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SAMSON’S DEATH ACCOUNT AND THE ANCIENT THEOLOGY OF TERRITORIAL DOMINIONJohn Roskoski, PhDSt. Peter’s CollegeOmega Bible Institute and SeminaryINTRODUCTIONThe scene is dramatically depicted in Judges 16:23-30 and etched in popularimagination ever since; the blind Samson, humiliated and beaten by his Philistine captors,standing between the pillars of the Temple of Dagon and, after uttering a savage prayerfor vengeance, pulling the pillars from their bases and collapsing the temple. Astriumphant and glorious as this depiction may be, there is a powerful underlying theologythat has been largely overlooked. Many Biblical interpreters have dismissed this accountas so much popular folklore and have cast, largely unfounded, doubt on the historical andtheological credibility of the scene of Samson between the pillars. Our purpose herein will be to give an overview of the historical evidence whichsupports Samson’s death account and, more importantly, to explore a powerfultheological dimension of the account. Regarding the former aspect of our purpose wewill argue that a close reading of the Hebrew and recent archaeological evidencecombines to verify and validate the scene presented in Judges 16:23-30. Regarding thelatter aspect, we will argue that the presentation of Samson’s death in the temple of thePhilistine god, Dagon, served as a polemic against the reigning polytheistic theology ofdivine authority and power, described as “territorial dominion”. Therefore, wehypothesize that the account of Samson’s death is not simply a piece of dramatic folklore,as some scholars would argue, but a reflection of an actual historical event and theconflicts which occurred between the new religion of YHWH and the establishedreligions of the Canaanite region.
SAMSON’S DEATH Judges 16:3-30 is the narrative of Samson’s downfall at the hands of Delilah,subsequent capture and blinding by the Philistines, imprisonment, and death in the templeof Dagon in Gaza. As we will discuss later, it must be noted that the Philistines were notan indigenous Canaanite people. The Philistines arrive in Canaan shortly after the well-documented invasion of the “sea peoples” in the early 12th century BC. It seems asthough Samson stood against the Philistines, possibly about a century later, in asignificant period of their ascendancy, possibly at the height of their power anddomination of Israel. The Structure of the TempleBefore modern archaeological excavations scholars had little evidence of theconstruction of Philistine religion and temples, building their hypotheses on hints in theOT such as accounts found in Judges 16. R. Macalister, in the Schweich Lectures of1911 typifies the scholarly argument: “The closing scene of Samson’s career took placein a temple of Dagon at Gaza, which must have been a large structure, as different aspossible from the native High Places of Palestine.”1Macalister, based on textual clues, argues that the Gaza temple was of the“megaron” type. This term refers to an architectural form consisting of an open porch or,more correctly, portico, which is a main hall whose roof is supported by columns. Thiswould allow Samson to rest on the pillars, in the shade, at a respectful distance from thePhilistine leaders. The shaded portico or porch, wherein the leaders sat to observeSamson, was “distyle” in that it was supported by two main pillars. Therefore, whenSamson dislodged the pillars from their bases the portico, main hall, of the temple wouldcollapse, followed by the rest of the structure being brought down.2This idea was commonplace in scholarly circles for the subsequent decades. However, this could not be verified as there is a modern city on the site of Biblical Gazaand, therefore the ancient city has never been excavated. However, as pointed out by B.Wood, there is a site “just north of Jaffa” called Tell Qasile. This site has been excavatedin the 1950’s and 1970’s. During the 1972 season archaeologists uncovered the firstPhilistine temple ever to be found. Dr. Wood describes the temple as follows:“The temple is built of sun-dried mudbricks laid on stone foundations andplastered over with a light brown plaster. Its walls, whose average width is aboutfour feet, have been preserved to a height of approximately two and one-half feet. 1 R.A.S. Macalister, The Philistines: Their History and Civilization (London: Oxford University Press,1914), 90.2 Macalister, 123-124. Megaron refers to a great hall, usually of a Mycenaean palace. It was rectangularand fronted by an open 2 –pillared porch or portico. It also had an open hearth, usually surrounded by 4pillars, and vestibule. This type of building was used for poetry, feasts, worship, sacrifice and formal royalfunctions. Distyle refers to a portico with two pillars, usually between the antae or pillars at the entrancewhich were attached to the walls of the temple. Macalister also suggests that the wooden pillars wereMycenaen, or Minoan, which were made from inverted Cypress trees. The columns were wider at the topand tapered at the bottom, a result of inverting the cypress trunk so to prevent sprouting once in place.These were common in the Mediterranean area. He makes this suggestion based on the scholarly argumentsregarding the origins of the Philistines; that they came from the Asia Minor area or were remnants of thesack of Knossos, therefore they would exhibit strong Grecian influences.
Consisting of two main parts, an antechamber and a main hall, the buildingmeasures 26 feet wide by 47 feet long. The antechamber is entered through awide opening taking up the entire width of its north wall. Stepped plasteredbenches line the walls and the floor is of beaten earth.An opening in the wall subdividing the building leads into the main hall,so that the visitor who entered the temple had to make a 90 degree turn in order toenter the main hall. This hall, with inside measurements of 18 ½ feet by 23 ½feet, is a room whose roof was originally supported by two wooden pillars set onround, well-made stone bases, placed along the center axis. Here too, steppedplastered benches were built against the walls.A narrow compartment, formed by a thin partition wall, is at the end of themain hall. A raised platform (bama, or altar) built against the partition projectsinto the hall. Built of mud-brick and plastered over, it is raised about three feetabove the floor. On the north, the altar meets the plastered benches; while on thesouth, two plastered steps lead up to it. The lower step was built around thewestern pillar and covered its stone base.The altar served as the focal point in the temple ritual. Its location, exactlyopposite the center of the entrance-way, appears to have been carefully chosen. Both the altar and the entrance-way lie on a line north of the central axis, so thatthe visitor had an unobstructed view of the altar from the entrance to the mainhall. At the same time, since the entrance to the building was placed at a right angle,people outside could not look into the main hall.”Wood goes on to say that we can “imagine the Philistine lords sitting around the benchesof the main hall of the temple of Dagon in Gaza, which must have been very similar tothe one at Tell Qasile . . . And, just as the Bible describes, the Philistine temple at TellQasile had two pillars which supported the roof.” Pulling down these two pillars wouldcause “the entire building to collapse.”3 The pillars would be within the reach ofSamson, a huge man according to most scholars, as they were situated approximately sixfeet apart. The Linguistic ArgumentThe Hebrew text seems to agree with the depiction presented by modernarchaeology. The first depiction of Samson’s final action is in Judges 16:26. Samsonasks the servant who was leading him to place where he may touch the two pillars whichsupport the temple so that he may “rest”, using the Hebrew term עש. This term denotes aleaning on something, or someone, for support. Interestingly, it only occurs in the Niphalform of the verb. It also has connotations of trust. Therefore, the depiction that is beginning to unfold is one of Samson standingbehind the two pillars. This depiction would mean that, as suggested by the excavations,Samson would not obstruct the view of the altar and not be in plain view of the visitorsand faithful attending the temple ritual. This strongly suggests that the people attendingthe temple, after Samson entertained them, would have to crowd into the main hall andantechamber to see the proceedings, probably some anticipated sacrifice to Dagon(16:27). The Philistines had viewed Samson’s capture and deliverance into their power as3 B. G. Wood, “Samson and the House of Dagon,” Bible and Spade 3, no 2 (Spring 1974): 50-54.
a sign of the might of Dagon (16: 23, 24).4 The onlookers would probably have pressedin further after Samson’s prayer for vengeance (16:28), thus allowing even more peopleto enter the overcrowded temple area, assuming more entertainment was to be derivedfrom Samson. The tired Samson, although blinded and outnumbered in the heart ofDagon’s temple, is now entreating his God for the power to make a final stand. As wewill discuss below, such a petition would be theologically absurd to the Philistines andthey would be curious to see what the God of the overpowered Hebrews can accomplish.5The text of Judges 16:29 reads; ולאמשב דחאו ונימיבהילעדחאהילעמסיויכנ תיבה רשא יתה ידימע ינש תא ושמש תפליו, “andSamson grasped the middle pillars which the house is built on and supported on; one withhis right hand and one with his left.” In agreement with the text of Judges 16:26, the textof 16:29 depicts Samson as placing his hands behind the pillars, not in between them –presumably to push outward as many people imagine. The next part of the descriptionfollows with the phrase, חכב טיו , “bent mightily.” The term “bent” derives from theHebrew, הטנ , and is a common word with connotations of bending under force or effort. Also, it has a connotation of causing something to yield. The second part of the phrase,deriving from an obscure root, is understood as meaning a capacity to act, an ability toproduce, or an expression of potency. Overall, it seems as though the basic intent is todenote physical power.6It is noteworthy that derivatives of the term “might” occur eight times in the bookof Judges, with seven occurrences in chapter 16 (vss 5, 6, 9, 15, 17, 30). While this termdenotes the ability to do something, often the “emphasis is on the lack of strength or theinsufficiency of human strength in comparison to God.” One must observe that the firstfive occurrences in chapter 16 deal with Delilah looking for the secret of Samson’sstrength in order to render Samson helpless, and the sixth occurs with the loss of hisstrength after she cut his hair. The final occurrence, between the pillars of the temple,comes immediately following Samson’s petition to the Lord for power. Herein Samsondoes not rely upon his natural strength, but that which would come from YHWH. Thisusage of the term seems to parallel that which is found in the Psalter. In the Psalter theterm occurs in “isolated individual laments with reference to dissipated human might that4 The verses 23-25 are presented out of sequence in most translations of the Bible. The details seem topresent a problem. However, we would suggest that the vss 23 and 24 should not be viewed ascontradictory but complementary. Verse 23 seems to indicate the speech of the lords of the Philistines,praising the national god, Dagon. This type of detail is consistent with Verse 25 and 26 ff, and probablyoriginated with the lad or young boy who was leading Samson. It is plausible to argue that he made goodhis escape, between the curiosity of the visitors and the panic which would ensue when the pillars began tomove it is unlikely that anyone would notice the young boy making his way out of the temple. Verse 24seems to be a summary of the proceedings and probably originated from the people who were outside ofthe temple, surviving the destruction, who could only relate cursory or general details of the activities.5 One has to remember that the Philistines, though weakened after their devastating battle with Egypt(c.1175 BC), was the dominant political and military force in the area of Canaan or Israel. They, at thispoint, are in an era of ascendancy and have already exerted control over Judah (Judges 15:11), the tribewhich abutted Philistia after the Danite Migration which had already begun (Judges 13:25). Although theyhad made inroads, it is doubtful if the Philistines had ever conquered the entire nation of Israel. However,it can certainly be argued that they were first power in the region with the national and organizationalresources to have been a threat to Israel’s existence. 6 J. Oswalt, “חחכ” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 1:436-437.
occasions the pious to pray for God’s assistance” (Pss 22:16,31; 31:11; 38:11; 71:9 and102:24).7The combination of these two terms indicates a powerful movement on the part ofSamson. Such a surge of power would be consistent with the extreme, almost violent,effort needed to dislodge the pillars from their bases as they were held in place by theweight of the temple. To initiate the movement of the pillars would be the most difficultpart and would require the greatest surge of power. Once the pillars were in motionSamson would have to continue dragging them off their bases. While this is still an act oftremendous power it is the easier part of the overall action.8Once the pillars were dislodged from their bases the temple “fell” upon thePhilistine lords and onlookers. The Hebrew term nāpal, לפנ, is usually rendered as “fall.” The use of this word was quite purposeful on the narrator’s part. Linguistically, “besidesthe common physical action or occurrence [of falling], a violent or accidentalcircumstance is often indicated . . . damage, death, or destruction are often designated.9Undoubtedly, Samson dislodging of the pillars was no accident. Therefore, this verbsummarizes both the violent surge of power exhibited by Samson and its resultantdestruction of the temple. Possibly, a better rendering of the verb would be “fall in/collapse”. Once Samson dragged the pillars off their bases, the roof would collapse uponthe Philistine lords and the crowds which had pressed into the temple hall. Once themain hall of the temple collapsed the entire structure, now rendered unstable from theloss of the supporting pillars and the sudden shifting of the crowds, would also collapse.10Therefore, the Hebrew narrative is perfectly consistent with the findings at Tell Qasile. A THEOLOGICAL DIMENSION OF SAMSON’S DEATHWhile the historical and narrative evidence depict a dramatic death scene in thetemple of Dagon, the theology which forms its backdrop is equally dramatic. Tounderstand the theological importance we must first understand the prayer which Samsonuttered between the pillars. Samson asks YHWH to remember and strengthen him one last time forvengeance, קנ, nāqām. Vengeance is the core of the prayer. According to E. Smick,“study of the use of this root reveals that there are comparatively few cases where man isconsidered a proper source of vengeance. Often man is a secondary cause while God is7 A. van der Woude, “power” Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997), 2: 610-611. This term is perfectly appropriate for the setting of Samson’s death between the pillars. InJudges 16:25, we see that Samson was made to entertain the Philistines. Since Samson was considered anational enemy (v. 23) we can assume that this was a rigorous ordeal for him. Judges 16:26 may suggestthis arduous ordeal as well, as we stated, he asked to placed between the pillars to “rest” against them. Atthis point, scholars are debating the issue of exactly to what activities Judges 16:25 refers. Regardless ofthe actual treatment, Samson was undoubtedly tired and drained from the ordeal and had to rely on YHWHfor the power to make this final stand.8 John Roskoski, “Between the Pillars: Revisiting ‘Sampson and the House of Dagon,” Bible and Spade18 #1 (Winter 2005): 17.9 M. Fisher, “לפנ” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 2: 587.10 The text reads that onlookers were on the actual roof of the temple, or the shaded portico in whichSamson was standing. The number of onlookers mentioned is highly questionable, but if a large number oftemple visitors were on the roof it would add to the instability of the temple, facilitating the collapse. Also,the added weight on the supporting pillars would cause an increase in the amount of force exerted bySamson to dislodge the pillars.
the source. This is normally the case where the Israelites avenge themselves on theirenemies. . . Most of the uses of nāqām involve God as the source of vengeance.”11G. Sauer states that “the concept of vengeance refers to the typical private penaltythat properly pertains to persons located outside one’s own jurisdiction and authority.” Also, Sauer points out that “successful and desired human vengeance always requiresdivine authorization or permission.”12 W. Pitard points out that one of the major aspectsof vengeance is “the rendering of a just punishment upon a wrongdoer or the recompensegiven to the victim of the wrongdoing.” In Samson’s case, the gouging out of his eyes(16: 21) would be the wrongful act which would deserve recompense. In the HebrewScripture the concept of vengeance is often presented in a positive light, according toPitard, “as a type of action appropriate (with certain limitations) to humans andparticularly to God.13 In most occurrences, “vengeance” is viewed as “the rectification ofsome misdeed.” Many times nqm “refers to the just punishment meted out to awrongdoer or to the damages or recompense awarded to the victim of the crime. This isnot to be seen as malicious or vindictive retaliation by the wronged person, but rather as ajust recompense for a crime.” In Samson’s prayer he is appealing to Divine vengeancefor what he feels was an unjust action within his exchange of aggressions with thePhilistines, the gouging out of his eyes. Human vengeance may or may not be seen asappropriate. However, Divine vengeance is always presented as appropriate. Accordingto Pitard, Divine vengeance is often “requested by a petitioner when [he] is afraid thatjustice may not be done on a human level. The exact form of the divine vengeance uponthe wicked is usually left quite vague.”14 Divine vengeance is often invoked upon“external enemies” who oppress Israel and should be understood as an appeal forjustice.15 Therefore, while Samson’s prayer reflects the common and, sometimes harsh,theology of vengeance in Israel the implications regarding the location – the temple ofDagon- is of theological significance. Canaanite Theology of Divine AuthorityAlthough Samson died in a Philistine temple, the influence of Canaanite culture,or syncretism, on the Philistines can not be overlooked. Several general observationsmust be made regarding the Canaanite religions. Generally, there existed a strongassociation between place, deity, and royalty. Deities were associated with places, suchas cities and, eventually, nations. The King, or city ruler, was seen as the official of the11E. Smick, “ קנ” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 2: 598.12 G. Sauer, “to avenge” Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997), 2: 768.13 One could make the alternative argument that Samson’s escalating series of actions with the Philistineswas an example of the Greek concept of “menis” or wrath, wherein the final event of the series is out ofproportion to the initial act of the series. In this case, the original act was the Philistines cheating on thewager at Samson’s wedding (Judges 14). Cf. R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (GrandRapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 685-686.14 Therefore we can see Samson’s prayer to YHWH as an appeal to the only agent powerful enough toexact any vengeance on the Philistines. The Israelites were not able to exact any vengeance as they weredominated by the politically and militarily superior Philistines. Significantly, Samson’s prayer for vengeance is by no means vague. He is praying for his invinciblestrength to make one last stand against his enemies. He is making not a general plea for vengeance, but heis asking for YHWH to grant vengeance now- in the heart of an enemy temple- and to be the instrument ofthis Divine vengeance.15 W. Pitard, “Vengeance”, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday: NY, 1992), vi:786-787.
deity’s cult. Temples functioned, quite literally, as the house of the deity. One of themore common religious tenets in the Ancient Near East was that the gods were at theirmost powerful in their local area or sanctuaries.16M. Grant explains that “in polytheistic Canaan, as in many other countries, eachlocality and settlement and craft and aspect had its own deities. They included minorgods, to whom ordinary men and women liked to attach themselves, as protectors of theirinterests. But there were also high gods, with universal aspects, although theiromnipotence and domination over humankind seemed diminished by the rival existenceof their fellow divinities.”17 Grant also describes the places of worship.“Characteristic Canaanite places of worship were what the Bible, speaking ofthem with horror, has accustomed us to describe as ‘high places’ (bamoth), notnecessarily hill-tops- they could even be in a valley – but artificial or naturalmounds or knolls or raised platforms standing above the levels of theirsurroundings.”18These “high places” were part of the “normative Canaanite worship during the Judgesand Monarchy periods, according to R. Wolfe.19 He continues, “the popular high placeswere devoted principally to local deities. . . this religion at the high places, throughout theJudges-Kings period, was for the most part a surviving stone-age worship of naturegods.”20 Overall, according to F.F. Hvidberg, it is well known that in Canaanite worshipcertain places were seen to have been where holy power was especially concentrated.21F. Greenspahn points to a custom, preserved on a Babylonian tablet, which hasthe king washing the mouth of a statue of a deity. Once this ritual was performed it wasbelieved that the deity took up residence in the dwelling. Greenspahn claims that “thisideology explains why ancient writers were so upset when these images were removedfrom their sanctuaries and saw their restoration as tantamount to the return of the godsthey represent.”22Identification of local gods could also be made with the people or worshippers ofthe deities. L. Boadt explains that “it was very common in the ancient world to identifythe local gods and goddesses of a people with the new gods of a conqueror or victor inwar. People simply transferred their loyalty and public allegiance to a new god but16 The story of Naaman’s leprosy, 2 Kings 5:1-19, illustrates the idea of a ruler being the official of thedeity’s cult and, moreover, it shows how the powers of deities were linked to the land in which they wereworshipped.17 M. Grant, The History of Ancient Israel (NY: Scribner’s, 1984), 21-22.18 Ibid., 26. We would suggest the possibility that the raised altar in the excavated Philistine temple, TellQasile, possibly originated as a Canaanite “high place”. This would lead to the likelihood that thePhilistines adopted a Canaanite temple or built their own around the existing the High Place. We wouldsuggest that the latter theory is more plausible due to the similarities in structure, as surmised byMacalister, to Grecian buildings. 19R. Wolfe, The Twelve Religions of the Bible (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982),120.20 Wolfe,140.21 F.F. Hvidberg, Weeping and Laughing in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1962), 80.22 F. Greenspahn, “Syncretism and Idolatry in the Bible”, Vetus Testamentum 54, no 4 (2004): 483. Thislinking between the statue and the god itself seems to be the background for the episode of the Ark in thetemple of Dagon (1 Samuel 5:1-5). It is important to note that the Philistine god is always referred to byname and never referred to as a statue or idol, even when alluding to his head and hands.
understood that really no change had taken place.”23 Hvidberg comments that “in generalthe gods of the conquered country mean an increase in power to the gods of the invadingpeople.”24 In other words, Hvidberg is arguing, the religion of the conquering peopleabsorbed aspects of the indigenous religion, thus expanding the attributes ascribed to thegods. Overall, as accepted by most scholars, some form of fusion or syncretism isinevitable between the religion of the conqueror and the religion of the conquered people. The Authority of the God of IsraelAlthough associated with the people of Israel, YHWH is presented in the Bible asdifferent from the polytheistic gods of the Canaanite region. R.K. Harrison, followingAlbright, argues that the God of the Patriarchs was not restricted to one particular localityand the God was not associated with a “specific locality”. This is in contrast with thegeneral Mesopotamian background of the Patriarchs.25 G. Fohrer sees the nucleus of thePatriarchal narratives as follows:“[They are] independent narratives embodying the territorial claims anddescribing the territorial occupation of several Israelite groups with charismaticfounders of tribes and based on promises made by the tribal God[s].”26He continues that, like the patriarchal narratives, the Moses traditions are about territorialclaims and occupation with a religious basis. This basis is the promise of the deity,YHWH. Fohrer argues that “the connection is made clear from the very outset by therelationship between the call of Moses . . . [and] by the goal given the Exodus through thepromise of territory.”27 The Moses/Conquest/Settlement traditions link “together faith inGod and the account of His dealings with men and nations in the past, present andfuture.”28 With the Judahite Monarchy, Fohrer sees an association between YHWH and alocation. Focusing on the book of Chronicles he states that the Chronicler’s purpose was“to show that, in contrast to the godless Northern Kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah, withthe Davidic Dynasty and the Jerusalem Temple, is the true Israel and the representative ofGod’s dominion, realized in the Kingdom of David.”29J. Goldstein supports this argument which depicts YHWH as being connected tothe nation of Israel. He states that “some ancient civilizations, notably the Babylonianand the Israelite, held fast to the belief that their particular God (or gods) was strongerthan all other heavenly powers and gods combined, supremely able to protect their well-being and success as a nation.”30 In his work, Peoples of an Almighty God, Goldsteindefines such a civilization as “one which believes that a god stronger than all otherpowers combined is ultimately committed to be their protector, though temporarily the23 L. Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (Mahwah: Paulist, 1984), 215. An example of thismight be the transformation undergone by the Greek pantheon when Rome took over the empire. Ofcourse, Boadt’s argument works only in polytheistic religions. Such transferring of allegiances would notbe sanctioned by the Yahwist cult. This would be a source of considerable conflict when the Philistines,who dominated the region of Canaan but adopted many Canaanite religious features, might try to forcetheir religion on the Israelites or adopt Israelite, or Yahwist, religious practices and attributes.24 Hvidberg, 87.25 Harrison, 397.26 G. Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament, trans. D. Green (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968), 124.27 Fohrer, 125.28 Ibid., 126.29 Ibid., 239.30 J. Goldstein, Peoples of an AlmightyGod (NY: Doubleday, 2002), abstract on dust jacket.
people may suffer adversity.”31 The Israelites, as depicted in the Hebrew Bible, saw theirGod as a “special Divine protector,” as stronger than all other cosmic or divine powerscombined. This type of belief is a form of monolatry, as monotheism is not required.32R.A. Rosenberg states that devotees of Marduk and YHWH “taught that whiletheir respective gods were supreme, and incorporated within their persons all of the otherdivinities, this supremacy and the type of veneration that it called forth applied only tothe particular territorial domain of the deity.”33 He continues to argue that in earlyperiods of Israelite history, the refusal of YHWH to allow homage to other gods wasbased on his mastery of his “territory” and He was jealous of His prerogatives. Onlyunder the neo-Assyrian universalistic theologies was YHWH seen as having His territoryexpanded to the whole world, but the concept of “jealousy” was retained.34R. Wolfe makes the following explanation. “Although accompanied by these subsidiaries, YHWH was the chief deity uponwhom all Israelite religion eventually focused. Transported to the land of Canaanin the Ark of the Covenant, He soon came to be thought of as the God of Israeland the God of Palestine. The reforming Judges were considered appointed byYHWH. Since the ensuing Monarchy was construed as a Theocracy underYHWH’s guidance and inspiration, the king was revered as ‘YHWH’sanointed’.35Under Solomon the territorial focus became the Jerusalem Temple. Under the auspicesof Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, “Jerusalem now became the center for all[Yahwist] worship.” From Solomon’s prayer “came the doctrine of praying towardGod’s holy Temple with respect to what was done there . . . even any foreigner whowished to worship YHWH would have his prayer answered if he prayed toward YHWHin His Temple in Jerusalem.”36YHWH and the Philistine god, DagonThe dramatic scene between the pillars of the temple of Dagon in which Samsoninvokes Divine vengeance can be understood as a territorial power struggle betweenYHWH and Dagon. However, it must be observed that Dagon was not a god brought toCanaan by the Philistines. J. Day points out that according to Ugaritic texts Dagon wasdepicted as the father of Baal. There seems to have been a strong cult of Dagon in theCanaanite region as Biblical records show that the name Beth-Dagon occurs twice in theOT; Joshua 15:41 and 19:27. Day suggests that Dagon was adopted by the Philistineswhen they settled on the coast of Canaan. Based on the account of Samson’s death atwhat appears to have been a sacrifice to Dagon in the temple in Gaza (Judges 16:23), thetemple at Ashdod (1Samuel 5:1-2), and the temple at Beth-Shan (1 Samuel 31:10, 31 Ibid., 3.32 Ibid., 4. Monolatry is the recognition of the existence of many gods, but with the consistent worship ofonly one deity. This deity is alone worthy of worship. However, henotheism is the worship of one god, butseeing other gods as possibly worthy of praise. According to Judges 2:10-19, Israel often fell intohenotheism, worshipping the local Canaanite gods.33 R.A. Rosenberg, “Yahweh Becomes King,” Journal of Biblical Studies 85, no 3 (1966): 301.34 Ibid., 302.35 Wolfe, 142.36J. Kelso, Archaeology and the Ancient Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), 133-134.
1 Chronicles 10:10) Day argues that Dagon is portrayed as a chief god among thePhilistines.37 The term “baal” seems to have functioned as an epithet, meaning “lord” or“master”, and the local baals were manifestations of the cosmic deity, Hadad or Baal. This accounts for the OT recording many place-names with the term “baal” and that thesemanifestations were connected with particular geographical locations.38E. Hindson argues for the significance of the Semitic names of the Philistines’gods.“Since their deities (Dagon, Ashtoreth, and Baal-zebub) have Semitic names it ismost obvious that the Philistines assumed much of the Canaanite religiousconcepts when they arrived in Palestine, [however] they probably brought astrong religious heritage with them and accommodated some of the Semiticnames, terminology and practices, so as to be acceptable with the Canaanitepeoples.”39This concern for proper worship seems to be embedded in the Philistines’ respect for theterritorial authority of the Canaanite gods and their own religious beliefs. As Hindsonstates, the Philistines were “deeply imbued with superstition, for they carried their idolswith them on their battle campaigns (2 Samuel 5:21). These small, portable images werecarried as good luck amulets [as] these warrior-minded peoples were very concernedabout the gods’ favor upon them in battle.”40Part of the religious heritage which the Philistines brought with them was the ideaof cosmic authority of deities. According to Hindson, the Philistines recognized the“extra-territorial” jurisdiction of their deities and others also.“For example, they feared the power of YHWH in the incident involving the Arkat Ashdod and sent presents to him as the Ark was returned to the Israelites. Thisaction indicates that the polytheistic Philistines believed YHWH to be real and tohave power even in their territory, whereas the Canaanites believed that a god hadpower only within his own confined locale.”41In the god, Dagon, we see this blending, or syncretism, between Canaanite and Philistinesreligions clearly. Originally, Dagon was a Canaanite deity, to be identified with theAkkadian Dagan. According to Montalbano, this deity was well known as early as theOld Akkadian Period (2360-2180 BC) and was associated with the upper Euphratesregion.42 According to Day, the earliest known sources connect Dagon with being a37 J. Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (Sheffield: Academic Press, 2000), 85-86. Itmight be suggested that the impaling of Saul’s body on the Beth-Shan temple might indicate theimportance of this temple, possibly due to the Gaza temple being destroyed by Samson, or a display ofpower of Dagon over the representative of the cult of YHWH, King Saul, if not YHWH Himself.38 Day, 68-69. “Baal” or “lord” seems to have been the title of this deity, who was often simply referred toas Baal. In other words, Hadad and Baal are often considered one and the same. Therefore, Dagon shouldbe recognized as the father of Hadad as well, even though Dagon is more frequently given the paternalconnection with “Baal.”39 E. Hindson, The Philistines and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1971), 25.40 Ibid., 31. It seems likely that this belief was the background for their bribing Delilah to find the secret ofSamson’s strength. The Philistines seemed to have thought that it was some sort of charm or amulet,which could be stolen, which gave Samson his invincible power. 41 Hindson, 32. The incident of the Ark is found in 1 Samuel 5-6.42 F.J. Montalbano, “Canaanite Dagon: Origin, Nature,”Catholic Biblical Quarterly 13, no 4 (1951):393. He makes this association because the Akkadian presents the Canaanite “o” as an original “a” or “u”. Therefore, Dagan was the original name of this deity.
storm god, therefore a fertility god. Eventually, the name became associated with “corn”or “grain”. This is a result of the storm and fertility background, as the storm is from“whence the corn would derive.” We find this association with corn or grain in theUgaritic Keret epic. The Hebrew, dāgān, “a word reflecting the original pronunciation ofthe divine name as Dagan”, means “corn” or “grain.”43 Montalbano states that “amongthe Canaanites, Dagon was worshipped as a grain god and as such was well-suited to theconditions of the land of Canaan, and to the mentality of its inhabitants, who renderedhomage to the soil and its productive forces.”44With the Philistines’ respect for the territorial dominion of the gods, they wouldreadily adopt the cult of Dagon. Day claims that “the Philistine plain where Dagon wasespecially worshipped in Palestine was a particularly corn-rich area.” However, “themeaning ‘grain’ or ‘corn’ was derivative from the name of the god rather than viceversa.”45 The importance of grain to the Philistines can be seen in Samson’s action ofburning the crops of the Philistines (Judges 15:5). This incident, in the eyes of thePhilistines, changed Samson’s status from a brawling troublemaker to a national enemyand an enemy of Dagon.46 Therefore, given the importance of grain to the Philistines andtheir idea of cosmic authority of deities, it is understandable that Dagon was seen as thehead of the Philistine pantheon and had universal aspects attributed to him.47 Therefore,the struggle portrayed in the account of Samson’s death was between Dagon, anestablished idol in the region and universalized by the Philistines, and YHWH, the Godof the Israelites who promised this land to His people.THE THEOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF SAMSON’S DEATHSamson’s death, along with the destruction of the temple and its visitors, has atheological significance and trajectory which moves beyond the collapsed walls in Gaza. On a basic, popular, level his dramatic death scene gave renewed faith and hope to theIsraelites, whose national spirit was waning under the yoke of Philistine oppression. ThePhilistines were enjoying an ascendancy of power and the Israelites had resignedthemselves to their domination (Judges 15: 11). Samson’s triumphant final stand againstthe Philistines showed the Israelites that even in the direst of circumstances and againstoverwhelming forces YHWH will still remember and deliver His people.Historically, Samson’s death, as does his life and exploits against the Philistines,point to the Davidic Kingship. Samson was to “begin the deliverance of Israel from thehand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). This type of commission was unique among theJudges, as the other major, or delivering, Judges brought about complete victories ordeliverance from Israel’s oppressors.48 Samson’s work of deliverance was completed43 Day, 87.44 Montalbano, 397.45 Day 87-88.46 This status is probably the reason for the terminology of the victory songs in Judges 16:23 and 24,wherein the delivering of Samson is attributed to Dagon and Samson is referred to as the ravager of theland. 47 Macalister, 99.48 One must note that the Philistines were a threat to the existence of Israel. They introduced iron weaponryto the area and were politically and militarily superior to the Israelites. The conquering peoples which weredefeated by the other Judges, though powerful, did not pose such a danger to the Israelites.
when Philistine power was broken by David (2 Samuel 5). Therefore the threateningpresence of the Philistines provided the historical link between Samson and David.Judges 14-15 narrates the escalating series of hostile exchanges which took placebetween Samson and the Philistines. Within these chapters, Samson is presented as aCharismatic Leader, wherein we read that the YHWH Spirit rushed mightily uponSamson.49 This foreshadows the charismatic kingship of Saul and David. By virtue ofthe Spirit these men rose to leadership positions in Israel. Moreover, the Hebrewconstruction of the phrase, “and rushed mightily” (חלצתו) is unique to the Samson, Saul,and David traditions. Therefore, Samson’s charisma provides a significant political andtheological link to the Kingship of Israel.Samson’s death, in which the reigning Philistine lords perish, fulfills his missionand would go far in weakening the Philistine political and military organization. Samson’s final act slowed, or halted the Philistine ascendancy. This allowed thevictories of Samuel (1 Samuel 7) and Saul (1 Samuel 14) over the Philistines. Moreover,the victorious death of Samson allowed for the significant achievements of the Saulidekingship. According to J.L. McKenzie, Saul “created an Israel solid enough to survive inE Palestine even after a shattering defeat (1 Samuel 31). He built up an armed force withsome pride and experience of success. It was due to Saul more than to any one else thatthere was an Israel whose elders could invite David to be their king (2 S 5:1); themonarchy of David arose from the monarchy of Saul.”50 If the Philistines were allowed tokeep gathering power it is difficult to imagine that Saul would have been able to achievethe benchmarks of which McKenzie writes. Therefore, Samson’s death built thefoundation for the Monarchy of Israel.Theologically, Samson’s final stand against the Philistines and death in the templeof Dagon went far in making the name of YHWH known among the nations. Samson’sdeath also portrayed the universal power of YHWH the God of Israel. Dagon was thehead of the Philistine pantheon, the father of Baal and, therefore, the local manifestationsof Baal. Dagon was seen as a universal god, presumably, as a result of the religiousheritage brought by the Philistines. As Macalister argues, as substantiated byarchaeology, the Gaza temple was very different from the “high places” whichcharacterized Canaanite worship. The festival was probably a fixed occasion on thereligious calendar and not only a celebration of Samson’s capture. If it was just acelebratory event there would not have been any duration of time elapsing in whichSamson’s hair could have noticeably grown. Macalister points out that this was asacrifice to Dagon, as we read in Judges 16:23, and suggests that Samson was to be ahuman sacrifice.51 Perhaps this was a remnant of Dagon originally being worshipped as afertility god. Therefore, this was a struggle between universal and almighty deities and49 A Charismatic Leader is generally defined as a person who experiences the Spirit of the Lord comingupon him. Cf Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 14:6, 19; 15:14. Among the Judges it was a transitory force whichimpelled one to rise up and lead Israel against her enemies. Saul’s charisma, though not quite the samewith the term “Spirit of God”, seems to have been temporary as well, 1 Samuel 10:6, 10,11:6, with itsdeparture narrated in 16:14. However, David’s charisma was permanent, 1 Samuel 16:13. 50 J.L. McKenzie, “Saul,” Dictionary of the Bible (Chicago: Bruce, 1966), 777.51 Macalister, 90-91.
YHWH, through the power of Samson, would display his universal authority and powerby destroying the temple of Dagon.52Furthermore, Samson’s death between the pillars of the temple shatters theconcept of “territorial dominion.” Territorial dominion can best be described as theauthority and power of a deity being connected to and limited to the area in which it isworshipped. While the Philistines attributed universal aspects to Dagon, the Canaanitesstill worshipped the local manifestations of Baal and believed that the power of theselocal baals were concentrated in the places of worship. According to this concept, thepower of Dagon should have been at its height between the pillars of the temple andbefore the altar of Dagon; precisely the location of the Divine vengeance worked throughthe blind Samson. To phrase it another way: YHWH promised land to his people, theIsraelites; YHWH has now defeated, through Samson’s self-sacrifice, the chief god of theconquering Philistines pantheon; YHWH has revealed His power in the temple ofPhilistine god in Gaza of Philistia, showing that His power transcends nationalboundaries.The established transcending power of YHWH weakened the influence of theCanaanite “high places”. Injunctions were made against these high places (Numbers33:52). Actions were taken against the altars and places of worship (Judges 6:25-32).However, as is generally agreed upon by scholars, the early Israelites would adoptCanaanite high places for their own worship, replacing the local Baal with YHWH, thuspreserving the pagan rites. Samson’s destruction of the Gaza temple illustrated that thepower of YHWH was not concentrated only at these adopted high places. The power ofYHWH was not restricted or limited neither to an area of land nor only to people whoworshipped Him. Therefore, this action helped to usher in the movement away from suchpagan worship toward a more centralized faith, attributing to YHWH universal authority. This movement culminated in the Davidic-Solomonic period when Jerusalem, and theTemple, was established as the political and religious center of Israel and the Yahwistreligion.53CONCLUSIONThe account of Samson’s death in Judges 16 should not be regarded as the stuff offolk tales or legend. Rather the narrative of his death should be seen as a reflection ofactual historical and theological circumstances which existed in pre-Monarchic Israel. Historical disciplines, such as archaeology and linguistics, have gone far in supportingthe details found in the Biblical account. While the size of the temple which Samsoncollapsed has grown over the centuries in popular imagination, there is little reason todoubt that the account in Judges is credible and reflects an actual historical event.The prayer uttered by Samson between the pillars reflects the perspective of thepeople of the Ancient Near in this time period. The prayer has a main theme of a singularact of vengeance, which Samson presents to YHWH as a just recompense for the gougingout of his two eyes. The phrasing of the prayer reflects urgency; Samson uses the three52 This action was the prelude to the incident of the Ark in the Ashdod temple, wherein the power ofYHWH collided with the Dagon idol directly (1 Samuel 5).53 As the Kingship weakened and became more corrupt we see a regression to the earlier forms of paganworship, typified in the episode in which Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18).
appellations of the God of Israel- YHWH (the Divine Name), Adonai (Lord), and Elohim(God). He also prays for YHWH to remember and strengthen him “now”. The urgencyis most likely the result of his knowledge that his sacrifice to Dagon was moments away. He prays to YHWH for Divine vengeance, and to be the instrument of this vengeance, ashe knows that Israel is not powerful to exact recompense from the Philistines. Therefore,this was an elemental, if not savage, prayer for justice which was perfectly consistentwith the prevailing attitudes of the historical period.While the call for just vengeance reflects the historical perspective of thecontemporary peoples, it also points to the theological significance of his action. Samsonstood alone, with only his faith YHWH, between the pillars of Dagon. Gone was thenaziritic consecration.54 There is no hint of any onrush of the YHWH Spirit. Yet, hecalls upon his God to enter the heart of an enemy temple where, by the theologies of theCanaanite region, the pagan deity should be at its most powerful and exact this singularvengeance. The temple being brought to ruin eclipses the universal attributes of Dagonand shatters the concept of territorial dominion. It demonstrates that YHWH is a Godwho associates Himself with people of faith and whose power is not linked or limited togeographic areas. Therefore, with the collapse of the temple of Dagon YHWH begins toestablish Himself as an almighty God with a universal domain.54 Even though the text mentions that his hair had begun to grow back (16:22), it is unclear if the hair whichgrew back reinstated his consecration. This reference in the text seems to be a literary device, used by thestoryteller to foreshadow the triumph which will come. Also, it seems to be a remnant of the idea,prevalent in the Ancient Near East, that a man’s vigor, vitality, and power were commensurate with thelength of his hair.
REFERENCESBoadt, L. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. Mahwah: Paulist, 1984.Day, J. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. JSOT supplement series 265Sheffield: Academic Press, 2000.Fohrer, G. Introduction to the Old Testament. Trans. D. Green Nashville: Abingdon, 1968.Freedman, D.N., ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. NY: Doubleday, 1992.Goldstein, J. Peoples of an Almighty God. NY: Doubleday, 2002.Grant, M. The History of Ancient Israel. NY: Scribner’s, 1984.Greenspahn, F. “Syncretism and Idolatry in the Bible,” Vetus Testamentum 54, no 4 (2004): 480-494.Harris, R.L., ed. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody, 1980.Harrison, R.K. Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.Hindson, E. The Philistines and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1971.Hvidberg, F.F. Weeping and Laughter in the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill, 1962.Jenni, E. and Westermann, C., ed. Theological Lexicon of the Old TestamentPeabody: Hendrickson, 1997.Kelso, J. Archaeology and the Ancient Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968.Macalister, R.A.S. The Philistines: Their History and Civilization (The Scweich Lectures, 1911) London: Oxford, 1914.McKenzie, J.L. Dictionary of the Bible. Chicago: Bruce, 1966.Montalbano, F.J. “Canaanite Dagon: Origin, Nature,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly13, no 4 (1951): 381-397.Rosenberg, R.A. “Yahweh Becomes King,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85, no 3 (1966): 297-307.Roskoski, J. “Between the Pillars: Revisting Sampson and the House of Dagon,”Bible and Spade 18, no1 (Winter 05): 14-18.
Wolfe, R. The Twelve Religions of the Bible. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982.Wood, B.G. “Samson and the House of Dagon,” Bible and Spade 3, no 2 (Spring 1974): 50-54.