What are we to say about the story of Samson? It’s morally outrageous. It has apparently divinely sanctioned mass murder, revenge killing, cruelty to animals, destruction of property, prostitution, theft, lies and deceit. It’s dramatically over-the-top with repeated displays of unbelievably super-human strength, and incredible instances of blind stupidity on the part of the hero and his Philistine captors. But no such po-faced quibbling should be allowed to get in the way of such a good story.
Some people, having read this series, might accuse me of disparagingly making fun of the Hebrew Bible. What I’m actually making fun of, is what I see as the ludicrous attempt on the part of biblical literalists, to go to derisory lengths to take seriously, and ‘explain away’, what is surely, to any unprejudiced reader, outrageous, occasionally uproarious, and sometimes quite risqué fun.
The Hebrew Bible is not “a book”. It’s not a homogeneous entity, penned by a single author, which can be understood and characterised in any simple and uniform way. It’s a library of many very different kinds of books – narratives, poems, songs, novellas, proverbs, prophecies, philosophies, apocalypses, love poems etc. etc. These come from different times, and very different circumstances, in the history of the Israelite people, covering near to a thousand years. There was a multitude of story tellers, authors and editors from different backgrounds, from the ‘professional’ priestly, royal and political élites, to the more rank and file prophets, poets, story tellers and the inevitable critics of conventional thinking and received wisdom.
Doing justice to the Hebrew Bible is a bit like undertaking an archeological dig. There are very early and very late strata, and others in between. Sometimes these strata will be clearly visible. Sometimes they sit side-by-side, with clunky repetitions and contradictions or, at other times, become mixed up with each other, with inevitable awkwardness and inconsistency. The final editors clearly and, in my view, admirably respected the multiplicity and diversity of all the traditional material which had been gathered, and did not try too hard to smooth it all out, but let the wrinkles show. To this is due the fascinating richness of the Hebrew Bible, which is forever inexhaustibly rewarding.
With regards to Samson, let’s think about the earliest layers. Before Israel became a ‘nation’, it was a loose collection of extended family groups reminiscent, for me as a Scot, of the wide variety of Scottish clans, each with their own heroes and their own stories of significant people and events. These were not written down, but repeated within families, and around camp-fire gatherings, down through the generations. They would have been not only inspirational, but unashamedly entertaining – how else can the attention of an audience be held? No one was concerned to consult a moral, ethical or religious compass, and tut-tut the unacceptable.
And so we still have the outrageous and risqué Samson stories. Some people have actually seen Samson, with his arms stretched out between the temple pillars, as prefiguring the death of Jesus on the cross. Others have seen the ‘meaning’ of the story as an attempt to discourage Israelite men from marrying foreign women, and quote Proverbs 5:3 – “the lips of the forbidden woman drip honey and her speech is smoother than oil. In the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a double-edged sword”. Well, they may have it their own way. For myself, I’ll just enjoy a rip-roaringly, entertaining tale, and rejoice in the fact that the Hebrew Bible is happy to include it as one part of its multidimensional content.