In the book in the Hebrew Bible called “Judges” (chapters 13 to 16) we’re entertained with the amazingly outrageous story of Samson. This makes a welcome contrast to, let’s say, the first dozen chapters of 1 Chronicles. When sleep doesn’t come easily, try these interminable genealogical and other assorted lists of eminently forgettable names. The Old Testament does indeed have its ‘stuffy and starchy’ pages, but it also has, among not a few others, the inimitable and irrepressible Samson!
The background to this tale is the to-and-fro competition and conflict between the Philistines and the Israelites around the 2nd millennium BCE. The Philistines were ‘sea people’, who’d run amok across the eastern Mediterranean until they took on Egypt, an opponent who unexpectedly, but soundly, defeated them. Licking their wounds, the Philistines retreated to Palestine’s sea coast (today’s Gaza Strip), where they established a confederation of five cities. The Israelites, on the other hand, lived in villages up on the adjacent hill country – a sure recipe for wariness, distrust and competitiveness. The Hebrew Bible, predictably, gives the Philistines a ‘bad press’ as a bunch of barbarians, but archeologists tell us that they had a rich and substantial culture.
As for our hero Samson, he’s one of the Israelite “judges”, though this is a rather misleading translation. ‘Ad-hoc charismatic military leaders’ would be more to the point, were it not such a long-winded mouthful. In the New Testament Book of Hebrews 11:33, Samson is honourably installed among biblical heroes, including King David and the Prophet Samuel, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises”. Well, yes and no, but chiefly no – as we’ll see in due course.
As we noted in recent posts about Moses, heroes in folktale and legend are often furnished with melodramatic, multicoloured birth stories, and Samson is no exception. As with others wives in the Hebrew Bible, his mother-to-be “was not able to have children” but, no problem – “an angel from Yahweh appeared to her”, and that little difficulty was soon taken care of. The parents-to-be, built a fire on a rock to offer a grateful sacrifice, and lo and behold, “the fire blazed up toward the sky, and Yahweh’s angel went up toward heaven in the flame” – a suitably dazzling exit.
The baby boy was named Samson, and the strict instructions left by the angel decreed that, when he grew up, alcohol was off-limits as were haircuts! Sometimes, in a piece of music, a brief motif makes an early, seemingly inconsequential appearance, which later on proves to have been of major import, and so it will be with Samson’s hair.
Like the other ‘judges’, it’s said of Samson that he “will begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines”, that being a long-term, ongoing challenge. Unlike the others, however, Samson isn’t suddenly chosen to become a “judge”, because of some immediate and threatening crisis facing the Israelites. He’s destined for this role before he’s even born and, sure enough, at the end of chapter 13, we’re told that “the spirit of Yahweh took control of him”. Surely this must mean that he’s going to be a ‘godly man’, filled with wisdom, gentleness and goodness, as well as military know-how and prowess – a model for others to copy.
After all, no less a poet than John Milton was so captivated by this story that he turned it into “Samson Agonistes”, a ‘closet drama’ about him …
And no less a composer than Camille Saint-Saëns wrote an opera about him, entitled “Samson and Delilah”.
Fun and frolics lie ahead of us. This is not to denigrate, however, but to enjoy this endlessly fascinating story. If it captured the imagination of the likes of Milton and Saint-Saëns, then it can capture ours as well.
In the meantime, here’s a short video of the incomparable Janet Baker singing Delilah’s indescribably beautiful and moving “Softly awakes my heart” from Saint-Saëns’ opera. The visual quality is, unfortunately, less than optimal, reminding me of long-gone days when television viewers had to twiddle the ‘horizontal hold’ knob to stop the picture jumping. The sound quality however, as one would expect from Janet Baker, is heavenly …
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