Archive for December, 2011

December 13, 2011

Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson

Author: David Grossman
Published: 2007
Website: Amazon Page

In Lion’s Honey, David Grossman adds a book to a highly specialized genre, that of extra-Biblical storytelling through fiction. Any novelization of ancient myth requires respect, imagination and caution, and even more so for a Western writer tackling the Bible. Luckily, Grossman has all of these. He has an obvious love for the story of Samson, the subject of the book’s reinterpretation, which he demonstrates not only through poignant parallels between Samson’s Biblical role as a national hero and his place in the modern political Israel’s national consciousness but also through poetic and powerful expansions of the sparse emotional details in the original Bible tale.

Though it is not necessary, it is helpful to read the Samson story before reading Lion’s Honey. Such a background would draw a much starker contrast between the Biblical story, which is dramatic and gripping, yet entirely devoid of emotional resonance, and Grossman’s retelling, which is touching in its brazen addition of sympathetic and engaging details of Samson’s internal struggles, than Grossman is able to simply by describing it. He goes through the entire story of Samson, starting from Manoach’s wife’s barrenness, to the arrival and announcement of the angel, to Samson’s birth, growth and escapades of sex and violence, and finally to his death.

In doing so, he questions the traditional interpretation of Samson as an uncomplicated hero that Israel would be proud to have as its redeemer. He gives, instead, a framework in which Samson is, from birth, alienated from his parents and from his people by the very God-given specialness that makes him a shofeit. He spends his life looking for intimacy and being continually betrayed, by his first wife, who tells the Philistines the answer to Samson’s riddle, by Delilah who tells the Philistines how to destroy him, by his own strength, which leaves him when he needs it most, and by his own people, who give him up to the Philistines without a fight. He has divinely bestowed strength, and feels a constant need to use it in extraordinarily bizarre and clever ways, whether by ripping apart a lion with his bare hands or tying three hundred foxes in pairs with torches in order to destroy Philistine farmlands, perhaps because he is never truly confident his strength will not leave him.

Grossman asks his readers to believe in Samson, in his Samson, as a complex and viable character in his own right, and it succeeds admirably in making every rereading of the Biblical Samson story hearken back to Grossman’s account and Grossman’s character. He also seeks to draw an analogy with the modern state of Israel, which has felt alienation since its inception, and has an enormous amount of strength, which it has been said to use in circumspect ways. This is a difficult case to make, especially since the story of Samson Israel is being compared to is noncanonical. Nonetheless, it is intriguing, and since it is simultaneously critical and sympathetic, might provide a useful framework for analyzing Israel’s actions. In the end, though, Grossman’s greatest success to to make Samson, a strange and superhuman figure, into a character we can understand.