Seal Depicting Samson Discovered (Or Maybe Not)

It’s hard to know what to make of this story at this point, so I’m just going to put it out there as reported.

Excavations at Tel Beit Shmesh have turned up an interesting stone seal at a level dating to about the 11th century BC. This is the seal:


It’s about 1.5 cm and shows a large animal and a human. The date places it in the period covered by the book of Judges, so some are jumping straight to Judges 14, in which Samson fights a lion. Tel Beit Shemesh is near Tel Batash, identified with Timna, the home of Samson’s wife and his destination during the encounter with the lion.

From Haaratz (behind the pay wall)

But excavation directors Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University say they do not suggest that the human figure on the seal is the biblical Samson. Rather, the geographical proximity to the area where Samson lived, and the time period of the seal, show that a story was being told at the time of a hero who fought a lion, and that the story eventually found its way into the biblical text and onto the seal.

Two structures were unearthed from the same period, which were apparently used for ritual purposes. Installations that Bunimovitz concedes are “enigmatic” were also found at the site, one of which is a kind of table next to which numerous animal bones were unearthed. Scholars think they might have been used for sacrifices.

Fundamental to the stories of the Beit Shemesh and Samson stories is the existence in the area of the boundary between the Philistines and the local people, first the Canaanites and later the people of Judah.

One constant in the current approach to Biblical history is the stark divergence of approaches, from Biblical literalists on one side, to those who say the Bible cannot be used as a historical reference point and we must reconstruct the history of the region using only archaeological evidence and the texts of other cultures. (Why the texts of other cultures may be trusted but not the scripture remains a mystery to me.) Somewhere in the middle, most historians try to find a balance, but even the best are prone to weird tics that cause them to either dismiss whole chunks of the Bible, or rush to see Adam in every picture of a man next to a tree.

Or, in this case, both. The team simultaneously dismisses the notion of any Samson who is more than a folktale while also seeing “Samson” in a stone bulla. I’m not even sure how they got from “creature with four legs” to “lion” so quickly. It may well be in keeping with contemporaneous depictions of lions on other artifacts, but that’s hardly a settled issue, and the minuscule size of the bulla makes it hard to determine. Maybe it’s a donkey. Or a liger. (I know the picture is pretty low-res, and I may just be imagining this, but doesn’t it look like there may be a human figure on the “lion’s” back? The ancient Hebrews were pretty awesome, but I don’t recall them being so badass as to ride around on lions.)

That’s one of the weird things about current Biblical history and archaeology. Its practitioners almost certainly entered the field with a personal background in a Biblical faith tradition that takes these stories as holy writ, yet they developed this hard, and somewhat artificial, shell of radical skepticism somewhere in their training. Thus, their minds still go to the Biblical stories they no longer believe, but their training immediately tries to explain it away. Take the Bible out of the picture, and there’s no reason at all to even mention Samson (as either a real or imaginary character) in connection with this artifact. Include the Bible in the picture, and (if you’re a skeptic) you risk bias in your conclusions. Doesn’t it make more sense to regard Genesis to Judges as oral history–real events shaped over time by the community into the form we now have them–and try to understand them in that context?

In any case, I’m not seeing a whole lot of Judges 14 in this item, but like all such finds, it’s fascinating nonetheless.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Paul Rodden

    It does seem rather like the archaeological equivalent of those who see the face of Christ on burn toast or in a dirty frying pan… :)

  • judith weingarten

    Dear Thomas,

    Your post on Sampson and the Lion is up on Carnivalesque:

    I very much enjoyed reading it,