Locating Etam: Samson’s Rock of Refuge -- By: John Roskoski

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 21:1 (Winter 2008)
Article: Locating Etam: Samson’s Rock of Refuge
Author: John Roskoski

Locating Etam: Samson’s Rock of Refuge

John Roskoski1

Etam in the Samson Narrative

The Samson narratives (Judges 13–16) contain the exchange of hostilities between Samson and the Philistines that transpired between Israel, the territories of Dan and Judah, and Philistia. Our present focus will be on the events narrated in the text of Judges 13:25–15:20, the middle chapters of the Samson narratives. Within this exchange the rock, or cliff, of Etam plays a vital and interesting role. The cliff is first mentioned in Judges 15:8, wherein after Samson had inflicted a great slaughter on the Philistines in retaliation for their destruction of his would-be wife and her family with fire, he took refuge “in a cave in the rock of Etam.” This verse plays a dual role in the text. First, it acts as a narrative marker or boundary, forming a conclusion of sorts to the narration of actions in Judges 15:1–8a. Secondly, it serves as a link to the subsequent episode, the climactic battle at Ramath-Lehi, where Samson destroys a contingent (Heb. eleph) of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (Jgs 15:14–16).

The next reference to Etam occurs in Judges 15:11, where three contingents (elephs) of men of Judah go down to the cave in the rock of Etam. This episode not only illustrates the fear which Samson aroused, as shown by the number of men marching against him, but also indicates the men of Judah were pressed into service by the Philistines. It is well known that Samson was from the tribe of Dan, which bordered Philistia and had long endured the threat of invasion by the Philistines. By this time, however, the Danites had already begun their migration northward,2 which left their territory to become the frontier between Judah and Philistia, making Judah more vulnerable to the encroaching Philistines.

In Judges 15:13 we are told that the men of Judah bound Samson with two new ropes and “led him up from the rock.” Although the name “Etam” is not mentioned directly, there is little reason to doubt the narrative is referring to the same geological feature. Once Samson was brought up, he was handed over to the Philistines and the Judahites played no further part in the account. This sets the stage for the dramatic battle with the jawbone.

To locate Etam correctly is vital to ...

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