Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?
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’s 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
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).
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.
(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.
(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.
(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 house 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.