Exploring the Connection Between Yitzchak and Shimshon
Do Yitzchak and Shimshon have anything to do with each other? [i] At first glance one would surely think not, considering that the two live several hundred years apart and that their life paths are polar opposites. Yitzchak lives before the Jewish Nation existed. He leads a fairly quiet life with his wife and twin sons, ensuring that the Abrahamic tradition could continue in the coming generation. He then leaves the Biblical scene almost as quietly as he arrives. In stark contrast, Shimshon’s life is full of drama. As the last judge in the Book of Judges, he single-handedly protects the Jewish nation by terrorizing the Pelishti enemy. While on his mission, he ventures risky escapades with Pelishti women and commits brutish murder. Once the Pelishtim finally catch him, they gouge his eyes out and make him into their laughingstock. Shimshon ends his tragic life by committing suicide. Alas – Yitzchak and Shimshon appear to be worlds apart!
However, a careful analysis of these biblical personalities reveals a mosaic of similarities between the two – the most salient point being that both are intended to transition the Israelites through an era of instability. A plethora of linguistic and structural parallels suggests that the author of Sefer Shoftim[ii] may have contorted Shimshon’s story to parallel Yitzchak’s. After all, we readers must remember that these two stories are works of narrative. Both of these Biblical accounts are purposeful representations, rather than play-by-play recordings, of stories that occurred. It is perfectly reasonable to presume that a later author would take artistic license to emphasize certain details over others, to shape the latter story of Shimshon’s to resemble the prior story of Yitzchak.
Let’s explore some of the parallels between these stories in more detail.
Yitzchak and Shimshon are both born to parents who suffer from childlessness. In both cases, the parents are informed of their child’s forthcoming birth by an angel. These two angelic encounters are narratives that are almost mirror images of one another.
In both stories, one parent reacts to the Angelic encounter in disbelief while the other parent is silent. Sarah says, “’ After I am waxed old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”[iii] and Manoah (Shimshon’s father) says, “Now when thy word cometh to pass, what shall be the rule for the child, and what shall be done with him?”[iv] Both are communicating disbelief and uncertainty in the angel’s message to them that they will have children. Sarah laughs at the possibility of motherhood because her biological clock stopped ticking long ago and a guest’s message cannot change that reality. In contrast, their spouses are silent upon hearing the angel’s news. In this way, the couples share similar reactions to the angel’s news.
Additionally, the text linguistically links Avraham and Eishet Manoah. When Avraham prepares the meal for his guests, the words “vayimaher- and he hurried” are used twice.[v] Similarly, when Eishet Manoah retrieves her husband, the text says “vatimaher– and she hurried.”[vi]
The episodes also contain the same elements – namely, someone offers food, and an angel relays news. When Avraham entreats the angels, he first offers them hospitality, and then he hears the news about the forthcoming child. However, this sequence of events is reversed in the Shimshon narrative: Manoah only offers the angels food after he hears the news about his child.
This chronological difference in when food is offered to the stranger indicates Avraham and Manoah’s different motivations for offering hospitality. Avraham and Sarah entreat their guests because they are impulsively kind. The reader is sensitive to this impulsivity when Avraham leaps to greet the angels, and when Avraham’s household unquestioningly prepares the food. This is why the Talmud[vii] suggests that Avraham and Sarah often hosted guests. The rabbis of the Talmud suggested this derash to alert the reader of the peshat; the rabbis presumed that only a family who was accustomed to hosting would jump at the opportunity and handle their tasks with such efficiency In contrast, Manoah and Eishet Manoah lack Avraham and Sarah’s impulsive kindness. Instead, Manoah offers food “because Manoah did not know [that it was] the angel of God.”[viii] He offers hospitality not out of kindness, but to test the credence of the messenger. Indeed, the test works as we are told that “Manoah knew that it was an angel of God” when it rose to the heavens in a billow of smoke.[ix] This difference is clearly purposeful. It clearly teaches the reader that Avraham’s hospitality was genuine while Manoah’s hospitality was motivated by ulterior motives.
As Yitzchak and Shimshon age, their lives continue to mirror one another. Specifically, both are deceived by those whom they love most, both are “bound” in some manner, and both lose their eyesight. Yitzchak is deceived by his own wife and son. Upon hearing Yitzchak’s intention to bless Esau, Rivkah cajoles Yaakov into stealing the elder’s blessing. So Rivkah and Yaakov work together to prepare the food and costume. Regardless of whether the deception is justified or not, Yitzchak is clearly deceived by his own loved ones because of his blindness.
Similarly, in Shimshon’s case, the women in his life coax him into revealing secrets. Each time it instigates a major crisis ending with a massacre of the Pelishtim. First, his wife coaxes him into revealing the secret solution to his lion-honey riddle. She complains that, “you [Shimshon] only hate me and don’t love me!”[x] She then spends the followings seven days weeping and pressing him for the answer to the riddle. After all the badgering, Shimshon finally reveals the answer. When the Pelishtim tell the correct answer to Shimshon, he connects the dots and understands that his wife revealed the answer to them. In his barbaric manner, he responds with a killing rampage. (Note how this reaction contrasts with Yitzchak’s. Unlike Shimshon, who did not even try to filter his emotions, Yitzchak merely “shuddered”[xi] upon understanding that he misappropriated the bekhor blessing to Ya’akov and not Esav.)
Additionally, Delilah also betrays Shimshon’s trust, tricking him into revealing the way to remove his secret strength. Pelishti princes bribe Delilah with thousands of pieces of silver to induce Shimshon into revealing the secret source of his strength. So, Delilah complies and asks Shimshon repeatedly for the secret source of his strength. On the first three occasions, Shimshon offers a useless answer. Finally, after a battery of whining, Shimshon tells her the real source of his strength. She then tells the Pelishtim, and they shave off Shimshon’s hair.
Thus – the women in Yitzchak and Shimshon’s life were deceptive and untrustworthy.
In addition to being deceived, both are bound. Shimshon is first bound by the people of Judah. They tie him up to imprison him so that he can be given over to the Pelishtim. Their plan fails miserably, as Shimshon uses this opportunity to smite even more Pelishtim. Delilah also binds Shimshon to hold him down so that his hair can be shorn and his strength sapped. Finally Shimshon is bound again, after he loses his superhuman abilities. The Pelishtim bind him to a pillar, gouge out his eyes, and make him the centerpiece and laughingstock of their party..[xii]
Yitchak is also famously bound at the Binding of Isaac. In truth, the bindings are very different. Avraham binds Yitzchak with the intention of fulfilling God’s will, whereas the Pelishtim bind Shimshon to degrade their enemy.
Perhaps this parallel – of Yitzchak and Shimshon being bound – could explain a different ambiguity. It was always unclear to me why the midrash[xiii] felt compelled to say that Yitzchak lost his eyesight during the Binding of Isaac. On the simple level, the midrash was communicating that Yitchak underwent a spiritually transformative experience during the Binding. On a deeper level, perhaps the midrash is communicating the parallel that we have developed. Perhaps the midrash felt compelled to parallel Yitzchak and Shimshon becoming blind at the time they were bound! The midrash inferred that Yitzchak lost his eyesight at the time of his binding from the fact that Shimshon was blinded when he was bound in Pelishti captivity,
Up until now, we’ve explored how Shimshon and Yitzchak share similar beginnings and how they also encounter similar life-issues. But what is the purpose of this parallel? Why is it that the author of Sefer Shoftim feels the need to construct a parallel between these two Biblical characters?
I think the author of the Shimshon story wanted to highlight two divergent methods in how leaders respond to crisis. Both Yitzchak and Shimshon are born into eras of instability. In Yitzchak’s era it was unclear how the Abrahamic tradition would continue. In Shimshon’s era it was unclear how the Jewish people could last much longer, given their obsession with idolatry. While Yitzchak successfully continues Avraham’s legacy, Shimshon clearly fails in his attempt to lead the Jewish people out of instability.
Yitzchak succeeds because he acts as a bridge, not as a revolutionary. Unlike his iconoclastic father who introduces monotheism to the world, Yitzchak’s purpose was to successfully transmit monotheism to the coming generation. Nearly everything he does echoes Avraham’s actions.[xiv] Like Avraham, Yitzchak’s wife is also barren[xv]. Just as Avraham has a chosen son (Yitzchak) and a rejected son (Yishmael), Yitzchak too has a good son and a bad son.[xvi] Yitzchak is also forced to escape his home due to famine[xvii], and ends up lying that his wife was his sister. Just as we see Avraham running into disagreements with shepherds, Yitzchak also disagrees with the local shepherds. Thus Yitzchak was successful precisely because he accepted the Abrahamic tradition and lived a quiet life.
On the other hand, Shimshon’s leadership style is so unusual that some Rishonim question whether he really deserves the title “shofet” at all.[xviii] Shimshon’s actions are genuine. He tries to single-handedly terrorize the Pelishti enemy to avoid formal war. He wants to end generation after generation of religio-military leaders who fail to end the battery of enemy attacks.
But his strategy backfires. Instead of bringing peace and religious stability to Israel, Shimshon leaves the country in shambles. This is why the stories of Pesel Micha and Pilegesh B’Givah – two of Tanakh’s darkest stories of avodah zarah, rape, murder, and war – follow Shimshon’s story. It’s unsurprising that Shimshon fails in bringing about the needed revolution. After all, how can Shimshon possibly motivate others to a life of scrupulous religious observance if he is unstable and seeks what is “good” in his “eyes”?![xix]
Thus, from this parallel the author of Sefer Shoftim is teaching us what Shimshon had the potential to become. Instead of being remembered as a failure, his legacy could have been grand like that of Yitchak his forefather. Yitzchak solidified the Abrahamic tradition. Shimshon had the potential to do the same. He was needed to bring about a religious revolution to secure religious and physical safety in an era which needed stability.
In addition to showing the reader how Shimshon should have led, it also informs the reader of just how successful Yitzchak is. Now, instead of viewing Yitzchak as a pathetically passive character, the reader is now comforted to realize how Yitzchak’s passivity was actually helpful and necessary. Thus, this parallel not only informs of Shimshon’s weakness, it also informs us of Yitzchak’s greatness.
Sarah Robinson is a second year student majoring in Psychology and Jewish Studies.
[i] I’d like to acknowledge R. Jesse Horn who inspired me idea to compare these personalities. Jesse Horn,“Who is Shimshon and why does he have such a central role in Sefer Shoftim?,” YU Torah, available at yutorah.com
[ii] Shmuel ha-navi, see Bava Batra 14b
[iii] Genesis 18:12
[iv] Judges 13:12
[v] Genesis 18:6, 18:7
[vi] Judges 13:10
[vii] Sota 10a-b records how Avraham would host many people and tell them to give thanks to Hashem in gratitude for the food.
[viii] Judges 13:16
[ix] Judges 13:21
[x] Judges 14:16
[xi] Genesis 27:33
[xii] Incidentally, when Shimshon was presented at the victory-party, the Pelishtim asked for him to “L’sahek lanu” and he was “va–yitsachek lifneihem.” (Judges 16:25) It is not mere coincidence that the pasuk uses words hinting to Yitzchak’s name when describing Shimshon’s actions!
[xiii] Genesis Rabbah 69:10, qtd. in Rashi on Gen. 27:1.
[xiv] Nachmanides Genesis 12:6., s.v. “ma’aseh avot siman li-banim”
[xv] Genesis 18:12 and 25:21
[xvi] Genesis 21:11 and 25:27
[xvii] Genesis 12:10 and 26:1
[xviii] Radak held that Shimshon was a shofet, albeit an unsuccessful one. Ralbag held that Shimshon was an officer, but not a shofet at all. The proof for this position is that Shimshon did not try to motivate Am Yisrael to do teshuva. See Radak on Judges 15:20 and Ralbag on Samuel I 4:9.
[xix] This wording intentionally parallels the language of “ein melekh bi-yisrael ve-ish ha-yashar bi-einav ya’aseh.” Both Shimshon and Am Yisrael did what they thought was right, irrespective of Torah commandments. Hence, immorality was rampant.