Leora Skolkin-Smith: Suicide in Biblical Times

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As the third installment in my series, “The History of Mental Illness and Suicide,” I wanted to ask: Did the Biblical world consider suicide as just and honorable in certain cases? And did this philosophy preclude the Middle Ages where, abruptly, suicide was punished by throwing the suicide cadavers at the crossroads and hammering a spike in their chests the way they did vampires? There is, in contrast to the modern world, evidence that like the Greek and Roman ancient world, suicide during the times of Jesus and before was often considered a righteous act. The Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments, have as many as six accounts of suicide recorded.

The first account is that of Samson. When the Philistines captured him, he pleaded that God grant him that strength again and God did. But leaning on a pillar, Samson knocked down the pillar, causing the temple to fall on himself and 3,000 Philistines.

Describing Samson’s suicide, the Bible tell us:

Then he called to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged

of the Philistines for my two eyes.’ Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left. And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’ And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life.

Other stories include the one of King Saul and his armor bearer. (1 Sam. 31:4-5). The story goes that after being fatally injured by some Philistines, King Saul asks his armor bearer to kill him, but when his servant refuses, Samson grabs the sword and falls on it into death. Then his aide, being so disturbed and despairing at the death of his king, kills himself by the same sword. In this context King Saul is committing suicide because he believes he will die anyway, so he wants to end the agony and pain sooner. His servant on the other hand kills himself out of devotion and respect to his king. Both are honorable acts, and just.

The third account is of a servant of King David’s son named Absalom who hanged himself. Absalom, it was said, did so because he did not take the King’s advice.

Perhaps the most widely known recorded suicide in the Bible is the story of Judas. “And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” (Mattt 27:6). St. Augustine said of this incident, “He did not deserve mercy; and that is why no light shone in his heart to make him hurry for pardon from the one he had betrayed, as those who crucified him were to do. In that despair, he killed himself.”

Lastly, some scholars argue about whether or not the crucifixion of Jesus can be considered a case of suicide. Many assume that in ancient Israel, suicide may have been considered a natural event, or even considered heroic. The most important element is that one must confront the paradox that knowingly getting one’s self killed is not quite the same as suicide. Obviously, there is an important similarity, but there is, also, and most importantly in the case of Jesus, a difference. Nevertheless, the question of whether Jesus Christ committed suicide has been a controversial one, dependent, I think, on one’s faith. Perhaps it is easier for me to consider the possibility that the story of Jesus’ crucifixion was a story of martyrdom and choice because I’m Jewish. I feel disrespectful and uncomfortable exploring this, as a Christian might feel uncomfortable asking if the story of Passover is one of masochism and self-loathing, societal oppression, poverty and freedom, and not the story of a Red Sea crossing and God speaking to Moses. There is, in the naturalistic elements of Jesus’ death, a story of the refusal to submit to a corrupt authority in the Romans, and a pacifist’s journey through a wilderness of violence from others, the lovelessness of the human spirit when it is shackled by aggression and narcissism, and the class distinctions and condemnations that put the ordinary man and “peasant” below compassion and empathy, turning one into a hunted creature beyond humanity. Without answering the question of whether Jesus’ crucifixion was suicide or an act of the Son of God, it is clear that the story, surviving centuries, is one that, unlike the suicides of mortal men, creates a question rather than answering one.

From the Bible, the story is told through John 10:17-18, which reads: “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.”

Contrary, and as a challenge to this attitude, Augustine wrote that, “there is no legitimate reason for committing suicide, not even to avoid sinning…. When Judas hanged himself, he increased rather than expiated the crime of that accursed betrayal…” When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, Augustine’s thoughts deeply influenced the medieval worldview. The notion of sin and disrepute came in with the Judeo-Christian theology, A.D.

What did become clear to me was that the Dark Ages and Middle Ages ushered in a strong notion of sin, suicide of course as a sin, an act against God. Though in ancient times there was a place where although suicide was considered wrong because it defied the Gods it, nonetheless, during the time of Jesus Christ, was considered spiritually rich with paradoxes.

The questions that take us back in history can also help us with the here and now. In writing about suicide, I tried to capture that spiritual side, not the judgment of sin and blasphemy that are still, to this day, pervasive. I do think there is a mythic quest to suicide in some cases, and though that’s provocative it could be helpful that, rather than stigmatizing and condemning those suffering from suicidal depression, we can develop a recognition that something of profound meaning is trying to be accomplished by their suicidal act. This in no way condones suicide, nor do I want to think that peeling back the layers of history all the way to the ancients is some attempt to condone suicide. But with the pathologization the twentieth and twenty-first century brought in, it might be important to uncover the more ancient, mythic dimensions and spiritual feelings and textures of this painfully serious act. A journey back, I think, can also relieve the otherwise condemning, dominant attitude, more related to the Judeo-Christian heritage of suicide as sin and to rigid fundamentalism.

From my new book about a girl who is repeatedly suicidal, I wrote about her trying to reach a spiritual “incandescence” before her suicide attempt fails. I wrote:

She made it to River. If she could kill herself and die, she would awaken to a radiant array of stars, to the other side of life, vibrant with light, she was thinking. The outcome and climax of her whole sexual porousness was certain to be replaced by the pure stars, without any more human soaring and violent plunges and fully unrelated to any of the eternal gazes of Dickers, Faith, Pollard or others who had dismissed her. Something, an incandescence, was waiting. Her body was swelling with burning fatigue and weakness from no sleep. When she got to the trees and bank, she picked three large and heavy stones, stashing them inside her pea coat, and then she jumped into the water, sinking.

It is of this “incandescence” I wished to write. In a world increasing given to pat kitchen psychologies and to pathologizing dark states as solely “ill” and without real substance, I felt a pressing and often urgent need to tug on the uses of our one-dimensional lenses and to start making a case for progressive lens so to speak. That is: to see suicide as a complex act, one requiring a vision that can contain the “spiritual” and historical as other layers of sight and insight, a corrective lens I hope for near-sightedness.

Leora Skolkin

Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Hystera and Edges. You can learn more about her and her books at our website.



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On October 20, 2015

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