Book Review: Lion’s Honey

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Canongate Myth Series is promoted as a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. Its focus is intended to be international with writers from a variety of countries invited to participate. Lion’s Honey is the contribution from Man Booker International Prize winner David Grossman who is Israeli. Translated by Stuart Schoffman it promises ‘a provocative new take’ on the biblical story of Samson.

Unfortunately this is not a retelling of a myth but rather a study of the biblical text that strongly implies it is being read as a fact based historical account. There is much cross referencing with writing from the Torah and from Jewish academics. The author picks his way through the tale seeking proof of desired notions rather than as one aiming to enlighten with carefully detached reasoning.

The book opens with a reprinting of the story of Samson from The Authorised King James version of the bible: The Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. This makes for rather dry reading. A foreword then explains that ‘Samson the hero’ is what every Jewish child learns to call the protagonist, despite the fact he was a muscle bound murderer prone to lust and whoring who ended his life as perhaps the first recorded suicide killer. Grossman portrays him as an artist yearning for love. I struggled to agree with the arguments presented for this portrayal.

Key incidents in the story are dissected and debated. Where the author claims a sensuous side I saw attention seeking and licentiousness. Where he tries to depict women letting Samson down I observed how badly he treated them. Samson came across as petulant and bullying; a much desired child, perhaps over indulged by his parents, who subsequently used his immense strength to wreak destruction when he did not get his own way.

As an example, Samson decides he will marry a Philistine he is attracted to, not one of his own people. Despite their misgivings his parents agree to this plan. At the wedding Samson, in a show of one-upmanship, sets his guests an impossible riddle that results in bad feeling and a deadly threat made against his new in-laws. Naturally this upsets the bride. When she asks her husband for the solution to the riddle he berates her, stating he has not even told his parents. Thus her secondary importance in his life is made clear before the wedding celebrations are even complete. That she subsequently acts to save her family is hardly a surprise. Following this Samson shows how vicious he can be, killing strangers and burning the community’s newly harvested crops. The author writes of the hero’s yearning for love. Such barbarism is hardly conducive to a loving marital relationship.

Continuing on the theme of love and a desire for intimacy, questions are posed about why Samson visits a whore. This seemed naive – surely such reasons are obvious. The author sees confusion and emotional need in Samson’s interest in the Philistines. I saw natural curiosity in the world outside a narrow culture. That Samson kept encountering rejections speaks to me of his behaviour around others which, when detailed, is rarely worthy of esteem.

Of course, instead of trying to make sense of an historical figure one could read the story of Samson as a myth and allow that the more extreme events detailed are included to add colour and enhance the telling of the tale. Where this treatise falls short is the apparent seriousness with which the biblical text is being read and certain religious interpretations accepted.

Any Cop?: Lion’s Honey does not sit easily within a series of evocative story retelling. Even as a study I found it unconvincing.

 

Jackie Law

Faith, religion and bigotry: Part 3

Throughout my life I seem to have had a penchant for doing things just a little bit differently to the norm. Although my primary degree was in Computer Science I took this subject through the Arts Faculty at my university to enable me to take Philosophy alongside. I cannot begin to say how much I enjoyed studying Philosophy. Had I not been determined to gain a qualification that would lead to a well paid job then this would have been my subject of choice. I read the texts for pleasure, could write my assignments without effort and gained good marks without trying. The subject taught me that absolutes are rare in arguments and that any opinion can be made to appear reasonable if presented in a certain way. It laid the foundations of my distrust of politicians and the media.

Throughout history the established church has been used to manipulate people’s behaviour by those in power. It is generally recognised that power and money corrupt those who wield them and the church has always enjoyed both. The hierarchies of the establishment have attracted the ruthlessly ambitious and fear has been used to secure the longevity of the institutions as moral blackmail and social condemnation have been preached and imposed. It has suited the political classes to make use of the established church to shape the behaviour of the general population. The power plays between church and state have continually resulted in bloodshed through the ages.

Alongside this though, much good has also been done. Convents and Monasteries provided employment, education and medical care for those in their vicinity. Food would be handed out to the starving and safe shelter offered to the wives and daughters of the wealthy when their protectors travelled. Although the inhabitants of these institutions may have been placed there by their families as an astute offering to the powerful church and to avoid a costly and possibly unsatisfactory apprenticeship or marriage, the work that they did often benefited both the local and wider community.

There have also always been some individuals who have entered the church with an untainted vocation. Innumerable, small, breakaway denominations have been established by those who despaired of the corruption that abounded and felt called by God to offer an alternative. Others have successfully worked within the establishment to serve rather than master their congregations. These individuals teach and preach a loving faith rather than a fearful obligation.

The bloody history of the church provides it’s detractors with ample examples of atrocities. These continue through to modern times and are not confined to the Christian denominations. Quotes from holy books are used to excuse maiming and murder; wars are started in the name of a god; women are subjugated and punished for thinking for themselves; none of this is done in the spirit of love but in the pursuit of power. A set of rules is imposed, loosely based on a particular interpretation of a few verses from an approved text; skilled orators draw support from those who fear change or hanker for a time that favoured them. God’s name is taken in vain by so many who  claim to serve him by feeding prejudice and a compromised morality.

The stories of Jesus talk of him dining with those that the church of his time condemned. He took as his friends a motley crew of misfits, miscreants and social rejects. He spent his time helping those who were sick, hungry, condemned and rejected by society. He told his followers to love themselves and each other. The established church has always sought to complicate this simple message and impose it’s own set of rules for it’s own gain.

I don’t know a great deal about the other major religions but my understanding is that they have suffered similar manipulations. At their heart their holy books seem to offer sensible advice for living a good life. Their leaders have then taken these and interpreted aspects to suit their own agendas. I suspect that the fanatics and extremists are following their leaders rather than the gist of the teachings of their God.

Church membership offers a great deal of comfort and support to many people and, despite my criticisms of the way it is run, I would not advocate it’s demise. I despise the hypocrisy of those who preach division, condemnation and hate in the name of a loving God; who use the wealth and power of their position to further their own prejudiced views. However, much good is still done by the many individuals who benefit from the support and guidance offered by the church as they go about their everyday lives. When helping others is at the heart of the work that a church performs it can still be a force for good in our troubled world.

Jesus did not compel anyone to follow him. He explained his ideas and invited any who wished to join him to do so. There was no coercion, no threat or ridicule for those who chose to walk away. I have noticed in recent times that a number of friends of mine who have embraced atheism will talk of religious believers in a way that puts them down as deluded and foolish. These people seem to be going the way of the religious bigots, attempting to force their point of view on others.

I know that my God exists but I feel no need to prove it to others. I will explain my reasons if asked, but believe that each of us should have the freedom to decide for ourselves. Trying to use force or ridicule suggests a desperation to have others agree with a particular point of view, perhaps to validate or perpetuate it. My God is all powerful and all knowing; he will exist with or without popular support and needs no help from me.

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