Welcome back to Mythic Torah, my regular article investigating monsters, heroes and gods in the weekly Torah reading. This week's reading is Naso, the 2nd reading from the book of Numbers, that explains the jobs of the different priestly families in carrying the Tabernacle, before explaining the laws of the Nazirite, the priestly blessing and the Sotah ritual for a woman suspected of adultery.
My favourite Bible character as a child was Samson, the Nazirite judge from the book of Judges, whose birth story in Judges 13 is taken for the Haftarah for this week's torah portion of Naso.
I loved Samson, primarily because of his resemblance to He-Man (of Masters of the Universe fame).
After all, like He-Man, Samson had super strength, fought bad guys, and even had long hair (I have yet to hear a better explanation for He-Man's haircut than this).
But looking back, Samson is actually a deeply strange character, who sticks out like a sore thumb in the Biblical narrative.
He has super strength, that seems to come from having long hair. While the Bible repeatedly tells us that Samson also served as a Judge for the people of Israel, we never see him serving the people in any of the narratives that are told. Instead of helping people, Samson is motivated by desire, seeing beautiful women and feeling that he 'has' to have them. He spends all his time with Philistines and yet is considered to be a leader of Israel. He is selfish, stupid and violent, massacring Philistines in increasingly bizarre ways.
How can we make sense of this?
Well, in another ancient tradition, Samson wouldn't stand out at all. For example, if Samson were a Greek hero, many of these traits would be expected, and one Greek hero in particular has some remarkable similarities with our hirsute judge.
Let's compare Samson and Hercules (and yes I know that his Greek name is really Heracles).
1] Born of a God and a Mortal
Let's get the most controversial out of the way first. You might think that the most obvious difference between them is that while Hercules is the illegitimate child of Zeus, Samson is born of human parents, as described in this week's haftarah.
But if you look closely at Judges 13, there are little hints that all is not as it seems.
We are told that Manoach, of the tribe of Dan, has a wife, sadly unnamed, who is barren, a common enough Biblical trope, but then in verse 3 we find:
The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son..."
The oddity here is not in the content of the prophecy but to whom it was given. Unlike in the case of Abraham for example, the angel of the Lord appears to Manoach's wife in person, when she is alone in the field and her husband is nowhere to be seen, and tells her that she will become pregnant.
When Manoach asks God for the man to come again, he does so in verse 9, again when his wife is alone:
God heeded Manoah's plea, and the angel of Lord came to the woman again.
She was sitting in the field and her husband Manoah was not with her.
It's extremely unusual for married women to be out in the field without their husbands, and even more unusual for them to receive this kind of prophecy.
In fact, the case is even stronger than that, as when the Bible says the Angel of the Lord, it often actually means God Himself, having taken some kind of mortal form to walk on earth. We can see this in Genesis 18, when the Lord appeared to Abraham and then three 'angels' come to meet him, or at the end of our haftarah when Manoach worries that they will surely die because "they have seen God" (v22).
So God Himself 'came' to a married woman alone in the field, twice, and then she miraculously got pregnant and had a super-powered son...
You can always recognise Hercules when you see him in classic art because he always bears two items - the second is number 3 below, but the first is a lion skin, that Hercules is always depicted wearing over his head. This is the skin of the Nemean Lion, a giant monster that Hercules slew as the first of his labours, and wore afterwards as the skin was virtually impenetrable.
Samson too is closely connected with a lion, in an encounter that happens on his way to get his first Philistine wife:
"5] Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. 6] The Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon him so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done."
The lion makes a return appearance in the form of a rather awkward riddles, but its appearance here is as a deadly foe to attack Samson just as he is setting out on his heroic journey, just as the Nemean Lion is the first of Hercules' labours.
3] Blunt Instruments
To defeat the Nemean Lion, Hercules must turn to a club, as his hide was impenetrable to blades. This became the second sign of Hercules, and he is always shown carrying his club into battle, while other Greek warriors used swords or spears.
Samson too is connected to blunt objects (as well as being something of a blunt object himself). In Judges 15:15 he takes up the jawbone of an ass and kills 1000 Philistines with it. In fact, Samson never uses a bladed weapon.
4] Women Troubles
Samson's eventual capture by the Philistines is caused by his second wife, Delilah (whose name sounds rather like Lailah, meaning night, an interesting contrast to Samson, whose name connects to the Hebrew word Shemesh, meaning the sun).
In Judges 16 Delilah eventually persuades Samson to tell her the the secret of his strength, that it lies in his uncut hair. She promptly shaves him completely, and Samson is easily captured by the Philistines who torture and imprison him.
Hercules too is brought low by his wife, though in his case it was mostly inadvertent. In a somewhat convoluted story, Hercules' second wife Deianira, has a coat laced with a hydra's poison that she believes will make Hercules love her more. When she eventually suspects him of adultery, she gives him the coat to wear, only to find that it burns her husband's flesh off his body and kills him (though Zeus brings his immortal part to the heavens, elevating him to godhood).
Perhaps most interestingly, Hercules and Samson are both connected to doorways.
Hercules is famed for passing through two passages in his labours, first out of the Mediterranean, creating the 'Pillars of Hercules', that we know as the Straits of Gibraltar. And then in his 12th and final labour, Hercules crosses the threshold of Hades to capture the three-headed dog Cerberus, who guarded the realm of the dead.
These gateways, at opposite ends of the world, west and east, connect also to the rising sun, that ancients believed passed through tunnels beneath the earth every night.
Samson too is connected to doorways.
In Judges 16 there is a very strange story when Samson is surprised at night in Gaza, in the west of the land of Israel, and escapes by lifting the doors off their hinges and carrying them all the way to Hebron in the East.
And then Samson ends his own life standing between two pillars, as he is taunted by the Philistines and brings down the whole stadium, killing everyone inside.
* * *
So what do these connections have to teach us? Why are there so many connections between the Greek Hercules and the Biblical Samson?
The Archeologist Dr David Ilan of Hebrew University, who spent 20 years excavating Dan in the north of Israel where Samson is meant to be from, told me his own theory at Limmud UK a couple of years ago.
If you look at the material archeology in Dan, it is extremely Greek in origin, much more so than the rest of Israel. It seems to Dr Ilan, that the tribe of Dan were originally a 'Greek' tribe (the Greeks called themselves Danaan, remember), that moved to the area in ancient times and became absorbed into the people of Israel over time.
The story of Samson then is a Dan story, one that they may have brought with them as their own cultural hero, that the editor of Judges drew on in his compilation, including the Danite hero in the national saga of the Bible. This story too is holy, is the message, the tribe of Dan are part of our people, and this story deserves its place in our canon.
More than that, Hercules and Samson are archetypal sun heroes, connected with the rising and setting sun, as their powers too wax and wane. They both have a lot in common with Gilgamesh, who has to run through the tunnels of the sun before it set, in order to learn the secret of eternal life.
But while Hercules attains actual immortality, elevated forever to the pantheon of Greek gods, Samson earns a very different kind of immortality.
Samson's immortality lies in his legend, in his actions to fight the enemies of Israel.
But ultimately, I think the Bible (and certainly the rabbis) are unsure if we should be emulating Samson. His life is full of conflict and he never receives any peace or reward in his lifetime. While Hercules was widely adored and worshiped across the world, Samson is a bit of an embarrassment in the Biblical text, a giant of a man that we can learn from, but who we should not strive to copy.