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Tiny Seal Of Great Importance Discovered -
Is It The First Archaeological Evidence Of Samson,
The Biblical Slayer Of Philistines?

28 June, 2014

First version of this article was originally published on 13 August, 2012


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MessageToEagle.com - TAU researchers uncover a 12th Century BC seal depicting a man and Lion In Battle in Tel Beth Shemesh.

Beth Shemesh, or "House of the Sun," is located about 19 miles (30 km) west of Jerusalem in the Sorek Valley and near the ancient border between the Israelites and Philistines in the Iron Age.

According to the book of Judges, Samson was born, lived part of his life, and was buried in the area across the valley from Beth Shemesh (Judges 13:2, 25; 16:31). Further, the story of Samson fighting and killing a lion (Judges 14:5-6) is recorded as having occurred on the way from his family home to Timnah--a site identified as Tel Batash and located only a few miles from Beth Shemesh.

The story, in which Samson fights a lion falls somewhere around the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 11th century BC, according to the chronology derived from various books of the Bible and synchronisms with ancient Near Eastern king lists.

The seal, found in a layer dated to the 11th century BC, comes from a time soon after these events in Samson's life.

The seal was discovered in the area where the legendary Samson lived his fight with the lion occurred.

It suggests that the story was known in the area not long after the events occurred.

The seal, measures 15 millimetres (about a half-inch) in diameter, and depicts a human figure next to a lion.

According to scientists of TAU, the scene engraved on the seal, the time period, and the location of the discovery all point to a probable reference to the story of Samson, the legendary heroic figure whose adventures famously included a victory in hand-to-paw combat with a lion.


The area of Beth Shemesh was a cultural meeting point where Philistines, Canaanites, and Israelites lived in close proximity, maintaining separate identities and cultures. Samson's stories skip across these cultural borders


The "Samson seal" found at Beth Shemesh. Photo: Raz Lederman, courtesy of Tel Beth Shemesh Excavations


While the seal does not reveal when the stories about Samson were originally written, or clarify whether Samson was a historical or legendary figure, the finding does help to "anchor the story in an archaeological setting," says Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations. Prof. Bunimovitz co-directs the Beth Shemesh dig along with Dr. Zvi Lederman.


Having been betrayed by Delilah and taken prisoner and blinded by the Philistines, he regains his strength and brings the Temple of Dagon


"If we are right and what we see on the seal is a representation of a man meeting a lion, it shows that the Samson legend already existed around the area of Beth Shemesh during that time period. We can date it quite precisely," Prof. Bunimovitz adds.

The seal was discovered with other finds on the floor of an excavated house, dated by the archaeologists to the 12th century BCE.


The ruins of the ancient biblical city in the tell of Beit Shemesh, located near the modern city


Geographically, politically, and culturally, the legends surrounding Samson are set in this time period, also known as the period of the Judges, prior to the establishment of kingship in ancient Israel.

The area of Beth Shemesh was a cultural meeting point where Philistines, Canaanites, and Israelites lived in close proximity, maintaining separate identities and cultures. Samson's stories skip across these cultural borders, Dr. Lederman says.

Although he was from the Israelite tribe of Dan, Samson is frequently depicted stepping out into the world of the Philistines even searching for a Philistine wife, much to the chagrin of his parents.


The Sorek Valley separates the modern city of Beth Shemesh (bottom) from the tree-covered ridge where biblical Zorah was located. Kibbutz Zorah is located in the valley on the left side.


Although Samson did have some positive interactions with the Philistines his infamous lion brawl took place on the way to his bachelor party with a group of Philistine men prior to his marriage to his first Philistine wife in Timnah he is also reputed to have fought against the Philistines. In one tale, this ancient superman is said to have killed 1,000 Philistines with a single donkey's jaw bone.

"Samson has a very legendary aura," explains Dr. Lederman, calling the Samson stories "border sagas." On one hand, Samsom could cross the border and interact with the Philistines, but on the other, he met with danger and various challenges when he did stray out of his home territory. "When you cross the border, you have to fight the enemy and you encounter dangerous animals," Dr. Lederman says. "You meet bad things.
These are stories of contact and conflict, of a border that is more cultural than political."

The Philistines were immigrants, one of a number of so-called "sea peoples," originating from the Aegean region. They settled along the southern coastal plain and the lowlands of present-day Israel, including Ashdod, Ashkelon Gaza, Gath, and Ekron. Here they created their own cultural and political enclave and were always seeking to expand their own territory.

"The flourishing Canaanite village of Beth Shemesh, despite frequent destruction caused by their aggressive neighbors, was not abandoned or won by the Philistines and retained its original culture and identity", Dr. Lederman adds.

The border disputes and the Canaanite resistance to growing Philistine pressure and cultural influence created some identity changes, Prof. Bunimovitz believes. This period of contact and strife may have been the "meat" of the Samson legend incorporated in the Book of Judges, the seventh book of the Hebrew Bible that tells the stories of figures who champion the Israelite cause and fight against oppression through this historical period.

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