“Important, but not quite loved.” -Thoughts on Lion’s Honey by David Grossman (translated from Hebrew by Scott Schoffman)
I am no stranger to the story of Samson; I studied in a private, religious school for 13 years, during which I was – for lack of a better, or nicer, word – force-fed the Bible and its stories*. Samson’s feats of strength (the only one I was ever able to remember was the one at the end, really – collapsing the two pillars and killing three thousand Philistines in one blow) and his treacherous, short-lived romance with Delilah (“you are my sweetest downfall,” so sings Regina Spektor) made a mark on me early on, if only because
- every child remembers stories of superhuman feats,
- Samson and Delilah was my first fatalist love story – I was yet to be introduced to Romeo and Juliet, and
- I was, at a very young age, wondering why Samson had to die together with the Philistines – sure, he had his eyes gouged out and was weak from his recent haircut, but if God really loved Samson, shouldn’t He have saved him? Enveloped Samson in a force field while the arena tumbled down around him, perhaps?
I didn’t find the answer to that question in Lion’s Honey, David Grossman’s interpretation (or maybe it’s called an analysis?) of the story of Samson (the Book of Judges, chapter 13-16, in case you want to brush up on biblical history). However, Grossman did shed quite the new light on Samson that made me go “why didn’t I think of that?” and “oh my … goodness, he’s right!”: that Samson was – and these are my words, not Grossman’s – a misunderstood freak who never realized that he was exploited (nationalised was Grossman’s term) by God, and that his womanizing (which really is too big a word in his case; does being with three women – not even simultaneously, no – count as womanizing? Then again it was the biblical times) was in truth a need for intimate connection which he’d lacked his entire life, beginning with his miraculous conception (they say his mother was barren, but hey, the patriarch should be under suspicion for infertility, too), ending with his first love Delilah’s treachery (the three times she tried to harm him should have been enough of a warning – but, alas, the poor guy was in love) and ultimately leading to his demise under the two pillars with the Philistines (which in any case looked like a suicide but since it’s in the Bible, it counts as a sacrifice).
Grossman wasn’t as blunt, though.
The exploration of Samson’s life is so detailed, so intricate, that Grossman even had footnotes; his discussion alone of how an angel informed Samson’s mother of her impending divine pregnancy ate up the first 30 pages of the book. That Samson was a misunderstood person “who has been planted in the world and operated as a lethal weapon of divine will,” at the same time clueless as to his purpose in life – “He goes through life like a walking enigma, marvelling over his secret, his riddle.” – and his greatest struggle being pre-destined for such greatness as God’s instrument (or puppet, depending on how one views it), a destiny which has made him different, an outcast, when all he ever wanted was to fit in. His story is littered with allusions to his great disconnect – with his parents, his people, even to himself; Samson was larger than life, yet despite his great strength, he was emotionally inadequate for the job. “How astonishing and poignant, this gulf between enormous physical strength and an immature, childlike soul.”
Grossman’s interpretation of the story of Samson is so far, far removed from what I’ve grown up with; Scott Schoffman’s translation is delicious in its simplicity – what could have turned out to be a boring, seemingly academic book became vivid in giving a new (albeit quite the eccentric) definition of one of the Bible’s greatest heroes. I was honestly expecting a work of fiction when I picked up the book, but I’m glad I was wrong.
Samson’s story, though full of great feats of strength, ended sadly with his death; Lion’s Honey, however, has made me even more melancholic, sadder for a man whose greatest wish was “that one person love him simply, wholly, naturally, not because of his miraculous quality, but in spite of it.”
I hope he didn’t die in vain.
PS. A thought, in retrospect: everyone’s trying to be different, “but maybe it is not a weakness, an illness, to be like everyone else.”
* I have nothing against the Bible, though. In fact, my copy is quite the confidante (I hide small notes and the occasional rainy-day bill between its pages) and great giver of advice (the occasional Bible-dipping, as introduced by Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors). I’m not trying to be blasphemous, I swear.