The biblical figure Samson is often called Shimshon Hagibbor, “Samson the hero” in modern Hebrew. Writing in Hebrew for Netivot Shalom’s weekly publication on the Torah portion, my son examined what the biblical text actually thinks of Samson through a close comparison with the figure of Judah (Yehudah). Netivot Shalom has now posted an English translation, reposted here:
Yehonatan Avraham Gorenberg
“And the woman gave birth to a son and called him Shimshon”
(Judges 13:24, from the Haphtarah of Parashat Nasso)
The story of Shimshon’s adult adventures begins with his departing his parents’ home: “And Shimshon went down to Timna” (Judges 14:1). Our sages were puzzled by this description, because in the story of Yehudah (Bereishit 35:13), Tamar is told that “Behold, your father-in-law has gone up to Timna”.
The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 5:13) offers several explanations for the seeming contrariety. Outstanding is Rabbi Simon’s solution: “Going up for Yehuda from whom will come kings; going down for Shimshon who betroths a gentile woman”.
Rabbi Shimon’s solution itself demands explication. The Bible tells us that from Shimshon’s very beginning, hidden processes are at work (“For this is from God” [Judges 15]), whereas the hidden processes affecting Yehuda – from whom came kings – is only hinted at, in Jacob’s blessing of Yehudah, and its meaning becomes clear only later on in Scripture, in the stories of Shmuel, Ruth, and Chronicles. And just as Shimshon married a gentile woman, so did Yehuda marry a Canaanite woman, something forbiddened to the Patriarchs. His very going to Timna led him to seduction by Tamar, his daughter-in-law who had disguised herself as a harlot. The Babylonian Talmud solves this contradiction with a more general formulation: “Shimshon was disgraced through her; therefore, in his case it is written went down. Judah was elevated by her; therefore in his case it is written “went up“.
It would seem that comprehension of the midrash lies in a wider comparison of the Yehuda and Shimshon narratives, one which establishes Yehudah as a hero but raises questions about Shimshon.