Dear Opera Lovers:
I have a real treat for you: Namely, my review of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD transmission of “Samson et Dalila“, the masterpiece by composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The Met show, which I saw this past Saturday matinee, blew me away! Everything was (almost) perfect: the gorgeous music, the stars, the set (well, I do have some quibbles about the set, as usual, especially that big giant Dagon statue when everybody was expecting pillars), the costumes, the orchestra, the chorus, the ballet dancers….
And I have a confession to make: My crush on Elīna Garanča (as the sexy Delilah!) is no longer just a puppy-love, it is actual full-blown Love. Even True Love, I would venture so far as to say. No, really. I don’t know why, but there is just something about mezzo-sopranos, especially when their voices go down into the lower, huskier range… Creepy as it sounds, I do love Elīna with all my heart: I love her in pants, I love her with ants. I love her in trousers, I love her with Mausers. I love her in a gown, I love her on the town. I love her in dresses, I love her in tresses. I loved her when she was the Rosenkavalier, and now I love her in Philistine bling!
Speaking of true love… There was real chemistry on the stage between Elīna and her leading man, sexy French tenor Roberto Alagna — their big love scene in Act II was really steamy, for a moment there, when he was pawing at her gown, I thought they would need an X rating! According to wiki, “The second act love scene in Delilah’s tent is one of the set pieces that define French opera.” Yes, it does. But good looks are not enough, both singers need their voices to be in perfect form, and so they were. From the moment that each of them entered the stage in Act I, we in the audience could tell that their respective instruments were perfectly tuned, and that we were in for a real treat! In a radio interview of the two stars, which I had heard a few days earlier on the Met opera radio channel, Roberto, with typical modesty, divulged that his big love duet with Elīna reminded him of driving a Ferrari! To which Elīna replied, bemusedly: “Okay, I see…”
But here I must pause for a rather lengthy ideological sidebar. I need to get that Old-Time Religion of the way, before I can continue to discuss the gorgeous music and lush romance of this classic piece. And, as always, I am a day late for everything. I was late for the Sobibor anniversary, and now I am one day late for my Sunday Bible sermon. But better late than never, like my mom says.
Okay, everybody knows that the story of Samson is one of the more entertaining Old Testament tales, a tale with which I am extremely familiar…
[But yalensis: You told us in an earlier blogpost that you never had a religious education…]
I never said that. I said that I never set foot inside a Church. Okay, that was a bit of a lie too, of course I have been inside Orthodox churches, just to see the ikons and stuff, but never for services. Also, that doesn’t mean that I never read the Bible. In fact, I did read the Bible. The whole thing from cover to cover. When I was a child.
What the Old Testament Taught Me
Brothers and Sisters of the Congregation, lend me your ears and hear my sermon! I have been a sinner all my life! I turned my back on the ways of the Lord…
See, my father raised me to be an atheist, scornful and mockatory of religion. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have the standard “Elderly Female Relative” — for purposes of disguising her identity, let’s just call her “EFR”, who was worried that I would end up doing a slow burn in the fires of hell. So she handed me a Bible one day (I was about 9 or 10 years old) and said, “Read this, it might make you a better person.” So I read it. I found the New Testament pretty boring, especially the Apostles with their interminable Epistles and their lame conspiracies against the Roman State. It goes without saying that I took the side of the Roman Empire against them — toss them to the lions! My sole interest in reading the New Testament was to try to figure out how Jesus performed his magic tricks. Just like every magician has some kind of specialty — with some it is coins, with others card tricks, so our Redeemer’s specialty seemed to involve manipulating containers (such as baskets and wine jars), pulleys, and secret tunnels…
Mostly I gravitated to the “juicier” stuff in the Old Testament. Namely, the sex and violence. And there are some truly interesting stories there. Reading them didn’t make me a better person, though. Instead, they turned me into a pint-sized anti-Semite. I found the Israelites simply appalling: a murderous, genocidal and highly self-righteous crew. Not unlike the current Israeli government! I found myself rooting (always) for the “bad” guys: the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Ba’al-worshipers, etc. They just seemed to be more civilized, more rational, more technologically advanced, and less dogmatic in their beliefs. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I never mistook these polytheists for saints either, they were just as violent and cruel as any Bronze Age tribes. The only difference between them and the Hebrews is that EFR didn’t try to cram them down my throat as Holier-than-thou role models whom I should emulate.
The other difference being that polytheism always seemed like a superior religion to me than monotheism, assuming that one needed to have a religion. Monotheism falls apart upon a single paradox: “If God is good, then why does He permit evil to exist?” Priests of monotheistic religions are unable to answer that simple question, except by maintaining that “It is a mystery.” Yeah, a mystery. I already knew that. But I want answers!
Polytheism does a better job at answering that age-old question: “There are multiple gods, of different ranks and different moral qualities, some good, some bad, some indifferent. Occasionally they interfere in human affairs, like, taking sides in wars, etc.” To me this seems like a more reasonable theory, and adequately explains the facts we see all around us. It allows us to believe in higher beings, if we wish to, and yet adopt a more “science-fiction” approach (with stress on the word –fiction), positing unseen beings who sometimes interfere in our affairs. Makes more sense than a single omnipotent Entity who picked a Bronze Age cattle-herder as his mouthpiece, no?
In summary, Brothers and Sisters of the Congregation: My instinctive contempt for the “Abrahamic” religions was solidified by my Bible study. And I simply could not compute how anybody could read these sordid tales and still cheer for the Israelites. Well, Jews, of course, these are their ancestors, after all, so they have to be supportive. But non-Jews? What’s in it for us? Why should we root for these sanctimonious killers and schizophrenic Old Testament “prophets”, whose rants sometimes make Osama bin Laden sound like Voltaire?
Which brings us to the story of Samson. And if ever there was a sociopathic hero in the Bible, then Samson is it. He has zero redeeming features, except for being competent on the battlefield. The most astonishing thing about reading his story is the fact that the ancient writer thereof actually considered this guy to be a hero and not an anti-hero. All I can think is that this ancient anonymous writer was a then-version of Thomas Harris!
Brothers and Sisters of the Congregation, I continue my sermon with extensive quotes from the Book of Judges, using the English Standard Version translation. My own highly educated theological commentary is inserted in square brackets thereunto.
And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.
[Probably means that the Israelites were not allowed to form their own tribal government, and were forced to pay taxes to the Philistine government. Big deal.]
There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
[The Nazarites were not allowed to cut their hair. Samson’s long hair was the source of his super-power, which consisted of Herculean strength!]
The next section of the story involves Samson marrying a Philistine girl, initially against the wishes of his parents. (But the Old Testament writer excuses this horrific miscegenation, explaining that Samson’s goal is to use his new wife in order to get at killing more Philistines.)
The writer also happily begins to establish the fact that Samson is a sociopath. Specifically, a sociopath who doesn’t understand how to construct proper riddles. So, Samson has a personal encounter with a lion, an extraordinary incident that no one else in the world knew about, and yet he expected people to know exactly what happened there, and to be able to pass a pop quiz on it. Which is like creating your own personal in-joke based on a crazy dream you had last night, and then murdering your friends when they don’t “get” it!
Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah. And behold, a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done. Then he went down and talked with the woman, and she was right in Samson’s eyes.
[Like I said, Samson had a thing for sexy Philistine girls…]
After some days he returned to take her. And he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. He scraped it out into his hands and went on, eating as he went. And he came to his father and mother and gave some to them, and they ate. But he did not tell them that he had scraped the honey from the carcass of the lion.
His father went down to the woman, and Samson prepared a feast there, for so the young men used to do. As soon as the people saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him. And Samson said to them, “Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can tell me what it is, within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothes, but if you cannot tell me what it is, then you shall give me thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothes.” And they said to him, “Put your riddle, that we may hear it.” And he said to them,
“Out of the eater came something to eat.
Out of the strong came something sweet.”
And in three days they could not solve the riddle.
[Duh! Even Batman would not be able to solve a dumb-ass riddle like that one… Just for the record, and I only know because I looked ahead and cheated: The correct answer is: Lion and Honey.]
The rest of this section is a foreshadowing of the later Delilah story: Samson’s Philistine wife uses her sexy wiles to coax the answer to the riddle out of him, then feeds the solution to her relatives, so that they don’t have to go out and buy the shirts and underpants. After which Samson goes on a spree of rage:
And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men of the town and took their spoil and gave the garments to those who had told the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house. And Samson’s wife was given to his companion, who had been his best man.
[Rapey, some? But we’ll learn in the next section, that Samson still expected this scorned wife to put out for him on demand. And would fly into his typical bi-polar rages when she wouldn’t.]
Thus, Brothers and Sisters of the Congregation, we have established beyond a reasonable doubt, that Samson is a narcissistic psychopath. And we haven’t even gotten to the best part of the story, involving his committing of a war crime (namely, destroying the grain harvest of the Philistines) while torturing animals in the process. Okay, okay, I get it that these two proto-nations were at war, and excesses happen during any war. I don’t doubt the Philistines committed excesses too. Still, even if you are rooting for the Israelis in this ancient conflict, do you really want a guy like Samson as your Spiritual Leader? See, that’s my real beef here: Not that Samson is an effective soldier, which he is, but that he is being crammed down our throats as a Holy Man. As a man chosen by God for his Righteousness. Righteousness, my ass. (Or should I say, my jawbone of an ass…)
Next: Samson invents “slash and burn” war crimes, not to mention the Foxfire super-weapon technology…
[to be continued]