The article of the month

Is That in the Bible? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

Jawbone Heights

Near the Sea of Galilee, archeologists have uncovered two ancient synagogues with very interesting mosaics. One of the most intriguing—unfortunately only partially preserved—depicts the enormous legs and lower trunk of some King-Kong-sized warrior, holding in his one preserved hand three enemy soldiers dangling helplessly by the hair. A couple fallen bodies lie at this titan’s feet, where weapons are also strewn; another soldier on horseback flees for his life. An image found in the nearby second synagogue also portrays the trunk of an immense hero, this time with a give-away clue: two pairs of foxes with lit torches tied to their tails. The colossal warrior is Samson (cf. Jgs 15:4).

Rabbinic traditions do hold that Samson was of towering stature: the breadth of his shoulders was sixty cubits, we learn. While this imaginative tradition clearly informs the synagogue mosaics, the more pertinent archaeology of bronze- and iron-age Philistine sites suggests a more human measure for Israel’s great strong man. Namely, just as in the Bible we find Samson destroying the temple of Dagon by pushing down its two great columns (Jgs 16:29), two proud pillars do define the typical architecture of a Philistine temple—and they happen to be spaced a grown man’s armslength apart (a bit less than sixty cubits). This reveals a compelling biblical grounding in ancient realities, but it does not mean there are no imaginative features to the story. The case of the long-locked judge putting a thousand Philistine men to death, his only weapon being the jawbone of an ass, is one example (Jgs 15:14-20). In fact, scholars believe the mosaic of the King-Kong Samson with bodies strewn at his feet is a depiction of just this scene. In his missing hand the huge hero must be swinging the mandible of a mule.

Why a donkey’s jawbone? On one level the strange story of the jawbone is bound up with some archaic poetry and wordplay. Most importantly the Hebrew name of the site where this wild adventure occurs is Ramath-Lehi, literally “Jawbone Heights.” Samson boasts that with a measly crook of animal bone he has piled up heaps upon heaps of Philistine corpses. From this hill and Samson’s weapon Ramath-Lehi gets its name. Here we face what scholars call an etiological legend: the weird name of a place intertwined with a weird explanation of where that weird name came from. It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, even if modern scholars are generally content to see here something similar to the folklore that makes Paul Bunyan the origin of the Rocky Mountains.

But the differences are no less important, not least the theological message with which the Samson story begins and ends. He is stirred into action when the spirit of the Lord rushed upon him; he survives the mortal exhaustion of his sudden superhuman exertion only when his terrible thirst is quenched with a water that God alone can provide. This judge is energized by more than a lumberjack breakfast.

In this light we can see in the jawbone something like David’s smooth stones. The victory of Samson with the barest bit of bone broadcasts the more-than-human power that inhabits him—and through him the holy people he judges. YHWH, Israel’s God, is acting in Samson, as he acted in David and in Gideon too: triumphing gloriously against impossible odds. For this reason, like Gideon’s ragtag army (Jgs 7:2-7), Samson’s weapon and man-sized shoulders must be of modest, indeed inadequate, size. Like the shepherd’s sling despised by the giant Goliath, the more despicable it is the more emphatically this miserable jawbone makes the key theological point: God is almighty and will rout the foe by raising up a (weak) savior. As John Vianney, meek terror of the devil, astutely observed, “If Samson killed a thousand Philistines with just the jawbone of an ass, imagine what he could do with a whole one?”

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Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.