Tel Aviv University researchers recently uncovered a seal, measuring 15 millimetres (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, where Samson was born, flourished, and finally buried, according to the book of Judges. 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,” 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.
“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.
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.