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Looking For Delilah

In my quest to write my own Midrashim (alternate explanations for gaps in the biblical text, AKA biblical fan fiction), I’ve found that I’m drawn to stories about wicked women, like Jezebel, because I always wonder if the biblical authors were telling the whole truth or slanting the stories to fit their prejudices. It also occurred to me that before I can write my own versions of those stories, or answer the questions I have about them, I need to understand the stories better as written. I decided to look at Delilah, as in Samson and Delilah, because I’ve heard her story from so many unreliable sources, including Hollywood, and I wanted to know what the Hebrew Bible actually said about her.

            Samson and Delilah appear towards the end of the book of Judges, after the ancient Israelites returned to Israel from Egypt, but before the kingdom of Israel was established. To set the scene, the Israelite tribes were ruled by various chieftains and prophets and judges, but mostly they were under the thumb of other nations, like the Philistines and the Midianites. Then an angel came to Samson’s mother, known only as the wife of Manoah, to tell her that she will finally have a child, and that her son will be the one to overthrow their Philistine rulers, and therefore he must be dedicated to God, as a Nazirite. A Nazirite is someone who pledges not to drink alcohol, eat unclean food, spend time around unclean things, or cut his hair (this is, supposedly, the source of Samson’s great strength). I think you can already see a problem developing, since it’s his mother who makes this vow, and not Samson himself of his own free will.

   “You can’t tell me what to do.”       

It’s possible that Samson was a real historical figure, but it’s more likely that he was the Jewish version of the Hercules myth (or the Sumerian Enkidu or Greek Heracles), both because of the implication that the angel may be Samson’s real father, making him half divine, and because his story is filled with feats of supernatural strength, like slaying lions with his bare hands and killing a thousand men with the jaw bone of an ass.

“Isn’t that a bad word?”          

When Samson grows up he marries a Philistine woman, rather than an Israelite, despite parental objections. But at his wedding, his betrothed “nags” him for the answer to a riddle he has told to the men of her tribe, and then she tells the men the answer so that they can win the bet they’ve made with Samson. Despite the trivial nature of this betrayal, Samson is enraged and kills thirty random men and takes their clothes in order to give them to the men at the wedding, as their “reward.” Samson then burns the grain of the Philistines, and when they go in search of him, he kills a thousand more of them with the jawbone of an ass. Oh, and then his wife marries someone else.

The biblical authors suggest that God is creating all of these situations to inspire Samson’s hatred of the Philistines so that he will destroy them, which implies that Samson has no particular issue with the Philistines to start with and needs to be pushed. But the fact is, Samson kills a lot of people in this story, always in a rage, and always for his own reasons rather than for the betterment of his people. The biblical authors tell us that, somewhere in there, Samson rules Israel for twenty years, but no details are given on how he leads them or what he does for them.

Then, after twenty years of leading Israel, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The text makes a point of saying that Samson loves Delilah, but not that she loves him. The name Delilah is wordplay on the Hebrew word for night, Lilah, while the name Samson in Hebrew (Shimshon) is related to the Hebrew word for Sun, Shemesh. So there is an implication that night is set against day, but Samson does not seem like an especially sunny character. Delilah also means “delicate,” which is either an ironic touch or suggests another way of interpreting her behavior, or even her role in the story.

After the affair is established, Delilah is approached by the Philistines and bribed to find out the secret of Samson’s great strength. There is no explanation for why she goes along with this request. Does she need the money? Is her life threatened? Does she have her own grudge against Samson? We can only guess. Delilah asks Samson about the source of his strength, and he lies to her, and she believes his lie and ties him up and calls in the Philistines to capture him. But Samson, still at full strength, fights them off. Delilah complains to him that he doesn’t love her enough to tell her the truth and tries again, with the same result, three times. But, on Delilah’s fourth attempt to learn his secret Samson finally tells her the truth, that the secret to his strength is in his uncut hair. Delilah waits for him to fall asleep, calls in a servant to cut his hair, and then turns him over to the Philistines. The Philistines blind him and imprison him, but they forget to keep his head shaved. As his hair grows back he regains his strength, and when they bring him to dance for them at a festival, he pulls down a Philistine temple, killing himself and 3,000 Philistines with him.

But, why does Samson go along with Delilah’s game, knowing that she will betray him to the Philistines each time? She isn’t hiding her intentions at all. Is Samson so in love that he misses her obvious malice? Is he so arrogant that he assumes he will be able to fight off the Philistines no matter what? Is he very very stupid?

“Yes.”          

How has the story of Samson come down to us as a hero’s story about a naïve strongman taken down by a wily woman, when even a cursory reading shows him to be a mass murderer with a hair trigger temper (pun intended)? And how is Samson even a hero in this story? There are no heroic acts, no acts done for the sake of others. Even his final act of killing the enemy is for revenge rather than for the advantage of his people.

            In the movie version the story of Samson and Delilah was re-told as a great love story, where, after her terrible betrayal of him, Delilah then sacrifices herself with Samson, helping him to bring down the Philistine temple; the assumption being that she agrees that the Philistines are the enemy, and that Samson really is a hero. But there’s no basis for that interpretation in the text itself.

            Even though my goal in re-reading this story was to figure out Delilah, I’m wondering if she’s not really that important to the outcome after all. Yes, Delilah tries to manipulate Samson with her womanly wiles, but Samson should be able to see through her, and see everything else in his life much more clearly. He should be able to use his superior strength to lead his people to victory, but he doesn’t even try. Long before the Philistines blind him, Samson is already blind – to his own purpose in life, to the welfare of his people, and to God. Delilah is barely a cardboard cutout in this story, there to be blamed for Samson’s capture (because she’s a foreign woman), when clearly it was his own weaknesses that got him into trouble.

More than anything, I think this is a story about how it’s not enough for God to choose you, and to believe in you; you have to believe in God, and you need to have a moral purpose to guide your choices in life, or you’re lost.

The final story in the book of Judges, the one set up by Samson’s failures to lead, is a brutal rape and a resulting civil war, and the biblical author repeats, over and over again, that this is what happens when there is no leader and every man can do as he pleases. But beyond a lack of leadership, the people lack a sense of right and wrong. They see their relationship with God as covenantal, as a deal: we do for God and God does for us. And the lesson they learn from the period covered in the book of Judges is that each time they break their covenant with God, they are overtaken by their enemies, or destroyed from within.

It takes much longer for them to even consider the question of morality, or the idea that our actions have consequences, in this world. These are my ancestors, and while they are not who I would have hoped for, we don’t get to choose our families. We can only learn from their mistakes and strive to make the world we live in a better place, through our own actions.

We chose our family, Mommy, and that worked out well.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

78 responses »

  1. Those old stories are sometimes quite silly on the surface, but they make great fodder for anyone to translate them and suggest the meaning they are trying to put across. In the end, they are only stories, but if they can be useful in some way, why not? I like your dog’s way of looking at things.
    What is his (or her) name? I think you’ve told us, but I’ve forgotten. Very cute dog. And smart too.

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  2. Thanks for your perspective. I’m currently reading God’s Word from the start. I’m still in Leviticus.

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  3. Well! I have not really ever looked into the Samson and Delilah story. In the New Testament I have always been intrigued by Mary Magdalen . Is school we were told she was a “woman of the night”. But the Christ accepted her. Hmm…. Was she a wicked woman? I shall have to do some research. Thanks for your very interesting post that has added considerably to my Old Testament knowledge.

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    • I was told that the text never says she’s a prostitute at all, but that another woman named Mary is said to be one and once the myth started that it is the same Mary, no one can shake it, even though Mary was an extremely common name. I’m not sure though, I still need to look into it myself. It is all intriguing!

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  4. In Old Testament stories (fables, myths…it is often hard to figure out the right word to be respectful, yet recognize that a section is not necessarily actual factual) there are so many levels. There is history, which in many cases depends on which details were remembered (often those that made the best oral history telling, in other words were memorable or helped with remembering) but there is also a desire on the part of the writers to portray a cohesive narrative with points to it. In so many cases the women were not considered either memorable or part of the point. I have sometimes wondered about the women who do remain in some of the oldest stories: For example in the book of Genesis the wives of Lamech are listed by name: Adah and Zillah. And Zillah bore Tubal Cain and the sister of Tubal Cain was Naamah. Yet Cain’s wife was never named. What made them memorable?

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      • It does indeed. But I sometimes wonder about whether the women mentioned had exceptional personalities, or showed exceptional courage which only got recorded by not having their names forgotten, of course they may have been from exceptionally important families. I’ve at times thought about using one of those simple one liners as a story starter. The Delilah story has a lot of potential.

  5. As kids, the phrase “jawbone of an ass” always had us rolling on the floor laughing our own donkeys off. (LMDO). I guess no progress has been made since I read this entire very good post whilst humming the Tom Jones song. 🎵 “Why, why, why Delilah?” 🎵 Then, just to make sure that I lost any respect you might have ever had for me I started singing the Plain White Tees “Hey There Delilah.” So basically my takeaway is that Samson got pretty well ignored at the end. I think I’ll read your post again tomorrow when maturity might have kicked in. 🎵Why, why, why Delilah….

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  6. I really enjoyed your narrative and feel more free to question the Old Stories of the Bible from a new perspective.

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  7. Rachel I was wondering maybe I could serialize Yeshiva Girl for my story telling podcast ?

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  8. Pingback: Looking For Delilah – Aleksander Zutic

  9. Absolutely fascinating post, Rachel!

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  10. How fascinating Rachel. I find I learn so much from your wonderful posts.

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  11. I saw the film with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr as a child. (My mum had a crush on Victor) Since then, I can only ever see those two when I think of Samson and Delilah.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  12. This is an intriguing project, and your treatment of the particular story informative and fascinating

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  13. Good idea to go back and check the original source.
    I only know Samson and Dalila from the opera by Camille Saint-Saëns, which I saw two or three times here in Frankfurt in the 1990s.

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  14. The old religious texts have so much to investigate, question and argue.

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  15. Rachel, I love this line early on in your piece. “I’ve found that I’m drawn to stories about wicked women, like Jezebel, because I always wonder if the biblical authors were telling the whole truth or slanting the stories to fit their prejudices.” My educated guess is your are dead on accurate.

    Religious scriptures, regardless of religion, tend to be written down by “imperfect men.” Both words in those quotes are important, so the male bias will be present in most religious text. Plus, religious and non-religious history have been less than kind to women who are strong willed or outspoken. They still are. A woman who acts just like a man does will be painted with a negative brush, where a man will not.

    By the way, your reference to the movie “Samson and Delilah” is apt for another reason. Hedy Lamarr, who starred as Delilah, was also a scientist who invented a technology that exists in all cell-phones. Yet, as a woman, she was not taken seriously, and even though she patented her idea, the US Navy started using it later without telling her. So, she never made any money off it and was awarded a Medal of Freedom late in life. If she were Samson, maybe her idea would have been used immediately.

    So, your post is well conceived for more than one reason. Keith

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  16. Rachel, this paragraph really spoke to me: More than anything, I think this is a story about how it’s not enough for God to choose you, and to believe in you; you have to believe in God, and you need to have a moral purpose to guide your choices in life, or you’re lost.
    My own questioning God stems from having felt chosen–and it took me a long time to get how important it was that I also made a choice–for God.
    Thanks for the whole story and especially this part.

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  17. I was always bothered by the fact that Samson told Delilah his real secret after she made it abundantly clear she intended to betray him. This plays into a common narrative that those of great physical strength are not that bright (as a physical weakling myself, I don’t mind this truism so much). I really like your telling of the story. Thank you.

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  18. I love this post. Thank you Rachel. I’m far from knowledgeable but the idea of a woman getting the rap for everything to avoid the man having to investigate his own actions and shortcomings too closely, well that rings a bell!

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  19. Alexandria in Love

    I’m enjoying your thoughtful interpretations of the Bible stories; perhaps Delilah knew he was too dangerous all along and had to be sharp in handling her situation, and Samson acquiesced and recognized this himself at moments.

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  20. So enjoy hearing your take on these sacred – though sometimes strange – stories!! Thank-you.

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  21. It has indeed, Cricket and Ellie. Have you considered being a rabbi? This and so much of what you write would make wonderful sermons.

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  22. Thank you so much for sharing this. I had wondered about that story, too, as it always seemed a little odd. You explained it very well, while also pointing out all of the questions it raises. Thanks!

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  23. Love your considered telling of this story. I hope you continue with other of those “bad” women. Hearing their stories from another thinking is really interesting. I have always loved the Jewish tradition of exploring all ideas about stories and passages of scripture. If only more Christians would do this kind of thinking. I have tried for a long time to encourage this in the classes I have taught over the years. Keep on! I am reposting this on my blog.

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  24. Pingback: Looking For Delilah — rachelmankowitz – Hear God in Other Voices

  25. Wow, Samson was a really selfish character. His story seems like a Greek myth; those stories were full of so-called “heroes” that were seriously flawed. Achilles and Agamemnon, anyone?

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    • It’s the same time period, so it makes sense! My rabbi likes to say that they didn’t believe in copyright in the ancient world, so they stole freely from each other.

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    • Pat Barker has a very good novel based on the women’s perspective of the Achilles and Agememnon story. Though I’ll admit I couldn’t get the vision of Brad Pitt out of my head as I read it! It’s written from the point of view of Brieis who was a trojan queen captured by the Greeks. The Silence of the Girls is really well written and a great read.

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  26. I loved your take on Samson… Refreshing.

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  27. Your interpretation of Samson and Delilah is perfect 👌

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  28. Strong men always seem to get a free pass in stories I’ve read as well as in movies. Samson doesn’t doesn’t seem to be much of a hero to me.

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  29. As an historian, I loved your take on Samson and Delilah and appreciated your translation of her name; most people do not know this. Nicely done!

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  30. I love your clear and rational explanations of ancient texts. The perspectives you offer are important to contemporary understanding of tradition and re-thinking of received ideas. Keep up the good work!

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  31. I grew up in a Christian church and was taught Samson was a good guy and Delilah was evil. Now I think Delilah should be a hero to the Philistines.

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  32. I love reading your delvings into the old testament. We were once sent to an independent Sunday school which seemed to favour the ‘Old Testament’ over the ‘New’ and while we heard some wisdom, there did seem to be a lot of violence going on. But we were led to believe that from a Christian point of view this was all part of the plan leading up to things improving greatly when Christ would come with his teachings. Whoever you believe Christ to have been, he did have a good message, pity most people didn’t listen and some leaders are still behaving like Samson!

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  33. I believe every word in the Bible and the literal translation of every word from cover to cover – even the cover, “Holy Bible.” However, God never faults us for questioning and asking hard questions and I really like the way you ended your blog: “t takes much longer for them to even consider the question of morality, or the idea that our actions have consequences, in this world. These are my ancestors, and while they are not who I would have hoped for, we don’t get to choose our families. We can only learn from their mistakes and strive to make the world we live in a better place, through our own actions.” You are so right. And they are my ancestors also, for while I am not Jewish, I have been grafted into the tree through Jesus, the Branch of David. Thanks for another thought-provoking blog.

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  34. The story is a lot more complicated than Victor and Hedy made out. There are some names that people rarely call their daughters eg Delilah, Jezebel and Lilith but lots of Rachels, Rebeccas, Ruths, Sarahs, Miriams. Are there other less popular names ?

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  35. Rachel, I am not familiar with the Old Testament. This post has really taught me a lot about this story and I look forward to reading more stories interpreted in depth on your blog.

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  36. Enjoyed your take…love your final paragraph about learning from their mistakes and trying to make the world a better place. The fur-baby photos and captions really made my day. 🥰

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