Note to Seminar members: my apologies for being so late in posting this, for straying from the program title and abstract, and for offering something that is too long. The task proved more challenging than I anticipated. What follows is not now intended (and was not originally offered) as a formal paper but as observations on spatial use of texts that I hope might raise issues of spatial theory pertinent to the ongoing discussion or might invite further spatial analysis.

The FIGURES are not yet included for viewing.

NB: This work is presented for purposes only of discussion by the AAR/SBL Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar as part of the Annual Meeting program, 2003. It draws upon the draft of my forthcoming book on the reception history of Judges in the Blackwell Bible Commentary series. Since the document is for discussion only, please do not cite it or quote from it in print without my permission.

Copyright © 2003 David M. Gunn

The Stuff of Biblical Story:

Reading the Things of Judges in the Space of Two Millennia

David M. Gunn

Texas Christian University


I seek here to track some of the ways interpreters (mostly Christian) have represented material objects, “stuff,” in the Book of Judges, over some two millennia. More accurately, this is an account of the representation (by interpreters) of the representation (by texts) of stuff. In terms of the Seminar’s previous discussion, it might be understand as an account of “first space.” Of course “stuff” hardly exists independently but is usually “stuff-in-relation” as becomes fairly obvious as I proceed. Likewise, the stuff of story tends to be time bound as well as spatial, usually subject to verbs of action (though interpreters show no little ingenuity in attempting to make some of this stuff eternal, which is to say, atemporal). And while I assume that “stuff” exists independently of its users or observers, I assume also that its “meaning” is dependent upon its users or observers. Thus, it is hard to talk about “stuff” without invoking those who represent it and with them the social, political, religious, and ideological (etc.) baggage they bring. That baggage, however, is not my primary focus here.

            Two points, among others, that have emerged for me initially in pondering this material from a “spatial” perspective are the following.


            The first point is a matter of stuff as language. Given that the first level of stuff in this inquiry exists as representation by words, it is not surprising that the stuff of the texts behaves like words. For example, a small number of individual objects take on large connotations through the figure of synecdoche. The hammer and tentpeg are Jael, the jawbone is Samson, the scissors Delilah. This characteristic of stuff is particularly noticeable when the texts are transcribed into pictures. Moreover, textual stuff transmutes readily into other stuff (this is not a fox but a jackel, or even a wheatsheaf; and this large village with seventy elders is a largely uninhabited mustering place), and even more so into supra-material or metaphysical vehicles for representing spiritual or moral truths (this honey is Christ’s “luscious food” offered to save souls; this chariot represents pride, this milk deceptive luxury). The propensity of literary language to move towards metaphor and metonym makes the stuff of Judges remarkably unstable. But this is not necessarily a disadvantage for readers. Indeed, as will become apparent, it is a great boon for interpreters faced with Problems!

            Second, it is noticeable, but again not surprising, that while Christian interpreters in late antiquity and the middle ages seem little interested in the story’s material objects in themselves (stuff for stuff’s sake) nineteenth and twentieth century interpreters are very interested, to the point that it really does not matter what the stuff might “mean,” as long as it is there. This development starts noticeably in the late seventeenth century and picks up momentum in the eighteenth, propelled by the Enlightenment. I understand it to be, among other things, a defense mechanism employed by the faithful against the depredations of critics like Voltaire. So the Bible has its problems as history? Never mind, the “biblical world” is “real,” replete with stuff which can be described “correctly’ and “accurately.” That is to say, the stuff of the biblical text has meaning simply by being equated with other demonstrable things, things that can be described, pictured, and located by modern observers. In the nineteenth century those things took the form of stuff from all over the “Orient” (as far as India and Japan) but especially Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as the “Holy Land.” In the twentieth century they also increasingly took the form of archaeological stuff from Palestine (including modern Israel) – sites, walls, pottery, any material object that can be claimed to be related, however vaguely, to the Bible. Stuff makes real the biblical world and the Bible with it.


            In general, one might say that the Book of Judges is not over-provisioned with details of “stuff.” The first few chapters are notably sparse, though things (so to speak) improve thereafter. We do read of Adonibezek’s thumbs and big toes, as well as his table, and along with the individuals Caleb, Othniel, and Caleb’s daughter, Achsah – who bear no physical description – we have bare mention of an ass, springs of water in the Negeb, and iron chariots. By chapter three, however, there is more stuff to reckon with. Ehud’s left hand, double-edged short sword, and right thigh come into view, as does Eglon’s bodily bulk. The king’s “summer parlour” (KJV; RSV: “cool roof chamber”) – which has doors, with a key, and a misderon (porch?) – offers more stuff including the “dirt” that comes out of the stabbed Eglon. There are also “quarries” or “sculptured stones” or “images” (pesilim), and, more definitively, trumpets. Ten thousand men, every single one of them, are slain at the “fords of the Jordan.” That’s a big pile of bodies. After Ehud comes Shamgar. He had an oxgoad. In Judges 4-5, Sisera has his iron chariots, Deborah her palm tree, and Jael her tent, her hammer, and her tent peg. Gideon in chapters 6-8 has his fleece, his trumpets, pitchers and torches, and his men lap or otherwise drink water. In due course Samson has his lion and honey, his foxes and firebrands, and the jawbone of an ass.


             Let me stay with Ehud and Eglon for a moment. Ehud, you will recall, announces that he has a divine word (dabar or “thing”) for the king. (Are spoken words, then, “stuff”?) Josephus (Biblical Antiquities, V, 188-197) makes no attempt to replicate the word-play in Greek but turns the “word” into a “dream.” For him, the key “thing” is Eglon’s throne: the king arises from his throne for joy at the news of a dream from “[the] god” (tou theou), thereupon giving Ehud a straight aim to the breast with his dagger. (Later rabbinic writers count it to Eglon’s credit that the “heathen” king arose from his throne “in honor of God” [Ruth Rabbah II:9].) But if the throne, the dagger, and the locked door are to be found in Josephus, the king’s fat belly is not. Rather the dagger goes to the heart in heroic style. Nor does any “dirt” come out: the servants suppose the king to be asleep. Josephus is interested in epic, not comedy.

            The Christian monk John Cassian (c.360-435), has a different interest. In the Septuagint and Vulgate, Ehud is ambidextrous: he “used either hand as the right hand.” For Cassian, the text is figurative (on the understanding that the left is the “sinister” side). Hands in relation to each other have significance primarily not as things indispensable to the (temporal) narrative action or “plot” but as ciphers for a supra-temporal and supra-material world of the spirit. Ehud shows that we, too, can acquire spiritual power if we subordinate the “unfortunate” to the “fortunate” so that they both belong to the right side, ‘the armor of righteousness.” “All people have within them two parts – two hands, so to speak – and none of the saints can do without that which we call the left hand: but by means of it the perfection of virtue is shown, where a man by skilful use can turn both hands into right hands” (Conference of Abbot Theodore, On the Death of the Saints, Ch. 10).

            As is the case with other figures in the book of Judges, Ehud is also understood during the Middle Ages in terms of Christian typology, as a “type” or forerunner of Christ. A pictorial version is found in the Mirror of Human Salvation (Speculum humanae salvationis), first written in Latin sometime between 1309 and 1324. The text was set out in four columns, at the head of each a miniature, the first depicting a New Testament event and the other three its prefiguration in the Old Testament. Ehud appears alongside Samson and Benaiah (2 Sam 23:20), both killing lions. The key picture is Christ conquering the devil. Eglon, therefore, represents the devil. He is generally depicted as seated on his throne, and the depiction usually shows no interest in (or perhaps knowledge of) the details of the disposition of the material things of the story. An example is a German printed edition of the Mirror, c. 1481. Here Ehud wields not a dagger, as the Bible narrates, but a sword longer than his leg, against not a standing but a seated king (FIGURE 01). Perhaps the typological meaning of Ehud’s deed predominates over a literal reading and so over any concern for a “correct” rendition of the material objects. At any rate, the seated Eglon and Ehud’s long sword seem to have become accepted attributes of the scene and are found elsewhere (e.g. in French fourteenth-century stained glass). 

            On the other hand, literal is clearly the mode of the great thirteenth-century picture book in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, with scenes from the Creation to the story of David (Old Testament Miniatures), yet it, too, is free with the details (FIGURE 02). Ehud plunges a dagger into the king’s belly with his right hand and the intestines tumble out. The belly is hardly fat, however, and the king is slumping sideways in his throne as if he has been seated all along. The escaping Ehud, emerging from an upper window, blows a horn held in his right hand. If he now clutches the bloody dagger which should have remained in the king’s belly, at least he does so with the correct (left) hand. Whether any of the manuscript’s readers and viewers were bothered by these material-spatial rearrangements we do not know, but given their ubiquity in the middle ages, it seems unlikely.


            The story of Samson is another from Judges subject to a rich tradition of typological and allegorical interpretation from early times. Literal readings are not unknown and usually find him to be a saint, following his listing in Hebrews 11:32-38 as one of the exemplars of faith. But just occasionally a reader wonders whether all the story’s details could be literally true (cf. F. Michael Krouse, Milton’s Samson and the Christian Tradition, 1963). Could Samson really have killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass and a fountain have thereupon sprung from it? (See Nilus Abbas, Peristeria, xi, viii ) [According to the Vulgate, Judg 15:19 reads, “Then the Lord opened a great tooth in the jaw of the ass and waters issued out of it.” This is also how English translations, until recently, have understood the text]

            One of the advantages of allegorical interpretation was that it could sideline many of the moral (or sometimes conceptual) problems produced by literal reading, in this case Samson’s “literal” behavior. Understood as prefiguring Christ, the main task Samson set interpreters was to draw as many parallels as possible between the two of them. The analogy usually extends from the material world of Samson’s world to an abstract, “spiritual” or “moral” world of Christ and the Church. And the parallels proposed are many and ingenious. The story of Samson killing the lion, finding honey in its body, and posing a riddle is one favorite source. As Samson tore apart the lion, the likeness of death, so Christ ripped death asunder. Thus the answer to Samson’s riddle – “Out of the eater came forth food, and out of the strong came forth sweetness – is that “Christ made the sweet life emerge from its bitterness for human beings” (Ephraim the Syrian, [306-373], Hymns, 13:4). Ambrose (c.339-407) exclaims, “O divine mystery! O manifest sacrament! we have escaped from the slayer, we have overcome the strong one. The food of life is now there, where before was the hunger of a miserable death. Dangers are changed into safety, bitterness into sweetness. Grace came forth from the offence, power from weakness, and life from death” (On the Holy Spirit, Book II). Another version that Ambrose offers participates in the polemic against Judaism. The lion slain represents the lion of Judah in whose body will be found honey, that is, a remnant of true believers who will become the Church. In turn the Church represents the body of Christ in which is stored up the honey of true wisdom.

            It is probably Ambrose’s protege, Augustine (354-430), who most sets the lines of this kind of interpretation. What else does the riddle signify, he asks, than Christ rising from the dead? From death issues “that food which said, I am the living bread, who have come down from heaven [John 6:41].” From the dead lion, that is the body of Christ, there came forth a swarm of bees, that is, Christians. “As for what he says, You would not have found out my riddle unless you had plowed with my heifer [Judg 14:18], the heifer is also this Church which had revealed to her by her husband the secrets of the faith, the mysteries of the Trinity, of the resurrection, of the judgment too and the kingdom” (Sermons [New City Press, 1975]; pp. 276-78).

            In later medieval picture books such as the Mirror of Human Salvation or the so-called Biblia Pauperum, the typological meaning relates to the way Samson is shown astride the lion, tearing its jaws apart. This depiction has a venerable history, possibly reaching back to the Roman legionaries’ savior god, Mithras, who slays a death dealing bull, and carrying forward beyond the Refomation as a commonplace of public sculpture, painting, or Bible illustration in Europe and later America. In the medieval pictures the lion’s prised open jaws parallel the jaws of the devil into which Christ thrusts a cross, as in a fifteenth century French manuscript of the Mirror (FIGURE 03 ), or the wide open jaws of a monster, representing limbo, out of which trapped souls are about to be handed by the triumphant Christ, as in a printed (“blockbook”) Biblia Pauperum of the same time. (FIGURE 04). Here it is noticeable that the exigencies of pictorial representation bring the parallels back into symmetry, as far as “stuff” is concerned. The lion’s jaws directly parallel the monster’s jaws. Neither is obviously less “substantial” than the other.

            But in textual exposition, the abstract usually reasserts itself over the concrete. The story of Samson tying the foxes’ tails and sending them burning into the fields taxes the credulity of Origen (c. 185-254). But he perseveres. “Let us try to knock something out of it, however, as far as we are able: so let us take the foxes as false and perverted teachers,” as in the explanation given regarding the foxes in Song of Songs 2:15. “We will then suppose that Samson, who represents a true and faithful teacher, catches these foxes with the word of truth, and ties them tail to tail – that is to say, he confutes them by setting the holders and teachers of different views against each other; and, by taking syllogisms and propositions out of their own words, he sends out the fire of the conclusion into the foreigners’ corn, and with their own arguments burns up all their fruits and the vineyards and olive groves of the evil brood” (Commentary on the Song of Songs. Commentary and Homilies [Tr. R. P. Lawson]; cf. Maximus of Turin, Sermon 41 “On What the Lord Says in the Gospel: The Foxes have Holes, and So Forth”). Augustine helpfully elaborates: “What can the foxes’ tails be, but the backsides of the heretics, whose fronts are smooth and deceptive, their backsides bound, that is condemned, and dragging fire behind them, to consume the crops and works of those who yield to their seductions?” And there is more. Since the foxes were no doubt burnt up themselves, “so judgment is going to come upon the heretics from behind; they have behind them what they don’t see now. . . . their impudence goes ahead of their punishment” (Sermons).

            Allegorical reading of Samson’s lion and honey remained popular well beyond the Reformation. The nonconformist preacher John Bunyan (1628-1688), in his Preface to Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), penned from prison to his congregation in Bedford. “I have sent you here enclosed,” he says, “a drop of that honey, that I have taken out of the carcase of a lion ( Judg. 14.5-9). I have eaten thereof myself also, and am much refreshed thereby. (Temptations, when we meet them at first, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them, we shall find a nest of honey within them.) The Philistines understand me not.” Such interpretation is not stable, however. Usually the lion is depicted as the foe overcome, prefiguring death and Satan overcome by Christ. A focus on the honey, the sweet food that emanates from the slain body, however, may lead in an opposite direction. Francis Quarles (1592 - 1644) captures this alternative reading in his poem, The Historie of Sampson (1631). Having recounted the chain of events in which the lion is slain, the riddle composed, and Samson set against the Philistines, Quarles unexpectedly pauses to address Christ, the lamb, as the slain lion, whose death yields saving doctrine. “Great Saviour of the world; Thou Lambe of Sion, / That hides our sinnes: Thou art that wounded Lyon: / O, in thy dying body, we have found / A world of hony; whence we may propound / Such sacred Riddles, as shall, underneath / Our feet, subdue the power of Hell and Death.” This ambiguity about the lion’s meaning is glimpsed again with the American revivalist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) when he confusingly describes Samson’s rending of the lion as “being agreeable to the prophecies which represent the Messiah destroying his enemies as a strong lion devouring his prey (Gen. 49:9-33) (Types of the Messiah).

            By the end of the nineteenth century, despite the encroachment of historical criticism, typology still provides the preacher, Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), with the main ingredient of his sermon, “Hands Full of Honey” (1883). His focus is on the hero Samson, slain lion in the background, holding out hands “laden with masses of honeycomb and dripping with honey” to his parents. He is a type of Christ who stand now in the midst of his church “with his hands full of sweetness and consolation” who bids us come and eat of his “luscious food” so that “we may have our lives sweetened and our hearts filled with joy” (Hands Full of Honey).


            As already observed, allegory often enabled the reader to circumnavigate problems that arose from literal reading. That is very apparent in a mid-nineteenth century sermon on Deborah and Jael, the lectionary texts for the day, preached by the Anglican minister, the Rev. Isaac Williams. His problem arises from the much discussed fact that Jael hammers her tent peg through Sisera’s head in her tent into which she had invited him and in which she had offered him milk. Williams acknowledges as a difficulty that Deborah celebrates Jael’s “treacherously slaying one who had relied on her hospitality” – and, to compound the problem, Deborah “exults in the sorrows” of Sisera’s mother awaiting her son’s return. The moral difficulties yield, however, to typological solutions. As in the medieval tradition, Jael prefigures Mary. The story thus carried within it “a secret prophecy respecting Redemption and the victory over sin and death by means of a woman: it was keeping up a memorial of the promise made to Eve – of her seed bruising the serpent’s head.” Jael’s stratagem, like Judith’s, intimated that Satan “our great enemy” should be overcome unawares “by the faith of the blessed Virgin” (Female Characters of Holy Scripture, [c.1859-60]1909, pp. 82-83). Thus we travel safely from Sisera’s head, via that of the serpent in Genesis, to Satan and so to victory over “sin and death.”

            As the Rev. Williams’s sermon makes clear, Jael has a long history of ambivalent reception. While Jonathan Edwards, partial to typological interpretations, could proclaim her a prime exemplar of support for the Lord’s work, the Puritan preacher John Gibbon (1629-1718) could find a different association. He urges his listeners to be well-skilled in “unmasking the sophistry and mystery of iniquity, in defeating the wiles and strategems of the tempter, and in detecting and frustrating the cheats and finesses of the flesh with its deceitful lusts.” For sin’s model is Jael. “When sin, like Jael, invites thee into her tent, with the lure and decoy of a lordly treatment, think of the nail and hammer which fastened Sisera dead to the ground” (Puritan Sermons 1659-1689, [1661] 1981, I, Sermon V).

            It is the Reformation shift towards literal-historical reading that changes the way Jael is received. She becomes a person subject to contemporary social conventions and moral expectations, though she is still read in terms of theological doctrines – including the belief that the Bible is Holy Writ – and the desire of readers that her story convey some moral or spiritual truth. As a cipher for Mary or the Church she is a positive figure. As a woman with a mallet and nail, and a sleeping guest in her tent, she is a problem. As the First Herald of the ruling council of Florence said of Jael’s frequent companion, Judith, in 1504, “nor is it good to have a woman kill a man.”

            With Joseph Hall (1574-1656), Episcopalian minister (later bishop) and man of letters, readers find themselves contemplating Jael as if an actor on a stage. For Hall uses interior monologue, like a Shakespearean soliloquy, to expose the possibilities of understanding her. And as with Shakespeare, “stuff”is the stuff of his prose.


Now, while [Sisera] was dreaming, doubtless, of the clashing of armours, rattling of chariots, neighing of horses, the clamour of the conquered, the furious pursuit of Israel, Jael, seeing his temples lie so fair, as if they invited the nail and hammer, entered into the thought of this noble execution; certainly not without some checks of doubt, and pleas of fear. What if I strike him? And yet, who am I that I should dare to think of such an act? Is not this Sisera, the most famous captain of the world, whose name hath wont to be fearful to whole nations? What if my hand should swerve in the stroke? what if he should awake while I am lifting up this instrument of death? what if I should be surprised by some of his followers, while the fact is green, and yet bleeding? (Contemplations, 1615)


            Hall is sure that God was in charge of the stuff: “He, that put this instinct into her heart, did put also strength into her hand: he that guided Sisera to her tent, guided the nail through his temples.” Thus “he, that had vaunted of his iron chariots, is slain by one nail of iron, wanting only this one point of his infelicity, that he knows not by whose hand he perished!”

            Sustaining positive approval of Jael was her place in the popular lists of “strong women.” In Philips Galle’s print suite (c.1600) she is commended for her opportune perforation of the unjust enemy Sisera, a deed of daring that has made her name famous (or notorious!). She sits daintily, one leg tucked in behind the other, brandishing a mallet in her right hand. She looks down, with the ghost of a smile, at a large and viciously pointed tent pin in her left hand. In the background she kneels in traditional pose beside the sleeping Sisera, pin against his temple and mallet aloft (FIGURE 05). For her “strong woman” portrait she is sometimes seated as here, sometimes standing or tip-toeing. But she is always unmistakeable, known by her implements which may be flourished ostentatiously as in Pierre Le Moyne’s Gallery of Heroick Women (English edn, 1652), or amusingly tucked away, like the tent peg peg in the copper engraving designed by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) from a folio book sequence of Old Testament “heroes and heroines” (FIGURE 06). Le Moyne’s description of Jael invokes divine approval – “Jahel inspired by God received [Sisera]” – and is unstinting in its praise. “Certainly she could not have given a more hazardous [blow], nor of greater consequence: and the Age of our fore-fathers which was an Age of Miracles and of prodigious Adventures, hath never seen anything of like Courage, nor of greater Fame.” All comes to rest in one material object – Sisera’s head.


            In Jahels Brest a Hero’s Soul survives,

            Which prompts her modest thoughts to brave atchives:

            Her flaming eyes declare with how much heat*,

            She did an Army in one Head defeat.

            *[“Heat” was thought to be a characteristic of men.]


            Le Moyne is nonetheless concerned that should he propose Jael’s example to gallant women, “they will reject my proposition and abhor the blood and cruelty of this Precedent.” But he assures them that they may imitate her “without violating the Laws of Hospitality; without exasperating the mildness of their Sex; without inraging or staining the Graces with blood. Once again we observe a convenient shift away from the material world to the moral: ” If there are no more Canaanites or Sisera to overcome, yet there are “uncircumcised vices and forreign habits” aplenty, along with “commanding and tragical Passions.” These “spiritual Tyrants” demand present day Jaels to confront them. In the end, however, Le Moyne’s unease insists on a closing caveat: the act is, however, extraordinary. “It may well give us admiration and respect, but we cannot frame a model of it, and draw copies from thence.” A Gallant Woman in search of a pure model of fidelity, “without the least appearance of stain,” should look elsewhere.

            The caveat is tenacious and, throughout Jael’s reception history, has a way of working itself back into the picture. Much earlier, the famous Dutch printmaker, Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533) included Jael in a series of woodcuts (1516-1519) ostensibly celebrating the “Power of Women.” In the foreground she kneels, tent pin poised against the sleeping general’s head, mallet raised – the classic pose. In the far background, left, Sisera drinks the proffered milk while to the right she points Barak, amid soldiers crowding the door, to the deed. The milk, of course, reminds the viewer directly of the problem – the deception. In a subsequent edition, a plaque set in the picture’s frame describes the slaying and concludes with a reference to the misogynist view of Ecclesiasticus 25: nothing exceeds the malice of a woman.The power of women has been reframed.

            Much later, in La Bible Enfin Expliquee (1776), Voltaire (1694-1778) represents the “critics” (as though they did not include himself) as regarding Jael’s action as “even more horrible than the assassination of king Eglon by Ehud, for Ehud could have at least the excuse of killing a king who had enslaved his nation; but Jael was not in fact Jewish, she was the wife of a Kenite who was at peace with king Jabin. . . . [She] assassinated captain Sisera with a hammer blow and nailed his brains to the ground.” She was praised in the song of Deborah, he notes. “Today with us she would get neither reward nor praise. Times change.” Voltaire, of course, is looking for any chance to attack the credibility of the Bible as a moral authority and Jael’s hammer simply comes in handy.


            The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries see a growing concern not only about the moral behavior of Samson but also the very credibility of the tales told of him.

            At one end of the scale is Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) in his Religio Medici (1643). He acknowledges the problem, only to dismiss it as arising from a failure to treat Scripture as a divinely inspired text relating divinely inspired events. Discussing the rise of skeptical inquiry and the appeal to Greek and Roman authors as norms, Browne observes that there are scholars who will “peremptorily maintain the traditions of Aelian or Pliny, yet in Histories of Scripture raise Queries and Objections, believing no more than they can parallel in humane Authors. I confess there are in Scripture Stories that do exceed the Fables of Poets, and to a captious Reader sound like Garagantua or Bevis. Search all the Legends of times past, and the fabulous conceits of these present, and ’twill be hard to find one that deserves to carry the Buckler unto Sampson; yet is all this of an easie possibility, if we conceive a Divine concourse, or an influence but from the little Finger of the Almighty. It is impossible that either in the discourse of man, or in the infallible Voice of God, to the weakness of our apprehensions, there should not appear irregularities, contradictions, and antinomies” (XXI; my italics).

            The eighteenth century deists, at the other end of the scale, insist against Browne that the Bible must be measured, rationally, against the norms of “humane” authors. Thus, for example, Voltaire’s credulity will certainly not stretch as far as Samson’s prodigious strength. As usual his attack on the Bible’s credibility is oblique. Commenting upon Samson’s carrying off the gates of Gaza to Hebron, he assumes the voice of orthodoxy, observing that the astonishing feats of Samson are “miracles which show that God does not want to abandon his people.” Then, as if in anticipation of the skeptic’s objection, he adds the double-edged protestation, “We have said twenty times that what does not happen today happened frequently in that period.” He concludes by twisting the knife: “We believe this response suffices” (La Bible Enfin Expliquée). 

             Voltaire characterizes the Samson story generally as “the eternal subject of jokes and incredulity.” Among other problems he notes the small difficulty of the razor not being used on the head of Samson since, he says, as a matter of material observation, Jews do not shave. Rather the custom of shaving heads for the most part comes from Egypt where the priests were shaved. Moreover, he observes, the nazarite custom was to shave for only a limited time whereas it is said that Samson never shaved, making him a “different” kind of nazarite and the story suspect. As for the bees and honey, Voltaire relates the story to an ancient and erroneous notion (cf. Virgil, Georgics, IV) that bees could be produced from a corpse (Philosophy of History, ch. XLVII).

            Then again, Bible defenders are in no short supply. In the nineteenth century, John Kitto, widely read in both Britain and North America, appeals to detailed knowledge of the Holy Land. Custom decreed, he says, that at least a month elapse between a proposal and the celebration of the marriage. In that climate carcasses are speedily devored by jackals and vultures, among others, so that Samson found only a clean skeleton, partially covered with the undevoured hide. “In the cavity thus formed a swarm of bees had lodged and deposited their honey” (Bible History, [1841] 1867).

            As with Samson’s lion, allegorical reading of the foxes episode continues well into the period of predominantly historical-literal reading. For example, Matthew Henry (1662-1714), having discussed the literal details of the deed, recalls that “This stratagem is often alluded to, to show how the church’s adversaries, that are of different interests and designs among themselves, that look and draw contrary ways in other things, yet have often united in a fire brand, some cursed project or other, to waste the church of God, and particularly to kindle the fire of division in it” (Commentary on the Holy Bible, 1708). John Owen (1616-1683) is perhaps one of those writers to whom Henry is referring. Owen denounces as dividers and troublers of church unity “that people whom men will call Quakers” for joining with others who have been “seduced into Socinianism” in “an opposition to the holy Trinity.” Continues Owen, “For however they may seem in sundry things as yet to look diverse ways, yet, like Samson’s foxes, they are knit together by the tail of consent in these firebrand opinions, and jointly endeavour to consume the standing corn of the church of God” (A Brief Declaration and Vindication of The Doctrine of the Trinity).

            For readers in the historical-literal tradition the episode with the foxes has occasioned much head-scratching, at least since the early seventeenth century (cf. Joseph Hall, Contemplations on the Historie of the Olde Testament, 1615). Two concerns keep being raised, namely the morality of the deed and – our concern here, as a matter of the disposition of stuff – its practicality. The Puritan scholar Matthew Poole (1624-79) is in no doubt on the matter. While “infidels are much offended at this history, and pretend it incredible that Samson could catch so many foxes together,” Poole argues that it is not said that Samson caught them all by himself, at one time; and, moreover, God could well have so disposed things that they might be caught (Commentary on the Holy Bible, 1688). The learned Flemish Jesuit, Cornelius à Lapide (1567-1637) is of a like mind. Surely God, perhaps through the agency of an angel, could have arranged the gathering together and capture, just as he arranged for the animals to be brought into Noah’s ark (Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, 1681).

            A century later, however, and the foxes are provoking Voltaire. As often, he puts his own views (and those of other deists) into the mouth of the skeptical priest Jean Meslier, who speaks, he says with mock horror, with “reckless indecency” of the three hundred foxes. “It appears to him to be an absurd story, which would not even amuse the most imbecilic children.” Tongue in cheek, he invokes the widely respected work of Dom Augustin Calmet (1672-1757), but of course to no avail: “In vain has Calmet said that the population of Rome made a fox run with a lighted torch on its back; in vain has Bochart said that this vulgar amusement was an imitation of Samson’s adventure with the foxes; Meslier will by no means let up: he maintains that it is impossible to find at a given time three hundred foxes and to attach them together at the tail; that there never was a fox-catcher who could tie together in this manner three hundred foxes. If we were to find a similar tale by a profane author, says he, what scorn would we not have for him!” (La Bible enfin expliquée, 1776).

            Voltaire’s skepticism was clearly shared. “Much has been said by the Deists in ridicule of this part of the sacred history,” complains the Reverend Henry Southwell in his Universal Family Bible (1775), “for they pretend to wonder, how, or where Sampson could find so many foxes?” In response Southwell appeals to contemporary evidence from the Levant, an argument increasingly common. “It is certain that, in those countries, foxes were very numerous; and in this age, some of our modern travellers have asserted, that they go in droves of two or three hundred.” Moreover, Samson as a great man could command as many as he pleased to assist him; and if the action is said to be his own, that is merely a figure of speech as when a king is said to gain a battle. Hence, “the objection falls to the ground.”

            Pioneer educator Mrs. (Sarah) Trimmer, however, remains troubled by Samson’s method of revenge, one that “is very difficult to account for, though some of the learned have endeavoured to reconcile it by various arguments.” She attempts to find a way out by getting rid of the foxes altogether: she refers her reader to Dr. Sharpe’s Introduction to Universal History (1755) that the Hebrew word translated “foxes” may be better rendered as “wheat-sheaves”; in that case “we can easily suppose, that if Samson and his attendants set a number of these on fire, the flames might communicate from place to place, and cause a general conflagration.” The necessary, though slight, emendation of the Hebrew text is generally attributed to the eminent Hebraist, Benjamin Kennicott (1718-83), although already the “improved” edition of his own Universal Family Bible (Dublin, 1793) suggests the proposal “will not stand the test of critical enquiry.” Henry Southwell, dedicated to preserving orthodoxy, is not willing to see the foxes disappear from his Bible and vehemently opposes the emendation: “nothing in the world can be more false.” A century later, in an 1880 edition of John Kitto’s Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, the argument is still being discussed in detail if only to be rejected on material grounds: “We admit that this, at first view, appears a rational explanation; but it should be observed that three hundred shocks of corn would not make two stacks, and therefore the result would be quite inadequate, considered as a punishment or act of vengeance upon the Philistine population, then predominant over the greater part of Palestine” (Vol. II, “Shual” [Foxes]).

            In his frequently reprinted Daily Bible Illustrations (1850) Kitto more than allows the moral problem – “any other man who did this would deserve to be hanged” – but, like others, appeals to Samson’s divine commission for justification. He has rather more to say on the material “difficulties” involved, though he finds these not insuperable (for one thing, Samson probably had helpers). But why foxes? The answer, Kitto supposes, is that foxes run to cover when in trouble. Dogs, in contrast, would “scour the open road.” Well then, why tied tail to tail? Would they not then run in opposite directions and so not run at all? The answer lies in the foxes’ highly suitable bushy tails which, if lit singly, would drag on the ground and extinguish the fire, but tied would be “sustained at tension by their mutual exertions.” Moreover, so tied, the foxes could not retreat into their holes. Finally, as concerns pulling in different directions, Kitto wishes someone would simply try a five-minute experiment instead of writing large dissertations on the subject. As it happens, he lately saw two dogs tied by the tail and paused to consider the result with Samson’s foxes in mind. “They certainly did pull in opposite directions, and wasted some minutes in rather awkward movements. But finding the futility of their efforts, they inclined their heads to each other, and after a hasty consultation, turned round so as to bring their bodies parallel to each other, and then ran off with considerable speed.” Given that foxes “have not the reputation of being duller than dogs,” Kitto is in no doubt that they would have hit upon the same solution as the dogs, while the length of their tails would have both given them more room and widened their path of destruction. In short, it would appear that Samson’s was no senseless or ill-considered device.

            From at least the late seventeenth century (the encyclopaedists) and increasingly through the eighteen and nineteenth centuries, attention is directed to the material “things” of the stories as objects of interest in their own right. Increasingly, too, reference is made to such “stuff” in the contemporary “Orient” in order to establish for a reader the correct perception of the story’s realia. By the nineteenth century, then, Bible Histories and Dictionaries are replete with descriptions and drawings of towns, houses, tents, doors, locks, hammers, tent pegs, fields of corn, and foxes. Napolean’s expedition to Egypt produced a wave of ancient (and modern) Egyptian “illustrations” of ancient Israelite stuff, and a similar phenomenon appears later in the century with the excavations of ancient Babylon and Assyria. In the meantime the steamship made it much more convenient for travelers to see the Holy Land for themselves. And they flooded Europe and America with their accounts and pictures of the Land where, apparently, time had stood still and things were as they had always been.

            Well, what about foxes? If Mrs. Trimmer was wondering whether foxes were really wheat sheaves, nineteenth century commentators began to worry about whether the “foxes” were really rather jackels. Mr. Kitto himself in his historical works calls them jackals and this identification is a commonplace of nineteenth century Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. The missionary and popular author William Thomson thought jackals were intended since these were “even now extremely numerous. I have had more than one race after them, and over the very theatre of Samson’s exploits. When encamped out in the plain, with a part of Ibrahim Pasha’s army, in 1834, we were serenaded all night long by troops of these hideous howlers” (The Land and the Book, 1859). Other visitors to Palestine lent the argument weight by remarking on the prevalence of jackals. Arguing for the practicability of Samson’s deed, the Rev. J. G. Wood (1827-1889) first lambasts as foolish and utterly untenable the theory of those who defend the story by claiming the foxes were supplied all in one place by a miracle. A miracle would hardly have been wrought to enable such a “cruel and unjustifiable” revenge; and it was, in any case, unnecessary. Wood reports an anecdote by a certain Signor Pierotti who found himself one night in January 1857 caught in the early hours of the morning stuck on horseback in the middle of a “small torrent.” Alas, the only things attracted by his calls, “were numbers of jackals, who remained at a certain distance from me, and responded to my cries, especially when I tried to imitate them, as though they took me for their music-master.” The traveler continues: “During this most uncomfortable night, I had good opportunity of ascertaining that, if another Samson had wished to burn again the crops in the country of the Philistines, he would have had no difficulty in finding more than three hundred jackals, and catching as many as he wanted in springs, traps, or pitfalls” (Wood’s Bible Animals, 1872).

            By the end of the nineteenth century it had become common to observe of the foxes episode that it could be paralleled in classical antiquity, particularly in a Roman custom reported by the poet Ovid (43 b.c.e.-17/18 c.e.; Fasti iv. 679-712). Apparently at the festival of the Cerealia, in April, foxes with lighted torches tied to their tails were let loose in the Circus for a ceremonial hunting. The similarity to Samson’s action has long been noted. Cornelius à Lapide, for example, details it in his Commentary in the seventeenth century and we saw it appear a century later in Voltaire’s ridicule of the episode. The problem with the parallel was that it raised questions about historicity.

            For the earlier commentators, not surprisingly, the matter was normally decided in the Bible’s favor. Thus for Matthew Poole in the later seventeenth century the episode’s veracity is notably attested by the later Roman custom borrowed probably through the Phoenicians. As the twentieth century rolled in, however, the inroads of historical criticism were apparent, even in popular exposition. Interest in myth, legend, and folklore was high. Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), for example, was already influential in Great Britain and North America and was to become even more so with the popular one-volume edition in 1922. Thus early twentieth century readers of the Rev. G. W. Thatcher’s little book on Judges in the “historical-critical” Century Bible were simply informed that the episode was “A piece of folklore which cannot be criticized seriously” (Judges and Ruth). And when Oxford scholar G. A. Cooke explains the passage to his high school readers in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges he introduces the Roman Cerealia custom as representing “symbolically, and by substitute, the fires which were so often fatal to the ripe corn in the heat of the Dog-days.” The link to Samson is not through history but rather ritual and folklore. “Possibly a symbolic rite of this kind may have been practised, as an exorcism, among the Canaanites or even the Israelites in the Danite district, and Samson associated with it in popular story” (The Book of Judges, 1913).

            For a more scholarly readership, another Oxford professor, the Rev. C. F. Burney, discusses the Cerealia in the course of examining “the mythical element in the story of Samson.” The key is the color red, the color of the sun, the foxes and the fiery torches, and also of red-colored blight, rust, which was in ancient times thought to be produced by hot sun upon damp corn-stalks. Plausible, therefore, is the theory that “Samson plays the part of the Sun-god with his fiery heat, letting loose the destructive plague of rust which burns up the standing corn of the Philistines.” He agrees with Smyth-Palmer that the Roman custom is to be traced to a Semitic source. He has dealt at length with this episode, he explains, because more than any it “proves decisively the real existence of a mythological element in the story of Samson; and, further, suggests very strongly that this element is solar in character” (The Book of Judges, 1918; cf. A. Smythe-Palmer, The Samson-Saga and its Place in Comparative Religion, 1913).

            This interpretive strategy appears to have much in common with medieval allegory. In effect, the stuff of the story is transmuted into the codes of a meta-story, though the myth itself is then transmuted back again into materiality – sun, corn, and blight. As the century waxed and waned so did enthusiasm for the mythological interpretation of Samson and his foxes. Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (1962) reports that story of the foxes “is usually regarded as evidence linking Samson with solar myths” and summarizes Burney’s position including appeal to the Cerealia. John Grey in the New Century Bible (Joshua, Judges and Ruth, 1967) suggests that there “may” have been a public rite to avert rust-fungus and there “may” be “a distant analogy” in the Cerealia. J. Alberto Soggin shows more confidence in the theory in his Old Testament Library commentary (Judges, 1981), but acknowledges a competing explanation which sees such torching of fields as a typical military, especially guerilla, tactic (T. H. Gaster, Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament,1969). This time the classical parallel is Hannibal at Lake Trasimene in 217 b.c.e. when he sent oxen with burning torches between their horns into the fields in order to cause the Romans to panic (Livy xxii. 16ff.). “In this case the practice would be part of military folklore and would not have any originally mythical base” (Soggin, Judges,1981). This latter proposal is more plausible to Robert G. Boling in the Anchor Bible series. Samson, he says, is the “guerilla fighter par excellence but a very poor follower or organizer” (Judges, 1975). Guerillas, it would appear, need neither organize nor follow. The military explanation is not new: J. J. Lias, for example, observes that burning fields was a common form of vengeance and cites the account by Herodotus of how the Lydian King Alyattes so revenged himself on the neighboring Milesians for twelve successive years (The Book of Judges,1906).

            Somehow in all this earnest discussion the basic (material) question which the Cerealia was introduced to solve seems to have been lost. Whether as festival organizer or disorganized guerilla, how did Samson manage to capture three hundred foxes, tie their tails together, place lighted torches between them, and release them into the fields of corn? Illustrators, unintentionally, tend to underscore the problem for the troubled reader. Numerous pictures show Samson sending off a few foxes (or jackels?), all obligingly heading into the waving grain. Elgers’ design in Mortier’s “Great Bible” (1700) even introduces a few “kennels” from one of which Samson has just released a pair of foxes who hot-tail it towards the crops (FIGURE 07). But where are all the others? Fortunately, the prolific illustrator James Tissot (Old Testament, 1904) comes to the rescue, though whether he does so with a sense of humor is hard to tell. At any rate, while our hero lights the tied tails of one pair, there they are, the other foxes (or at least some of them) – patiently awaiting their turn (FIGURE 08).

            Voltaire, we might imagine, must still be laughing.

            He certainly had a chuckle over Samson’s exploit with the ass’s jawbone at Lehi. He begins by wondering at the veracity of a history that has victors over the Canaanites so often subdued in slavery. He lists the occasions from the Book of Judges. “What may perplex our judgment is, that they were slaves even in the time of Sampson, when Sampson required only the jaw-bone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines, and when God operated by the hands of ampson the most astonishing prodigies” (Philosophy of History, ch. xli). In mock dismay he claims to report the views of a scholarly skeptic. “The jaw of an ass with which Samson kills a thousand Philistines, his masters, is what emboldens Meslier all the more in his sarcasm which is as insolent as it is impious. He goes so far as to say (we repeat it with horror) that the only ass’s jawbone in this story is that of the author who made it up” (La Bible enfin expliquée).


            As already noted, increased European and American interest in the “Orient” shows itself in nineteenth century biblical commentary. Edward Hughes explains to school students that the “nomadic Arabians” at the outset of Gideon’s story “poured into Palestine,” trampling down fields, gardens, and vineyards, plundering, and rioting, “as the Bedouin Arabs are accustomed to do at the present day, when not restrained by force” (Outlines of Scripture Geography and History (1853). Similarly John Kitto makes the past present (or the present past) and the space (the stuff-in-relation) the same: districts bordering on the desert, where local government is not strong or Arab semi-cultivators not an obstacle, “are still subject to similar visitations.” Until very recently, he reports, the very area east of the Jordan invaded by the Midianites “suffered much from the periodical sojourn and severe exactions of the Bedouin tribes” (Pictorial History, 1844; see, a century later, Rudolf Kittel, Great Men and Movements in Israel, 1925).

            A splendid pictorial rendition in orientalizing fashion is Gustave Doré’s illustration of the lapping episode. (Doré’s illustrations were probably the most reproduced of the century.) The men are gathered by a pool at dusk (cf. 7:9, “that same night”). Gideon, mounted and helmeted, resembles seventeenth and eighteenth century “classical” Gideons (cf. Merian’s Bible, 1625). Most of his soldiers, however, with flowing robes and headdress, belong unmistakeably to the artist’s contemporary “Orient.” Against the grey of distant hills and clouded skyline are several turbaned figures mounted on camels, their long lances black against the fading light (La Sainte Bible, 1866; The Doré Bible Gallery, 1883). (FIGURE 09).

            Many critics have continued to appeal to the “Orient” for explanatory parallels, though more circumspectly than their nineteenth century forebears – more likely to invoke ancient Near Eastern texts than India. Contemporary Arab life in situ has long furnished explanations. Moore informs his reader that it is “with true Arab spirit” that Zebah and Zalmunna challenge Gideon to give their death-stroke with his own hand (8:18-21). Soggin observes that “the blood vendetta is an institution which is still accepted today in the Bedouin world and also in certain Mediterranean regions, where it sometimes leads to interminable feuds.” Illustrating Judges in The Story of the Bible ©.1938, I), a compendium for the general public by scholars in England, is a photograph: Gideon’s test seen today at gilboa’s spring (FIGURE 10). The small print explains that what we see are Arab soldiers demonstrating the test’s suitability, “all drinking correctly save one” (left foreground, his head down and rear up). The camera does not lie. It settles the long debate: “Those Israelites who lapped with one hand, grasping spear or sword with the other, and facing the enemy possibly ambushed on the opposite bank, were alert to the danger of surprise attack.”

            Ancient Near Eastern texts have provided many an explanation of material objects. Drawing upon Babylonian texts, Burney elucidates the cult object, the “Asherah” (6:25), as probably symbolizing the consort of Yahweh worshiped by the Amorite inhabitants of Canaan. Commenting upon the meal Gideon prepares (6:19-23), Boling refers to a Hittite “Soldier’s Oath” involving “an array of such visual aids as a bowl of fermenting yeast, crackling sinews, and mutton fat dissolving on a hot pan.” The angel “here turns Gideon’s religiosity into an enlistment opportunity.”

            Boling, like many twentieth century commentators, enlists archaeological data (more stuff) to amplify the “history” behind the text. Thus he dates Gideon and Abimelech a half century earlier than Deborah and Barak on the basis of (unspecified) archaeological evidence from Shechem and Taanach. He regularly identifies place names with modern archaeological sites, Succoth, for example, with Tell Deir ‘Alla in the Jordan valley. Undeterred by excavation evidence against sizeable village occupation in the relevant period – the narrative specifies seventy seven officials and elders – Boling dates Gideon’s dealings with Succoth to the early twelfth century and designates it “a rural rallying point very much distrusted by the free-wheeling judge.” Thus provided with an historical time and place, how could the story itself not be historical?

            Probably the classic “archaeological” account is by John Garstang (1876-1956) of Liverpool University (The Foundations of Bible History: Joshua Judges, 1931). He too takes pains to “place” the text, to render it as real stuff. His book is abundantly, if obscurely, illustrated with small grainy photos of sites (plus an Appendix on “Places and Archaeology”) (FIGURE 11). As for temporality, his chronology makes Boling’s look loose: the Midianite oppression occurred c.1161-1154. It was not an organized raid but a general nomadic movement impelled by draught and weak Egyptian rule. Not so, responds Boling, who produces a trump card: Midan’s revival was probably due to immigration from eastern Anatolia and northern Syria, bringing with it the domesticated camel. Ruled by kings, the invaders with their superior “camel corps” were not nomads, he insists.

            Scholars in the twentieth century have mined the text for historical reconstruction. In a move that echoes the rhetoric of Judges 1, the characters in Judges are often taken to represent larger tribal groups and to shed light on early historical tribal locations and movements. Boling understands the references to the Kenite Heber and his wife Jael to explain “that an entire clan migrated and changed sides in the time of Jabin.” As for the song of Deborah, Boling agrees with Moore that it is of high historical value as a contemporary record. Yet an up-to-date reading differs from its predecessors, he explains, “thanks mainly to the recovery of a plausible social setting for the Song.” What is new, he goes on, is that ancient Near Eastern texts from Mari in Mesopotamia provide corroboration for early Israel’s provision for military muster, as well as land tenure and the distribution of booty ( (Judges, 1975). That is to say, as Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters long ago noticed, scholars were now claiming to know much more about the customs and social organization of the place (including the distribution of crucial “things”) and period by appealing to yet another distant time and place. The question is, how different is this argument from those of the eighteenth and nineteenth century India, Turkey, Egypt and Assyria? Or, for that matter, those Arab soldiers at the Spring of Gilboa?

            Archaeological evidence is prominent in much of Boling’s discussion of Judges. On the story of Deborah and Bark in chapters 4-5, for example, he appeals to excavation at Taanach claiming to show destruction around 1125 b.c.e. This the dig director “was inclined to associate” with the events in the Song. Megiddo (Judg 5:19) was apparently not then occupied, explaining the poet’s interest rather in the stream (“waters”). Boling cites as a “striking parallel” a swollen river story from a “modern archaeological campaign.” It would appear that in spring rains made travel difficult for the director’s supply wagon in the muddy plain. Indeed, in 1903 no less than three of his horses drowned in the “swollen Qishon.”

            Swollen river stories are a commonplace of Kishon commentary, like this one from the Rev. Samuel Manning: “A friend of mine who had crossed it dry-shod in the morning, when riding from Haifa to visit El Muhrakah, was exposed to considerable danger when endeavouring to recross it in the afternoon, and narrowly escaped being swept away” (‘Those Holy Fields’: Palestine Illustrated by Pen and Pencil, 1890).

            As with the jackals, there is nothing so persuasive as an appeal to stuff in situ.


* * * * * *