Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis: Samson and the Lion

For similar posts, see “Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis.

It seems like social media these days is little more than memes, and if you’re getting your Bible from memes, well, you should expect problems. Here is a recent one that appeared on Twitter. 

I first came across this meme after it had been shared by a few atheists. Its aim is perfectly simple: to show how absurd the story of Samson killing the lion is because there were no lions in the Palestinian desert. The meme is beautiful primarily for its vainglory. It seems so clever, so erudite, that to deny its truth is an exercise in futility. But here I am anyway. 

Samson and the Lion 

The story of Samson and lion can be found in Judges 14. After the supernaturally endowed strongman falls in love with a Philistine woman from the city of Timnah (v. 1), he orders his father to get her for him so that he can marry her (vv. 2-4). Samson accompanies his parents to the Philistine controlled town but when he reaches the vineyards of Timnah he is met by a young lion (v. 5). Possessed as it were by Yahweh’s spirit, Samson “tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid” (v. 6).[1] Later, Samson returns to the spot where he had killed the lion and notices in the lion’s carcass a swarm of bees and honey (vv. 7-9).

Scroll back up, look at that oh-so-clever meme again, and compare it with the story of Judges 14. Notice anything? Setting aside the incorrect claim that there are no lions in deserts,[2] while the meme asserts that Samson killed a lion in the “Palestinian desert,” the biblical text reports that he killed it in the vineyards of Timnah. So, it wasn’t in a desert that Samson killed the lion, an error easily avoided had the meme’s creator bothered to consult the biblical text. 

But that’s not all. The meme also suffers from being largely ignorant of Palestinian geography. With regards to topography, “variability is the rule in the southern Levant.”[3] There are rivers and brooks, hills and plateaus, forests and wilderness. The ancient city of Timnah has been plausibly connected to Tel-Batash, a site 

located in the wide alluvial Sorek Valley, close to the river bed…. The valley provided sufficient fertile land, available water sources and a convenient road leading from the coastal plain into the inner Shephelah and the Judean hills; these environmental conditions were ideal for the development of an ancient settlement, although the location in the low alluvial valley lacked strategic advantages.[4]

Does that sound like a desert? Not at all. It does sound like an ideal place for a vineyard. In fact, in one building excavated at Tel-Batash archaeologists have found evidence for a wine press.[5]

Thus, this meme fails on two fronts. First, it fails to take into account what the biblical text actually says. Second, it fails to appreciate the geography of the region. To these two we could add a third failure: it doesn’t rightly knock some of the more ludicrous elements of the story like that Samson tore apart a lion with his bare hands or that this ability is akin to how someone might rip apart a baby goat or that Samson found honey and bees inside the carcass of a lion.[6] These are all literally fantastic with no root whatsoever in reality. This, then, is a missed opportunity to attack a fundamentalist reading of these texts. 

So to my fellow atheists, I implore you: don’t get your education about the Bible from memes

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] For example, there is a population of desert-adapted lions that live in Namibia. See here

[3] Jonathan M. Golden, Ancient Canaan & Israel: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 18. 

[4] Amihai Mazar and Nava Panitz-Cohen “Tel Batash in the Late Bronze Age – a retrospect,” in The Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages of Southern Canaan, Aren M. Maeir, Itzhaq Shai, and Chris McKinny, editors (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2019), 86. It should be noted that there was more than one city named Timnah. Here we are speaking of the Philistine city.

[5] Amihai Mazar and Nava Panitz-Cohen “Tel Batash in the Late Bronze Age – a retrospect,” 99.

[6] See my post “Out of the Strong Came Sweetness – Bees in Carcasses” (6.23.20), amateurexegete.com.

4 thoughts on “Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis: Samson and the Lion

  1. Most of the article I like, however, to mock the ludicrous elements of the story, is I think, missing the point of the story. They were intended to border on the miraculous. To mock what is intended to be a miraculous element because it is not an ordinary event…

    Note that I don’t believe the miraculous elements – just that their miraculous nature should be acknowledged.


  2. Kώστας Γρηγοριάδης 17 Jan 2021 — 11:25 am

    There were lions in ancient Israel, as there were in ancient Greece, Anatolia and egypt. It is a fact well documented both by ancient writers as well as modern archaelogists who have found lion remnants. It was the subspiece Panthera Leo. Also the Palestinian desert is not a desert as the sahara, but a much different scenary. who ever posted this meme is clearly uneducated

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Lions were common in the forest of regions of Palestine, and in this time. The whole region surrounding the Sorek Valley between Zorah and Timnah was forested.” — IVP Bible Background Commentary, Walton, Matthews & Chavalas

    Liked by 1 person

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