The Magazine

Eyeless in Israel

Biblical metaphor and the Jewish state.

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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Lion's Honey

The Myth of Samson

by David Grossman

Canongate, 176 pp., $18.95

This summer's Israel-Hezbollah war--and the accusations of "disproportionate force" that accompanied it--has once again put Israel's military might in the dock. A new book, a reimagination of the biblical warrior Samson from the acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman, sheds light on the subject from an oblique and surprising angle.

Samson's story itself, recounted in the Book of Judges, gives us some of the Bible's most vivid images. An annunciation scene with a nameless angel persuading a nameless, infertile mother to dedicate her miraculous child to God as a Nazirite, forbidden to drink wine and to cut his hair. Samson tearing apart a lion, limb from limb, later to find a honey-filled beehive in its carcass. His Philistine wife betraying the riddle about sweetness hidden in fierceness. Three hundred foxes, crazed by the torches he has tied to their tails, setting Philistine fields ablaze. A thousand enemy soldiers slain with the jawbone of an ass. Gaza's great gate uprooted and carried off on Samson's shoulders. The strongman lying helpless in Delilah's tent, his hair, source of his virility, shorn, and his eyes, the gates of his face, gouged out. The final vengeful, suicidal rage between the pillars.

Grossman's welcome contribution is to adorn this stark drama of action with psychological shading. In this he is guided by a sensitivity both to the richly allusive biblical language and to what he calls the "discord between [Samson's] blessed divine mission and his earthly, material, corporeal (and often childlike) character." Each of these discords is a kind of variation on the enigma that is Samson himself; like his riddle, he is sweetness clothed in strength. Grossman's rendering reveals the warrior capable of lyrical flights of poetry; the ascetic with a hedonistic weakness for women; the restless rogue who judges his people for 20 years; the insurrectionist driven by a complicated compulsion not only to cavort with the Philistine oppressors, but to kill them and love them and then be killed together with them.

The main hue in Grossman's portrait, however, is darker. Grossman suggests that Samson's life was determined by the sense that he had been appropriated for a divine purpose, fated to a solitary destiny he cannot quite comprehend. His life is never fully his own. Commenting on the Bible's suggestion that even Samson's love of the Philistine woman was part of God's design, Grossman adds, "God, even before his birth, has nationalized his desires, his love, his entire emotional life." In giving him up to God, Samson's mother bequeathed to him a "lingering doubt as to whether he is a 'legitimate' member of the human family altogether, whether he is 'like other people,' and this corrosive uncertainty is something that can never be shed."

Samson is thus afflicted "with a sense of strangeness," an "eternal non-belonging," an indelible aura of otherness.

In short, Grossman's Samson is the modern Jewish state. In the book's crucial passage, after reminding us that elite combat units of the Israeli army have been named after Samson, and that the country's nuclear program was called the "Samson Option," Grossman writes:

There is a certain problematic quality to Israeli sovereignty that is also embodied in Samson's relationship to his own power. As in the case of Samson, it sometimes seems that Israel's considerable military might is an asset that becomes a liability. For it would seem, without taking lightly the dangers facing Israel, that the reality of being immensely powerful has not really been internalized in the Israeli consciousness, not assimilated in a natural way, over many generations; and this, perhaps, is why the attitude to this power . . . is prone to distortion. Such distortion may lead, for example, to ascribing an exaggerated value to the power that 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--these are all, in the end, characteristically "Sam sonian" modes of behavior.

It is true that the figure of "Samson the hero" played a role in the construction of Zionist collective memory, and in building the identity of the "new Jew" who leaves behind exilic helplessness for Israeli self-determination. But Grossman, for whom hero is really antihero, now reverses this reading into a cautionary tale. He is by no means alone in this respect. Noam Chomsky, among others, has claimed that Israel suffers from a "Samson complex," which will compel it to destroy itself along with its Arab enemies. Grossman himself, not intending a compliment, has said that Ariel Sharon "saw himself as a modern Samson."