December 02, 2015

Women of Doubt: Delilah's seduction...or betrayal...or both

Okay, I'm cheating this week, for a couple of reasons. One, I don't really have the time to devote to doing the column justice. Normally, I would skip it out of fear of doing a half-assed job, BUT, TWO, I've been reading Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel, and I'm really enjoying her portrayal of Delilah, the biblical wench, so I'd love to share. It's a win-win, in my opinion, because I wasn't sure how I would incorporate this topic into the blog even though it's something I have wanted to share since last week!

I reckon most of us are probably familiar with the story of Samson and Delilah, those ill-fated star-crossed lovers from different worlds and warring cultures, but just in case, here's the relevant passage from Judges 16:

3 But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.
4 Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah.  
5 The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels of silver.” 
6 So Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.” 
7 Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” 
8 Then the rulers of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings that had not been dried, and she tied him with them.  
9 With men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the bowstrings as easily as a piece of string snaps when it comes close to a flame. So the secret of his strength was not discovered. 
10 Then Delilah said to Samson, “You have made a fool of me; you lied to me. Come now, tell me how you can be tied.” 
11 He said, “If anyone ties me securely with new ropes that have never been used, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” 
12 So Delilah took new ropes and tied him with them. Then, with men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the ropes off his arms as if they were threads. 
13 Delilah then said to Samson, “All this time you have been making a fool of me and lying to me. Tell me how you can be tied.” He replied, “If you weave the seven braids of my head into the fabric on the loom and tighten it with the pin, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” So while he was sleeping, Delilah took the seven braids of his head, wove them into the fabric 14 and tightened it with the pin. Again she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and pulled up the pin and the loom, with the fabric. 
15 Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.”  
16 With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it. 
17 So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.” 
18 When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. 
19 After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. 
20 Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him.

Biblically speaking, Samson himself warrants about three chapters of the book of Judges, talking about everything from his conception to his death later on in this chapter. This is the only appearance of Delilah, his second wife (according to some commentators).

Wurtzel describes her desire to know more about Delilah like this:

From the time I first learned about Delilah when I was ten or eleven years old in elementary school, I wanted to know more. Now, when you're as young as I was, you don't particularly have a feminist consciousness, you don't yet have a notion of what a woman's rights and privileges in the world really are, and a sense of sexual power is only in its nascent phase...So when I learned about Delilah, curiosity and imagination were all I had at my disposal. And yet, it seemed to me, I felt in some visceral way that Delilah had the right idea.

She goes on to say later:

And women who were forcibly adorned with the albatross of voodoo sexual powers preoccupied me even more. So Delilah was instantly heroic to me--perhaps this was misguided, perhaps this was just an attempt to find a God who looked like me--but the rabbis were all telling me that she was a witch, a bitch, a termagant, a whore. There were other problem women in the Bible, the main problem being that their sexual existence could not be denied, and while everything about a woman can be controlled and regulated--right down to whom she is or isn't allowed to sleep with--her elusive, effulgent sexual anima, her ability to project lust and allure, cannot be contained by any set of rules. It just is. Sexual energy, like the warmth of sunshine or the green color of grass, is an indigenous characteristic with exogenous manifestations that can't be stopped, can't be helped, and should not be blamed--though all those things often are (for sunburn, for grass stains, for rape). Nothing the rabbis said had any real impact, but certainly I later noticed that even at this late date, women perceived to be sexual--never mind sexually powerful--are scary.

Overall, we know very little about Delilah. Like most biblical characters, there's not much fleshing out or development. It leaves her open to a wide variety of interpretations beyond just being the villain this tale, and it's incredibly interesting to consider what might have motivated her. Was it simply money (we are told that Samson visited a prostitute earlier--was Delilah also a favored lady?), or was there something deeper and more complex there?

Wurtzel devotes an entire section of the book to Delilah. It's incredibly thought-provoking, so I won't ruin the rest for you. I picked this up used at 2nd & Charles for $4.50, and so far, I have no regrets. Even the parts that I disagree with have been challenging and led me to think about things differently--and that's the best kind of book indeed.

I think Delilah would be proud.

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