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."
And yet Grossman proves more adept at coaxing the Bible to disclose its literary subtlety than at teasing out its political wisdom. He complains that God nationalizes Samson, but it is really he himself who does so. In abstracting Samson from an utterly unique biblical figure to symbol of a nation's political psychopathology, Grossman strips his Samson of individuality, of the very layers with which Grossman (and his creative predecessors) endowed him. Samson, after all, inspired some marvelous artistic representations: Milton's blank verse tragedy, a Handel oratorio, a Saint-Saëns opera, paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt, not to mention the first Hebrew play ever written (by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in 1724), and, in the 20th century, some important Hebrew poems. But Grossman neglects to mention these, for he is less interested in Samson's cultural reception--the ways the biblical figure enriched poetry, painting, and music--than in the political uses to which he has been enlisted.
It is in this sense that Grossman's Samson is best understood against the Samson offered by Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the founder of Revisionist Zionism. In his novel Sampson (published in Russian in 1926 and in English translation in 1930), Jabotinsky makes his hero an assimilated Jew attracted by a surrounding Philistine culture that, far from being philistine, is more sophisticated than his own. And yet Samson ultimately refuses an offer to join them. He feels alien to his own people, despises its prophets and its backwardness, and knows little of its heritage (he has only vaguely heard of Moses), yet he feels the obligation to champion that people, because it is "hungry," and the Philistines have "sated hearts."
(In his testimony before the Peel Commission on Palestine in 1937, Jabotinsky acknowledged the legitimacy of Arab claims, but added, "when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.")
In his last words to his nation, this Samson says: "They must get iron; they must choose a king; and they must learn to laugh." Translated into contemporary language, we might say that, like everyone else, Jews have the right to military, political, and everyday human normality.
Grossman, however--as he also made clear in The Yellow Wind, his book about Israel's occupation of the West Bank--believes that Israel's iron brings not normality but its opposite. As even Israel's liberal newspaper Haaretz has by now been forced to recognize in the face of the country's hesitation, and faltering deterrent power in Lebanon, this view has very real consequences. "The Israeli elites failed," a columnist there wrote in early August. "Their incessant attacks--direct and indirect--on nationalism, on militarism and on the Zionist narrative corroded the tree trunk of Israeli existence from within and caused it to lose its vitality."
Whether Israel will lose its vitality as suddenly as Samson did is an open question. In the end, however, this book usefully opens a window into the psychology not of biblical Samson, or the contemporary Israeli, but of those who accuse Israel of excessive force in defending itself against Islamic fundamentalists who have sent wave after indiscriminate wave of suicide bombers from the West Bank, Qassam rockets from Gaza, or Katyusha bombardments from Lebanon. It seems that these critics consider Jewish force to be an embarrassing liability; perhaps they do not wish to be answerable to the heavy responsibility of using it, or perhaps they see distinction in weakness.
"It was, during two millennia, the dignity of the Jew that he was too weak to make any other human being as unhoused, as wretched as himself," George Steiner says, forgetting that the higher dignity lies in having power and wielding it justly.
Grossman is no Chomsky or Steiner; he is, to his lasting credit, deeply involved in the life he criticizes. His son Uri, two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, was tragically killed in the latest war in Lebanon, a couple of days after his father had said at a press conference that Israel had exhausted its right of self-defense there. But in indulging the temptation to make a virtue of political innocence, in refusing to consider that not every exercise of strength is a militarism and not every use of power an idolization of power, his reading of Samson shares some of the marks of an unnatural political consciousness.
Benjamin Balint is a writer in Jerusalem.