Samson's Blindness by Kirsty L. Jones

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.

Kirsty L. Jones, "Samson’s Blindness", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/samsons-blindness

Contributors

Jones-Kirsty

Kirsty L. Jones
PhD student, Georgetown University

Kirsty L. Jones is a PhD student at Georgetown University working on disability and the senses in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. She also teaches at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. She is the author of “Home but Not Healed: How the Sensory Profiles of Prophetic Utopian Visions Influence Presentations of Disability,” in Sounding Sensory Profiles in Antiquity (SBL Press, 2019) and “Three Blind Vices? Vision and Blindness in the Samson Cycle” (BibInt 28 [2020]).

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Contaminated as a result of certain physical or moral situations, and therefore prohibited from contact with holy things. (See also: "purity" (HCBD).)

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.

Judg 13-16

The Birth of Samson
1The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.2There ... View more

Judg 14:1-3

14 Once Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw a Philistine woman. 2 Then he came up, and told his father and mother, “I saw a Philistine woman at Tim ... View more

Num 6:1-21

The Nazirites
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When either men or women make a special vow, the vow of a nazirite, to ... View more

Judg 14:1-2

14 Once Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw a Philistine woman. 2 Then he came up, and told his father and mother, “I saw a Philistine woman at Tim ... View more

Judg 14:3

3 But his father and mother said to him, “Is there not a woman among your kin, or among all our[a] people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcise ... View more

Judg 14:7

7 Then he went down and talked with the woman, and she pleased Samson.

Judg 14:8

8 After a while he returned to marry her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey.

Judg 16:1

16 Once Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and went in to her.

2Kgs 25:7

7 They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon.

Isa 42:19


19 Who is blind but my servant,
    or deaf like my messenger whom I send?
Who is blind like my dedicated one,
    or blind like the servant of the Lord?



1Sam 3:2

2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;

1Sam 3:13

13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,[a] and he did not rest ... View more

1Sam 4:15

15Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set, so that he could not see.

Gen 27:1-38

Isaac Blesses Jacob
27 When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answere ... View more

Judg 16:25

25And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, and let him entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. They ... View more

Judg 13:5

5for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver ... View more

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