Sing, O God, the wrath of Samson, son of Manoah!
As I continue to work through the materials of why the Iliad matters today and apply these insights to ancient biblical accounts, I am brought to the the similarities of Achilles and Samson.
The figure of Achilles in his anger, his (re-)actions, and his relationships offers partial parallels to several figures in the Bible: Samson (though Samson has been most usefully compared to Herakles), Saul, David, Solomon, and even God. Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus has also been repeatedly compared to David and Jonathan in 1 & 2 Samuel.
Samson, in turn, is most often compared to Hercules. In fact, in my class I typically refer to him as “the Hebrew Hercules.” Of all the figures in the Bible, he seems most like a Greek demigod than human. And there are a lot of interesting parallels, not least of which is godlike strength, but I am not going to work through here.
There is a lot of violence, even extreme violence, in the Bible. One could argue the entire book of Joshua fits the bill of disproportionate responses, God often acts with frustrated violence, but I will focus on a more direct parallel to Achilles: the rage of Samson.
While the books of Joshua and Judges are extremely violent, much of the violence is typically in groups, war-like violence, or for larger communal concerns, as Ehud’s assassination of King Eglon of Moab (Judges 3), Deborah’s and Barak’s marshaling their forces (Judges 4-5), Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera’s skull (Judges 4-5), and so on. Samson, though, is different. Samson’s violence is different. It is personal.
Samson’s story is fairly long compared to most of the other judges (Judges 13-16). In Judges 14, he wants to marry a Philistine woman from Timnah. He gets his parents to arrange it, though they largely disapprove of marrying a foreign woman. On the way, he tears apart a lion for no other reason than the lion roared at him (14:5-6). During the wedding feasting, he tells a rather terrible riddle about the lion, making a bet of 30 garments. The guests coax his new wife to get the riddle from him, and they answer him. In his rage, he kills 30 men, who presumably had nothing to do with the situation, in Ashkelon, a Philistine city, and then went home in a huff. In chapter 15, his wife is given to another man – his best man actually – and in return he ties torches to foxes tails and burned up all the fields of the Philistines in the area (again, why not just the fields of the particular people in question?). In a way, the fire is like his rage: it is completely uncontrolled. It is not directed. In response, the Philistines kill his (ex-?) wife and her father. In response, he slaughters them. It is quite a cycle of violence here.
Later in the chapter, the men of Judah (Samson is of the tribe of Dan) give up Samson to the Philistines, then Samson kills 1000 of them with a donkey’s jawbone (15:9-17).
In an aside, Samson has sex with a prostitute in Gaza, the men of Gaza try to take him, and he picks up the doors and beams of the city gate and carries them to Hebron (city gates are huge in antiquity – this is a Herculean effort!) (16:1-3).
Finally, the story of Samson and Delilah (16:4-22). In this story, Delilah discovers the secret of Samson’s strength, cuts his hair (the source of his strength), and he is weakened. The Philistines come and gouge out his eyes and make him grind the mill in a prison.
In the denouement of the story, though, he gets his revenge: he is taken the temple of Dagon, and he is strengthened one last time, killing 3000, including himself. In this last act, he kills more in his death than ever in his life.
The sign of his rage, or perhaps the catalyst of his rage, is the spirit of the LORD rushing upon him (14:6, 19; 15:14). Interestingly, this often occurs at the most pointless acts of violence: killing the lion and killing the 30 bystanders who lose their clothes. The third is killing 1000 people with the donkey’s jawbone, which may be slightly less pointless, but is definitely disproportionate!
Samson acts almost completely in terms of revenge, in terms of a personal vendetta: the burning of the fields, killing Philistines after his wife and father-in-law were killed, and killing 3000 in return for his eyes. He does not act for his community; he is not much of a leader at all. He answers only to his lust and anger.
According to the Deuteronomistic Historian’s handling of the story, however, these vendettas, and even the marriage to a foreigner (14:4; which the DH usually disapproves of) serve larger purposes, though Samson does not seem to realize it, except maybe in his final act of bringing down the the temple of Dagon. Even there, however, Samson seeks to kill thousands for the gouging of his eyes. He even directly states it is just for his eyes and not for any larger purposes (16:28).
Speaking of eye-gouging, Saul is presented as a “new Samson” in a story of revenging eye-gouging. In 1 Sam. 10:27b-11:15, Nahash, the king of the Ammonites keeps gouging out the right eye of Gadites and Reubenites – all of these groups the Ammonites, Gadites, and Reubenites, lived to the east of the Jordan river – but King Nahash launches an attack on Jabesh-Gilead, who seek to make a treaty. Nahash’s conditions are harsh: he wants their eyes. In this context, the spirit of God rushes upon Saul and gives him anger much like Samson, and he musters the people together and they fight and win against Nahash’s forces. There are clear connections with the Samson narrative: revenge for eye-gouging and revenge with the spirit of God creating rage. Unlike Samson, however, the story is more focused on collectivity; the rage is not nearly as disproportionate to the circumstances; and Saul actually leads the people to victory rather than doing everything for personal reasons and all alone.
There are many other disproportionate slaughters and vendettas in the Bible, especially in 1 Samuel through 2 Kings (e.g., the spirals of violence at the end of David’s life; Elisha having bears maul children for calling him baldy), but the divine-like rage which Samson unleashes for a personal vendetta, but without direction or control and even worry about whether the victim was the one who injured him, resembles most the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus.
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