In 1949, William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature “for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” One of Faulkner’s most notable works in this regard was a Southern Gothic novel entitled Absalom, Absalom! Curiously, the story actually doesn’t include a character named “Absalom” – its protagonists are Thomas, Henry and Charles. Only when we return to the Bible do we find an Absalom. This Absalom was a son of King David’s who rebelled against his father in an attempt to usurp the throne. When he was executed, David mourned for him with the words: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom… O Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Samuel 19:1). Faulkner was familiar with this verse and assumed that his readers would be too. He referenced it in the title of his own book because many of the themes which he explores – revolt, seduction, disillusionment – feature prominently in the Biblical narrative of Absalom as well.
It was certainly clever of Faulkner to set his account of the American Civil War against the backdrop of a Jewish civil war that took place thousands of years prior. In fact, it may have been cleverer than Faulkner realized. When we carefully study the biography of the Biblical Absalom, we discover that it too was fashioned in the mould of an earlier tale. Just as Faulkner alluded to the Bible in order to create connections that would be meaningful for his readers, the author of II Samuel framed his own text by borrowing from events which would have been well-known to an Israelite audience.
This is an idea which we’ve discussed together before. Back in November, we explored some fascinating parallels between the “sale of Joseph” (Gen. 37-50) and the “rape of Tamar” (II Samuel 13:15). At the time, we focused primarily on the similarities between Tamar and Joseph, between David and Jacob, and between Amnon and the brothers. Absalom also plays an important role in the Tamar episode – as we’ve seen, he shrewdly manipulates that incident to serve as the pretext for his rebellion. But if we’re concentrating on this character, in particular, then the point of comparison most relevant for our purposes isn’t the story of Tamar. Instead, we must turn our attention to the story of Samson.
This week’s Torah portion discusses the laws of the Nazirite: the individual who vows not to consume any alcoholic beverages or grape products, not to come into contact with a human corpse, and not to cut his or her hair. Samson was the Bible’s most famous Nazirite and we read his story in this week’s Haftarah. For twenty years, Samson singlehandedly fought the Philistines on behalf of the Israelites. His formidable might was legendary, but his short temper, his erratic behavior and his uncurbed lust alienated many of his would-be supporters. Ultimately, Samson’s lack of discipline got the better of him. Later in his life, the Israelite hero was seduced by a Philistine temptress named Delilah to whom he revealed that his strength came from never cutting his hair. It was a tragic mistake. Upon discovering Samson’s secret, Delilah lulled him to sleep, chopped off his locks, shackled him in chains and handed him over to his enemies. He committed suicide in captivity shortly afterwards.
Few personalities in Tanach lead lives as colorful as Samson’s. Perhaps the only character who is both as charismatic and as contentious as him is Absalom. Like Samson, Absalom lives in a time of great political instability. Like Samson, he possesses remarkable talents of body and mind. Like Samson, he acts independently – he does what he thinks is right and takes care of perceived problems by himself, without bothering to ask anybody’s opinion. And like Samson, we never really know whose side Absalom is on: he claims to be working in his people’s best interest but he leads without a mandate and often causes more harm than good.
Here’s a closer look at some of the most pertinent parallels between Samson and Absalom:
- Long Hair: Both have long hair. Absalom’s hair weighs “two hundred shekels” and he cuts it only once a year (II Samuel 14:25-26). Samson’s head had “never been touched by a razor” from “the time I was in my mother’s womb” (Judges 16:17).
- Each achieves success through his hair. Absalom’s hair represents the physical beauty which endears him to the people of Israel: first they praise his good looks (II Samuel 14:25) and then his leadership qualities (cf. II Samuel 15:1-6). Samson’s hair, meanwhile, is associated with the superhuman strength which allows him to conquer the Philistines (Judges 16:17).
- Ironically, the downfall of both also comes through their hair. Absalom is captured and killed when his hair becomes entangled in an elm and his mule rides off without him, leaving him “suspended between heaven and earth” (II Samuel 18:9-15). Samson is captured and killed when Delilah cuts off his hair, thereby sapping him of his strength (Judges 16:18-20).
Rocky Relationship with Parents: Both act in ways of which their parents disapprove. Absalom’s father, David, temporarily disowns him after he murders Amnon (II Samuel 13:37–14:20). Samson’s parents express chagrin when he asks their permission to marry a Philistine (Judges 14:1-4).
- However, the parents of both ultimately turn a blind eye to their children’s behavior. After a while, David “consoles himself” over the loss of Amnon, “longs for Absalom,” “sets his heart on him” and invites him to return home (II Samuel 13:37–14:20). Samson’s parents, for their part, don’t only relent – in the end, they actually accompany their son to Timnah, where he arranges his marriage to the Philistine girl he had met (Judges 14:5-6).
- With time, both grow increasingly distanced from their parents. Absalom, of course, stages a full-fledged rebellion against David, with the goal of murdering him and usurping the throne (II Samuel 15-18). Samson, for his part, engages in all sorts of strange and reckless behavior – such as killing a lion one year and eating honey out of its carcass the next – of which the text stresses twice: “he did not tell his mother and father what he had done” (Judges 14:7-9). As the narrative progresses further, Samson’s parents slowly drop out of the picture entirely. Samson no longer respects their authority nor seeks their permission before making decisions.
- Keeping Company with the Enemy: Both choose to spend a period of time living in the territory of Israel’s enemies. Absalom lives with the king of Geshur for three years (II Samuel 13:37-39) while Samson cohabits with women in the Philistine cities of Timnah (Judges 14:1-6), Gaza (16:1) and Sorek (16:4).
- Sexual Promiscuity: Both consort with the women of their enemies – and both do so in full public knowledge. Absalom pitches a tent on the roof of David’s palace and mocks the exiled king by consorting with his concubines “in front of all of Israel” (II Samuel 16:21-2). When Samson, for his part, consorts with a harlot in Gaza, the entire city finds out (Judges 16:1-2).
- Anger, Revenge and Violence: Both become angry often and both bear grudges. Absalom “refuses to speak” with Amnon for two years and “hates” him for violating Tamar, his sister (II Samuel 13:22). He also spends “two full years” harboring hatred against Joab, David’s general, before attacking him (ibid. 14:28-32). Samson, too, grows irritated easily. His “wrath flares” against the Philistines after they solve his riddle, so he kills them (Judges 14:19). Then, when he leaves his wife for a year without any explanation, her father assumes – correctly, it would seem – that he walked on out her because he found some reason to “hate her” (ibid. 15:2).
- Both use revenge as an excuse to take the lives of their enemies. More specifically, both use the abuse of women as a pretext for killing others. Absalom murders Amnon – and attempts to murder the rest of the king’s sons, too – as punishment for their role in the rape of Tamar (II Samuel 13:21-9). Likewise, Samson murders a group of Philistine men after they murder his ex-wife (Judges 15:6-7).
- Both invite their enemies to feasts before attacking them. Absalom hosts an elaborate party and orders his men to murder Amnon “when his heart is giddy with wine” (II Samuel 13:28). Likewise, it is at a “drinking party” (Hebrew: משתה) where Samson presents a riddle to the Philistines which serves as his pretext for killing thirty of their kinsmen (Judges 14:10-19).
- Both burn the fields of their enemies – and they do so for similar reasons. Absalom sets fire to the field of Joab, David’s general, because the latter refused to let him see his father (II Samuel 14:28-32). Likewise, Samson sets fire to the fields of the Philistines because his father-in-law, a Philistine, refused to let him see his wife (Judges 15:1-5).
- Hostile Relations with the Tribe of Judah: Absalom divides the people of Judah by claiming the throne and murders many Judites in the course of his rebellion. Samson is arrested by the Judites, bound in ropes and handed over to the Philistines because the members of that tribe do not want him stirring up any more trouble (Judges 15:9-13).
- Wanted Dead: Both have a “price on their head.” Joab offers “ten silver pieces and one belt” to whomever will kill Absalom (II Samuel 18:11). Likewise, each of the Philistine governors offers Delilah “eleven-hundred pieces of silver” in exchange for capturing Samson (Judges 16:5).
Betrayed by Inner Circle: Both place their trust in confidants who turn out to be double-agents. Absalom is betrayed by his adviser, Hushai the Arkhite, who is a spy of David’s (II Samuel 17:14-17). Likewise, Samson reveals the secret of his strength to Delilah, his consort, who has been paid by the Philistine governors to capture him (Judges 16:16-20).
- God Working Behind the Scenes: Both make apparently illogical decisions which the text’s narrative voice informs us were arranged by God. Absalom rejects the sound advice of his long-time adviser, Ahitophel, and adopts the unreasonable plan of Hushai the Arkhite – a spy of David’s – because “Hashem had ordained to nullify the good advice of Ahitophel in order to bring calamity upon Absalom” (II Samuel 17:14). Likewise, Samson falls in love with a Philistine girl because “it was from Hashem – he was seeking a pretext against the Philistines” (Judges 14:4).
- Calling to God Out of Despair: Both call out to God in times of distress. While in exile, Absalom vows that “if Hashem shall return me to Jerusalem, I shall worship Him” (II Samuel 15:9). While in captivity, Samson prays: “My Lord, Hashem / Elokim! Remember me and strengthen me just this one time, O God, and I will exact vengeance from the Philistines…” (Judges 16:28).
- Getting Help from Their Surroundings: The texts of both stories state explicitly that more men died indirectly than either Absalom or Samson killed directly with his own hands. Of the war between Absalom and David we read that “the forest [where they fought] consumed more people than the sword” (II Samuel 18:8). Samson’s enemies also died as a result of being submerged by their surroundings. Samson committed suicide by leaning on the pillars of the Philistine temple in which he was being held captive. As a result, “the building collapsed on the governors and all the people inside it: the dead whom Samson killed as he died were more than he had killed in his lifetime” (Judges 16:30).
- Undignified Death: Neither dies in a dignified way. Absalom is stabbed by ten men who “take his body and throw it in a bit in the forest” (II Samuel 18:17). Samson dies when the Philistine temple collapses on top of him and only after his brothers come to Philistia to recover his corpse is he finally buried (Judges 16:30-1).
- Joy Turns into Grief: Both stories end with an abrupt transition from a mood of joy to one of grief. When Absalom dies, David’s loyalists celebrate the fact that the rebellion has been quashed. But when they see David grieving over his son, “the salvation of that day was transformed into mourning for all the people” (II Samuel 19:3). When Samson is captured, the Philistines throw a great party replete with public sacrifices, praises to the gods, dancing and merry-making (Judges 16:23-5). But festivities give way to tragedy when Samson brings the temple crashing down, killing over three thousand Philistines (Judges 16:27–30).
Needless to say, we’ve compiled much more material than we’re going to be able to unpack together here. What we’ve hopefully demonstrated, at least, is that the textual parallels between Samson and Absalom are too pervasive and too specific to be accidental. It seems that our Tanakh is deliberately mirroring these characters in order to communicate some sort of thematic idea to its readers. What might that idea be, in a nutshell?
Both the rabbis of the Talmud and the medieval Biblical commentators debated whether the asceticism of the Nazirite constitutes a religious ideal or whether it constitutes an unhealthy approach to life. A similar disagreement arose over the legacy of Samson, with some casting him in a positive light and others adopting a more critical perspective. Apparently, the authors of II Samuel – whom tradition identifies as the prophets Gad and Nathan – sided with the latter of these two groups. To them, Samson and Absalom were two characters cut from the same cloth: they were tremendously gifted individuals who got ahead of themselves because they didn’t see a need to play by the same rules as the rest of society.
In Hebrew, the word for the Nazirite – נזיר – is related to the word נזר, which means “crown.” There is something dignified, perhaps even regal about the Nazirite’s vow to abstain from worldly pleasures. But the practice can also lead to arrogance and self-importance. As Dr. Erica Brown notes, one who adopts ritual strictures which the Torah does not legislate implies that what everybody else is doing somehow isn’t “good enough” for him: he fancies himself as “holier-than-thou.”Leaders such as these pride themselves on the fact that they go beyond the letter of the law. All too often, however, they end up believing that they are above it. They place themselves outside of the community so that they can claim their place atop of it – they covet “crowns” that don’t belong to them and assume authority that they had never been granted.
The fundamental error of men like Samson and Absalom is their belief that they can achieve complete independence from everything and everyone. In limited spurts, perhaps the Nazirite can indeed manage to avoid certain forms of “this-worldly” activity. But somebody who won’t drink wine and who won’t go near a dead body isn’t just cutting himself off from physicality – he’s also cutting himself off from the community. Suddenly, this person no longer shares in the joy or the grief of his neighbors: he cannot fully participate in their simchas (festive occasions) and he cannot attend the funerals of their loved ones. In his search for independence he finds isolation. Eventually, as the stories of Samson and Absalom demonstrate so poignantly, he grows distant even from his parents and his closest friends.
אל תפרוש מן הציבור, our sages teach: We should not seek to separate ourselves from the collective of which we are a part. Individuality is important and excellence is something which we can all strive for. The key is to do so in the context of a community. Only in this way can we use our gifts and talents as they were meant to be used: not to take, but to give; not to compete, but to collaborate; not to intimidate, not to impress, but to inspire.