Spiritual: January 2009 Archives

SciFi Samson

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Warner Brothers has announced a science fiction retelling of the Samson story in a futuristic context. SciFi Wire's description of Samson catches my interest:

Samson gives a futuristic twist to the story of the biblical strongman who was invincible until he was betrayed by Delilah, to whom he entrusted the secret that his strength came from his long hair.

I have no idea if they're just repeated something WB had given them or are going by their understanding of what the Samson story is about, but it strikes me as relying on a popular misconception of Samson, one that I've seen gotten right in pop culture only once that I can think of (and that was Veggie Tales' Minnesota Cuke: the Search for Samson's Hairbrush).

Samson's strength in the book of Judges doesn't derive from his hair at all. His hair is only mentioned twice. The first time is God's command to Samson's parents that he would be a Nazirite from birth, an exceptional situation given that a Nazirite vow was usually voluntary and temporary. Those who took the vow wouldn't cut their hair, among other restrictions, for the duration of their vow. Nothing is said there to tie the strength to the hair. His hair is simply part of his being a Nazarite. Nowhere else in the Samson narrative is his strength mentioned in the context of his hair until the Delilah account. His strength is simply something God gives him for use in judging those who are evil toward God's people. When Delilah presses him for an explanation, and he mentions his hair, with every reason to believe that she'd have it cut (given her past responses to his lies about the source of his strength), he in effect sets himself up to violate his vow. So God takes his strength away. But the narrative itself never endorses the view that his strength really did come from his hair.

Now it's possible that Samson himself really did think the hair was the source of the power, in which case the fact that he's willing to boil it down to his hair is a sign that he doesn't get it himself. That theme appears throughout Judges and the Samson narratives in particular. The judges get progressively less faithful and more mixed in motivation, culminating in Samson, who frequently shows little care for the Torah's stipulations, up to the point of putting himself in a position where his Nazirite status gets prematurely cut off (pun intended). But it's not clear that he really thought this, as far as I can tell, and the narrator never tells us this.

I can see how a scifi version of it can get some basic plot similarities, but it certainly loses the main point of the whole thing unless it's not replacing the religious elements with scifi ones but simply tells the story with that side intact but in a different context. I have a feeling they won't do that, though, since the point of doing a futuristic version of it is probably to have some science fiction explanation of how hair can contain within it the explanation for super-strength.

I've been reading through Joshua lately. When I got to the Gibeonite episode in chapter 9, I noticed something that I don't think had ever registered with me before. Several other examples have since occurred to me.

In Joshua, Israel had a divine mandate to carry out: God's judgment on the Amorites declared all the way back in Genesis 15. I think most Biblical scholars take the Genesis 15 reference to include all the people living in the land, not just ethnic Amorites, just as later texts use the term 'Canaanites' to refer to all of the people, even though several lists include Amorites and/or Canaanites among lots of other names (Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Hittites, Perizzites; no list actually has exactly the same combination in the same order).

The Gibeonites were part of that mandate, but they deceived Israel into thinking they were from a far-away land and had come to Canaan to make a covenant with Israel to protect them. Israel bought the deception and made the covenant.

What I hadn't noticed before is that the text seems to assume Israel's responsibility to keep that covenant, even given the deception. It's common nowadays to assume that a promise is void if it's made under false pretenses, because your words didn't apply to exactly the thing you thought you were agreeing to. If I promise to pay off a debt you have that you tell me you accrued due to an oppressive landlord's cruel policies, and then I later discover that you have the debt merely because of gambling, the idea is that I don't have any obligation to pay the debt for you, because I didn't agree to pay off a gambling debt. I only agreed to pay off a debt caused by an unjust landlord. I know of one philosophical paper on the subject of consent that argues that someone hasn't given voluntary, informed consent to sex if they've given explicit consent but the person had been hiding the fact that the two were close relatives, because giving consent to sex doesn't amount to giving consent to incest if you don't know the person is a close relative and the other person does.

I'm seeing a several biblical accounts that seem to assume a contrary position. The Gibeonite case is just one instance among a few that have occurred to me, but it's a particularly vivid example of how fully in force this covenant is, even generations later, even to a king who had no idea that it was being violated until he inquired of God. By II Samuel 21, Israel's failure to keep that covenant in Saul's time (Saul had tried to wipe the Gibeonites out) had led to God causing a three-year famine as judgment. David, in his ignorance, was facing the famine in the kingdom as a consequence of not keeping that covenant. The covenant was made in ignorance, and it was continuing to be broken in ignorance, but that did not exempt Israel from their obligation to it. David was even ignorant of the cause of the famine, but he still bore responsibility for dealing with it. David remedied the problem and honored the covenant.

I can think of several other instances just in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 12, Abram visits Egypt and says that his wife Sarai is his sister (which he later says is technically true; see Gen 20:12, but it's still deception). Pharaoh gets upset when he discovers the deception, because he could have married her and thus married another man's wife. Even if he had done so in ignorance, the reason he gives for his outrage is that Abram could have caused him to sin ignorantly. A similar circumstance occurs later in Abraham's life in Genesis 20 but with Abimelek the king of Gerar instead of Pharaoh. A third instance of the same fault occurs with Abraham's son Isaac in Genesis 26, who also faces a similar situation with someone called Abimelek the king of Gerar (not necessarily the same figure, since it could be a title like 'Pharaoh'). It's possible in these cases that it's just an ethical framework shared by the Hebrews, Egyptians, and Gerarites. If so, it doesn't mean someone holding to the authority of scripture would have to say that God endorses it. It's the words of the Pharaoh or Abimelek that assume the principle.

But in Joshua and the subsequent Samuel text, it seems harder to say that. I think the narrator more clearly endorses the principle there. That also seems to me to be true of a couple more cases in Genesis, involving Jacob. First, In Genesis 27, Jacob deceives his father Isaac into giving his blessing to him rather than to his older twin brother Esau, who would normally have received it. Since this was not just a father's blessing but a passing on of the blessing bestowed on Isaac via the covenant with Abraham, there was only one blessing of this sort to give, and Isaac recognized that once the blessing was given, he'd passed on what had been entrusted to him by God. He couldn't undo it. That sacred trust had been given to Jacob now. The narrator seems to assume that as much as Isaac does when he explains to Esau that he can't now give his blessing to him also.

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

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