Samson and Delilah (the Israelite Woman)

samsonIn the book of Judges, we encounter the mighty Israelite judge, Samson. He is perhaps best known for his herculean strength. Yet, he is also known for his weakness for women—especially Philistine women. His relationship with Delilah, often portrayed as a sneaky seductress, was his undoing. She coaxed him into divulging the secret of his strength: his long braids of hair. Though they were the symbol of his devotion to God, they were also his “Achilles’ heel.”

But was Delilah a Philistine?


Throughout the ages, she has been portrayed as a Philistine. Indeed, she takes her place alongside the other Philistine women in Samson’s life. His wife (for all of a week) was a Philistine girl from the town of Timnah (Judges 14.1–2). Samson also visited a prostitute in Gaza, which was one of the five towns of the Philistine ‘Pentapolis’ (Judges 16:1). But was Delilah actually a Philistine too?

Let’s look at the evidence.

First, unlike the other two women in Samson’s life, the biblical text never identifies Delilah as a Philistine. All it says is that she was “in the Valley of Sorek” (Judges 16:4). Where was this valley? Was it in Philistine territory? Well, not quite. The Valley of Sorek begins in the highlands, a few miles from Jerusalem. It twists and turns westwards, descending down into the foothills (the “Shephelah”). At this point, the valley formed the border between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. It keeps descending until it eventually hits the Coastal Plain, which is where the Philistines lived. At that point the land flattens out—it is a plain after all. The seasonal stream that runs through the valley continues across the Coastal Plain and eventually hits the Mediterranean. If the biblical text is referring to this seasonal stream, then Delilah could have lived anywhere along its course—from the highlands of Judah to the Mediterranean coast.


But the biblical text makes a particular statement that means Delilah could not have lived by the Sorek stream on the Coastal Plain. Judges 16:5 tells us that the Philistine leaders “went up” (Heb: ויעלו) to Delilah and paid her to trick Samson into revealing the secret of his strength. That is, they ascended into the hills in order to reach her. This means she was most likely not in Philistine territory. If she was, she was at best on the very edge of it.

Yet, if Delilah was a Philistine, why do the Philistine leaders not simply command her to trick Samson? Why do they each pay her 1100 pieces of silver to do the deed? Since there were five Philistine rulers from the five Philistine centres (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Gath), that’s probably 5500 pieces of silver! Would not the threat of death by a direct authority be enough? Why are they so willing to empty their coffers for her, but never once empty their scabbards?

samson-et-dalila-1949-05-gSome modern depictions of Delilah portray her as the opportunist seductress, who uses her wiles and lack of scruples to make a quick buck. Some view her as a prostitute making a bit of extra cash while tricking her trick. Of course the Philistine leaders would pay for her services! Why, perhaps she even once serviced them? But Delilah was not the prostitute whom Samson visited in Gaza along the coast. Delilah didn’t live in Gaza! She lived up in the hills in the Valley of Sorek. And the biblical text never so much as implies that she was a prostitute. It seems that, as with Mary Magdalene, Delilah has been mistakenly thought of as a hustler when she wasn’t!

So if Delilah wasn’t a wily seductress or an opportunist prostitute, how did she come to have a dalliance with Samson? The biblical text simply states that she was a woman in the Valley of Sorek with whom Samson fell in love (Judges 16:4). This was Samson’s own home territory. He grew up in Zorah, Eshtaol, and Mahaneh Dan (Judges 13:2, 25)—all sites on the northern side of the Valley of Sorek. Samson simply fell for a local girl. Perhaps she was a Danite woman, since this territory was associated with Dan for a time. Or perhaps she was an Ephraimite woman, since the area was also associated with Ephraim.

Moreover, Delilah didn’t hatch the scheme to trap Samson. She did not approach the Philistine leaders, like Judas did with the Jewish leaders when he agreed to betray Jesus. She was not agreeing to trap the nemesis of her own people. Rather, the Philistine leaders “went up” to her and enticed her with a princely sum—1100 pieces of silver from each of them—to put their nemesis in chains. The exorbitant amount they paid her makes sense if they were asking her to betray one of her own—a leader of her own people, no less!

Samson unwittingly foiled the whole scheme to capture him three times. Rather than being tricked, he himself tricked Delilah (and the Philistines sponsoring her). On each occasion, the Philistines waited to pounce on him. And just when Delilah thought that Samson’s strength had left him, she called out, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” (Judges 16:9, 12, 14). This doesn’t sound like the cry of a Philistine woman in Philistine territory referring to her own countrymen. Perhaps if she referred to “guards” or “soldiers” or even “men,” we might suspect that Delilah was herself a Philistine. But to Delilah, the would-be captors of Samson were “Philistines”. They were other—people to be referred to by their ethnicity as different to “us.”

Evidently Samson didn’t make the connection between leading Delilah on and the sudden appearance of pouncing Philistines. So on the fourth occasion, Samson finally revealed the secret of his strength to Delilah. We’re told that it was because she harangued him constantly until he told her (Judges 16:16–17). If Delilah was a Philistine, perhaps Samson would have seen through the whole situation. Telling her the truth of his strength would have seriously endangered him. But he seems to trust her, albeit after considerable nagging, probably figuring that there can be no harm in revealing the secret to a fellow Israelite. Once he does, though, Delilah the Israelite betrays him. She summons the leaders of the Philistines to “come up” once more into the hills (Judges 16:18). They capture him and then “bring him down” to Gaza.

There is one further tantalising possibility that may suggest Delilah was an Israelite. We meet Delilah in Judges 16 when the Philistine rulers each agree to pay her 1100 pieces of silver for Samson. After Samson’s death, in the very next chapter, we are introduced to an Ephraimite (and therefore Israelite) man named Micah who steals 1100 pieces of silver from his unnamed mother (Judges 17:1–2). The correspondence with the sum paid to Delilah is uncanny. And coming immediately after the Samson and Delilah narrative, we are led to wonder whether this unnamed woman is, in fact, Delilah. The unnamed woman’s husband is never mentioned. Is it because he is dead? Is it because the woman was never married and had a son out of wedlock? Is Micah the son of Samson born to Delilah the Ephraimite after Samson’s death? Interestingly, this Micah narrative dovetails with the story of the migration of the Danite tribe (to which Samson belonged) from its land around the Valley of Sorek to land in the far north near Laish/Dan. It is, therefore, a fitting epilogue to the narrative of Samson the Danite. The fact that the woman with 1100 pieces of silver is not named means we cannot be sure that this is Delilah. Perhaps the 1100 pieces of silver are simply a thematic association that helps explain the placement of the two chapters (16 and 17) within the book of Judges. But the placement and narrative contexts are very suggestive.

mhicid5aktakjow6j_jivtaIn any case, it seems we have been treating Delilah as a Philistine, when she is actually an Israelite. She is not a conniving professional seductress, but a local girl who betrays a leader (albeit a very flawed one) of her own people. She was more traitor than temptress. In that way, she is perhaps the antithesis of Jael, wife of Heber, who causes the downfall of Sisera in Judges 4. This would be in keeping with the upending of Israel’s fortunes throughout the book of Judges and the portrayal of Israel’s descent into chaos. Delilah is still a sinister figure, but for perhaps slightly different reasons to what we previously thought.



Altar found at Shiloh—but let’s not get carried away

Archaeologists digging at the ancient site of Shiloh have uncovered an altar. Shiloh is known in the Bible as an early Israelite shrine that housed the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam 1–4). It’s perhaps best known as the place where Samuel first encountered Yahweh in a night vision, during the priesthood of Eli and his corrupt sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sam 3).

The site of Shiloh

The altar is small, measuring 60 x 60 cm wide, and 40 cm tall. Excavators say it was found in an installation dating to the Byzantine period, but claim the altar shows signs of having been used much earlier. What these signs are is not specified in the announcement by Israel National News (click HERE to read it). However, the archaeologists claim it dates to the Iron Age (1200–539 BC). This is a fairly vague statement. So given there is not much detail here, we should be very cautious about claiming to have found an altar mentioned in the Bible—especially one at a site which housed the Ark of the Covenant (calling Indiana Jones!). We need many more details about the altar, and a better knowledge of the stratigraphy of Shiloh before we make any definitive conclusions about this discovery.

So let’s wait and see what details surface over the next while to fill in the picture. Whatever these details turn out to be, this is certainly another exciting find.  But let’s not get carried away by hype.

A New Ceramic Inscription from Jerusalem (10th century BC?)

A new inscription purportedly dating to the 10th century BC has been discovered in excavations at Jerusalem. The inscription was inscribed on the shoulder of a large ceramic pithos jar that was turned up in Eilat Mazar’s excavation in the ‘City of David’ area (just south of the Old City walls). The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has issued a statement about the find, which I copy below at the end of this blog post (see blue section). Two photos accompanied the statement, and I have included them here in this blog post, too.

Here is the first photo:

This jar fragment bearing an inscription in the Canaanite language was unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar. Dated to the tenth century BCE, it is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Noga Cohen-Aloro.)

My initial thoughts:

There is some confusion in the media statement (see blue section below) about the dating of this inscription. On the one hand the statement claims the inscription is in a Proto-Canaanite script and dates to the era before Israelite rule, but then it claims the inscription comes from the 10th century BC and dates to Israelite rule. I think what the statement is probably trying to say is that the letters of the inscription appear to be in a script that is known from the era before Israelite rule, but the piece of pottery itself comes from a period during Israelite rule, specifically Iron IIa (10th century BC).

To me the script certainly looks very old. I’m not sure I’d label it ‘Proto-Canaanite’, though. On first glance I would say tenth century BC seems about right, with the script bearing some resemblance to Phoenician. This is, of course, a preliminary estimate, because although there is a hi-res photo of the inscription here, I’d need to see the pottery up close in person to make a more definitive evaluation.

Also, the statement says that the letters seem to be (left-to-right) mqphn, (possibly) l, and n—that is ן לנחפקמ. I would suggest a few other possibilities (again, this is only on first impression). The first letter (that is, the rightmost) seems to be the top half of a nun (נ) fairly clearly. Then, moving leftwards, there is a gap, followed by some strokes above the breakage that appear to be the upper portions of what may be a beth (ב) that does not quite join up at the top. However, these two strokes could belong to completely different letters, which is perhaps given more weight by the fact that there seems to be the bottom portion of an elongated stroke a little way below. If this matches up with the second of the strokes above the breakage, then I’d suggest it may well be a mem (מ). On that basis, I’d propose the previous stroke might belong to a lamed (ל).

Moving further left, the next letter, which is the first complete letter, is very problematic. It appears to have the shape of a nun (נ), but in reverse (compare it with the first stroke on the very right hand side). Other than nun, though, I can’t see what other letter this might be. So I’m going for it as an anomalous nun (נ).

The next letter seems to be a ḥeth (ח). The next two letters, however, are difficult to decipher. The first is touted as a pe (פ) in the media release, but I’m not convinced. Looking closely at the hi-res photo, I think the right part of the letter is not completely rounded, but has a kink at the point where it bends downwards. Also, I think there may be a small tail stroke on the bottom of that right hand portion. To me, this suggests a somewhat truncated form of tsade (צ), though I couldn’t rule out an odd-shaped taw (ת) either. The next letter was touted as a qoph (ק), and while this is a plausible suggestion, it looks more like a resh (ר) to me. The final visible letter appears unambiguously to be a mem (מ).

Thus, on a preliminary deciphering, I would propose the letters might be read ן למנחצרמ (n lmnḥṣrm). However, since I have not seen the fragment itself and only have the photo to go on, I won’t set that reading in stone (or ceramic!). It is purely a first impression. As I clearly learnt with the Tel Dan Inscription, you cannot rely solely on photographs of inscriptions, no matter how good the photos appear to be. Nothing beats an actual physical inspection made in person, because photos can unwittingly mask critical features (like the extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription).

What might this preliminary rendering of the letters mean? Well it might refer to something coming from the ‘courtyards’ (ḥaṣerim: חצרים), perhaps of the temple or the palace. Alternatively, perhaps the pithos jar held something ‘from Hadramaut’ (lemin ḥaṣramawt: למן חצרמות)—the biblical Hazarmaveth. The first possibility would be significant in and of itself as providing some evidence of a royal and/or cultic installation in Jerusalem during the 10th century BC. The second possibility would be stupendous, providing evidence of contact between Jerusalem and southern Arabia during the tenth century BC. However, as enticing and sensational as these possibilities are, we have to wait further work on this ceramic piece and get the eyes of a few more epigraphers onto it. We also have to ensure we understand the stratum in which the ceramic piece was found properly. This will come with further excavations in coming years.

Nonetheless, even if this inscription doesn’t quite live up to the deliciously sensational possibilities I’ve just mentioned, it is still significant as evidence of officialdom in (most likely) 10th century BC Jerusalem. The average person generally did not write things into their newly made ceramic jars. It was usually an administrative authority of some kind that needed to do that kind of thing. So this inscription should make us sit up and take notice. It does not tell us who was in Jerusalem, but it suggests that there was someone there with enough officialdom to require large pithos jars to be labelled in some way. This would have been to distinguish the jar either for its source, its destination, its function, its content, or its owner. Thus, this little inscription is a very neat find of considerable historical significance.

The language of the inscription is difficult to ascertain from so few letters, but there is good reason to think it is probably Hebrew. First, it was found in Jerusalem! Second, the ceramic piece probably dates to the tenth century BC. Third, the (visible) mem (מ) might be the masculine plural substantive ending. Fourth, we might have the preposition מן (‘from’) in a form with the preposition ל—a construction known from biblical texts (cf. Micah 7.12) While these last two reasons are still speculative at this stage, it seems sensible, given the first two reasons, to propose that this is a Hebrew inscription—one of the earliest we have (cf. the Tel Zayit Abecedary, Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon, and Gezer Calendar).

Feel free to interact with or challenge my suggestions here. As I’ve mentioned, they are only first impressions, so I’m very open to correction, improvement, or updating.

Here now is the official media release from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem:

Inscription From the Time of Kings David & Solomon
Found Near Southern Wall of Temple Mount
in Hebrew University Excavations

Jerusalem, July 10, 2013 —Working near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar has unearthed the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city.The inscription is engraved on a large pithos, a neckless ceramic jar found with six others at the Ophel excavation site. According to Dr. Mazar, the inscription, in the Canaanite language, is the only one of its kind discovered in Jerusalem and an important addition to the city’s history.

Dated to the tenth century BCE, the artifact predates by two hundred and fifty years the earliest known Hebrew inscription from Jerusalem, which is from the period of King Hezekiah at the end of the eighth century BCE.

A third-generation archaeologist working at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Mazar directs archaeological excavations on the summit of the City of David and at the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

The discovery will be announced in a paper by Dr. Mazar, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. David Ben-Shlomo of the Hebrew University, following their extensive research on the artifact. Prof. Ahituv studied the inscription and Dr. Ben-Shlomo studied the composition of the ceramic materials. The paper, “An Inscribed Pithos From the Ophel,” appears in the Israel Exploration Journal 63/1 (2013).

Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar displays a jar fragment unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount bearing an inscription in the Canaanite language. Dated to the tenth century BCE, it is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Oria Tadmor)

The inscription was engraved near the edge of the jar before it was fired, and only a fragment of it has been found, along with fragments of six large jars of the same type. The fragments were used to stabilize the earth fill under the second floor of the building they were discovered in, which dates to the Early Iron IIA period (10thcentury BCE).  An analysis of the jars’ clay composition indicates that they are all of a similar make, and probably originate in the central hill country near Jerusalem.

According to Prof. Ahituv, the inscription is not complete and probably wound around the jar’s shoulder, while the remaining portion is just the end of the inscription and one letter from the beginning. The inscription is engraved in a proto-Canaanite / early Canaanite script of the eleventh-to-tenth centuries BCE, which pre-dates the Israelite rule and the prevalence of Hebrew script.

Reading from left to right, the text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which translate to mqphn, (possibly) l, and n. Since this combination of letters has no meaning in known west-Semitic languages, the inscription’s meaning is unknown.

The archaeologists suspect the inscription specifies the jar’s contents or the name of its owner. Because the inscription is not in Hebrew, it is likely to have been written by one of the non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the city population in the time of Kings David and Solomon.

Excavations at the site are conducted in collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the East Jerusalem Development Company. The site is in the national park surrounding the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, near the southern wall of the Temple Mount compound. The Israel Antiquities Authority maintains the excavation site as a national park open to the public.

The excavations are made possible through a generous donation by Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman of New York. Participants in the dig include Israeli students and workers, along with students or alumni of Herbert W. Armstrong College sent to Jerusalem from Edmond, Oklahoma to participate in the excavation.

For more information:
Dov Smith

Hebrew University Foreign Press Liaison
02-5882844 / 054-8820860 (+ 972-54-8820860)

Here also is a YouTube clip featuring Eilat Mazar and Shmuel Ahituv talking about the inscription and their understanding of it as a Canaanite (non-Hebrew) text.


Christopher Rollston has given his own analysis. I also have some further thoughts in light of his.

Gershon Galil also elaborates on his own suggestion.

Aren Maeir also gives his preliminary perspective.