Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Hebrew Hercules

The story of Samson stands out.  It interrupts the middle of the book of Judges with a narrative that almost could have been its own book.  While it’s nearly unmentioned again in the rest of Scripture, it remains one of the most popular Bible stories in art, Sunday school, and cinema.  In the modern age it’s inspired not only at least a dozen different superheroes of the same name, but possibly even the weakness of the most famous costumed hero, Superman.  Yet this is really not a new phenomenon, it often surprises Jews and Christians to discover that the story and character of Samson shares uncanny similarities to one of the most famous myths of the Greco-Roman era, Hercules.

Not only are both characters strongmen, their lives are structured in similar ways upon further inspection.  The similarities are not always immediately apparent, while no other source is required to compare the Samson narrative, the Hercules similarities must be compiled from various materials spanning different cultures and time periods, in which the main character and the supporting cast of gods change names (presumably to protect the innocent).  No single source on Hercules or Heracles contains all the similarities like the book of Judges conveniently does for Samson, so the parallels have to be analyzed rather selectively.

The birth narratives, for instance, are an easy correspondence since logically both events take place at the same point in the story.  In Judges, Samson’s childless parents are visited by an an angel of the Lord and promised a child if his mother obeys all his instructions.  Samson’s father offers a sacrifice to YHWH and the angel ascends to heaven.  The varied stories of Zeus seducing a married woman to produce Hercules have little similarity, except for act 5 of Paulus’ play, Amphitryon, in which Jupiter ascends to heaven after announcing the birth of Heracles.

Hercules is probably most famous for his Twelve Labours, and while the Biblical authors don’t seem as focused on devising a fixed cycle of labours for Samson, his adventures can nevertheless be easily be compared.  Hercules’ first assignment, for instance, is to slay the Nemean lion, and Samson’s first feat of strength is to slay a lion with his bare hands in Judges 14:5-6.  This similarity is a point of assurance for Christians wired to think that all parallels to other religions and myths but be original to the Bible, as lions are not indigenous to Greece.  Scholars are therefore of the consensus that the Hercules myth has been imported from elsewhere.

As a general rule, borrowed texts tend to exaggerate and embellish upon the original source, and the Hercules myth continues to become even more fantastic whereas the Samson narrative stays mostly grounded.  Hercules battles mythical creatures, but Samson traps foxes and uses them to burn crops (Judges 15:3-5) and kills Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone (Judges 15:15).  In Judges 15:19, God miraculously provides Samson water out of the ground; compare to the Argonautica Book IV, in which Hercules searches “for water but nowhere was he like to see it.  Now here stood a rock near the Tritonian lake and of his own device or the prompting of some god, he smote it below with his foot and water gushed out.”

After removing some city gates (Judges 16:3), the rest of Samson’s labors are spent foiling the tricks of Delilah, but eventually he falls prey to her seduction and loses his strength.  Like Hercules, Samson would need to perform another labour to make up for this failure, and also serve as a slave (Apollodorus’ The Library 2.6.2).  Embellishing again, the Hercules story requires him to make up two more labours, but Samson needs just one shot at redemption.  The Bible story is well known how an enslaved Samson triumphs over the Philistines in his death by collapsing their own temple on them. The heroic Hercules is ultimately spared the humility of Samson’s tragic end as a blinded, feeble prisoner, but we nevertheless find a similarity in the History of Herodotus, in which Hercules is captured:  “The Egyptians put on him wreathes and led him forth in a procession, to sacrifice him to Zeus; and he for some time kept quiet, but when they were beginning the sacrifice on the altar… he slew them all.”  (Book II, Chapter 45)

Samson by Solomon J Solomon, 1887

Samson by Solomon J Solomon, 1887







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Judges: Second Genesis

The logical epilogue to the Pentateuch should be the book of Joshua, but I’m going to skip over that to the book of Judges.  Sure, Joshua perfectly closes out the Exodus like html tags, with a lesser parting of water for the Israelites to cross over on dry ground (Joshua 3:14-17), and Joshua’s encounter with the Lord outside Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15) corresponds to Moses and the burning bush.  Judges, however, is the book I would argue has the most similarity to the books of Moses, particularly Genesis.  Since both books depict a lawless period, one before the Law was given, the other at a time when it has been largely abandoned, I could go so far as to say Judges could have originated as an alternative to Genesis, so much so that I would call it “Genesis Gone Wrong.”

Specifically, Judges appears to call to mind the accounts of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19.  Just as the angels visited the Patriarch Abram near the great trees of Mamre, the angel of the Lord comes to Gideon under an oak in Ophrah (Judges 6:11).  Both Abram and Gideon use the phrase “If I have found favor in your eyes” (Genesis 18:3, Judges 6:17) before offering him a sacrificially acceptable meal.  Lastly, just as Abram tests God’s patience by repeatedly begging him to spare Sodom with increasingly fewer conditions, so Gideon increasingly raises the conditions of his testing, practically quoting Abram in the process (“Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request.” Judges 6:39).  From there the parallels diverge, Gideon goes on to defeat Midian while the hospitality narrative that follows immediately in Genesis doesn’t appear until later in the book of Judges.

Before that, however, we do resume with parallels to the sons of Abraham.  Similar to Ishmael, the son of a foreign bondwoman driven out of his home, Jephthah the son of a prostitute is driven away by his brothers (Judges 11:1-3).  In contrast to Isaac, however, Jephthah vows to offer a burnt offering to YHWH and tragically follows this sacrifice through with his own daughter (Judges 11:30-39); sadly, there is no deus ex machina or ram caught in the thicket here.

The parallels are then interrupted by the account of Samson, but resume again in Chapter 19, which corresponds to the same chapter of Genesis.  Here we find a hospitality narrative that seems to bridge the differences between Lot in Sodom and Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  While this story lacks the two gods, it contains similarities to Ovid not found in Genesis.  Although the pair of angels effortlessly find Lot and thus a place to stay, the Levite and his concubine in Judges are not so fortunate.  Like Ovid’s Zeus and Apollo (“a thousand houses they approached looking for rest, a thousand houses were locked and bolted.  But one received them.” Metamorphoses Book VIII), they sit in the city square but nobody will take them in for the night, except for an old man.  What happens next is nearly verbatim from the Genesis story, some wicked men of the city surround the house and demand to sexually violate the visitor.  Like Lot, the owner offers the mob his virgin daughter, but the men wouldn’t listen.  Unlike Lot, however, the Levite does send out his concubine, who is then horribly raped to death.

Even though in the narrative’s chronology the Law has already been given, the Judges seem completely unaware of it.  Ironically, the Patriarchs precede the giving of the Law yet the inhabitants of Genesis seem to follow it intuitively.  While much of the same questionable morality like human sacrifice permeates both books, apologists have a much easier time addressing these moral lapses in Genesis than in Judges.  Divine intervention in the binding of Isaac makes for good Sunday school material, while the difficult story of Jephthah is rarely mentioned in church, if at all.

Although not a “lawbook” like the other four books in the Torah, when weighed against the parallels of the Judges it becomes clear why Genesis is still very much a book of the Law.  The book of Judges is as lawless as the judges themselves, and they seem to only teach us by bad example.  Obviously the Samaritans ignored everything after the Pentateuch, but curiously the Jewish scholars seem to have forgotten most of them except Samson in their subsequent literature, like the Talmud.  This trend continues not just into the New Testament (except for a passing reference in Hebrews 11:32), but also into every other faith tradition that borrowed heavily from the Patriarchs, from Islam to Baha’i and Mormonism.  I think that’s a great loss for them, as the book of Judges serves as an interpretive key of sorts to some of the difficult passages of Genesis.  The sex-obsessed Talmudic interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah which is so prevalent today, for instance, isn’t quite as convincing when read through the lens of the Levite and his concubine.


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