Monday, October 25, 2010

Biblical Analysis: Samson's Death

25 While they were in high spirits, they shouted, "Bring out Samson to entertain us." So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them.
When they stood him among the pillars, 26 Samson said to the servant who held his hand, "Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them." 27 Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. 28 Then Samson prayed to the LORD, "O Sovereign LORD, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes." 29 Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30 Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. Judges 16: 25-30

I don't think I've ever seen two structural pillars close enough for a single person to put a hand on both at the same time. Consequently, the preceding passage has always made me wonder about the temple Samson died in. Especially after reading it as an adult: What kind of temple can hold three thousand people on the roof and still have two critical supports that close together? I figured someone out there had already done the research, what with it being in the Bible, and the Bible being the most popular book ever.

I wasn't disappointed. John Roskoski, PhD, seems to have written quite a bit on the subject. I first found his paper that describes the size of the temple, among other things. It was "26 feet wide by 47 feet long," according to Dr. B.G. Wood, as quoted by Roskoski. "The pillars would be within the reach of Samson, a huge man according to most scholars, as they were situated approximately six feet apart." This is based on the excavation of Tell Qasile, which is believed to be very similar to the temple in Gaza. With that question somewhat answered, I moved on to the three thousand people on the roof. A roof that is definitely too small for three thousand people.

John Roskoski's article on Samson's death addressed the number of people in the section appropriately titled "How Many People?"
The Hebrew term ‘elep represents the numeral 1,000. However, there are several specialized meanings attached to this term. One meaning is that the term represents the “largest basic division of leadership in political oversight or military leadership.” Also, “it is occasionally alleged that since ‘elep means a company of a thousand men it could mean any military unit, even of reduced strength” (Scott 1980: 48). Therefore, it seems as though the text is referring to three distinct contingencies that were in attendance, in addition to the followers of Dagon who filled the temple.
I have no way of really evaluating the information in that section. For now, I will accept it as it is. I will say that it doesn't strike me as a particularly strong argument, though. It seems odd to have to use some specialized meaning of a word in order for it to make sense. We go from "three thousand men and women" to "three distinct contingencies." It seems rather vague.

For the record, my favorite fact comes from a footnote in the first paper by Roskoski: "The columns were wider at the top and tapered at the bottom, a result of inverting the cypress trunk so to prevent sprouting once in place." I had no idea that was a problem, and I love the mental image that comes to mind when imagining some engineer encountering that problem for the first time.

1 comment:

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

I'm not used to analysing the Word of God, but letting the Word of God analyse me. Nevertheless I found reading your post interesting.

One point that became evident to me after reading your post is how limited we are when we try to understand biblical passages primarily in translation into our own language, and when we think about them within the confines of our own mindset.

Not only is it true, as the Word of God declares, that "My thoughts are not your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8), but even if one is an atheist reading the Bible as an anthropological document, unless you can think with the mindset, formed by language, of the human authors, you cannot really expect to arrive at the intended meaning.

If you accept the Word of God, then study it in the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, and enter into the mindset of the human authors, and then you can check modern translations against that.

I also appreciated what you said in your closing paragraph, as I am by heritage and training interested in architectural details, and I have a scientific outlook, neither of which are an impediment to my belief in the literal inspiration of the written Word of God.

Rule of thumb is, if an English translation is enough for you, stay with the plain meaning, and respect it; if you seek the firmest foundation for your testimony to Jesus Christ the Word of God and Son of the Father, then become a Hebrew and a Greek by entering into the written Word at its sources.