Allusion: “Samson” by Regina Spektor

For my blog this week, I decided to delve into some of the Biblical allusions that can be found in the song “Samson” by Regina Spektor. The song itself seems to tell the tale of a failed relationship, recounting instances where they encountered pitfalls and the circumstances that inevitably made it impossible for them to remain together. However, it also happens to be laden with imagery from and allusions to the story of Samson and Delilah, which can be found in the book of Judges. The narrator of the song never explicitly refers to herself as Delilah, but she does dub the subject of the song to be her “Samson,” and the other allusions are prominent enough that many connections can be drawn between those references and the original narrative of Samson and Delilah.samson-and-delilah-1

There are several lyrics throughout the song which reference hair and the cutting of it:

  • “Your hair was long when we first met”
  • “Samson went back to bed/Not much hair left on his head”
  • “Oh, I cut his hair myself one night”

These lyrics of course allude to the story of Samson and Delilah, in which Samson’s long hair was the source of his superhuman strength thanks to his vow with God, which he lost after Delilah learned his secret and cut his hair in order to betray him to the Philistines.

“Oh, we couldn’t bring the columns down/Yeah, we couldn’t destroy a single one”: Again, we see an instance in which the columns are likely describing the challenges in a relationship with the couple invariably couldn’t overcome, which led to their eventual separation, but it also has more concrete ties back to the narrative. In the narrative, Samson, after his defeat at the hands of the Philistines and having his eyes gouged out, was summoned to entertain the Philistines. After praying to God for strength one last time, he used that aforementioned strength to tear down the pillars supporting the house, which killed everyone inside, including Samson himself.samson-brings-down-the-house

The line “Samson went back to bed,” simple though it is, also alludes to the tale. Within the narrative, Delilah always sought to discover Samson’s secret, and each time he revealed a potential secret to his strength (though the first three were false), she would wait until he was asleep in order to summon the Philistines to come attack him.

Even the less overt lyrics can be tied in to the tale of Samson and Delilah. “You are my sweetest downfall”: yes, it can be taken as a tragically forlorn reflection on a failed love, but in terms of that narrative, Delilah was quite literally Samson’s downfall. She was the one who conspired and planned to undermine his strength and turn him over to the Philistines in exchange for a reward.

“And the Bible didn’t mention us, not even once”: this is an interesting subversion amidst the other allusions, because it seems to point out that in terms of the relationship described in the song, they won’t be remembered – it isn’t a huge historical event which will be passed down in a tome such as the Bible, unlike the doomed story of Samson and Delilah, which is indeed preserved forever within the Bible.

I find it interesting to see allusions to such a narrative within the Bible tied in with a song about doomed love and failed relationships. While Samson accomplished many grandiose feats of strength and conquest, it’s intriguing to see that more intimate tale of betrayal and downfall portrayed through a song and how it has influenced modern music and pop culture.

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Is God presented as an inconsistent character and protagonist in regards to the relationship with the Israelite people?

Okay, everyone, it’s time to indulge the nerdy side of my English major brain that has spent far too many hours analyzing literary elements. I know, isn’t that just the most exciting prospect ever? Try to contain yourselves, please.

As I read Deuteronomy, a prevailing undercurrent in the text seemed to emerge to me: God as a character and a protagonist seemed really inconsistent in his actions and motivations, especially when viewed through the lens of his relationship with the Israelite people. We see an incredibly repetitive refrain of vacillating between favor and punishment, veering wildly between the two. The notion of accurate transcription and preservation of the original message is always an issue that has the potential to arise, but it does not seem to be the issue here. We are presented not with Moses as an unreliable narrator, but rather we find evidence that God’s own characterization seems somewhat inconsistent in the provided text.

To highlight these extremes, we can look to quite a collection of passages within Deuteronomy:

The God of the Old Testament seems to be much more wrathful in general, but this is highlighted especially with his relationship with the Israelite people. Hot and cold doesn’t even begin to sum it up, basically. At one moment, they are blessed and protected by God and their covenant with him; the next, he is threatening to destroy them and raise up a new group of people because of his displeasure with them. God comes across as a volatile protagonist who displays emotions and whims that are more fitting of a human than an omniscient, all-powerful being. We are given this image of an intolerant, wrathful God, who errs on the side of extremes with his attitude towards the Israelite people. It is also strange to see God reacting to Moses’ imploring and counsel; for God to be seen as an omniscient and omnipresent being, it seems strange that he would sway to the pleas of a flawed mortal.

moses5The entirety of Deuteronomy 28 deals with the consequences of obedience and disobedience. If the people disobeyed, it wasn’t as simple as falling out of favor with God. No, it was a promise to systematically torture and punish them with all manner of horrors, and then wipe them out. It even says that God would take delight in punishing and destroying them if they disobeyed him. I don’t know about you, but having that kind of threat hanging over my head wouldn’t make me feel like much of a Chosen People. Good to know God wasn’t a big believer in overkill, huh? In 30:1, Moses promises that God will return his favor to them and gather them together to be blessed again if they turn back to him. Later on it says he will take great delight in blessing them and making them prosperous. It all seems to be very hot and cold with the character of God presented in this text.

Harkening back to 10:17, that isn’t very consistent with the image of a God who is “not partial and takes no bribe.” Showing favor to a chosen people to begin with shows partiality, and the promise to destroy them so thoroughly if they disobey further highlights that bias. He commands the people to pursue justice and banish bias in regard to their decision-making and handling legal matters, yet in passages like 5:8, he says he will punish later generations for the sins of their ancestors. That doesn’t quite fall in line with the image of a God who is impartial. In fact, there is more contradiction on the guilt and punishment within Deuteronomy. As Contradictions in the Bible points out, there is a promise in 5:9 to visit “…the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” However, 24:16 asserts that “Fathers shall not be put to death for sons, and sons shall not be put to death for fathers. They shall each be put to death through his own sin.” So which will it be? Is each individual responsible for their own sin, or will their iniquity be visited upon their children and future generations? It seems to be another inconsistency revealed through God’s motivations and relationship with the Israelite people.

Moses even implores the people to “be careful” to obey all of the commands passed down to them, which sounds more like a warning than a religious plea. Moses himself would not be allowed into the Promised Land, and he understood the consequences of not obeying those commands.

Promised-LandAll the while, the Promised Land seems to be held above them as incentive for their obedience. God had already said that the older generation who had disobeyed him would not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land, so there was that threat of losing out on the promised home for them if they did not carefully keep all of the statutes set before them. The Promised Land itself is yet another interesting facet of the view of God as a character and protagonist. As Contradictions in the Bible points out, we have seen in earlier in Genesis that God presented the vow of the Promised Land as part of that unconditional covenant with them. Yet in Deuteronomy, such as in 4:1, 4:40, and 12:8-9, the Israelite people are reminded that they have not yet reached the Promised Land and they must be careful not to err or be disobey so they will be able to inherit it. So which is it, according to God’s word? Is it an unconditional promise, or is it something that can be taken away if God was displeased with them?

All in all, it seems to present a rather inconsistent “character development” of God as the protagonist and within his relationship to the Israelite people. His vacillations between blessing and punishment, favored or shunned, and so much more present him much more as a figure led by humanistic whims and emotions and motivations than an omnipotent being.

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What was the significance of “uncovering the nakedness” of another person and how does it evolve the Israelite narrative?

Within Leviticus, there were many moral and civil statutes set forth for adherence by the Israelite people. One such lengthy passage in Leviticus 18 dealt with terms of unlawful sexual relations, and one facet of those statutes especially caught my eye. Yep, you guessed it, yet another peculiar turn of phrase from the Old Testament. Color me shocked, everyone!

leviticus-184-5Anyway, Leviticus 18:6-18 repeatedly addressed the issue of “uncovering the nakedness” of another individual, especially as it related to the terms of relation held to the other person. It goes on at length with a whole passage, stating the degrees of relation: “‘None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord. … And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.’

First, we must understand the true implications of what “uncovering the nakedness” means. As the article in Enduring Word sets forth, it encompassed much more than just the notion of nudity itself: “This phrase (used 17 times in this chapter) is an euphemism for sexual relations. It has less to do with nudity (especially casual nudity) than with sex. However, the term uncover nakedness is broad enough to include the idea of inappropriate activity short of actual sexual intercourse. It would also include molestation and inappropriate fondling.”

This passage has both legal and moral implications, as God forbids them against committing such acts with relatives or in-laws. Legally speaking, wives were seen as the property of the husband, and likewise with unmarried daughters to the father, so committing such acts with them was also a breach of legal contract, as well as a misstep of morality.Chart of Leviticus

The prompting to avoid relations with any range of one’s relatives, from sibling to parent to in-laws and many in between, also offers an interesting take, since it sets forth statutes that somewhat contradict past occurrences in the text thus far. We have seen instances of intermarriage, such as Abraham’s marriage to Sarah when she is his half-sister, not to mention countless others. Logistically, this does make sense, as the Israelite people had become so expansive in numbers, and thus it was much easier to avoid intermingling relations within families. In terms of modern science, we understand that this helped keep the gene pool from becoming to restrictive with a great deal of intermingling amongst relatives. Once again referring to the Enduring Word article, it states: “There was both a moral and genetic reason for these commands. ‘Surveys in different parts of the world where inbreeding occurs have shown that it is accompanied by an increase in congenital malformations and perinatal mortality, for which recessive genes and environmental factors respectively would be responsible.'”

The article The Boundaries of Godly Sexuality even contains a chart to show the relationships which were set forth as forbidden by God, as well as the punishments that were to accompany any infractions of them. As this article also asserts, these relationships were not limited to blood relations, so it isn’t solely limited to genetic relevance. This begins to show the evolution of the boundaries of marriages and relationships within the Israelite people, as well as the statutes set forth for them by God as their narrative continued.

It also suggests an evolution of the Israelite narrative in terms of their relationship with God. As he has led them out of Egypt and is now in the process of fulfilling his promise to them, there is also an evolving relationship as he sets forth more statutes and guidelines for them. It fosters his connection to the Israelite people, as well as establishing many of the tenets and societal norms that would come to define them in the Old Testament.

Basically, ruling out inbreeding amongst people is always a really good thing. There’s a positive takeaway, right?

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What does it mean that Moses had “uncircumcised lips” and what is its significance?

There are many turns of phrases and unfamiliar phrasings throughout the Bible that can call into question our interpretation of things or lead us to take a second look at the intention behind them. As I was reading through Exodus, one such instance caught my eye in Exodus 6:12-13, which states: But Moses said to the Lord, “Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?” But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and gave them a charge about the people of Israel and about Pharaoh king of Egypt: to bring the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt. god-moses

The mention of uncircumcised lips admittedly gave me a moment of pause. Despite the emphasis placed upon circumcision in the Bible, it seemed like a strange way of phrasing that. I was prepared to dismiss it as a peculiar turn of phrase, but the same phrase cropped up again in Exodus 6:28-30: On the day when the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, the Lord said to Moses, “I am the Lord; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you.” But Moses said to the Lord, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips. How will Pharaoh listen to me?”

Exploring this interpretation of the phrase called me back to an earlier passage in Exodus 4:10-13: “But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”” We see this repeated assertion that Moses seemed to have issues with speech. The text does not specify to what extent, but we can garner an understand from his claims that he wasn’t eloquent and he wanted God to choose someone else as a representative. Even after Moses had been given miraculous signs in order to illustrate the authority and mission bestowed upon him by the Lord, he still felt that his poor manner of speech was enough to make him unworthy in the eyes of his people.

In my research, I came across this article, which offered a unique comparison for the question I was asking. As Rabbi Isaacs states, the Torah discusses different forms of circumcision beyond just the physical. In fact, she asserts that “The Jewish people (in the physical case, men) are challenged not only to have an external circumcision, but also an internal one, a circumcision of the heart. This language is often used to signal the importance of humility and submission to the will of God and Law. Some scholars believe that the verses in Exodus point towards Moses having a stutter or some other manner of speech impediment that might have made him hesitant to speak up on God’s behalf. However, this article also offers a unique alternative perspective: in terms of the narrative, perhaps Moses’s struggle with speech was directly tied to and symbolic of the exile of his people and their eventual freedom and reconnection with God.

moses_sinaiAn article by Steve Rodeheaver seems to reinforce that the phrase has literary significance, as well as physical representation through Moses’s poor speech. He states that “…circumcision marked one as belonging to God’s covenant people.  It was a sign of God’s ownership and promises.  When Moses says that his lips are not circumcised he is saying that when he speaks there is no sign of God.” This seems to offer an interesting combination of the literal and the symbolic. Moses does seem to labor under “heavy lips and a heavy tongue,” but there seems to be a greater literary significance in Moses initially being hesitant to take on God’s task before he became more self-assured with it.

Another instance that offers explanation for both the literal and symbolic meaning of uncircumcised lips can be found in this commentary on Exodus. It states that “”Uncircumcised” is used, according to the Hebrew idiom, for any imperfection which interferes with efficiency.” This supplements what we have seen thus far, in showing that Moses struggled with speech in some ways, but it also leaves room for a more symbolic reasoning behind why Moses’s trouble with speech made him hesitant and concerned about his efficacy at first.God's+Plan+step+1

Circumcision was an immensely important gesture to the Israelite people, as it was representative of their covenant with God. We see this importance stressed countless times through the Bible after its inception. In equating his poor speech to being uncircumcised, Moses was drawing a parallel to illustrate how truly inadequate and undeserving he felt of the task that God had set before him. We think of great leaders as being charismatic and magnetic in their influence over their followers, yet we are told numerous times that Moses had a “heavy tongue” and that he had Aaron do much of the speaking for him. This is not the first time in the Bible where someone who deemed themselves unworthy was chosen for a task by God, nor will it be the last. Perhaps in terms of the narrative, that was a device meant to show how even the most tentative of people could step into a successful leadership role and take part in an epic narrative.

In the end, I think it’s fascinating to consider that the phrase had a dual meaning. It certainly seems to speak to Moses’s struggles with speech, but I believe there is a larger literary meaning there as well, in showing a symbolic link between Moses’s own struggles and the greater struggle of his people.

What were the cultural and marital standards of the time that caused the two men who claimed Sarah to be punished, rather than Abraham, even though he was the one perpetuating the lie?

Now that a new class section is starting, it’s time to dust this thing off and bring it back to life. There’s a Lazarus joke to be made somewhere in there, but quite frankly, I’m too lazy to make it.

Pharaoh_takes_SaraiAs I was reading through Genesis, two occurrences in the lives of Abraham and Sarah caught my attention. It first occurred in Genesis 12:11-20, which states: When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.”

A similar incident is repeated in Genesis 20:1-17, a portion of which states: From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.””10740

These passages presented a bit of a quandary for me: for Abraham to be such a favored and blessed servant of the Lord, wasn’t it contradictory for others to be punished for acting on what they presumed to be the truth, when really Abraham was perpetuating the lie? This seems contradictory to other parts of the Bible where people are cautioned against lying and deceit, especially when taking into consideration that Abraham holds stature as one of God’s favored people. As I considered this question, I realized that I would have to address it from a position of understanding the marital and cultural dynamics of the time.

In addressing this, we must understand that women of the time held little real power and were viewed as property in much the same way that livestock and other worldly possessions were; they belonged to the men in their life, whether it was their father or later their husband.

This point is illustrated in “Divorce and remarriage in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament),” which offers that “The Mosaic Law, which historical Christianity believes was handed by God to Moses, assigned a very low status to women. They were generally viewed as inferior to men, as sexual predators, and deceitful and untrustworthy. They were considered an item of property: A girl was considered to be owned by her father. At marriage, her ownership was transferred to her new husband…During biblical times, fathers could sell their daughters into slavery. Men could divorce their wives for various reasons. There was no reciprocal arrangement by which women could divorce their husbands.” This was reinforced by my readings in “Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs,” which stated “Though there are some cultures in the Ancient Near East which were matriarchal in structure, Israel’s was not one of them. Israel’s family life was dominated by the husband. When a marriage occurred the husband took his wife from her home and “ruled” over her…Because the husband was the dominant member of the family, he was given the title of lib (Ba’al) which meant “lord”, “master of the house”, “leader of the family circle”…”

I also found further evidence of this marital hierarchy in “Summary of Old Testament Teachings on Divorce and Re-Marriage,” which set forth: “In short, the Old Testament taught that marriage was intended to be a permanent, covenantal relationship between a man, who was to protect and provide for his wife, and a woman, who was to remain monogamous to her husband…The Law called for the execution of a woman who broke her marital vow, and when the practice of that punishment was discontinued, divorce became an accepted substitute, an act of discipline.”

abimelechabrahamThe article “Love and Marriage in the Bible” by Cynthia Astle raises an interesting point with this statement: “Women really weren’t considered equal players when it came to love and marriage in the Bible. The only way that a woman could have more than one husband was if she remarried after being widowed. Men could be simultaneous polygamists, but women had to be serial monogamists…”

While marriage was mutually beneficial for both men and women, women of the time still had less authority and agency in the situation as a whole. As Eric states in “Women and Marriage in the Old Testament,” “Women are always under the authority and protection of a man, with the possible exception of older women who outlive their husbands. This is initially their father and eventually their husband.” This highlights the disparity of power between men and women of the time, as he goes on to elaborate a few examples: women needed protection as they were often views as the spoils of war, a woman’s vow could be canceled by her father or husband, and if a woman was raped, then she had to marry her rapist or face even greater shame if she did not.

In all technicality, Sarah violated that ideal of the marital contract and vow within the customs of the time. The catch, of course, is that the violation was prompted by Abraham’s own commands, so as his wife, she was bound to obey. In this case, Abraham’s will and his assertion of his own agency seems to trump what was the custom of the time, in order to preserve his own well-being.

This seems like a lengthy divergence into the role of women in that age, but it’s essential to understand their role in order to make sense of the action taken against the Pharaoh and Abimelech when they took Sarah as their own. According to the standards of the time, they had violated something which belonged to Abraham.

In telling Sarah to lie about her relation to him, Abraham was only taking action with something that rightfully belonged to him, at least according to the standards of the time. However, this was still done by sowing deceit, which in turn led to the other men acting on the ‘facts’ that were presented to them. Abraham made assumptions about their actions if they discovered Sarah was his wife, and so he decided that the potential risk to his life was greater to him than the truth. Since Sarah had to bow to his authority, he was entitled to command her to present whatever story he instructed her to, even though it led to her being taken by the other men. After all, since women had very little real agency or authority of their own in that period, he was taking action with his ‘property’ in order to protect his own life and well-being. Even more, those men presented Abraham with gifts in order to seek his forgiveness, even though he had deceived them. Despite the deception, according to customs of the time and the punishment that was set upon them by the Lord, they were seen as being at fault and thus had to seek forgiveness.ketubah

It provides an interesting moral quandary (one which admittedly falls to the personal convictions and interpretations of each individual), but according to the laws and standards of the time, Abraham was within his rights in perpetuating the falsehood that he did with Sarah. In terms of the law and customs of the time, Abraham had every right to present that story about his wife. The moral boundaries of the situation aren’t quite so clearly defined, but they don’t negate the legality of it. Considering the depth and scope of the Bible especially, I found this to be a fascinating question in examining morality vs. legality, as well as the implications that those two might not always be aligned or easily reconciled with one another.

Interestingly enough, the same thing happens in Genesis 26:7-11, when Isaac perpetuated the same story about his wife, Rebekah. It must run in the family, huh? It seems Abimelech learned his lesson about that with Abraham and Sarah, however.

If all else fails, I guess Abraham could always fall back on the old “well, she’s really my half-sister.” When in doubt, skate by on a technicality!