Samson Legend Gains Substance with New Find

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A small stone seal found in Israel could be the first archaeological evidence of the story of Samson, the Bible's most famous strongman.

Less than an inch in diameter, the seal depicts a man with long hair fighting a large animal with a feline tail.

The seal was excavated at the Tell Beit Shemesh site in the Judaean Hills near Jerusalem at a level that dates to roughly the 11th century BC.

Biblically speaking, this was during the time when the Jews were led by leaders known as Judges, one of whom was Samson.

The location where the stone seal was unearthed, close to the Sorek river that marked the ancient border between Israelite and Philistine territories, suggests the figure could represent the Biblical slayer of Philistines.

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A character that jumped from the Old Testament into legend, Samson was given supernatural strength by God to overcome his enemies.

The strength, which Samson discovered after encountering a lion and ripping it apart with his bare hands, was contained in his long hair.

Samson, who killed 1,000 Philistines single-handedly with a donkey jawbone and then gloated over his triumph, was seduced by Delilah, a Philistine woman who lived in the valley of Sorek. She cut his long hair, depriving him of his strength and resulting in his imprisonment by the Philistines, who blinded him and put him to work grinding grain at Gaza.

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Samson regained his strength one final time, when he brought the temple of Dagon down upon himself with the Philistines, killing "many more as he died than while he lived," according to the Book of Judges.

Despite the circumstancial evidence, excavation directors Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University do not actually claim that the figure on the seal is the Biblical Samson. Rather, the seal probably indicates that a story was being told at the time of a hero who fought a lion.

"Eventually it found its way into the biblical text and onto the seal," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

The archaeologists also found a large number of pig bones near the river Sorek on the Philistines territory, while they unearthed nearly none on the Israeli land.

This would suggest the locals chose not to eat pork to characterize themselves from the Philistines.

“These details add a legendary air to the social process in which the two hostile groups honed their separate identities, the way it happens along many borders today," Bunimovitz told Haaretz.

Photo: Samson slays a lion by Gustave Doré (1832–1883). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.