SUICIDE IN BIBLICAL TIMES
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-Smith: Suicide Through Pagan Times up to Now
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Continuing the series on the stigma of suicide and mental illness, I looked into attitudes towards suicide in Pagan times. Much later, in 1919, a journalist named Nelly Bly feigned being “crazy” in order to enter a state asylum and write about the patients and staff there. Ten Days in a Madhouse was the published book she wrote about her experiences.
Her book characterized being “crazy” like this:
I began to think my task a hopeless one; but it had to be done. So I flew to the mirror and examined my face. I remembered all I had read of the doings of crazy people, how first of all they have staring eyes, and so I opened mine as wide as possible and stared unblinkingly at my own reflection. I assure you the sight was not reassuring, even to myself, especially in the dead of night. Between times, practicing before the mirror and picturing my future as a lunatic, I read snatches of improbable and impossible ghost stories, so that when the dawn came to chase away the night, I felt that I was in a fit mood for my mission yet hungry enough to feel keenly that I wanted my breakfast.
Describing Samson’s suicide, one of the only incidences whereupon the Bible does not condemn suicide, the Old Testament says:
Then he (Samson) 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.
The contrast between the modern asylum at the beginning of the twentieth century and the notion of “madness” and suicide is so striking I don’t feel I need to explicate more except to ask: what happened through the centuries to make “madness” and suicide be perceived so radically different?
The pagan world before the fifth century had a philosophy that not only accepted suicide, but in the colony of Massalia (the present day Marseilles), those who wanted to kill themselves applied to the Roman Senate. If their reasons for taking their own lives were deemed “reasonable” they were then given hemlock free of charge.
The Greek historian, Herodotus wrote, “When life is so burdensome, death has become for man a sought-after refuge.”
There were exceptions. Suicide was outlawed in three cases: soldiers, slaves, and those accused of a capital offense. The reason was all the same. Wikipedia tells us, “it was uneconomic for these people to die. If the accused killed themselves prior to trial and conviction then the state lost the right to seize their property, a loophole that was only closed by Domitian in the 1st century AD, who decreed that those who died prior to trial were without legal heirs.” The suicide of a soldier was treated on the same basis as desertion. If a slave killed himself or herself within six months of purchase, the master could claim a full refund from the former owner.”
But both Plato and Socrates debated a cause for what they termed a “virtuous suicide,” as Socrates had committed, famously taking his life by hemlock rather than submitting to an unfair, moralistic trial. His “honor“ was gained by taking his own life.
For the Romans, the validity of suicide depended on the reason for such self-murder. There were suicides termed “patriotic suicide,” responses to dishonor. For the Greek Stoics, self-murder was often the key to personal freedom, a valid exit to an intolerable existence as was the case of Cato the Younger, who killed himself after the Pompeian cause was defeated at the Battle of Thapsus. In Utica, Cato refused to participate in the war and its battle and was unwilling to live in a world led by Julius Caesar. Refusing even to give Caesar the power to pardon him, he took his life in April 46 BC. According to Plutarch, “Cato attempted to kill himself by stabbing himself with his own sword, but failed to do so due to an injured hand. Cato did not immediately die of the wound; but struggling, fell off the bed, and throwing down a little mathematical table that stood by, made such a noise that the servants, hearing it, cried out. And immediately his son and all his friends came into the chamber, where, seeing him lie weltering in his own blood, a great part of his bowels out of his body, but himself still alive and able to look at them, they all stood in horror. The physician went to him, and would have put in his bowels, which were not pierced, and sewed up the wound; but Cato, recovering himself, and understanding the intention, thrust away the physician, plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired.”
There were arguments in favor of allowing an individual to choose between life and suicide through the centuries up until suicide itself was stigmatized by the New Testament and the Judeo-Christian tradition and the corpses of suicides thrown at the crossroads, stabbed through their hearts like vampires in the Middle Ages. Before the Middle Ages, those in favor of suicide as a personal choice rejected the thought that suicide is always or usually unfounded and “crazy,” accepting that suicide might be a solution to very real problems; a line of personal choice that can legitimately be taken when the alternative to living is considered worse. They believed that no being should be made to suffer unnecessarily, and suicide provides an escape from suffering.
We would, therefore, after going through the history of suicide have to place the actual condemnation of the act in the Middle Ages, and tie it to the Judeo-Christian world emerging. The Oxford English Dictionary places the first occurrence of the word in 1651. Suicide was seen with much disgust, therefore many did not put the word in their dictionaries, let alone vocabulary. They used phrases like “self-murder,” “self-killing,” and “self-slaughter” in place of suicide. They felt these phrases more appropriately portrayed how closely it related to murder.
Because suicide was believed to be closely related to murder, many worried about the welfare of the soul for one who has committed suicide. This became a major religious question, and there are many different religious views of suicide.
It wasn’t really until the 1940s that suicide was considered a philosophical question, a personal jump towards freedom and perhaps an answer to the absurdity of life itself. Schopenhauer wrote, “They tell us that suicide is the greatest act of cowardice… that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.”
Eventually, in the fifties, scientists and doctors considered suicide as a result of suicidal despair, and both as illness. But the Biblical stigmas still persisted. When I was in the psychiatric hospital, there was woman named Maureen who had taken an overdose with every hope of succeeding to kill herself. She was personable; she had such a pleasing personality and it was truly mysterious why she tried to take her life. What I remember most vividly is that she had been treated in a Catholic hospital and she had said she woke up to a nun condemning her with her angry eyes. Shaking her head at Maureen and praying for her soul, perhaps after what was construed as a murder. I remember this because I remember Maureen’s wide face, beaming after two weeks on an antidepressant, as if she had in fact reached not for death but a rebirth of sorts. The possibility that if one survived suicide, one could embrace a new rebirthing seems to me also a contemporary theme, something that arose in the last few years when medical drugs opened up the possibility of recapturing one’s life and change. I wonder if that goes back really to pagan times, when there was a clear validated reason for suicide, and speaks to the blistering condemnation the church and synagogue has inflicted on the depressed. I even wonder if empathy and sympathy was beginning to take place when Nellie Bly in 1919 decided she could reveal the brutal practices in state mental asylums. A lot of this history creates a sense of continuum. As being a whore or “loose” woman was condemned by the Judeo-Christian tradition, suicide, from the Middle Ages all the way up to the middle of the twentieth century was condemned, judged immoral, and the person who did it unable to enter the paradise of the afterlife, their soul condemned to hell. In Israel, no suicide is allowed to be buried in the same cemetery as other Jews. In most fundamentalist religions of our time, suicide, like abortion is considered a sinful, invalid murder.
Is it that the image Nellie Bly wrote about in the mirror is so threatening, centuries of hate and stigma prevailed and now is an opportunity to talk about suicide as one might abortion or any other public, social issue?
Recently an author and scholar, Kathleen B. Jones, gave me her book. Jones is a professor emeritas of women’s studies at San Diego State University, and her book, “Diving For Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt”, alternates between fascinating biographical snippets and quotes from Arendt’s controversial career to Jones’ own autobiographical pieces which parallel Arendt’s.
Jones’ rendering of Arendt is unabashedly personal, and her way is my way, too, of reading and identifying with the main character so to speak. Through a tunnel of empathy and identification we can feel intimate
with even one of the densest philosophic thinkers of our time, making her accessible and part of our own lives. The personal connection, this identification is so often missing in biographies and it provides textures and nuances I never thought possible in non-fiction. It is the more honest representation of how we all read—to make ideas, and pieces of human life– even of the famous–ours, too. Dissolving those barriers which keep us too much of at distance, identification, as in fiction, provides that classical sense of catharsis–even when it’s a complex author like Hannah Arendt and a complicated work of biography.
Instantly reading “A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt” was that when I was twelve years old, I watched the Eichmann Trial on television and saw and read Ms. Arendt’s provocative statement about the banality of evil. Controversial at the time, Arendt believed Adolf Eichmann typified the horror of the holocaust. She did not buy the defense’s position that all Eichmann was doing was “following orders” and she rejected this position as an excuse for the crime. Though she characterized him as a bureaucrat, and an anti-Semitic bureaucrat, those attributes didn’t excuse him in Arendt’s mind, or even explain why he could do what he did. Arendt believed he knew what he was doing, she wrote, but he never stopped to think and examine it, or consider that what he was doing was morally obscene. The shocking truth for Arendt was that Eichmann never bothered to question whether following an order (from Hitler, the only true source of law at the time) was sufficient as an “ethical’ action. She saw Eichmann not entirely as a sadistic monster but as an example of the banality of evil. Arendt also asked why some Jews were complicit with the Nazis, and why this fact had not been brought into focus and consciousness in the media. She created a fierce storm in the Jewish world for both these ideas. For her bold contentions and questions, she was ostracized in the Jewish community and confronted with statements like “You (Hannah Arendt) do not love the Jewish people, you do not believe in them. What kind of Jew are you?”
The real problem with Eichmann, for Arendt, Jones tell us, was that he wasn’t able to reflect on what he was doing. He was a man who couldn’t and wouldn’t think, a “thoughtless” man, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time” and he therefore couldn’t distinguish between sending people to gas chambers and doing his job as instructed by some authority. The real horror “wasn’t just Eichmann but how many others were like him,” Jones tells us, reiterating Arendt’s views, (Eichmann was a) ” terrifying normal, banal perpetrator of evil. “What had happened”, both Arendt and Jones ask, to make people so” thoughtless”?
To me, as a young Jewish girl, Hannah Arendt seemed more Jewish than anyone else I knew, simply for asking those questions and presenting other philosophical, pressing questions, illuminating the holocaust as a set of paradoxes. Like Spinoza, she was the Jew who believed thinking was the difference not only of knowing and not knowing, but also of being capable of diagnosing “evil” and freeing oneself from stock assumptions. Adolf Eichmann was both a mass murderer and a banal clerk with no mind of his own, Arendt contended, and to me that felt achingly true. The participation of some Jews in aiding the Nazis revealed a complexity of paradoxes as well. It was a recognition that the propensity of all human beings no matter what race or religion, is to try to belong, to not be not a victim. but a member, and throughout history, traitors have held center stage. They elicit our disgust and outrage, but also our sense of common human weakness. To see Jews as a part of common humanity was, to me, not a betrayal but a confirmation that we, as Jews, can be both culpable and innocent, broadening a sense of Jews belonging to the family of man. Arendt forcefully restated she was a Jew and none of her ideas meant anything otherwise. Many tried to silence and condemn her ideas.
During the Hamas/Gaza war, my second cousin in Israel posted photos of innocent babies in Gaza playing by the waterside as Israel ordered airstrikes against them. As human shields for the Hamas, they were, nonetheless, innocent, he proposed. He was trying to protest what he saw as the use of excessive force by Israel. He was not saying that Israel didn’t have the right to defend itself, but that the causalities were, on a purely human level of perception, unimaginably high and we were caught in a kind of Arendt paradox. Israel had to defend itself, yes– that was clear as day– and yet the damages Israel causing were of the innocent and that is ethically unacceptable, We, as Jews, were trapped in a war where conscience was beginning to show its thorny presence, haunting us with images of the causalities in Gaza. I agreed with my second cousin and said so on Facebook. Soon my Facebook thread was flooded with ugly comments, everything from calling me names I don’t want to repeat( out of pure taste), to someone actually posting a photo of a man vomiting on my thread. When I read Jones’ presentation of Arendt’s controversial statements about Eichmann, I couldn’t help but find some affinity and support for voicing potentially explosive alternate views.
All this is to say Kathleen Jones, by writing about Arendt from a personal place—(the book mixes Jones’ own autobiography with her smart and fascinating biography of Arendt herself), allows the reader to feel Arendt as a partner, a traveler in the same chaos of modern life we are facing now. Jones includes her own dreams, her lovers, and her struggle to mitigate ideas about feminism and when suddenly she switches back to Arendt’s biography, we are given a way into an understanding of this larger-than-life woman philosopher, as if Arendt is at our dining room table. If only more non-fiction biographies could combine the personal with the facts of a “great” person otherwise unreachable to us, I thought, as reading for me is always this process of identification and catharsis, a blending of the personal and hardcore factual world.
It’s an extraordinary book and I recommend it to anyone interested in how the mind of a brilliant woman can illuminate our own passageway into serious thinking, and not just “following orders”.
It is a testament of how fine this book is that my mind also reflected on how in my novel, “Edges”, ambiguity and paradox also formed my narrative. It brought me to a passage in “Edges” where my main character, a young girl of fourteen is in Jerusalem in 1963, is trying to understand the early beginnings of the Arab/Jewish modern wars.
In “Edges,” Arendt’s concepts of paradox and ambiguity were profound to me, and tools for a deeper understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
The lively free association possible in one’s mind that Jones’ book invites was a gateway into a vital, emotional landscape of possibilities.
“The world is full of stories, events, and occurrences, and strange happenings,” Arendt wrote. “… Only if you can imagine what has happened anyhow and repeat it in the imagination, and only if you have the patience to tell and retell them…will you be able to tell them well.”
This wonderful book taught me to be less afraid to find the personal in the in the political, and by doing so, to discover a connective artery to the heart of this beating world.