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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 16
Shimshon and Delilah

Chapter 16 begins with Shimshon returning to the city of Gaza. It is unclear why Shimshon goes willingly to the city of his enemies. The text explains that he is going there to visit a harlot. However, this is a difficult concept, as a Judge of Israel should not be involved in such activities. Radak (medieval biblical commentator from France, 1160–1235), citing Targum Yonatan, writes that this was not a harlot but an innkeeper, as classical commentaries also explain in the case of Rachav (see Joshua 2:1). This is because זונה is connected to the word מזון, food. Classical commentaries provide a similar explanation in the case of Rachav (see Joshua 2:1). The Malbim (19th century commentator from eastern Europe) states that Shimshon actually went to Gaza on purpose to “pick a fight” (we learned a similar idea about his marriage, in Chapter 14).

 

The Gazans hear of his presence and gather by the gates to the city, planning to ambush him on his way out. However, Shimshon wakes in the middle of the night, lifts the gates and carries them on his shoulders. This enables him to leave unharmed. He walks with them all the way to Hebron, roughly 50 kilometres! According to Elitzur, in the modern Da’at Mikra commentary, he does this as a prank, to further infuriate the Gazans, especially as Mount Hebron was visible to them across the way. This is the only time in the stories of Shimshon that we see an act of bravado, simply for the sake of it and it robs Gaza of its last shred of reputation.

 

Shimshon then falls in love with a Philistine woman, called Delilah. This is the first time in the stories of Shimshon that a woman is named, indicating there must be significance to her name. One approach is that it comes from the Hebrew root “dal” – to weaken. Our Sages explain this means she weakened his strength, his actions and his heart (Talmud Sotah). This is the first woman in Shimshon’s life that he actually loved and this is why she is able to force him into revealing his secrets to her.

 

Philistine leaders approach her to make a business deal: if she finds out the secret of his strength, they will altogether pay her 5,500 silver shekels. This is a staggering amount of money. The large sum shows how desperate the Philistines are to catch their nemesis.

 

Verses 6-21, provide the details of the four times Delilah asks Shimshon to reveal his secret to her. It appears that all along Shimshon does not know the true motivation behind Delilah’s repeated questions, rather she asks in the manner of a woman who wants to know all about her beloved one. She tells him that it is normal for those in love to share all the secrets, especially as it shows a trust for one another.

Shimshon has no desire to tell her his deepest secret and responds to her almost as if it is a joke. For example, he tells her to tie him up with seven wet ropes and then he will be weakened. He repeatedly lies, until finally, she torments him so much that he reveals the truth behind his strength: his long hair.

 

Delilah then asks a barber to cut his hair during his sleep and Shimshon is captured and imprisoned by the Philistines. They gauge out his eyes, probably to humiliate and torture him, but also practically to prevent his ability to take revenge in case his strength does return. Tractate Sotah writes that he received this punishment because he sinned by following his eyes with women. When in prison the Philistines put him to work in hard labour in order to further mock and humiliate the former judge of Israel.

The final section of this chapter records the Philistine celebration over the capture of Shimshon. They praise and sacrifice, thanking their gods for finally allowing them to be victorious over their enemy. They bring Shimshon to their temple, forcing him to entertain him. A youth leads Shimshon as he has been blinded. This image of a blinded and vulnerable Shimshon at the mercy of his Philistine captors is in stark contrast to all the previous images of him as a mighty warrior, unbeatable and strong. This conjures up sympathy for Shimshon, allowing the reader to understand the actions Shimshon feels compelled to take in order to end his own life.

 

Shimshon asks the youth to place him in between the main pillars of the building as he needs to rest upon something. His request appears harmless and therefore the youth complies. It seems the Philistines no longer fear of Shimshon, believing he can be of no harm to them now. Then he cries out to God for help, asking for his strength to be returned to him one last time. G-d hears his plea and grants him the strength to push down the pillars. This causes the entire building to collapse, killing every single one of the thousands of people inside, including Shimshon himself.

 

How does Shimshon manage to do this? There is a parenthetical statement in verse 22 that Shimshon’s hair started to grow back. However, the Abarbanel (15th century Spanish biblical commentator) explains that his strength returned only after he repented and prayed to G-d. It was actually from Divine power, not his hair. Commentators explain that the Philistines were rejoicing that their gods were more powerful than the Jewish God. God gave Shimshon this last burst of Divine strength to protect His name and honour.

 

In his death, Shimshon achieves his goal, to “begin to deliver the Jewish people from the hands of the Philistines” (13:5). Whilst his death is tragic, he acts heroically and sacrifices his life for the sake of his people and his God. Shimshon was the last judge to rule over Israel. His personal failures and inability to lead the people on a national level emphasise that a new form of leadership is needed. What follows Shimshon is a period of near anarchy, which eventually leads the people to ask for a king (see Sefer Shmuel – the book of Samuel).

 

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