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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?

The Day My Grandfather Died

I was eight years old and we’d just gotten back from visiting him in the hospital the day before. Memorial Day weekend. We’d stayed at a campground near the hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, as if it was just another adventure, not pancreatic cancer.

I think we were only there one night, and then visited him in the hospital in the morning, but I don’t remember much. It was the phone call the next morning, as the bus was arriving for school that stuck with me.

Mom answered the phone on the wall in the kitchen, next to the yellow and orange wallpaper that was starting to peel. The skin around Mom’s eyes turned dark purple and if she said anything I don’t remember it, but I knew that Grandpa was dead.

I was in a fog. My grandpa was the first of my four grandparents to die, and the one I needed the most. He was the one who loved us. He was the one who could fix everything, or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. His death meant that we were on our own.

We had to go to school anyway, me and my brother. He was ten years old and I was eight, and he didn’t talk to me on the bus or in the hallway at school, ever. My friend Alex noticed that I wasn’t my usual self in the one class we had together, art. He chatted to try to get me to smile, and listened when I remembered how to talk, but mostly he just watched me, to make sure I was okay and not shattering into tiny pieces.

My parents picked my brother and me up from school at noon, and took us to the deli where our father picked up too many sandwiches, and chatted with the counterman, and drank Dr. Brown’s celery soda, (really gross), before we drove up to Westchester to see Grandma.

The funeral had to be planned. Relatives had to arrive. Decisions about the future had to be made. But I just remember sour pickles and pastrami sandwiches and the utter emptiness of that house without Grandpa in it.

My grandfather was my idea of God – a little bit frail and not especially powerful but full of love and joy. I knew he loved me, and my brother, and my cousins, and I knew there was enough love for all of us. My grandfather was the only person in the world who seemed to have power over my father, though he rarely used it.

One of my aunts spoke at the funeral, but I don’t remember much about that day. A lot of funerals seem to mush together from those years: the funeral parlor, the pine box, the black ribbons, the cemetery, the prayers, and all of those grey stones. What stays with me is the grief; the void of no-Grandpa that we were left with after that.

I don’t remember Delilah, our Doberman Pinscher, being a part of things. Did she come with us camping that weekend? Did she sleep on my feet after the funeral? Was she there in the kitchen when the phone rang? I don’t know. But I do know that I would have talked to her about all of it, like I learned to talk to Grandpa after he died, and like I used to talk to God. I never considered it talking to myself, because I always knew that someone was listening.

Delilah.

Delilah.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

And Delilah, who loved me in her own quiet way, was always willing to listen.

Delilah's favorite form of listening.

Delilah’s favorite form of listening.

The Pop Up Camper

 

We used to go camping when I was a kid, instead of flying to Europe, or wherever the upper middle class kids I grew up with tended to go. At first we had a tent, a big blue tent that could have held a dozen people, but then my father got a deal on a pop up camper and that became our home away from home.

We stayed at campgrounds, with hundreds of other tents and pop ups and Recreational Vehicles. I’m sure there are people who go camping with no water or electricity hookup, alone in the wilderness, but that was never the kind of camping we did.

Parking the camper in our designated camp site was the kind of torture I wouldn’t wish on anyone. First my father had to back the camper in, with Mom standing outside the car to direct him more to the left or right, so the camper wouldn’t hit a tree. Then the camper had to be stopped in place with wooden blocks, and the car detached from the hitch and parked at a distance. Then we had to make sure the camper was level, with jacks at each wheel well to make up for the varying levels of the ground underneath.

I remember my father screaming at my mother, “The level isn’t straight!” even though I could see the little bubble was right in the middle where it was supposed to be.

Then we had to pop up the camper and snap in the door and attach the water and electricity and lift out the two wings for beds.

By the time we were done all my brother and I wanted to do was go home, but instead we all went out for dinner and then stumbled back to the camper to go to sleep.

Mom says that Delilah, our dog, slept on the floor of the camper at night, but I’m not sure she’s right about that. There were three beds set up, one for me, one for my brother and one for my parents, and it seems strange that Delilah would have been inside the camper with us and yet not sleeping on my bed, where she often slept at home, at my feet.

"We're going where?"

“We’re going where?”

"I'd rather drive than pull, just saying."

“I’d rather drive than pull, just saying.”

During the day, we hung a rope between two trees to attach Delilah’s leash to, so she could swoop along the length of that rope, with an extra six feet of leeway. She wasn’t much of a barker, but she looked intimidating to strangers, which was what my father was going for. She was a statuesque black and brown Doberman Pinscher, with the forced ears and snipped tail of a dog meant to fight. But she was a scaredy cat. If someone came to our house, she would bark, as required, but slowly back her way up the stairs and out of sight.

For the most part, there is a dog-shaped hole in my memories of camping.

I don’t think Delilah could have enjoyed camping. She was a home body by nature. She liked sleeping at the foot of my bed, exploring her backyard, and resting in a ray of sun for a nice long nap in the afternoon. She was also a fan of dinner time, when table scraps magically fell to the floor, where she was waiting.

"I'd like my dinner, and a pillow, and a couch of my own."

“I’d like my dinner, and a pillow, and a glass of Chardonay.”

She wasn’t used to being on a long lead, or even a leash for that matter, because we rarely took her for walks at home. We’d just let her out in the back yard, either in her private run, to poop and pee, or with us in the rest of the fenced in yard, to play.

Maybe Delilah came with us on the nature walks we took at the campground. Mom would take me and my brother out while our father grumbled to himself in the air conditioned camper. Sometimes we’d find wild strawberries or raspberries, sometimes we got lost in the woods, sometimes we saw mushrooms and met very old trees. The idea was to leave the people-world for a while and smell and hear and see different things. The air was cooler and the birds had more to say when they weren’t drowned out by the sounds of humans and cars.

"Time to smell the... what are these exactly?"

“Time to smell the… leaves?”

Delilah and my brother, waiting for snacks.

“My brother loves me, and he smells like peanut butter.”

The smells of the campground itself depended on the time of day. In the morning there was often the pervasive smell of bacon. In the heat of the day the air smelled of plastic, and freshly cut grass, and chlorine from the swimming pool nearby. Towards evening there were campfires, with baking potatoes and hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks.

I liked the sound of rain on the canvas of the camper more than the sound of the rain on the hard plastic roof; splotch was more comforting than plink. And I loved the wet dirt smell of the rain hitting the trees around us.

I’ve tried to imagine taking Cricket and Butterfly camping. We could never use a tent, because no tent would hold Cricket. She’d be busting out of the sides and digging through the fabric of the tent to freedom (you should see what she’s done to my sheets). It would also be a good idea to have more sound baffling than a tent could provide.

I could also never leave them tied to a rope outdoors, the way we left Delilah. I would be very worried about someone coming by to steal my babies, or at least trying to steal them, and suing me when Cricket ripped off a few fingers during the attempt.

And I could never leave the girls alone in the camper. Butterfly would pee on the bed, and Cricket would scratch the door down, or chew through the canvas walls.

The girls wouldn’t mind a campfire, though. And bacon for breakfast would be their idea of heaven.

I wonder what Delilah would have thought of Cricket and Butterfly. I think she would have been protective of them, the way she was with her own puppies. Maybe she could have kept Cricket in line, with a look, or a growl, to get her to quiet down.

Cricket, in need of much training.

Cricket, in need of much training.

And she and Butterfly would have snuggled together for warmth, with Cricket harrumphing from a safe distance.

I could have found room for all three dogs on my bed in the camper, and maybe that’s what would have made me feel safe. I was usually so lonely on those trips, with no idea what to do on my own, and my brother only reluctantly spending time with me.

Maybe if I could fill all of the beds in the camper with dogs, instead of people…I’d be willing to go camping again. But probably not.

The campers!

The campers!