Readings from the Scriptures
(an excerpt from a reimagining by Johnathan Goldstein from Ladies and Gentlemen,The Bible!)The Story of Delilah – Judges 16
When Samson was eighteen he met a young Philistine named Delilah. She worked at the market selling eggs and knickknacks. Delilah was a class act. She was demure! “One must be careful with eggs,” she would say in a hushed voice. “They are the fragile heart of the world….”
He thought about Delilah all the time. Sometimes he thought about her so fiercely that it felt as if his mighty head was going to crack right down the middle.
Samson smelled like live chickens and saliva. The tips of his greasy hair poked her face….“
“What is the secret of your great strength?” “It is my hatred of the Philistines that makes me strong. Aside from you, they bring out the worst in me. Just thinking about them makes my bowels watery.”
Delilah set aside her anger, which was great, in order to win Samson over with the splendor of her kinsmen.
“The Philistines are a gentle, scholarly people,” she said. “My brother Potifar weeps when he sees dead birds.”
“He will weep all the more when I bludgeon his skull with the heel of my foot.”
“My cousin Stephan prays each day for peace,” said Delilah.
“He had better pray for a speedy death, for when my sandal enters his kneeling arse he will wish he had never been born.”
As the weeks wore on, Delilah continued to bug Samson for his secret. After he told her that carrots were his weakness, the next morning he awoke to find carrots sticking out of every orifice on his body. When he told her that it was the Earth’s sun that fueled him, he awoke the next morning to find himself in a pitch-black catacomb. He had to scrape his way out with his fingernails and toenails.
It was after eleven of these unfortunate events that Samson finally allowed himself to see what was happening. It was his sick love of Delilah that had been keeping him so deluded: Delilah had to be involved in the attempts on his life. All the coincidences that had been happening lately were just too odd to dismiss. And yet he simply could not allow himself to think that one he loved so much could possibly be acting as an agent of his destruction. What kind of unlovable monster would that make him? He pushed the thought from his head, and continued to keep deferring, offering Delilah jokes and lies instead of the truth. But, in the end, he was forced to confront her.
“Delilah, if I tell you the secret of my strength, I fear you will use it against me. I am not the smartest of men, but I do know that something is amiss.”
“Pranks of the gods,” she said. “Everyone—even the spirits—tries to tear us apart.”
“It’s just so weird,” said Samson.
“You do like me?” she asked.
“I would beat myself to death with my own fists for you,” he answered.
“My being a Philistine doesn’t change anything, right?”
“Sometimes it makes me feel like a hypocrite, what with the way I murder you guys, but nothing could ever make me love you less.”
“Would you do anything for me?”
“I would walk through walls of fire for you.”
“Then tell me what makes you so strong. There is an old Philistine saying, ‘The truth will make you grow stronger.’ ”
Samson undid his ponytail and leaned back in bed, his hair fanned out across the pillow like the tail of a peacock.
… Samson fell into a deep, deep sleep, and when he awoke, and opened his eyes and saw only darkness, his first thought was that he was buried alive again…
Then he heard the sound of lips smacking. “I have always hated you,” she told him, her mouth full of grapes. Delilah then punched Samson directly on the belly button.
“That is for everything,” she said.
Hey there, Delilah
Samson and Delilah: the story of how a haircut can change someone’s life. Though for a story that we rarely read in church, it’s amazing how many people are familiar with it. (Even a modern relaunch of Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam-son join in on the fun!)
[But…I want you to] Close your eyes and think of Delilah. Whom do you see? What does she look like? More often than not, this biblical character is visualized in both interpretive traditions and cultural retellings of Judges 16 as a femme fatale par excellence—a fatal woman whose exotic feminine allure and lethal sexuality ultimately destroyed Samson, that most heroic Hebrew holy man.
The story starts like a superhero story: Samson, this proto-Superman, defends his fellow Hebrew people against the outsiders, the Philistines. Not much is known of the Philistines other than they are not-Hebrews, and according to Biblical storytellers that makes them outside of God’s compassion. Samson was the last judge of Israel before King Saul would transition Israel and pave the way for David, though a judge functioned similarly. Samson however judged using his power and ruthlessness coupled with Herculean strength to punish anyone who opposed him and his tribe.
And like a good superhero story, this man of unquestionable strength and power has a weakness. His power comes at a price. Upon meeting Delilah, Samson eventually confesses that his power rests in his hair (as I’m sure plenty of sermons have been preached both about Samson’s vanity, and well as his true weakness being Delilah). And while she was trimming his mullet, Delilah realizes that for once, he was telling the truth. Samson’s strength disappears. But she’s no kryptonite, nor is she a new-Eve, offering the proverbial temptation for this new-Adam. There’s something more powerful happening here
(As an aside, it’s amazing how when these stories were written (Biblical) men always seem to come out blameless and innocent in their own downfall.)
Instead, we realize that the superhero in this story is Delilah, as she uses her intelligence and wits to exploit Samson’s true weakness, his arrogance. So why has she historically been painted as deceptive? Fr Sean Major Campbell,
believes that Delilah was a victim of xenophobia, misogyny, and bribery and that the story is used to show how foreign women were not to be trusted (especially when they fail to worship Yahweh). The account has been used throughout the ages to advance a lesson to beware of foreign women. Just call Delilah’s name and men would be reminded to stay closer to home in how they choose their women.
Another scholar said that the “othering” of Delilah gave permission for women like her to be marginalized, regulated, or even destroyed. But I think Delilah was more than a femme-fatale, more than just someone that transcended her traditional gender role of being a thing-that-men-possess (as a wife or daughter). I believe she’s a superhero in her own right.
Delilah saw the injustice in her land and was not about to lay down while others took advantage. She didn’t let her society dictate whether or not she had a voice or a role to play. She witnessed people mercilessly slaughtered and refused to be silent. She transcended “traditional” expectations to change the fate of the Philistines.
Johnathan Goldstein (the author of our excerpt read today) might label Delilah as a Philistine, but most scholars believe she is ‘virtually rootless:’ no backstory, no family to belong to, no history or future outside of Judges 16. She’s a wild card. She’s got no one she has to live up to except herself. She’s responsible for her own actions. She fully comprehends the opportunity before her. And it’s from that place of root-less-ness and underestimation by society, that Delilah is afforded a unique perspective not everyone was able to see.
She sees firsthand how Samson was a monster needing to be stopped. The Bible doesn’t hesitate to label him a hero because he committed all sorts of heinous acts “in defense” of Israel, atrocities we know to be wrong to celebrate. Coupled with Delilah’s lack of history, and her non-traditional gender role, as well as her usurping of power it’s no wonder that she was historically dismissed as a prostitute or a femme-fatale to be marginalized, regulated, or even destroyed. Prizing those type of women just creates more of them, something both Biblical writers and certain (evangelical – 1 Timothy 2) branches of modern Christianity just might not welcome.
This story is a cautionary tale of what those type of women are capable of. For they are capable of great things.
While she leaves a complicated legacy, Nellie McClung was one of those type of women – both a product of her time and in other ways that transcended it. In her own words, Nellie sought to “never explain, never retract, never apologize, just get the thing done and let them howl,” as she fought for personhood of women and the woman’s right to vote. At a time when “traditional” expectations of women attempted to silence and disempower, McClung and the Famous 5 (Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise Crummy McKinney and Irene Parlby) worked to ensure women would be regarded with the same/similar rights as men. In addition to that, political activism spilled over into theological or religious activism as they fought for women’s ordination in the Methodist and early United Church of Canada as well.
I think too of an online vigil I attended hosted by the Coalition of Muslim Women, who spoke passionately about their faith, the islamophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny and how they refuse to allow injustice in their land.
Those types of women continue to propel our society forward – those unconstrained by “traditional” expectations meant to control, or “history” used to predict future outcomes, or the insecurities of…well…people who look just like me threatened by intelligence, wits and power. The story of Delilah bears recovering, if only to tear down all that’s been attached to it over the years, and reclaim the story of one who fought for others. Delilah risked it all to bear the strength of her character on behalf of the suffering.
May her story inspire us to risk our strength of character on behalf of others.
For the story of Delilah has inspired popular culture, from everything from Bugs Bunny to the Grateful Dead, and I’ll be honest, before this past year, I wouldn’t have ever thought to integrate a Grateful Dead song into my sermon. But in their song Samson and Delilah, there’s a repeated phrase that originates in our story and I think calls to us today. They sing,
“If I had my way, I’d tear the building down”
So, if you had your way…what buildings should be torn down, in order to ensure justice for all? Amen.