Lion's Honey: the myth of Samson, by David Grossman, trans Stuart Schoffman

A taste of how the strongman suffers
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The Independent Culture

I happen to know that for many years the novelist David Grossman has been meeting with a group of friends in Jerusalem to study the Bible. Their project is literary, rather than religious, for the Old Testament is both the story of the Jews and the primary work of the Hebrew language, a tongue revived just over a hundred years ago, and which Grossman insists he would continue to write in if there were only five speakers left alive. I know too that he has a poor opinion ("horrible!") of the King James version, the triumph of Jacobean translation, which, with Shakespeare, is part of our own national narrative. Translations I have read of Genesis direct from the Hebrew indicate a lean, spare but muscular voice. Both are magnificent, in their different ways, but it is the King James version that precedes this re-reading of the story of Samson. I wonder what Grossman thinks of that.

The Samson story forms three chapters in the Book of Judges. It has many aspects, but the best known is that of the strong man who loses his power, when, due to the wiles of the fatal Delilah, his hair is cut while he sleeps. Imprisoned by the Philistines, he is tied to the pillars of his jail, and his hair, having grown back, pulls down the whole structure on top of him, with 3,000 Philistines dancing on the roof.

I have written about Samson as the first shtarker, the tradition of the Jewish tough guy which takes in the Golem of Prague, the Jewish gangsters of Isaac Babel's Odessa, and the more recent figure of Ariel Sharon. Others have described Samson as the world's first suicide bomber. Both interpretations place Samson as a national symbol of Jewish fight-back (as he is, today, in Israel). But Grossman reads the story as that of the individual, the outcast, the person all alone because his freakish strength sets him apart: the one who wants simply to be part of the human race, and is denied, over and over again.

Born in a condition of divine artificial insemination, Samson is intended to be an instrument of God, to defend the Jews against the Philistines. The story strikes numerous sparks in Israeli history, and one of the pleasures of the book is where he locates the precise settings of the biblical narrative in Israel and Palestine. The putative grave of Samson appeared in Gaza in the mid-1990s during the period when settlers were laying claim to Jewish holy sites in what was supposed to be Palestinian territory under the Oslo accords.

Grossman, in the most phenomenal act of imaginative empathy, brushes aside these well-worn tropes and examines what might be the thoughts and feelings of someone in such an impossible condition: "a lonely man, forever tortured and enslaved by a God who has chosen for him a demanding mission" - the salvation of Israel - for which his character is too weak.

He examines the story of Samson tying together the tails of 300 foxes and setting them alight to burn the Philstines' crops, and detects in this act the soul of an artist. Far from speaking in a series of grunts, nothing Samson says is ever less than poetic, he points out. Trying to understand why Samson breaks down and tells Delilah his secret, Grossman speculates that it was "with the foolish innocence of one who believes that if he were to confide everything to another person, all at once, in a kind of instant transfusion, he would finally achieve a feeling of genuine intimacy".

The desire to break out of loneliness, to reveal yourself fully to another, has been the theme of much of Grossman's recent work, notably his novel Be My Knife. His journey takes us to the heart of ourselves, in this millennia-old creation of a man like Oedipus whose tragedy was that his own predestined story was too big for his soul to bear.

Linda Grant's 'The People on the Street' is published by Virago