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American Samson

How the biblical hero continues to inspire us

Stuart Halpern
May 21, 2021
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Detail, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), ‘Samson Captured by the Philistines,’ 1619The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Detail, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), ‘Samson Captured by the Philistines,’ 1619The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As Shabbat synagogue services slowly resemble those in the before times, the archnemesis of the rabbi is making a comeback.

I refer, of course, to “Kiddush clubs,” those side-room cholent and schnapps soirées for those who start to get shpilkes around the midpoint of lengthy Shabbat services. I would recommend, however, that those typically more inclined toward Jack Daniels than the chanting of a haftarah from Jeremiah stay in the sanctuary this week. If they don’t want to follow along with this week’s reading about the birth of Samson as described in the book of Judges, they might take the time to ponder the well-coiffed muscular anti-hero’s afterlives in the American political imagination. His life seems straight out of a comic book—one with a parental advisory warning.

Designated in his mother’s womb as a savior of his people, Samson proceeded to demonstrate a passionate affinity for foreign women. His long hair, grown since childhood, was sheared by his lover, the treacherous Delilah, thereby sapping him of his miraculous strength. He met his end in a blind, suicidal final act of destroying a Philistine temple, to whose pillars he had been chained.

While comparisons between biblical leaders like Moses and American Presidents Washington and Lincoln have been well documented, Samson, despite his rough living and tragic ending, has appeared in rather surprising American historical contexts.

In 1771, amid the Stamp Act crisis, Samuel Adams saw what were to become revolutionary efforts through the lens of the ancient Israelite judge: “The Sons of Liberty, animated with a zeal for their country then upon the brink of destruction, and resolved at once to save her, or, like Samson, to perish in the ruins, exerted themselves with such vigor as made the house of Dagon [the Philistine god] to shake from its very foundation.”

The episode in Judges chapter 16 in which Samson crumbled the pillars of the temple of Dagon, sacrificing himself in defeating his Philistine enemies, was also invoked in the Massachusetts state assembly. In the debate over ratifying the Constitution, the Reverend Samuel Stillman sought to calm the fears of Anti-Federalists. Invoking Samson’s final act, Stillman argued that:

Should Congress ever attempt the destruction of the particular [state] legislatures, they would be in the same predicament with Samson, who overthrew the house in which Philistines were making sport at his expense; them he killed indeed, but he buried himself in the ruins.

During the republic’s fraught early years, Thomas Jefferson also turned to Samson, as he often had in his youthful writings. In a letter to the Florentine merchant Philip Mazzei, Jefferson decried the infiltration of the newly formed federal government by men Jefferson regarded as supportive of aristocracy and even monarchy.

“It would give you a fever,” he wrote, “were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.”

To Jefferson, England was playing the role of the deceitful temptress Delilah, seducing Federalist Samsons into the clutches of their previous overlords. The letter ended up being published without Jefferson’s permission, sparking a scandal. Some, it seemed, presumed George Washington himself to be the “Samson in the field” to whom Jefferson referred.

This was far from the first time Jefferson invoked the Samson story. In Jefferson’s childhood commonplace book (even in the before-Twitter times, teenagers were sharing their ad hoc observations in written form), scholars have noted the preponderance of quotations from John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Jefferson’s difficult relationship with his mother, it is suggested, caused him to relate to the lonely, troubled Samson, who also suffered at the hands of a woman.

The African American community has also long held Samson in high regard. As Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper comprehensively document in their recent Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon, both enslaved and free Blacks in America bore the name during colonial times. And leading abolitionists often saw inspiration in his tale.

In his 1842 anti-slavery poem “The Warning,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow depicts the “poor, blind Samson in this land, Shorn of his strength and bound in bonds of steel,” whose enslavement threatens the integrity of America, “the vast Temple of our liberties.” In a letter a year before his infamous raid, the militant white abolitionist John Brown wrote, “I expect to effect a mighty conquest, even though it be like the last victory of Samson.” After his arrest, Brown wrote in another letter, citing Judges 13:5, a verse read in this week’s haftarah,

“He shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” This was said of a poor erring servant [Samson] many years ago, and for many years I have felt a strong impression that God had given me powers and faculties, unworthy as I was, that He intended to use for a similar purpose.

In his lament over Brown’s execution, Frederick Douglass noted: “Like Samson, he has laid his hands upon the pillars of this great national temple of cruelty and blood, and when he falls, that temple will speedily crumble to its final doom, burying its denizens in its ruin.”

At Douglass’ funeral, in turn, the president of Howard University, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Rankin, spoke of how God had sent Douglass to fight against slavery, intending, “I will set this Samson of Freedom in your temple of Dagon, and his tawny arms shall yet tumble its columns about the ears of the worshipers.”

Booker T. Washington and Nat Turner also were compared to Samson, and later writers including Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin weaved his exploits into their prose. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. each spoke often of Samson, with the latter advocating for a more peaceful resolution of the battle of Civil Rights than that of the Israelite temple-toppler.

In the biblical text itself, Samson was a long-suffering loner. As this week’s haftarah details, he was born after a unique angelic revelation and destined to live a solitary life tinged with tragedy. But in America, it turns out, he found company among Founding Fathers, presidents, abolitionists, and Civil Rights leaders. Though his story may have originated in ancient Israel’s period of tribal warfare, his selfless acts of heroism have continued to resonate in the United States.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.

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