Monday, October 08, 2012

Samson, Joshua, and the sun

INTERESTING ARTICLE by Elchanan Reiner in Haaretz, arguing for the conflation of the Samson and Joshua traditions around sites in the Galilee which pick up their associations with the sun:
Samson follows the sun to Galilee
Local archaeologists have unearthed some seemingly out-of-place depictions of the sun god Helios in the mosaic floors of ancient synagogues. Can this be attributed to a link between the pagan god, the biblical hero Samson, and Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land?
The thesis really needs to be argued in a professional journal, but as it stands in this article it is worth a read. A couple of excerpts:
It appears that the figure of Samson should be viewed as part of the local culture of Galilee, whether as a whole or in part. So what led the inhabitants of the villages of the lower Galilee, at the foot of the Arbel and a bit north of there, in Huqoq − and perhaps in other places waiting to be discovered − to put a portrait of Samson in their synagogue, the community’s central building, despite the ostensible inappropriateness of the biblical story. To get to the bottom of this, we must try to interpret the place of Samson and similar figures in the Jewish culture of Galilee in the first centuries of the Common Era and try to understand the thinking of those who placed him in such a key position.


In this way, too, the grave of Joshua, the conqueror and settler of the land, was identified as overlooking the Arbel Valley. Joshua is the primary hero of the myth, of the constitutive story with which we are dealing. Hundreds of years later, Petahya of Regensburg, a 12th-century pilgrim, cites the early Galilean tradition thus: "And a very high volcano ... and far from it Nitai Ha’arbeli in the Arbel ... and in the middle of the mountain Joshua Bin Nun is buried."

Joshua’s burial is mentioned twice in the Bible, at the end of the Book of Joshua and again at the beginning of the Book of Judges. It’s the same description, word for word, with one exception. The name of the place where he is buried in Judges is Timnath-heres, whereas in Joshua the consonants are reversed: Timnath-serah, and with good reason. Whoever reversed the letters knew very well what he was doing and why he did so. However, the first part of the place name, Timnath, is the same in both formulations. The identification of Joshua’s grave in the Galilee, in the Arbel Valley, means the identification of Timnath in that same place, in the very area of the two early synagogues that located the figure of another biblical hero in its midst, the figure of Samson.

And thus the mythical-geographical space in which Samson acted was created. And thus Timnath, Joshua’s Galilean Timnath-heres, becomes the same Timnath where Samson carried out one of his most famous acts of heroism: "Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done" ‏(Judges 14:5-6‏). Here the figure of Joshua in Timnath comes close to the figure of Samson. They almost became one. Heres is a synonym of the more common Hebrew word shemesh and means "sun," as in Job 9:7: "Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not." Thus Timnath-heres is Timnath-sun.
More on the Samson depiction in the Huqoq synagogue etc. here and links. And more on the Helios symbolism in ancient synagogues here. Note that the Talmudic-era magical treatise Sepher HaRazim includes a Hebrew transliteration of a pagan Greek invocation of Helios as part of a rite of the Fourth Firmament to give the practitioner a vision of the sun at night. There is no mention of Samson or Joshua, though. Here's the passage, in what is still a draft of my translation of Sepher HaRazim to go into volume two of the texts for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project. The italicized section is the transliterated Greek:
As you finish speaking you will hear the sound of thunder from the far north and you will see something like lightning going out and the earth shall glisten in front of you. And after you see this, prostrate yourself and fall on your face to the earth and pray this prayer:

"Hallowed east-rising Helios, good sailor, faithful guardian, trusty leader, who long ago established the mighty orb, holy director, very powerful, Lord, bright guide, absolute ruler, star-organizer, I, so-and-so son of so-and-so place my supplication before (Jer 38:26) you that you appear to me without dread and you be revealed to me without awe and that you not hide from me any matter (Jer 38:14) and that you tell me in truth all that I seek."

Stand on your feet and you shall see it in the north wind going eastward (cf. 1 En 72:5). Afterward turn your hands behind you and bow your head downward and ask everything that you wish.
Another recent archaeological discovery that has been connected to Samson (but I'm skeptical) is noted here.