Towards the close of the wild and stormy period of the Judges, the Philistines were the most active and aggressive nation of Palestine. Strong in their military organization; fierce in their warlike spirit, and rich by their position and commercial instincts, they even threatened the ancient supremacy of the Phenicians of the north. Their cities were the restless centres of every form of activity. Ashdod and Gaza, as the keys of Egypt, commanded the carrying trade to and from the Nile, and formed the great depots for its imports and exports. cap. 25. Mövers, Die Phönizier, vol. ii. pt. i. pp. 315-317. All the cities, moreover, traded in slaves with Edom and Southern Arabia, and their commerce in other directions flourished so greatly as to gain for the people at large the name of Canaanite—which was synonymous with merchant. Their skill as smiths and armourers was noted; the strength of their cities attests their success as builders; and their idols, and golden mice and emerods, show them to have been proficient in the gentle arts of peace.
But they were pre-eminently devoted to war, alike by sea and land. Egypt had been recently invaded by their fleet, and, soon after, apparently while Jephthah was struggling with Ammon on the uplands of Gilead, their ships, sweeping from the harbours of Gaza and Askelon, had attacked Sidon—the great Phenician city in the north—defeated its fleet, and taken the town, which henceforth sank into insignificance. Its aristocracy, indeed, had to flee to Tyre, and even that city was ere long extended to an island close at hand, to be more secure from these terrible sea kings. I. xviii. 2. Sidon, henceforth, lost its rank of capital, and disappeared from notice for several centuries; its fall doubtless causing unspeakable joy in northern Israel, which could breathe freely when its great oppressor was thus humbled.
As far back as the time of Shamgar—a hundred and fifty years before—Dan and Judah had suffered from the raids of Philistine bands, who climbed to their mountain valleys, to spoil them; and indeed the forced emigration of so many of the former may have been caused by these. p. 200. But a regular conquest of the whole country was not attempted till the days of Samson, 1295. Samson, b.c. 1131. Conder, p. 19. about three hundred and fifty years after the death of Joshua.
On the edge of the hill country, about twenty miles almost straight behind Ashdod, on a slope overhanging the green Wady Surar—the ancient Sorek—the village of Zorah nestled among its vines and fig-trees. The district lies 2, 000 feet above the sea, and is known as the “Arkub” or ridge—a long spur from the mountains, with numerous smaller ridges branching from it; the two valleys of Sorek and Elah lying in their northern and southern folds. pp. 141-144. The former, half a mile broad, is filled in summer with luxuriant corn, through which winds a pebbly torrent bed in the centre; low white hills bounding both sides. The ruins of Beth-shemesh—“the House of the Sun”—lie on a knoll surrounded by olive groves, where ‘Sorek and Elah join; on the south of Sorek is Timnah; and Zorah and Eshtaol, now small mud villages, dot its north face. Sweeping down the slopes of the Shephelah, towards the Philistine plain, the broad corn valley is fair to see, whether from the high-perched home of Samson, or from the lowlands; opening as it does, in the one case, on the rich land of the plain, and in the other, closing with a background of high and rugged hills.
Here, at Zorah, lived one of the few households still faithful to Jehovah amidst the ever-growing apostasy of the times, and in it was born a son, destined from his infancy to arrest the thoughts of those around, and lead them to contrast the present and the past. Before his birth his mother had not been allowed to taste wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, and the same prohibition was imposed from the first on the child, with the addition, that his hair should at no time be touched by scissors or razor. Nor was he allowed even to eat the grape, or any of its productions, or to approach a dead body, though that of his nearest relation. He was, in fact, a Nazarite—“one consecrated” to God; in this case, for his whole life.
Such a vow of separation had been provided for in the Mosaic laws; but no earlier instance is recorded of its being carried out. The distinction of clean and unclean acts had also been made for centuries, but the whole Levitical system must have fallen into abeyance during the isolation, disturbance, anarchy, and idolatry, that had reigned more or less since Joshua’s death. Wherever the child appeared he would, thus, be a living reproof to the people; reminding them at once of their duties and their neglect. As he grew up, moreover, it was found that this dedication to Jehovah brought with it endowments which secured what Israel, for centuries, had sighed to gain—such a resistless force and vigour as was, in itself, a pledge of national independence if, by a similar course, it was obtained by numbers. “The Spirit of Jehovah,” which had clothed Jephthah with courage and resolution, showed itself in young Samson, by giving him prodigious strength and a fearlessness that never quailed. What if Israel, by returning to the worship of God, gained, as a people, the possession of gifts so invaluable in their present state? The religious revival under Samuel, himself a Nazarite from his birth, may well have had its first impulse from the stories of the hero of Dan; so mighty because dedicated to Jehovah, and still alive within a few years of the great prophet’s birth. His influence, indeed, can only be realized aright by remembering the condition to which the Hebrews were reduced in his day. The Philistines had brought even the great tribe of Judah to such abject submission, that instead of aiding the hero who was daring all for national independence, it meanly betrayed him. No such enemies had endangered Israel since the oppression in Egypt. Aided by the remains of the aboriginal races living in their cities, they climbed the passes at their will, and harried the valleys, carrying off not only tho harvest when ripe, but even men, women, and children, to slavery.’ To secure the permanence of their conquest, they had, moreover, so completely disarmed the Hebrews, as to force them to descend to a Philistine city for even the slightest repairs of their agricultural implements; no worker in iron being allowed among them; a policy so effective that the country was kept by it in virtual slavery for over a hundred years. It was duo to Samson that resistance was kept up at all, under such circumstances. His example rekindled the national spirit and bravery so that, in after years, however oppressed, they constantly made new attempts to shako off the yoke of the hated uncircumcised alien. The unequal combat was kept up with a grand tenacity, through successive generations, amidst frequent defeats, from the days of Eli to those of David, “the breaker of the Philistine’s horn.” During that long interval, even when the Hebrews were at their lowest, and forced to hide in caves and clefts of the rocks, or to flee beyond Jordan, single heroes, like Saul and Jonathan, tired by the stories of the past, rose amidst their unarmed brethren, sword in hand, to strike once more for freedom. The long domination of the Philistines was, indeed, thanks to Samson, in a special degree the heroic age of Israel. Men would not despair, but trusted more and more that, in the end, Jehovah would aid them. It was the time when independence and the free enjoyment of their institutions was won by God’s help, through the brave struggles of the people and of single patriots.
Later ages looked back with pride on the days when their valiant ancestors went out against the giant Avites who scorned Israel—against Goliath, and Ishbi-benob, with his terrible spear, and against Saph with his twenty-four fingers and toes. Stirring tales of the deeds of these heroes doubtless roused the souls of each new generation, and were recorded by chroniclers proud to tell such stories of patriotic glory. Unfortunately, however, they are all long ago lost, and we have only short notices, evidently quoted from fuller writings.
In this roll-call of noble spirits, but surpassing them all in his splendid deeds, Samson assuredly stood first. Endowed with superhuman power, he undertook, alone, to resist the oppressor, when Israel had submitted to the yoke. At no time had he any aid beyond such a band as he could gather from his own neighbourhood. Indifference, or want of spirit, or fear, left him unsupported by even a single tribe. His very name marks his work, and the terror and pride he raised in foe and friend, for it means “The Destroyer”—not, as has been fancied by some, “The Sunny,” or the “The Sun-hero.” 8th ed., Schimson. Jewish Church, vol. i. p. 364. Art. Simson, in Bib. Lex.; and Bertheau, Richter, p. 169. His various deeds are too well known to need detailed enumeration. One thought animates him in all alike— undying hatred to the enemy of Jehovah and His people. In this aspect he is truly a heroic servant of God. The tasks such a title implies are very different at different times, and in the days of Samson lay supremely in resisting the “uncircumcised.” It is in this sense only, indeed, that we are to. think of the Divine Spirit and power urging him on, irresistibly, to his mighty acts, “springing on him,” or “driving” him, as if with a push which he could not withstand.
The incidents recorded of this Jewish Hercules are in keeping with his surpassing physical vigour. Unconscious of fear, he moves in radiant cheerfulness in the midst of dangers which would appal ordinary men. He delights in the play of humour, often simple as that of a child; sometimes terribly grim. He must have his riddles like others, at his wearisome seven days* marriage feast. His revenge for the loss of his wife by setting the jackals, with burning fire-brands behind them, into the standing corn, is a boisterous practical joke; and his irrepressible lightheartedness beams out in schemes to snare his enemies by repeatedly submitting to bonds of ropes or withes, which he knew ho could snap in a moment, when they had lured his foes within reach. Even in his death ho is still the same. Called out from his prison, in his blindness, to play the clown before the great folk of the Philistines, he sings, dances, and acts the buffoon amidst roars of laughter, and when he has laid their suspicions asleep, prays that Jehovah may strengthen him only this once that he may by one blow avenge himself for his two eyes.
The allusions in the whole story vividly illustrate the exact correspondence of the Scripture narrative, even in details, to local truth. The presence of lions in Palestine in ancient times, especially in the south part of it, pp. 42-47. De Sauley came on similar traces near Masada, on the Dead Sea. The lion is said still to be found in the Sinai Peninsula. Wilson’s Lands of the Bible, vol. ii. p. 739. But see, on this subject, vol. ii. p. 334- and note. The Rabbis find seven words for the lion in Scripture. where a village in Judah bore the name of “Lebaoth”—the lionesses—is undoubted. There are no fewer than four names for the lion in Hebrew; and it not only supplied the imagery of Psalmists and Prophets, but lingered on till the time of the Crusades, and is mentioned by historians of the twelfth century, p. 116. as found near Samaria, That a swarm of bees should have hived in the dead carcass of the one slain by Samson would be natural in Palestine, however strange to our notions. The dry hot climate, anticipating putrefaction, would in a few hours evaporate all the moisture of the body, and turn it into a mummy; while the ants would presently eat away all the flesh, leaving only the skeleton and the skin, and thus hollow out the creature to a shell, admirably fitted for a hive. That bees should have swarmed in such a home is, in fact, no more strange than that wrens or sparrows should build, as they have been known to do, in the dried body of a crow or hawk, in England. p. 324. Bid. of the Bible, art. Bee. That Samson should be able to catch three hundred jackals, as the word really means, is, moreover, not at all surprising, for these animals hunt in large packs, and are still very numerous in southern Palestine. v. 707. To tear up the gates of a town may seem an incredible feat, but Samson’s achievement at Gaza required only his lifting them off the pin on which they turned; for hinges are made in the East in two separate pieces—a pin and a socket. As to his pulling down the house in which the Philistine lords were gathered, we have only to think of it as resembling in structure not a few Eastern dwellings, to understand how this could be effected. “I have often,” says Mr. Shaw, “seen numbers of people on tho roof of the Dey's palace at Algiers, diverting themselves with performances carried on in the open court-yard below. The roof, like many others, had an advanced cloister over against the gate of the palace, like a large penthouse, supported by one or two contiguous pillars in the front, or in the centre. Here, likewise, they have their public entertainments, as the lords and others of the Philistines had in the house of Dagon, and hence, if that structure were like this, the pulling down the front or centre pillars which supported it, would at once be attended with the like catastrophe that happened to the Philistines.” vol. i. pp. 391-2. Samson, the fool of women all his life, set, in his blindness, to do a woman slave’s work in turning the hand-mill as he sat on the floor, was the very superlative of humiliation.
A mistranslation in Judges xv. 19 has led to the idea that Samson was miraculously supplied with water from the jaw-bone with which he had slain his enemies. But the word used—Lehi -a jawbone —refers to the hill where the battle took place, which rose in shape like a jaw, or was named thus as the spot where the jawbone was cast away. The verse should read— “God clave the hollow place that is in Lehi, and there came water thereout ... wherefore the name thereof was called En-hakkore—the Caller’s Fountain, which is in Lehi to this day.”
The moral decay of Israel in these times is darkly intimated by an incident recorded of the second generation after Moses. Daring the long period of external quiet that followed the defeat of Chushan Rishathaim, “the Talar” or “circular sword” “bearer” the men of Gibeah, of the tribe of Benjamin, a town on an isolated hill about a mile north of the present Jerusalem, p. 145. had committed an outrage, recalling the worst guilt of Sodom, on the concubine of a Levite who chanced to be lodging in the place for a night. It was a violation of the sacred rights of hospitality, as well as an act of unequalled grossness, but it was bitterly revenged. In his wild indignation, the husband forthwith cut the body of his murdered wife into twelve pieces, and sent the bleeding witnesses of his wrong through the whole land. A storm of indignation followed, culminating in a great assembly of the tribes at Mizpeh, “the watch tower;” close to the scene of the crime. A summons was presently sent to Benjamin, to deliver up the offenders, that they might be put to death, and evil thus “put away from Israel,” but it was treated with contempt. Furious at the rejection of their demand, indignant also at the crime, and, moreover, alarmed lest, if it were not punished, Divine vengeance might strike the whole race, war was now resolved on. But the bravery of the Benjamites and their skill in fighting gave them at first an advantage even against the overwhelming odds of the eleven tribes, who were “knit together as one man” against them. There is a strange mixture of fierceness and religions feeling in the narrative. Counsel is sought from God, through the stern Phinehas, then high priest, and three times Israel is launched against the petty tribe, strong in their hearts, and in the defences of their hills. The host weeps, prays, fasts, and offers burnt offerings and peace offerings after two successive defeats, and then turns once more, with greater skill, to the relentless attack. Stratagem at last succeeds where direct force had hitherto failed. Benjamin, allured from the hill top by a pretended flight, finds, ero long, the town behind it, in flames, and sees itself hemmed in on every side by multitudes. In the terrible, struggle that followed the tribe was almost exterminated: only 600 men surviving out of nearly 27, 000. These saved themselves by flight to the crag of Rimmon, “the pomegranate,” the present village of Rammon, east of Bethel, p. 423. where they maintained themselves for four months, dreading to descend from their height of vantage.
Remorse at such terrible vengeance, now, however, seized the eleven tribes. Their national feeling was wounded at the thought that they had well nigh blotted out one of the divisions of the people, and their only care was to undo the evil as far as possible. The whole of the women and maidens of Benjamin had been ruthlessly killed: the towns and hamlets burnt, and the very cattle and flocks slaughtered, as devoted by a curse to destruction. No wives remained for the remnant of the men. Still worse, all Israel had bound themselves, under a curse, not to give one of their daughters in marriage to them. Gathering again, therefore, at Shiloh, the people abode before “the house of God till even, and lifted up their voices and wept sore” at the thought that henceforth one of the tribes would be blotted out. But the very sternness of their former mood at last brought a remedy.
A “great oath” had been made by the former assembly, devoting to death any who failed to come up to the common help, to Mizpeh, and it was now found that the men of Jabesh Gilead, a town east of the Jordan, six miles south of the future Pella, on the top of one of the green hills of Gilead, overlooking the rich Wady Jabis, had failed to attend the rendezvous. An expedition was therefore launched against them, and the whole population put to the sword, or, as the Hebrew expresses it, “devoted” as having forfeited their lives to God; only 400 maidens being spared. These were now brought to Shiloh, and presently sent to the crag Rimmon, to proclaim “peace” to the fugitive Benjamites, who were only too glad to take the olive branch thus tardily offered. The captive girls were then given to them as wives. But 200 men still remained unsupplied. A pious fraud, however, secured them partners also. No father in Israel could give his daughter to them, but they were to hide in the vineyards at Shiloh at the yearly feast, when the maidens were dancing in the open, and each catch one for himself for a wife: the fathers soothing their consciences from a charge of having broken their oaths, by the specious defence that they had not given their daughters to Benjamites; the eager bridegrooms having taken them by force.
From such a small beginning had the tribe to found a new history for itself in Israel.
Samson appears to have lived about a hundred years before David, 1131. David took Jerusalem b.c. 1044. Conder. when things were almost at their lowest in Israel. The lawlessness, disunion, and demoralization of the country are reflected in the notices preserved to us of his life; but, even amidst its roughest passages, there is evidence of an undercurrent of still life which held its own amidst the troubles of the age. The vintage ripens peacefully in the sun, and the marriage feast runs through seven days, with its jests and riddles. Another glimpse of this calmer side of things is revealed in the Book of Ruth, which apparently refers to the same period, and brings before us the mountain village of Bethlehem and the sunny valley underneath, as they were 3, 000 years ago, with their humble life, in its lights and shadows; the waving harvest falling before rows of brown reapers, and the maidens binding the sheaves behind them.
This gentle pastoral is introduced into the canon from its connection with the history of David, the hero-king of Israel, and, through him, with our Lord. The spoilers have wasted the district round Bethlehem-Judah, or perhaps the rains have failed, and men have to wander where they can for bread. Among others, Elimelech, “My God is King,” with his wife Naomi, “the Loveable,” and their two sons, Mahlon, “the Sickly,” and Chilion, “the Pining One,” make their way to the richly-watered uplands of Moab, where the language is the same, though the faith be different. Yet the trouble which they sought to flee follows them in a worse shape, for Naomi is presently a widow. Her two sous marry women of Moab, but the bridal chamber is soon hung with mourning, for the two wives are ere long without husbands. Only the three widows remain.
Naomi now hears that Jehovah has “visited His people in giving them bread,” and sighs in a strange laud, for the familiar scenes and faces of her old happy life. She will go back to Bethlehem, but begs her two daughters-in-law to remain in their own country, thanking them tenderly for the kindness they had shown the dead. Orpah, “the Fawn,” kisses her and stays, but Ruth, the true “Friend;" will not leave her, and goes on with her to her old home. The rest of the book is simply the story of Naomi's gratitude, shown in true womanly fashion, by her schemes to get Ruth a home. The old Jewish marriage customs required the nearest relation of a dead husband to become his goël or redeemer, buying back his inheritance, if estranged, and marrying his widow, if childless; to raise up a son to him, that “his name should not cease in Israel." Naomi bethinks herself that Boaz, “the Active," one of the rich men of the village, is a goël of Ruth's dead husband, and lays her kindly plans accordingly. Ruth must go to his fields and glean, for harvest has begun, and the barley is being cut. He will see her there and perhaps she may find favour in his eyes. Nor is she wrong, for Boaz presently notices her, and falls in love with her at first sight. Then the relationship is disclosed, with its claim on him to marry her, which he will be only too happy to honour, if he can do so legally. But there is another goël nearer than he, who must first be asked. Should that kinsman decline,he himself will be a husband to Ruth, and Naomi shall have back her inheritance. The end, as might have been expected, is that Boaz and Ruth become man and wife, and her first son is Obed, the grandfather of David.
'The glimpses of ancient life in the future town of David and of Christ are full of interest. Then, as now, its single street ran along the double crest of the white chalk ridge, 2, 500 feet above the sea; its slopes terraced into hanging gardens, with rows of olives and vines; a pleasant valley lying underneath on three sides, musical with the sound of brooks, though its eastern end is almost touched by the terrible wilderness of Judah. This sunny breadth, when Ruth’s story opens, is yellow with ripe barley, and rich with tall green wheat that will be golden ere long. The harvest is reaped by men, but the sheaves are bound by maidens. Life is still simple, and the well-to-do Boaz courteously greets his workpeople, as he comes to them, and is as politely greeted in return. Their meals, while at work, are as simple as all else—only ears of the barley they are cutting, roasted and shelled by hand, the customary food of Arab reapers even now, vol. ii p. 660.—and thin cakes of bread, dipped in sour wine as a relish, with clear water, drawn by the young men, for drink. Nor is Boaz himself too grand to eat with the rest, or to join in their work. If he does not reap, he winnows the grain, after younger arms have threshed it out on the floor in the open field, and, like his successors in the same parts in our own day, vol. ii p. 720 he lies down to sleep by his heap at night, that he may watch it. Gleaning is allowed by the old law of Moses, but the kindliness of the statute book is too often forgotten in practice; for Ruth owes it rather to her gentleness and her good looks, than to Moses, that the young men do not reproach her, or order her away. But roasted corn and water are not the only food; for when the day's work has ended, Boaz eats and drinks better fare, till his heart is merry. The elders of Bethlehem are its local council, and they and all the men of the village, with the eager curiosity and utter indifference to the loss of time characteristic of the East, gather round Boaz and the other goël, as they make the final business arrangements, by which the former buys back her field for Naomi, and gains Ruth for himself, taking off his sandal and giving it to the vendor as evidence, according to an old Jewish custom, of the sale having been perfected by a second goël, the first having refused to do his duty. Nor are the women less completely our sisters. What modern matchmaker could be more skilful than Naomi! what maiden more modestly careful to do her best to attract than Ruth, as she “washes and anoints herself, and puts on her best clothes” when she hopes to see Boaz? Even the gathering of the women on the birth of the infant Obed, and their congratulations, are true to human nature in every age.
One feature of this charming idyll, however, gives it a specially distinctive colour—its intense religiousness. Despite centuries of oppression, division, and religious decay, it breathes a lofty spirit of loyalty to Jehovah, which appears at every turn. It is He who has given His people bread; He who deals kindly with the widow;
He who grants her that she may rest in the house of a husband. But it is He also who tries the children of men, and from whoso hand afflictions go out against them. Indeed, He at times deals “very bitterly" even with those who love Him, but He is still their God, under whose wings they trust, and who recompenses man’s work and gives him a full reward. He is no mere name to which to turn in formal rites, but a Father, the Friend and Protector, yet, also, the sovereign Judge and Lord, demanding obedience and heavily punishing sin. That such conceptions still found a home in Israel, after more than four hundred years of moral and political degradation, and still filled the life of some at least, with the thought of God, and of their race being His chosen people, was the guarantee of future national regeneration. It was certain that, ever and again, such truths would assert themselves in the hearts of the nation, and bring with them political as well as moral renewal; the one, indeed, as the result of the other.
But this peaceful glimpse of everyday life in the quiet of Bethlehem is only a moment of sunshine through thick clouds. That so much private worth and religious earnestness should still remain in the hidden nooks of the land was indeed the best pledge of its rise hereafter from the disasters of the present; but the recovery was to be delayed for a long time yet. The want of a central government still left Israel weak and helpless; for though Judges might rise in any tribe, and for a time beat off the swarming enemies round, their sphere was at best only local, and their power ended with victory! “Without any lasting or general combination, the different parts of the country could be attacked in detail, and harried or enslaved. Nor was the picture shown in the story of Ruth that of the country at large. Constant intermarriages with the heathen still continued, and had introduced a low morality that sapped the character of the nation, even in its priesthood. In this gloomy time the name of Eli emerges as both the High Priest at Shiloh and the Judge of Israel, but he comes before us in his feeble old age, with a soft and yielding goodness ill suited for the times. Only gentle words come from his lips, and he is unable even to rebuke his unworthy sons with the sternness their offences demanded. But such a spirit must, in those rough times, have had its special worth, in the influence of a blameless life, and in commending widely the religion it exemplified. Hence we may justly regard him as no unworthy agent in the religious revival which culminated under Samuel, and raised Israel from its political degradation. Despairing hearts from Ephraim or Dan, or from beyond the Jordan, must have constantly sought the high priest at Shiloh; nor can it be doubted that they would be pointed by him to Jehovah, the God of their fathers, as the true help of the nation in its troubles, and made to feel that their having forsaken Him had brought them all their sorrow.