Samson's tomb: Appearance of a ghost and a familial journey

Samson, a biblical golem, ended up killing himself, with the Philistines, when he pulled the temple in Gaza down on them. But somehow, his tribe members brought his body up here for burial.

 Samson's tomb (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Samson's tomb
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

About 26 years ago, when my father, Efraim, still had two legs and a wicked sense of humor, I took him in my jeep to the mountain above Kibbutz Tzora. The so-called Samson’s tomb was there at the peak among droopy pine trees, overlooking Eshtaol where possibly, as the Bible says, Samson was born and raised.

This was his country, the land that wasn’t yet ruled by kings; before the Davidic dynasty reigned. Before there were even Judeans and Jews; when there were twelve tribes, and the usurping Israelites were trying to make this their homeland.

Out here, it was the hinterland, the volatile border between the tribe of Dan and the Philistines. Right here, right below this mountain. You can see the Sorek River Valley, where the Philistines clashed with the Israelites. 

Samson, a biblical golem, ended up killing himself, with the Philistines, when he pulled the temple in Gaza down on them. But somehow, his tribe members brought his body up here for burial, alongside his father, Manoah. So Papa and I had a look at the tomb.

It was a simple square slab. I don’t recall any signs or markings. Just a tomb the size of a king-size mattress. It was faced in cheap-gray marble slabs. Stones were placed on top. One caught my eye. Could it be? Yes, it was a small capitol that must have once adorned a thin column. It was severely eroded, but a capitol all the same.

 THE TOMB site overlooks Eshtaol, where Samson was possibly born and raised.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE TOMB site overlooks Eshtaol, where Samson was possibly born and raised. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

I picked it up. The tomb let go a low moaning sound, and the marble slabs started to fall off around me. On me. I looked at Papa, and our eyes were equally wide. I dropped the stone, then picked it up and put it back. We ran off down the slope about 30 meters, laughing and shaking our heads. 

“Did you hear that?” I said. 

“I sure did,” he said. “Maybe it’s the ghost of Samson.”

“You think?”

“What do we do now?” he asked. 

“Maybe it’s got Samson’s power in it,” I said. 

We walked back slowly and, looking around, snatched the stone from the top of the slab. I chucked it into the back seat of the jeep and drove off, laughing and breathing hard. 

A FEW days later, Papa was admitted to Hadassah-University Medical Center. A year later, he had his foot amputated. My son, Yarden, believed it was all connected. And his trouble with his foot was because we had this Samson stone. 

“We have to return it. It’s cursed,” my son said.

There have been many joys but also troubled times this family has seen out here in the Elah Valley, where we built a home and community in a village called Srigim.

Through this, our Samson stone had lain in the garden and served as a special reminder for me of Papa and our sense of adventure and the amazing history of this land, where on a hilltop near my house you can find Samson’s tomb and a magical stone. 

Fast forward 16 years to the summer of 2013. My son Yarden was growing up. Serious. Contemplative. Becoming religious. Maybe he was right. Maybe the Samson stone was cursed. Robberies, jeep stolen (and returned), dogs poisoned... maybe these were because we held that stone.

I told him we would return the Samson stone, but wait a few days. I wanted to wait for his 21st birthday. Besides, I could see he would have taken it without me. 

I took the stone to the basement and, with a chisel, I carved into the stone, in ancient, First Temple Hebrew:

Jordan, son of Arieh, son of Efraim

AT DUSK, I picked up my son from Kibbutz Beit Nir down the road. 

Two IAF helicopters were flying low, below the horizon in the British Park, landing near the mountain where the prophet Micha was born, just next to the ancient Byzantine farm. Biblical history and the modern Zionist state are my backyard. Samson’s tomb was just up the road. 

At home, I grabbed the Samson stone, put it on a thick army blanket spread on the back seat of the old jeep, and we set out. 

I tried to explain to Yarden why I took the stones from the hills those dozen years ago with his grandfather. He said that I should be an archaeologist if I love stones so much. Not a stone thief (grave robber).

He was 21. I remember my 21st birthday. In the early 1980s, I was in basic training in the Nahal Corps, living in a tent near the Givat Olga beaches, and the girls of my army unit arrived and brought me a real cheeseburger. I can’t remember many birthday presents, but I remember that one. I never hid my secular ways. 

I was giving my son my Samson stone. To be returned to where Papa and I found it. 

I tried to convince my son not to lose sight of his goals. 

“Jordy, when you were born exactly 21 years ago, it was the happiest day of my life. I wanted a son, and you have made me so proud of you,” I told him.

“I don’t want you to be proud of me,” he said. “I don’t need you to be proud of me.”

He didn’t seem interested in my life. Not at all. But he was keen on Papa’s faith, and I believed he sensed a connection to his spiritual journey, particularly now as he was embarking on his own. 

WE TURNED off the road and drove past Dan’s tomb, a site that had been turned into a religious shrine, and headed up the mountain. It was a bumpy, dusty road and we were driving in the dark, up higher and higher. Occasionally, there were hand-painted signs that read “Samson’s Tomb.” I didn’t remember anything like this 16 years ago. At one point, I got out to lock the hubs and put it into 4x4 drive.

Yarden was humming a niggun. 

“What are you singing?” I asked. 

“A song. I don’t know,” he said. 

The old jeep inched its way up the mountain until we got to the peak and the tomb. 

We got out and had a good look around. I retold Jordy the story of how Papa and I came here all those years ago and how we found the stone sitting on top and how we lifted it and the marble fell off and we ran off laughing, scared we had disturbed Samson’s ghost, but taking the stone anyway. 

The site was different. The tomb was now painted with whitewash and had two vaults on top. There were boxes of prayer books, as the site had become a shrine for the ultra-Orthodox. It had been developed too, flattened and paved. 

The lights of Beit Shemesh twinkled in the valley below. We were alone. I retrieved the Samson stone from the jeep and put it back on top where I’d found it in 1997. Jordy suggested I say a prayer. He pulled out a large book of Psalms.

“Just open it to any page and say the prayer you see,” he said. 

I opened it. It was Psalm 60: A prayer for Deliverance  

“You have made the land tremble and you have cut it open; now heal its wounds, because it is falling apart. From his sanctuary, God has said… Efraim is my helmet and Judea my royal scepter. [We pause. Efraim, my father’s name. It was a sign] Did the Philistines think they would shout in triumph over me? With God on our side, we will win.”

Just as I finish, there was a rustle in the brush below. A long wail. Creepy. Then more and more. It was the howl of jackals, and they were getting closer and closer. 

“Let’s get out of here,” Yarden said.

I got the jeep running and said to him, “This is beyond surreal. But it is the truth. It is really happening. First Efraim is mentioned, and now the jackals.”

We drive off down the mountain, along the terribly bumpy road. 

But by the time we reached the bottom, the old jeep had overheated, steam blowing from under the hood. I stopped at the bottom by Kibbutz Tzora and opened the hood. Steam shot up, the pipes burst. We limped the jeep home, stopping at least five times on the way to pour water into the radiator.

A decade later: Shavuot and the ghost of Samson

A DECADE has passed since that night of ghosts and old stones and jackals and mountaintops in the Holy Land. 

We are coming up on Shavuot and Samson is on my mind, since we read about him in the haftarah. I am in search of Samson’s ghost and curious about the Samson stone. My old jeep, the same one I’ve been driving for 27 years, is still kicking and I take it past Kibbutz Tzora. About a kilometer past the main gate there is a road north that heads up to the mountains above the kibbutz. The view from the Tzora ridge is tremendous, overlooking the wide Sorek Valley. Below lies the city of Beit Shemesh, with its rooftops and yeshivas and malls and industrial zones. 

The train from Beit Shemesh still runs down the valley on the same path as the old Ottoman railway down to the sea. From here, one can see Pleshet, the land of the Philistines, just like Samson must have when he was moved by the divine spirit, and from where he went down to Timna and fell in love. I chuckle, recalling how a Baptist preacher from Georgia once told me: “Samson sure did like them Philistine ladies.” 

Atop the mountain is Samson’s tomb. And it has changed again. The old whitewashed cement grave is gone, replaced by a fancy double-vaulted tomb all covered in marble with a place for candles and cupboards filled with holy books. 

And a constant crowd of worshipers. Couples sit on plastic chairs reading sacred texts; married women, their hair covered, rock back and forth before the tomb. A fellow pulls close in his pickup truck and pops in for a quick prayer. 

Four strapping young men show up, some in muscle shirts, others dressed like construction workers, their tziziot flying around them as they join hands and dance in a circle, frenziedly reciting Tikkun Haklali, a compilation of psalms arranged by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. “Come join us,” they beseech me. “We are going to the tomb of Dan next. We are Bratslavers.”

Then an elderly woman reaches the top, her arm bleeding from a fall. I come up to her, wearing my overalls and straw hat, and say: “I don’t have any water to offer you, here’s some moonshine whiskey.” She laughs. I may not have seen the ghost of Samson this trip, but in her eyes, maybe she did! 

THESE ARE, of course, not the actual graves of Samson or his father or of Dan, the son of Jacob. Who knows who is buried in these monuments? Perhaps an honored sheikh? Archaeologists tell me the graves suddenly appeared 30 years ago and were quickly sanctified by believers who pray, perhaps asking for babies for their barren daughters, just like the nameless mother of Samson was blessed. 

“I know the site from the 1980s,” says Boaz Zissu, a professor of classical archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. “In the ’80s this tradition just started, so if you follow the development of this cultic place, you can see a pretty modern tradition created in the last 30 or 40 years. It is not an ancient tradition. It is a modern one. 

“Humans have this need to create sanctuaries and cultic places. Humans everywhere, in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, so it is not something new,” Zissu says. “In this case, it has to do with local sects, the need of local groups to create a cultic site. 

“I am not an anthropologist so I am not following the creation of these places, but what I can say from an archaeological point of view is: sorry, but there is no basis for this identification. And from a historical and geographical point of view, the only thing I can say for sure is that we know where Tzora and Eshtaol are located, and the tomb has to be in between.” 

On the tomb is a plaque reading: “Samson’s Grave. Messiah of his generation, and Manoah, his father.” The mound is surrounded by rubble of stones, perhaps of a former structure, but also of carved tombs from the First Temple period. 

We read about Samson in the Book of Judges. He was undoubtedly different from the other judges of his day, like Yiftach (Jephthah) or Gideon. He was a total individualist who never amassed an army around him like Gideon or Deborah, and always worked alone, proving his heroism and might, and ended up with four whole chapters in the Bible, more than any other judge. 

WHEN I first came to this mountaintop I was young, a son, a new father, seeking adventure. 

Now, at this incredible time for the Jewish people, we have never been so strong. We are the “overdogs,” not the underdog like Samson, who was more like a golem strong man. Have we internalized our considerable military might? We mark 75 years of an independent Jewish state and yet sometimes still can’t seem to shake our deep existential insecurity. It’s part of our soul. Martin Buber calls it our unconscious national soul, a soul that compresses 4,000 years of Jewish history within it.

There is a thread of Samson flowing through me, my father and my son. We are the perpetual strangers in this world, the Jewish sense of not being a nation like other nations. A state of eternal non-belonging, hovering between divine mission and loneliness – just like Samson. And even though his tomb has been covered in marble and asphalt and concrete, the depths of his legend are not forgotten. Sometimes you can hear it growling.

So, if this isn’t the real tomb of Samson, where is it? Archaeologist Zissu tells me Tzora is real and so is Eshtaol, so it’s somewhere in between. The 19th-century French explorer Victor Guerin recounted local lore saying it was at Khirbet Islin, just next to Eshtaol. 

So I looked for it there. Just a JNF park and no sign of Samson.

Maoz Haviv, a kibbutznik from Tzora and local tour guide, tells me he once discovered an ancient tomb a few decades ago on the slopes below ancient Tzora, which fit the description of Samson’s tomb. But by the time he returned with experts, bulldozers had smothered it over to make way for the industrial zone, about the spot where IKEA now stands. Alas.

As I leave the mountain, the radio is playing “Carefree Highway” because its singer and composer, Gordon Lightfoot, has just passed away. I bounce down the trail, choosing my path between the ruts to the Sorek Valley in its splendor. Some of the wheat fields have already been cut, their stalks ready to be bundled into bales. I am thinking that exactly this time of the year, in Samson’s day, they were gathering the wheat into sheaves. The radio suddenly cuts the song. “Red alert, in Sderot, Nir Am seek shelter.”

And I am thinking, more than 3,000 years ago Samson was in Gaza, and the pain never dies. Let me avenge them for my blindness. 

Some things never change. 

Samson the hero, please forgive me for taking the stone. It’s back now. All is good.

Life is honey. And what is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?