Image: Samson in the Treadmill
Painter: Carl Heinrich Bloch
This is my fourth study on suicide in the Old Testament. For previous published posts on suicide in the Old Testament, click on the link below. The link will also list future posts on this topic.
The story of Samson has fascinated many people because he is portrayed in the Bible and in movies as a hero, a man who was able to deliver the people of Israel because of his great strength. Samson also is admired because his death has been seen by many as an honorable sacrifice. He was a martyr who gave his life fighting against the enemy of his people.
Today I want to focus on another aspect of Samson that is seldom mentioned from the pulpit. I want to look at Samson’s death from the perspective of suicide.
The Life of Samson
Samson was the son of Manoah, a man from Zorah, a village located in the tribe of Dan. Manoah’s wife was barren, unable to have children (Judges 13:2). The birth of Samson was a gift from God. When an angel appeared to the woman, the angel told her that she would conceive and that her son would be a Nazirite.
As a Nazirite, Samson was dedicated to God after his birth. According to the law of the Nazirite, Samson would abstain from wine and strong drink, he would not drink grape juice nor eat grapes. In addition, as long as he was a Nazirite, he would not shave his head with a razor. His long hair would be a sign of his dedication to God. Nazirites also were not allowed to go near a corpse. Nazirites were people holy to the LORD (Numbers 6:3-8).
The story of Samson in the book of Judges is marked by several acts in which he used his strength to accomplish his work as a judge in Israel and to fight against the Philistines. Some of these heroic acts include killing a lion (Judges 14:5-6), burning the crops of the Philistines with three hundred foxes tied together in pairs with torches on their tails (Judges 15:4-5), and killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:15).
During his life Samson had a predilection for Philistine women. Samson refused to marry an Israelite woman (Judges 14:3). Rather, he requested his father to procure a Philistine woman from Timnah to be his wife (Judges 14:2).
After the death of his wife, Samson went to Gaza to consort with a Philistine prostitute. While there, the Philistines tried to kill him, but Samson escaped carrying the gates of the city on his back (Judges 16:1-3).
Samson’s most famous affair was with Delilah, a Philistine woman who lived in the Valley of Sorek. The romance between Samson and Delilah was mostly a one-sided affair. It seems that Samson was in love with Delilah, but the feelings were not mutual. Delilah had been employed by the Philistines to discover the source of Samson’s strength. Once Delilah discovered the source of Samson’s strength, she betrayed him by cutting off his hair and delivering him into the hands of the Philistines.
Samson’s Mental Condition
Samson lived in two different worlds. Before Samson was born, the angel of God told his mother that “the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth” (Judges 13:5). According to the law of the Nazirites, Samson was to be a man dedicated to the LORD (Numbers 6:2). He was to be a man holy unto the LORD (Numbers 6:8).
Yet, Samson enjoyed the company of Philistine women, pursued violence, and broke his Nazirite vows. Such behavior suggests a contradiction between his call to be a Nazirite and his actions in dealing with the enemies of Israel.
In evaluating Samson’s mental condition one must take into consideration Samson’s struggles with the Philistines and the events leading up to the death of his wife and the betrayal by Delilah. Delilah’s betrayal led to Samson’s imprisonment and to his death.
Another source of anguish for Samson was the betrayal of the women in his life. The first case of betrayal was by his wife. On their wedding day, Samson told a riddle to his wife. After making a bet with the Philistines, the Philistines were not able to give an answer to the riddle.
The Philistines forced Samson’s wife to find the answer to the riddle under the threat of death: find out the answer “or we will burn you and your father’s house with fire” (Judges 14:15). Samson’s wife wept for seven days (Judges 14:17) until Samson told her the answer to the riddle. Once she knew the answer, she told it to the Philistines.
The second betrayal happened when Samson visited the prostitute of Gaza. The woman probably told the Philistines that Samson was in her house. Once they knew that Samson was in the city, they tried to kill him, but Samson humiliated them by taking the gates of the city with him.
The third betrayal happened when Delilah discovered the source of his strength and delivered him to the Philistines. The text says that Samson “fell in love with a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah” (Judges 16:4). The text never says that Samson loved his wife, only that “she pleased” him (Judges 14:7).
There was another betrayal, but this time it was by the men of Judah, who bound him with ropes and delivered him to the Philistines (Judges 15:10-13). The action of the men of Judah probably was very painful to Samson because he was betrayed by the people he was trying to save.
Delilah’s betrayal was the most painful of them all. Samson really loved her even though Delilah was very clear in what she was planning to do: “Tell me what makes you so strong and how you can be subdued and humiliated” (Judges 16:6 NET).
Day after day Delilah asked Samson for the source of his strength, but Samson gave her false answers. Her nagging wore him out and Samson “was tired to death.” So, Delilah said to him: “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times now and have not told me what makes your strength so great.”
Finally, Samson relented and gave her the secret of his strength. After his hair was cut, the Philistines grabbed him, blinded him, and took him to the prison in Gaza. In prison, the Philistines tied him up with double chains and made him grind grain in the mill.
It is possible that the pain of the betrayal, the stress under which he placed himself, and the sense of failure led Samson to contemplate suicide. One day when the Philistines came to thank Dagon their god for their victory over Samson, they brought Samson to entertain them.
After Samson was brought to the temple, he stood between the pillars of the temple, leaned against them and prayed to God: “Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28). The text summarizes Samson’s ministry by saying that he killed more Philistines in his death than he killed during his life (Judges 16:30).
Evaluation of Samson’s Death
“Let me die with the Philistines” (Judges 16:30). Samson’s request to God has been interpreted by the Rabbis and by many Christians not as an act of suicide, but as an act of heroism. He died as a martyr, one who gave his life in order to defeat his enemies.
However, when Samson’s death is evaluated in the light of his situation and mental condition, Samson’s death must be classified as suicide. The only way he was able to defeat the Philistines with his death was because God answered his prayer and restored his strength. Without his strength, Samson would be unable to bring the pillars of the temple down. In a sense, God gave Samson the power to kill himself and the Philistines.
Samson was not mentally ill when he decided to kill himself. But his action was not a heroic act since he did not want to kill the Philistines for the sake of bringing honor to God or to deliver Israel. Samson’s prayer to God was simple and direct: “so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes”
Yael Shemesh clearly describes the motive behind Samson’s suicide. He wrote: “Samson’s story is the only one in the Bible in which the overt motive for suicide is revenge. . . .Here the goal is not to kill oneself, but to use one’s death to kill others. . . . It is plausible, however, that the overt motive of revenge was supplemented by a desire to end the hopeless life of pain, helplessness, and humiliation endured by someone who has lost his freedom and eyesight” (2009:159).
The irony in Samson’s death is that he needed divine assistance to kill himself. The Lord was actively involved in Samson’s death because he answered his prayer and gave him the strength he needed to kill himself and the Philistines.
Another irony is that Samson is never condemned or criticized for killing himself. Rather, Samson appears in Hebrews 11:32 as one whose faith is commended. The fact that the New Testament commends Samson and does not condemn him for killing himself and the fact that God was actively involved in helping Samson kill himself by answering his prayer should be important factors when developing a Christian understanding of suicide.
Studies on Suicide in the Bible
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Yael Shemesh, “Suicide in the Bible.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 37 (2009): 157-168.