Samson challenges the Philistines

Samson (c.1081 - c.1062BC)

Judg 13:1-25    Samson is born at Zorah (see 11 on Map 50). He is brought up as a ‘Nazirite’ – set apart for serving God from birth (see Numbers 6:1-21). He becomes a leader of Israel for twenty years at the beginning of a seventy-year period during which Israel is under the control of the Philistines.


Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast (Abraham)

Remains of the Philistine city of Ashkelon  (Abraham)


The Philistines

For about four hundred years, from the Israelite invasion of Canaan in c.1406BC until the expansion of Israel’s boundaries under King David around 1000BC, the southern coastal plain cities of Gaza, Gath, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron became the stronghold of Philistine kings (see Map 50). The Philistines – like the Phoenicians who inhabited the coastal plain further north around Tyre and Sidon – were ‘sea peoples’ who had sailed across the Mediterranean from Cyprus and Crete (‘Caphtor’ – see Amos 9:7), the Pelaponnese, and the islands of the Aegean. As allies of the local ‘superpower’, Egypt, the Philistines used the latest weapon – iron chariots - to defend the Via Maris, the highly lucrative trading route along the coastal plain from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

While the Israelites conquered most of the city-states in the central hill country of Canaan (where the terrain favoured surprise attacks and hand-to-hand fighting), they were less successful in defeating the kingdoms of the Mediterranean coastal plain. Here, the technologically more advanced Philistines deployed their fast-moving chariots to protect the prosperous cities (see Joshua 13:1-3).

During the time of the ‘Judges’, the Israelites and Philistines frequently clashed, with the Philistines often becoming dominant and demanding subservience from the Israelites. In c.1081BC, Samson, became an inspirational leader of Israel for twenty years at the beginning of a seventy-year period of Philistine rule. He is reputed to have killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (see Judges 15:11-17).

Some fifty years later, in c.1024BC, the Philistines launched a major attack on the Israelites at Ebenezer. The Israelites suffered a heavy defeat and the Ark of the Covenant was captured. After bringing death and disease to Ashdod, Gath and Ekron, the Ark was eventually returned to the Israelites (see 1 Samuel 4:1-11 & 5:1-12).

Only under the United Monarchy, did the Israelites begin to gain the upper hand when Saul’s son Jonathan defeated a Philistine army at Michmash Pass (see 1 Samuel 13:2-7 & 14:1-23). Shortly afterwards, David killed the Philistine champion, Goliath of Gath, with a sling shot, and the Israelite army pursued the fleeing Philistines all the way to Gath and the gates of Ekron (see 1 Samuel 17:1-52).

When the Philistines killed Saul and his son Jonathan at Mt Gilboa in c.1011BC, David was anointed King of Judah (see 1 Samuel 31:1-10 & 2 Samuel 2:1-4). David was able to establish a strong kingdom as Egypt was militarily weak, probably under the heretic Amarnan pharaoh Akenaten, and was unable to offer protection to its ally, the Philistines. Over the next few years, David was able to defeat the Philistines completely, and extend his kingdom (and his authority over neighbouring kings) as far as the River Euphrates.

David’s son, Solomon, completed the downfall of the Philistines by marrying the Egyptian pharaoh Haremheb’s daughter in c.970BC (see 1 Kings 3:1). By making a successful alliance with Egypt, Israel took on the role of Egypt’s ally. The overthrow of the Philistines was celebrated by the building of an Israelite chariot city at Gezer by Solomon in c.947BC (see 1 Kings 10.26-27). As Gezer looked out across the coastal plain, it was the ideal location from which to deploy chariots to defend the lucrative north-south trading route between Egypt and Mesopotamia that had previously been patrolled by Egypt’s former ally – the Philistines.

Today, the legacy of the ‘sea people’ lives on in the name Palestine – derived from the word ‘Philistine’.


Judg 14:1-18    Samson marries a Philistine girl from Timnah, near Ekron (see 3 on Map 50). He kills a lion on the way, later finds honey in it, and sets the Philistines a riddle to solve. They persuade his wife to tell them the answer and Samson is furious.

Judg 14:19-20    Samson goes to Ashkelon and kills thirty Philistines (see 3 on Map 50).


Canaanite city gate and glacis at Ashkelon (Bukvoed)

Philistine gateway and defensive walls at Ashkelon  (Bukvoed)



Ashkelon was one of the confederation of five Philistine cities that remained unconquered by the Israelites after their invasion of Canaan in c.1406BC (see Joshua 13:1-3). During the time of the ‘Judges’, the Philistines frequently ruled the whole of Canaan and held the Israelites under subjugation. This was the situation when Samson took revenge on the Philistines of Ashkelon after he had been cheated out of a wedding gift of thirty garments of clothing (see Judges 14:1-20).

In the years leading up to 1000BC, Yidya, the king of Ashkelon sent a series of letters to his ally, Pharaoh Akenaten of Egypt, complaining about the constant threats he was receiving from his ‘Habiru’ (i.e.Hebrew) neighbours. Over three hundred of these ‘Amarna letters’, written by rulers such as Yidya on clay tablets, are now preserved at the Cairo Museum, the Berlin Museum, and the British Museum in London. Akenaten was unable to offer protection to his allies. Over the next few years, David was able to defeat the Philistines completely, and extend his kingdom to include the cities of the southern coastal plain.

Ashkelon was later conquered by Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria in 734BC, and again by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 604BC. This downfall was predicted by the prophet Zephaniah (see Zephaniah 2:4-7).

The extensive site of Biblical AshkelonTell Askelon on the coastal sand dunes near the modern city of Ashkelon - has been excavated since 1985 by archaeologists from Harvard University. Finds include Canaanite shaft graves, a magnificent Canaanite gateway and city walls built on three sides of the settlement by the Philistines, as well as later Roman and Byzantine remains.


Judg 15:1-8    Samson’s wife is given to his friend, so he destroys the Philistines’ corn, vineyards and olive trees. In retaliation, the Philistines kill Samson’s wife and father-in-law. Samson explodes and slaughters many of the Philistines, before hiding in a cave at the Rock of Etam.

Judg 15:9-10    The Philistines attack Lehi in pursuit of Samson.

Judg 15:11-17    The men of Judah tie Samson up and plan to hand him over. Samson snaps the ropes and kills a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. The place is called Ramath Lehi ('Jawbone Hill').

Judg 15:18-20    Samson cries out to the LORD in thirst and God provides a spring at Lehi. It is called En Hakkore ('caller's spring').

Judg 16:1-3    Samson travels to Gaza, demolishes the city gate, and carries it to the top of the hill facing east towards Hebron (see 3 on Map 50).


Gaza port (Ramez Habboub)

Gaza is situated on the Mediterranean coast  (Ramez Habboub)



Located on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, Gaza became a prosperous Canaanite settlement on the caravan route between Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. It was the southern border town of Canaan (see Genesis 10:19) before the Avvites (the local Canaanite tribe) were driven out by the Caphtorites – a group of Philistines or ‘sea people’ who sailed across the Mediterranean from Cyprus and Crete in the 15th century BC (see Deuteronomy 2:23).

By the time the Israelites invaded Canaan in c.1406 BC, Gaza (meaning a ‘stronghold’) was firmly in the hands of the Philistines, who became rich by taxing the lucrative trade which passed along the Via Maris. The Israelites soon captured the Canaanite hill towns of Hebron, Debir and Anab, but were unable to conquer the Philistine cities of Gaza, Gath and Ashdod on the flat coastal plain because they had iron chariots (see Joshua 11:21-22 & Judges 1:19). Following a widespread military campaign by the Egyptian Pharoah Thutmose III, Gaza became an ally of Egypt, to whom it paid an annual tribute.

A collection of 14th century BC mummy-shaped pottery coffins from the ancient cemetary at Deir el-Balah, south of Gaza - showing clear signs of Egyptian influence - can be seen today at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Gold Canaanite jewellery from Tel el-Ajjul (4.5 miles / 7 km south west of Gaza) is on display at the British Museum in London, while other Canaanite and Philistine artefacts from this period can be found in the Al-Mathaf Museum of Archaeology on the coast just north of Gaza.

In the time of the Judges, the Philistines of Gaza were a constant ‘thorn in the flesh’ of the Israelites. During seventy years of Philistine domination, Samson was blinded and led to Gaza in c.1061BC, where he destroyed the Temple of Dagon by pushing the pillars apart, killing the Philistine king and himself in the process (see Judges 16:21-30).

Gaza eventually fell to the Israelites under King David in c.1000BC, before passing to the Assyrians in 732BC. Following a time of Egyptian rule, Gaza was conquered by the Babylonians in 586BC and the Persians in 525BC. The repeated downfall of Gaza during this period was foretold by a number of prophets including Amos and Jeremiah (see Amos 1:7 & Jeremiah 47:1-5). 


Judg 16:4-19    Samson falls in love with Delilah from the Valley of Sorek. After several attempts, she persuades him to tell her the secret of his strength, and gets a servant to shave off the seven locks of his hair while he is asleep. Samson has now broken his ‘Nazirite’ vow not to shave his head, and with this disobedience his strength disappears.

Judg 16:20-21    The Philistines overpower Samson and he is blinded and led to Gaza (see 3 on Map 50).

Judg 16:22-30    While in prison, Samson’s hair begins to grow again and some of his strength returns. As a final act of defiance, Samson destroys the Temple of Dagon in c.1061BC by pushing the pillars apart. He kills the whole court of the Philistine kings along with himself.

Judg 16:31    Samson is buried in the family tomb between Zorah and Eshtaol (see 11 on Map 50).

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