Heaps upon Heaps
Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson by David Grossman [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] · Canongate, 155 pp, £12.99
Look at Chapters 13 to 16 of the Book of Judges, and what do you see there? Is it Samson the hero, Samson the lummox, or Samson the poster boy for gang moronics, for self-destructive, incommensurate revenge? According to David Grossman, all Jewish children when they first hear the story learn to call him Samson the Hero. He is wrong about this, but then my Jewish childhood was not in Hebrew or in Israel. I recall the Samson story mainly as an early introduction to the power of three. ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson,’ Delilah says three times (just as, probably in the same Ladybird series, God called Samuel from his sleep three times before Eli the priest realised Who was on the line). The Samson story fitted comfortably into the familiar format of traditional tales and myth I was reading then (and I suppose too that it readied me for the present-day storytelling of ‘education, education, education’ and suchlike sorry political rhetoric). A grown-up reading of Samson a few years ago (the same King James Version that is offered at the beginning of Grossman’s translated essay) left me initially bewildered and remembering a large, blandly handsome boy of very little brain at school who, when I was 11, was my first boyfriend for about three weeks before he dropped me, and I experienced my first guilty relief at escaping the boredom between the trial-and-error French kisses, even as I smarted at the insult and missed having a hunk for my own to flash at my far more glamorous sisters-in-prepuberty.
Samson: the very occasionally touching knucklehead who hasn’t the faintest idea what he is doing or why, and has all the muscles of Superman and all the insight of a brick. You could imagine him doing what he’s told in an army patrol, or hanging out at a loose end on a street corner with some equally dim-witted friends, except that Samson doesn’t seem to have any friends. He has parents, he has a wife for a while, he has relations with prostitutes and he has a girlfriend who finally does for him, but almost invariably he acts and walks alone. Well, it’s not surprising: he hasn’t had a haircut since birth and he’s given to acts of viciousness generally out of all proportion to any insult done to him. On the strength of an early one-man massacre he judged Israel for twenty years, which is surprising until you remember that Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California. Samson, though, on second thoughts, is more psychopath than gangbanger or lovable dolt. One thing I wouldn’t call him, then or now, is hero.
The thing about the Bible, though, particularly the Hebrew Bible, is that it provides a surface story into which the reader can dive and come up with all manner of interpretations. There can’t be very many books in the world with which a reader can have such fun. Like a playground with all the right equipment but not too much of it, it offers the imagination as much scope as it can use for speculation. Jump in anywhere and read the empty spaces, the unspoken, the roaring silences, repetitions and patterns with as much care as the words (especially in a good modern translation that is true to the laconic language of the original), and you’ve got a narrative wonderland at your disposal. The old rabbis understood well enough about the gaiety of conjecture. Ambiguities throughout the Torah caused and permitted them to speculate and then to argue with previous (and even forthcoming) speculations, building an enchanting dialogue of maybes and what ifs. Worried about the problem of fish when God decided to destroy all life by flooding the world? The rain that fell for forty days and forty nights was hot and the fish in the sea were boiled to death, one commentary argues. Oh no, says Rabbi Yaakov Culi in the 18th century: ‘The only creatures that survived the flood were the fish. The Torah informs us that “everything on dry land died,” specifically to exclude the fish, which did not die. The fish survived even though the water of the flood was boiling hot. They were able to escape to the depths of the sea, where the water remained cool.’ This is the delight of poetry and riddle, which reading at its best – coupled with writing at its best – produces. And the Bible, of all writings, even for those of us who can only read it in translations, provides unlimited possibilities for close, quirky readings that lurk in the crevices of the language.
What I find very hard to see in the Pentateuch is any suggestion of the transcendental. After a couple of beginnings of the world where geography and biology are set in motion, and the bad behaviour of Adam and Eve, Genesis describes life starting over with Noah, who is a disappointment, and then once again with Abraham, in the search for an individual to stand as founding father for the people called the Hebrews. The God seeking out his people offers only posterity, never an afterlife, just like any secular leader. But then it’s a story told by the Hebrews themselves to account for themselves. A history, you might say, or a myth, if you will – anyway, a story. The Pentateuch is the narrative of the developing nationhood of a small group of people who came from Mesopotamia and settled in the south on the land of other already established nations: Midian, Canaan, Moab, Amon and Philistia.
At the time of Judges, the Hebrews are divided into 12 tribes who live with different amounts of tension between themselves and their neighbours in the land they call Judea. In Judges, the Jews tell themselves why they have not been welcomed with open arms by those who were already there. It was, the biblical narrator explains, not because people object to incomers taking land that is already inhabited, but because the Children of Israel repeatedly sinned against their sponsor, Yahweh, and with each sin the Lord arranged punishment in the form of conquest by the strangers on the Israelites’ borders. Geopolitics will not do for Yahweh’s People: only their own solecisms can account for loss of territory or sovereignty. Once you have a god on your side, nothing can go wrong unless you activate his anger and he strengthens the Philistines against you. Consequently, the Israelis repent and Yahweh has to find a way to expel the outsiders who are oppressing his now forgiven people. In turn Gideon, Jephthah, Ehud, Shamgar and Deborah become the nation’s warrior liberators and then judges. Samson’s turn comes, but he is an anomaly who can’t be said to have chosen to liberate his people by his actions so much as kill a lot of Philistines because they happen to annoy him: ‘Strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.’ God seems to have forgiven the Hebrews again so he obliges Samson and ‘the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.’ An unintended national liberation on Samson’s part; a somewhat casual attitude to life on the part of God.
Some modern commentators, though, write Samson up as a ‘tough Jew’, one who strikes back at his enemies and nails the calumny of Jewish victimhood. When his fellow Judeans, cowering under the yoke of the oppressing Philistines, are prepared with a shrug of apology to give Samson up to them as they demand, he allows himself to be led into the enemy’s midst and smites them good and proper. He lets rip with a handy jawbone. ‘And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.’ But this is only the middle of a long inventory of smitings. First Samson killed 30 men of Ashkelon for their clothes to pay off a bet made with his wedding guests who had wheedled the answer to his riddle out of his Philistine wife. Next, after he went home to his parents to sulk and his wife went off with someone else, he set fire to three hundred foxes tied tail to tail and burned all the growing and stored foodstuff of the Philistines. When they retaliated by burning his wife and her father for bringing the disaster on them, Samson in response ‘smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter’ and then, in a brief spasm of wisdom, went to live up on a hillside out of the way. At which point the men of Judah come to him and tell him that he is causing too much trouble for them, they only want a quiet life – who doesn’t? – and could he please give himself up. Certainly, Samson says, and a thousand men, heaps upon heaps, pay the price.
David Grossman situates the ancient image of Samson the hero, and his modern interpretation as the tough Jew (how could he not?), in modern Israel. Those who would see Samson as a tough Jew, Grossman explains, ‘esteemed . . . his ability to apply force without any restraints or moral inhibitions, an ability which history withheld from the trod-upon Jews for millennia, until the establishment of the state of Israel’. ‘Samson’s Foxes’ fought in the 1948 War of Independence; a ‘Samson’ unit was created during the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s; Israel’s nuclear weapon programme was once known as the ‘Samson Option’. Samson’s shadow, the suicide bomber, is noted. Clearly, Samson doesn’t represent the same thing to an Israeli Jew as he does to a Jew from the Diaspora.
But Grossman is equivocal. He acknowledges ‘a certain problematic quality to Israeli sovereignty that is also embodied in Samson’s relationship to his own power’. But it isn’t a case of not knowing one’s own strength: the problem arises from a lack of practice. ‘The reality of being immensely powerful has not really been internalised in the Israeli consciousness, not assimilated in a natural way, over many generations.’ It leads to giving ‘an exaggerated value to the power one has attained; to making power an end in itself; and to using it excessively; and also to a tendency to turn almost automatically to the use of force instead of weighing other means of action’. Grossman’s discomfort as an Israeli is clear, but he is still apologising for Samson’s and Israel’s excesses by suggesting that they are victims of victimhood. Tough Jewry but with mitigating circumstances. The fault lies with history and always and for ever Jews can be no more than their reaction to what has happened to them.
The essay dissolves into a distressing mixture of popular psychoanalysis and sentimentality: a plea for understanding that pulls out all the emotional stops. Samson’s thuggery is a result of his extraordinary experience, ultimately a lack of maternal love that leaves him a stranger in the world, who will never find his place and settle. At the heart of it is a notion of the family and how it ought to be. It’s a recognisable image but as mythic as the Samson story itself. Manoah, his father, is weak, vacillating and suspicious. His mother, who is not given a name, is visited either by a messenger of God or has an affair with (could it be?) a Philistine, and although barren becomes pregnant. She tells her husband that the child is to be a Nazarite, dedicated to God: no alcohol, no haircuts. Manoah exhibits disbelief and demands to see this messenger for himself, though when he does, he stops arguing, overpowered by the power of the man/angel. A bad beginning. A doubtful origin and different from the other kids.
But the true centre of Samson’s problem, according to Grossman, is his mother (of course) who tells Manoah of the special role of the forthcoming child with the words: ‘For the child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death.’ In Grossman’s view, this is a child who will not truly belong to his mother and her realisation of this causes her to freeze emotionally. No woman, apparently, can contemplate the natural death of the foetus within her. It is, says Grossman, against the ‘natural instincts of parenthood’. The formerly barren wife of Manoah knows ‘with a deep womanly intuition’ that the child is to be a public event and therefore she distances herself from it, ‘something inside her is blocked, stunned, frozen.’ He imagines her thinking: ‘Will I be able to give him the bountiful, natural love that for so long I have yearned to give a child of my own?’ This ‘will not be a child who can be raised according to one’s natural instincts alone’ (though for that you might think any child would be grateful). As a result Samson ‘will always lack the capacity for simple human contact that comes so naturally to most people’. The pages are filled with such unexamined social and psychological expectation, with the assumption of what must be normal and what the consequences must be of a falling short of this picture of family harmonics.
Grossman is entitled to his interpretation of the text like anyone else, and the notion of the strangeness and loneliness of Samson and his inability to understand it is intriguing, but the normative assumptions and their presentation are as cloying and unconvincing as the saccharine family moment Grossman imagines when, on the way to his wedding, Samson scoops the honey from the belly of the lion he killed. The biblical text reads:
And, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion. And he took thereof in his hands, and went on eating, and came to his father and mother, and he gave them, and they did eat; but he told them not that he had taken the honey out of the carcass of the lion.
They say nothing, do not ask, he doesn’t tell, and nevertheless it is so appealing to imagine Samson waving his hands high, and his parents, doubtless smaller than he is, jumping at him with their mouths wide open and tongues hanging out, and Samson howling with glee, playing with his parents, touching them and dancing for them and laughing with them like any normal person, with the honey dripping, flowing down a cheek, sliding to the chin, being licked up, as the laughter swells to the point of tears.
It is Grossman’s contention that Samson is the emotionally disfigured child who becomes the frustrated artist (the honey episode, the killing of the 30 men for their coats, the tying and burning of the foxes’ tails all a kind of performance art), whose work turns murderous when he cannot receive love, desperate as he is ‘for the embrace of a caring, compassionate parent’ and betrayed always by the women in his life. And somewhere in all this is the state of Israel. The Samson state, not properly born and nurtured and therefore given to violent tantrums and excessive – though hardly artistic – behaviour to those it feels unloved by.
And, liberal though I am, I come up against the thought: what about behaving decently to others? Just that. Even if you’ve been unloved. Or especially if you’ve been unloved. What about making an art of empathy, or simply an elementary human choice not to cause suffering just because you’ve suffered, or because you figure it’s a good enough excuse to behave just like everyone else? Perhaps Grossman would say that the unloved Samson can’t help himself and is not in control of his emotional responses. He is probably right. Many people aren’t and clearly Samson wasn’t capable of control, but the individual Samson and the state of Israel are actually not bound by the same emotional imperatives. We ought perhaps to try much harder to keep separate the lives and passions of individuals and the behaviour of nations. But analogy is apparently irresistible, though the Palestinians might be forgiven a hollow laugh at Grossman’s conclusion that Samson’s final act, killing three thousand partying Philistines and himself into the bargain, set a precedent:
There is no escaping the thought that Samson was, in a sense, the first suicide-killer; and although the circumstances of his deed were different from those familiar to us from the daily reality of the streets of Israel, it may be that the act itself established in human consciousness a mode of murder and revenge directed at innocent victims, which has been perfected in recent years.
Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still, a travelogue and memoir, appeared recently. She is the author of Only Human, about a patriarch and his wife, among other novels.