Black and white etching of a man fighting a lion and grasping at its throat

Samson in Gaza

The biblical story of Samson sheds light on the current war in Gaza.

By Brian Britt|January 25, 2024

The biblical story of Samson (Judges 13–16) and its reception provide context for the war in Gaza and Israel. In Israeli culture, Samson typically represents masculine power, but the biblical Samson blends strength with weakness and insight with blindness.

In the book of Judges, which takes place “when there was no king in Israel,” Samson’s physical feats, love life, and clever use of riddles frame the conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines. After he is betrayed by Delilah and blinded by his enemies, Samson carries out a suicide-murder in the temple of the god Dagon. Unlike its heroic retellings, the biblical text withholds comment on this act of revenge. The Samson story has generated multiple readings and retellings that reflect tensions in the biblical text. Scholar J. Cheryl Exum describes Samson as “comic and tragic,” “hero and fool,” “freedom fighter and terrorist.”

For Zionists before and after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Samson has symbolized anxious hope in military strength. Since October 7, several commentators have made reference to Samson, and two different opinion pieces have borrowed the phrase “eyeless in Gaza” from John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671). The writer David Grossman describes the role of Samson in Israeli culture as a symbol of manly power associated with elite military units, body-building clubs, and the nuclear weapons program known as the “Samson option.” But as Grossman points out, Israeli uses of Samson mark an anxiety that leads to exaggerated dependence on force. He describes “the well-known Israeli feeling, in the face of any threat that comes along, that the country’s security is crumbling—a feeling that also exists in the case of Samson, who in certain situations seems to shatter into pieces, his strength vanishing in the blink of an eye.” In a shift from more positive early images of Samson, recent Israeli fiction often portrays him as an anti-hero, and for Grossman he comes to symbolize how “Israel’s considerable military might is an asset that becomes a liability.”

This anxiety helps explain the Israeli response to the attacks of October 7. Defined by personal and collective traumas, the modern histories of Palestine and Israel are monuments to fear and anger. Samson’s rage leads to the destructive violence that kills him and those around him. The story concludes with an act of revenge and without a resolution to the conflict. In the current war, brutal acts of indiscriminate violence have triggered popular support for retribution. With strong support from the United States, the war has brought thousands of civilian deaths without progress toward peaceful resolution.

Two elements of the biblical story, volatile passions and domestic divisions, stand out in the novel Samson the Nazirite (1926) by the Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky and its 1949 film adaptation, Samson and Delilah by Cecil B. DeMille (1949). In Samson’s encounters with Philistines, the political is always personal. He attacks the Philistines over a marriage dispute and kills himself and many others after his humiliation by Delilah. The film translates this passion into the Delilah’s power over Samson, a feature of the story that has inspired centuries of misogynistic readers who cast her as a femme fatale responsible for Samson’s downfall.

Jabotinsky draws special attention to internal ancient Israelite politics. His novel embellishes the biblical scene where the Israelites of Judah denounce Samson after they are attacked by the Philistines. The confrontation between Samson and his fellow Israelites echoes disputes among factions of Zionist Jews during Jabotinsky’s time. Domestic disputes have also roiled Israel in recent months, with massive demonstrations over plans to transform judicial oversight of the government, followed by fierce debates over security failures and management of the war. These discussions rarely include Palestinians, even though about a fifth of Israeli citizens are Palestinian and the majority of war victims have been Palestinians in Gaza.

From the children’s series VeggieTales to Marvel comics, the figure of Samson is as popular today as ever. Like centuries of Jewish and Christian readings, these versions typically focus on the dangers of lust or the glory of revenge. In doing so, they overlook biblical mixtures of the personal and political that resist easy lessons and satisfying endings. In the context of Judges and the books that follow it, Samson’s fate goes beyond personal failure to misgivings about human leadership that not even kings can resolve. When he kills more at his death “than those he had killed during his life” (16:30), Samson reflects the pattern of “death and dissymmetry” that scholar Mieke Bal finds in the book of Judges. Heroic strength and righteous revenge may be appealing, but the violence they generate may resolve as little today as they did in the time of the judges.  

Featured image: “Samson and the Lion,” from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the public domain

Headshot of Brian Britt

Brian Britt

Brian Britt is a professor of religion and cultural theory in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech and serves as Director of the ASPECT Ph.D. program. He teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible, religion and literature, and modern religious thought. Last fall he published Religion Around Walter Benjamin (Penn State University Press, 2022). His other books include Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition (Northwestern University Press, 2016), Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix, 2011), and Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (London: T & T Clark, 2004). He is editor of the Oxford Handbook of Moses (in progress).