Samson, the Impious Demigod

The section of Parshat Nasso focused on the restrictions of being a Nazirite are pretty cut and dry: Don’t consume any grape products, don’t cut your hair, and don’t be near any corpses. This is all, apparently, so that these individuals can cut their hair as an offering to God. There is no clear rationale for why anyone would want to do this, what other roles Nazirites might have played in ancient Israelite society, or where the category came from in the first place. The only clarification we have is oblique and from much later: the haftarah portion of Nasso, Judges 13:2-25.

This portion of the book of Judges is the opening of the most widely famous story from the book: the story of Samson. The book of Judges is one that often goes unread. It is full of strange, disturbing, and violent stories, many of which seem to have little to no moral or ethical value. One of my professors at JTS convinced me that the book of Judges is a satire. The stories are lampooning differences between the ancient Israelites, and using over the top imagery and behavior as the vehicle for these often humorous criticisms.

So, Samson is no exception to this case. The satirization of his story, though, is twofold. One piece, and the one that is much less obvious, is in this haftarah portion. Without going into the details of Hebrew grammar and deep comparison of Biblical stories, the basic gist of the Hebrew of this story makes it, at the very least, unclear of who Samson’s biological father is. The messenger of God, or man of God, who comes to visit Samson’s mother multiple times has a pretty questionable relationship with her, and some of the verbs used to describe their interactions describe people gettin’ down elsewhere in the Bible. Similarly, it is never said that Manoah (Samson’s assumed human father) ever got down with his wife.

This puts Samson in the company of Chuchulain,  Hercules, and Gilgamesh – part human, part divine. Along with this, Samson is pledged by his mother to be a Nazirite, to follow the laws laid out in this week’s portion of Numbers. Now, when most people think of Samson they think of his long hair, his great strength, and his betrayal by Delilah. The rest of the story is usually forgotten. The rest of the story, though, is about Samson summarily disregarding his Nazirite status by breaking all of the restrictions, betraying his parents, and destroying most everything he comes in contact with. He was then tricked into allowing his hair to be cut by Delilah. According to the story, his great power resided in his hair, which clearly relates to the Nazirite restriction on cutting hair.

The story of Samson can be read as a diatribe against both the piety of Nazirites, and the idea of demigods so prevalent in the Bible’s age. According to this reading of the story not only was it ridiculous that a man could be part deity, part human, but also that an individual with this kind of power isn’t therefore inherently more holy, or to be regarded with great respect. Instead it is a warning tale: a demigod isn’t to be trusted with their power, and a being born a Nazirite doesn’t make you holy. In a way, these two things are extraordinarily similar. Your birth and the intentions of your parents do not necessarily directly inform who you are.

Now, Samson’s end came at his own hands, and in fact, he killed more Philistines through his suicide attack on their Temple than he did throughout the rest of his life. Which is again a warning. This man’s great power, and all of his parents’ pious intentions, led to a life full of destruction and drunkenness, and a tortured suicide-attack of a death.

Like many of the characters in the Tanach, Samson is fraught with a human spirit of being torn between the good and the bad, the selfish and the altruistic, and the sacred and the profane. Having this haftarah portion matched up with the portion laying out the laws of the Nazirite brings this into greater clarity. Pious ritual without the proper intention, or to put it more Jewishly a lack of kavanah, can be much more destructive than having not attempted the piety in the first place. Especially if you’re a super strong demigod.

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One thought on “Samson, the Impious Demigod

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