It had more to do with his Nazirite vow. But what is a Nazirite?
Samson is quite a complex character. In popular culture, he is usually associated with brute strength, romantic betrayal, heroism — and even with nationalism. But some core traits of this notorious biblical figure — that is, besides his legendary strength and long hair — are relatively unknown to most.
Samson’s story is found in the book of Judges, chapters 13 to 16. It is generally believed to be a typical folk tale, aiming at the moral and spiritual edification of its listeners, very much à la Aesop. Some scholars claim Samson is the Israelite adaptation of typical Mediterranean heroes like the Greek Heracles, or the Sumerian Enkidu — and some others consider the story has some elements of historical truth as well. Whether legendary or historical, most specialists agree the sources for the composition of the book of Judges were stories regarding the military prowess of tribal leaders who were able to deliver the people from different threats. These tribal leaders would receive the title of judges — hence the name of the book.
Samson, the judge
Samson himself was one of these judges. In fact, he was the last one, ruling the people right before the establishment of the monarchy. The original Hebrew for “judge” is shophet, literally meaning someone who is able to pass judgement — usually a prominent community leader who would play the role of chief magistrate, military leader, and ruler. In short, a kind of chieftain.
We are all more or less familiar with his story: Samson was a man of remarkable strength, and lost all of it after his lover Delilah cut his hair. But surely there is more to that. Can somebody’s strength really reside in his hair? What does it all mean?
The biblical narrative is rather short. The book only dedicates three chapters to this story, presenting but very few episodes of his life, mainly related to the beginning and end of his 20 years as a judge. But those three chapters are more than enough. To begin with, they clearly hint at the tensions between Philistia and Israel during its early tribal period in Canaan. They also explain that Samson was given this great strength in order to aid him against his enemies — we find him slaying a lion with his bare hands, and decimating an entire Philistine army using only the jawbone of a donkey.
Christian readings of his story render Samson as a type of Jesus — that is, as a vetero-testamentary figure pre-figuring the Christ. Their stories can be somewhat similar. Both births were foretold by angels. Samson was born to a barren woman, and Jesus was born of a virgin. Samson defeated a lion, and Jesus defeated Satan — famously described in the first Epistle of Peter as a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Delilah’s betrayal has typically been compared to that of Judas Iscariot — actually, both were paid in pieces of silver. And even some early medieval commentators saw Samson’s arms stretched between the two columns of the temple of Dagon as a kind of prefiguration of the crucifixion.
But, perhaps most importantly, these rather short chapters include a detail that most popular renditions of this story leave aside: Samson was a Nazirite. But what does that mean?
The Nazirite vow
We will need to take a closer look at Samson’s birth. Before he was even conceived, the story goes, his mother was visited by an angel. We don’t know much about her. The book doesn’t tell us her name. We only know she was a peasant, that she belonged to the tribe of Dan, that she lived in the village of Zorah (not far from Jerusalem) and what the angel told her: that her son was to be “a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.” (Cf. Judges 13, 1-7).
The word Nazirite derives from the Hebrew nazir. It has, perhaps not surprisingly, the same overtones found in the Latin sacer —both words imply that something or someone has been “consecrated” and, consequently, “separated” from the rest. Scholars explain the notion of the sacred (that is what both nazir and sacer literally mean) intends to explain the remarkable character of that which is considered as such by highlighting its uniqueness. Whatever is deemed sacred, is by its very nature, already somehow “apart” from the rest. It is because of this exceptional character that the person or object considered sacred is consequently consecrated — the consecrating act then being the recognition of this exceptionality. But the notion of the sacred also works in the opposite direction: something or someone becomes exceptional as a consequence of said consecration. After all, that is literally what consecration means, making something sacred, separating it from the profane.
A Nazirite is, then, someone sacred. Samson being “a Nazirite to God” implied his being “set apart”. The sixth chapter of the book of Numbers describes the vow of the Nazarite at length. The text abounds in details regarding the circumstances under which a Nazirite can (or must) cut his hair. It reads as follows:
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins […] During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long. Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head. Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the Lord. If someone dies suddenly in the Nazirite’s presence, thus defiling the hair that symbolizes their dedication, they must shave their head on the seventh day —the day of their cleansing. […] That same day they are to consecrate their head again. […] Then at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the Nazirite must shave off the hair that symbolizes their dedication. They are to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering. After the Nazirite has shaved off the hair that symbolizes their dedication, the priest is to place in their hands a boiled shoulder of the ram, and one thick loaf and one thin loaf from the basket, both made without yeast. […] After that, the Nazirite may drink wine. This is the law of the Nazirite who vows offerings to the Lord in accordance with their dedication, in addition to whatever else they can afford. They must fulfill the vows they have made, according to the law of the Nazirite.”
If one thing is clear from these prescriptions it is that hair plays an important role in the vow of the Nazirite. It is not, then, that Samson’s strength resided in his hair (as popular renditions of the biblical story tell) but rather in his vow —his long hair being a consequence of this lifetime consecration to God. In fact, the moral of the Samson saga refers to the disastrous consequences of his repeated violations of the Nazirite vow, Dalilah’s trimming of his hair being just one of many. Samson willingly failed to remain “apart,” consecrated. This is all the more grave considering he himself was a judge.
Samson first broke his religious obligation by feasting with a woman from the neighboring town of Timnah. She was a Philistine — like Delilah. He wanted to marry her, entirely disregarding his parents’ reservations about their son marrying someone from a hostile tribe. In fact, he even threw a great wedding feast, which ended in a violent fight — and the woman being married to someone else (Cf. Judges 14, 1-20). Sure, Samson’s weakness for Philistine women eventually drove him into the arms of Delilah, but his previous, repeated violations of the Nazirite vow (one cannot but assume there was wine at this failed wedding feast, and that he surely touched the corpses of the 30 men he murdered there) had already “weakened” him to the point of making him somewhat careless and, consequently, vulnerable. One of the evident morals of the story, then, is that repeated seemingly “minor” faults can certainly lead to major ones — and not necessarily that cutting one’s hair is a dangerous affair.