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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Judges 15

 

 

Introduction

Samson the Deliverer

God’s Sixth Lesson - the Rise of the Philistines - God Raises Up Samson (Judges 13:1 to Judges 16:31).

The story of Samson is one of the most remarkable in the Bible. It demonstrates quite clearly that God can use the inadequacies of a man within His purposes. When God raised up Samson from birth He knew the propensities that he would have for good or evil. He gave him every opportunity for success but knew that he would eventually fail. Yet from that failure He purposed to produce success. Samson is an encouragement to all, that if the heart is right, God can use a man, even in his weakness, in His purposes.

Chapter 15. Samson At The Height of His Success.

This chapter goes on to relate how Samson, being denied his wife, gained his revenge by burning the corn fields, vineyards, and olives of the Philistines, as a result of which they burned his wife and his father-in-law in return, and how, because of their burning of her and her father, he indulged in great slaughter among them. This brought the Philistines against the men of Judah, who took Samson and bound him, to deliver him to the Philistines. Whereupon he, freeing himself, slew a thousand of them with the jaw bone of an ass, and being thirsty, was wonderfully supplied with water by God.


Verse 1

Chapter 15. Samson At The Height of His Success.

This chapter goes on to relate how Samson, being denied his wife, gained his revenge by burning the corn fields, vineyards, and olives of the Philistines, as a result of which they burned his wife and his father-in-law in return, and how, because of their burning of her and her father, he indulged in great slaughter among them. This brought the Philistines against the men of Judah, who took Samson and bound him, to deliver him to the Philistines. Whereupon he, freeing himself, slew a thousand of them with the jaw bone of an ass, and being thirsty, was wonderfully supplied with water by God.

Judges 15:1

And so it happened that after a while, at the time of wheat harvest, Samson visited his wife with a young goat, and he said, “I will go in to my wife into the chamber.” But her father would not allow him to go in.’

As far as Samson was concerned he was now legally married to the Philistine woman, and once his anger had subsided and he had had time to get over her betrayal, he went to see his wife taking her a present, intending to consummate his marriage (possibly the young goat was a Philistine fertility symbol). But understandably the father would not allow him to go in, for she had been given to another and had consummated a marriage with him. It may even be that the husband was there with her. This no doubt came as a great shock to Samson who seems to have been genuinely fond of the girl.

“At the time of wheat harvest.” This time note was important to explain what follows.


Verse 2

And her father said, “I genuinely thought that you utterly hated her, therefore I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister fairer than she? Take her, I pray you, in her place.” ’

The father was not antagonistic to Samson, indeed was probably a little afraid of him, and pressed on him his offer of her more beautiful younger sister to replace what he had lost. He would probably also have ensured that Samson did not lose by it financially by providing equal dowry and gifts. Furthermore he may have drawn attention to the fact that the man she had been married to had been ‘the friend of the bridegroom’, drawing attention to why the marriage to him had taken place as a stand in for the bridegroom who had walked out. But he had failed to realise Samson’s genuine affection for his elder daughter. Furthermore as Samson considered that he was married to the elder sister, marriage to the younger was not permissible.


Verse 3

And Samson said to them, “This time will I be blameless with regard to the Philistines when I do them a mischief.” ’

Samson now determined on revenge. Previously he had killed ‘innocent’ men, although as Philistines occupying his country they were not blameless. Yet he had clearly felt a certain sense of guilt. But now he felt that his ensuing actions would be more than fully justified and deserved, because they had stolen his wife from him. Once again he was exercising his God given judgeship and the purpose for which he had been set apart for Yahweh, something ever at the back of his mind, while at the same time ensuring that no blame could come on his countrymen.


Verse 4

And Samson went and caught three hundred jackals, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand between each set of two tails.’

Samson then caught three hundred jackals, which move in packs and are easier to catch than foxes (the word can mean either fox or jackal), and, tying them in twos, fitted a torch or firebrand between each pair, thus fitting about one hundred and fifty torches in all.

His task was carried out purposefully. The collecting of three hundred jackals would take some time, and he would then require assistance to attach the torches (or firebrands). But he knew what he was going to do and set his face to do it. The torches would smoulder and burst into flame when the jackals started running. And the more they flamed the more the jackals would run. It was not very pleasant for the jackals, and would certainly not have been appreciated today, but such scavenging animals were given little consideration in those days. The fastening in pairs was in order to prevent them from seeking refuge down holes.

“Three hundred.” It is noticeable throughout the account that ‘three’ is predominant in numbering men and animals, and that there is progression as his impact increases. Thirty companions (Judges 14:11), thirty men slain in Ashkelon (Judges 14:19), three hundred jackals released among their crops, three thousand men of Judah who arrested him (Judges 15:11) followed by three thousand men and women on the roof of the Temple where Samson died (Judges 16:27). The stress is on completeness of judgment and God’s progression towards that completeness.

There may here be another significance in the numbers. The jackals were tied in pairs making one hundred and fifty messengers of judgment, five times more than the initial ‘theft’ from Samson. The Law stated that restitution for theft should be fivefold in the case of an ox (Exodus 22:1). Samson was exacting his own restitution for the theft of his wife.


Verse 5

‘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 the standing corn, and also the olive orchards.’

Having prepared the jackals he then had them set loose strategically in different places for the greatest effect. The standing corn waiting to be harvested in the fields was burned, the shocks already gathered were destroyed by the fire, and the olive orchards too were set on fire causing great damage. Setting fire to standing corn was a regular way of retaliating against someone who had caused offence, compare 2 Samuel 14:30. The harvests of Timnah would be bare that year.

Similar things have occurred through history. Once thought of it was an obvious way of causing rapid conflagration and was eventually turned to service at sea with the invention of fireships. There was nothing profoundly religious about it. It was simply an easy way of causing great damage with the main culprits not being directly involved.

Samson’s justification might well have been that the fields were common to the Philistine inhabitants of the town so that the produce was very much connected with the errant family.


Verse 6

Then the Philistines said, “Who has done this?” And they said, “Samson, the son in law of the Timnite, because he has taken away his wife, and given her to his companion.” And the Philistines came up, and burnt her and her father with fire.’

When ‘the Philistines’ (probably the Philistine inhabitants of the town) learned that the devastating damage to their crops and olives had been the result of Samson’s activity because of a quarrel with his wife and her father, and the latter’s precipitate action, their fury knew no bounds. So they took their revenge on them, firstly because they were relatives of Samson, and secondly because they considered that they were largely to blame for bringing his actions to bear against them. They did so by burning them to death, probably in their home. It was a case of ‘a fire for a fire’.

It would seem that burning people with fire was a favourite method of Philistine punishment (compare Judges 14:15). They were a fierce people. In view of the specific mention of the two guilty parties it may be that this was a specific form of execution, with the others, including her sister, being allowed to go free as not sharing the guilt. That they could do this may indicate the savage forms of justice prevalent among the Philistines at this time.


Verse 7

And Samson said to them, “If you behave like this surely I will be avenged on you, and after that I will stop.”

The incident had all the appearance of a bitter family feud rather than a political rebellion. Samson’s strategy of connecting himself with the Philistines had given him the opportunities he sought without bringing blame on his brothers. And now he had the perfect grounds for killing more Philistines, for he could declare that it was blood revenge for what they had done to his ‘family’. He could stress that their behaviour had brought it on themselves.


Verse 8

Judges 15:8 a

‘And he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter.’

It is possible that Samson actually appeared while they were doing their foul deed and that when he saw them, having cried out his words above, he attacked them mercilessly. Or it may simply be that he sought them out later. ‘Hip and thigh’ may suggest the wrestling method that he used to deal with them, throwing them and crashing their heads on the ground. The Spirit of Yahweh was on him (Judges 14:19) and he was invincible. Not many escaped to tell the tale.

Judges 15:8 b

‘And he went down and dwelt in the cleft of the rock Etam.’

Realising that his life might now be in danger Samson sought a safe place to hide, going further into the hill country, away from his own people, until things had blown over. He was ever careful to ensure that his people did not suffer for his activities. A city named Etam was situated not far from Bethelehem-judah (2 Chronicles 11:6).


Verse 9

Then the Philistines went up, and pitched in Judah, and spread themselves in Lehi.’

The Philistines came to Judah and camped in some considerable force, spreading out in the region of Lehi in Judah. Lehi means ‘jawbone’. Its site is not known.


Verse 10

And the men of Judah said, “Why have you come up against us?” And they replied, “We have come up to bind Samson, to do to him as he has done to us.” ’

The leading men of Judah sent messages to the Philistine camp to ask the purpose of this invasion by such a force. As far as they were aware they had paid all necessary tribute. The reply came back that they wanted Samson delivered up to them in order that he might be tried and punished for what he had done to the Philistines. They felt that what he had done went far beyond justifiable revenge, and he should have remembered that they were the masters.


Verse 11

Judges 15:11 a

‘Then three thousand of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam.’

The onus was on the men of Judah to hand Samson over, but they were aware what a great task they had. So they sent three military units down from the hill country to arrest him, and even with that many they were wary.

What a contrast is found between the men of Judah here and those described in Judges 1:2-20. How were the mighty fallen. They were no longer mighty warriors but submissive tributaries pleading with a hero to give himself up. In its disunity and lack of faith in Yahweh the tribal confederacy had failed. It awaited a strong and godly leader. And while Samson’s activities were partially successful he was not a leader of men. He tended to be a loner.

Judges 15:11 b

‘And said to Samson, “Do you not realise that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?” And he said to them, “As they have done to me, so have I done to them.” ’

Their words were probably tongue in cheek for they had probably had many a good laugh over what Samson had done, but officially they had to express disapproval. So a formal statement was issued to him by messenger. Why had he rebelled against their masters? His reply was simple. He had only done to them what they had done to him. It was just that he liked solid revenge. Both were aware that what he had done had mainly been as an effort to weaken the Philistines. Others were planning a rebellion (1 Samuel 4:1) but he was preparing the way.


Verse 12

Judges 15:12 a

‘And they said to him, “We have come down to bind you, so that we may deliver you into the hands of the Philistines.” ’

The men of Judah approached the issue with Samson tentatively. They were apprehensive in the extreme. But they had a job to do that they dared not shirk. To arrest Samson. I remember once when I was in the RAF and was in a billet when the wakeup call came. There was one airman who still lay in bed under the covers, and a corporal came in and pointed to me and said, ‘Throw that man out of bed.’ The man in question was a rugby league centre and a huge man and I went up to his bed tentatively and tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, I am supposed to throw you out of bed.’ I knew exactly how these men of Judah felt. Fortunately like Samson, he responded graciously.

Judges 15:12 b

‘And Samson said to them, “Swear to me that you will not fall on me yourselves.” ’

He was not afraid of them but he did not want to have to fight his own countrymen. They were his responsibility. They would indeed have had a huge job for only one or two would have been able to enter the cleft in the rock at one time, and they would have had no chance against Samson. But he did not want that. So he asked for their solemn oath that they themselves would not seek to do him harm.


Verse 13

And they spoke to him, saying, “No, but we will bind you fast and hand you over into their hands. But certainly we will not kill you.” And they bound him with two new ropes and brought him up from the rock.’

What they were offering seemed certain death for Samson, but at least it would not be at their hands. They were caught helplessly between two options. The one to fight the Philistines, the other to fight Samson. They did not like the idea of either. But they hoped that Samson might be reasonable for the sake of his countrymen.

On their assurance Samson submitted to be bound. Was this the result of powerful trust in Yahweh, or was it overconfidence in his own abilities? Possibly something of both. How men chosen by God have to be on constant watch over their motives!

And they bound him with ‘two new ropes’. This probably means ‘a number of new ropes’ not strictly limited to two (compare 1 Kings 17:12 of sticks gathered for a fire). ‘Two’ was traditionally used in this way from the days when men’s use of number words was very limited. Most people rarely used numbers to any extent and kept to the old usages. The ropes were new as indicating to the Philistines that they had used all measures possible to safeguard Samson. Or they may have been new because they recognised that Samson was a Nazirite. Then they led him up from the rock.

Etam was in the hill country but clearly in a defile or valley for they ‘went down’ to him and then ‘brought him up’.


Verse 14

Judges 15:14 a

‘And when he came to Lehi, the Philistines shouted as they met him.’

On seeing this ferocious man, who had killed so many of them, bound and helpless, the Philistines let out a shout of triumph and gloating. Now they could exact their revenge. He was theirs for the taking.

Judges 15:14-15

‘And the Spirit of Yahweh came mightily on him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands melted from his hands. And he found a new jawbone of an ass and put out his hand and took it, and smote a whole military unit of men with it.’

Once again Yahweh acted through him, and he burst the ropes that held him which seemed to melt away in front of them. Then he seized a new jawbone of an ass, its newness ensuring that it was solid and effective, not brittle, and used it as an effective weapon. With it he effectively destroyed a whole large military unit, presumably the one that had come to receive him from the hands of the men of Judah. They were, of course, taken by surprise and probably panicked for he had a fearsome reputation.

So were Samson’s effective actions against the Philistines increasing in magnitude. First thirty men (Judges 14:19), then ‘a great slaughter’, possibly nearly a hundred (Judges 15:8), and now ‘a large military unit’, well over a hundred.

But the seizing of the jawbone was a careless act, for as a Nazirite he was under a vow not to come into contact with dead things. Perhaps this was a sign that he was becoming careless with regard to his vow. He was beginning to feel that he was above restriction (contrast Judges 15:8 where he used his wrestling ability and his bare hands).


Verse 16

And Samson said, “With the jawbone of an ass, heap upon heap. With the jawbone of an ass have I smitten a large number (an eleph).”’

Samson exulted in his victory with a war song. He was an educated man and enjoyed composing verses (Judges 14:14; Judges 14:18). ‘Heap upon heap’ is literally ‘one heap, two heaps’. It is not possible in English to bring out the play on words, for ‘ass’ (chamor) and ‘heap’ (chamor) have the same consonants. The first line tumbles out very expressively in four consecutive words (with ch pronounced as in loch) ‘bilchi hachamor chamor chamorathayim’. It was a song that would be sung often in Judah when spirits were low.


Verse 17

And so it was that, when he had finished speaking, he cast away the jawbone out of his hand, and that place was called Ramath-lehi.’

Ramath-lehi means ‘Jawbone Hill’, but also ‘Tossed-away-jawbone’, a play on two Hebrew words. The Israelites had a vivid sense of humour. The seizing of the jawbone as a weapon may well have been instinctive, but he was a dedicated Nazirite and should have been very conscious of the need to avoid contact with such things. He had ignored the fact that to touch a dead thing was against his vow. Possibly at this stage he recalled the fact and so flung it from him. Or perhaps his careless toss of it indicated his lack of concern.


Verse 18

And he was extremely thirsty, and called on Yahweh and said, “You have given this great deliverance by the hand of your servant, and now shall I die of thirst and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?”

These pettish words summarise Samson’s life. A dedicated man, a servant of Yahweh, and yet easily swaying from one extreme to the other. We can compare this aspect of him with Elijah when after his great victory at Carmel he despaired on the mountain (1 Kings 19:4; 1 Kings 19:10), (although Elijah was of sterner stuff than Samson). There is something of it within us all.

“Extremely thirsty.” A hot country and a fierce battle were enough to dehydrate any man, and Samson was no exception. He needed water. But there was a petulance here that suggested that he felt that God owed him something for what he had done, which goes along with his careless attitude to the jawbone. We sense here the beginning of his slide downwards.

“You have given this great deliverance by the hand of your servant.” We must not lose sight of the fact that Samson was a dedicated man, consecrated to Yahweh. He was conscious of serving Him and of the fact that he owed his great gifts to him. And up to this point he had mainly been worthy of those gifts. While he had sought out a Philistine wife it had been with the purpose of fulfilling his destiny (Judges 14:4), and he had taken every opportunity to weaken the Philistines, while the escalating violence had been a response to the dishonesty, double dealing and violence of the Philistines. And we must remember that they were his natural enemy. He had thus largely been faithful.

“And now shall I die of thirst and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?” He was still a hunted man and was aware that weakness might result in his capture. So, while exaggerated, his words contained some truth. He needed water to restore him to fighting fitness. But the tenor of his words was petulant. He seemed to be suggesting that he could have been better looked after. He was getting above himself, and that usually leads to disaster in the life of a godly man.

The thirst should have reminded him that without God he was nothing. All his strength depended on God's continual supply. Instead it made him feel ill-treated. How do we respond when God puts us to the test? That is the test of what we are.


Verse 19

And God clave the hollow place that was in Lehi and there came water from it, and when he had drunk his spirit returned and he revived. That is why the name of the place was called En-hakkore, which is in Lehi up to this day.’

En-hakkore means ‘the spring of him who called’. From a hollow place in Lehi God by some means caused a spring to flow out, and Samson was thus able to drink and revive himself.

It was ‘God’ not Yahweh who responded. Was this because he had broken his vow by using the jawbone of a dead ass? In Israel’s eyes and the writer’s eyes that would be no light thing. Or was it due to his petulant attitude? Or was the writer signalling that a new chapter was beginning in Samson’s life? His love of women would prove his downfall and the writer traces it back to this moment. From now on he would go continually downwards. Possibly all were true. He had perhaps begun to see himself as able to do anything he wanted. And that is always dangerous for a man.


Verse 20

And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.’

This may indicate that he was seen as a deliverer of his people rather than that he actually exercised authority, for his final imprisonment is included in it (Judges 16:31), although he may well have exercised local authority over this period. We actually know little about his life apart from two short bursts (Judges 14-15 and Judges 16:4-22) and this may be intended to indicate that from now on he ruled respectably and wisely, and certainly with authority. He had given Israel back some of its pride. The Philistines probably decided to leave him alone. He was not good news for them. He judged for ‘half a generation’, cut short in his prime. There is a further hint in that of what was to come.

Had Samson’s life ended here he might well have been judged differently. He is often described as a loveable rogue and a trickster, but while he behaved as men do at a wedding most of the remainder of what he did was with deadly serious intent. It is noteworthy that it was only ever against Philistines (they did not see them as tricks from a loveable rogue), and it proved very effective. Whether he drank wine or not to break his vow is a matter of pure conjecture. There is no evidence for it. There is also no evidence that he actually touched the dead carcass of the lion, and the killing of the enemy would be seen as a justifiable and not as defiling. So as far as we can know his vow appeared intact until this last incident of touching the jaw bone. And even then there was always a way back if he was willing to take it.

Commentators take up many different opinions on Samson. Some see him as a wild, uncontrolled, loveable rogue who achieved little. Others recognise in him a man who was fulfilling his destiny, revealing a total devotion to Yahweh and achieving what would stand Israel in good stead, until in his latter days he faltered. In our view the latter would appear to be nearer the truth, while acknowledging some of the former. But the fact is that the writer simply gives us the bare bones. We are left to read into the gaps.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Judges 15:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/judges-15.html. 2013.

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Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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