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The Earliest Martyrdom Operation

Samson Returns to Gaza


"There 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, any different?

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 his death".

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 timeless hero.

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 his actions.

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 anger.

Do you see now why Samson has come back to Gaza?

AGUSTIN VELLOSO is a lecturer at the Spanish National University for Distance Learning. He can be reached at: