Of all the judges in the book of Judges, Samson is perhaps the most famous. Who can forget his miraculous birth, long hair, feats of great strength, and, most notoriously, his relationship with Delilah?

Most of us like Samson because we can identify with him. Samson was a sinner, and I am a sinner. If God can use Samson, then surely God can use me. In fact, we are probably attracted to a figure like Samson because we believe that Samson sinned in ways greater than most of us do. So if God can love and use someone as “sinful” as Samson, then maybe God can love and use someone like you and me.

I wonder, however, if this type of interpretation is correct. Do these biblical narratives exist only to make us feel better about ourselves, or is there something more to this story? Did the author of the book of Hebrews include Samson in the “Hall of Faith” (Heb. 11:32) because of his value for our self-esteem or because of the faithful execution of his office as judge—“who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” (Heb. 11:33)?

Gaza in Context

In order to demonstrate my point, let’s consider his night with a prostitute in Judges 16:1-3. In this short account, Samson travels to Gaza, spends half the night with a prostitute, steals the city gates, and then travels with them on his back for some 40 miles to the region of Hebron. Was this a night of frustrated passion culminating in an act of rage as most commentators suggest? Perhaps, but probably not.

Samson’s story begins with a miraculous birth to a barren mother and ends with his death in a Philistine temple. The visit to the prostitute in Gaza introduces us to the second part of his life and his well-known encounter with the infamous Delilah. It is, therefore, no accident that we read of Samson visiting a prostitute in Gaza in 16:1-3. This is the same Philistine town to which he will be taken captive (16:21), and the same town in which he will kill more Philistines in his death than in his life (16:30). In other words, Judges 16 is about Samson’s overthrow of the Philistine stronghold in Gaza by way of his associations with two women of questionable character.

How, then, does this episode with a prostitute in Judges 16:1-3 set us up for the rest of the chapter? What was Samson doing with a prostitute in Gaza, and did Samson have sex with this prostitute?

Did Samson Have Sex with this Prostitute?

Let’s begin with the second question. Did Samson engage in illicit sexual activity with a prostitute in Gaza? Most commentators answer “yes” to this question, and most translations leave little doubt in our minds.

However, the Hebrew text does not necessarily require that Samson engaged in this sort of activity. Verse one states that “Samson went to Gaza, saw a prostitute there, and he came to her.” The last part of this verse, “and he came to her,” is translated a number of different ways. For example, the NIV translates the Hebrew as “he went in to spend the night with her.” The ESV and NASB go further by reading “and he went into her.” These euphemistic translations imply that Samson had sex with the prostitute.

Such renderings are certainly possible, and this expression does constitute one of the ways in which the Hebrew language can speak of sexual activity (see Gen. 38:18; Ezek. 23:44; 2 Sam. 12:24). This expression, however, does not always carry the nuance of sexual innuendo. Perhaps the best example appears earlier in the book of Judges, in 4:22, where Barak enters the tent of Jael in pursuit of Sisera. The exact same expression that appeared in 16:1 also appears here in 4:22. But this time, notice how the translations handle the text. The ESV translates the expression, “So he went in to her tent,” and the NASB translates the same expression as “and he entered with her.”

It is clear from these examples that the various translations are rendering the same expression in different ways depending upon the context. The Judges 16 text is translated with sexual innuendo because of the presence of a prostitute and what we have been taught to expect of Samson. In Judges 4, however, the relationship between Barak and Jael does not appear to warrant this interpretation. The significant role of context for both translation and interpretation now leads us to ask our second question.

What Is Samson Doing Here?

What was Samson doing with a prostitute in Gaza? For most of us, this might seem like a naïve question. Isn’t it obvious? But let’s think from another perspective. If you were traveling in the ancient world, you may have stopped at night in a city on your way to a final destination. Upon entering the city, you would sit in the town square and, if you were fortunate, an elder or other upstanding citizen would invite you to stay with him for the evening (see Judg. 19:11-21). Thus your presence and your purpose for visiting would become immediately clear. If, however, you wanted to enter a town undetected, it would have been a good strategy to stay with a prostitute to mask your true intent.

If you think that this point may be a stretch, consider Joshua 2. When Joshua sent two spies to look over Jericho, where did the spies stay? They stayed with Rahab, the prostitute. There are, in fact, a number of elements that connect the activities of the spies in Jericho with what Samson was doing in Gaza. First, the designation for a female prostitute is the same in each account (Josh. 2:1; Judg. 16:1). Second, in both accounts, the men “enter” or “go in” and stay with the prostitute (same verbs). But notice that no one ever suspects the spies in Joshua 2 of engaging in illicit sexual activity. However, we all suspect Samson of doing this very thing.

Third, the inhabitants of Jericho and Gaza discover the presence and intent of the foreign visitors and plan for their demise (Josh. 2:2; Judg. 16:2). Fourth, and finally, the spies and Samson escape from the town in dramatic and memorable ways. The spies are hidden by Rahab and escape through her window during the night (Josh. 2:15). Samson also escaped during the night and took with him the city gates (Judg. 16:3).

Joshua, Gates, and the Promise of Conquest

The comparison of Joshua 2 and Judges 16 and the relationship that emerges suggests that Samson’s night with a prostitute in Gaza is the author’s way of preparing us for the eventual destruction of that town later in the chapter. We know that the two Israelite men stayed with a prostitute in Jericho to spy on the town before destroying it. Given the larger context of Judges 16, Samson appears to be doing the same thing in Gaza. This is also why the author of the book of Judges was careful to record that when Samson left Gaza, he took the city gates with him.

In the ancient world of the Bible, the gates of a city were crucial to its defenses. Their destruction symbolized the destruction of the city. Recall the lament of fall of Jerusalem in Lamentations 2:9—“Her gates have sunk into the ground; their bars he has broken and destroyed” (see also Jer. 51:30; Amos 1:5).

But this is not the whole story. The real significance of the gates in this text is that God, through Samson, continues to be faithful to the promises he made to the Patriarchs. To Abraham, in Genesis 22:17, God promises, “Your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies” (see also Gen. 44:60). In this text, therefore, Samson is a picture of God’s faithfulness to his covenant people to do for them what they repeatedly fail to do for themselves—to posses the land and all of God’s good promises.

Samson in the Larger Biblical Story

It hardly seems reasonable to think of the events of Judges 16:1-3 as a one-night stand in the life and adventures of Samson. What would be the point? Rather, we see God, working against the tide of Israel’s disobedience to fulfill his promises. Samson goes to Gaza to do what Israel was failing to do—possess the land and eliminate its pagan inhabitants. Like all of the judges, Samson prepares us for the coming of a king.

In fact, you may be surprised to learn that Samson is styled as David’s John the Baptist. There are a number of features that connect Samson and John the Baptist. Both are born to older, barren parents (significant birth narratives), both are Nazirites for life (the only two in the Bible), and both are betrayed unto death by less-than-virtuous women. Most importantly, however, both men prepare for the arrival of a great king. Samson begins the final battle with the Philistines, but it is David in 1 Samuel 17 who slays their champion and finally eliminates the threat of the Philistines from the land.

If, however, we look at Samson and see only ourselves, then we have missed something. If we look at Samson and delight ourselves in what we wrongly think are his shortcomings, then we have misunderstand the text. With Samson, God does not repair my culturally deflated self-esteem. Rather, God shows me the beauty of his kingdom and demonstrates that I can believe his promises and, like Samson, “gain a better resurrection” (Heb. 11:35) and so “be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40).

Editors' note: This series analyzes perplexing passages of the Bible. Previously: