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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical
Judges 15

 

 

Verses 1-8

Samson returns to visit his wife. Finding that she has been given to another, he avenges himself on the Philistines by firing their standing corn.

Judges 15:1-8.

1But [And] it came to pass within a while after [after a while], 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 [the female apartment]. But her father would not suffer him to go in 2 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 [be she thine], I pray thee, instead of her 3 And Samson said concerning [to] them, Now shall I be more [omit: more] blameless than [before] the Philistines, though I do them a displeasure [do them evil]. 4And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes [jackals], and took fire-brands [torches], and turned tail to tail, and put a fire-brand [torch] in the midst between two tails 5 And when he had set the brands [torches] on fire, he let them go [sent them off—i. e., the animals] into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks, and also the standing corn, with the vineyards and olives [with the olive-gardens]. 6Then the Philistines said, Who hath done this? And they answered, Samson, the Song of Solomon -in law of the Timnite, because he had taken [took] his wife, and given [gave] her to his companion. And the Philistines came up, and burnt her and her father with fire 7 And Samson said unto them, Though ye have done this [If ye act thus], yet will I [(I swear) that I will] be avenged of you, and after that I will cease 8 And he smote them hip [shank] and thigh with a great slaughter. And he went down and dwelt in the top [cleft] of the rock Etam.

EXEGETICAL AND DOCTRINAL

Judges 15:1-2. And it came to pass after some time. Samson’s disposition was too noble to cherish anger long: only small souls bear grudges. But great natures measure others by themselves. Because they have forgotten the wrong that was done them, they think that others are no longer mindful of the wrong they have done. Samson feels as if nothing had happened. Kindly-disposed as ever, he comes to visit his wife. His conciliatory feeling declares itself in the present of a kid which he brings. His wife, it says, has nothing to fear. Conscious of harmless intentions, he wishes to enter her room (חֶדֶר is for the most part the inner apartment, where the women sleep). But this leads to the disclosure of how he has been treated. Her father does not allow him to enter, on the ground that she is no longer his wife, but another’s. The injustice of the transaction thus disclosed was patent. For Samson’s absence cannot have been long. He returned in the season of the wheat-harvest (mentioned on account of Judges 15:5), which fell perhaps in May. It is probable that in Palestine, as elsewhere, most weddings took place in the spring. Samson, at his departure, had not said that he would not return. His father-in-law excuses himself only by intimating that he thought he would not come back. The words of Judges 15:2 enable us almost to see the anxiety and fear with which the father seeks to exculpate himself before Samson,—whom he now knows better than formerly,—and under the influence of which he offers him his other daughter as indemnification. He cannot restore his wife for fear of the Philistines; and he fears him because of the injustice he has done him.

Judges 15:3. And Samson said to them: This time I shall be blameless, etc. The great his nature shows itself here also. To the fea her he does no harm. Small heroism there would have been in that. He uses no violence—brings the man into no awkward relations with his countrymen. He remembers that his daughter has been his wife, love of whom has brought him there. Besides—and this again manifests the warrior of God in him—he speedily sinks all personal interests in the general interests of his people. At every conflict the consciousness of his divine vocation breaks forth. He turns his personal wrong into an occasion of a national exploit against the enemy of his people as a whole. The sign of consecration is upon his head in order to lead him on from small things to great, from things personal to those that are general, from objects of sense to things of the spirit, and to remind him of his call to be a hero for Israel against the Philistines.

He said to them. To whom? To his own people—to his own family. Israel was utterly dispirited. The people did not feel deeply enough the disgrace in which they lived. Special grounds were wanting, in their view, to justify Samson’s hostility against the Philistines. The Philistines were not harming them; why then attack them Probably Samson’s former exploit had been disapproved. He himself, they may have told him, had been to blame in the riddle-matter. None more law-abiding and careful than a slavish people that will make no sacrifices. Now, says Samson to them, have you still nothing to say? I have a cause; I have been undeniably wronged. It was the Philistines who forced my wife and her father to take the step they took. They did it because I am an Israelite. For what I now do against them I am not to be blamed. He thus takes advantage of the letter of personal rights in behalf of the spirit of general freedom. Since his people are insensible of their bondage, he makes his private affair the basis of a declaration of war.

Judges 15:4. And he caught three hundred shualim (jackals, foxes). Samson found himself alone in his hostility against the Philistines. No one of his father’s house followed him. He had not even three hundred men, like those that stood by Gideon. He turns, therefore, to the beasts of the forest for confederates. As bears come to the help of Elisha, so Hebrews, instead of three hundred soldiers, procures three hundred jackals,[FN1] and constitutes them his army against the national foe. It was an ancient and common war measure, still employed by the hostile tribes of the East, to set fire to the standing grain. The Lydian king Alyattes used this terrible means for twelve successive years against the Milesians (Herod. i17–19). It was the most telling damage that Samson could inflict on the Philistines. They had not stirred when he slew the thirty men. The living received no injury from that. But when the harvest disappears in flames, the calamity is felt far and wide. For this reason, Samson could not execute his work alone. The fire would have been more quickly perceived and more readily quenched; for he could begin only in one spot. He chose this measure, not only to show his strength and his warlike humor, but also to let the enemy see how much he was to be feared, albeit he stood alone. True it Isaiah, undoubtedly, that no other man would have found it an easy matter thus to catch and use three hundred jackals.[FN2] But what a fearful, running,[FN3] and illimitable conflagration arose, when the three hundred animals, almost crazed by the burning torches that wrapped their tails in fire, sped through the standing grain to seek deliverance and freedom for themselves and—so to speak—for Samson. The fire not only spread of itself, but was carried by the pain-maddened animals ever deeper into the possessions of the Philistines. Three hundred burning torches ran, with the swiftness of the wind, in the dry season, through the waving fields, past the shocks, and up the mountain vine-yards,[FN4] with which at all times the fox is too well acquainted for the interests of the owner. In this blow Samson, ever ingenious, translated a widely diffused popular figure into terrible reality. The word שׁוּעָל is the general term for that class of animals of which the canis aureus, alopex, and canis vulpes are the species. It is thought that we must here think of the canis aureus, the jackal, inasmuch as this animal is found in those regions in large troops. All we can be certain of, Isaiah, that a member of the red fox family is intended, whose tail itself looks like a red burning torch or glowing coal.[FN5] For Grimm’s remark (made in the year1812, d. Museum, p393), that in the narrative of Reynard “the tail and its red color are indispensable,” is indeed true. “The witnesses of foxes are their tails,” is an old Arabic proverb (Diez, Denkwürd. v. Asien, ii88). The Greeks, for this reason, called the fox λαμπουρίς, bright, burning tail. Expositors have frequently directed attention to the statements of Ovid (Fast. iv681) concerning an ancient Roman custom, practiced in Carseoli, at the festival of the Cerealia, of letting go foxes, with burning torches tied to them, by means of which they were consumed. The idea of the ceremony was undoubtedly to present the fox, who, according to the story, once set the grain-fields on fire, as a propitiatory offering to ward off mildew,[FN6] of which he is a type. The mildew is called robigo[FN7] in Latin, Greek ἐρυσίβη; both to be derived from the reddish color of the affection (Preller, Röm. Myth. p437). This is confirmed by the fact that λαμπουρίς was also the name for the glow-worm. The Bœotians were not the only ones who, as Suidas mentions (cf. Bochart, lib. iii22), believed that fire could be kindled with the glowworm; in Germany also tradition related that glow-worms carried coals into buildings (Wolf, Deutsche Mythologie, i233), just as by a similar figure the phrase, “to set the red cock on the roof” (den rothen Hahn auf’s Dach setzen), was used to denote incendiarism.

It was a fearful reality into which the idea of the incendiary fox was converted by Samson.[FN8] The Philistines were terrified.

Judges 15:6. And the Philistines said, Who hath done this? They are informed of the author and the occasion of his wrath. They determine to avenge themselves, but choose a mode as cowardly as it was unjust. As in the former instance they left Samson’s deed unpunished, so now they will have nothing to do with him. It would be impossible to show more delicately how tyrannous power becomes conciliatory and circumspect towards dependents, as soon as a man of spirit appears among them. Instead of risking anything against him, they commit an outrage on the weak in order to pacify him. They fall upon the family of the wife of Samson, and burn father and daughter in their house. It was a sad fate. It was to avert the very same danger that the woman had betrayed Samson. It was on account of the Philistines that she was separated from him. And now these execute the cruel deed in order to pacify Samson’s hostility. Such is the curse of treason. But the instruments of this fate were still more guilty than its victims. For did they not know that it was against themselves that Samson had directed his national vengeance? Had he been desirous of personal vengeance on his wife’s family, could he not have inflicted it himself as well as they? If they intended to punish the recreant family for having deprived Samson of his wife, they certainly could not expect thereby to inflict pain on Samson? What a difference between them and him! The injured hero turns his vengeance against the powerful; and these take satisfaction on the weak. He elevates a personal conflict into a national challenge, which they lower into vengeance on individuals. He spares the house of the Timnite, although Philistines: they murder it, from cowardly circumspection, although it is the house of a countryman. He burns their fields in order to rouse them to battle, and they burn their brethren in order to pacify the enemy.

Judges 15:7. And Samson said to them, If ye act thus. This cruel cowardice awakens Samson’s utmost contempt and resentment. They seek to conciliate, but only provoke. They judge the hero by themselves when they think to have quieted him by such an abomination; and he smites them according to their deserts. The loss which he had suffered was not great; but what the Philistines do, becomes to them, through his action, a source of misery. The words, “if ye act thus,” express the full measure of his contempt. In Judges 15:3 he only spoke of “doing them evil” (damage); but now he says, I will not cease until “I have taken satisfaction on yourselves” (בָּכֶם). The cowardly Philistines afforded him an occasion for wrath and victory such as he had not hitherto possessed. For he must take advantage of such opportunities, on account of the torpor of his own people. He must estimate the loss of a faithless wife and a characterless Philistine father-in-law sufficiently high, in order to give free course to the national wrath against the pusillanimous foe.

Judges 15:8. And he smote them, shank and thigh, with a great slaughter. What Philistines he smote is not stated; but it is to be supposed that he surprised those who burned the Timnite. These he attacked, man by man; and inflicted a “great defeat.” For the words מַכָּה גְדוֹלָה are explanatory of the proverbial expression שׁוֹק עַל־יָרֵךְ, “shank and thigh.” In the שׁוֹק—the word is manifestly the same as the German Schinke, Schenkel, English, “shank”—the Hebrew saw a sensible representation of the strength of the body. “God,” says the Psalmist ( Psalm 147:10), “takes no pleasure in the שׁוֹקֵי of a man.” When oriental narrators wish to indicate a close battle-array, they say: “shank stood on shank” (cf. Diez, Denkw. von Asien, i133). Both Romans and Greeks employed forms of expression which imply that to break a person’s loin, hip, and shank to pieces is equivalent to hewing him down completely (cf. infringere lumbos, percutere femur, μήρους πατάσσειν). The shank is underneath the thigh. The proverbial phrase is therefore equivalent to: “he smote them upper leg and lower leg,” i. e. completely; and the completeness of the defeat is yet more vividly expressed in that the writer says, שׁוֹק עַל־יָרֵךְ (literally, “shank upon thigh”), whereas the natural order is יָרֵךְ עַל־שׁוֹק (“thigh upon shank”). He turned them upside down, and cut them to pieces. Bertheau’s endeavor to explain the words by the Arabic expression, “he smote them shank-fashion,” is not satisfactory, since this phrase seems rather to denote a man to man conflict. The explanation, “horseman and footman,” given by the Targum, is worthy of notice, by reason of the knowledge of oriental languages which its authors may be supposed to have had. Marvelous are the explanations of many of the church fathers and elder expositors (cf. Serarius, in loc.). The LXX. translate verbally: κνήμην ἐπὶ μηρόν; but only κνήμη καὶ μηρός is found in Greek authors (Plato, Timœus, 74 e).

And he went down and dwelt in the cleft of the rock Etam. After such a deed he deemed himself no longer safe in Zorah and its vicinity. He looked now for a determined attack from the enemy, and sought therefore a secure place for defense and refuge. He found it in a “cleft of the rock Etam.” Opinions differ widely as to the position of this locality. Bertheau finds it in an Etam near Bethlehem (the Urtâs of Robinson, Bibl. Res. i477), which seems to be too far east, while Keil looks for it too far south, in the vicinity of Khuweilifeh. Samson cannot have intended to withdraw altogether from further conflicts, his declaration, “after that I will cease,” notwithstanding; for this referred only to his recompense of the abominable deed at Timnah. Nor can he have removed to too great a distance from his home. Etam is a name which, from its signification, might naturally be of frequent occurrence, and which is very suitable for the abode of the lion-slayer and jackal-conqueror. It signifies “wild-beasts’ lair;” for עַיִט is a ravenous beast. The name, which probably still answered to the reality, offered a guaranty for the sustenance of the hero who took up his dwelling there. From Deir Dubbân to Beit Jibrîn (Eleutheropolis) there are found remarkable rock-caverns, which in later times became places of refuge for Christians, and which even in very ancient times doubtless served as asylums for warriors and wild beasts. Their position is such that for Samson it could not have been better (cf. Ritter, xvi136, etc.). In the name Deir Dubbân—dub, dob, is a bear—a reminiscense of that of Etam might still be found.[FN9]

HOMILETICAL AND PRACTICAL

[Henry: “Visited her with a kid.” The value of the present was inconsiderable, but it was intended as a token of a reconciliation…… It was generous in Samson, as the party offended, and the superior relation, to whom therefore she was bound to make the first motion of reconciliation. When differences happen between near relations, let those be ever reckoned the wisest and the best, that are most forward to forgive and forget injuries, and most willing to stoop and yield for peace sake.—The same: “I verily thought thou hadst utterly hated her.” It will never bear us out in doing ill, to say, We thought others designed ill.—The same (on Judges 15:6): See His hand in it to whom vengeance belongs! Those that deal treacherously, shall be spoiled and dealt treacherously with, and the Lord is known by these judgments which He executes; especially when, as here, He makes use of his people’s enemies as instruments for revenging his people’s quarrels one upon another.—Bp. Hall: If the wife of Samson had not feared the fire for herself and her father’s house, she had not betrayed her husband..… That evil which the wicked feared, meets them in their flight. How many, in a fear of poverty, seek to gain unconscionably, and die beggars! How many, to shun pain and danger, have yielded to evil, and in the long run have been met in the teeth with that mischief which they had hoped to have left behind them!—Tr.]

Footnotes:

FN#1 - It may be mentioned as an exegetical curiosity that earlier interpreters sought to explain the word shualim of wisps of straw. Cf. Stark, Observ. Select. (Lips1714) p127.

FN#2 - A great deal of debate was formerly had on the question of the greater or less difficulty involved in the capture of the jackals. It was finally concluded that a good pair of mittens had rendered useful service. Oedmann, Verm Samml., ii32.

FN#3 - The Greek name of the jackal, θώς, is derived from θόος, nimble, swift, since they run very fast, faster than wolves. Benfey holds a different opinion (Gram. ii276).

FN#4 - Dr. Cassel renders כֶּרֶם זָית ( Judges 15:5) by “vineyards.” It is difficult to account for this, except upon the supposition of inadvertence. כֶּרֶם is in the construct state, and is used here in its general sense of garden, plantation.—Tr.]

FN#5 - It is worthy of remark that the Persian for jackal (shaghiel) occurs also with the sense of carbo and pruna, glowing coal (cf. Vullers, Pers. Lex., ii433, 438), and that the Old High German cholo, a coal, seems to be the same word. Hence the terms Brandfuchs, Kohlenfuchs, renard charbonler, volpe carbonaja.

FN#6 - The German word is kornbrand, “corn-burn.”—Tr.]

FN#7 - From rufus. Cognate names for the fox are found in various dialects: Spanish, raposo; Portuguese, rapozo, Danish, raev; Swedish, raf; in the Finnish tongues, repe, rebbane (cf. Pott, Etym. Forsch., i. lxxxii.).

FN#8 - Speaking of Hannibal’s stratagem of fastening firebrands to the horns of two thousand cattle, Livy (2:17) says: “Haud secus, quam silvis montibusque accensis, omnia circum virgulta ardere.”—The instance of the burning fox-tails from Roman customs, is remarkably paralleled by a Persian superstition. Whenever from want of rain the grain threatened to burn up, it was the practice to fasten combustible materials to the tail of a young bullock, and set them on fire. If the bullock thus treated ran over a hill, it was regarded a favorable sign. Cf. Richardson Abhandlungen über Sprachen etc. morgenländischer Völker p236.

FN#9 - Keil (on Joshua 12:15) inclines to locate the Cave of Adullam at Deir Dubbân.


Verses 9-20

The Philistines threaten war against Judah. The men of Judah, to save themselves, seek to deliver up Samson, who allows himself to be bound, but tears his bonds when brought in sight of the Philistines, and slays a thousand of the enemy.

Judges 15:9-20.

9Then the Philistines went up, and pitched in [encamped against] Judah, and spread themselves in Lehi 10 And the men of Judah said, Why are ye come up against us? And they answered, To bind [i. e., to capture] Samson are we come up, to do to him as he hath done to us 11 Then three thousand men of Judah went [down] to the top [cleft] of the rock Etam, and said to Samson, Knowest thou not that the Philistines are [omit: are] rulers [rule] 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 12 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 13 And they spake unto him, saying, No; but [for] we will bind thee last [omit: fast], and deliver thee into their hand: but surely [omit: surely] we will not kill thee. And they bound him with 14 two new cords, and brought him up from the rock. And when he came unto Lehi, the Philistines shouted against[FN10] him: and the Spirit of the Lord [Jehovah] came mightily [suddenly] upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed [melted] from off his hands 15 And he found a new [fresh] jaw-bone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith 16 And Samson said,[FN11]

With the jaw-bone of an ass

A mass, yea masses:

With the jaw-bone of an ass

I slew a thousand men.

17And it came to pass when he had made an end of speaking, that he cast away the jaw-bone out of his hand, and [people] called that place Ramath-lehi [Hill of the jaw-bone]. 18And he was sore athirst, and called on the Lord [Jehovah], and said, Thou hast given this great deliverance into [by] the hand of thy servant: and now 19 shall I die for thirst, and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised? But [And] God clave an hollow place [lit.the mortar] that was in the jaw [in Lehi],[FN12] and there came water thereout; and when he had drunk, [and he drank, and] his spirit came again, and he revived. Wherefore he [men] called the name thereof Enhakkore20[Well of him that called], which is in Lehi unto this day. And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.

TEXTUAL AND GRAMMATICAL

1 Judges 15:14.—לִקְרָאתוֹ: “towards,” rather than “against.” The idea is that when the Philistines saw Samson coming, they set up shouts of exultation which “met him,” so to speak, as he approached.—Tr.]

EXEGETICAL AND DOCTRINAL

Judges 15:9-10. And the Philistines went up and encamped against Judah. Samson had foreseen that the Philistines would now seek vengeance on a larger scale, and had therefore provided himself with a place of security against both friend and foe. This time also, however, the enemy proceed not directly against him, but take the field against Israel. As on a former occasion, they seek satisfaction from those who were really innocent, and who would gladly remain at peace. They announce that they have come to bind Samson, i. e., to make him powerless to injure them. It is no sign of forbearance that they do not say, “We will kill him;” on the contrary, it appears from Judges 16 that they entertained still more cruel designs. It was easy for Judah to perceive how cowardly was the hatred they cherished against Samson, and thence to infer what heroic deeds of conquest the victor might yet achieve; but the great tribe, once so powerful in action, lay helpless in the deepest decay. It would not be possible to portray the slavish disposition of a people that has departed from God more strikingly, than is here done by the conduct of Judah.

Judges 15:11. Then three thousand men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock Etam. Judah never enjoyed such an opportunity to free itself from the yoke of the Philistines. It had a leader of incomparable strength and energy. The enemy had been smitten, and was apprehensive of further defeats. If it had risen now, and, ranged under Samson, undertaken a war of liberation in God’s name, where was the station that the Philistines could have continued to hold? The heroic deeds of Joshua and Caleb would have been reenacted. The power of the Philistines would have been broken, perhaps forever. But what did Judah? Terrified by the threatening advance of the Philistines, coming to seek Samson, it has not even courage to say, “Go, and bind him yourselves.” Three thousand armed men are quickly got together, not to avail themselves of Samson’s leadership against the enemy, but—alas! for the cowards—to act as the enemy’s tools, pledged to deliver the nation’s hero into their hands. The Philistines, with malicious cunning, probably demanded this as the price of peace. For either Samson refuses to follow the men of Judah, and smites them, which would be gain to the Philistines, or he is taken and brought by them, in which case they will have heaped disgrace on both, and filled them with wrath toward each other. And in fact the number of the men who proceed to Etam, shows that they feel obliged, if need be, to use violence.

And they said to Samson, Knowest thou not, etc. No lost battle presents so sad a picture as do these three thousand armed men, with their complaint against Samson that he has provoked the Philistines, and their question, Knowest thou not that they rule over us? It was so easy to say to him: Up, Samson! they come to bind thee; come thou to free us from their bonds. But they cannot speak thus. Their heart is lost in idolatry. No one can raise himself to freedom, who has not first repented—for penitence is courage against self, and confession before others—and among the three thousand there are no three hundred who have not bowed to Baal. Samson’s negotiation with them although comprised in a few sentences, is worthy of admiration. After all, he had really fought only for them, and had attacked the oppressor of the nation. But he does not upbraid them with this.[FN13] Since they have not comprehended the fact that his own cause was the cause of the nation, he lays no stress on this, but shows them his personal right to engage in the war he had waged. The justification he sets up was such that they could not in honor turn against him. For he says:—

As they did unto me, so have I done unto them. Retaliation was a primitive oriental right, still sanctioned by the Koran.[FN14] To this right the Philistines had appealed in Judges 15:10 : “We will do to Samson as he did to us.” The men of Judah do not undertake to decide upon the right of either party. They desire nothing but peace—with the Philistines. They would submit to them at any price. Any admission of Samson’s right would have obligated them to stand by him. The fact is they came to serve not as judges but as tools of the Philistines. Whosoever is weak enough to accept such a mission, will not be brought to thought and reason by any exposition of right. Idolatry is ever blindness. Reason had evanished from the tribe. How else could it surrender such a Prayer of Manasseh, or hope for peace from the Philistines after the here whom they feared was in their possession? How can such slaves—in recent times also such conduct as theirs has been called peace-loving—expect to remain at peace?

Judges 15:12-13. We are come to bind thee, said the three thousand to the one courageous man. And never does Samson show himself greater than when he voluntarily allows himself to be bound. Against his countrymen he is powerless. With the blood of Israel he must not and will not stain himself. He makes but one condition, and that the least possible. No Judæan hands must meditate his death. That condition alone would have sufficed to inform the men of Judah, had they been able to comprehend such heroism at all, that he consults only their feelings, because they are Israelites, but does not fear the Philistines.

Judges 15:14. When he came unto Lehi, the shouts of the Philistines met him. What a spectacle! That cowardice can brazen hearts and faces until all sense of shame is lost, is shown by the memorable scene here depicted. Judah is not ashamed to drag its hero forward, bound with strong cords. It does not blush when the Philistines shout aloud at the spectacle. But this cowardly jubilation was soon to be turned into groans and flight. As the hero comes in sight of the enemy and hears their outcries, the Spirit of God comes upon him. His heart boils with indignation over the ignominy of his people. His strength kindles for resistless deeds. His cords fall off like tow seized by the fire. He is free, and his freedom is victory.

Judges 15:15-16. And he saw a fresh jaw-bone of an ass. The enemy is before him: therefore, forward! to battle! Any weapon is welcome. The jaw-bone of a recently fallen ass is at hand, not yet dried up, and therefore less easily broken.[FN15] Before the enemy can think, perhaps before their shouts over the prisoner have ceased, he is free, armed, and dealing out deadly blows. The panic is as great as the triumph had been. There was nothing but flight and death for the wretched foe. There ensued a slaughter and victory so extraordinary, that Samson himself, in poetic ecstasy, cries out:—

With the jaw-bone of an ass

I slew two armies:

With the jaw-bone of an ass

I took vengeance on a thousand.

For in the clause בִּלְחי הַחֲמוֹר חֲמוֹר חֲמֹרָתָיִם the paronomasia is to be noted between חַמוֹר, an ass, and חֲמֹר, a heap, which latter is here poetically used of an “army.”

German tradition relates a similar deed of Walter of Aquitania. His enemies pursue him in the forest, while he and Hildegunde roast and eat a swine’s back. He seizes the swine’s bone, and throws it against the enemy with such violence that the latter loses his eye (Wilkinasage, translated by Hagen, i289, ch. lxxxvii). In the Latin poem Waltarius, the hero tears out the shoulder-blade of a calf, and with it slays the robbers (Grimm and Schmeller, Lateinsche Gedichte des Mittelalters, p109 f.). In both versions the fiction is unreasonable and tasteless, whereas the history of Samson is full of dramatic power and spirit.—The mystical sect of the Nasairians, in Syria, are said to venerate the jaw-bone of an ass, because an ass devoured the plant on which the original documents of their religion had been written (cf. Ritter, xvii97, 6).

Judges 15:17. The name of the place was called Ramath-lechi (Hill of the Jaw-bone). To the height upon which Samson threw the jaw-bone, the tradition of an admiring people gave and preserved a name commemorative of that circumstance. The narrative evinces artistic delicacy in that it relates that Samson uttered his poetic words while he was still victoriously swinging the unusual weapon in his hand. The humiliation of the Philistines, formerly smitten by means of foxes, and now with the jaw-bone of an ass, was too deep to allow the historical recollection of it to perish. To seek another explanation of the name is quite unnecessary. It is undoubtedly true that mountainous peaks sometimes derive names from their forms, as, for instance, “Ass’-ears” (on the coast of Aden, cf. Ritter, xii675), or “Tooth” ( 1 Samuel 14:4), or “Throat,” “Nose,” and “Horn” (cf. my Thür. Ortsnamen, ii. p47, n304); but the possibility of an historical explanation is not thereby diminished: for although peculiar names have sometimes given rise to historical legends, the above instances show that quite as often this is not the case. Lehi (properly, Lechi), as the name of a locality, does not elsewhere occur;[FN16] and a criticism which would make it the source of a history in which it has but an incidental significance, and which forms an organic part of the history of Samson as a whole, has lost all claim to be called criticism.

Judges 15:18. And he was sore athirst, and called unto Jehovah. The exertion of the day was too great. The burning sun and the unusual excitement also contributed their part to exhaust the powerful man. But where was there any refreshment? He was alone, as always. The cowardly men of Judah had taken themselves off, in order not to be held responsible by the Philistines on the ground of participation in the conflict. Against the enemy he had that mediate divine help which came to him through his Nazaritic consecration; but this was no protection against thirst. He turns, therefore, to God in prayer for direct deliverance.

Thou hast given this great salvation by the hand of thy servant. These words illustrate and confirm the view we have thus far sought to develop of Samson’s spiritual life. In his hours of lofty elevation of soul, when the Spirit of God impels him to great deeds in behalf of national freedom, he is fully conscious of the work to which he is called. Although he stands alone, the ends he pursues are not personal. And though his people sink so deeply into cowardice and weakness, as to deny him, yet all his powers are directed against the enemies of this people. Although he himself has scarcely escaped from their hands, and has no one to stand by his side, he nevertheless considers himself their leader and champion, in duty bound to vindicate the honor and glory of Israel against the Philistines. Properly speaking, no one was delivered in the conflict on Ramath-Lehi but himself; but he thanks God for “the great salvation given by the hand of thy servant.” He finds this salvation in the humiliation experienced by the Philistines, and in the fact that Hebrews, as sole representative of the true Israel, has not been allowed to be put to shame. For with his fall, the last bulwark had been leveled. The shouts of the Philistines over his bonds were shouts of triumph over the faith of Israel and over Israel’s God. Hence he can pray: “Thou hast just performed a great deed through me, by which the honor of the national name of the children of Israel has been rescued and exalted, let me not now die of thirst, and in that way fall into the hands of the uncircumcised.” All benefit of the victory would be lost, if Samson were now to perish. The triumph of the cowardly enemy would be greater than ever, should they next see him as a helpless corpse. He speaks of them as “the un circumcised” for the very purpose of expressing his consciousness that with him to fight, to conquer, and to fall, are not personal matters, but involve principles. He is none other than the Nazir of God, i. e., the consecrated warrior for God and his people Israel against the enemies of the divine covenant—the uncircumcised. His petition springs from the profound emotion into which the successive experiences of this day have plunged him. The greater his ardor in battle and joy in victory, the more painful is now the thought of losing the fruits of the advantage gained, for want of a little water. Here, too, what instruction we find! “What is man that thou art mindful of him.” The mighty warrior, before whom thousands tremble, cannot conquer thirst, and must perish unless a fountain opens itself.

Judges 15:19. And God clave the mortar that was in Lehi. At the place where Samson was, God clave a mortar-like cavity in the rock, from which water sprang, of which Samson drank, and refreshed himself. This spring was ever after named “Well of him that called;” for it was his salvation and second deliverance. The words at the close of our verse, “which (well) is in Lehi unto this day,” to which those at the beginning of the verse correspond, “God clave the mortar that was in Lehi,” put it beyond all doubt that the reference is to a mortar-like well-opening in the place Lehi, and that (as Keil very well remarked) the old, frequently reproduced exposition (approved also by Bertheau), which bids us think of “the socket of a tooth in the jaw-bone,” is entirely erroneous. For from Judges 15:17, where Samson throws the jaw-bone away, nothing more is said about it, and the name Lehi refers only to the place; just as in Judges 15:9 the meaning Isaiah, not that the Philistines spread themselves about a real jaw-bone, but about the place of this name. The well, it is said, “is in Lehi unto this day.” The place derived its name, Ramath-lehi, from the battle of the jawbone; but the place was not the jaw-bone, which could not exist “unto this day.” The calling forth of the well was a second deliverance, distinct from the first, which was won in battle. It occurred at Lehi, where Samson had conquered, in order that he might there also experience the vanity of all strength without God. The old opinion arose from the fact that, except in Judges 15:9, the ancient versions (the Sept.) everywhere translated the term Lehi, whereas it is a proper noun in Judges 15:19 as much as in Judges 15:9, as Bochart should have known precisely from the article, for it is used in all three instances, Judges 15:9 included. It is indeed true that later medical writers call the sockets of the double teeth ὅλμοι, mortars; but, granted that a similar usus loquendi prevailed in the Bible,—of which we have no other evidence than this passage can give,—the use of the article would be surprising, because elsewhere (as in Zephaniah 1:11) it points (in connection with the noun מַכְתֵּשׁ) to a certain definite, mortar like[FN17] locality. Mention might also be made of the cities in Phrygia and Cilicia that bore the name Holmos. The true view was already held by Josephus, the Chaldee Targum, and, with peculiar clearness, by R. Levi ben Gerson. Perhaps it would receive further illustration from the locality which we may probably venture to fix upon for the event. For the question where the event took place is not unimportant. It must be assumed (cf. Judges 15:13-14) that Etam and Lehi were not far distant from each other. Moreover, it is evident from the connection of the entire narrative, that the Philistines must have threatened especially that part of Judah which lay contiguous to the region whence Samson made his attacks. For this reason alone, the opinion of Van de Velde (adopted by Keil), who looks for it on the road from Tell Kewelfeh to Beer-sheba, appears improbable. On the other hand, the very ancient tradition which locates the Well of Lehi in the vicinity of Eleutheropolis, appears to me, notwithstanding all opposition, to be entirely probable. It was by a series of interesting observations and arguments that Robinson, Rödiger, and others, established the fact that Eleutheropolis and the modern Beit Jibrîn, the Betogabra of the Tabula Peutingeriana, are the same place (cf. Ritter, xvi139); but the hints of the Midrash might have led to the same conclusion, and even now afford additional instruction. To the peculiarities of the region belong the numerous cave-formations, which, by their more or less perfect artificial finish, prove themselves to have been the abodes of men in ancient times. חוֹר (chor) is a cavern, and the term חֹרִי (Chorite, E. V. Horite) signifies troglodytes, people who dwell in caverns. Now, wherever the Chorite is spoken of, the Midrash explains by substituting Eleutheropolis.[FN18] It has not hitherto been discovered what circumstance induced the Romans to give this beautiful name to the place. But since the tradition of an heroic exploit (תְּשׁוּעָה גְדוֹלָה) was connected with the place, the Jewish inhabitants derived the name בֵּית חוֹרִי or עִיר חוֹרִי, which it may have borne, not from חוֹר, a cavern, but from חֹר, a freeman. “Bene Chorin,” is the title assumed by those whom heroic feats have made free.[FN19] The same idea leads the Midrash when it derives Eleutheropolis from chiruth, freedom. The name Eleutheropolis was, in fact, only a translation of the ancient name, whose meaning the inhabitants had changed from “City of the Troglodyte” to “City of the Free,” and is undeniably found in the Mishna and Talmud under the forms בית חורין and בית חרורין.[FN20] If the inhabitants expound the present name Beit Jibrîn as meaning “House of Gabriel,” every one capable of forming a judgment in the ease perceives at once that this became possible only with the prevalence of Islam in those regions. But as the name itself is older than Islam, and is apparently found in the Midrash (as בית גוברין, Beth Goberin), the conjecture suggests itself that it is related to גִּבּוֹר, hero, גְּבוּרָה, heroism; which, if true, connects it once more with Samson’s achievement. The “House of Heroism” answers entirely to the “House of Freedom.” And it is at least not impossible that a change of etymological derivation, like that in the case of Chorite, occurred here also, namely, from גּוֹב,גּוּבָא, a hole, to גִּבּוֹר, a hero. The expression חיקן גבות, in the sense of jaw-bone, occurs also.

The change of the “Troglodytes’ City” into the “City of Heroes,” demonstrates the existence of an old tradition, which, so far as the names (Freedom, Heroism) can explain anything, spoke of the hero who there became free. Springs are still found near the city. One in particular, near the Church of St. Anne, flows from the hard rock, is “fifty-two feet deep, and apparently ancient” (Rob. ii26). It is to be noted that Josephus makes Samson’s fountain to spring out of a rock, and declares that its name was still known in his day. The Targum likewise says that God did split the rock (כֵּיפָא), and translates: “They called it ‘the well that arose at the prayer of Samson,’ and it exists in Lehi unto this day.”

No other well than this [one near the church of St. Anne], can be intended by Jerome, when on passing Socoh, he visits the Fountain of Samson (Ep. ad Eust., 106, ed. Benedict86). The tradition continued steadfast until the time of Antoninus Martyr, who says (circa 600 a. d.): “We came into the city called Eliotropolis, where Samson, that most valiant Prayer of Manasseh, slew a thousand men with a jaw-bone, out of which jaw-bone, at his prayer, water sprang forth, which fountain irrigates that place unto this day: and we were at the place where it rises.” Traditions reaching so far beyond the age of Islam, are always worthy of attention, especially when they suit so well in their localities. For the distance from Eleutheropolis combines very well with the theatre of Samson’s exploits hitherto, and confirms our assumption that Etam lay in the neighborhood of the present Deir Dubbân. When the Jews grounded the name “City of Freedom” on this tradition, they followed considerations not only beautiful, but also both ethically and historically correct.

It is unquestionably a remarkable feature in the narrative of the occurrence, that, while Samson prays to “Jehovah,” the answer is ascribed to “Elohim:” “Elohim clave the mortar.” Keil’s explanation, that it is thereby intimated that God worked the miracle as Lord of nature, does not seem sufficient. For is not “Jehovah” the Creator of Nature? The Targum uses that name here. According to our view of the relations of the names Jehovah and Elohim in our Book, the latter appears not only when heathen gods are spoken of, but also when others than believing Israelites speak of God. Elohim is here used in order to intimate that non-Israelites also ascribed the wonderful fountain in Lehi to divine intervention. Not only Israel tells of it, how Jehovah clave it,’ but all admit that it is a work of Elohim.

Judges 15:20. And Samson judged Israel, in the days of the Philistines, twenty years. In the introduction to the history of Samson ( Judges 13:1), it is stated that the Philistines lorded it over Israel forty years. In Judges 13:5 it is said: “he shall begin to deliver Israel” Their entire downfall he did not accomplish. The blame of this rested not only with the people, of whom Judges 13does not say that they had repented, but, as Judges 16 shows, also with Samson. But the twenty years during which he wrought are not filled out by the occurrences related. These only indicate what feats and dangers were necessary to qualify Samson for government in Israel. And it may well be supposed that after this the Philistines scarcely undertook to confront him. Doubtless, the tribe of Judah also, must after this last exploit have acknowledged his divine strength, and yielded him their confidence. He himself, in thirst and faintness, had learned that God alone gives strength and help; and this may have served for the moral elevation of the people also. Israel dwelt in security and peace for twenty years, through the consecration and deeds of Samson. For this reason he stood among them as Judge. It was only the want of courage on Israel’s part—due to its imperfect faith—and the excess of it on Samson’s part, that plunged both alike into new distress and suffering.

HOMILETICAL AND PRACTICAL

[Bp. Hall: The Philistines that had before ploughed with Samson’s heifer, in the case of the riddle, are now ploughing a worse furrow with a heifer more his own. I am ashamed to hear these cowardly Jews say, Knowest thou not, etc.—Scott: Heartless professors of religion, who value the friendship and fear the frown of the world, and who are the slaves of sin and Satan, censure, hate, and betray those who call them to liberty in the service of God. To save themselves, in times of persecution, they often apostatize and turn betrayers and accusers of the brethren.—Bp. Hall: Now these Jews, that might have let themselves loose from their own bondage, are binding their deliverer.—Henry: Thus the Jews delivered up our Saviour, under pretense of a fear lest the Romans should come, and take away their place and nation.—Wordsworth: This conduct of the men of Judah, saying that the Philistines are their rulers, and delivering Samson to them, may be compared to that of the Jews, saying, “We have no king but Cæsar” ( John 19:15), and delivering up Christ to the Romans.

Wordsworth (on Samson’s victory): A greater miracle was wrought “in the time of wheat-harvest” (cf. Judges 15:1), namely, at the first [Christian] Pentecost, when three thousand were converted by the preaching of Peter and of the other Apostles, filled with the Spirit of God.—Bp. Hall: This victory was not in the weapon, was not in the arm; it was in the Spirit of God, which moved the weapon in the arm. O God! if the means be weak, Thou art strong!

Henry (on Samson’s prayer): Past experiences of God’s power and goodness, are excellent pleas in prayer for further mercy. “Lest the uncircumcised triumph, and so it redound to God’s dishonor.” The best pleas are those taken from God’s glory.—Kitto: Not many would have had such strong persuasion of the Lord’s providential care as would lead them to cry to Him for water to supply their personal wants in the like exigency.

Henry (on En-hakkore): Many a spring of comfort God opens to his people which may fitly be called by this name: it is the “well of him that cried.”—Tr.]

Footnotes:

FN#10 - Judges 15:14.—לִקְרָאתוֹ: “towards,” rather than “against.” The idea is that when the Philistines saw Samson coming, they set up shouts of exultation which “met him,” so to speak, as he approached.—Tr.]

FN#11 - Judges 15:16.—We place the amended rendering of this poetic utterance in the text, and for convenience’ sake subjoin here that of the E. V.:—

With the jaw-bone of an ass,

Heaps upon heaps;

With the jaw of an ass

Have I slain a thousand men.

The unusual form חֹמֶר = חְמוֹר (found elsewhere, if at all, only in 1 Samuel 16:20), is manifestly chosen for the sake of a pun. It means a “heap;” but in order to reproduce the paronomasia as nearly as possible, we have substituted the word “mass,” as suggested by Dr. Wordsworth, in loc. According to Keil, the expression, “a heap, two heaps,” intimates that the victory was accomplished, not in one combat, but in several. But as the magnitude of the victory is evidently celebrated, rather than the process of its accomplishment, the dual is better regarded as designed to amplify and heighten the idea of the preceding singular: “a heap—yes, a pair of heaps!”—Tr.]

FN#12 - Judges 15:19.—בַּלֶּחי. The article occasions no difficulty, as it is frequently used with proper nouns, especially with names of places, rivers, etc.; see Ges. Gram. 109, 3, and especially Ewald, 277 c. Keil very properly observes, that if a tooth-socket in the ass’s jaw-bone were intended, the expression would naturally be מַכתֵּשׁ הַלֶּחִי or מַכְתֵּשׁ בַּלֶּחִי, rather than מַכְתֵּשׁ אַשֶׁר בַּלֶּהִי. Wordsworth, speaking of the opinion that God clave the rock, objects “that the words are, ‘God clave the mactesh,’ which seems much more applicable to the mortar of the jaw than to a place in the rock.” As if an ass had but one tooth to a jaw-bone! Bush is probably not far wrong when he suggests that “a fondness for multiplying miracles,” may have had some influence over the renderings of “several of the ancient versions” at this place.—Tr.]

FN#13 - Milton rightly makes Samson say:—

“I, on th’ other side,

Used no ambition to commend my deeds.”

FN#14 - Sura, 5, 53, which refers to Exodus 21:24, where, however, the law intends to limit retaliation by determining its measure. Compare the narrative in Diez, Denkwürdigkeiten Asiens, ii179.

FN#15 - The following translation of Judges 15:15-17, from a German book published in1705, at Halle, may serve as a specimen of the exegesis which sometimes passed current: “Samson found a troop of lively soldiers, stretched forth his hand and commanded them, and led them against the Philistines..… And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the troops.” Against such insipidity protests arose at that time from all sides (cf. Starke, Not. Select., p127), from Gebhardi (De Maxilla Simsonis, 1707) in Greifswald, Sidelmann (De Maxilla, etc, 1706) in Copenhagen, and in a little-known, but thorough refutation by Heine, of Berlin (Dissert. Sacræ, p245).

FN#16 - In 2 Samuel 23:11, where some are disposed to find it in the form לַחַיָּה [by reading לֶֽחְיַה, i. e., לְחִי with ה local, cf. Thenius, in loc., and Fürst, Lex. s. vv. חַיָה and לְחִי], the ל is manifestly the prefix preposition, as appears from Judges 15:13. The Targum, it is true, distinguished between the two forms, and rendered the first by לְחִייַת, the term which it regularly employs to express עָר מוֹאָב; but Gesenius and others before him made a mistake when they took לְחִייַת as the proper name of a locality. It was only a general term, pagus, village, which was translated into עָר (עִיר).

FN#17 - Including, doubtless, a comparison with the hard, rocky nature of a mortar.

FN#18 - Beresn. Rabba, § 42, p37 b. The right reading has been preserved by Aruch, sub voce. Our editions of the Midrash read metropolis, which only uncritical editors could have overlooked, since the explanation which follows indicates the true reading.

FN#19 - Cf. Buxtorff, Lex., p836. Israel calls itself by this name in the beautiful hymn Pesach haggadhah, with reference to the time when Messiah shall have made it free. It is true, at least, that He alone makes free.

FN#20 - On the consentaneous position of the place, cf. Zunz, in Benj. of Tudela, ii438, note.

 


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Bibliography Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Judges 15:4". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/lcc/judges-15.html. 1857-84.

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Saturday, August 17th, 2019
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