I was reading something recently by a friend who grew up round the corner from me. He wrote:
It’s religious people who have settled on a God that suits them. The authors of the bible wrote of a God that suited them: a god that helped them win battles by wiping out the opposition…
Which is cool I suppose. This is a common objection to Christianity and Judaism, made most famous in the God Delusion where Dawkins utters that immortal rant about a tribal deity.
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
And when we engage with the Biblical text at a cursory glance it sure does seem that way. Let me give you an example: Samson. Christians raised in Sunday schools (as an adult convert I had no such exposure) are much more familiar with this story than I was. I would have known him more because of everyone’s favourite weirdo Russian.
The story of Samson was obviously hugely popular in the Jewish mindset. Without wanting to be anachronistic, he is like a way-back-when superhero character possessed of Herculean strength. He is a man who can wrestle lions and defeat whole armies with nought but a dead animal’s jawbone. Shades of faster than a speeding bullet, methinks. When the text of the book of Judges (where we find the story, along with versions in the rabbinical literature and in Josephus) would have first been read out in the small Jewish villages, people would have gathered around to hear the tales of this might man. What do they read?
Well in Judges 13-16 we read of the heroic exploits of Samson. He kills people, tortures foxes, prompts wells to open up in the ground and beds a lot of ladies. Samson actually has a kryptonite and after much probing and provoking, his pagan wife Delilah finally discovers that the source of his strength is God; in that he follows the customs of the Nazarites and never cuts the hair from his temples. With this knowledge, the Philistines empty him of his power, take him captive and then gouge his eyes out. Brutal, tense prose that hides the terror of this event.
Samson, the movie franchise just got its “Dark Knight” installment.
He is taken to the Philistine HQ, the temple of Dagon where they parade their prey for all to see. Finally, the Philistine racial supremacy is proven. This Hebrew marauder has come asunder. Blind and led by ropes, Samson rests on a pillar of the temple and prays for God to restore him his strength. Was it the first ever act of suicide terrorism when, in pulling the pillars apart, he pulled the temple down upon him and his captors. Thousands died.
This salutary tale that we indoctrinate our children with is actually a disgusting and immoral story of genocide that devastated a whole culture! Samson is the kind of hero the Bible would have you follow? In that case sir, I hand by my ticket. I want no part of this ride. The Bible, yet again, is shown to be a book of tribal propaganda.
Or is it?
Samson’s final words are, “let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes”. Samson, the Jew, was subject to the law. Arguably the most famous point of the Jewish law is an eye for an eye. And yet Samson, who lived his whole life as a warlord, in his final act, continues that pattern since “he killed many more when he died than while he lived”. The text does not praise Samson, it condemns him. This is the final act in this section of the book. The public recitation would have ended at this point. And as the Jewish tribespeople walked home from the village that night, they would have thought to themselves, “Perhaps if even our great war hero Samson tramples on the law we need to find a way to stop trusting in men”. And so the final line of the final verse of the final chapter in the book of Judges reads, “In those days Israel had no king; every man did as he saw fit”.
The Bible is a complex and beautiful work of literature. It is profoundly subversive and the more time I spend with it the more it blows my mind and astounds me. With even a modicum of imagination and historical empathy for how the text was constructed and communicated, the story of Samson becomes a shocking statement of self-criticism on behalf of the Jews. It deconstructs their myths and challenges their identity and does it by re-working a beloved legend. Regardless of whether you are a believer or not, this is the kind of text that is deeply fascinating.
And if you are not a believer, its knowing self-awareness might just cause a whisper to rise up in you. Perhaps this text that knows its audience so well is trustworthy. Perhaps those ancient Hebrews were on to something. We cannot trust in princes. Perhaps it is true after all.
Your Correspondent, You are his sweetest downfall