Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness

This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton

Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.

Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut.  And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.

How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”

As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.

And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.

If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)

And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.

In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?

Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!

Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”

Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?

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