Revisiting the Tale of Samson

Only one Bible story takes place in Gaza. So now, when our thoughts are focused on that tragic place, let’s revisit it: the story of Samson.

The Bible readers among you will know that the story appears in the Book of Judges, and that Samson is the last listed in a line of “judges” who lead the Israelites after their delivery out of slavery in Egypt.

According to Judges, an angel of Yahweh appeared to Samson’s mother, up to then a barren woman, and announced that she would conceive a son. She was to drink no wine and eat nothing unclean, and consecrate her newborn to Yahweh as a “nazirate,” meaning that he was never to cut his hair, consume alcohol, or come near a dead body. As we will see, he does not keep these vows.

At the time of the story the dominant people in the area were the people the Bible calls Philistines, an Indo-European people related to the Greeks whom archeological evidence suggests had settled in Gaza City from around 1180 BCE. Our word “Palestine” comes from them.

The boy Samson was born and, according to the Biblical account, on attaining manhood, “noticed a woman, a Philistine girl.” He thus ordered his parents: “now get her for me, to be my wife” (Judges 14: 2). They appealed to him to take an Israelite girl instead, but he was adamant. The scripture explains that “all this came from Yahweh, who was seeking grounds for a quarrel with the Philistines, since at this time the Philistines dominated Israel” (Judges 14:4).

Young Samson turns out to be quite the superhero. Heading off to the Philistine’s vineyards he happens upon a lion roaring towards him. He rips the animal apart with his bare hands. Not  telling anyone about it, he visits and woos his intended. Later he returns to the lion’s carcass to find that bees have nested within it, and he harvests honey. His father arrives at the girl’s home to negotiate a marriage, and a large feast is held. Samson poses a riddle for the young Philistine men to solve:  “Out of the eater came what is eaten, out of the strong came what is sweet.” He assumes they can’t possibly know what had happened between him, the lion, and the bees. He tells them if they can answer the riddle he will give them thirty pieces of fine linen and thirty festal robes and if not they will each owe him that amount of treasure. They foolishly agree, all presumably in their cups.

The Philistines charged with solving the riddle go to Samson’s betrothed and demand that she wheedle the answer from him, threatening to burn her and her relatives to death if she doesn’t.

Defeated by her wiles, he divulges the secret to her, and so when he poses the riddle to the Philistines on his wedding night, just before he’s about to go to bed, theyre able to answer: “What is sweeter than honey, and what is stronger than a lion?”

At that point the “spirit of Yahweh” seizes Samson, which is to say, he goes berserk. He races to Ashkelon, kills thirty Philistines, steals their clothes and gives them to the Philistines who correctly answered his riddle.

After he calms down Samson returns to the house of his betrothed but finds that her father, who’d just assumed—given his earlier behavior—that he’d lost interest, has given her to the best man at the ceremony. He offers Samson instead the younger sister, but this only angers the young Israelite. He captures three hundred foxes, sets their tails on fire, and has them incinerate the cornfields of the Philistines, as well as the vines and olive orchards (Judges 15:5). This in turn enrages the Philistines who blame the girl’s family for the problem and burn them to death.

Then the Philistines, for obvious reasons, make a foray into Israelite territory demanding that Samson be turned over to them. The Israelites rationally comply, forking over the bound culprit,  but Samson (as the spirit of Yahweh again possesses him) is able to break out of his bonds, and finding the jawbone of a donkey on the roadside uses it to slaughter a thousand Philistines.

He then proceeds to Gaza City, where he spends the night in a brothel. Philistines surround the establishment but hesitate to move against him. At midnight he emerges, hoists the posts of the town gate on his shoulders, and carries them with them forty miles away to Hebron (Judges 16:3).

Then comes his hubris moment: he falls for Delilah, another Philistine woman. The Philistine elders offer her a fortune to discern the secret of restraining Samson’s superhuman strength. So she pleads with him to divulge the mystery. Three times he gives her bogus answers (such as, “If I were tied with seven new bowstrings that had not been dried, I should lose my strength”), and each time she sets up the situation he describes, crying out, “The Philistines are on you Samson!”  Each time he easily escapes harm.

Finally he admits that the secret of his strength is that a razor has never touched his head, and that if his head were shorn, he would be just like any other man. So she lulls him to sleep, summons a barber, and has his long locks shorn off. Samson is captured, humiliated, blinded, and set to work at a grind-wheel. Philistines did indeed place subject prisoners to such treatment in Gaza in the twelfth century BCE.

Finally, months later, as Samson’s hair has grown back, the Philistines are holding a banquet to their god Dagon and call for Samson to be brought before them so that they might mock the man who had laid their country waste. While three thousand men and women watch, Samson braces himself between the two central pillars of the building, calls upon Yahweh, shouts “Let me die with the Philistines” and brings the building down.

“He had judged Israel for twenty years,” concludes the account in Judges (16:31).

* * * * *

Certain premises underlie the whole Book of Judges. The god Yahweh, better known to King James Bible readers as Jehovah, has chosen the Israelites as his people. He has made a covenant with the descendents of Abraham, to eventually give them the land from the Nile of Egypt to the Euphrates (Genesis 15:18). He has made them a great nation while in Egypt, although allowing them to be enslaved. He has led them out of bondage through his servant, the prophet Moses, the Lawgiver, miraculously parting the waves of the Red Sea to allow their crossing, then drowning the pharaoh’s army as it pursued the fleeing Hebrews.

(Actually, there’s precious little evidence for any Hebrew presence in ancient Egypt at all, much less wide scale enslavement. The whole heroic Exodus narrative is very dubious historicity. http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Judaism/2004/12/Did-The-Exodus-Really-Happen.aspx
An English forklift mechanic’s discovery of a “chariot wheel” in the Red Sea in 2003 caused a ripple of excitement among those wanting badly to believe in the Exodus tale, but the story never went anywhere.) http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=33168

Yahweh has chastened the Hebrews for their lapses into idolatry through years of wondering through the Sinai desert but brought them finally to Canaan, where he ordered them to exterminate the local people. (See for example Joshua 11:14, about the capture of the town of Hazor, where Joshua and his men helped themselves to the livestock “[b]ut they put all the human beings to the sword till they had destroyed them completely; they did not leave a single sword.”)

Recall the story in the Book of Joshua, where Yahweh causes the walls to collapse, and then Joshua’s forces attack, enforcing “the curse of destruction on everyone in the city: men and women, young and old, including the oxen, the sheep and the donkeys, slaughtering them all” (Joshua 6:21)? (There’s a children’s Sunday school song about it: Jericho’s walls came falling down, falling down, falling down,  Hallelujah!) The righteousness of God’s people is assumed in these stories, the expendability of the lives of their enemies—any competing with them for rights to the Promised Land—also assumed. Here as in the Book of Judges the genocide theme is woven so effortlessly into the cozily familiar themes of Chosen People and Promised Land that we might hardly even notice it. But that’s what it is: the slaughter, at God’s command, of entire peoples. Herem in Hebrew (“the curse of destruction”) meant the killing of all human beings and animals in the course of holy war.

We Americans of course have our own heroic myths of our pilgrims arriving in our Promised Land chosen by God to defeat the heathen natives, justifying so many atrocities by citing Old Testament texts.

* * * * *

Of the Samson story, Mary Joan Winn Leith writes in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, “It’s one of the most artfully composed tales in the Bible…A subtle study of deception and betrayal, by humans and by god, for good and for ill.”

On the other hand: what a horrible story! There are few redeeming qualities in this selfish, oversexed, vicious brute who abuses animals by setting their tails on fire and doesn’t even have the good sense to figure out that Delilah’s working with the enemy.

Now, this of course is a text probably written between 2600-2800 years ago. Its unknown author(s) have nothing to do with any contemporary political disputes, and we can’t expect the text to give us much insight about the thinking of the Zionists in relation to this present blitzkrieg on Gaza.

Still, there are some passages to think about:

(1) “…all this came from Yahweh, who was seeking grounds for a quarrel with the Philistines, since at this time the Philistines dominated Israel” (New Jerusalem Bible, Judges 14:4; the New Oxford Bible renders this “seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines”).

The fact is, Israeli leaders have indeed sought grounds for war with the Palestinians, repeatedly. They have manufactured pretexts for decades. In 2006 they used a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli border patrol station that killed six and resulted in two Israeli soldiers being taken hostage as the pretext for a massive assault on Lebanon, killing over 1000.

The author of this fictional work, writing perhaps 2600-2800 years ago, states that Yahweh himself was looking for a fight. The secular humanist might interpret the passage to mean that the worshippers of Yahweh were spoiling for a fight with the Philistines, whose land they coveted.

(2)  “Then the spirit of Yahweh seized on him. He went down to Ashkelon, killed thirty men there, took what they wore and gave the festal robes to those who had answered the riddle…” (Judges 14:19)

Ashkelon, the former Palestinian town taken over by Zionist settlers since 1948, has been in the news lately. We have heard a lot about the indiscriminate Palestinian bombardment of the town which is occasionally hit by homemade rockets from Gaza. Here in the Samson story we have the Israelite hero indiscriminately killing thirty men there. But he does so filled with the spirit of God!

You can be sure that this Sunday preachers from pulpits across the U.S. will endorse the Israeli invasion of Gaza as a godly act of self-defense. (They’ll be responding to Israel’s slick PR campaign of nauseating righteousness.) Will such ironies be lost upon them?

(3) “Let me die with the Philistines!” Samson cries as he causes the feasting-hall to collapse from its foundations (Judges 16:29).

Doesn’t this strike you as the mentality of the suicide bomber? We’re told Samson killed more at the banquet party that he had during his life (16:31) and that his brothers came to take his body away. (But he probably didn’t expect to be reborn into a Paradise; that Persian notion hadn’t yet really pervaded Judaism. It was probably a product of the Babylonian Captivity—-of Iran’s contribution to the Jewish experience.)

Thus Samson the judge of Israel destroys himself and thousands of Philistines in Gaza. Definitely a Bible story worth rereading at this particular time.

* * *

Many Israelis like to present their nation to the world as little David, the shepherd boy who will be king, confronting Goliath of Gath, the Philistine giant, through the grace of God felling him with a stone from a slingshot.

I suggest another image: Israel as Samson.  Wild, irrational, thuggish, untamed, covetous, given to religious obsessions, the incredible hulk able to carry away the city gates of Gaza but ultimately vulnerable. The really scary thing about Samson is that, filled with self-pity and self-righteousness even after committing atrocities against so many Philistines, he’s prepared to kill an additional 3000 and himself by bringing down the great hall on top of everyone’s head.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu







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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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