The uniqueness of a heroic figure, and everyone else

People of the Book – Samson

The book of Judges tells the story of Samson, the heroic leader of Israel whose name means “man of the sun” and whose legendary strength provided the namesake for the popular line of durable luggage. He is one of the more intriguing characters of ancient Israel.

The connection between Samson and the mythological heroes of the ancient Mediterranean world are undeniable. It remains impossible to read the account of his tremendous feats and adventures (killing a lion with his bare hands, slaughtering entire armies with only the jawbone of an ass) and not think of the Aegean Hercules or Mesopotamian Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Yet, there are significant spiritual insights which move beyond fanciful tales and warrant Samson’s inclusion in both our Scriptures and our contemporary contemplation.

Samson was born to a family in the line of the tribe of Dan after a miraculous appearance of an angel to his mother. This heavenly messenger instructed that Samson was to be a Nazirite from birth. This term normally applied to an adult who took a voluntary vow of abstinence from intoxicating beverages, association with corpses in any way, and cutting one’s hair. Herein lies one of Samson’s lessons.

Apart from the aesthetic decision to avoid ancient barbers, the Nazirite reflected the Hebrew belief that certain things or people were “separated” (nazir), consecrated for a special purpose and somehow inherently different. Samson in this sense is a precursor to all Christians, men and women St. John will describe as “in but not of the world” (Jn 17) and whom St. Peter will call “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Pet 2:9). As maddening as it may be for teenagers and college undergraduates who want nothing more than to fit in, we are all called to be somehow different, to look upon the world’s allures with skepticism. However, this need not be a purely negative, doom and gloom, condemnatory reality. I myself am far from an ascetic, and while I don’t have much contact with dead bodies, a hot shave with a straight razor or a Bushmill’s Manhattan after a long week are to my mind pretty harmless (unless attempted simultaneously).

The uniqueness of such a call goes beyond mere avoidance of life’s pleasures, and extends to the entire human family. Consider what C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Problem of Pain”: [Consider] not how, but why, [God] makes each soul unique. If he had no use for all these differences, I do not see why he should have created more souls than one…. The mould in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you — you the individual.”

Samson’s difference, his distinction and separation from the ordinary, is something to be gloriously celebrated, as is every man, woman, and child’s. I recently read somewhere that George W. Bush claimed that this nation was founded on similar principles, most importantly that “no insignificant person was ever born.” Regardless of one’s political leanings or how one feels he or we have lived up to such a statement (the abominable practice of slavery leaps to my mind), I would place the onus of responsibility for denying the sentiment itself squarely on the shoulders of those who would claim otherwise.

Besides including the intrinsic attraction of the torrid and seductive affair between Samson and the beautiful but cruel Delilah, the book of Judges reminds Jews and Christians that each and every individual is directly created by God, and is biologically, chemically and spiritually unrepeatable and irreplaceable, “set apart” from one another. Each is consecrated by virtue of her or his reflecting the divine imago Dei, each given inimitable strengths and talents (albeit limited ones) by the divine, and each called to dedicate oneself fully to the God who tells us we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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