The Rock of Etam
The Philistine soldiers were marching past us, heading up the hill toward Zorah. We estimated about 3,000 of them. When they had passed, we followed them.
“What is going on?” I asked the officer who marched at the rear of the army.
“The Israelite Judge has murdered 36 people near Timnah,” he explained. “Our scouts tell us that he is hiding in the Rock of Etam that overlooks the Valley of Sorek. We are going to arrest him and bring him to justice.”
“Why did Samson do such a thing?” I asked.
“I heard that it had something to do with a marital dispute,” the officer said. “It seems that his betrothed wife and her family were killed by the people of Timnah after Samson burned their vineyards and wheat fields. He became angry and took revenge, killing those that he thought were responsible.”
“I am truly sorry to hear that,” I said. “Once blood begins to flow, it is difficult to stop it. When both sides of a dispute believe that they are the victims of injustice, blood demands more blood. I hope that this does not turn into an all-out war.”
“There will be no war, as long as Israel gives Samson to us,” said the officer. “If not, we will hold them accountable, and two Israelites will die for every Philistine life that Samson took.”
“I will ride to Judah and tell them the situation,” I said. “I believe that they can be of help in resolving this issue. No doubt they have already heard that a Philistine army is advancing into Israelite territory, and they will be worried. I will tell them your intent. Perhaps we can yet avert a full-scale war.”
“Go quickly, then,” the officer said. “Tell them we only want Samson and that we have no intention of punishing Israel as a whole, unless they refuse to cooperate with Philistine justice.”
“Go swiftly, Pegasus,” I said. “Follow the road through the Sorek Valley. Let us go to Judah and talk to Boaz.”
The horses ran swiftly down the road, crossing another bridge over the Brook Sorek and into the valley that cut through the mountains. Dogma kept up with us, for he was a swift runner. As we rode, we soon could see the opening high up on the north face of a cliff. A hawk soared high above the cliff, seeking prey on which to feed.
The cave of Etam was located about 2½ miles from Zorah, or about three miles from the house of Manoah. It was accessible only from the top of the ridge along a narrow path that descended to the cleft in the rock. Because the path allowed only one man at a time to descend to the cave, the place was fully defensible. As long as Samson did not run out of supplies, he might have remained safe indefinitely.
I perceived that Sipporah had called upon the Harpazo angel, for suddenly, we found ourselves near the town of Bethlehem, where Boaz lived. The horses slowed to a canter when we saw before us a hastily-called army of swordless men of Judah. Confusion reigned, men ran in all directions, and fear was on every face.
“There!” I shouted, pointing to the north. “Boaz is there!”
We rode in his direction, and when he saw us coming, he walked quickly toward us.
“I am glad to see you!” Boaz said. “The Philistines have sent an army to attack us. We have no swords, except for a few that men have hidden in the ground. We need some divine intervention, or things will go badly for us.”
“We have just spoken with a Philistine officer,” I said. “It seems that Samson has killed many Philistine people in revenge for the murder of his betrothed wife. The story is too long to explain now, but I do not believe that the Philistines intend to make war with Israel. They only want Samson. Israel will be in danger only if you side with Samson and refuse to turn him over to Philistine justice.”
“So that is it,” Boaz said. “Samson’s temper has finally put us all in danger. I have no credible army. We have no weapons on such short notice. It seems that we have no choice but to give Samson to the Philistines and leave his fate in the hands of Yahweh.”
“You will have to convince Samson,” I said. “He has barricaded himself in the cave in the Rock of Etam. If he does not agree to give himself up, neither the Philistines nor your army will be able to dislodge him—with or without weapons. You are his friend. I think only you can convince him to come out in order to spare other Israelites from being killed.”
Boaz knew that I was right. “Get the men ready to march,” he told his chief officer. “We will leave immediately. Head for the Rock of Etam.”
“We will go ahead of you and inform the Philistines of your good intentions,” I shouted above the din of the camp.
The horses took off toward the mountains to intercept the army of the Philistines. The road was steep in places, but we made good progress until we finally reached the Philistine camp surrounding the narrow passage to the cave.
“Halt!” shouted a guard, holding up a sword. “Who are you? What is your business?”
“We are messengers from Judah,” I replied. “We carry a message for your general. We are unarmed.”
The sentries surrounded us, and when they were satisfied that we carried no weapons, they led us to the general who sat in a nearby tent. He was a tall, middle-aged soldier with graying hair, keen eyes and a noble bearing.
“These are messengers from Judah,” a sentry explained, as we dismounted and walked toward the tent.
“I am Nadev. 70 What does Boaz wish to tell us?” the general asked.
“He is on his way with 3,000 men of Judah, 71 not to fight with you, but to convince Samson to give himself up,” I responded. “You have nothing to fear from them. They are unarmed.”
“We shall see,” said Nadev, who was naturally suspicious. “Why do they come with an army?”
“You know yourself how secure the cave is,” I said. “If your army cannot extract him from the cave, would you expect ten men of Judah to succeed, if Samson should refuse to come out?”
He thought for a moment and then said, “Tell the army of Judah to camp at the base of the hill. If our army cannot dislodge him, it is not likely that yours could do so, if he chose to fight. Let Boaz himself come up to convince Samson to surrender himself.”
“I will tell him,” I said, “and I am confident that he will do as you ask. Boaz is a man of peace. He does not want to see bloodshed today.”
“Nor do I,” the general replied. “A battle avoided is a victory.”
We returned to the Judahite army as they marched up the mountain, and we related the general’s words to Boaz.
“I will do as they say,” Boaz said. “Any weapon that I might carry would be useless anyway. I could neither fight the Philistine army, nor Samson himself. I will have to persuade Samson to spare us further bloodshed.”
The men of Judah diverted their course to the Valley of Sorek far below the ridge and spread their tents. Boaz accompanied us to the Philistine camp. Again, we were escorted to the tent of the general, who treated us respectfully and cordially.
“Are you willing to convince Samson to surrender to us?” he asked.
“I am,” Boaz answered. “I recognize that God has put Israel under your authority and that Samson has disturbed this by his actions. I will talk to him and try to convince him to leave his stronghold.”
We walked to the narrow ravine that led to the cave, and Boaz began to descend. “Samson!” he shouted. “This is Boaz! I am coming down! I am alone!”
He descended to the cave unopposed.
We waited for about a half-hour before we saw movement. Boaz ascended, and when he reached the top of the ravine, he said, “Samson has agreed to surrender, as long as the men of Judah do not kill him.”
“Then bind him and bring him to us,” the general said. “He is too dangerous to be allowed to leave the cave unbound.”
“Agreed. But you must provide a rope that is strong enough to meet your approval.”
The Philistines quickly brought two new ropes 72 and gave them to the general. He tested their strength and found them to be satisfactory. He then handed them to Boaz, who took them, tested them for himself, and then returned to the cave to bind Samson.
When he was out of sight, Pegasus said, “I do not think Samson will be taken quietly. I think it is time for us to leave, unless you want to be caught in the middle of a fight.”
“Yes,” Dogma said. “I smell trouble ahead.”
“Our mission is finished,” I said to the general. “It appears that the situation is under control, so by your leave, we will depart.”
“You are free to go,” the general said, satisfied that he had been successful in negotiating the terms of peace.
We turned and left the camp quickly, walking down the road toward the camp of Judah. “What makes you so uneasy?” I asked Pegasus, when we out of earshot of the Philistines.
“It is the name of this place,” he replied. “Etam is a name that refers to hungry birds of prey. It probably got its name from the hawks that fly high above this rocky ridge, but I have a feeling that there is more to it than meets the eye. The name has a prophetic feel to it, and this may apply to the present danger that Samson has brought to that spot by hiding in this particular cave.”
“I see what you mean,” I replied. “I do hope that the birds of prey are limited to their usual diet of rodents and small animals.”
As we entered the camp and dismounted, we heard a loud cheer from the Philistine soldiers above us, 73 and we surmised that Samson had been delivered to them, bound with a strong rope.
But then, just as suddenly, we heard a great commotion and the sound of war. It was not long before Boaz came running toward us. He arrived out of breath.
“I think that Samson broke the rope that bound his hands!” Boaz said. “It appears that he is fighting the Philistines!”
From the camp, it was difficult to discern what was happening in the Philistine camp on the ridge above us, but we soon saw many Philistine soldiers falling off the cliff.
“Shall we help Samson?” an officer asked. “Shall we fight?”
“No,” Boaz replied. “We gave them our word, and we must keep it. Samson is in God’s hands. If it is God’s will for him to fight the Philistines, then God will strengthen him for the task without our help. That is not our calling at this time, and besides, we lack weapons to fight any kind of serious battle. God has not equipped us for battle.”
The din of battle went on for more than an hour, as the men of Judah listened with nervous fascination. As long as the battle raged, they knew that Samson was yet alive. The men of Judah knew that Samson was strong, but most of them had not personally witnessed his feats of strength. Neither had Samson’s prowess ever been tested against a disciplined army of Philistine warriors.
As the minutes passed, and the battle raged on, the men of Judah began to stand in awe of Samson, knowing that each moment that he fought, another Philistine soldier was being killed. More could be seen crying out as they fell from the cliff to the rocks below. At last the sounds of war died down, and all that could be heard were shouts that grew fainter.
“It appears that the battle has ended,” Boaz said grimly. “The Philistines have either killed Samson, or they are fleeing from him. Anava, come with me. Let us go up the mountain and learn the truth.”
“Let us take the horses,” I said. “You ride Pleiades.”
I threw my tote bag to the ground at Sipporah’s feet, and then Boaz and I mounted the horses. We rode quickly to the top of the Rock of Etam and viewed a scene of utter carnage. Dead soldiers lay in heaps around us, and I saw General Nadev lying dead near his tent. Samson sat slumped over in the midst of a sea of dead bodies. He was drenched in sweat from great exertion, and he did not look up as we approached.
“Samson!” Boaz shouted. “Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
He looked up slowly. “No, I am not hurt. I am exhausted.” He held up his weapon—the jawbone of a donkey—and said, “This jawbone was more powerful than the Philistine swords. Its nose and jaw made an excellent handle for a weapon.” 74
“Words are indeed more powerful than swords,” Boaz replied with relief in his voice. “I see that you let the jawbone of an ass speak for you.”
“The word of Yahweh was in it,” Samson said. “Perhaps if they had believed it, they might have escaped. But it spoke with an unknown tongue, and it killed much flesh today.”
“It will take the entire Judahite army to bury all these dead bodies,” I observed.
“Yes, the men will be busy for a while,” Samson said, “if they care to render themselves unclean for the next week. If not, these bodies will be food for the ravenous birds.” Picking up the bloody jawbone, he looked at it carefully as he stood wearily to his feet. He lifted the jawbone high above his head as if to proclaim his final victory over the Philistines, and then threw it as hard as he could. It landed out of sight in a nearby shallow ravine overshadowed by large trees. 75
“From now on, this place will be called Ramath-lehi, the Uplifting of the Jawbone!” Samson proclaimed. “But right now I feel like I am dying of thirst. Do any of you have any water?” 76
“I brought no water with me,” Boaz said.
“Nor did I,” I added. “We were in such a hurry that neither of us brought anything with us.”
Samson looked discouraged, for he was exhausted. Raising his hands toward heaven, he called out to Yahweh, saying, “You have granted deliverance to me in this great battle, but shall I now die of thirst? Shall I win the battle, but yet fall at the hands of uncircumcised Philistines? Where is the provision from heaven?”
At that moment, a sizable earthquake shook the mountain, and we were nearly thrown to the ground. 77
“That is your answer, Samson!” I said with a laugh, after steadying myself. “God does not like it when we challenge His ability to be victorious in all that He does!”
“Look!” Boaz shouted. He was pointing in the direction where Samson had thrown the jawbone. A new stream had burst through the ground in the shallow ravine. “It looks like God has answered your prayer and has given you water to drink!”
We walked quickly to the new fountain, and Samson laid down, letting the cool water rush over him and through his long braids and beard. The stream washed the blood of the Philistines from his hands and garment. He drank deeply and was in no hurry to rise from its refreshing flow. We all gathered around the source of the stream and drank our fill under the shade of the surrounding trees. Samson seemed to gain strength as he was revived.
Presently, Samson stood to his feet, but he remained standing in the fountain. “I will call this the Caller’s Fountain, 78 because I called to Yahweh, and He answered. But right now, I need a long night’s sleep. Since it is not likely that the Philistines will return today, I believe I will return home and get some rest.”
“Yes,” Boaz said. “I do believe that you are safe, at least for now. Since you have been revived, it is time that I return to the army that came with me from Judah. We will bury the Philistines and deny the birds their feast this time. And we will also store their armor and swords in the cave of Etam, for these may prove to be useful in the day of our deliverance.”
With that, we parted. Samson walked down the road toward Zorah, and we rode the other direction to the army that anxiously awaited our return, so they might learn the outcome of the battle.
- Nadev means “magnanimous, or noble” in Hebrew.
- Judges 15:11
- Judges 15:13
- Judges 15:14
- Judges 15:15
- Judges 15:17
- Judges 15:18
- Judges 15:19
- Judges 15:19, “En-hakkore”