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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?

Jezebel and Polytheism

            During my search for something in the Hebrew Bible to write a Midrash (AKA biblical fan fiction) about, I realized that I haven’t read the book itself closely enough yet to know how I want to re-write it; I’m still grappling with what these stories were meant to teach me in the first place. I have to remind myself that the goal of the Hebrew Bible is to convince the reader to believe in one god, Yahweh, rather than to tell the absolute truth, and therefore, anything that detracts from belief in that one god is characterized as evil, even if, in our modern view of morality, it isn’t evil at all. Given my cursory understanding of history, it seems like women were given more power and authority by the polytheistic religions that came before, and were then put down by monotheism. And I don’t understand why that was a necessary part of the transition to a One God system, or if it was.

“Girl Power!”

The story of Jezebel, in the book of Kings, focuses on this transition from a female-friendly polytheism to a male-centric monotheism, and it portrays foreign women, and the worship of any God other than Yahweh, as evil. And we have taken this portrayal of Jezebel as fact, because the Bible says it’s so. But is it?

            I know that many modern women have tried to find redeeming value in Jezebel (I did that myself by naming a protagonist after her), but I was willing to believe that she was as wicked as advertised, because I think there’s value in recognizing that women are capable of unforgivable harm; that you don’t have to be a man to be evil. Except, often in the Hebrew Bible, what the evil women are accused of seems more like rebellion, or a different opinion, than true evil.

Jezebel was a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the Phoenician king, and she was married to Ahab, the king of Israel, in a political alliance. She was raised with her own gods, including Baal and Astarte, and did not switch over to Yahweh when she married Ahab. Why? Because she came from a place where both male and female gods were worshipped, and when she married and moved to Israel there was only one, lone, Male God, and, not surprisingly, she didn’t appreciate the change.

“Me neither.”

            The biblical authors don’t like that her husband, the king, builds a temple of Baal, rather than forcing her to worship his national God. They accused her of interfering with the exclusive worship of Yahweh among the people of Israel and bringing in her own gods, as if that is her main crime. In one parenthetical sentence it says that Jezebel has been killing off the prophets of Yahweh, so she may also be a murderer, but there’s no explanation for why she’s doing it, or for how she would have the power to do so without the King’s okay.

            Her crimes seem to be: being a powerful woman able to hold her own against men, and being a polytheist instead of a Yahwist. Her own morality and use of power are questionable, but not more so than her husband’s or other kings of Israel. In fact, King Ahab is considered one of the worst kings of Israel. He reigns for twenty-two years, and the Bible says, he did what was displeasing to God even more than his predecessors.

The prophet who speaks up against Jezebel and Ahab in the Book of Kings is Elijah, and he asks the Israelites how long they will keep hopping between Yahweh and the other gods. His fight is with Polytheism and with the temptation to worship other gods. Elijah and the prophets of Yahweh fight the prophets of Baal and win, and then Elijah kills all 450 prophets of Baal. So Jezebel is evil for killing the prophets of Yahweh, but Elijah is pure for killing 450 prophets of Baal? Doesn’t that make both of them killers?

Elijah confronts King Ahab and predicts that he and all of his heirs will be destroyed, and that dogs will devour Jezebel. Eventually, the King is killed in battle, and his sons become kings for short periods of time each and then they die too.

            We finally return to Jezebel in chapter nine of the second book of Kings. She is sitting in her room in the palace, putting on her makeup, when the new king arrives and has Jezebel thrown out of the window by her eunuchs. He drives over her body with his chariot, and she is devoured by dogs, as the prophecy foretold.

“Eeeeew.”

But is she being punished as a murderer? Or for worshiping foreign gods? For me, it matters.

            Polytheism is the worship of multiple gods, often assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses representing forces of nature and ancestral principles. Sometimes these gods are seen as completely separate individuals, and other times they are seen as aspects of a single god – which resonates with how God is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. God is given many names in the Hebrew Bible –  Yahweh, El, Elohim, El Shaddai, Tzevaot, Yah, Adonai, etc. – and many attributes – healer, merciful, warrior, infinite, strong, omnipresent, shepherd, righteous, Rock of Israel, etc. Possibly the variety comes from so many different authors, but, conveniently, absorbing the names and attributes of the surrounding gods helped the biblical authors to convince the Israelites to stop worshipping foreign gods; if you prized strength or mercy or healing or war, you could find any and all of those qualities in the one god, like in a big box store.

            Polytheism is actually a more comprehensive way of depicting the multiple aspects of the self, and the contradictory nature of the universe. Monotheism attempts to determine what is good (loyal to God) and what is evil (antagonistic to God), and tries to explain how all of our different qualities can exist within a single person, or a single universe. But that doesn’t mean that the particular forms of monotheism that we believe in are right, or lead to more moral behavior in human beings. If anything, Monotheism encourages more black and white thinking, ignoring the grey areas, and giving in to totalitarian leadership systems, whether they strive for actual goodness or not.

            Jezebel’s role in the story is to play the straw (wo)man, that Elijah, as God’s representative, is able to tear down. But even a surface level reading of Kings tells us that Elijah’s behavior is no more moral than Jezebel’s, no more compassionate or reasonable or just. Elijah wins because he backs the protagonist of the book: Yahweh.

“Where’s MY book?”

            So where does that leave me? Why do I believe in one God rather than many? Do I believe in the Yahweh portrayed in the Bible, or a more modern iteration that my ancestors wouldn’t recognize? Can I find fault with the Hebrew Bible and still look to it for guidance?

            I think the lesson I learn over and over is that this book is the memoir of a flawed people, groping towards a vision of God and community that will be able to sustain them and help them find peace. But, clearly, the Hebrew Bible is not always meant to be taken literally; even great rabbis have understood this. This book is not the last word on morality; it’s a starting point.

If seeing the Hebrew Bible this way makes me a Jezebel, so be it. I’m in good company.

“Do you mean us?”

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?

Why Can’t I Write a Midrash?

When the official Jewish Bible was closed, the rabbis still had questions they wanted to answer, so they started writing the Talmud (The Mishnah and then the Gemara), a compendium of (endless) arguments, commentaries, word play, stories and Gematria (a method for finding deeper meaning in the text, using the number values of the letters). And then, after the Talmud was considered closed, the next generation of Rabbis still had more questions, and answers, about what God really meant in the Bible, so they kept writing and collected the work in new books of Midrashim (a Midrash is a general term for the way the rabbis interpreted and elaborated on the biblical text, and Midrashim is the plural of Midrash).

Midrashim exist in many different forms: stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis. In a way, Midrash is the earliest form of fan fiction, where we take existing characters and situations from popular TV shows or books and imagine new scenarios for them. Just like we want to enter the world of Harry Potter, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Little Women, our ancestors wanted to enter the world of the Bible and imagine themselves in the role of Abraham or Sarah or Miriam or Moses. They liked to think about how they would have behaved in front of the Burning Bush, or facing the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptian soldiers coming up behind them. And they wanted to imagine what it would be like to face God, and speak to God, and criticize God directly the way the characters in the Bible were able to do.

“I tell God my opinion all the time.”

The best known Midrash may be the legend of Abraham as a young child smashing his father’s idols. He tells his father that the idols destroyed each other, and his father didn’t buy it, because idols aren’t living beings. To which little Abraham says, exactly. According to MyJewishLearning.com, this Midrash, collected in Genesis Rabbah, was created to explain why God would choose Abraham in particular to be the father of the Jewish people, because he was willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of his time.

            Midrash fascinates me because it allows us to reinterpret the Bible through our own eyes. It’s about more than just figuring out what the original writers meant, it’s about finding something in the story that rings true for us in particular. A Midrash doesn’t have to be factual in order to express a deeper truth from the Bible, and therefore, possibly, meaningful to the reader as well.

            Unfortunately, since we have such a long tradition of rabbis (aka men) telling us what to think, many people still feel too intimidated to read the Bible through their own eyes. They imagine that the rabbis, who were often already a thousand or two thousand years distant from the source material themselves, must have heard the voice of God. But just because they had the confidence to believe they knew what was right, doesn’t mean they were right. Or that their answers are right for us.

“My answers are always right.”

            Midrash writing wasn’t just popular in the distant past, modern writers have taken it on as well. Consider Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent, a reimagining of the story of Dinah in the Bible. Judith Plaskow is another modern feminist Midrash writer, who embarked on Midrash writing as a way to include the female voice in the story of the Jews, while still respecting the Bible itself and the traditions of Judaism. She wrote an essay called “The Coming of Lilith,” re-imagining Lilith as a woman who was wrongly punished for wanting to be considered equal to Adam. The original Lilith Midrash was written by men, as an attempt to make sense of the two different versions of the Adam and Eve creation myth in Genesis. In the first version, both Adam and his wife are created from the earth, and in the second version Eve is created from Adam’s rib (or his side), and the rabbis decided that these were two separate creation stories. In the first, the wife God created for Adam, Lilith, was too uppity and thought that she was equal to Adam, so, of course, she turned out to be a demon who defied God and threatened to eat children (no, really). When God created a second wife for Adam, Eve, God decided that she needed to know her place, so she was created out of Adam himself, as a subsidiary to him. Of course she still went and ate that apple, so, women, feh. It’s all their fault.

“That’s not nice!”

Judith Plaskow’s version of Lilith isn’t a demon at all, she’s a woman who refuses to be submissive to her husband and leaves him. Eve, the second wife, is told that Lilith is a demon who has to be kept out of the Garden of Eden because she’s a threat to children and women, etc, etc. But Eve gradually recognizes that Lilith is just a woman, like herself, and someone she could be friends with.

Both Midrashim represent the mindset, and the time period, of the writers themselves, and both give us new ways to read the original stories in the Bible and try to understand the inconsistencies and mysteries therein. Can I believe that there are women whose power to seduce or manipulate men can seem demonic? Yes. Are there women who are called demons who are really just people being held back from living their own lives? Yes. Are either of those readings what God, or the authors of the Bible, meant us to learn from the original stories in the Bible? We can’t know. The truth of the stories, and the lessons of the stories, are up to us to decide. And we can each decide differently.

“I don’t think Cricket believes that.”

I want to help my students, children and adults, see that Judaism isn’t a religion of passive obedience, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. If you are willing to engage in the storytelling, and the story-hearing, and take ownership of your own beliefs and values, Judaism can be as dynamic and meaningful as you need it to be.

            And yet, I keep struggling to write my own Midrashim, or to plan a way to teach people how to write Midrash. I’m intimidated by exactly those people who I want to thumb my nose at, and I think this happens in a lot of areas of my life. I know what I think, and what I believe, but I don’t feel like my beliefs matter, or have value, compared to the people who are RIGHT. The dichotomy between my confidence in my own opinions, on the one hand, and my belief that I have no right to that confidence on the other, is a constant.

The Bible is so tempting to work with, because it is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to certain details. Don’t get me wrong, you will be bored to tears with lists of ancestors and sacrifices and tribes and kosher and unkosher animals, but the storytelling style is very lean and leaves a lot of room for the reader’s imagination. It’s instinctive to start asking questions like, what must have happened behind the scenes to make the characters act that way? What might they have been feeling or thinking that they didn’t say? And what else happened that the writers of the Bible decided to leave out, if we assume that these are true stories?

            But I keep hearing the rabbis (ancient and current day) yelling at me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I keep hearing my imaginary students telling me that this work is too hard and not worth the effort, because we could just read the existing commentaries and Midrashim, or we could write new stories of our own instead of dragging meaning from such a stubborn book. And I can’t disagree. But I’m still compelled by the possibility that I could find a way to place myself in the world of my ancestors, and see more of what was there than I’ve been able to see so far.

            I just don’t know where to start. Maybe with Lilith. Maybe, for me, Lilith isn’t a demon, or even a separate person from Eve. Maybe I can see both creation stories as part of the same story, with one woman seeing herself as equal to her husband, and subsidiary to him, at different times. Because, why wouldn’t the first woman be as conflicted over who she thinks she is, or who she thinks she should be, as I am?

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?