Judges 15:4: Samson the Fox, and Samson's Foxes

Verse 4:[1] And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands (or, torches[2]), and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails.



[He caught three hundred foxes[3]] Question 1: Whence so many foxes in one region? Responses: 1. It often happens, that in certain places there is a greater abundance of certain wild animals than in others: for example, in the North, of bears; in Southern Africa, of lions; in England, as formerly in the Balearic Islands,[4] of rabbits (Serarius). Thus in the Alpine forests of the Swiss, numerous foxes are found. Amyntas relates in Ælian that there were so many foxes in Caspia,[5] that they enter, not only rustic enclosures, but even cities (Bonfrerius). 2. That Judea and Palestine teamed with foxes, the Sacred Books teach: in Nehemiah 4:3, if a fox go up, etc.; in Psalm 63:10, they shall be a portion for foxes; in Song of Solomon 2:15, take for us the foxes; in Lamentations 5:18, Mount Zion has been ruined, foxes have walked upon it; in Ezekiel 13:4, like foxes in the deserts. And, as a thing commonly well-known, the Lord transforms it into a similitude, foxes have holes, Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58 (Serarius). Hence many places of Palestine, or around Palestine, had their names from foxes: Like the land of Shual, that is, the land of the fox, 1 Samuel 13:17; and Hazar-Shual, or the camp of the fox, Joshua 15:28; and Shaalabbin of the Danites, Joshua 19:42, but which the Amorites were occupying, Judges 1:35, in which וּבְשַׁעַלְבִים, and in Shaalbim, some of the Greeks rendered it, καὶ ἐν Θαλαβὶν, and in Thalabin, but others, καὶ ἐν ᾧ αἱ ἀλώπεκας, in which were foxes. That is, as in the Arabic, so in the dialect of the Philistines, which was semi-Arabic, שעלב is fox (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:854). 3. The name of foxes was also able to include Thoes, an animal quite similar to the fox, and very common in Palestine, and so gregarious that sometimes two hundred thoas assemble in one congregation, as Bellonius[6] testifies; so that without any great effort many were able to be captured (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:854). Question 2: How was Samson able to capture so many foxes? It is not to be denied that the hunting of foxes is most difficult. Oppian, in his Concerning Hunting[7] 4 (near the end), denies that they are captured with traps and snares: but Martial affirms it, Epigrams 10:37: and they know as many tanners as hunters (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:855). Response 1: This was easy, 1. in a region superabounding in foxes; 2. at the most advantageous time of the year; 3. by a young man most hardy, and very skillful at hunting (Tirinus out of Serarius). As God was able to give to him unconquerable strength, so also the greatest quickness (Bonfrerius), and a skill for capturing wild animals (Serarius). Response 2: Samson is not said to have captured all those in one or two days. An entire week, or a significant part of a month, was able to be spent upon that hunt (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:855). Response 3: It is not to be supposed that Samson captured them alone and by himself. He was able to do that by the help of friends; or even to appoint a hunt for foxes to the entire nation of the Jews, over whom he was in charge, or at least to his own Tribe. Nevertheless, he is said to have captured them, because what one does by another he is reckoned to do it himself (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:855). Response 4: Perhaps God or Angels helped him (Bonfrerius out of Lapide). He who gathered all living things into the Ark of Noah, Genesis 7:8, 9; who brought so many quails, Exodus 16:13; Numbers 11:31; who enclosed so many fish in Peter’s net, Luke 5:6, 7; He, I say, helped Samson (Serarius). Question 3: But why does he choose foxes unto this end rather than dogs, hares, etc.? Responses: 1. He would have been seeking the same thing, if he had chosen any other animal. 2. There were many reasons. 1. Thus with one pail he whitewashed two walls. For he both freed his country from a noxious animal, and brought a great evil upon their enemies (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:856). 2. Foxes were richly furnished with tails to bear the attached torches, and at the same time were completely terrified of fire, and exceedingly swift on their feet (Serarius). 3. Foxes never run in a straight line, but tortuous and twisting paths, says Isidore Etymologies 12:2. Hence the proverb of the Arabs, More oblique/devious than a fox. But that has importance here. For the foxes, by that tortuous and twisting advance, were spreading the firebrands, bound to their tails, into more places, and thus kindling the fire more broadly (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:856). Moreover, Samson preferred beasts as the spreaders of this fire, rather than men, because he was having his wish granted both more swiftly, and with less hatred or calumny and detriment to all the Jews (Serarius).


Foxes:[8] There were great numbers of foxes in Canaan, as appears from Nehemiah 4:3; Psalm 63:10; Song of Solomon 2:15; Lamentations 5:18; Ezekiel 13:4. So that divers places there have their names from the foxes which abounded there; as Joshua 15:28; 19:42; 1 Samuel 13:17. Add to this, that some learned men conceive that the Hebrew name שׁוּעָל/schual is more general, and contains not only the foxes, but another sort of creature very like to them, called thoes, whereof there were so many there, that sometimes two hundred of them have been met together in one company, as some who have lived in those parts have left upon record. But infidels are much scandalized at this history, and pretend it incredible that Samson should catch so many foxes together; so nice and delicate is the faith of these men in things concerning God and Scripture, that can devour things ten times more difficult and absurd, concerning the production of the world, and of men, etc. But there is no cause of wonder here, for any man that is tolerably wise; for it is not said that Samson caught them all, either at one time, or by his own hands; for being so eminent a person, and the judge of Israel, he might require assistance of as many persons as he pleased, and all his people would readily assist him; nor can it at all perplex any man’s reason or faith, if it be allowed that the God who made the world, and by his singular providence watched over Israel, and intended them deliverance at this time, could easily dispose things so that they might be taken. He chose to do this exploit, not by his brethren, whom he would preserve from the envy, and hatred, and mischief which that might have occasioned to them, but by brute creatures, thereby to add scorn and contempt to their calamity, and particularly by foxes; partly, because they were fittest for the purpose, being creatures very fearful of fire; and having such tails as the firebrands might most conveniently be tied to; and not going directly forward, but crookedly and involvedly, whereby the fire was likely to be dispersed in more places. Firebrands; made of such matter as would quickly take fire, and keep it for a long time; which was easy to procure.


[And their tails he joined to tails, וַיֶּ֤פֶן זָנָב֙ אֶל־זָנָ֔ב[9]] [They vary.] And he turned, or rotated, or turned towards, a tail to a tail (Montanus, Pagnine, Septuagint, Junius and Tremellius); he causes tail to look toward tail (Munster). Others thus: he tied tail to tail (Septuagint in the Complutensian Codex [Nobilius]); with their tails joined (Tigurinus); he bound torches to their tails (Syriac, Arabic); he tied a tail on top of a tail (Jonathan). All with the same sense; for Samson turned the foxes tail to tail, so that he might join and bind them fast together (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:853). Question: How, and why, was this done? Responses: 1. He did not want to bind torches to individual foxes, lest the individuals should flee to their hollows, and extinguish the torches (Lapide). 2. He bound individual torches to two tails of foxes, so that, while the one tries to flee the torches in this direction, and the other in the other direction, they might run away into the fields; and so that he by them introduce a necessary delay in setting fire to all the crops (Lapide, Bonfrerius). So also, since the foxes would see their companions dashing about with flaming firebrands, and by nature fear fire, it was necessary to flee from them, and to bring the fire into other fields: Moreover, since they saw the flames in their own tails, thinking themselves to be able to flee that flame, they were continually rushing about; and believing themselves to be safely hidden in the crops, which were nearest, they were fleeing there; and since a yet great conflagration was resulting, it was necessary to continue to flee, and to bring the fire from one field to another (Bonfrerius). 3. The tails were not conjoined, nor immediately entwined; but at the beginning of the tails, where they were most nearly joining to the back, they were strongly bound and connected by a cord, and a quite long one at that, so that their course might be free and unimpeded; and they were not easily able to be impeded by the obstruction of the stalks, etc. (Serarius out of Montanus’ Commentary, Lapide): but if anywhere they were tangled up, they were readily loosed by the cunning nature of foxes (Lapide).


Between two tails, that the foxes might not make too much haste, nor run into their holes, but one of them might delay and stop another in his course, and so continue longer in the places where they were to do execution.



[And he tied torches in the middle] לַפִּדִים signifies torches, firebrands (Vatablus); of pine, cedar, cypress, and other oily material, which easily take fire, and burn for a long time (Lapide, Serarius). These, once kindled, were not easily extinguished; indeed, these were more strongly kindled by running and fanning. Indeed, even if the foxes had immersed in water, the fire was not easily extinguished; because on account of their oily and airy humor the torches would float, and the flames would be carried upwards; and, with the tails raised by habit, those foxes would raise those torches and flames as high as they could, and not allow them to dip (Serarius). Moreover, not all together at the same time, nor from the same place and unto the same place, do they appear to have been sent, lest they should hinder, or burn, one another, or even pass back and run upon the fields, etc., of the neighboring Danites and Judahites (Serarius, similarly Cajetan). What ultimately happened to these foxes, whether they were burned alive by the torches bound to them, or some, with their cords burned, escaped into their dens, some were captured and killed the Philistines, we do not have to say, neither is it necessary to know (Bonfrerius out of Serarius). We have a conspicuous monument of this history in Ovid, The Festivals 4, in which he narrates that in mid-April (on the feast of Equirria[10] [Serarius]) foxes with burning torches fixed to their backs were released into the Circus. He thus inquires into the reason for this rite, Why then foxes are sent forth, bearing backs burning from the joined torches, the reason was to be taught to me. And he answers that he, going from Rome to the Pelignian country,[11] passed through Carseoli, and there learned from his now aged host that it was done as a memorial of the Carseolian fox, which, having been captured by the son of a poor farmer, he wrapped in hay and straw, and then set fire to all. With which kindled, when the fox had fled, and wherever she undertook to flee, she was kindling the fields nearest to harvest. These things from Ovid. But far be it from us to fetch the origin of so solemn a rite from such obscure beginnings. Could it be that, because one fox, wrapped in burning hay at Carseoli, in flight burned a few grain fields, at Rome on a certain day yearly many foxes were obliged to be sent forth with torches bound to their tails (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:857)? The explanation is not at all likely. Why would what was done in Carseoli, a town nearly unknown, and indeed in the case of one small boy, be memorialized in Rome, the capital of the world? I suspect with good reason that this came to Rome from Palestine. For it is evident that a great many fables of the Poets took their rise from real events narrated by Moses, etc. (Serarius). Among the Romans, of course, were finding a place all gods, superstitions, fables, or true narrations of foreign nations deformed into fables (Bonfrerius out of Serarius). That this sprung from the Phœnicians, two things, not to be rashly disregarded, prove. 1. That at Rome the foxes were not wrapped in hay, as the Carseolian fox was, but they were bearing torches on their tails, just like Samson’s foxes. 2. That these foxes were sent forth, not at what time the wheat harvest was at Rome or Carseoli, but at what time it was done in Palestine, namely, in the month of April. For thus Ovid, on the Third after Hyades,[12] when there will be light…, that is, April 20. For Hyades, or Suculæ, vanishes on April 17. Now, at Rome this was the time of sowing, not of harvest. But in Palestine the harvest begins in the month Abib, that is, March, which was thus called from new crops.[13] See on Leviticus 23:10, 11. And Pentecost is called the feast of the harvest, that is, complete, not merely begun. It is plausible that that conflagration happened on the very same day on which the foxes were sent forth into the circus at Rome (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:857). However it may be, at least this fable shows that it was believed by the Romans that, either at some point crops were burned up in this manner by foxes, or were able to be burned up (Bonfrerius). In addition, hence perhaps that extraordinary fox that was wasting the land of Cadmus,[14] for the capturing of which Creon summons and invites Amphitryon,[15] Apollodorus’ Library[16] 2; Ovid’s Metamorphoses 7, A wild beast was sent directly into Bœotian Thebes (Serarius). From the same source it appears to have been taken that the Bœotians, over whom the Phœnicians formerly ruled, believed that anything was able to be burned, if certain animals, vermin, evidently both foxes, and tortoises were sent forth with torches affixed: Suidas on Νεώρια/Dockyards. Hence it appears that it happened that the fox was also called λαμπουρὶς/lampouris (that is, having a tail shining after the manner of πῦρ/fire or λαμπὰς/lamps/torches), as testify Hesychius, and Lycophron in Nauplius 344, and the Scholiasts on Theocritus’[17] Bucolics. Indeed, Grammarians say that thus a certain sort of fox is called, that has a white tail. Experts in nature never describe foxes of this sort. Then, it is one thing to appear white, another thing to shine in the manner previously mentioned. But perhaps the Poets of Tarsus, in which number was Lycophron, thus intended an allusion to a custom received either in nearby Syria, or in Cilicia itself, of binding torches to the tails of foxes on a certain day in memory of the deed of Samson. Which, nevertheless, I report with hesitation, willingly submitting to the judgment of the learned (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:3:13:858).

[1] Hebrew: וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ שִׁמְשׁ֔וֹן וַיִּלְכֹּ֖ד שְׁלֹשׁ־מֵא֣וֹת שׁוּעָלִ֑ים וַיִּקַּ֣ח לַפִּדִ֗ים וַיֶּ֤פֶן זָנָב֙ אֶל־זָנָ֔ב וַיָּ֙שֶׂם לַפִּ֥יד אֶחָ֛ד בֵּין־שְׁנֵ֥י הַזְּנָב֖וֹת בַּתָּֽוֶךְ׃


[2] Hebrew: לַפִּדִים.


[3] Hebrew: וַיִּלְכֹּ֖ד שְׁלֹשׁ־מֵא֣וֹת שׁוּעָלִ֑ים. שׁוּעָל/Shual means fox.


[4] The Balearic Islands were off the eastern coast of Spain.


[5] Caspia was a region just southwest of the Caspian Sea.


[6] Pierre Belon (1517-1564) was a French humanistic scholar, traveler, naturalist, and author.


[7] Oppian of Apamea wrote his poem on hunting (Cynegetica) in the early second century.


[8] Hebrew: שׁוּעָלִים/shualim.


[9] פָּנָה in the Hiphil (causative) conjugation signifies to turn.


[10] The Romans celebrated two festivals of Equirria (of horse- or chariot-racing), one on February 27, the other on March 14, in honor of Mars, Rome’s patron deity. Hoever, in mid-April, the Cerealia was observed, a major Roman festival, held in honor of Ceres, goddess of grain. In the time of Ovid, it was already ancient. During this festival, torches were tied to the tales of foxes, which were in turn released into the Circus Maximus.


[11] The Peligni were an ancient Italic tribe, living in the region just east of Rome.


[12] The Hyades is a star cluster, visible in Taurus.


[13] אָבִיב/Abib signifies fresh ears of barley.


[14] In Greek mythology, Cadmus is the founder and first king of Thebes.


[15] In Greek mythology, the Teumessian or Cadmean fox was sent by the gods (probably Dionysus) to punish the people of Thebes for national crimes. Creon, Regent of Thebes and descendent of Cadmus, gave Amphitryon the task of catching the apparently uncatchable fox. Amphitryon brought in Lælaps, a magical dog destined to catch all that it hunted. Zeus, seeing that Lælaps’ hunting of the Teumessian fox (the perfect hunter versus a perfectly elusive prey) would continue for eternity, turned both to stone and then into constellations, Canis Major and Minor respectively.


[16] Apollodorus of Athens was a second century BC Greek poet and historian; his authorship of the Library is disputed.


[17] Theocritus was a Greek poet, who labored during the third century BC.

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.

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