“Samson’s story begins with a miraculous birth to a barren mother and ends with his death in a Philistine temple. The visit to the prostitute in Gaza introduces us to the second part of his life and his well-known encounter with the infamous Delilah.”
Of all the judges in the book of Judges, Samson is perhaps the most famous. Who can forget his miraculous birth, long hair, feats of great strength, and, most notoriously, his relationship with Delilah?
Most of us like Samson because we can identify with him. Samson was a sinner, and I am a sinner. If God can use Samson, then surely God can use me. In fact, we are probably attracted to a figure like Samson because we believe that Samson sinned in ways greater than most of us do. So if God can love and use someone as “sinful” as Samson, then maybe God can love and use someone like you and me.
I wonder, however, if this type of interpretation is correct. Do these biblical narratives exist only to make us feel better about ourselves, or is there something more to this story? Did the author of the book of Hebrews include Samson in the “Hall of Faith” (Heb. 11:32) because of his value for our self-esteem or because of the faithful execution of his office as judge—“who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” (Heb. 11:33)?
Gaza in Context
In order to demonstrate my point, let’s consider his night with a prostitute in Judges 16:1-3. In this short account, Samson travels to Gaza, spends half the night with a prostitute, steals the city gates, and then travels with them on his back for some 40 miles to the region of Hebron. Was this a night of frustrated passion culminating in an act of rage as most commentators suggest? Perhaps, but probably not.
Samson’s story begins with a miraculous birth to a barren mother and ends with his death in a Philistine temple. The visit to the prostitute in Gaza introduces us to the second part of his life and his well-known encounter with the infamous Delilah. It is, therefore, no accident that we read of Samson visiting a prostitute in Gaza in 16:1-3. This is the same Philistine town to which he will be taken captive (16:21), and the same town in which he will kill more Philistines in his death than in his life (16:30). In other words, Judges 16 is about Samson’s overthrow of the Philistine stronghold in Gaza by way of his associations with two women of questionable character.
How, then, does this episode with a prostitute in Judges 16:1-3 set us up for the rest of the chapter? What was Samson doing with a prostitute in Gaza, and did Samson have sex with this prostitute?
Did Samson Have Sex with this Prostitute?
Let’s begin with the second question. Did Samson engage in illicit sexual activity with a prostitute in Gaza? Most commentators answer “yes” to this question, and most translations leave little doubt in our minds.
However, the Hebrew text does not necessarily require that Samson engaged in this sort of activity. Verse one states that “Samson went to Gaza, saw a prostitute there, and he came to her.” The last part of this verse, “and he came to her,” is translated a number of different ways. For example, the NIV translates the Hebrew as “he went in to spend the night with her.” The ESV and NASB go further by reading “and he went into her.” These euphemistic translations imply that Samson had sex with the prostitute.
Such renderings are certainly possible, and this expression does constitute one of the ways in which the Hebrew language can speak of sexual activity (see Gen. 38:18; Ezek. 23:44; 2 Sam. 12:24). This expression, however, does not always carry the nuance of sexual innuendo. Perhaps the best example appears earlier in the book of Judges, in 4:22, where Barak enters the tent of Jael in pursuit of Sisera. The exact same expression that appeared in 16:1 also appears here in 4:22. But this time, notice how the translations handle the text. The ESV translates the expression, “So he went in to her tent,” and the NASB translates the same expression as “and he entered with her.”
It is clear from these examples that the various translations are rendering the same expression in different ways depending upon the context. The Judges 16 text is translated with sexual innuendo because of the presence of a prostitute and what we have been taught to expect of Samson. In Judges 4, however, the relationship between Barak and Jael does not appear to warrant this interpretation. The significant role of context for both translation and interpretation now leads us to ask our second question.