Archaeologists of the Tel Aviv University have unearthed a seal, measuring about a half-inch in diameter, which depicts a human figure next to a lion at the archaeological site of Beth Shemesh, located between the Biblical cities of Zorah and Eshtaol.
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.
“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,” said Prof Shlomo Bunimovitz.
“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.”
The seal was discovered with other finds on the floor of an excavated house, dated by the archaeologists to the 12th century BCE.
“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,” said Dr Zvi Lederman. “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.”
“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.”
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,” said 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 added. “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 said.