Samson appears in the book of Judges as a man who will deliver the Israelites from their enemy, the Philistines. He is known for having astonishing strength, which is linked to having hair that has never been cut. Vision is an important theme in Judg 13-16 (the passage that deals with Samson); throughout the narrative Samson uses sight to evaluate and engage with the world, and this is especially obvious in his interaction with women. Late in the narrative, Samson is blinded by the Philistines, and this changes how he interacts with the world around him.
How was sight understood in the ancient world?
In the ancient Near East, there were multiple theories of sight, which differ from how people understand sight in the contemporary West. The most popular theory was extramission; this is the theory that light is emitted from the eye and goes out into the world, interacting with objects and bringing back knowledge of them to the one who sees. In this model, sight is an active process, not a passive one.
Sight is especially linked to the erotic in these contexts. When a man looks at a women, he is understood as desiring and in some way sexually engaging with her. This is the case throughout the Samson narrative; for example, when Samson looks at a woman from Timnah, he desires her and demands her for his wife (Judg 14:1-3). Seeing something affects the one who sees, spiritually and physically; they are not only changed because of what they see but also because of what they know and what they do to gain this knowledge. Seeing also affects the object because the visual rays that go out from the eyes make contact with the object that is being seen. The eyes not only see much; they do much.
What does this mean for understanding the story of Samson and his blindness?
Samson was a nazirite, a special type of religious person who could not cut his hair, eat anything unclean, or drink wine or strong drink (see Num 6:1-21). However, through sight Samson actively engages with things what are forbidden for a nazirite. Samson “sees” a Timnahite women (Judg 14:1-2) who is “pleasing to his eyes” (Judg 14:3, Judg 14:7); he “sees” the carcass of a lion (Judg 14:8) and eats honey that has developed inside it; he “sees” a prostitute (Judg 16:1). Samson’s transgressions were clearly of a visual nature. If an extramission theory of sight is operative here, it is clear that Samson actively engaged with things that were forbidden to him.
It is fitting, therefore, that Samson is blinded by the Philistines; his punishment reflects typical ancient Near Eastern punishment. Blinding marks prisoners as captive (see, e.g., 2Kgs 25:7; Isa 42:19). Blindness is also associated with impurity and exclusion (see, e.g., Eli in 1Sam 3:2, 1Sam 3:13; 1Sam 4:15) and with cognitive inability (e.g., Isaac in Gen 27:1-38). Samson is forced into a different role when he is blinded; he is a prisoner who must do manual work and entertain his captors, and the strong man is led by the hand of a young man; he is dependent on others (Judg 16:25). This is ironic because Samson was born to deliver the Israelites “from the hands” of the Philistines (Judg 13:5).
Samson’s blindness is often spiritualized by scholars who suggest that he did not trust God in his sighted state but has insight and depends on God when he is blinded. But in many ways Samson is the same as before he is blinded—he seeks retribution and entreats God to meet his desires. Samson’s disability is a physical one that removes his ability to be affected by and to effect the world around him through vision. Sighted Samson is led by his eyes; blinded Samson is led by the hand of another.