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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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The Transition

Skipping over 2 Nephi, probably the most useless book in the Book of Mormon, I’ll resume with the minor books of the so-called small plates of Nephi: Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni.  For those interested, 2 Nephi isn’t worth covering because half of the book is text copied nearly word for word from Isaiah, with some occasional changes.  Two facts are evident at this point in Joseph Smith’s creative process:  First, he had mentally moved on from his project of “translating” the gold plates and had already started his next project of re-writing the King James Bible, which he would commence after writing these last few books.  2 Nephi’s Isaiah is a precursory exercise, identifiable by Smith’s obvious obsession of removing all the italicized words from the KJV text, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness.  An in-depth study of his process isn’t really very interesting or reader-friendly, however, and would be more suitable if this blog ever gets up to what’s known as Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the Bible.  The second and more obvious fact is that Joseph Smith is just filling space at this point.  Apparently, even in this supposedly abridged version he felt he had to cover a certain number of pages to make up the lost material.

With the original manuscript conveniently lost, we can only speculate why Smith decided at this moment that he had rambled on enough to resume the narrative.  Whatever the reason, he abruptly abandons the character Nephi and for these next few transitionary books, pretends to pass the plates down from father to son.  I call these transitionary books, because during this period Joseph Smith is decidedly trying to connect this re-told beginning with the rest of the book he had already written after Mosiah.  This transition is far from smooth, making the grafting point one of the most confusing sections of the whole book, as we’ll see later.

The books get progressively smaller, and by the time we get to Omni the plates are supposed to have passed through five different authors in one book.  This suggests that Joseph Smith was aware that he had rambled a little too long in Nephi’s voice, and if he was going to bridge a gap of hundreds of years then Nephi’s descendants could not be so long-winded.  He lets the character Jacob ramble on a little, interestingly making the Book of Mormon the only sacred text in the world to explicitly condemn polygamy (Jacob 2:27), and giving an early glimpse into Smith’s own psychological preoccupation with plural marriage.  Enos and Jarom aren’t given nearly as much space, but Smith still had not learned to economize words, these still read like the same ramblings only shorter.

Finally, we get to Omni, perhaps one of the most fascinating sections of the Book of Mormon.  As Jerald and Sandra Tanner have pointed out, this is the very moment that Joseph Smith safely passes the black hole made by the 116 lost pages.  In this book, the plates pass from Omni, a self-confessed “wicked man”, to son Amaron, to son Chemish, and Abinadom.  These writers tell us practically nothing, and only seem to etch a paragraph or two on their death bed.  My theory of the Book of Mormon as a parallel Bible suggests that Joseph Smith has arrived at the book of Judges in his Bible reading and is influenced by accounts of the lesser judges: Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.  Interestingly, the passages here seem to be considered Mormon scripture solely because they were written on the same plates as the others, as Chemish even suggests that divine revelation has ceased altogether at this point (Omni 1:11) .

Finally, we get to Amaleki, the point where the “small” plates crash awkwardly into the (as of yet) incomplete book of Mosiah and the finished book of Ether.  Here it helps to have read the rest of the Book of Mormon first, but even then it can be difficult to understand, especially if one tries to abide by the Mormon interpretation.  The Nephites venture out to the land of Zarahemla, populated by another group of Jews who crossed to the Americas during the reign of Zedekiah.  Not only this, the people of Zarahemla had been in contact with Coriantumr, the last survivor of the Jaredites, and had the plates of the book of Ether.  What Joseph Smith attempts to do here is rather brilliant, by tying together his post-Tower of Babel Jaredites to the Nephites in a form of foreshadowing; his actual execution, however, is lacking and raises a lot of questions.

First, this Amaleki serves a king named Mosiah, the father of king Benjamin.  In the next book, however, we’re introduced to king Benjamin, who has a son named Mosiah, who in turn sends a man named Amaleki to Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:6).  The LDS explanation, unsupported by the text, is to refer to these duplicates as Amaleki I and II, and Mosiah I and II.  While this certainly helps the narrative flow, I think the more logical explanation is that Joseph Smith intended these characters to be the same person, but his memory had faded in the re-write process.  The book of Mosiah is the actual point where the lost pages cut off, but where exactly is unknown; nevertheless, it had been almost a year since Smith had worked on Mosiah until the time he wrote Omni.  Furthermore, we also know that Mosiah received substantial editing by Joseph Smith before the printers manuscript was delivered, but even then, Smith had failed to catch errors in the first edition, as he continues to refer to King Benjamin (Mosiah 21:28, 1830 edition) well after his death.  I suspect he originally intended Mosiah to be the father of Benjamin, but by the time he came back around he accidentally reintroduced them in reverse order and killed off Benjamin prematurely.  Although the narrative makes less sense that way, I think it seems much more likely to conclude that these were supposed to be the same people in different tellings of the story.  The Mormon interpretation, after all, presupposes that this is a story that’s supposed to make sense to anybody other than Joseph Smith.

Omni ends with Amaleki wasting precious space to tell the reader that the “plates are full”, which would have been obvious to the reader had there actually been any real plates.  Time and time again, purported authors describe parameters about the plates that are not only unnecessary to anybody who would have actually handled them, but rather tedious to chisel into metal.  For unknown reasons, Smith seems to have paced himself to fill up a precise amount of pages and once that is accomplished he brings it to an abrupt end.  Mormons struggle just to derive a coherent narrative from this transition, yet without the LDS church’s guidance I think most Mormons would be at a loss to make sense of these different characters.

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The Hebrew Word for Rape

Rape in the Bible is a very misunderstood subject, complicated by the fact that the Hebrews had no actual word for rape.  It’s further misunderstood when words that don’t actually mean rape are translated as rape in English.  Critics love to isolate English passages like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 in the NIV that suggest a rape victim must marry their rapist, and too many Christians are ill-equipped to defend these passages.  Now, there are already ample word studies on the topic of why this reading is incorrect, so rather than expound on that, I thought I would cover an overlooked subject: how did the Hebrews conceptualize rape without a word to describe it?

The mere absence of the word in their language is seen as a problem for the skeptic, and tries the faith of some believers too.  After all, how moral could the Bible be if the writers didn’t even know what rape was?  This line of questioning presupposes that one must know a word before one can understand a concept, which is patently false.  In my own experience, I’ve been surprised to learn that terms I didn’t even know existed for concepts I had discovered all on my own.  But, you may ask, shouldn’t an exhaustive penal code like the Mosaic law be able to categorize sex crimes more specifically?  Again, words aren’t necessary for differentiation as long as context is clear.  After all, a lot of people couldn’t tell you the difference between a misdemeanor, larceny, or felony, but they could still comprehend that in concept these are all illegal.  The significance of technical terms like “involuntary manslaughter” or “third degree murder” may not be known by everyone, yet they still know the conceptual difference between accidental killing and murder.  And despite the limits of the vocabulary, the Mosaic law does extensively itemize sexual offenses, both consensual and involuntary.

Single language speakers often fail to understand how little languages overlap, and that nuances present in one language may be lost in translation.  For instance, it’s common for English speakers to state that the Greeks had multiple words for love, which is an inaccurate understanding of language; if the Greeks had considered agape to be “love”, for instance, then they would not have considered eros to be “love.”  Greco-Roman society probably would have been just as amused by our linguistic inability to parse eros from agape as we are of the Hebrew language limitation of separating sex as rape from sex as making love.

But just like the Greeks had a word for them (ask your mother if you don’t know what I’m talking about), did the Hebrews identify rape without actually calling it out?  Could they have skirted around the subject euphemistically?  I believe there’s evidence to suggest such a literary device, similar to  Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak it’s name.”  There appears to be a unifying trope that runs through the three rape narratives in Scripture, starting with the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34.

Before proceeding, however, I think it’s noteworthy to point out that in all three cases, not only does the rapist does not marry his victim, but instead they all receive some of the most brutal retribution in the Bible.  After Dinah had been violated, but before two of her brothers killed every man in the city, the deed is mentioned as “a thing that should not be done.”

Now Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened. They were filled with grief and fury, because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done.  Genesis 34:7

This phrase is echoed in the epilogue to the next rape narrative, found in Judges 19.  Literarily, the book of Judges is essentially Genesis gone wrong.  Jephthah fails to be Abraham, Samson pales compared to Joseph, and in this passage indisputably similar to the story of Lot, Israel has become the new Sodom.  While some additional gory details escalate the incident to which this phrase refers to beyond just rape (the phrase has some additional words as well), it is telling that it appears in the same situation.

Everyone who saw it said, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!”  Judges 19:30

The last case in our study is the infamous rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13.  This passage once again heavily mirrors Genesis, with allusion to Joseph (a victim of a false accusation of rape) in the similarity of Tamar’s cloak.  Tamar’s plea in the middle of the act itself includes this exact same verbiage:

“Don’t, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing.  2 Samuel 13:12

While I can’t say with certainty that this was a common Hebrew circumlocution for the concept of rape, that’s what it seems to be within the confines of Scripture, at least.  Terminology like this suggests that absence of the particular word was not due to ignorance or moral deficiency as in the skeptic’s accusations, but rather that the ancient Hebrews were just as repulsed by rape as we are today.  Far from being a white elephant in the room that nobody wanted to talk about, it shows that not only could they not utter it, their method of describing it was in terms of something so unimaginably awful it should never be done.

Tamar from 2 Samuel 13

Thamar by Alexandre Cabanel

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