Lion’s Honey The Myth Of Samson By David Grossman – A Mostly Imaginary Piece Of Work

After reading “Lion’s Honey”, I did some research on the author.  He is an Israeli, an established writer as well as a political activist.  This explains quite a few queries lingered in my mind after reading his book.  There are only very few places when Grossman subtly touched onto modern politics.  Here is one.  I am quoting the text here because quite possibly, I like this aspect of the book the most.

Yet 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 internalised in the Israeli consciousness, not assimilated in a natural way, over many generations; and this, perhaps, is why the attitude to this power, whose acquisition has often been regarded as truly miraculous, is prone to distortion (page 88-9) […] This is connected, without a doubt, to the very real dangers lying in wait for Israel, but also to the tragic formative experience of being a stranger in the world, the Jewish sense of not being a nation ‘like other nations’, and of the State of Israel as a country whose very existence is conditional, whose future is in doubt and steeped in jeopardy, feelings that all the nuclear bombs that Israel developed, in a program once known as the ‘Samson Option’, cannot eradicate (page 90).

Majority of the book is not about politics.  His interpretation of the Samson story may run against the grain of the familiar Samson in the Hebrew Bible (his own words).  As a Catholic, I would say that his interpretation runs against the grain of the same story in the Christian Bible as well.  The way Grossman breathes life to a local hero (or “judge”) and his surrounding characters extracted from the Book of Judges prompts me to reflect upon how we Christians breathe life to Jesus.  Because I am not used to reading the Old Testament in such fashion, I find that Grossman’s interpretation of Samson is highly imaginative at best, controversial at worst.  What do I mean?  I will get to that in just a moment.

First, to put things into context, I refer to the Catholic Study Bible’s guide on reading the Book of Judges.

There is one overriding theme that dominates the Book of Judges: the sin of idolatry leads to punishment; but if the people of Israel turn back to the Lord, the Lord will deliver them from their enemies … Into the theological framework of “sin-punishment-cry for help-deliverance” the deuteronomistic writers have incorporated various stories that relate the deeds of local heroes.  For the deuteronomistic writers the unity of all the tribes is an important concern; thus, in their historical schema, these heroes become leaders for all Israel.

The Book of Judges documents a number of heroes.  I must admit that the story of Samson is a peculiar one.  He does not lead all Israel as a warrior, nor does he liberate the people from Philistine.  Victories he has scored over the Philistine are personal.  There seems to be no reason to include Samson into the Book of Judges except in (15, 20) when the writers wrote: Samson judged Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.  To understand its theological value, one has to read this biblical story in more detail.

Grossman’s “Lion’s Honey” dissects the biblical story word-by-word.  Some discussions – for good reasons on my end – I am finding it hard to concur with the author.  For example, in the Bible, after the woman being told by angel that she was going to have a son, she relayed the message to her husband and said, “A man of God came to me […] he said to me, ‘You will be with child and will bear a son.  So take neither wine nor strong drink, and eat nothing unclean.  For the boy shall be consecrated to God from the womb, until the day of his death.'”  And because she mentions about his son’s dying day, Grossman has gone into deep reflection and written pages of explanation on what has driven Manoah’s wife to add these words.  To me, it is simple.  Because the angel says so.  And she is merely relaying the message to her husband.  To Grossman, one of his many interpretations on this particular phase is that ‘Samson has been deposited within her for safekeeping and she knows that things that are deposited must, in the end be returned’, among many emotional turmoils that Grossman has imagined.

Grossman describes Samson as an artist, starting from his episode with the lion’s honey.  Or rather, honey from the lion’s carcass.  Grossman has gone in great length on how Samson would feel scooping honey from the lion, sharing honey with his parents.  Grossman wrote:

Take a look at him: a he-man with a little licking boy inside.  (How astonishing and poignant, this gulf between enormous physical strength and an immature, childlike soul.)  He walks and eats, walks and licks, till he gets home to mum and dad, and gives them the honey, “and they ate it”, apparently straight from the palms of his hands.  What a marvelous sensual scene!

Personally, I would not interpret this a as ‘marvelous sensual scene’.  Samson is bound by a vow to eat nothing unclean.  He is not faithful to these vows and has contacted with a dead animal, even eats food from it.  My discomfort with “Lion’s Honey” is not only on how Grossman dramatizes the story by imagining ‘[Samson] playing with his parents, touching them and dancing for them and laughing with them like any normal person, with the honey dripping, flowing down a cheek, sliding to the chin, being licked up, as the laughter swells to the point to tears …’, but also how some of the crucial interpretations such as the breaking of vow have been omitted.

There are controversial interpretations on the Samson story too.  When the wife of Manoah said, “A man of God came to me (13, 6)”, I would interpret the message as it is: an angel appears.  But Grossman offers a different perspective.  The phrase ‘came to me’, to his tradition, also means copulation.  Hence, to follow Grossman’s lead, the wife may not be barren as mentioned in the Bible.  A stranger copulated with her and impregnated her.  Fast forward to the part on Samson’s death, the Bible wrote: Then they brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze fetters, and he was put to grinding in the prison.  According to Grossman, the verb ‘to grind’ in Hebrew carries a clear sexual connotation.  Hence, to the author, Samson may well be used as a stud bull when ‘everyone brought his wife to him to the prison that she might bear a child by him’.  I do not read Hebrew.  This interpretation is beyond me.  I would interpret this part of a story as a simple act of punishment and would not further analyze on how Samson was punished in the prison.  In short, I am happy with the direct meaning of ‘grinding’.

The most disturbing interpretation of Grossman is perhaps the part on Samson having to entertain the Philistines.  The passage on the Bible is simple.  It wrote:

When [the Philistines’s] spirits were high, they said, “Call Samson that he may amuse us.”  So they called Samson from the prison, and he played the buffoon before them.  When the people saw him, they praised their god.

According to Grossman, it was a sex act that Samson has performed in front of three thousand men and women.  This is a disturbing interpretation.  I would rather stick with the understanding that Samson was given to clowning and joking that somewhat triggers my mental association to the story of Jesus being put on a purple robe and a crown of thorns (Mark 15, 17).  I am finding it difficult to add so much texture into Bible that can hardly be verified or cross referenced to.

For better or worse, because I have read “Lion’s Honey’, that has prompted me to read this part of the Bible in greater depth.  Grossman’s book does by and large offer insights to the story of Samson.  Some reviewers have mentioned that the Samson story is their favorite in Old Testament.  As for me, mine is the story of Elijah.  Paulo Coelho has done a great job in breathing life to Elijah in his book “The Fifth Mountain”.  Grossman has also attempted to breathe life to Samson.  Unfortunately, that has left a strange aftertaste.  To close off this entry, I would like to share the theology of the story of Samson according to Catholic Study Bible.

The activity of the Lord gives us an indication of the theology that is in the background of the story of Samson.  The Lord is responsible for Samson’s birth, for Samson will be the Lord’s instrument in defeating the Philistines.  To defeat the Philistines is also the reason that the Lord is behind his marriage to a Philistine woman (14, 4).  The Lord gives Samson strength in his encounters with the Philistines.  The Lord responds to Samson’s prayers: for water (15, 18) and for vengeance (16, 28).  That the Lord is active in all that Samson does is clear.  We can wonder about a chosen hero who has a weakness for women, but it is clear that his bedroom exploits, though not explicitly condemned, are not approved of by the authors.  Indeed, his downfall rests upon his inability to say no to a woman.  Also operative theologically in this story are the consequences of breaking a vow.  Samson is a Nazirite, but fails to live in accordance with their code and suffers as a result of his disobedience.  At the same time, even his defeat becomes an opportunity for the Lord to gain victory over the Philistines.