14. October 2018

My, my, my Delilah

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‘…The Philistines are upon you, Samson…’ (Judges 16, verse 20)

The story of Samson is as well known as any Bible story. He has even become a Hollywood legend courtesy of Victor Mature in 1949. While his ‘back story’ is not for the faint hearted either, we tend to concentrate on his ‘relationship’ with Delilah, her betrayal of him to the Philistines, their capture of him, his subsequent imprisonment before finally his turning the tables on them by causing the Temple of Dagon to collapse upon the leaders of the Philistines, Samson himself being killed. The text sums up it up with a sort of back-handed compliment, ‘So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life.’And of course it was all down to the length of his hair: his mother, wife of Manoah, had been visited by an angel who told her that, though she was seemingly unable to have children, she would have a son – ‘No razor shall come upon his head for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines’ –Within the whole narrative the compiler of the book of Judges refers hardly at all to Samson’s time in prison, yet the description, short as it is, is devastating,‘And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with bronze fetters; and he ground at the mill in the prison.’In 1671 John Milton published his poetic drama, ‘Samson Agonistes’, which unlike the Biblical text concentrates on the story of Samson from the point of view of his incarceration, and most especially the cruellest aspect of his punishment, the infliction of blindness – a subject close to Milton as he was himself going blind…

‘…Promise was that I

Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;

Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him

Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves…’

In blinding their prisoners, the Philistines could assume total dependency. In was not just an act of gratuitous cruelty although we should not underestimate their/our ability to be cruel, particularly to those we seek to dominate, for whatever reason. But taking away a person’s sight was tantamount to taking their ability to act independently. But it was more than that. As Milton surmised, it can have a profound psychological effect, causing a person to turn in on themselves, to revisit their previous life’s experiences – of which they could conjure up images in their mind – thereby realising how it was they came to be as they were. But, Milton imagines, Samson, far from giving in to the blindness, using it as a way of rediscovering himself from within himself, almost if it were a new beginning for him. As if Samson concluded that his having been blinded by the Philistines was God’s way of shutting out the past for good in order that through his inner eyes, through the eyes of faith, Samson could rediscover the essential truth that in spite of everything he was still a man chosen by God to defend God’s people against those who had now become his captors. His physical suffering far from crushing his spirit was a way by which his spiritual dynamic was to be awakened. The phrase ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ was used by Aldous Huxley as the title of his novel written in 1936. In it he explores the transition in life of the leading character as he discovers for himself that life is not just to do with what one can get out of it, but that there is a real need to put something of oneself into it for it to be life as it is meant to be, however difficult that might be…

“We're all of us what we are; and when it comes to turning ourselves into what we ought to be-well, it isn't easy. No, it isn't easy, Anthony Beavis. How can you expect to think in anything but a negative way when you've got chronic intestinal poisoning? Had it from birth I guess. Inherited it. And at the same time stooping, as you do. Slumped down on your mule like that - it's awful. Pressing down on the vertebrae like a ton of bricks. One can almost hear the poor things grinding together. And when the spine's in that state, what happens to the rest of the machine? It's frightful to think of.” (Aldous Huxley: Eyeless in Gaza).

It is all too easy to allow what we are, or what happens to us to cause us to lapse into a sense of self-pity and in so doing spiral down even deeper into the despair we are creating for us, within us and around us. And what is true for us as we enjoy the relative freedom that is ours must be doubly so as far as those who are in prison are concerned. Of course, there will always be a need to put people in prison – how many and for what reasons are questions for another day – but having put them there we still have to be mindful of the effect that prison has on them, and in particular how that experience will impact on them in later life, at every level. Every prisoner, sooner or later, finds her/himself ‘eyeless in Gaza. Paul talks about the effect of sin – essentially, a self-centred attitude that will, in the end, be the death of us – but he reminds us that God’s will is that we should not find ourselves prisoners of our own ego. The example of Jesus, a selfless life, totally other-centred, should encourage us to embrace such a way of living. Physically speaking, we may never regain the freedom we once had; irreversible damage is not uncommon. Even then, in Christ, we can still find it within ourselves to overcome such limitations, guilt being the greatest impediment to freedom. There are none so blind as those who will not see, and we can all ‘see’ Jesus, if only we would open our eyes to the truth of the Gospel.