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Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?

Although this is a picture of Samson and Delilah, let's pretend it's Samson and the Gaza Prostitute since such pictures are hard to find!
Although this is a picture of Samson and Delilah, let’s pretend it’s Samson and the Gaza Prostitute since such pictures are hard to find!

Samson’s visit to the prostitute in Gaza has usually been considered as one example, among many, of his misadventures. Recently, several scholars have questioned this interpretation, suggesting that Samson has been misunderstood. How should the brief episode between Samson and the Gaza Prostitute be read? Is Samson a “good guy” whose intentions at the prostitute’s house have been misrepresented, or is this story just another example of his “bad boy” behavior?

Before beginning, I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to two of my colleagues for introducing me to this debate. They have both written about it on their blogs. Lindsay Kennedy has summarized an article written by Gordon P. Hugenberger entitled, “Samson and the Harlot at Gaza (Judges 16:1-3)” contained in the volume From Creation to New Creation. You can read his post at “Why Samson May Have Not Visited a Prostitute” at mydigitalseminary.com. Spencer Robinson has joined in the conversation by noting what Rikk Watts has to say on this topic. You can read his post at “Was Samson a Good Judge?” at spoiledmilks.wordpress.com. Besides Hugenberger and Watts, Miles Van Pelt has also joined the discussion with his post “What was Samson Doing with a Prostitute in Gaza?” at thegospelcoalition.org. Having read Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post, my purpose is to lay out their arguments for Samson as a “good guy.” However, while many of us would like to believe that Samson’s visit to the prostitute at Gaza has some “redeeming social value,” in the second part of this post I will attempt to explain why I disagree with Hugenberger’sĀ  and Van Pelt’s arguments. Although I’m using the “good guy/bad guy” vocabulary, I must caution that neither I, nor any scholar I am familiar with, thinks that Samson is all bad or all good. Like all of us, he is a mixture of both.

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Positive Interpretation

from creationThe following list is a summary of Hugenberger’s arguments regarding a positive reading of the Samson story as a whole, as well as the story of Samson and the Gaza prostitute:

1.”The biblical text nowhere states why Samson went down to Gaza” (p. 63) and, therefore, the reader should not be influenced by speculations that he was lonely or had an “irrepressible libido.”

2. The expression “he came to her,” is ambiguous and, “In the vast majority of cases the expression refers to one entering into the company of another without any sexual implication” (p. 64).

3. 16:1-3 “offers no hint of moral rebuke,” and the feat of removing the doors, doorposts, and bar from the city gates implies, “if anything, divine approbation” (p. 65).

4. The progammatic text of Judges 2:6-23 suggests a “positive view of the judges” (p. 67). Hugenberger argues that, “many of the texts assumed to offer incontrivertible proof of egregious moral failure or infidelity toward God on the part of the judges are often susceptible to less negative interpretations” (p. 67).

Gordon Hugenberger, pictured above, along with Miles Van Pelt and others, argues for a positive interpretation of the Samson and the Gaza prostitute story.
Gordon Hugenberger, pictured above, along with Miles Van Pelt and others, argues for a positive interpretation of the Samson and the Gaza prostitute story.

6&7. Hugenberger’s two main proofs that the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode should be read positively are based on the parallels between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2, and the contrasts between Judges 16:1-3 and Judges 18. For a more detailed look at the comparisons between these stories, click the link to Kennedy’s post above.

7. Hugenberger also questions why God hears Samson’s prayers after the Delilah episode if he is the bad character that some paint him to be.

Van Pelt shares some similarities with Hugenberger’s arguments for a more positive interpretation of the Samson and Gaza prostitute story. He adds that Samson may have visited a prostitute to mask his true intent. He also notes that the similarities between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2 may be “the author’s way of preparing us for the eventual destruction of that town.” He questions what the author’s point would be in recording that Samson had a one night stand and argues that “Samson goes to Gaza to do what Israel was failing to do.”

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Negative Interpretation

In this section I will respond to the arguments cited above made by Hugenberger and Van Pelt and demonstrate why, despite their reasonings, I continue to view the episode in Judges 16:1-3 negatively. The numbers in parenthesis below correspond to the arguments laid out above.

(1) I am in agreement with Hugenberger’s statement that the biblical text does not state why Samson went to Gaza. This is not an argument for a positive or negative interpretation, however. It is simply an assertion that we should remain open-minded as we approach the text.

(2) It is true that the expression “he came in(to) her” is used in various ways in the Hebrew Scriptures and that in a majority of cases it does not have any reference to sexual activity. However, when this expression is accompanied by other sexual references in the text it is certainly suggestive of sexual intimacy. Hugenberger notes that this phrase occurs 15 other times in Judges and, with the possible exception of Judges 15:1, it never refers to sexual intimacy. He also states, “a majority of modern English translations and commentaries do not favor this option” for 15:1. This is a bit of a “straw man” however. If I were to argue that “came (in)to” in a majority of cases throughout the Hebrew Bible does not refer to sexual intimacy (which is true, as noted above), therefore, it probably doesn’t refer to sexual intimacy in Genesis 38:16, I would be wrong. Just because a word doesn’t mean something in a majority of cases, does not rule out that it could carry that meaning in a context that specifically suggests such a meaning. For example, “came (in)to” has the regular meaning of approaching in the context of the Angel of the Lord “coming to” Manoah’s wife (Judg. 13:6, 9, 10). That is its natural meaning and there is nothing in the context to suggest otherwise. However, throw in the word “prostitute,” or other sexually charged words, and “came (in)to” quite naturally carries a sexual connotation. Whether Samson did or didn’t engage in sexual activity with the prostitute may be debated, but the atmosphere of the text is certainly sexually charged by the language used. We will return to this phrase when discussing Joshua 2 below, but for now I note that Hugenberger’s argument regarding “the usual meaning based on number of occurrences makes the less usual meaning doubtful,” as erroneous.

Samson carries the gates of Gaza - Judges 16 3 - Henri Motte The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3. edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908
Samson carries the gates of Gaza – Judges 16 3 – Henri Motte
The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3. edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908

(3) I agree, as Hugenberger points out, that this episode “offers no hint of moral rebuke.” But this doesn’t mean that we should automatically conclude that it demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation.” One of the characteristics of Hebrew narrative is to tell the story and leave the judgment up to the reader’s perception. For example, there is no moral rebuke for Abram’s action in taking Hagar and conceiving through her (Gen. 16). In fact, God protects Hagar and the child and commands them to return to Abram and Sarai after they had been driven away. Yet every reader knows that Abram’s actions are wrong. Closer to home in the Book of Judges, we could cite numerous examples. Whether one thinks Jephthah offered his daughter as a sacrifice, or simply doomed her to perpetual virginity, it can not be argued that his vow was anything except foolish. However, no moral censure is recorded and God still gives Jephthah victory. To argue that God blesses Jephthah with victory and that this demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation” of his vow, is clearly nonsensical.

(4) There is certainly truth to the contention that Judges 2:6-23 puts the judges in a more positive light than the rest of Israel. However, this does not mean that the judges are shining examples of virtue. The judges exercise faith and they are God’s instruments to deliver his people, but the evidence shows that they were very human and were affected by the environment they were a part of. Most, if not all, commentators will give high marks to the first few judges–Othniel, Ehud, and Barak & Deborah. Even here some raise their eyebrows at Ehud’s methods and Barak’s unwillingness to go to battle without Deborah; but, largely, these judges are positive role models. While there are good qualities in all of the judges, there does seem to be a turning point for the worse with Gideon and those who follow after him in the book. In spite of the good that Gideon accomplishes, are we really expected to cheer him for torturing and slaughtering fellow-Israelites (Judg. 8:13-17), or creating a golden ephod that leads Israel back into idolatry? (Judg. 8:27). We have already noticed the problem of Jephthah’s vow; should we also congratulate him for his civil war against the Ephraimites where he is said to slaughter 42,000? (Judg. 12:1-6). The point is, although the judges are capable of great good, they are also capable of great evil, and this includes Samson.

Is Joshua's sending of the spies in Joshua 2 positive or negative?
Is Joshua’s sending of the spies in Joshua 2 a positive or negative story?

(5&6) Hugenberger, as well as Van Pelt, are quite correct to notice the similarities of Judges 16:1-3 with Joshua 2 and Judges 18. However, how one interprets the relationship between these passages is up for debate. Both Hugenberger and Van Pelt see Joshua 2 comparing favorably with Judges 16, and thus presenting a positive picture of Samson. A number of commentators on Joshua would disagree. For example regarding Joshua 2, J. Gordon Harris states, “Note how the narrator reports that God ordered Joshua to arise and cross the Jordan, but instead Joshua orders spies to go to Jericho and Canaan. By sending spies, Joshua risked the success of the mission” (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, NIBC, p. 27). Robert Polzin is even more direct when he says, “In reponse, Joshua timidly sends out spies to reconnoiter the country, and we are immediately alerted that Joshua may not be as strong and resolute as God and the people had encouraged him to be” (Moses and the Deuteronomist, p. 86). If these commentators are corrrect, the spy story in Joshua 2 is actually a negative comment on the faith of Joshua and the Israelites. The fact of the matter is, it seems that most spy stories in the Hebrew Bible have a negative bent to them (Num. 13; Deut. 1:21-32; Josh. 7:2-5; Judg. 1:22-26.

It is also argued that the sexually charged language of Joshua 2 raises suspicions about the rightness of this mission. Creach states, “Sexual innuendo permeates the story and is a driving force in its plot” (Joshua, Interpretation Commentary, p. 32). Hugenberger argues strenuously that the spies did not engage in sexual promiscuity (pp. 71-73). I agree with him, but this misses the point. The sexually charged language of Joshua 2 is not meant to suggest that the spies had sexual relations with Rahab; it is meant to color the narrative so that the dubious nature of this mission is exposed. In other words, it is one more way that the narrator suggests that Joshua made a mistake in sending out the spies. Based on the assertion that the spies were not guilty of sexual misconduct in Joshua 2, Hugenberger makes a huge leap when he states, “it seems plausible that the same presumption of innocence should obtain for Samson at Gaza” (p. 72). Not only is this a huge jump in the interpretive process, but I would make two observations: 1) Early in his article, Hugenberger states “It is hardly persuasive to build an argument on what an author or editor ‘did not say'” (p. 66). Yet Hugenberger seeks to argue that if the spies didn’t, then Samson didn’t! 2) Hugenberger is also assuming that the spy story of Joshua 2 is positive. If it is negative, however, as noted above, then, using Hugenberger’s logic, the negative qualities of Joshua 2 color the narrative in Judges 16:1-3 making a negative interpretation of Samson’s actions more likely.

There is a further problem with Hugenberger’s application of both Joshua 2 and Judges 18 to the episode in Judges 16:1-3. Because Hugenberger interprets the story in Joshua 2 positively, he sees the similarity in language with Judges 16 as evidence for a positive interpretation of the Samson story. Again, there are two problems: 1) Even if, for the sake of argument, we agree that Joshua 2 is a positive story about the spies, how do we know that the Samson story is not a parody on the spy story of Joshua 2? In other words, in Joshua 2 the spies don’t have sex with Rahab, but in Judges 16 Samson does what the spies didn’t do! It’s all a matter of perspective as to whether the story is a parallel to Joshua 2 or an anti-parallel. 2) If the story in Joshua 2 is a negative story, then the parallel that Hugenberger argues for must be seen as a negative for the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode. Otherwise, Hugenberger must change his intepretation and say Joshua 2 is an anti-parallel story! My point is this process, although helpful, is also very subjective. The same can be said of the similarities between Judges 16 and 18. Here, Hugenberger sees the story in Judges 18 as a contrast to Judges 16:1-3, whereas, I would argue that it is a parallel. One of the reasons I would argue for it being parallel is that the story in Judges 18 is the second half of a story that begins in chapter 17 with the words “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). This is a familiar refrain repeated throughout the end of the book (Judg. 21:25). In the Samson narrative (Judg. 13-16), the first words out of his mouth are when he demands his parents to get him the woman from Timnah as a wife for, “she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This statement suggests that Samson has a lot in common with the people of Judges 17-21.

In his blindness, Samson was made to see.
In his blindness, Samson was made to see.

(7) I also believe that Hugenberger’s and Van Pelt’s argument for a positive Samson overlooks an important motif in the story. The author is clear that Samson has a “seeing” problem. As just noted, Samson has an eye for the ladies and the first words he utters include, “I have seen a woman” (Judg. 14:2), “Get her for me because she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This “seeing” problem is what leads Samson to the house of the Gaza prostitute. Judges 16:1 begins, “Now Samson went to Gaza and saw a harlot there, and went in to her” (NKJV). Ironically, Samson’s eye problem is cured when he is blinded by the Philistines. It is only when he is blind, that he truly begins to see (as the hymn says!). While blind, Samson seeks the Lord and prays for strength to avenge himself for his two eyes (Judg. 16:28). It is Samson’s dependence on the Lord that renews his strength, not his upright character (as Hugenberger suggests) in relation to the prostitute or anyone else. An important mistake made by Van Pelt, along these lines, is that he argues that Samson went to the prostitute’s house so that he would not be detected, and so that he might mask his true intent. This is wrong on two counts: 1) As Hugenberger notes, the house of a prostitute did not guarantee masking your intentions–both Samson and the spies are found out by the people in the city (so much for masking one’s intent!). 2) Hugenberger also notes that Samson’s original destination in Gaza was not the prostitute’s house. This is made clear in 16:1 when it says that Samson only went to the prostitute’s house after he “saw” her. As Barry Webb states, “What the text clearly implies, however, is that he did not go to Gaza with the express intention of visiting a prostitute” (Judges, NICOT, p. 393). Thus, Van Pelt’s supposition that Samson went to the prostitute’s houseĀ  to spy out the town (like the spies of Joshua 2) is incorrect. Although Hugenberger’s comments help to undermine Van Pelt’s supposition, he comes to the same conclusion that Samson’s visit to the prostitute, like the spies of Jericho, is an “appropriate step that would enable the divinely approved work of dispossession to begin” (p. 79). From an authorial perspective of the Book of Judges, I can see how the biblical author’s parallels to Jericho might suggest this, but from a historical or practical viewpoint, I find it hard to understand how visiting the house of a prostitute announces the dispossession of a city! Again, from a literary point of view I can understand how Samson’s visit to a prostitute would recall the story of Joshua 2, and thus prepare the reader for Gaza’s destruction. However, to suggest that this was Samson’s motive, not only rings hollow to me, it doesn’t fit reality.

Finally, the Conclusion!

To make a long post, longer, let me conclude by saying that Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post are well worth reading. Not only should one read it for him/herself to judge whether I have represented them fairly, but also one should read it because, like Samson himself, there is good as well as bad in them (ha!). I also want to say that I greatly look forward to Hugenberger’s forthcoming commentary on Judges in the Apollos series (Judges Commentary in the Apollos series). I’m confident that, not only will this commentary be full of insight, but it will also give Hugenberger more space to develop and defend his thesis about Samson and the rest of the judges. Meanwhile, I remain convinced that the overall structure of Judges consists of a downward spiral where the spiritual life of the people of Israel and the judges themselves continues to deteriorate to the end of the book. For an excellent treatment and defense of this thesis see the commentaries by Daniel Block in the NAC series and Barry Webb in the NICOT (see link above). Since this topic seems to be a lively debate at the moment, I would welcome all comments that any readers might want to share. After all, it is in the give and take of exchanging our understanding of a biblical passage that we sharpen each other and strive to get at the real meaning of the text.

The Philistines and Their Cities

The Philistines Early History

Invasion of the Sea Peoples. For further information see http://wysinger.homestead.com/seapeople.html
Invasion of the Sea Peoples. For further information see http://www.wysinger.homestead.com/seapeople.html

Did you know that there is a lot happening in the excavation of ancient Philistine sites? The Philistines were one of the famous foes of ancient Israel. They arrived in Canaan some time around 1200-1150 B.C. and are part of the migration of the so-called Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples consisted of various groups from the eastern Mediterranean (the Aegean region) who invaded Asia Minor (Turkey), Canaan, and Egypt during the 12th century B.C. (see map on the right). The Philistines are first mentioned in inscriptions by Ramasses III (c. 1184-1163 B.C.) who claims to have defeated them (and a coalition of Sea Peoples) after they had already overrun Canaan. The Philistines settled on the southern coastal plain of Canaan establishing five capital cities (Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza, Ekron, and Gath–see 1 Sam. 5-6).

This map shows the coastal area controlled by the Philistines and some of the battles they engaged in with Israel. The map is taken from http://www.bible-history.com/geography/maps/map_philistine_cities_expansion.html
This map shows the coastal area controlled by the Philistines and some of the battles they engaged in with Israel. The map is taken from http://www.bible-history.com/geography/maps/map_philistine_cities_expansion.html

The Philistines were a major threat to Israel during the later period of the Judges and into the united monarchy period. 1 Samuel 13:19-22 reveals the Philistines’ had a monopoly on iron, giving them an edge (pun intended) in weapon superiority. They first appear as a foe during the time of Samson (Judg. 13:5). Rather than rejoice in Samson’s acts of deliverance, the men of Judah insist that the Philistines rule over them (Judg. 15:11), and see him as a threat to the status-quo. During the high priesthood of Eli (while Samuel was a young man), the Philistines inflicted a major defeat on Israel, taking the ark and destroying the sanctuary in Shiloh (1 Sam. 4; Jer. 7:12). Although Samuel experienced some military success against them (1 Sam. 7:13), the Philistines inflicted another major defeat on Israel during Saul’s reign, killing Saul and several of his sons (1 Sam. 31). These incursions into Israelite territory resulted in severing the northern area of Galilee from the rest of the nation. This put Israel’s survival as a nation in jeopardy. For a short period of time David lived among the Philistines while he was running from Saul. He was given the city of Ziklag (see map on the left) in exchange for his service to Achish, King of Gath (1 Sam. 27:5-6). Once David became king of Israel, he inflicted several severe defeats on the Philistines and, from that time on, they were never again a major threat to Israel (2 Sam. 5:17-25).

Philistine Cities

Tel-Qasile

In the summers of 2008 and 2009 I had the opportunity of visiting each of the sites of the major Philistine cities except for Gaza. Archaeologists have learned much about Philistine culture and have uncovered a vast amount of Philistine artifacts. The object of the rest of this article is to introduce others to these various Philistine cities by providing some basic facts and photos. My first visit to a Philistine site was actually one that I was unfamiliar with. It is known today as Tel-Qasile and is located to the north of modern Tel-Aviv (you can locate it on the map at the top just above Joppa). The ancient name of this city is not known, but many Philistine artifacts and buildings were discovered here, including a temple.

Buildings and streets at Tel-Qasile, an ancient Philistine city
Remains at Tel-Qasile, an ancient Philistine city
Temple at Tel-Qasile
Philistine Temple at Tel-Qasile

Ashkelon

Archaeological excavations have been taking place at Ashkelon ever since 1985. At its largest extent, Ashkelon covered an area of 150 acres, one of the largest in Israel! Ashkelon is the oldest and largest seaport known in Israel and it also boasts the oldest arched city gate in the world. This gate (pictured below) dates from the Canaanite era and is roughly contemporary with the gate from Tel-Dan shown in one of my previous articles. Archaeologists have learned much about the commercial activity of this thriving seaport city. For a brief description of Ashkelon’s economics click on the following link: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/the-philistine-marketplace-at-ashkelon/ For a current look at what is happening at Tel-Ashkelon see the following site: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/digs-2014/excavating-ashkelon-in-2014/

Me at the Canaanite gate in Ashkelon, the oldest arched gate ever discovered.
Me at the Canaanite gate in Ashkelon, the oldest arched gate ever discovered.
More of the ruins at ancient Ashkelon
More of the ruins at ancient Ashkelon

Ashdod

Among the finds at Ashdod are a 6-chambered gate, similar to those found in Israel (e.g., Megiddo, see my article), and some mycenaean (ancestors of Greek culture) pottery, characteristic of the Philistines (see photo below under Ekron for some examples). One of the interesting features of Ashdod is the museum which houses many Philistine artifacts.

Models of ancient Philistines mixed with some modern Philistines found fooling around at the Ashdod museum!
Models of ancient Philistines mixed with some modern Philistines found fooling around at the Ashdod museum! The feathered headress was a characteristic feature of Philistine military dress.
Ancient figurines used in Philistine worship from the Ashdod museum
Ancient figurines used in Philistine worship from the Ashdod museum

Ekron (Tel-Miqne)

Ancient Ekron actually yielded an inscription identifying it by name. The inscription, which dates to the early 7th century, mentions the name of Ekron’s king at that time: “Achish son of Padi.” For those who know the story of David, it will be recalled that this was the name of the king of Gath that David served under during his fugitive days from Saul (1 Sam. 27–see comments above). For a picture of the inscription and its translation see the following link: http://cojs.org/cojswiki/index.php/Ekron_Inscription,_early_7th_century_BCE. At the ancient site of Ekron, I experienced a Philistine museum of a different type. This one was an outdoor museum.

IMG_4288
Outdoor museum at Ekron (Tel-Miqne). The object right of the center of the picture is an ancient Philistine loom, reminiscent of the Samson and Delilah story (Judg. 16:13-14).
Examples of classic Philistine pottery (mycenaean influence) at Tel-Miqne
Examples of classic Philistine pottery (mycenaean influence) at Tel-Miqne
This cart might be similar to the one used by the Philistines to transport the ark of the covenant back to Israel (1 Sam. 6:7-12).
This cart might be similar to the one used by the Philistines to transport the ark of the covenant back to Israel (1 Sam. 6:7-12).

Gath (Tel es-Safi)

Gath is also an extremely large site and has been undergoing excavation since 1996. In fact, one of my former students participated in an excavation there in the summer of 2009. A number of exciting discoveries have been made, including an ostracon with a name that is similar to “Goliath” (see the photo below). A large storage jar that includes the word “Rapha” (translated “giant” in 2 Sam. 21:16-22) has also been found, along with other interesting artifacts (e.g., a horned altar). For more information on the ongoing excavations at Gath click the following link: https://faculty.biu.ac.il/~maeira/

Hanging out with Philistines at Tel es-Safi (Gath). The mound in the background is the Tel, of which only a part is visible.
Hanging out with Philistines at Tel es-Safi (Gath). The mound in the background is the Tel, of which only a part is visible.
The goliath ostracon. Photo from: comment
The goliath ostracon. Photo from: http://gath.wordpress.com/2006/02/16/comment-on-the-news-item-in-bar-on-the-goliath-inscription/
Excavations at Tel es-Safi (Gath). This photo was taken the summer of 2008. Gath has seen 6 more seasons of excavation since then!
One area of excavations at Tel es-Safi (Gath). This photo was taken the summer of 2008. Gath has seen 6 more seasons of excavation since then!

The Philistine cities remain a rich resource for understanding their culture and biblical history. With excavations ongoing at some of these sites we will continue to increase our knowledge and understanding of one of Israel’s most dreaded foes in the ancient world. For more information on the Philistines see the websites included in this article, as well as any good Bible dictionary.

(All photos, unless otherwise noted, are the property of Randy & Gloria McCracken and are to be used for educational purposes only.)