14 When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the LORD came on him in power, and the ropes that were on his arms became like burnt flax and they fell from his hands. 15 He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey. He picked it up and killed a thousand men with it.
Flax is a flowering plant which can be grown as a regular crop, blooming at the same time that the barley tassels appear (Exodus 9:31). It was used for making ropes and woven for clothing (Proverbs 31:13). Burned, it’s like a charred rag, with no strength at all.
For the second time, Samson ignored his Nazirite restrictions by coming into contact with a dead body. Exactly how the Israelites judged the moment when an animal ceased to be a corpse and became food that was fit to eat is not precisely known. Presumably a Nazirite did not have to be a vegetarian. If I were Samson’s pastor, I would have said, “If you’d usually have eaten freshly killed lion, then you could have touched the lion’s carcass, and if you usually tore off sections from road-kill donkey to eat, then it would be okay to touch road-kill donkey. Otherwise, wait for your mother to say, ‘Supper’s ready.’ Then you can eat.” In this case, just as with the lion’s carcass, the donkey should have been off limits to Samson. But he was a man who took his Nazirite status seriously only to a point; perhaps mostly when it suited him.
Armed with a bloody jawbone, Samson had a powerful weapon; something between a big hammer and a small club. In addition, he had the element of complete and total surprise. But his most important weapon was the Spirit of the Lord; a gift which gave him the upper hand in every way. Whether he was assailed in a small space where few could attack him at a time, or in the forest of the Judean highlands where their numbers would be a disadvantage, or out in the open, where the Holy Spirit’s presence would overwhelm the attackers anyway, we cannot say. The details of the battle are not given. But enough Philistines fell to fill a complete six-hundred man brigade, and then half a brigade more, and then another hundred to top it off—a thousand in all. If this is an approximate number, we can understand. Recently the United States used a huge “Moab” weapon (the “mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear bomb ever detonated) in Afghanistan, and one of our commanding generals was asked how many soldiers were killed, to which his reply was something like, “Our people have better things to do than count corpses.” If Samson’s thousand is an estimate, nobody questioned it when he published the battle results in a poem:
16 Then Samson said:
“With the jawbone of a donkey
I have made heaps upon heaps.
With the jawbone of a donkey
I have killed a thousand men.”
15:16 The Hebrew hamor “donkey” sounds like homer, the word for “heap.”
If you have access to it, read Professor Lawrenz’s paraphrase of this poem in the People’s Bible volume on Judges. Samson’s wordplay is in the order of a pun, which I am told is not the highest form of humor, although it’s about as high as I usually reach.
17 When he finished speaking, he threw away the jawbone and named that place Ramath Lehi. 18 Since he was very thirsty, he called out to the LORD, “You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised? ” 19 So God opened a hollow place in the ground at Lehi, and water came out of it. After Samson drank, his strength returned, and he revived. That is why he named it En Hakkore, which is still in Lehi today.
15:17 Ramath Lehi means Jawbone Hill. 15:19 En Hakkore means Caller’s Spring.
After Samson’s confident poem, his prayer about his thirst seems desperate. I’m not very impressed by the number of commentators who belittle the judge for this prayer. I for one have never killed a thousand men all in one afternoon with a scrap of bone, so I am not the one to judge Samson’s thirst or the way he phrased it. The Lord God, however, had mercy on his servant, and even broke open the ground at Samson’s newly christened Jawbone Hill, and a spring erupted forth which lasted a long time. It’s name, En Hakkore, means Spring of the Caller. The word Kore (two syllables) also means “partridge” (Jeremiah 17:11), a bird known for its explosive calling song, described by one European bird watcher’s field guide as “noisy at dawn and dusk.” In this case, Samson was the caller, and the Lord heard and answered his prayer. Like Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, Samson was among those “who called on the LORD and he answered them” (Psalm 99:6).
20 Samson judged Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.
Samson’s time as judge of Israel was twenty years, which is also recorded in 16:31. Earlier in the book, the judges’ stories were closed with the words “the land had peace…,” but beginning with Jephthah in 12:7 the formula became “he judged Israel for x years” (cp. Judges 3:11, 3:30, 5:31). This is probably because both Jephthah and Samson (who began their days as judge at about the same time) ended their terms with the Philistines still in control of western Israel.
Why is this detail mentioned both here and at the close of chapter 16? We can set aside any thoughts about more than one source for the book. Our discussion of the cyclic pattern and careful arrangement of the book (in chapter 10) showed that one author is responsible for the entire book. So this closing remark might be meant as a bookend—the early labors of Samson (chapters 13-15) as distinct from the later labors of Samson (chapter 16). Another possibility is that this closing remark is meant to show that the “judicial labors of Samson are brought to a close” (Keil & Delitszch, p. 417) and that what follows relates to his capture and death.
The comment that these were “the days of the Philistines” is especially appropriate. The domination of Israel by Philistia would still be the situation at the beginning of 1 Samuel, and dominates the stories of both Saul and David. The Philistines were one of the nations who said, “Let us take possession of the pasturelands of God” (Psalm 83:7,12). The Lord sent one lone man who was physically strong to confront this enemy and deliver his people from oppression. Later, God would send one lone man who was spiritually strong to confront all the enemies of God—even sin, the devil and death itself—and deliver his people from their oppression. Samson foreshadows Christ in a weak way, like a shadow cast by moonlight, but the shadow is still there: The victory, the refreshing water, the bursts bonds—even his death bringing victory. There is perhaps even an echo of Samson as a Nazirite prefiguring Jesus as a Nazarene. We learn much more by looking at Jesus, of course, but we praise God that he gave his people deliverance at a time when they were on the verge of falling away into decay, at a time when everyone did as he saw fit.
Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.