Sound and Sense: Not Always Linked
When I indicated in the title of this morning’s sermon that “sound” and “sense” are not always linked, I did realize that some of you might say, “Yes, we know. We’ve heard you preach.” But however often that may be true, I had something else in mind when I chose today’s topic. I hope, by the way, that it’s all right to have fun creating a sermon, because I certainly had fun with this one! Partly because of novelty: I’ve never done anything remotely like this before. And partly because, as I mentioned earlier, our excellent choir provided me with my subject matter. I have been fascinated many times by how a beautiful melody in a hymn or an anthem may make us completely oblivious to what the words say, and when I first heard the choir practice the piece called “Witness” I knew I wanted to talk about how lovely sounds may obscure the fact that some of the words are pure nonsense.
That is not the choir’s fault, of course; they do not write their own lyrics, and they smile themselvesat times at some of the puzzling words and ideas set to perfectly wonderful music. Bob Scott and I are in total agreement that the melody of a piece may be delightful for an audience even if the words of its text will not stand up to close scrutiny. If you pay attention at times to the hymns we sing or the anthems we hear, you know already that the composer of the music, and the author of the lyrics, may not have equal genius. When I omit a verse or two from a Sunday morning hymn, I do so for a variety of reasons: sometimes just to keep the song from thumping along forever, sometimes because the imagery in a line is so bad, sometimes because the theology is so different from what we believe.
But when it comes to a choral anthem, we have to make a kind of tradeoff. If the melody itself is as delightful and stirring as the one we just heard, called “Witness,” then we just listen to the music and overlook what the words are telling us. I can do that, but it’s not easy for me to ignore meaning when my whole life has been spent working with words. So while I tap my toes with pleasure to the rhythms of that rousing anthem, I am caught up at the same time in paying attention to the lyrics and asking myself, “Do I believe them?” In this case, my answer was….No. It occurred to me when I heard those lyrics several days ago that if I did a lighthearted talk about my reaction to the message, it would allow me to resurrect a couple of Biblical stories that may have been quietly entombed in your minds for many years, and to encourage you at the same time to listen to ideas as well as to music.
The word “witness” has several meanings, but the one intended in the choral anthem is of a person who gives testimony or evidence for something. This traditional spiritual asks, and then answers, its own question: “Who’ll be a witness for my Lord?” The first witness called is a leader of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night. There is some dialogue between the two of them, and then the story comes to an inconclusive end with nothing to indicate whether or not Nicodemus became a disciple. It is often assumed that he did, because after Jesus died Nicodemus joined another man in preparing the body for burial. So the anthem supposes that Nicodemus became a witness for Christ, but we have no way of knowing. From his three appearances in the Gospel of John he seems to have been a decent sort of man, and the thought of him as a witness is not upsetting.
But that is certainly not true of the other person singled out by the anthem, a loutish bully-boy out of Jewish folklore whose name is Samson. If you really know the story of his life, hearing him called a “witness for the Lord” is enough to spoil your lunch. The anthem says that “way back yonder in ancient times” he killed ten thousand of the Philistines, and “then went a’wanderin’ about.” Well, let me refresh your memory of this Terminator and what he was up to when he went “a’wanderin’ about.”
Before I do that, I need to say that along with thousands of Christian scholars and Jewish rabbis I read the Samson story as a colorful yarn out of ancient Hebrew mythology. Samson is their Hercules, their Paul Bunyan, gifted by the Hebrew god Yahweh with miraculous strength. He is Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Swartzenegger on a rampage, except that they are moral and ethical giants compared with Samson. As you listen to a survey of his life this morniong, see if you don’t agree. The fact that the author of the book of Judges gives Samson four whole chapters shows what a popular folk tale this was, and no wonder! It is filled with sex and violence, clever riddles and cruel vengeance, superhuman strength and subhuman morality — no wonder it has been popular in Sunday school and turned into plays, operas, and movies. Here’s how it begins:
“There was a certain man of the tribe of Dan, whose name was Manoah….and his wife was barren. And the angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You shall conceive and bear a son.’” That is a Biblical formula which naturally leads one to expect that a truly great man of God is about to be born….but what we get is one of the worst monsters in either history or mythology. (By the way, that great early champion of women’s rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had an acid comment about the beginning of this story. “One would suppose,” she said, “that this woman, so favored of God, worthy to converse with angels on the most delicate of her domestic relations, might have had a name…..instead of being mentioned merely as the wife of Manoah.” Her logic is impeccable, but the story is set in the midst of a patriarchal culture, so although the father’s name is important she is referred to only as “his wife” or as “the woman.”)
This testosterone hero’s first words in the story are, “There is a Philistine girl down at Timnah who caught my eye. Get her for me.” You can guess their reaction if you can imagine having your son announce that he’d like to marry the daughter of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. So at dinner that evening Mom and Dad make an old familiar parental pitch: “Why do you have to go to those heathen Philistins to get a wife? Can’t you find a girl in our own clan, among all our people?” But Samson said, “She is the one I want you to get for me. I like her.” The author then tells us that actually it was the Hebrew god Yahweh who was leading Samson to do this, because [direct quote!] “Yahweh was looking for a chance to fight the Philistines.” God looking for a chance to fight! — that should tell you what primitive view of God is upheld in this story!
So Samson goes down to the enemy village with Dad and Mom to get the girl, and as he is passing through a nearby vineyard a young lion suddenly begins to roar. The power of Yahweh makes this Hebrew Tarzan so strong that he tears the lion apart with his bare hands. Of course, the Hebrew god could just as easily have made the lion fall asleep, but this makes a much better story. When Samson strolls on to the girl’s house I like to imagine her saying, “You have blood all over you. What happened?” and Samson saying, “Oh, nothing much. I had to rip a lion apart in the suburbs a few minutes ago….it was a little messy.” Their conversation is not recorded, unfortunately, but we are told that Samson went back home, decided he liked her, and returned to marry her.
On the way back he steps off the road to see the lion he had killed and was surprised to find a swarm of bees had made honey inside the dead carcass. I have been told by bee experts that bees do not use the rotting carcasses of animals, so the story teller may have confused flies with bees or else kthis is a literary “plant— a way of getting an audience set up for fun to come later. At the girl’s house, Samson gives a party at which, among other guests, thirty young Philistine men show up. Samson gives them a riddle and bets each of them a piece of fine linen and a new suit if they can guess its meaning before the seven-day feast is over. Out of the eater came something to eat,
Out of the strong came sometehing sweet.
After three days, when they hadn’t guessed, they went to Samson’s new wife, a Philistine like themselves, and said, “Trick your husband into telling us what the riddle means. If you don’t, we’ll set fire to your father’s house and burn you with it.” So she says to Samson, “You don’t love me. You just hate me. You told my friends a riddle and didn’t tell me what it means.” He refusesat first, but she keeps crying and nagging until he tells her. She promptly passes it on to her countrymen, and they solve the riddle. A normal, decent person might have said, “Gentlemen, you answered my riddle by deception, so the bet is off. I have no obligation to give you the linen and the new suits I offered. Get out of my house.”
But this is a story from a very old part of the Hebrew Bible, and if you read that collection with great care you quickly find that you simply cannot make all of it reasonable by our standards of morality, psychology or logic. So Samson now does an incredibly cruel and irratioanl thing: he dashes off to another village and kills thirty guys living there, strips them, and takes their clothing back to pay off his debt to the first thirty. There is not a word of rebuke for this murder of innocent people, but then they were Philistines and the storyteller hated Philistines. As for Samson, he goes home to Mom and Dad again, and back in Timnah his wife is given by her father to Samson’s best man. Girls were passed around in that world at the whims of their fathers.
After a while, Samson decides to go back to her village to see her again, but lher father will not allow him to enter the house. “I really thought you hated her,” he says, “so I gave her to your friend. But her younger sister is prettier, anyway. You can have her instead.” You might suppose Samson would retaliate against the father, but because the whole story is told to mock the hated Philistines once again he vows vengeance against anyone in the neighborhood. So, we are told, he caught 300 foxes and, two at a time, tied their tails together. (How long, in real life, do you suppose that would take? It’s meant, of course, to be humorous hyperbole). Once Samson has them all neatly caged and waiting for his game to begin, he takes them out two at a time and ties their bushy tails together. Then this man whose birth, according to Hebrew legend, was grandly announced by an angel of the Lord, stuck a burning torch into the knotted tails of each pair and turned them loose in the Philistine wheatfields. You can hear the roars of laughter rising from Hebrew campfires over the centuries as some skilled storyteller makes his audience see what the frantic animals do to enemy fields. If you hate cruelty to animals, you may wish for a line somewhere in this story that says God does not like this kind of thing but you won’t find it. There are plenty of places where it’s said God did not like what some king or judge did, but there is not a word of reproof for anything Samson does in this folktale.
The Philistines found out who did it and, in the curious ways of this story, instead of going after Samson they promptly burn his ex-wife to death and burn down her father’s house. Things get more edifying by the minute: Samson promptly slaughters a bunch of them, and goes off to live in a cave. When the Philistines come to get him, his own Israelite countrymen beg him to surrender. He agrees, they tie him with new ropes, the enemy comes to claim their prisoner, and — lo, and behold! — the “power of the Lord” comes on him again and he bursts the ropes as if they were threads. He picks up the convenient jawbone of a dead donkey and kills a thousand men with it. You might try imagining how long this would take — a feat impossible to imagine unless they all line up passively and wait to be clobbered. And then as this tale gets more and more incredible the storyteller puts a comical song full of puns in Samson’s mouth. James Moffatt, in his translation of the Bible, tries to carry the puns across from Hebrew to English:
With the jaw-bone of an ass I have piled them in a mass!
With the jaw-bone of an ass I have assailed assailants!
He tosses the jawbone aside, names the place “Jawbone Hill,” and being thirsty after his exertions he calls out a complaint to his God: “You gave me this great victory. Am I now going to die of thirst?” At which point we are told that Samson’s god quickly makes a spring start flowing from the ground so that our hero can have a drink. At some indeterminate later time, Samson goes to visit the red light district in the Philistine city of Gaza, where his enemies hope to catch him once again, but he forsakes the lady’s bed at midnight, walks to the city gate, pulls it up doors, posts, lock and all, and then carries it on his shoulders to the top of a hill. You understand, I hope, that city gates were massive things, meant to keep out invaders. We are in a world of joyous exaggeration!
Samson (who never learns) falls in love again, this time with a woman named Delilah, and once again his enemies beg her to trick Samson into revealing the secret of his great strength. She begs Samson three different times to tell her his secret, and all three times he lies. “How can you say you love me when you don’t mean it?” she cries. “You’ve made a fool of me three times, and you still haven’t told me what makes you so strong.” Finally, the storysays, “He got so sick and tired of her bothering him about it that he finally told her the truth” — that his strength was in his hair, and if it were cut he would be as weak as any ordinary person. This is the stuff of myth and magic, but Sunday School kids have loved it for generations.
Once she knows the secret, Delilah lulls Samson to sleep in her lap (almost certainly a Hebrew euphemism for the kind of exercise that puts a man into a very sound sleep indeed) and calls a man to cut off his hair. Samson sleeps through it all, and the Philistines promptly arrive to take him prisoner. They put his eyes out, take him to Gaza in chains, and set him to work grinding at the prison mill. Things are gloomy indeed, but the author introduces a nice piece of suspense: Samson’s hair begins to grow back, as hair has a way of doing, and if we know anything at all about literary art we know that something grand is about to happen. Sure enough, the Philistine kings hold a great banquet one day in honor of their false god, and call for Samson to entertain them. As he stumbles out into the open, Samson says to the boy leading him: “Let me touch the columns that hold up the building. I want to lean on them.” If you spent any time in Sunday School you have seen the picture: 3000 men and women on the roof, waiting for the fun to start. Samson standing between two middle pillars that hold up the building, one hand on each. Then the final prayer to God (to God!) to join him in killing all these people….and down comes the grandstand. With great relish, the author pronounces his ultimate compliment: “Samson killed more people at his death than he had killed during his life.”
So dies a liar, a bully, a womanizer, torturer of animals, and mass murderer — favored throughout his lifetime, we are told, by Yahweh, god of the Israelites. In the New Testament gospels Jesus often mentions characters and events from the Hebrew scriptures he knew. He never mentions Samson. But then, what could he have done with such a story, anyway, this man who defined God as love and said, “Bless your enemies and pray for those who use you badly”? I hope to hear the anthem again, and I’ll tap my toes to the lively music, but when I hear Samson described as “a witness for my Lord,” I will smile and say to myself: “He’s no witness for any Lord I worship.”
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half
truths, and superficial relationships, so that we will live
deep within our hearts. Amen.