple. The editor tells us that the return of Samson’s strength is the answer to a prayer (Judges 16:28) while still preserving the original reason – his hair has grown back (Judges 16:22).
I think it’s also meaningful that Samson’s parents, way back in Judges 13, seem to alternate between knowing the identity of the god who predicts Samson’s birth and not knowing it – almost as if, perhaps, the story hadn’t originally included YHWH.
I should note, as with my discussion of Jephthah, that this is all pure conjecture. I have no idea how likely any of this might be.