September 4, 2017

Samson: when history blurs with mythology

"Dying Hercules", by Samuel Morse
Yes, the same guy who invented Morse code!
This is hardly the platform in which to engage in religious debate, so let's don't, okay? That said, what are we to make of the Old Testament in general, and the story of Samson in the Book of Judges in particular?

Or, to get right to the point, is Samson; the leader of the Hebrews against the Philistines; the man who defeated an army by himself with a jawbone as his weapon; who killed a lion with his bare hands; who was betrayed by Delilah and taken into captivity; who destroyed the Temple of Dagon by pushing to pillars; ............ he a historical person? Was he real?

That's a broad and complex question for a single post, but I'll try to shed some light, based on research I've been doing.

First off, we must take into account that ancient biographical writings do not conform to our modern notion of a "biography"; that is, a completely accurate narration of every aspect of the subject's life, whether flattering or not, and supported by documentary evidence - letters, records, and the like.

If history could be condensed into a single year, that concept of biography would have been present only since, say, 11:50 PM on December 31. For centuries, biographies were written with agendas in mind other than a factual, warts-and-all accounting. Lives of religious figures were written to attract new believers; lives of kings, emperors and the like were created to be a glorious commemoration.  A king's biography was unlikely to mention that he beat his mistress or burned a rival at the stake without a trial.

The first example of a "modern" biography involving diligent research and documentary elements was The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, published in 1791. While more rigorous in its pursuit of honest narration, it still reflects the overall purpose of presenting its subject as a "great man". The "great man" agenda has become less prevalent as the decades have rolled on, though throwback tributary biographies still pop up. White-washed laudatory biographies of political candidates, hastily assembled and published on the cheap, are a notable example.

So - about Samson?

Samson is classified as one of the "judges" of the ancient Israelites. The term is distinct from a "king"; the monarchal era of Hebrew history began with the anointing of King David, estimated to have happened around 1055 B.C. A judge, for the purposes of the Old Testament, is not a courtroom figure, but rather a military figure; a champion to lead the Hebrews out of whatever bondage they were suffering at any given time. Samson is reckoned to have been active from 1154-1124 B.C.

It's certainly the case that no punches are pulled in the Book of Judges when it comes to including unflattering details of his life. He certainly comes across as a "bad boy": he's rash and impetuous; he's violent; he consorts with prostitutes; he gives into temptation, allowing his sacred vows to be broken; he's a hot mess.

But again, there is an agenda at work in this portrait, one which utilizes Samson's flaws to make a point. It's a point made time and time again in the Old Testament in the stories of Moses, David the shepherd boy, Jonah, and many others. And the point is this: God uses weak, imperfect and unlikely people to enact His will. Stories like Jonah the Reluctant Prophet, Moses the Inarticulate Leader, David the Underdog Giant-killer and Samson the Morally Corrupt Hero are intended to inspire readers (supposedly ordinary themselves) to realize "I, too, can accomplish great things if I have faith!"

Some Jewish scholars have argued for Samson's historical existence; others accept his story as myth. Rabbinic literature identifies him as "Bedin", indicating he was descended from the tribe of Dan. The name "Samson" appears to be symbolic, as it literally means "Sun", indicating he had a god-like status.

I learned that the Talmud contains an attempt to identify an historical Samson, providing the name of his mother and other family members. But most people of the Talmudic period are said to have though of Samson as a mythic figure. Here's why:
  • Rabbinical literature offers details not found in the Bible, including that Samson, though he had lame feet, could go from one city to another in a single stride; that his strength was such that he could lift two mountains and rub them together like two clumps of dirt; that when he was thirsty, God would cause a waterfall to spring out of his teeth; and so on.
  • Many of Samson's exploits sound suspiciously similar to Heracles, a corresponding hero of Greek Mythology (or Hercules, as he's also called). As one example, Heracles' feats also included killing a lion, apparently a required test of aspiring super-heroes.
  • Like Samson, Heracles was betrayed by a woman. In his case, it was Deianira.
  • Both Heracles and Samson may have their literary roots in the Mesopotamian figure Enkidu.
Opera lovers will possibly make the connection with Siegmund and Siegfried, the demi-gods of Norse mythology. Replace Samson's donkey jawbone with Siegmunds sword Nothung and we've got a close kinship there.

In more modern times, literary supermen are not lacking: Paul Bunyan may not be a religious figure, but his mighty axe is a fair stand-in for the jawbone. You can probably think of your own candidates, even excluding the vast galaxy of X-men, Superman, Batman, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the rest of the cartoonish versions. Modern mythology has turned commercial, Faithful Readers!

Bottom line: in reading books of "ancient wisdom", it's important to separate "truth" from "facts". The "wisdom" of "ancient wisdom" has to do with imparting life-lessons, not teaching literal history. What does Samson teach us? Or, in the larger view, what does the Old Testament want to tell us? As mentioned above, it's that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary achievements and that "bad" people and "weak" people can be responsible for the cause of Goodness and Justice in spite of themselves.

.......Perhaps I should say "in spite of ourselves". Not a bad lesson. Thanks, Samson!

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