Sefer Shofetim Chapter 16
This chapter essentially depicts the downfall of Shimshon. It opens with Shimshon visiting a harlot in Azza. Hearing that is in town, a group of Pelishtim in Azza attempt to ambush him but their plot is foiled when he wakes up in the middle of the night and carries the gates of the city up to the top of a mountain with his bare hands.
The remainder of the chapter contains the famous story of Shimshon and Delilah. Shimshon becomes smitten with Delilah and takes her as his wife. The Pelishtim, seeing an opportunity, bribe Delilah to investigate the source of Shimshon’s great strength so they may take advantage of this information and capture him.
Delilah accepts the offer and probes Shimshon for the secret to his strength. Three times he provides her with misinformation and, acting based on that misinformation, Delilah summons the Pelishtim to ambush an (allegedly) vulnerable Shimshon. First, he claims that binding him with seven cords would restrain him. She ties him with seven fresh cords while he is sleeping, but when the Pelishtim attack him he is still fully capable of defending himself. Delilah presses Shimshon for the truth, and Shimshon then claims that being tied with seven brand new ropes would rob him of his strength; Delilah tries this as well, and it fails. Third, he claims that tying the locks of his hair to a loom would weaken him but this, too, does not have any effect on him.
It is interesting to note how, with each answer, he moves closer to the truth – the number seven is, indeed, the number of locks of hair he has, and this is mentioned in the first two answers. The third answer correctly identifies his hair as the source of his strength but misleads Delilah as to how that strength could be taken from him (i.e., by cutting it, not attaching it to a loom.)
A careful reading also suggests that the Pelishtim were less and less involved in Delilah’s ruse as they came to doubt her ability to complete the job. For example, while the first time they provided the cords to Delilah to bind Shimshon, suggesting they had confidence in her, it doesn’t even seem that an ambushing party showed up to fight Shimshon the third time.
Eventually, under intense pressure (the Rabbis say Delilah withheld marital relations from Shimshon until he could no longer stand it) Shimshon finally reveals his secret – he is a Nazirite whose long hair symbolizes his devotion to God Who is the true source of his strength, and were his hair to be cut, he would become like any other man. Delilah summons the Pelishtim one final time and they successfully capture Shimshon and blind him in both eyes. He is taken to the temple of the idol of Dagon so that the Pelishtim can mock him and celebrate the great victory that they believe their god has handed them.
The Pelishtim order the blind Shimshon to dance so they can jeer at him; tired after his performance, he asks the boy who has been leading him to let him lean upon the pillars of the building. During his time in prison, Shimshon’s hair has begun to grow once again; calling out to Hashem for one last miracle, he asks that his supernatural prowess be restored so that he can put a stop to the terrible desecration of God’s name that is transpiring around him. He pushes against the pillars, bringing the entire building down on the assembled gathering and killing himself together with thousands of Pelishtim. His family recovers his body from the rubble and gives him a proper burial.
There are a couple of important points to consider in this chapter. First, it is noteworthy that the chapter begins with Shimshon visiting a prostitute for no reason – purely for pleasure – unlike his prior romantic escapades that were motivated by his search for pretexts to attack the Pelishtim. Along similar lines, he seems to genuinely “falls in love” with Delilah rather than having a plan to use his relationship with her to extract vengeance from his enemies.
These two elements of the narrative point to the disintegration of Shimshon as a leader – he begins to focus on himself and the satisfaction of his own desires separate and apart from his higher mission as a savior of Israel.
This trend also helps us explain the strange episode with Delilah. The story of Shimshon and Delilah raises two obvious questions – first of all, why is Shimshon so foolish? Realizing that Delilah intends to carry out whatever actions he claims will rob him of his strength, he must know that she will cut his hair, leaving him exposed to the assaults of the Pelishtim (attacks we can safely assume that love-struck Shimshon did NOT realize his own wife was instigating.) Second, why does the shaving of his head “magically” cause Shimshon to lose his strength? Is there something magical about the physical locks of hair that makes him powerful?
I believe the answer is that the story with Delilah is meant to illustrate the extent to which Shimshon has lost all focus on his Divine mission. He is so wrapped up in his relationship with her, so consumed with seeking her love and approval, that he places the nation at risk by divulging a closely guarded secret. Again, it is reasonable to assume that he did not believe she would place him in harm’s way and invite the Pelishtim to take advantage of his weakened state.
However, Shimshon’s desire for Delilah blinded him (note the poetic justice of his punishment!) to the healthy suspicion he should have had of this foreign woman – suspicion that should have forbidden him to hand over information that rendered the entire Jewish people vulnerable to their enemies. By sharing the secret with her, he literally empowered her to determine his fate and the fate of the nation of Israel – a horrific mistake on his part.
It was this poor decision of Shimshon, this placing of his amorous interests above those of the people of Israel, that truly resulted in the withdrawal of the Divine Presence from him and in his losing the position of leadership that he had been granted. The cutting of his hair was merely a manifestation of his absolute and final failure as protector of the Jewish people. Shimshon is the only one of the Shofetim whose career ends in a dramatic and tragic defeat, and he is the last Shofet whose story is detailed in this book.