What does Judges chapter 16 mean?The previous chapter ended with a summary statement: Samson judged Israel for twenty years (Judges15:20). Only a few notable incidents in Samson's life are recorded, and none are tied to specific dates. We're not told exactly when his tenure began. Nor do we know how much time passes between his victory over the Philistine army (Judges 15:14–15) and his arrival in Gaza.
It's clear Samson is still living for himself and not according to the commands of the Lord. No reason is given for him to be in Gaza. This is the southernmost of the Philistines' five major cities (Joshua 13:3). Perhaps he was on a mission. Perhaps he planned to move through quietly, assuming he would not be recognized. While there, he goes to a prostitute. Someone in Gaza recognizes him, so the local men prepare an ambush. They expect him to leave in the morning and think they can corner him at the locked city gates (Judges 16:1–2).
Instead, Samson leaves the prostitute at midnight, rips the entire gate structure out of the ground, and walks away with it. He carries the gate some distance away, dropping it on top of a hill. This not only leaves the city exposed and vulnerable, but it is also a deeply humiliating act. A city's gates were centers of commerce and the main point of defense. To "capture the gates" of an enemy was to be in total control (Genesis 22:17; 24:60). While Israel is subjugated, Samson is openly insulting the Philistine nations who rule the region (Judges 16:3).
What happens next is introduced with deep foreshadowing. The Valley of Sorek is named after a variety of grapes. Samson's Nazirite vow (Judges 13:5) was supposed to keep him from all grape products (Numbers 6:1–4). The woman he falls for is referred to as Delilah. This might imply "weakness," in contrast to Samson's great strength. Her name can mean "night," the opposite of Samson's name which plays on the word shemesh, meaning "sun." That same connection to night may foreshadow the result of their relationship, which is literal blindness (Judges 16:21). Unlike the previous woman Samson "saw," this is a woman whom he "loves." The lords of the five Philistine cities hear about this and spot an opportunity. They offer Delilah the modern equivalent of millions of dollars. Her mission is to seduce Samson into telling the secret of his supernatural strength. She agrees (Judges 16:4–5).
Delilah is not subtle. And yet, she is extremely clever. Rather than trying to disguise her quest, she hides it in plain sight. She simply asks Samson how someone could subdue him. In the context of two lovers, such a blunt series of questions would seem more sincere than suspicious. And yet, one would expect Samson to suspect something. Yet he can't resist playing her game. At first, he lies, telling her he can be subdued with fresh bowstrings: the un-dried tendons or sinews of animals. Delilah tries just that, with men waiting in ambush, only to find Samson is as strong as ever (Judges 16:6–9).
This begins several repetitions of the same basic pattern. Delilah acts hurt and betrayed, claiming that Samson is teasing her with his lie. That, itself, may have begun as flirtatious banter. Each time she asks, and he lies, she tries his method and he can impress her with his strength. Over time, this probably lulled Samson into a false sense of security. In his mind, her attempts and cries of warning were a game, not an attempt to hurt him. Delilah tries using new ropes (Judges 15:4–5), but these don't work, either (Judges 16:10–12).
That Samson is growing less suspicious and more trusting is shown in his next lie, involving his hair. That ends with the usual results, but it's a dangerous move. The actual secret of Samson's strength is his uncut hair, the only explicit requirement given to him before his birth (Judges 13:4–5). Delilah's flirting and teasing turns to manipulation. She questions his love and makes him sick at heart until he finally gives in. Trying to prove his love, Samson tells her the truth: if his hair is cut, he'll be as weak as anyone else (Judges 16:13–17).
Samson assumes Delilah loves him. He probably thought that when she tried tying him up before, she was simply teasing and playing a game. Those attempts were relatively tame: tying him or weaving his hair. Samson assumes someone who loves him won't go as far as to shave his head. Perhaps he's right—but Delilah isn't acting in love. Now that she knows he's opened his deepest heart, she calls for her patrons to send men and payment. She lulls Samson to sleep—possibly making him drunk or using drugs so he won't know that his head is being shaved (Judges 16:18–19).
As before, Delilah calls out a warning. As before, Samson wakes up and attempts to free himself. This time, however, it's not a game or a joke. Too late, Samson realizes his hair is gone, that Delilah was lying, and that he's being captured for real. The hiding men spring out and maim Samson, taking his eyes. He's bound with heavy metal shackles and enslaved in a Philistine prison (Judges 16:20–21).
Samson's hair is not a magical substance that grants him strength. Rather, it's an outward sign of his commitment to obey God. While Samson's life was filled with blatant disobedience, this is a line he had not yet crossed. By telling his secret—to a woman he never should have trusted, let alone slept with—Samson might as well have shaved his own head. He's violated his purpose, and God takes away his strength. And yet, perhaps because of this experience, Samson's faith begins to heal and mature, symbolized by his slowly regrowing hair (Judges 16:22).
The Philistines hold a huge celebration to honor their god Dagon. They see this as a victory of their deity over the God of Israel. Thousands of noblemen crowd into the temple. In what's likely a drunken, foolish choice, Samson is brought out of the jail to be put on display. Showing a new sense of humility, Samson prays for one more burst of strength. He then strains against the pillars holding up the entire building. God grants his request, and the temple collapses, killing Samson along with innumerable Philistine leaders (Judges 16:23–30).
God's purpose for Samson was to disrupt the Philistine's comfortable, secure control over Israel (Judges 13:5; 14:4). The chaos Samson spread during his life certainly spread fear (Judges 14:19, 15:14–15; 16:3). In death, however, he does more to shatter Philistine oppression than he did in his entire life. That his family can so readily come and bury him suggests that the local power structure has been completely scrambled. Later men such as Samuel will complete the liberation (1 Samuel 7:11–14). For now, this catastrophe ends the twenty-year tenure of one of the Old Testament's most complicated figures (Judges 16:31).
Samson is the last pure "judge" of Israel in this era (Judges 2:16–19). Samuel will bridge the transition from judges to prophets (1 Samuel 7:3–6) as Israel moves towards a monarchy (1 Samuel 8:4). In the meantime, Israel will continue to live in spiritual chaos and sin, disregarding the will of God (Judges 17:6, 21:25). The events which close out the book of Judges highlight the tragic, disturbing results of that rejection.