The Philistines are upon you, Samson
Samson was known for his great strength and bravery, but the places in which, according to tradition, he lived and acted are not as well known. Eyal Davidson visits the home grounds of this heroic figure: from his grave in Tel Tzora to the altar of his father, Manoach, where his barren mother received word of her pregnancy
Samson lived during the era of the Judges, when the twelve tribes of Israel were attempting to become established in the portions that they received from Joshua Bin-Nun. Samson’s family was from Tzora, a city on the border of the portion of the tribes of Judah and Dan, and that is where he began to reveal his legendary strength.
Samson died in Gaza, when he brought down the Philistine temple on its inhabitants and on himself. “And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines”…and they buried him between Tzora and Eshtaol in the burying place of Manoach his father” (Judges 15: 30-31). Jewish tradition identifies Samson’s grace in Tel Tzora, at least since the Middle Ages.
Born and buried in Tel Tzora area (Photo: KKL archive)
At the head of the barrow there is a large square and at its center are two large gravestones, whose roofs are covered in cement and painted blue. On the northern gravestone, there is a marble plaque commemorating the hero Samson, and on the southern gravestone there is a marble plaque for Manoach, his father. The gravestones stand in the center of a cement plaza, which also has an old cupboard, holy books, and a neglected bench, for use by the worshippers at the site.
From the barrow go down the path in a northeast direction, toward the Tzora lookout built by the Jewish National Fund. The lookout, which was designed in the shape of a bow of a ship, overlooks the amazing view over the Sorek valley and the city of Beit Shemesh. The horizon is closed in by the Judean Mountains.
The stone structure at the lookout was in the past the home of the mukhtar (head official) of the village of Sora’a in whose area the barrow was found. The name of the village preserved the ancient name of the site. During the War of Independence the village was captured and abandoned, and the house served as the temporary headquarters of the Harel Brigade. Later on the structure served the first members of Kibbutz Tzora until their move to permanent homes at the foot of the ridge.
From this point there are a few ways to continue - the JNF put up signs on a number of paths that continue in all directions from the Tzora lookout. In the south of the Tzora forest there is the “scenic path of the Tzora ridge”, a one-and-a-half kilometer walking trail that branches southward from the Sculpture Road, climbs up the ridge and passes high observation points. In the middle the path goes down to a small parking lot, and at the end there is a path that leads to the 401 high point, from which the Sorek valley and spatial plains spread out.
'You shall conceive and bear a son'
Continue from there until route 38, where you will turn left (north) towards the Har Tuv A Industrial Zone. A dirt road leads out of the parking lot of the Intercosma factory, and 100 meters on there is a junction of paths where a lone oak tree stands. From the tree turn south (right) on a path between the rocky ground, and after 200 meters you will reach a cliff that overlooks the industrial zone. There you will find a large rock that stands out - that is Manoach’s altar.
Samson’s parents were childless, yet they gave up on fertility treatments. Truthfully, today many couples would also give up these treatments if Samson’s mother would reveal to them how to contact the angel that appeared before her and gave her the long-awaited for announcement: “And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman, and said to her, Behold now, you are barren, and bearest not: but you shall conceive and bear a son” (Judges 13:3)
View over the Sorek valley (Photo: Uri Ramon, SPNI)
The wife, who was thrilled by the news of the pregnancy, approached her husband, Manoach, and shared with him this amazing experience. He wanted to make sure that this was a real angel: “So Manoach took the young goat with the meal offering, and offered it upon the rock…and the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar. And Manoach and his wife looked on it, and fell on their faces to the ground. But the angel of the Lord appeared no more to Manoach and his wife. Then Manoach knew that he was an angel of the Lord”
Then the birth of Samson is described: “And the woman bore a son, and called his name Samson: and the child grew, and the Lord blessed him. And the spirit of the Lord began to move him in Mahane-Dan between Tzora and Eshtaol” (Judges 13:19-24). You can no longer see the angel here, nor the offering and flame, but the altar can be found here, probably.
It is basically a large rock, that is a meter and a half high and more than two meters long, which has signs of work and chiseling on it. Etched on the front are eleven holes about 21 centimeters in diameter and 10 centimeters deep. Alongside each hole there is a round slit, which was used to drain the liquid that gathered in the pits. Steps were quarried along the rock. The altar does not stand by itself, but is part of an ensemble of different quarrying and devices that were spread around the area, and can no longer be seen today.
How do we know that this is Manoach’s altar? The proximity to Tel Tzora contributed to local legend. It was reinforced when researchers in the twentieth century confirmed the identity of the rock as a sacrificial altar from earlier times, possibly even biblical times. According to this explanation, the steps were used by the religious priest or the one bringing the sacrifice to ascend to the top of the altar, and the pits were used as a gathering place for the sacrificial blood or other libations such as oil or wine that were brought as sacrifices.
During the twentieth century the site continued to draw visitors, but today the site has been relegated to the margins from a tourist and religious aspect, and there are no ritual events surrounding it. It is possible that one of the reasons for the lack of interest is due to the development and construction work in the industrial zone, which make the site less accessible.
How do you get there?
To Tel Tzora- travel on route 44, between the Nachshon and Shimshon junctions, following the signs in the south towards the President’s Forest and the Sculpture Road. The Sculpture Road is occasionally paved, but any type of car can drive on it. Scattered along its length are stations including picnic areas and playgrounds. Follow the signs until the foot of Tel Tzora, and from there continue by foot on the path to the top of the tel. Manoach’s altar is found between marker 13110 and 14945.
The author is a researcher and tour guide at the Yad Ben Tzvi Institute