Samson is the last of six major Israelite leaders depicted in the book of Judges (Judges 13:1-16:31). Judges filled the leadership void during a time when Israel has no trained warriors and remained under a foreign power. As such many judges functioned as guerilla warriors.
In Samson’s time, the Philistines dominated Israel. His birth is foretold by an angel and his parents are instructed that he will take a lifelong Nazirite vow (Judges 13:5), abstaining from alcohol, cutting his hair and touching corpses (Numbers 6:1-21).
Samson has become perhaps the most famous judge though he is remembered as much for his fall and association with Delilah as his superhuman strength; even the biblical text notes that his demise overshadows his rise (Judges 16:30). Even so, the Bible relays several tales depicting Samson as a renowned warrior. In one episode, Samson avoids a posse by playing possum, breaks chains that presumably contain him, and then picks up a the jawbone of a donkey and proceeds to slaughter one thousand Philistines foes (Judges 15:9-17).
He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, so he reached out and took it and killed a thousand men with it. (Judges 15:15 NASB)The story is intentionally fantastic. The trickster action hero demonstrates his unparalleled skill as a warrior while performing nothing less than a miracle (through God). This and similar herculean efforts make Samson a folk hero.
Though Samson does some preparation in allowing himself to be tied, he either forgets or finds it unnecessary to arm himself. During the adventure, Samson’s weapon of choice is absurd: the jawbone of an ass, which he presumably uses as a makeshift club.
Daniel I. Block (b. 1943) notes:
Reminiscent of Shamgar’s victory over the Philistines using an oxgoad [Judges 3:31], Samson used a fresh jawbone to slaughter a thousand men. The image is intended to be comical. Being only about nine inches long, a donkey’s jawbone is an unlikely weapon. (John H. Walton (b. 1952), Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 198-99)Weapons of opportunity are common in Judges (Judges 4:21, 7:19, 15:15) and as Block notes, there is a strong parallel earlier in the book to minor judge named Shamgar (Judges 3:31).
Gregory Mobley (b. 1957) compares:
Samson’s use of a makeshift primitive weapon, the jawbone of an ass, which Othniel Margalith (b. 1916) compares to Herakles’ use of an oak sapling, has a biblical parallel: Shamgar’s use of an oxgoad, a cattle prod to slay six hundred Philistines. The oxgoad, if that is what malmad (Judges 3:31) means, is a rudimentary tool, as Margalith notes, but except that minor difference (and another: Samson kills four hundred more Philistines than Shamgar does), these biblical accounts are very similar. (Mobley, Samson and the Liminal Hero in the Ancient Near East, 10)Specifically, Samson employs a “fresh” jawbone. The Hebrew tariy is most commnonly translated “fresh” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) but is also rendered “new” (KJV) and “recently killed” (NLT). The CEV interprets, “The jawbone had not yet dried out, so it was still hard and heavy”. Practically speaking, a fresh bone is less dry and brittle, making it a better weapon. This jawbone was as good a weapon as a jawbone could be.
Samson is seen being resourceful. He takes an object that has no use and recycles it into a weapon. On the other hand, the object also has theological significance. In freely scavenging from a fresh corpse, Samson completely disregards his Nazirite vows.
James L. Crenshaw (b. 1934) notes that this is not an isolated incident:
Perhaps a word is in order about Samson’s fascination for animal carcasses, particularly in light in the claim that he would be a Nazirite to God. What compelled Samson to gather honey from the carcass and to eat his fill [Judges 14:8-9]? And at a later time, what explains his readiness to grab a fresh jawbone of an ass as a weapon against the onrushing Philistines [Judges 15:5]? Surely Samson did not look upon himself as one who had to avoid anything unclean. (Crenshaw, Samson: A Secret Betrayed, a Vow Ignored, 84)Samson plays by his own rules, has his own agenda and seemingly views himself to be above the law.
In spite of its violence and vulgarity, the story of Samson’s triump would have been read as a comedic folk story. J. Alberto Soggin (1926-2010) comments:
The episode of the jawbone of the ass is not notable for its mythical-religious and popular basis, which is absent, but for the almost grotesque insistence on the extraordinary physical strength of Samson, especially when the spirit takes possession of him. The term grotesque does not seem rash: this narrative has an obviously humorous tone, as does the one which precedes it. Here the Philistines are not only implacable enemies: they are also ridiculous, and the men of Judah, with their prompt submission and obedience, are not less so. (Soggin, Judges: A Commentary (Old Testament Library) 249)
If Samson is going to employ such an inferior weapon, why does he not just use his bare hands? What is the most insufficient tool you have seen effectively employed? What items can you utilize that have seemingly outlived their usefulness? Is anyone above God’s mandates for their life?
The donkey’s jawbone is meant to be viewed as a ridiculous. It clearly holds no value to Samson as he discards it as soon when the battle subsides (Judges 15:17). The insufficiency of Samson’s weapon should accent his God’s sufficiency. The text underscores this point by noting for the third time in the Samson saga that the Spirit of the Lord is the source of Samson’s strength (Judges 14:6, 19, 15, 15:14). Samson, however, does not interpret the events this way.
In an example of the trickster’s affinity for riddles and poetic expression, he taunts his opponent with a pun. The NIV attempts to retain the wordplay:
“With a donkey’s jawboneCheryl A. Brown (b. 1949) clarifies:
I have made donkeys of them.
With a donkey’s jawbone
I have killed a thousand men.” (Judges 15:16 NIV)
The NIV rendering preserves a wordplay but does not literally translate the phrase. A more exact translation is “With the jawbone of a donkey, a heap, two heaps...”...Dale Ralph Davis (b. 1944) (Such a Great Salvation, p. 184) refers to James Moffatt (1870-1944)’s ingenious rendering: “With the jawbone of an ass I have piled them in a mass!” (J. Gordon Harris [b. 1940], Brown and Michael S. Moore [b. 1951], Joshua, Judges, Ruth (New International Biblical Commentary, 253)Donkey (chamowr) and heap (chamorah) form a Hebrew pun. Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) explains, “The root h-m-r can mean ‘heap’ or, ‘to make a ruin heap,’ and a similar root is the word for ‘ass,’ the same word used in reference to the tool he used to kill these people in Judges 15:15 (Schneider, Judges (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry), 216).”
Samson then names the place Ramath Lehi, “Jawbone Hill”. (Lehi is Hebrew for jawbone.) The exact location of Jawbone Hill cannot be identified.
After taking credit for God’s work, Samson, who has not uttered a word to God in Judges 14 and 15, finally addresses Yahweh, asking the deity to quench his understandable thirst (Judges 15:18).
Victor H. Matthews (b. 1950) critiques:
In victory...Samson once again demonstrates either a lack of understanding for his Nazirite obligations or a total disregard for them...The real significance of his victory comes in Judges 15:17-20. An acknowledgment of Samson’s power source is found in this etiological story of the Enhakkore spring at Lehi. Samson’s prayer, despite its negative rhetoric (compare Judges 14:3 and Judges 15:11b) and it coming on the heels of victory, is a definitive reminder for the reader of God’s role in these events. (Matthews, Judges and Ruth (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 154)Carolyn Pressler (b. 1952) adds:
The hidden agency of God is very hidden in this part of the Samson story. No reference to Yahweh is made from Judges 15:1 until Judges 15:14, when the “spirit of the LORD” comes over Samson and once again endows him with superhuman strength. The ridiculous inadequacy of Samson’s weapon underscores the supernatural quality of his strength. God’s agency is hidden, but effective. (Pressler, Joshua, Judges and Ruth (Westminster Bible Companion), 219)K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (b. 1953) finds further fault in Samson’s motivation:
This single-handed slaughter of a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of the donkey in Judges 15:15 cannot help but to recall to mind the remarkably similar exploit of Shamgar, who “struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad” (Judges 3:31). But the difference is pronounced. Shamgar saved Israel; Samson did not. Shamgar’s motive was to aid Israel; Samson’s motive is personal revenge. (Younger, Judges, Ruth (The NIV Application Commentary), 308)Michael Wilcock (b. 1932) advises:
The victory at Jawbone Hill underlies the paradox of Samson. He was so obviously now acting as the one through whom God would save Israel. Yet at the same time he was as clearly identified with Israel’s sin as with God’s salvation. He was a Nazirite, under a vow to distance himself from forbidden things, but...the very weapon he used against God’s enemies he must have taken from a carcass...And that was just the attitude of his people. They were supposed to be devoted to the Lord.. But they had reached the stage where so far from wanting to destroy the wicked ways of Canaan, they would not even distance themselves from forbidden things...So as his compatriots (and his enemies, for that matter) look at Samson, they see in him the power of God at work for salvation; but as God looks at him, he sees in him the sin of Israel at work for destruction. The twelfth judge may be in some ways the nearest we get in this book to a Christ-figure, but he is also a walking disaster. Let all who are given great opportunities, great responsibilities, and great gifts take warning. (Wilcock, The Message of Judges (Bible Speaks Today), 142-43)How would you judge Samson, the judge? If Samson was successful with such an inferior weapon, is there anything additional you need for God to accomplish something through you? Are you more identifiable with sin or salvation? When have you taken credit for God’s handiwork? When has God accomplished through you in spite of yourself?
“You don’t just go around punching people. You have to say something cool first.” - Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis [b. 1955]), The Last Boy Scout (1991)