Samson Wasn’t Black But I’m Glad the Actor Was |

Lawson Stone

Stones Fence

Samson Wasn’t Black But I’m Glad the Actor Was

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The History Channel’s episode featuring Samson totally freaked out a lot of viewers when Samson appeared portrayed by an actor of African ancestry, wearing dreadlocks! When I announced that I planned to offer a defense of the portrayal, from a historical perspective, one person actually wished me luck in “making the racist sensible and acceptable.” I am still trying to decide if he was insulting the History Channel or me!

I doubt that racisim motivated the History Channel in casting a black actor. Surely an army of consultants and diversity sensitivity specialists vet every show. The most accurate criticism might be that the producers attempted to insert ethnic diversity because it was politically correct, even if it was historically wrong. Or maybe they just wanted to mess with our heads a little, shake us up, make us see the story from a fresh perspective. That’s all possible. In some board room, some script meeting, the writers hashed this out and had reasons for doing it, and the reasons did not include racism, though I’m not privy to them.

I think it was great casting. But of all the reasons that the History Channel might have had, I’m certain that they were not thinking of the perspective I am about to share with you! As far as I can tell, they had no Old Testament or ancient Near Eastern specialists on their team. And some of what I’ll share here is stuff even many OT specialists would not know, simply because the discipline is huge and nobody can control all the data. Of course, this is hypothetical, though I think a very well supported hypothetical. If you’d like the footnotes and grim details, my commentary on Judges (pages 371-372, 378-382) will give you the bibliography as well as sources on the counter-arguments.

So…here are some relevant biblical data about Samson himself and his cultural identity gleaned from Judges 13-16. I’ve also popped a map in here so you can track the various locations mentioned.

Samson belonged to the tribe of Dan,BIB_202 originally located in the transitional zone between the highland watershed ridge and the coastal plain. We read that the “Amorites” harassed the Danites so that they abandoned their territory and migrated to the extreme north. The two hilltop villages of Zor’ah and Eshta’ol seem to have been the only towns held by the Danites, who had to look down on the fertile Sorek Valley, which they could not cultivate because of Philistine presence, or look across at the town site of Beth Shemesh, which again, Israelites could not occupy due to Canaanite presence. Dan is always referred to as the “camp of Dan” or the “clan [Heb. מִשְׁפָּחָה mishpakhah] of Dan.” Typically, a tribe is composed of many “clans” so this suggests a diminutive band. Samson’s family expresses great anxiety when he seeks to marry a Philistine woman, and generally Samson seems quite at home amidst the Philistines, especially their banquets. By contrast, every time Samson is depicted interacting with Israelites, the tension is overt. The Judeans actually sell him over to the Philistines! So just from the surface of the story in Judges 13-16, we expect to see Samson at odds with his own people.

Samson’s tribe, the tribe of Dan, was one of the most marginal of Israelite tribes, despite their figuring heavily in Judges 13-18. After Judges, the Danites as a tribe do not appear in the narrative of Samuel—Kings, and have little or no role anywhere else in the biblical narrative. Dan is even absent from the book of Revelation’s listing of the Israelite tribes (Rev 7:5-8), suggesting the Danites represent a kind of biblical-theological “dead end.” In addition to the Bible’s ambivalence about Dan, scholars puzzle over the ethnicity of the Danites, who do not seem to have meshed well with Israel. Jacob’s “blessing” hints that they were not fully accepted among the Israelites (Gen 49:16-18).

Dan will govern his people,
like any other tribe in Israel.
Dan will be a snake beside the road,
a poisonous viper along the path
that bites the horse’s hooves
so its rider is thrown off.
I trust in you for salvation, O LORD!

The first line about governing is a play on the Hebrew root of the word “Dan” which means, “judge, govern.” The “money” lines come next: Dan the snake, Dan the viper who strikes the horse, who pitches the rider off. Dan, who provokes the poet to cry for God’s salvation. This passage betrays a degree of alienation between 532422_149058311908854_1904472813_nDan and the rest of Israel. In addition, Judges 17-18 narrates how the Danites, after abandoning their divinely granted heritage, migrate north, slaughter a town solely because it was an easy mark, and set up a shrine featuring an image of Yahweh while the real house of God remained in Shiloh. The Danites don’t look so good, do they?

The Danites are associated with ships (5:17) and metallurgy (Exod 31:6; 35:34; 38:23; cf.2 Chr 2:13), neither of which characterizes Israel strongly, but both of which evoke the Sea Peoples—especially the Philistines (Cf. 1 Sam. 13:19-22). Arrestingly, one of the Sea Peoples mentioned in ancient texts bears a name linguistically cognate to Dan, once we allow for the way different ancient languages spelled the same words: danuna/denyen (Egyptian), dnym (Phoenician), and danaoi (Greek). The Philistines settled the southern coast, while other groups of Sea Peoples settled farther north. It would be reasonable to see the Danuna occupying the area around Joppa (modern Tel Aviv). This region would coincide with the territory allotted to Dan in Josh 19:40-46. So, if you’re still following me, the possibility exists that a segment of the tribe of Dan did not enter Canaan with the rest of their tribesmen, but originally belonged to the Danuna, a group among the Sea Peoples. They possibly fused with a smaller Israelite group, suggesting Dan was a composite, or hybrid tribe.

The Sea Peoples groups were not homogeneous, but consisted of at least nine distinct sub-groups. Nor were they unified. Some of the Sea Peoples were simply pirates and raiders, soldiers of fortune. Others, as depicted in the Memorial Temple inscriptions of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, planned to settle, bringing carts loaded with family and property. Some of the groups included among the Sea Peoples even practiced circumcision. We know because the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah records that to count the enemies slain in battle he collected the severed phalluses of the circumcised and the hands of the uncircumcised. Whether the Danuna specifically practiced circumcision remains unknown, but if they did, they would share an important cultural link with the Israelites. The Philistines, by contrast, during Iron I (1200-1000 B.C.) are the quintessential “uncircumcised” peoples of the OT. The overwhelming preponderance of pejorative references to “uncircumcision” or to circumcision as a major cultural marker for Israel occur in contrast with the Philistines. Perhaps the (circumcised?) Danuna felt a cultural distance from their Sea Peoples confederates, the uncircumcised Philistines, and found Israelite affiliation more congenial, much as the Canaanite inhabitants of Shechem did. Dan felt cramped amidst an expanding Judah and Ephraim on the east and samsonnorth, the aggressive Philistines on the south, and the solid Canaanite enclaves at Beth Shemesh and Gezer. Maybe that’s why most of the Danites (possibly including their Danuna population) sought fresh territory, an easier conquest, in the far north ca. 1100 BC. Perhaps they were never a large or vigorous group, just a “camp” or “clan.” This sense of confinement to the hill villages of Zorah and Eshtaol features strongly in the Samson stories.

So…Samson was a Danite. If the sketch above is accurate, then Samson could well have been of another race from the Israelites. His father’s name, Manoah, seems a good Hebrew name, but the author never tells us his mother’s name. She also challenges some of her husband’s conventional beliefs about God. The angel’s appearance to her, his enjoining on her (as well as on her son) the terms of the Nazirite vow, and Samson’s evident closeness to his mother, all could suggest she perhaps was of the “other” race, but had come under Israel’s covenant with Yahweh.  We know from several passages in Joshua that a good many persons living in Canaan, not of Israelite descent, embraced Israel’s faith and accepted the covenant (Josh. 2, 8:30-35 “foreigner;” Josh. 9; Josh. 24). This also would explain why Manoah could not effectively block his son’s marriage to a foreign woman…maybe he himself had done the same!

So that’s admittedly lot of dot-connecting, and maybe even some dot-supplying! If Samson came from among the Danuna, or at least, from a non-native Israelite woman naturalized as an Israelite, he was a descendant of Sea Peoples. Since these were associated with the Philistines, Israel’s mortal enemies, Samson’s easy fraternizing with Philistines seems more natural and the undercurrent of hostility from other Israelites makes sense. Also, his parents’ anxiety about his mate choice could be more than merely Israelites wanting their boy to marry in the faith. If they were “naturalized” Israelites of non-Israelite background, then they’d be doubly anxious to secure acceptance and much disturbed over their son’s careless congress with the alien, the other, the enemy.

So…if I were making a movie about Samson, I’d not make him ruggedly handsome. I’d make him visibly of another race, with a mom of another race, distinct from “my” Israelites. And I’d choose a race and other cultural trappings that connoted tension, alienation, hostility. Maybe also…I’d want to challenge my “majority culture” viewers to ponder whether salvation might in fact come from that distrusted “other” of the wrong race, wrong culture, wrong style. That maybe God can work powerfully through someone who just doesn’t quite fit my image of “Hero, Savior of Israel.”

Which seems to be what the History Channel did.

Now that I think of it…that’s exactly what God did too.

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Lawson Stone

Lawson Stone

I'm 59 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 35 years, my three adult children and one son-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.
  • http://riversfromeden.wordpress.com/ Christopher Jones

    My impression was that the casting decision was made in order to highlight the tension caused by his marriage to a Philistine woman in a way that was relate-able to the cultural context of the viewer. Eg, Samson’s interracial marriage was translated to a modern social context while still highlighting the same fundamental issue.

    • Lawson Stone

      That makes sense to me. Is there some place where the producers discuss this point?

      • http://riversfromeden.wordpress.com/ Christopher Jones

        I haven’t seen them comment directly on their casting choices, except to state that their cast is racially diverse.

    • Hierarchicalist

      If that was their reasoning for making him black, I find it silly. I’ve never seen a portrayal of Romeo and Juliet that made Romeo black so that a modern audience could relate. How hard is it for people to understand the tension caused by a marriage between members of feuding families, tribes or nations?

  • mgseamanjr

    It’s not so sophisticated. They did it for shock value and free publicity and it seems to be working since you played right into it.

    • Lawson Stone

      Why so angry? They pitched it slow across the plate, and I hit it. What’s your problem?

  • V Mann

    Good commentary Mr Stone. Just saw the CBS Morning (recorded) interview with the producers of The Bible. They in fact had several Biblical advisers on location. I think you make some valid points. It seems to have made people think, maybe even ponder, what the different tensions were and how they, and we, might navigate them. That in itself is something of worth.

    • Lawson Stone

      I know they had biblical scholar advisors, I have learned of five, but all were New Testament scholars, none were Old Testament scholars.

      I do think this series has been worthwhile. Like other History Channel specials about the Bible, it puts a series of questions on the table, usually raised in historical terms, and opens up the chance for discussion.

      That, of course, is what I’ve been doing!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  • the one

    samson was black lol

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  • blackdreamhunk

    your racist that is why you took down all my links! Color matters to you!

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  • chris_divine

    Everything you’ve said is false. Samson WAS black, the bible clearly states he had locs. Non blacks cannot have locs naturally, because they do not possess the coily and kinky texture of afro hair. Samson never touched his hair and it was never touched (till Delilah came around) because it was his source of strength, which is why it makes sense that his hair became locs. When Afro hair is left overtime, it naturally locs itself. Straight hair cannot do this. People need to understand that Christianity of today has been europeanised. Black people were the original.

    • Hierarchicalist

      I love how you Afrocentrists misquote the Bible to make it look like everyone was black. The Bible says that Samson had seven locks. A lock is a piece or pieces of hair that have been bunched or tied together in some way. White people frequently refer to bunched sections of their hair as locks. Stop searching for your identity in the religion that was given to our ancestors by slave masters. It was not the religion of our ancestors before they were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean.

      • jones

        it is not misquoting the bible . African were the original people. tell me how a black person can be created by a Caucasian person. it doesnt make sense and even if they werent black they sure was not white.

        • Hierarchicalist

          Nothing in your reply refutes my argument.

          • jones

            But u cant even answer my question

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        ARE U SERIOUS RIGHT RIGHT NOW?? IF WE DIDN’T ALL COME FROM AFRICANS..EXPLAIN THE SUB-SAHRAN AFRICAN BLOOD INSIDE EVERY LIVING PERSON ON THE PLANET????

  • Dubz

    If you research the Ethiopian Jews, known as, Beta Israel (or Falasha)
    they have been associated with the Tribe of Dan for centuries, and this
    has been asserted by a number of noted rabbis and rabbinical scholars as
    far back as the 15th century (as if the latter really matters to these people).

    Beta Israel still perform the most ancient religious ceremonies known to “Judaism” or Hebraism.

    Secondly, I guess you never heard of the Lemba people of Uganda, a Black African People, who have more actual Hebrew or Jewish DNA markers than any of the other European or Mediterranean Jews known in the world today, including within the modern state of Israel!

    Let’s not even talk about the number of African skulls found in Lachish or the wall reliefs of the Assyrian conquest, or that Hebrew is considered an Afro-Asiatic language.

    Just as today and even more so in the past, the Hebrews or the nation of Israel was not confined to a ‘pure race’ as mythologized, Abraham was from Ur (Sumeria) and even Moses married an Ethiopian woman, and throughout the bible we see the Israelites mixing and some having even Canaanite names.

    A portrayal of a Black Samson, is wa-aaaay more plausible and likely than a “white” Charleston Heston Moses!

    You need to read, The Invention of the Jewish People, written by, Shlomo Sanda, a “white” Jewish scholar.

    The book was in the best-seller list in Israel for nineteen weeks. It was reprinted three times when published in French (Comment le peuple juif fut inventé, Fayard,
    Paris, 2008). In France, it received the “Prix Aujourd’hui”, a journalists’ award given to a non-fiction political or historical work. An English translation of the book was published by Verso Books in October 2009. The book has also been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Russian, and as of late 2009 further translations were underway The Invention of the Jewish People has now been translated into more languages than any other Israeli history book.

    Posted are the pictures of an Ethiopian Jew (Beta Israel) and two Lemba men.

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  • Scott Mcfarland

    People who make the greatest story ever told about race are entirely missing the point. Jesus is the son of God…race does not enter the equation. And whether any character from any story mentioned in the Holy Bible is black, brown, yellow, red or white means nothing. Who really cares. Anyone who wants to argue over race is simply listening to and following the voice of satan. Heaven will be full of those from all people, all tribes, all tongues and all lands! End of story. End race hatred…it’s up to you individually overcome and God expects from each of us.