Previously, Balladeer’s Blog examined Samson myths depicting the figure as a sun god and Islamic variations of the Samson saga. In this third installment, I will look at Samson as depicted in The Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg in 1909. For the first post in this series click HERE.
SAMSON IN THE LEGENDS OF THE JEWS – Samson was born the son of Manoah, a man of the Dan tribe and his wife Zelalponit aka Hazelalponit of the tribe of Judah.
NOTE: Though the Bible and many non-Biblical versions of the Samson tale reveal no name for Samson’s mother, the Babylonian Talmud and other sources provide the names mentioned above.
Typical of so many myths from around the world, Manoah and Zelalponit/ Hazelalponit had never had any children and had given up hope of having any. The Legends of the Jews does not deal with the angelic visits informing Samson’s parents of his impending birth so I will save that aspect of the story for a future installment.
This version instead deals with the contempt that the Judge Ibzan felt toward (Ha)Zalelponit for being childless, given how he himself had thirty sons and thirty daughters. Ibzan had made a point of never inviting Manoah and “the she-mule” to any of the celebrations of his children’s weddings because the childless couple would never be able to return the favor.
When Samson was born he was so perfectly formed that on first seeing him some thought he must be the Messiah, but when they noticed he was lame in both feet they realized that was not the case. Despite being lame, when the Spirit of the Lord moved in him, Samson could cover the distance between Zorah and Eshtaol (roughly two to three miles) in one stride or leap.
As he grew to adulthood, Samson’s enormous strength became clear when he uprooted two “great mountains” and rubbed them together. The two mountains are not named and in some accounts of Samson it is said simply that he “was strong enough to uproot mountains” but not that he specifically ever did that.
NOTE: I will cover themes of Samson uprooting trees in a future installment.
At any rate, Samson was a Nazarite and therefore bound never to cut his hair or beard, nor to come in contact with dead bodies or drink alcohol. Whenever he performed feats of strength to aid his fellow Danites, Samson’s hair was said to stand on end and to clang together making noise like the ringing of a bell.
Samson became a Judge during a time of revived conflict with the Philistines who were perceived as having gone back on promises to stop oppressing their neighbors the Jews. As a Judge, Samson was acclaimed for his selflessness and for only exercising his authority for the benefit of others. He never used his authority to make his fellow Jews perform services for him in any way.
The Legends of the Jews oddly skips over many aspects of Samson myths, like his slaying of the lion, the bees who made honey in the lion’s corpse, and several of Samson’s early battles with Philistines. Instead, this version depicts the strong man’s very first battle against the Philistines being the one in which he armed himself with the jawbone of an ass.
This version does embellish that jawbone, saying that it belonged specifically to the ass that Abraham rode to Mount Moriah when he was planning to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Legends state that the jawbone was “preserved miraculously” but does not elaborate.
After slaying the 1,000 to 1,100 Philistines in that battle, Samson was on the verge of dying from thirst, like in other versions of his saga. In this version, rather than have water spring forth from a rock (or from the “jawbone of a camel” that he wields in Muslim accounts), God has water spring from Samson’s teeth, quenching his thirst.
Toward the end of Samson’s twenty years of service as a Judge, he again gave in to his oft-mentioned weakness for Philistine women and fixated on the beautiful Delilah. In this version she does not nag him about the source of his strength, nor does he play a game of deceiving her three times. He simply mentions to Delilah that he is a Nazarite.
Delilah was aware of the restrictions upon Nazarites and set out to ruin Samson through a forced breaking of those restrictions. She had his hair cut while he slept, and this caused God to withdraw Samson’s strength. The Philistines fell upon him and bound him, put out his eyes and set him to work as a slave in a mill.
The account in The Legends of the Jews is one of those which states that while the Philistines used Samson as a slave, they also used him as a breeding bull, giving him their wives and daughters to have sex with in hopes of producing offspring of the same strength that Samson had possessed. (That’s showing him!)
Eventually, Samson repents of his sins, especially his many sins of the flesh with Philistine women during his lifetime. He prayed to God to restore his strength one last time so he could die lashing out at the Philistines.
“Oh, Master of the World,” he cried, “Vouchsafe unto me in this life a recompense for the loss of one of my eyes. For the loss of the other I will wait to be rewarded in the world to come.” God restored Samson’s strength, and the Judge pulled down the temple of the Philistines, killing thousands of them as well as himself.
*** I’ll cover further variations on Samson myths soon!