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‘Samson the hero’ is what every Jewish child, the first time he or she hears the story, learns to call him. And that, more or less, is how he has been represented over the years, in hundreds of works of art, theatre and film, in the literatures of many languages: a mythic hero and fierce warrior, the man who tore apart a lion with his bare hands, the charismatic leader of the Jews in their wars against the Philistines, and, without a doubt, one of the most tempestuous and colourful characters in the Hebrew Bible.
But the way that I read the story in the pages of my bible — the Book of Judges, chapters 13 to 16 — runs against the grain of the familiar Samson. Mine is not the brave leader (who never, after all, actually led his people), nor the Nazirite of God (who, we must admit, was given to whoring and lust), nor just a muscle-bound murderer. For me, this is most of all the story of a man whose life was a never-ending struggle to accommodate himself to the powerful destiny imposed upon him, a destiny he was never able to realise nor, apparently, fully to understand. It is the story of a child who was born a stranger to his father and mother; the story of a magnificent strongman who ceaselessly yearned to win his parents’ love — and, therefore, love in general — which in the end he never received.
There are few other Bible stories with so much drama and action, narrative fireworks and raw emotion, as we find in the tale of Samson: the battle with the lion; the three hundred burning foxes; the women he bedded and the one woman that he loved; his betrayal by all the women in his life, from his mother to Delilah; and, in the end, his murderous suicide, when he brought the house down on himself and three thousand Philistines. Yet beyond the wild impulsiveness, the chaos, the din, we can make out a life story that is, at bottom, the tortured journey of a single, lonely and turbulent soul who never found, anywhere, a true home in the world, whose very body was a harsh place of exile. For me, this discovery, this recognition, is the point at which the myth — for all its grand images, its larger-than-life adventures — slips silently into the day-to-day existence of each of us, into our most private moments, our buried secrets.
There is a point in the Samson story — the moment when he falls asleep on Delilah’s lap — that seems to absorb and encapsulate the entire tale. Samson withdraws into his childish, almost infantile self, disarmed of the violence, madness, and passion that have confounded and ruined his life. This is, of course, also the moment when his fate is sealed, for Delilah is clutching his hair and the razor, and the Philistines outside are already relishing their victory. In another moment his eyes will be plucked out and his power extinguished. Soon he will be thrown into prison and his days will be ended. Yet it is now, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he finds repose. Here, in the very heart of the cruel perfidy that he has surely expected all along, he is finally granted perfect peace, a release from himself and the stormy drama of his life.
In those days, apparently the end of the twelfth and beginning of the eleventh centuries bce, there was not yet a king in Israel, nor any central authority. The neighbouring nations of Midian, Canaan, Moab, Amon, and Philistia took advantage of the weak Hebrew tribes and launched campaigns of conquest and pillage against them. Every so often there would arise, in one tribe or another, a person who would know how to lead his tribe, sometimes several joined together, into retaliatory battle. If he won, he would become the leader and judge, and be called shofet. Such were Gideon and Jephthah, Ehud the son of Gerah, Shamgar the son of Anat, and Deborah, the wife of Lapidot. Thus the Israelites swung cyclically between periods of oppression and redemption that corresponded, as recounted in the Book of Judges, to their sins and their atonement. First they would worship idols, then God would muster the murderous neighbours as punishment. They would cry out to Him in their affliction, and He would elect from among them a person who would save them.
In the midst of this turbulence lived a man and woman of the tribe of Dan. They lived in Zorah in the Judean lowlands, an especially violent region, as in those days it was the boundary between Israel and the Philistines. For the Israelites, it was the first line of defence against the Philistines; for the Philistines, it was the essential first step in any attempt to conquer the Judean hill country. The man was called Manoah, but the woman’s name is not known. It is said of her only that she was ‘barren and had borne no children’, which is enough to suggest that, along with the hardships of the frontier, their marriage had also been filled with pain.
But anyone familiar with the semiotics of biblical storytelling also knows that the very mention of a barren woman almost always foreshadows a momentous birth. And indeed, one day — during one of those periods when ‘the Israelites again did what was offensive to the Lord’ — when the woman is alone, without her husband, an angel of God appears before her and tells her: ‘You are barren and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son.’ And immediately he gives her a list of instructions and warnings, and also good news: ‘Now be careful not to drink wine or other intoxicant, or to eat anything unclean; for you are going to conceive and bear a son; let no razor touch his head, for the boy is to be a Nazirite to God from the womb on. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines.’
She goes to her husband and says, ‘A man of God came to me.’ And the reader’s ears prick up, because the woman does not use the same word as that of the biblical narrator — ‘an angel of God appeared to the woman’ — but rather ‘came to me’, a charged phrase rich with double meaning, which more than once in the Bible refers to the act of copulation itself.