Haftorah of Naso: The Prayer of Shamira, Mother of Samson
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
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, 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. It is useful to remember that “crone” means “wise woman,” and I am easily the wiser adult in our little family—have you met my man, Manoah? I mean, truly? He is a fool.
Manoah—that dunderhead!—is my husband, a man of the Israelites, those upstarts who fancy themselves superior to us Philistines. He is a Danite, a tiny tribe, and our neighbors to the north, a tribe of no consequence to us mighty Philistines. Still, he could find no bride among his own tribe or people. Instead, he crudely, rudely kidnapped captured me, coming to my father’s seacoast village in the dead of night and carrying me off like a stolen kitten, his filthy, chapped farmer’s hand covering my young mouth, so I could not cry out. I was only twelve years old. Such are the ways of these Israelites, seizing young maidens from other peoples, marrying and raising up sons thereby, bulking out their scanty tribe here in Canaan. No doubt, this must please their mysterious, thundering, invisible Sky-God, He-Who-dwells-amid-the-clouds (whispering), not in wheatfield or sea-scape, like our sensible, bread-providing Philistine god, Dagan.
I ask you, Stranger, how can any sensible god remain invisible? Our Dagan, ho! He is half-man, and half-fish, symbolizing our seafaring ways—that shows our courage, and our love for both land and sea! How I do miss the sea….
Why do I whisper to you, Stranger? Because I am Israelite, now, at least in name, as Manoah’s father, Chai-Baal, chief of this piddling Tribe of Dan, pronounced me, when he changed my name to—Shamira, a “precious stone,” as he called me. Chai-Baal’s a kindly old man; I have no hatred in my heart for him—he means well—but his son, Manoah’s, a clod, no error.
There’s more, and worse, to my story: I do believe that Dagan, my own, true Philistine god, was angry with me for deserting my people, although I was kidnapped against my will—for now, he has shut my womb tight, and I cannot bear children—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 Matriarch of a legion of sons, of warriors—but Manoah? He is weak, in both body and mind….
Come, hear me! 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, our lost homeland (sighs)….
My story? Oh, yes: I had a Visitation. It came to me—was it a dream? No: I saw—I saw—a winged creature, an Angel, clothed in white samite, crystal clear, with silvery hair all flowing, flowing, and a voice of sweetness, that bade me leave the tent, this 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, all cerulean and aqua….
What did he say? The Angel? Ah, he said that I would bear a child. A son! But there were rules to follow: I was to drink no wine, no beer, no mead; 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 Shimshon, “Little Sun,” after the brightest god in the daytime sky, my Helios, who rises in the fiery dawn, and rides the Heavenly Chariot from one end of the sky to the other, the whole day long—
But can you imagine how that dunce, Manoah, doubted me? He said there was no Visitor, no angel, no Heavenly Messenger, no Winged Glory, come before our tent; he had not seen the Angel, himself, though I reassured him, so many, many times—
“If you had truly seen 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 have roasted you whole!”
I took his hand—how cold it was, and how it shook!—and placed it on my breast, 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 news is, how wonderful, Manoah, dear—“ I patted his back, embraced him close, the silly oaf, until his heart stopped pounding. And I believed: the Angel had promised us, He would come back; He’d reappear.
I went on, believing, pounding barley-into-flour. Days passed. Long days, and hot ones. Manoah grazed the sheep far closer to the tent than usual, I noticed.
But then, one day, all of a sudden, the Angel came back! All ablaze with heavenly fire, hovering there before my eager eyes, wings moving slowly, smiling brightly, hair adrift, like the waves of Nereids, sea-nymphs, coming close to shore, as in my people’s tales; an Angel, truly….
There went Manoah, fool as always:
“Let me make a roasted offering to You!” he shouted, and made a run for the flock, but 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….The Vision raised its hand.
“Though you delay me, I will not eat your meat,” It whispered, in a voice like waves of gold, “But make a simple Offering of Thanks unto the Lord your God”—and vanished.
O Israelite God, Who dwells amid storm clouds and thunder, let Shamira, Mother-to-be of Samson, “Little Son of Helios,” hear me! I will forsake my dearest god, my Philistine-grain-god, Dagan, if You let my Unborn Son become a Hero to his people! And may Yah grant him the wisdom to make peace between his mother’s people, the Philistines, and his father’s people, this strange Tribe of Dan—no, with all of Israel! Amen!