es profesor de Ciencias de la Educación de la UNED en
The Earliest Martyrdom Operation
Sanson comes back to Gaza
CSCAweb, October 25, 2005
was a public festival among the Philistines so they sent for
Samson, and he was brought to their feast, that they might insult
him in their cups. Hereupon he, thinking it one of the greatest
misfortunes, if he should not be able to revenge himself when
he was thus insulted and as soon as he came to them, he rushed
with force against them, and overthrew the house, by overthrowing
its pillars, with three thousand men in it, who were all slain,
and Samson with them. And indeed this man deserves to be admired
for his courage and strength, and magnanimity at his death, and
that his wrath against his enemies went so far as to die himself
with them. he was one of extraordinary virtue. But his kindred
took away his body, and buried it in Sarasat, his own country,
with the rest of his family."
This is one of the earliest
recorded martyrdom operations of ancient times. It cannot be
said to be unique, but it has become widely known around the
world. It happened around three thousand years ago, but is still
fresh and relevant today. The people involved, the place, even
the scenario, are familiar to anyone who knows what has been
going on in Palestine during the last ten years. However, the
links between this event and present day operations go beyond
the physical and circumstantial similarities. What lies under
the surface is also strikingly familiar and harbours an interesting
lesson about current events.
The author of the above-quoted
piece on Samson is Flavius Josephus, a Jewish scholar. It is
from his famous Antiquities of the Jews, Book V, Chapter 8.
Josephus was born in Jerusalem
a few years after the time of Jesus, during the time of the Roman
occupation. Besides being a historian, he was a soldier and a
priest. This background allowed him to write from a privileged
position and makes his account most enlightening. In fact, Josephus'
straight to the point report tells almost everything about martyrdom
operations. Even his silence about certain issues is educational.
The Philistines were having
a good time and they mocked Samson. He could not bear the humiliation.
He was burning for revenge. There is neither a political nor
religious reason for his rage. This is unnecessary, although
it would not have been rare. Other authors have written that
Samson prayed: "O Sovereign Lord, remember me. O God, please
strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge
on the Philistines for my two eyes. Let me die with the Philistines!"
In any case, he was making
a moral statement about himself. While in chains he could have
repented of his past, he could have asked for pardon. He could
have tried to end his life, either by his own hand or by asking
someone to do it for him. Samson did not show the slightest interest
in doing anything of the sort. He just wanted pure revenge: nothing
less than the death of three thousand people, even if it meant
ending his life at the same time. He was eager to pay with his
life in order to kill his enemies.
Probably, when the Philistines
learned about the massacre of their compatriots they developed
a poor opinion of Samson. Clearly, however, Josephus did not
devote a single word to their reaction. Josephus only mentions
the Philistines to say that they insulted Samson and that they
were three thousand in number. There is room to think that Josephus
would have preferred to say six thousand. Either figure looks
like an exaggeration anyway, but Josephus" aim was to make
Samson's story as exemplary as possible. What Josephus really
wants is to celebrate Samson's action as a long-lasting legacy.
In writing his account Josephus
despises the Philistines, praises Samson, endorses his stand,
shares his wrath against the enemy, rejoices at the result of
his actions, declares Samson's life a virtuous one and does not
forget to underline that he had a proper burial.
Neither Samson nor Josephus
could have claimed not to know that among the three thousand
Philistines attending the public festival there would have been
women, children and the elderly who could be killed by the action.
The former aimed for maximum damage through his act; the latter,
maximum propaganda value.
Samson's martyrdom operation,
like the Massada collective suicide and the Maccabean revolt,
forms the basis for the national and religious education of Jewish
youth. So what part of present day Palestinian martyrdom operations
do Jewish Israelis pretend not to understand?
Let us go back to Josephus:
" there was a public festival among the Philistines... that
they might insult him in their cups."
That Israel stands astride
the Palestinians and grows at their expense is such a travesty
that even the United Nations has condemned it a hundred times.
That Israel considers itself the only democracy in the Middle
East, while it has been responsible for making around three quarters
of a million Palestinians refugees, while it continues to prevent
them and their descendents from returning to their homes, persists
in stealing more and more Palestinian lands, particularly since
signing the Oslo Accords in 1994, maintains over seven thousand
Palestinian prisoners and administrative detainees under appalling
penal conditions and ghettoizes more than three million residents
of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in isolated little Bantustans
and yet is still able to rally the support of most of the Western
world, is such an affront to any sense of justice and decency,
and the values that the member states of the United Nations subscribe
to, that it would not be a wonder if several hundred Samsons
arose in anger against it.
Josephus again, "He, thinking
it one of the greatest misfortunes, if he should not be able
to revenge himself when he was thus insulted." People find
it hard to undergo humiliation and it is clear Samson was willing
to sacrifice his life in order to make his enemies pay for their
crimes against him. Is the Palestinian desire for revenge, in
the face of expulsions, land theft, murder of innocent men, women
and children, house demolitions, torture, maiming, lack of hope,
The need for revenge is deep
in human beings and one of the most intimate. It is easy to understand
that a person - Palestinian or otherwise - long unemployed, who
has seen his home flattened, his brother killed in cold blood,
his land taken away with no right of appeal or compensation,
his children malnourished and with no future, will choose to
punish those whom he holds responsible for his misfortunes and
who enjoy what he cannot.
"overthrew the house,
by overthrowing its pillars, with three thousand men in it, who
were all slain, and Samson with them."
Josephus introduces the events
in the right order for his purpose.
The first is to make clear
that Samson's will is turned into action. What comes afterwards
is the result of Samson's action. He is the only character in
the play, and only his thinking and acting matter.
The second step is to underline
the success of the operation: no survivors. This could be a case
of unmatched misfortune if figures of festival attendants and
casualties are compared. In fact, it is not simply bad luck but
the necessary conclusion of the lesson Samson is teaching the
Philistines and, above all the lesson Josephus is teaching future
generations of Jews. A lower figure of people killed and the
inclusion of some injured would not be educational enough.
Finally, the reader is informed
of Samson's death. This is done with a minimum use of words and
no emphasis whatsoever. It's almost as if Samson's death is mentioned
just in passing, "three thousand men were slain, and Samson
simply with them".
On the one hand his death needs
no additional comment. It was not Samson's death that was important,
but the price he paid for seeking vengeance. Revenge was the
aim and it was achieved. Revenge is more important than life.
Accordingly, death cannot be important. On the other hand, the
meaning of his death is most important. This is why Josephus
underlines it as follows: "And indeed this man deserves
to be admired for his courage and strength, and magnanimity at
The historian gives way to
the soldier, who proceeds to assess Samson's attack. The picture
ofthe perfect hero appears. Samson is a soldier to be admired
for his courage, strength and magnanimity. What else can a proud
soldier aim for? Three compliments to describe in a single short
sentence the murderer of three thousand people.
Josephus wants to make the
best of Samson's vengeance for his own educational purposes.
Samson's death is the appropriate time for the priest to take
charge of the account. The author shifts from describing without
comments the facts prior to the death, to teaching through moral
adjectives the results of those facts. Showing the qualities
of Samson is the only thing that matters from now on. Description
turns into praise, so pupils may easily find the relationship
between what Samson did and his status as an outstanding and
Are they urged to admire him
because of his high death count? His method of attack? Because
he followed God's commands? No, just because "his wrath
against his enemies went so far as to die himself with them".
Josephus wants his readers to remember, above all, Samson's wrath
against his enemies. In order to satisfy it Samson is eager to
die, and this becomes more important than life itself. The rest
is introduced solely to support this central statement. "He
was one of extraordinary virtue". "His kindred took
away his body, and buried it in his own country, with the rest
of his family". He received appropriate honours after his
death: glory and an honourable burial. He got full credit for
If Samson killed three thousand
people because his enemies put him in chains and insulted him,
why would Palestinians not aim to do the same for the same reasons?
If Samson became a national hero and a religious symbol for his
limitless wrath, why would some Palestinians not try to achieve
similar honours among their own people?
The Samson martyrdom operation
of three thousand years ago soon became, and has remained until
today, a fully-fledged symbol for Jews. Because of the weight
and strength that it carries in their cultural heritage and psyche,
it is difficult to think that present-day Jews are surprised
when others follow Samson's way. There was nothing special about
Samson's wrath, which is a universal human passion. One does
not have to be a Jew to feel it burning inside the soul.
If all human beings are equal
but human rights are not universal then it's only natural that
violence will prevail. One cannot but realize that continuing
gross violations of human rights, generation after generation,
can only result in more and more Samsons rising up in terrible
Do you see now why Samson has
come back to Gaza?
is a lecturer at the Spanish National University for Distance
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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