Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Samson or Cujo?

A NEW SEAL from Tel Beit Shemesh portrays a scene that is being compared to Samson's fight with the lion:
Seal found by Israeli archeologists may give substance to Samson legend
Scholars say the scene shown on the artifact recalls the story in Judges of Samson fighting a lion.

By Nir Hasson | Jul.30, 2012 | 12:51 AM | 4 (Haaretz)

A small stone seal found recently in the excavations of Tel Beit Shemesh could be the first archaeological evidence of the story of the biblical Samson.

The seal, measuring 1.5 centimeters, depicts a large animal next to a human figure. The seal was found in a level of excavation that dates to the 11th century B.C.E. That was prior to the establishment of the Judean kingdom and is considered to be the period of the biblical judges - including Samson. Scholars say the scene shown on the artifact recalls the story in Judges of Samson fighting a lion.

But excavation directors Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University say they do not suggest that the human figure on the seal is the biblical Samson. Rather, the geographical proximity to the area where Samson lived, and the time period of the seal, show that a story was being told at the time of a hero who fought a lion, and that the story eventually found its way into the biblical text and onto the seal.

The excavation directors are properly cautious. That said, I am not an iconographer, and it may just be because I read Cujo last week, but it looks to me as though the seal depicts a large animal (not obviously a lion) menacing and getting the better of the human figure. The small human figure seems to be leaning back or falling. The image doesn't remind me very much of Samson.

(The article was sent to me by a number of people.)

UPDATE (1 August): The headlines have started over-reaching. The Daily Mail gives the window header title as "Israeli scholars claim to have uncovered archaeological evidence of Samson." The headline of the article goes one better: Does this coin found near Jerusalem prove that Samson lived... and that he did fight the lion? Er, no, it doesn't. And it's not a coin, not by quite a few centuries. It's a seal.

Not to be outdone, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a press release with the title Stone seal may prove story of Samson. At present I can't get the page to open.

Also, at the God and the Machine blog, Thomas L. MacDonald has some good observations that overlap with mine above:
... The team simultaneously dismisses the notion of any Samson who is more than a folktale while also seeing “Samson” in a stone bulla. I’m not even sure how they got from “creature with four legs” to “lion” so quickly. It may well be in keeping with contemporaneous depictions of lions on other artifacts, but that’s hardly a settled issue, and the minuscule size of the bulla makes it hard to determine. Maybe it’s a donkey. Or a liger. (I know the picture is pretty low-res, and I may just be imagining this, but doesn’t it look like there may be a human figure on the “lion’s” back? The ancient Hebrews were pretty awesome, but I don’t recall them being so badass as to ride around on lions.)
It does look as though there may be something on the back of the big animal.