Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Judges 15:1-2. Samson, desiring to return to his wife, learns that she has been betrothed to another. Judges 15:3-5. He revenges himself by setting fire to the crops of the Philistines by means of jackals and fire-brands. Judges 15:6. The Philistines burn his wife and her father. Judges 15:7-8. He inflicts a massacre upon them. Judges 15:9-13. He is handed over to them by the people of Judah. Judges 15:14-17. He breaks his cords, and slaughters a thousand with the jaw-bone of an ass. Judges 15:18-19. The Fountain of the Crier.
But it came to pass within a while after, in the time of wheat harvest, that Samson visited his wife with a kid; and he said, I will go in to my wife into the chamber. But her father would not suffer him to go in.(1) Within a while after.—“After days” (Judges 11:4; Judges 14:8).
In the time of wheat harvest.—This, in the Shephelah, would be about the middle of May.
I will go in to my wife.—Uxoriousness was the chief secret of the weakness and ruin of Samson, as it was afterwards of a very different type of man, Solomon.
And her father said, I verily thought that thou hadst utterly hated her; therefore I gave her to thy companion: is not her younger sister fairer than she? take her, I pray thee, instead of her.(2) Verily thought . . . utterly hated.—In the emphatic simplicity of the Hebrew style it is, Saying I said that hating, thou hatest her. As Samson had left his wife in anger immediately after the wedding feast, the father might have reasonably supposed that he meant finally to desert her.
I gave her.—This must mean I have betrothed her, for otherwise she would not have still been living in her father’s house. But if the father had been an honourable man he could not under these circumstances have done less than restore the dowry which Manoah had given for her.
To thy companion.—See on Judges 14:20.
Her younger sister.—The father sought in this way to repair the wrong he had inflicted, and to offer some equivalent for the dower which he had wrongly appropriated.
And Samson said concerning them, Now shall I be more blameless than the Philistines, though I do them a displeasure.(3) Concerning them.—There is no reason for this rendering. It should be to them. The Vulg. has cui, and the LXX. “to them,” or “to him.”
Now—i.e., This time. He means that his second act of vengeance will at least have more excuse than his assault on the Askelonites.
More blameless than the Philistines.—Rather, innocent as regards the Philistines. The words are somewhat obscure. Ewald renders them—
“This time I am quit of the Philistines,
If ‘tis evil I think of doing them.”
And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails.(4) Caught three hundred foxes.—Rather, three hundred jackals. The word Shualim is used for both; but it would be difficult to catch three hundred foxes, whereas the jackals are still heard howling in herds about these very regions at night. They must have been still more common in Palestine in ancient days, and hence we find such names as “the land of Shual” (1Samuel 13:17), Hazar-shual (“jackal’s enclosure,” Joshua 15:28), Shalim (1Samuel 11:4), Shaalabbin (“place of foxes or jackals,” Joshua 19:42). There would be no difficulty in trapping them; nor is it said that they were all let loose at once.
Turned tail to tail.—This implies that he tied the tails together (LXX., sunedēsen; Vulag.,junxit).
Put a firebrand in the midst.—The firebrands were pieces of resinous wood, like Gideon’s torches (Judges 7:20), which were loosely trailed between the tails of the jackals. The object of tying two together was to impede their motion a little, so that they might not dart away so violently as to extinguish the torch.
And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks, and also the standing corn, with the vineyards and olives.(5) Into the standing corn of the Philistines.—He probably did this at night, when his actions would be unobserved, and no one would be at hand to quench the flames. We may imagine him watching the trails of fire from his rocky fastness, and exulting as the conflagration reddened the night. The heat of a tropical country makes everything so dry that his plan would be certain to succeed. To burn the crops of an Arab is to this day the deadliest of all injuries (Burckhardt). This was the method adopted by Absalom, in 2Samuel 14:30, to gain an interview with Joab. It is needless to point out that the adoption of these rough, coarse, and cruel expedients must be as little judged by a later and better standard as his thirst for the revenge of personal wrongs. There can be no ground to question the literal truth of the narrative. It is in entire accordance with the custom of the East, and it finds curious confirmation from the story in Ovid’s Fasti, that every year, at the Cerealia, torches were tied to the tails of foxes, and they were let loose in the Roman circus, to commemorate the incident that on one occasion a young man at Carseoli, to punish a fox for depredations on his hen-coops, had wrapped it up in straw, and set it on fire, and that the creature had escaped into the corn-fields and burnt down the standing crops (Ovid, Fasti, iv. 681-711). The attempt of Bochart to establish any connection between this custom and the revenge of Samson is quite untenable, but the incident itself throws light on the possibility of the narrative. Ewald refers to Mêghadûta, liv. 4; Babrius, Fab., 11
Both the shocks, and also the standing corn.—Literally, from the heap, even up to the standing. The extent of the vengeance and its terrible future consequences would be fully, and we fear ruthlessly, estimated by Samson, as he saw the rivers of fire running and spreading through that vast plain of corn-land in harvest-time. (Comp. Exodus 22:6.)
With the vineyards and olives.—Literally, and to vineyard, to olive. There may be some slight corruption in the text, or it may be an abbreviation of “from vineyard to vineyard, and from olive to olive.” (Comp. Micah 7:12.) The low vines festooning the trees and trellis-work, and the olives with their dry trunks, would be sure to suffer injury.
Then the Philistines said, Who hath done this? And they answered, Samson, the son in law of the Timnite, because he had taken his wife, and given her to his companion. And the Philistines came up, and burnt her and her father with fire.(6) They answered.—The phrase is impersonal; but Samson had quite openly threatened vengeance in speaking to the Timnites, and is not likely to have done his work unaided or to have been very reticent about it; nor would the poor oppressed Israelites be inclined to keep his secret when they were confronted with the fury of the Philistines.
Burnt her and her father with fire.—Was this meant as a way of revenging themselves on Samson, or of avenging him for the wrongs which he had received from the Timnite? The latter seems to be most unlikely. Looking with despair and fury at the blackened fields which but a few days before had been thick with golden corn, it is inconceivable that the Philistines would be in a mood to perform an act of justice for the sake of the deadly enemy who had inflicted this loss upon them. Their motive is clear enough. They wished to insult and injure Samson, and, at the same time, vent their fierce spleen on the man whose family and whose conduct had led to all these troubles. That they thought about “burning as the punishment of adultery among the Jews” (Genesis 38:24, &c.) is still more improbable. To burn a person, and his house and his family, seems to have been the ordinary revenge of these barbarous days. (See Judges 12:1; Judges 14:15.)
And Samson said unto them, Though ye have done this, yet will I be avenged of you, and after that I will cease.(7) Though ye have done this.—The rendering of these words is involved in the same obscurity as other details of the narrative. They may mean, “If ye act thus, then will I be avenged on you before I have done;” and perhaps the verse implies, “as long as you avenge yourselves, I mean to retaliate.”
And he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter: and he went down and dwelt in the top of the rock Etam.(8) Hip and thigh.—There is no doubt that the expression intensifies the words “with a great slaughter;” but the origin of the phrase is a matter of conjecture. It may be purely general, like the German expression “Arm und Bein,” or “er hieb den Feind in die Pfanne,” or “in Kochstücke” (“A blow strikes a fugitive on the hip, and that would be enough; another blow on the thigh ends him”). “Hence,” says Ewald, “it means thigh over and above”—i.e., besides the hip. It cannot possibly mean “cavalry and infantry,” as the Chaldee renders it, or be a reference to wrestling (Greek, huposkelizein); nor is it likely to have a sacrificial origin (“good and bad pieces”). It is hard to see what St. Jerome means by his gloss “ita ut slupentes suram femori imponerent.” Literally it is, thigh upon hip, or leg upon thigh (LXX., κνήμην ἐπὶ μηρὸν). May it not have had its origin in some such fierce custom as that known to the Greeks as akroteriasmos, or maschalismos, in which the extremities of a corpse were cut off and placed under the arm-pits? (Æsch. Cho. 439; Soph. El. 445.) Thus in Hesychius and Suidas maschalismata means “mutilated limbs,” and also “the flesh of the shoulders laid on the haunches at sacrifices.”
With a great slaughter.—It is not said, nor is it necessarily implied (any more than in the case of Shamgar), that Samson was absolutely alone in these raids. There is nothing either in the narrative or in the ordinary style of Hebrew prose which makes any such inference necessary, nor, indeed, is there any such inference drawn in many similar passages (e.g., Judgesi. 20, &c.).
In the top of the rock Etam.—It should undoubtedly be in a ravine (or cave) of the cliff Etam. For instance, in Judges 15:11 the men of Judah could not go down to the top of a rock, and the same word is rendered “cleft” in Isaiah 57:5, and should be so rendered for “top” in Isaiah 3:21 (LXX., “in a hole of the rock,” and “in the cave of Etam;” Vulg., in spelunca petrae). This explains the expression “went down” in this verse, and “brought him up” in Judges 15:13. Such cliff-caves are the natural refuge of oppressed peoples (Judges 6:2; 1Samuel 13:6; 1Kings 18:13). These caves, like the cave of Aduliam, are often supplied with water by natural springs, and one man may defend them against a multitude. The LXX. (Cod. A) add the words “by the torrent.” The site of Etam is uncertain; but it is in the tribe of Judah, which Samson only enters once, or, possibly (Judges 16:3), twice, and then only as a fugitive.
Then the Philistines went up, and pitched in Judah, and spread themselves in Lehi.(9) Then the Philistines went up.—They “went up” in hostile array against the hill-country of Judea to take vengeance for the dreadful injury which Samson had inflicted on them.
Spread themselves in Lehi.—The use of the name before the incident from which a place is said to have received the name is found also in the case of Hormah (Numbers 14:45; Numbers 21:3). It was called in full Ramath-Lehi. (See on Judges 15:17.) The character of the narrative suggests the question whether the name may not have existed previously, and the play on words may not have been adapted by Samson to the incident. For the name of the place is Lechi (לֶ֫חִי ), and “a jawbone” is Lehi (להי). Shen, “tooth,” is the name of an isolated sharp rock (1Samuel 14:4), and therefore “jaw” would not be an unnatural name for a range of such rocks. Josephus, however, says that before Samson’s exploit the place “had no name.” It may be again alluded to in 2Samuel 23:11, where the words rendered “into a troop” may mean “to Lehi,” as it is understood by Josephus (Antt. vii. 12, § 4) and some MSS. of the LXX.
And the men of Judah said, Why are ye come up against us? And they answered, To bind Samson are we come up, to do to him as he hath done to us.(10) Why are ye come up against us?—Samson was not of the tribe of Judah, which seems to have been living in contented servitude.
Then three thousand men of Judah went to the top of the rock Etam, and said to Samson, Knowest thou not that the Philistines are rulers over us? what is this that thou hast done unto us? And he said unto them, As they did unto me, so have I done unto them.(11) Went to the top of the rock Etam.—Rather, went down to the cave of the rock Etam. They would easily gain information as to Samson’s hiding-place.
What is this that thou hast done unto us?—The abject condition into which the Lion Tribe had sunk can best be estimated by this reproach against the national hero, and still more by their baseness in betraying him. He finds no sympathy. There are no patriots in search of heroes. What might not this 3,000 have achieved if they had been like Gideon’s 300?
And they said unto him, We are come down to bind thee, that we may deliver thee into the hand of the Philistines. And Samson said unto them, Swear unto me, that ye will not fall upon me yourselves.(12) Swear unto me, that ye will not fall upon me yourselves.—It seems as if Samson were parleying with them from some point of vantage which he could easily have defended for a time.
And they spake unto him, saying, No; but we will bind thee fast, and deliver thee into their hand: but surely we will not kill thee. And they bound him with two new cords, and brought him up from the rock.(13) Brought him up from the rock.—Again the details are uncertain. Was Samson’s cave down the steep side of a cliff? Such caves are common in Palestine, and such a situation would explain these expressions. (See Josephus, Antt. xiv. 15, § 5, where he says that the brigands’ caves were inaccessible against a few defenders, either from below or from above, and that Herod could only attack the robbers by letting down soldiers in chests from the top of the precipices.)
And when he came unto Lehi, the Philistines shouted against him: and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands.(14) Shouted against him.—Rather, cheered as they came to meet him (LXX., ἠλάλαξαν εἰς συνάντησιν αὐτοῦ; Vulg., cum vociferantes occurrissent ei). The verb heerioo is an onomatopœia, like our “hurrah.” This was not a war cry, as in 1Samuel 17:20, but a shout of
The cords that were upon his arms became as flax.—It seems clear that the poetical colour and rhythmic structure of the narrative are influenced by some poem which described the deeds of Samson.
That was burnt with fire.—In both the LXX. and the Vulg. we find the metaphor, “flax when it has smelt the fire.”
His bands loosed.—Literally, melted, or flowed off, a highly poetic expression. A legend of Hercules in Egypt, who suddenly burst his bonds and slew the Egyptians who were leading him to sacrifice, may possibly have been coloured by this event in the life of Samson. (See Rawlinson’s Herodotus, 2, p. 70.)
And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.(15) A new jawbone.—Literally, a moist jawbone—i.e., the jawbone of an animal recently dead, and before the bone had become brittle. In this instance, at any rate, Samson might feel himself absolved from the rule of ceremonial cleanness, which forbad him as a Nazarite to touch carcases. A jawbone is a mighty magic weapon in one of the Polynesian legends (Grey, Polyn. Mythology, p. 35), but that throws no light on this narrative.
Slew a thousand men.—The verb is rather smote than “slew,” and the expression (whether due to poetry or not) is to be taken generally, like “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” If Goliath was able single-handed to strike terror into the whole army of Israel, Samson with his long locks and colossal strength would be still more likely to strike a terror into the Philistines, and all the more because a supernatural awe was doubtless attached by this time to his name and person. The very fact that, though armed only with this wretched weapon of offence, he yet dared to rush upon the Philistines would make them fly in wilder panic (Joshua 23:10). “One man of you shall chase a thousand; for the Lord your God He it is that fighteth for you, as He hath promised you.” (Comp. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 32:30.) So we read that one of David’s heroes slew three hundred men (1Chronicles 11:11; comp. 2Samuel 23:8). The Philistines, dull and superstitious, seem to have been peculiarly liable to these panics (1Samuel 14:4-18). Bishop Patrick quotes a striking parallel from a song on the Emperor Aurelian.
And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.(16) And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass.—Here we once more find ourselves in very primitive regions of poetry and paronomasia. Samson’s exultation over his extraordinary achievement finds vent in a sort of punning couplet, which turns entirely on the identity of sound between chamor, a heap, and chamor, an ass, and the play of meaning between aleph, a thousand, and aleph, an ox. In the Hebrew the couplet runs:—
“Bi-lechi ha-chamor chamor chamorathaim.
Bi-lechi ha-chamor hicceythî eleph eesh.”
Literally, with some attempt, however clumsy, to keep up the play of words,
“With jaw of the ass, a (m)ass two (m) asses, With jaw of the ass I smote an ox-load of men.”
With jaw of the ass I smote an ox-load of men.”
The versions are, of course, unable to preserve these rough paronomasias, which are characteristic of the age. It would be quite a mistake to infer that they show any levity of spirit in Samson. On the contrary, such peculiarities of expression often arise out of deep emotion. When John of Gaunt begins his dying speech to Richard II. with—
“Old Gaunt, indeed! and gaunt in being old,” &c.,
the king asks:—
“Can sick men play so nicely with their names?”
and the dying prince makes the striking answer:—
“No; misery makes sport to mock herself.”
I have fully examined the whole subject in Chapters on Language, pp. 227-238. These sallies of playful fancy tended no less than the flashes of military prowess to prepare the nation for better times by keeping up their buoyant mood. “The nation felt unsubdued in mind and body, while its sons could flow out in such health and vivacity;” and thus Samson began to deliver them, though his actual deeds were casual—“a sort of teasing, reiterated mark of mortifying humiliation” (Ewald).
And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking, that he cast away the jawbone out of his hand, and called that place Ramathlehi.(17) Ramath-lehi.—The marginal rendering, “the lifting up of the jawbone” is found in the LXX. and Vulg., and derives Ramath from the verb rûm,” to be high.” The more natural explanation is, “the hill of Lehi.” The other marginal rendering, “the casting away of the jawbone,” derives Ramath from the verb ramah, “he cast.” This would require the form Remath.
And he was sore athirst, and called on the LORD, and said, Thou hast given this great deliverance into the hand of thy servant: and now shall I die for thirst, and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?(18) He was sore athirst.—It was in the heat of harvest time, and he had pursued the Philistines till he was exhausted.
Into the hand.—Rather, by the hand.
But God clave an hollow place that was in the jaw, and there came water thereout; and when he had drunk, his spirit came again, and he revived: wherefore he called the name thereof Enhakkore, which is in Lehi unto this day.(19) Clave an hollow place that was in the jaw.—Rather, the (fountain called the) “socket,” which is in Lehi. The notion that God made a miraculous fountain in one of the tooth-sockets of the jawbone of the ass is one of the childish misinterpretations with which Scripture exegesis is constantly defaced. Lehi is here the name of the place, and if the fountain is said to have sprung up in Hammaktesh, “the tooth-socket” (Vulg., molarem), that is only due to the play on words which characterises the narrative. When the cliff had got the name of “Jawbone,” the spring would naturally be called a “tooth-socket.” The word maktesh properly means “a mortar” (Greek, holmiskos; Lat., mortariolum) (Proverbs 27:22), and this name was transferred to the sockets of teeth. We find another place with the same name in Zephaniah 1:11. Milton understood the passage rightly:—
“God, who caused a fountain at thy prayer
From the dry ground to spring thy thirst to allay.”
For similar instances in the Bible, see Genesis 21:19 (Hagar); Exodus 17:6 (the smitten rock); Isaiah 41:17-18 (“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys . . . I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water”). Josephus says that God caused to spring up for Samson “a plentiful fountain of sweet water at a certain rock.”
He called the name thereof.—Rather, the name thereof was called.
En-hakkore.—The Spring of the Crier. These names have vanished, but perhaps traces of them may still be discovered “in the abundant springs and numerous eminences of the district round Urtas,” the place from which Solomon’s pleasure-gardens and the Temple and Bethlehem were supplied with water.
And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.(20) And he judged Israel.—Probably, as Jephthah had done, with the sort of vague prerogatives of a military hero. Why the verse is found here, as though to close the narrative (comp. Judges 12:7, &c.), and is again repeated in Judges 16:31, we cannot say. The next chapter belongs mainly to Samson’s fall and humiliation. These twenty years probably fell within the contemporary judgeship of Eli.