I was recently asked to review a new novel by author Jud Nirenberg named Samson’s Walls.
In this novel Mr. Nirenberg takes the story of the Samson from the Bible to a new level, letting the story take life much more than I would have thought when I first heard of the novel.
Prior to receiving the novel, I did a bit of research on the story itself and found that the story revolves around the story of Samson. But is also examines the society that he was born in, raised and tempted within.
As the publisher states:
In a Canaan where Philistines and Hebrews vie for dominance, it is important to know one’s place. Samson is isolated in his, trapped by unusual rules and expectations. He was promised to his parents by an angel, destined to grow into a great man and make his people strong. Raised with Philistines for playmates, he aches to be a part of their world. At marrying age, he chooses a Philistine wife. When his new family denies him the acceptance he craves, he releases years of frustration and loneliness in blood.
Samson goes into hiding, seeking to make peace with his wife’s people. Other young Hebrews soon join him, each with their own reasons for rebellion. Even while longing for peace, Samson leads this growing army. He is trapped by his successes and grows in fame and power, taking enemy territory. He is alone.
He tastes love when he meets Delilah, the unlikely prostitute-queen of a village in no-man’s land. She is the opposite of the clannish divisions he hates, with unclear ethnic origins and leading a mixed community. They become intimate as Philistine spies gather around them. Samson and Delilah are ensnared in Samson’s fight to fulfill his own heart’s need despite his tribe’s and God’s expectations.
Not to say that I know a lot about the story of Samson and Delilah outside of the basics, but this story explodes the story that I knew wide open. The author does take some leeway in the story by naming Samson’s mother, but he states this up front for the reader to understand. He also does base his novel in some fact as well. Thus, it sometimes is hard to determine what is fact and what is fiction, which is the trademark of a good novel.
Once I started reading the novel itself I can honestly say that it was intriguing and it did draw me in, even more that I would have expected. I decided to try and ask the author a few questions to get some more information on his motivation for writing this book as well as a few other questions including:
1) What led you to have an interest in Samson and in writing about his life?
If you find the intersection of theology and history interesting, then Samson’s story is a fascinating section of the Bible. Its themes would have been common in the Mideast of its time but are shocking to readers, especially in the Western world, today. After all, it’s about people mass murder and burning animals and people alive. God encourages tribalism, or at least the people in the story interpret His will that way. Part of the pleasure of planning and writing the book was the research on 13th century B.C. Canaan and part was the exploration of the messages buried within the story.
And not least of all, there’s the matter of psychology. I wanted to make some sense of all the violence and loneliness and to make sense of all the irrational behavior of the Biblical telling of Samson. A man visits a prostitute and she wants to tie him up. He agrees. She calls in his enemies to kill him. He escapes. Then he goes back to her and lets her tie him up again. And again. What’s going on here? Turning the story into something with real people whose motives make sense to us was an exciting challenge.
2) What type of parallels do you see in the society that Samson lived within and in today’s society?
People who read Samson’s Walls will be able to relate to someone in the story. The characters live in a very different society from ours but human needs are the same. We want to be loved, to fit somewhere, to trust someone. We can feel torn between the expectations of others – of our culture, our family, of what we believe God wants – and what we deeply wish.
3) What do you hope that your readers will take from this book?
We’re all tied together by our commonalities. War and violence don’t have winners and losers. We’re bound together and share our fates with those who are connected to us, even those connected to us by accident or by animosity. Samson’s story is tragic because he seems fascinated with his enemies but this never leads to a peaceful relationship.
I think the power dynamic between the men and women in the book, and especially between Samson and Delilah ought to get a lot of readers talking.
4) How much of your novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?
A lot of research went into giving the reader a historically coherent picture of the setting, its cultural and political conflicts and the lifestyles. In that sense, it’s aimed at showing fact. As for the story itself, I’d say I aimed for fidelity to an original. I tried to write a novel that is faithful to the Biblical version, building on it without deviating from its shape. This makes Samson’s Walls very different from other novels about the same people. I didn’t just change the plot without respect for the Bible. The last well known novel about Samson inspired a Cecil B. DeMille film that took extreme liberties. Samson’s Walls is an attempt at greater fidelity.
I found it interesting to find out while researching this book that the novel is now in pre-production as an opera, to be initially performed in 2010 in Washington, DC. Music is being composed by Gregg Martin, with Nirenberg consulting on the libretto. See http://www.greggmartin.net/ for more information.