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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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Hebrew Hercules

  1. Interesting post- I am a “professional” Theologian and published writer on Samson. I am currently researching a book on the relationship between the growth of the Heracles-Hercules myth and the theological development of the image of Samson, from Judge (OT) to Hero of Faith (NT). You make some good points- I argue that the historical Samson generated the early movement of Alceides to the mythological status of Heracles. In short, Heracles is the Grecian (the Philistines were of Greek origin) Samson, it should not be understood that Samson is a “Hebrew Heracles”. I would like more specifics on your end quote from Herodotus, exactly where is this in Book II and is he speaking of the Egyptian god, named Heracles, or the later Greek hero-god?

  2. thanks for reading, I’m humbled to get any feedback from a pro. I really just used the title “Hebrew Hercules” for the alliteration. the reference to Herodotus comes from Chapter 45 of Book II, before that it mentions both Heracles the immortal god and Heracles the hero, but I’m not really sure which one of those he’s referring to in the Egyptian story.

    • Thanks for the Herodotus citation, I am thinking that Herodotus embellished this adventure after Samson defeating the Philistines in the temple of Dagon. Also, the reason or the ambiguity might be that Herodotus was not embracing apotheosis of Heracles, and did not see him as a true Olympian god. One last point, the Samson narratives stand out because they look ahead to the Davidic kingship. Textual point; the construction of the Hebrew “the Spirit of the Lord rushed” is peculiar to the Samson, Saul, and Davidic accounts- indicating a literary link.

      • thanks again for your input, I definitely agree with you on Herodotus embellishing the story. also, thanks for pointing out the link to Saul and David, I had noticed that phrase recurring in the Samson narrative but didn’t look for it outside of that context.

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