Samson, Achilles & Heracles

Bruce Louden

While Samson is unlike any other hero of Israel, his story rivals the stories of Greek myth. His uncanny resemblance to figures like Achilles and Heracles is surprising. Why the similarities? The Israelites had their own epic tradition, which often drew on Greek myth. The Phoenicians, neighbors to the Israelites and trading partners with the Greeks, are the likeliest explanation for this influence. Also, the Philistines, who often warred with the Israelites, had nearly the same culture as Homer’s Mycenaean Greeks. Samson’s likeness and strength would have made him appear like a global hero, empowered by a God that ruled beyond Israel.

Here’s how Samson compares to the Greek heroes Achilles and Heracles.

Legend/Common Traits:

Divinely Ordained Birth

Samson
The angel carefully directs Samson’s conception.

Achilles
Achilles is the son of Thetis, a goddess.

Heracles
Heracles is the son of Zeus himself.

Champion Warriors

Samson
Samson twice slays masses of Philistines, 1,000 with the jawbone of a donkey and 3,000 when he pulls down the pillars.

Achilles
Achilles defeats an overwhelming number of enemy warriors when he returns to battle and continues to do so until he slays Hector, a Trojan warrior.

Heracles
Heracles attacks Troy a generation before Homer’s Greeks (Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus).

Strong Tempers

Samson
Samson’s anger prompts him to slay 30 Philistines in Ashkelon. He threatens revenge when they retaliate by slaying his bride and father-in-law.

Achilles
Achilles’ wrath is famously the first word of the Iliad. It flares up throughout his quarrel with Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, but becomes redirected at Hector after he slays Patroclus, Achilles’ friend and advisor.

Heracles
After his friend Linus strikes him, Heracles slays him. He mutilates the heralds of King Erginus when they come to demand tribute.

Endowed with Special Powers

Samson
The spirit of Yahweh seizes Samson just before he performs his feats.

Achilles
The goddess Thetis instills menos (force) in Achilles just before he returns to battle.

Heracles
Like Samson, Heracles slays a lion as his first heroic deed.

A Deadly Weakness

Samson
Samson is captured by the Philistines when Delilah has his head shaved. He is easily overtaken since his hair is the source of his strength.

Achilles
Achilles dies in battle when an arrow shot by Paris lodges in his heel and kills him (though not depicted in the Iliad).

Provided with Special Sustenance

Samson
Thirsty after killing 1,000 Philistines, Samson entreats Yahweh to quench his thirst. Yahweh splits open a hollow and water gushes out.

Achilles
Zeus directs Athena to provide Achilles with nectar and ambrosia.

Heracles
Athena, also the mentor goddess of Achilles and Odysseus, gives Heracles special aid to help him accomplish Eurystheus’ 12 labors.

Individualists

Samson
Samson doesn’t consult other Israelites and acts against his father’s wishes. But his actions against the Philistines serve Yahweh’s larger purpose of freeing the Israelites.

Achilles
Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon sidelines him from the fighting, drives him away from helping his fellow Greeks in battle, and results in heavy Greek casualties.

Heracles
Like Samson, Heracles accomplishes his greatest feats without the help of other mortals.

Singers

Samson
Samson twice refers to his exploits in verse: the source of the honey from the lion he slew, and the 1,000 Philistines he slew with a donkey’s jawbone.

Achilles
The embassy finds Achilles singing something like an epic.

Heracles
Heracles was taught to play the lyre by Linos, brother of Orpheus.

Liaisons with Foreign Women

Samson
Samson is serially involved with Philistine women, from his bride in Timnah, to the prostitute in Gaza, to Delilah. Each relationship leads to violent interaction with the Philistines.

Achilles
Agamemnon deprives Achilles of Briseis, a Trojan woman who is part of his war winnings. Humiliated, Achilles refrains from fighting.

Heracles
Heracles serves as a slave to the Lydian queen Omphale. While married to Deianeira, he takes Iole as a concubine. Jealous, Deianeira rubs a painful potion on Heracles’ robe. Unable to end the agony caused by the potion, Heracles burns himself to death.

Risk Takers—to the Death, for the Greater Good

Samson
Samson kills himself and 3,000 Philistines by pulling down the two central columns of the temple.

Achilles
Thetis prophesied that if Achilles remained in Troy, he would have eternal fame, but would die. When he returns to battle to avenge Patroclus, he acts in accord with this option. He dies at the hands of Paris, the prince of Troy, but his slaying of Hector frees the Greeks from further dangers in the battlefield.

Heracles
Heracles repeatedly slays monsters (the Hydra, Diomedes’ man-eating mares). He kills men and giants, like Antaeus, Syleus, and Busiris, who violate hospitality and other sacred institutions.

Served a Larger Purpose

Samson
Judges says that Samson, despite his selfish motives, is serving Yahweh’s larger purpose.

Achilles
The Iliad loosely employs the concept of serving Zeus in phrases such as, “The will of Zeus was accomplished.”

Heracles
Heracles embodies the ability to transcend death in his rescue of Alcestis, the wife of his friend Admetus.

Samson
See Judges 14–16

Achilles
See the Iliad, Books 2–22

Heracles
See the Iliad, Books 8

» QUICKBITS:
Interested in reading more about the influence of Greek myth? Check out Bruce Louden’s Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East. Also see The Iliad: Structure, Myth, and Meaning.

For more on the epic tradition of the Israelites in the Old Testament, check out the following passages:

  1. A reference to Nimrod (Gen 10:8)
  2. The lost books of Jashar (Josh 10:12–14)
  3. The Wars of the Lord (Num 21:14–15)

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5