[Milton-L] RE: Samson's prayer for revengr

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Tue Feb 26 00:54:55 EST 2008

Thanks very much for the response Prof. Fleming.  I've been immersed
in Kierkegaardian anxiety for about four years now (ha...both
personally and professionally), so I'm predisposed to see tensions at
work when a choice isn't made.  What you describe below is of course
one possibility.  I'd like to suggest another: that Milton did care
very much about two mutually exclusive options so couldn't choose
between the two.

One strong impression I had after reading Prof. Rudrum's article is
that both those he described as "revisionists" and those he described
as "traditionalist" seem to me to impose Christian morality upon
Samson.  The language of Milton's SA, especially from the beginning of
the death scene, more closely identifies Samson with pagan (Greek)
heroes than with Christian heroes of faith.  Taking even a step back
from that, Samson needs to be understood as a Jewish hero before he is
appropriated as either a Greek or a Christian hero.

The Book of Judges is a dramatization of the Mosaic covenant as laid
out in Deut. 28.  If Israel is obedient the land will be blessed and
the nation will defeat its enemies. If Israel is disobedient the land
will be cursed and Israel will be defeated by its enemies.  Judges
records several of these cycles of disobedience / political oppression
/ repentance / deliverance. Judges 13:1 begins by describing Israel in
a cycle of disobedience and oppression from which Samson's parents
were told Samson would be the deliverer.  In order for Samson to
fulfill this role, however, Samson had to be a Nazirite from birth and
remain so.   As it turns out, the cycle described in Deut. 28 is
itself reproduced in the life of Samson.

As a Nazirite from birth, Samson was committed to not touching
anything dead, not cutting his hair, and not drinking any wine (see
Numbers 6:1-8).  Samson probably broke the command not to touch
anything from grapevines, touched something dead in the form of the
jawbone of an ass (and honey from a lion's carcass -- Judges 14 for
both this and the vineyard), so that not cutting his hair was the only
way he was still keeping his vow.   Naturally, when his hair was cut
his vow was fully broken and he lost his strength.  The Philistines
were then able to blind and imprison him.

Therefore the author of Hebrews says that Samson defeated his enemies
by faith because he prayed for strength and received it despite the
fact that he was no longer fulfilling any of the legal requirements
for the Nazirite vow.  The emphasis throughout Heb. 13 is that the
heroes of faith did not necessarily live up to the law -- but they
believed.  God's blessing attendant upon belief in the absence of
morality makes the case for justification by faith even in the Hebrew
Scriptures, for both the author of the book of Hebrews and for Paul.
Rahab is perhaps the best example, being a pagan prostitute who
believed in Israel's God enough to help Israel's spies.  Absolutely,
yes, out of self-interest -- but you have to believe Israel's God is
going to win in the end for you to believe supporting Israel's God is
in your self-interest.

Now what this means is that in order for Samson to qualify as a hero
of faith we need to see his moral failure very clearly.  Moral failure
was a common characteristic of Hebrew prophets, by the way.  Elijah
succumbed to despair, Balaam sold out Israel, Samson broke all the
requirements of his vow -and- married a Philistine woman, and we all
know about Jonah, David, Samuel (failure to raise his sons properly),
and others.  This tendency is the source of observed antinomian
strains mentioned by Prof. Rudrum in his article.

Now this combination of moral failure with being a hero of faith is
enough to locate Samson as a site of anxiety, all the more compounded
since Samson did not obviously display the Christian morality of
loving your enemies.  What we really want, you know, is for our heroes
both to have faith -and- be righteous.

So one possible response to this tension is to set up Samson as
righteous in pre-Christian terms (as a Greek hero who provides
national deliverance for Israel with God's blessing, all under the
terms of a prior covenant).  This solves one problem, but creates
another, because as a Christian identifying Samson as a hero of faith
Milton might want to identify with him.  I don't think I need to go
into much detail about the many points of identification Milton could
have with Samson: both were blind, both imprisoned by a "pagan" ruler,
both on the wrong side / losing side of a revolution but in the right
in God's eyes, etc.  Not to mention the feeling that perhaps one's own
side, having lost the goals of the English Civil War in the end, may
have done so due to some moral failure -- as Samson did lose to the
Philistines because of his moral failure.

And then there's the problem of identifying Charles II with the
Philistines.  Samson killing all the Philistine nobility is not quite
the same as Milton wanting Charles II and his supporters to lose, the
big problem here being that there are Englishmen on both sides so that
the nation could very well be destroyed by another civil war.

So what is it that you wish for in these circumstances?  I think these
ambiguities and tensions, therefore, are very meaningful, and perhaps
the reason Milton could not decide if Samson prayed or not.  He was
probably unsure of himself in his own situation, and of the morality
of his own position.  Or, better yet, he was sure -- in two opposite
directions at once.  He was sure the Revolution was right, and he was
sure that it succeeding at this point would be far worse than the loss
he had to live with.  I'm assuming a composition date of 1671 or
thereabouts, of course.

This is all off the top of my head with no research supporting it.
Just a suggestion.

Jim R

On Mon, Feb 25, 2008 at 11:47 PM,  <jfleming at sfu.ca> wrote:
> No, I don't think so. Except to note that, on your account, the catastrophe
>  of _SA_ gives us ambiguity within ambiguity. Same point (no point), twice.
>  In other words, the upshot of your account would be that Milton really
>  doesn't care whether his Samson prayed. A sensible attitude, since his
>  Samson doesn't exist, except as M's own intentional construct. So we are
>  saying that M's intentions are unclear to himself. Not much to look into
>  there. JDF

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