Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Prayer of Shamira, Philistine Mother of Samson: Making Peace Between Enemy Peoples

Haftorah of Naso: The Prayer of Shamira, Mother of Samson

Author’s Note: Biblical scholar James Kugel (How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then & Now, NY: Free Press, 2007) sums up Modern Biblical Criticism by stating that the Samson story is unique in the Book of Judges. Most of the judges/tribal chieftains are charismatic leaders (Gideon, Jephtah, Deborah) whom God appears to select to deal with a momentary crisis, but who disappear just as quickly, once the crisis ends.
The Israelites’ enemy, in the Samson and throughout the David stories, is the Philistines, a people originating from the Greek isles, called the “Sea-Peoples” who fight the Egyptians during the reign of Pharaohs Merneptah and Ramesses III (late 13th and early 12th Century BCE); they are mentioned in other sources, as well. Kugel and other scholars believe that the Samson saga may well be a Philistine legend that the Tanakh/Hebrew Bible borrowed, since there are overlaps between Samson’s testy personality and that of the Greek Heracles/Hercules. Here, I attempt to give voice to what I call “cross-pollination” between the Israelites and the Philistines, by creating a backstory/biography for Samson’s mother, who is not named in our Haftorah text:

            Call me Shamira, “Guardian of the Israelite God.” It is not my real name—you, Stranger, could not pronounce the name my parents gave me, and it makes no difference, now. You would not realize it to look at this sun-baked old crone, but I am still a young woman, only twenty years old.
Manoah is my husband, the Danite man who captured me, who came to my father’s Philistine ship on the seacoast in the dead of night and carried me off,  his filthy, chapped farmer’s hand covering my young mouth so I could not cry out. I was too young to resist, and too sleepy to complain—I was only twelve years old. Such are the ways of the Israelites, to capture maidens from alien peoples, to marry and raise up sons thereby, bulking out their scanty tribe here in Canaan, and to please their mysterious, thundering Sky-God, He Who dwells amid the clouds (whispering), not in wheatfield or sea-scape, like our sensible Philistine god, Dagan. Why do I whisper to you, Stranger? Because I am Israelite, now, at least in name, as Manoah’s father, chief of the Tribe of Dan, pronounced me, when he changed my name to Shamira.
            Still, I do believe that Dagan, my true Philistine god, was angry with me for leaving my people, although I was kidnapped—for now, I cannot have any children; my womb is tight-shut—so says my lord-and-master, Manoah (whispering) that blockhead! Believe me, Stranger, when I tell you that, had my own father (whom I barely remember) chosen a husband for me, he would have been strong and potent, making me bear a legion of sons, of warriors—but Manoah? He is weak, in both body and mind….
            But I have a tale for you: come sit by the fire, and listen, while I pound the barley-grains to flour, and hear a young woman’s talk. It is dull here, in the desert, not like the seashore, where my Philistine sisters smell the salt-air, and dream of sailing on the waves, back to the Aegean islands, whence we came (sighs)….
            The tale? Oh, yes: I had a Visitation. What is that? It came to me—was it a dream? No: I saw—I saw—a winged creature, clothed in white samite, crystal clear, with silvery hair all flowing, flowing, and a voice of sweetness, that bade me leave the tent, that smelly, goatskin hovel which Manoah calls our home—his, perhaps, but not the clean and airy seaside lodge I lived in, years ago, the happy time, when I lived beside the Great Sea….
            What did he say? Manoah? Ah, the Visitor: he said that I would bear a child. A son! But there were rules to follow: no wine or strong drink; no grapes, even, and no unclean food—I have foresworn all meat; one never knows how fresh it is; I see the Israelite women, my sisters, they call themselves—they soak-and-salt the goat-meat, before they serve it; I will eat only fish, as do my people—what else did the Visitor say?
            My Son! He will be Samson, “Little Sun,” after the brightest god in the sky, my Helios, who rides the Heavenly Chariot from one end of the sky to the other, and lights the fiery dawn, the whole day long—
            But can you imagine how that fool, Manoah, doubted me? He said there was no Visitor, no angel, no Heavenly Messenger, no Winged Glory, come to me; he had not seen Him, or It, himself, though I reassured him, so many, many times—
            “If you saw an Angel,” he said, looking at me with his goggle eyes (he really is not bright, My Lord Manoah, wood-for-brains), “you would be dead; the celestial fire would roast you whole!”
            I took his hand—how it shook!—and placed it on my heart, to calm him, hugged and shushed him, the way one would soothe a nervous child—
            “Had your—that is, our—Israelite God sent an Angel to destroy us, why would he bring us such good news? How good this is, how sweet, Manoah, dear—“ I patted his back, embraced him close, the silly oaf, until his heart stopped pounding; besides, the Angel had promised us, he would come back; he’d reappear—
            And so he did! All ablaze, on fire, hovering there, wings moving slowly, smiling brightly, hair adrift, like the waves of Nereids, sea-nymphs, coming close to shore, as in my people’s tales….
            “Let me make a roasted offering to You!” shouted Manoah, and made a run for the flock, but more fool he, tripped over his own feet, and scared the sheep and goats away, to the far reaches of the pen, all meh’ing and baa’ing….
            “Though you delay me, I will not eat your offering,” whispered the Angel, in a voice like waves of gold, “But make a Thanksgiving Offering to the Lord your God”—
            And vanished. O Israelite God, let Shamira, Mother of Samson, pray: I will forsake my Philistine-god, Dagan, if You let my Unborn Son become a Hero to his people! And may God grant him the wisdom to make peace between his mother’s people, the Philistines, and his father’s people, Israel! Amen!