In this fourth post of our Lent series on the Book of Judges, Fr Jonathan considers how our reception and evaluation of Delilah may be cause for repentance.
Deborah; Gideon; Samson; and Jephthah next week: the stories of the judges of pre-monarchic Israel are tales of sex and death, violence and debauchery. The judges themselves are morally ambiguous and not irregularly foolish, which is putting things kindly in some cases. Delilah is, of course, not a judge. It is not clear what she is, except to say that without her, Samson would hardly have a story. She is unmistakably the active participant in their relationship, driving the narrative forward with admittedly gender stereotyped activities—tears and nagging—while Samson reacts, eventually to give up what she seeks, which is knowledge that is also power. Even Samson’s eventual victory, if you like, over his enemies is traceable to Delilah’s actions.
We are—completely unsurprisingly—told very little about Delilah herself. We have—completely unsurprisingly—assumed the worst about her. The text does not tell us that she is a prostitute; she could have been a wife, like the unnamed Timnite woman he married earlier, who was given to his best man after she betrayed him in ways not unlike Delilah had. Nor, for that matter, does the text tell us that she is a Philistine; she could have been an Israelite, though this would make her betrayal deeper still. Echoes of Judas.
If she was a Philistine, they would have had good reason to love her, to celebrate her, at least until the pillars came crashing down. She had, after all, succeeded where the lords—men, it is safe to say—had failed, using her wits and charm in espionage to defeat the Hebrew champion, he backed by his god, that military-theological complex who funds his firepower by nothing less than magic. Of course, the gender politics of the femme fatale as an archetype is not unproblematic, even when applied to heroines. On one hand, depictions of women as deceitful and of sex as dangerous cannot fail to contribute to our cultural misogyny even as they are expressions of the same. On the other hand, we could do with more narratives in which raw physical strength is defeated by powers of persuasion (shall we euphemistically say); narratives that critique prevalent toxic masculinities, which both idolise male bodies and objectify female ones. Samson’s prized strength is exposed to be fragile; Delilah, the object of Samson’s gaze and desire, ends up on top.
If it feels strange to admire Delilah, as feminist icon or otherwise, it would benefit us to consider some other women in the Bible whose heroism take similar arcs. Consider Jael, for example, earlier in the Book of Judges: “Turn aside, my lord,” she soothes Sisera, the Canaanite commander, “turn aside to me; have no fear”. She covers him with a blanket; and brings him milk to quench his thirst; and then rams a tent peg into his skull. “Most blessed”, she is hymned in Deborah’s song, like Our Lady, this Jael the comforter of men and crusher of skulls. Or take Rahab, in the Book of Joshua, who flatters the Israelite spies on their athletic prowess, and then lies to her own people to help those spies, and also herself. We proudly count her among the direct ancestors of our Lord, in St Matthew’s Gospel.
But not Delilah. Why not? Perhaps it was because Delilah did it for silver: a lot of silver, eleven hundred pieces from each of the lords of Philistines, probably five of them, a good sight more than Judas was paid for his corruption. In contrast, Rahab and Jael were, we readily accept, true believers, driven by principle rather than capital. Perhaps we love to hate Delilah because we are anti-materialists, then: we would never compromise our principles for money. Or perhaps—more realistically—Delilah is a villain simply because she is on the the wrong side, which is just to say the other side: some might say that this is a very definition of a villain. We root for Israel, and therefore Delilah is our enemy, and therefore we see only her deceit, and not her resourcefulness and skill and great courage. We see her crime, but fail to see her. She is the only one of Samson’s women named, but she remains to us less of a person in her own right than an accessory to Samson and his downfall. No wonder, then, that we expunged her from the record as soon as her deed was done, as soon as Samson was done for. We do not get to know how her story ends. Like so many women in the Bible and elsewhere, Delilah is marginalised and dislocated to avert our attention to the strong man who glorifies his people and his god by shedding enemy blood. Maybe Philistines might've read Delilah’s story differently; St Delilah, they might've called her, “most blessed”. But not us.
To the extent that our marginalisation and vilification of Delilah is prejudiced, driven by good old-fashioned sexism on one hand and a sort of adopted, anachronistic, and misguided nationalism on the other, we participate in long-standing injustices and atrocities that are with us still, in the myriad ways in which our cultural practices and social policies disadvantage and abuse and harass women and foreigners and minorities of all kinds. How we read is a mirror to how we live. And to that extent, we have much to repent for. Lent is, of course, as good a time as any to scrutinise the ways in which we perpetuate the structural sins of our communities, whether church or state or university or business. It is as good a time as any for self-examination and penance. We might not be able to redeem Delilah as our act of penance, to save her from millennia of misogyny, but then again, she’s not really the one who needs saving. “Love your enemies”, he says who saves us, and “as you did it to one of the least, you did it to me”. If we are tempted to think that Jesus, the brown-skinned refugee and colonised subject and political criminal, allows us to continue in our casual and unexamined prejudices and the violence and injustice they feed, we need to think again, and pray that these parts of ourselves are crucified with him, God help us, that we may rise unsurprised if we end up finding Delilah and all our enemies at the Lord’s table at the end.