Tiny but Mighty: How did Samson kill a thousand men?

In Judges chapter 15, Samson uses the jawbone of a donkey to slay a thousand Philistines. In my project of drawing the stories of the Bible unabridged and as accurately as possible, I truly agonised over this and explored many different ways I could depict the actions.

In this article, I'll expound a few of the issues which came up during the research and my decision-making process.

Was Samson a muscle bound hulk?

In every depiction on screen or comics I had ever seen, Samson was always represented as large and greatly muscle bound. Like a body builder or giant strong he bounds into combat. Even in Jewish tradition, he is said to have four foot wide shoulders and be able to jump from one mountain to another in a single bound. In these broadly accepted the implied interpretation is that Samson's blessing from God was an increased natural potential for strength within, or close to, the natural scope.

But as many who've read the story in the scripture may have realised this is not likely to be the case.

Throughout the story, no character makes mention of his robust appearance nor treats him differently which one might think people would if he was a walking mountain.

In fact, in Judges 16:5 the Lords of the Philistines ask Delilah if she can discover the "secret of his great strength" which one would not do if the answer was obvious I.e. "his huge muscles". These lords are also given solutions to defeat Samson which imply his strength is magical in nature and can be mystically undone with seven fresh bow strings , new ropes that have never been used or weaving his hair into a loom, they believe this conjecture enough to act upon it.

Additionally, the feats Samson achieves through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit are not really any more possible for 'the world's strongest man' as they would be for it's weakest. The most well-trained knight or samurai wielding a masterwork blade may be able to defend themselves against even up to a dozen assailants, let's go crazy and say two dozen, but Samson, un-armoured and all but unarmed, takes out a thousand armed warriors in one encounter, and an encounter in which they are not ambushed or unaware but intentionally trying to apprehend or kill him. The point being no mere human, no matter how trained or, could achieve such a feat, and even emerge apparently uninjured.

So, in I believe his appearance was unremarkable in regards to his physique.

Really One thousand men?

Some have wondered whether the translation of the source text is completely correct, the word for one thousand in Hebrew (אָ֫לֶפ) does rarely have other meanings, like family, clan, and division, so some have argued this could be a word which implies a military grouping, like a battalion. The same way Romans used Centurion for an officer who "usually" command one hundred men (cent, or course meaning a hundred), but they didn't always, some had a little less but others, senior Centurions had command of cohorts without taking on a different title.

The point being that, even if this word was a designation of a military group, and the Hebrew root of the word was linked to their word for one thousand, one would not expect the number of men to be so few that a mere man could kill them all. I discuss this argument, but I must point out, it is a very weak standpoint anyway as the use of the word "eleph(אָ֫לֶפ) doesn't really allow for any interpretation but the number one thousand in this context. Personally, I doubt it was one thousand to the dot, as the Bible often uses rounded figure for things as we do in everyday life.

In this diagram that I did to help me visualise the scale you can see the thousand Philistines facing off against Samson.

Samson had already killed a group of thirty and a group of warriors in a town whose number are unknown but from the context seem to be an even greater number. In my own representation of the battle, I have implied that there are at least one thousand men there. In one image around five hundred and fifty can be seen together. (At the top of this page)

Did Samson kill all of them?

We are told Samson kills one thousand but were there even more there at the "battle" who weren't killed? I would suggest there were more than the number killed in the field that day. The first reason is simply the logical assumption that at some point the warriors would have seen the tide turn against them and flee. With so many men running in all directions I suspect many got away.

From scripture, we can see that the Philistines charge the men of Lehi to bring Samson in, shortly before this fight. But the men of Lehi muster three thousand men for the task. If the Philistines had only one thousand men on this campaign surely there would have been of turning the Judahite forces against their oppressors. I'd infer that this Philistine force was not outnumbered three to one, but likely a more even number.

Whether the men Samson defeated were dead or not is actually not clear from the Hebrew word "nakah" (נָכָה), it can mean killed or slaughtered, but also strike, smite, defeat and other such words. So it is likely that not all the men or even the majority died at his hand but as the NIV puts it they were "struck down". 

How to represent Samson's strength in a comic?

At the start, I had a lot of ideas about how to represent the great strength Samson was bestowed with for a long while. I thought I'd depict it like a Warp Spasm from the Slainé comics, (a little like the Incredible Hulk if you are unfamiliar with Slainé- click here for images). In the end, I doubted this is how it went down in real life so I gave up on that idea. I toyed with the idea of having the normal man surrounded by a of himself that was transparent and showed that it was the Spirit that strengthened him but I couldn't make it look good in my concept sketches.

I reflected on the fact that he managed to kill so many men without them getting away. One would think that even in an army of that after the hundredth man had fallen that you'd want to quit the field. I supposed that this miracle was as much about inhuman speed as it was about strength. This I have implied in the final image of him in the battle as he strikes several men in one moment and the jawbones trail in the colour that represents the Holy Spirit. I also considered the fact that he seems to be uninjured after the battle and wondered how he could possibly have defended himself so well having been surrounded by so many in all directions. I concluded that every movement must have been guided by the omniscience of The Spirit. I represented this by showing that as Samson was fully engaged in this power he shut his eyes and was completely guided by the unseen hand of The Lord.

I was unsure how to represent this empowerment until I watched Sucker Punch in 2011, in which the main character "Baby Doll" is empowered before fighting giant mechanical Samurai! In they use the classic trope of swirling Chi power rising around the hero. I realised this would be a great way to show an empowerment from without if the swirls of power were clearly the Holy Spirit.

(Wow, I found an official clip of the right bit! The part I talk about is 4mins 30secs in. but you should watch the whole thing) 

In summary

It seems likely that physically Samson was no bigger than anyone else. A careful study of the timelines involved in the stories reveals that Samson is near contemporaneous with Goliath himself. Thus I do not believe sheer size would have impressed nor baffled the Philistines so greatly.

If you'd like to read the 15 pages of The Word for Word Bible Comic that lead up to and include this battle, you can view it here...

https://wordforwordbiblecomic.squarespace.com/web-comic/

I hope you enjoyed this essay and found it informative. I'd love you to comment below if you agree or disagree with any of these points.

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If you're interested in a similar type of discussion about Samson's encounter with the lion, go to my other blog -

https://wordforwordbiblecomic.squarespace.com/blog/why-did-the-lion-attack-samson-biblestudy-bgbg2

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