Friday, April 25, 2014

Macho Masculinity (Judges 16:26-30)

     Samson said to the young man who was leading him by the hand, "Lead me where I feel the pillars supporting the temple, so I can lean against them." The (Philistine) temple was full of men and women; all the leaders of the Philistines were there, and about 3,000 man and women were on the roof watching Samson entertain them. He called out to the Lord, "Lord God, please remember me. Strengthen me, God just once more. With one act of vengeance, let me pay back the Philistines for my two eyes." Samson took hold of the two middle pillars supporting the temple and leaned against them, one on his right hand and the other on his left. Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines." He pushed with all his might and the temple fell on the leaders and all the people in it. And the dead he killed at his death were more than those he killed in his life."
Judges 16:26-30 HCSB

With Samson we encounter an oversexed buffoon and bully. The story starts out quite remarkable though. An angel visiting a woman to promise a child to deliver Israel. Sounds familiar to those aware of Luke's rendering of the conception of Jesus. Smason is endowed with super human strength symbolized in the Nazarite vow which among other things forbad cutting the hair. Ultimately, Samson fulfills the role of a Hercules of the bible, today he would closely match the stereotype of a "dumb jock."

Samson's first foray into adulthood is to leave his tribe and go to the cities of the Philistines. It is assumed that such cities are filled with the decadence a young strapping and horny male from the hill country would be looking for. Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman. On his way to ask for her hand in marriage he is attacked by a lion which he kills bare-handed. Later, while on  his way to the wedding, he passes by the corpse of the lion and discovers bees have set up a nest in the carcass. At the wedding feast Samson offers a riddle to the thirty Philistine groomsman and offers thirty pieces of linen and garments if they solve it: "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong something sweet." The groomsmen threaten to burn the bride and her father in their house if she does not get the answer of the riddle from Samson. She does, Samson becomes infuriated and goes out and kills thirty Philistines in order to pay the debt. In the meantime the bride to be is given to another man and Samson is offered her younger sister as a consolation prize. Pissed and angry Samson captures three hundred foxes, attaches torches to their tails and sets them free to run in the Philistine village. The Philistines, in revenge, burn Samson's former bride and her father to death in their home. In yet another fit of one-upmanship  Samson slays Philistines left and right.

After this episode, Samson hides in a cave back in the safe environs of the tribe of Judah. The Philistines - never ones to let a travesty pass - send an army of three thousand men to capture and subdue Samson. The Philistines demand that the leaders of Judah turn Samson over or face their wrath. With Samson's permission they bring him forward tied with ropes. He breaks the ropes and using the jaw bone of a donkey kills one thousand Philistines. 

Later - still oversexed and in need of relief - Samson visits a prostitute in Gaza where the Philistines lie in wait for him at the city gates. Samson rips the gates out and brings them to Hebron. In this one incident Samson accomplishes the essential military victory - he literally posses the gates of the city! 

Being thick of head (apparently both above the neck and below the waist), Samson returns to the Philistine cities to dally with yet one more Philistine woman.  We now approach the better known part of his story with Delilah. As we saw with his first attempt at mating, the Philistine men are also involved and get Delilah to find out what the source of Samson's strength is. Not once but twice he gives false information and traps or sprung but he escapes. So it does seem rather strange that the third time he is asked by Delilah he tells her the truth about his Nazarite vow and his hair. Attendants are brought in to shear Mr. Stupid Head and Samson is finally subdued by the Philistines. In short order they blind him and put him to work grinding grain. 

Eventually Samson is brought to a Philistine temple to be laughed at and mocked as cheap entertainment. In an act of vengeance-as-repentance he brings the temple down, thereby accomplishing in his own death more destruction upon the Philistines than in his life.

There is a certain sense of machoism that plays out in Samson's story: physical strength, overdeveloped sex drive, bullying behavior, and righteous anger. The play of the riddle and the death of the bride at the beginning of the story is a play on emasculating and feminizing. Failure to answer the riddle leaves the Philistine men smaller and less potent. Killing Samson's bride is a sign of his failure to protect his weaker counterpart. Of course this tit-for-tat emasculating builds throughout the story. Samson's greatest feat is to posses the gates of Gaza - the feminizing of an entire populace. Samson's greatest defeat is being sheared at the hands of a woman. Is this akin to a female rape of the jock? 

It is from this context of emasculating behavior that Samson's death stands out. Samson is a judge of Israel, one apparently destined from birth to liberate his people from the Philistines. Instead, he spends his life seeking to screw their women while trying to avoid being screwed by their men. In the end they screw him royally - shorn, blind, enslaved. 

At this moment the narrative turns to the redemption of his emasculated and feminized character. But how do we redeem one who has been made a faggot? (The origin of the slur "faggot" is from the old French meaning something like "old hag" or "worn out woman.") Interestingly the narrative does so by turning to masochistic atonement: idealized suffering, willful self-sacrifice, glorified humiliation, and romanticized slavery. Samson, having failed to be a macho male, redeems himself through pain and suffering so he may become worthy in the eyes of his people and his God. Note the praise at the end of his story - And the dead he killed at his death were more than those he killed in his life.

Samson's road to redemption gives me insight into the religious fear of queer sexuality and why some people of faith are determined to run us out of the church, or mosque, or temple. How can they live out their macho masculinity - jocks as strong and active and cheerleaders as submissive and passive - if in their midst are the queers who bend, stretch, warp, and ignore the macho male as normative for human society? They can't, and in their failure to "straighten" us out, there is the need of a masochistic redemption where pain and suffering must be delivered and endured in order to prove their macho masculinity to God. Not that this is turned inward, but rather outward in the phenomenon of gay bashing. We suffer the masochistic pain and are made to suffer for failing to uphold macho masculinity (or passive femininity for the lesbians) as the norm.

Personally I think Samson's redemption is a tragic failure. If you accomplish more in your death than in your life, you have not accomplished anything at all. What do you think?


  1. A fascinating reading. I agree with you, that I don't see too much "redemption" in killing a bunch of enemies - but that's the way things were, back then and in the OT tales. I like the representation of Samson as a randy, repulsive (?) dumb jock, who is humanized, if not redeemed, by being feminized.

    A minor quibble: the power of the telling is diminished by a number of typos, especially in the opening paragraph. Is it too late to correct them?

  2. Thanks Terence, hopefully I've caught the typos. I think you're on to something about the humanization of the jock through feminization - what a wonderful theme to explore.