Recently I chatted with my Hebrew prof about the character of Samson. Apparently his name — sounding like “sheem-shone” in English — means something a bit like “Sunny” in Hebrew. Which got us thinking about “Sonny” (Santino) from the Godfather (surely the Godfather is never too far from a man’s mind). There are similarities there. Samson is hairy, brash, sometimes seemingly stupid, extremely confident in his strength, vengeful, prone to destructive outbursts. Sounds a lot like Sonny from the Godfather, as well. (James Caan is the man, by the way.)
However, I wanted to write about a interpretation, new for me, that helped me make greater sense of the Samson and Delilah story. This is Judges 16.4-22.
You may know that weird things happen in this story. Samson has fallen for Delilah. The lords of the Philistines know this and bribe her to discover how to make Samson weak so they can overpower him. She asks Samson, he lies, she tries it, he “escapes”, and she gets upset. This happens thrice; and his answer gets closer to the truth each time. Then she asks again, stronger, and he tells her the truth. Then she binds him and he can’t escape and gets his eyes gouged out by the Philistines.
I was always perplexed why Delilah thought she could get Samson to tell her how to tie him up when in the text the Philistines are always present. She ties him, then yells “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”, and he breaks free. I knew the Philistines were there and was confused why he eventually tells Delilah the truth.
Well, dramatic irony is part of the answer. Though the Philistines are hiding in the same house with Samson and Delilah (at least for the first three cycles), you will notice it never says they actually come out when Delilah yells “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” So, as the readers we know that the ambush is waiting there but Samson is unaware.
But this still leaves the question, “Why does Samson repeat this cycle at all? Why would he come closer and closer to revealing the source of his strength to Delilah until he actually does?” Sex, specifically foreplay, is my new answer for that. The chapter has already begun with Samson and sex (v. 1 — “Samson went to Gaza, and there he saw a prostitute, and he went in to her.”) Also, the Philistine lords ask Delilah to learn how to overpower Samson that they can “humble” him (v. 5), and later Delilah asks how Samson could be “subdued” (v. 6). The word here is “anah” which can also be used for sexually “defile” or “humiliate” as in Gen. 32.4 (“And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her.”). There is definitely something sexy (kinky?) about Delilah’s request: I mean, on the surface of things, she wants to tie him up.
When one thinks about it, sure, viewing this strange story as a game of foreplay used treacherously makes a lot of sense. But there’s a bit more complexity: it’s important that the Philistines need Delilah in order to defeat Samson, and that Samson gets defeated by Delilah and not the Philistine lords on their own.
In a patriarchal society, women coming out on top of men was an obscene embarrassment. Besides showing God’s displeasure with the male characters in view, this occurrence might signify that society itself was in disarray. The threat of female domination of male characters has happened, and been realized, in Judges earlier. In the story of Deborah and Barak (ch. 4), as in that of Samson and Delilah, we have the words “tent pegs/pins”, “thrusting”, and “sleeping”. However here there are some more layers. Barak, an Israelite man, defeats the army of Sisera, a Canaanite man. One point for the the Israeli boys. But in the beginning Barak had said he wasn’t going to battle Sisera’s army unless Deborah, Israelite judge, prophet and woman, went with him. She then prophesied that “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (v. 9). So let’s give a point to the Hebrew women for Deborah going and making this conquest possible. And then it is Jael, and not Barak, that ends up personally killing Sisera (with the tent-peg, in the tent). So maybe another point for killing Sisera and a second for doing it instead of Barak. Then we have three points for the Hebrew women team? But wait, Jael is not even Israelite! She is of another tribe (a Kenite). Thus a non-Israelite, non-male character delivers Israel from the Canaanites. Women humiliate men then here and with Samson and Delilah.
Sonny, sex, and stupid men/super women. The story of Samson and Delilah in a nutshell.