Reading a Bible story as a child, you’d find Samson, the hero with great strength, getting asked by Delilah how he can be tied up. But you wouldn’t ask . . . why?
When a feminist Bible scholar suggests they’re doing S&M games . . . you’re startled.
“Samson submits willingly to Delilah so she can tie him up, a classic bondage game,” says Lori Rowlett. “When he tired of winning every time, he delves into an act of deeper submission.”
And I realized—she’s right?
“Tell me in what your great strength lies and by what means you may be bound so that you could be subdued.”
I think of the hero she’s looking down on—berating, breaking down. A man with very long hair, woven into seven braids.
He’s a man with his mother’s spirit—and an angel—layered deeply into his being . . . in the place Delilah is trying to reach.
His story starts, back in Judges 13, when the angel visits his mother. The hero, as always in the Bible, is a collaboration between God and a girl. Though his father, Manoah, tries, oafishly, to intrude.
This will be key to Samson’s narrative: the male is unable to listen or learn, but the woman knows. The son is hers—Samson is a mother’s son. And deep in his being is the secret he must keep.
The angel told it to her, in 13:5, but notice that when she tells her husband the instructions of how the boy is to be raised, and again when the angel, on the father’s request, repeats them (v.14)—this part is left out.
The part about his hair. She only tells her son, as now, a woman, Delilah, prompts him to tell it to her. Somehow she knows there’s a secret to his abilities—that they come with an ‘off switch’.
Samson must’ve told her? It must be what they’re working on together: disabling, dismantling this extraordinary power he has.
But he can’t surrender his mother’s secret, even though he wants to? The bait the woman offers is: she’ll be able to tie him up.
To tie him up—is the goal.
In popular readings of Samson’s story, he’s a hero with super strength, and movies, etc., might have him with a buffed gym body.
But the angel never says strength is his special ability. What happens is a divine power “rushes upon” him—overwhelming him as much as his foes (Judges 14:6,19; 15:14).
Then Delilah would have seen another feature of Samson’s magical nature: His body is fire.
The ropes she place on him burn off “like charred flax” as in 15:14, or incinerate as when “close to a flame” in 16:9.
There’s something solar about him. His name, Samson, derives from the mysterious feminine word shemesh, which means ‘sun’. His seven braids might indicate the ancient idea of the seven rays of the sun.
He’s connected to the angel, perhaps, who disappeared in flame. His body is a weapon against the enemies of God . . . but Samson—is tired?
The theme is often noted in Bible scholarship: Samson has a problem with sleep. He has “manic energy,” notes Gregory Mobley. “With Yhwh’s spirit beating in him, Samson is constantly restless and stirred up.”
In the Bible, it’s a disease of kings. As the “spirit of Yhwh began to trouble” Samson in Judges 13:25, the same ‘troubling’ occurs to many rulers (cf. Gen 41:8, Dan 2:3, Ps 77:4).
It’s suggested in odd details, like Judges 16:2, when Samson dismantles the city’s gates—at midnight. Then his engagements with Delilah seem to revolve around trying to sleep. She ties him up when he’s out.
As Bible stories interlock — and tell each other — this ‘rushing’ of power and accompanying agitation is also found, later, in King Saul: “the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he burned with anger” (1 Sam 11:6).
This ‘troubling’ — and perhaps, as with Saul, an ‘evil spirit’ — forms a portrait of Samson as manic, insomniac, even crazed. He takes a wife and never sleeps with her, she’s married off to someone else.
He stays with one prostitute (Judges 16:1) . . . but is always simply at war, a murderous force wherever he goes.
“I have killed a thousand men,” he says in 15:16. Dangerous language for a Jewish hero. Compare David in 1 Samuel 17:47: “For the battle belongs to Yhwh . . .”
Samson is becoming burdened with a prideful spirit—as he then pursues Delilah—to break it.
“Their encounter can be seen as a kind of BDSM game,” suggests Marco Derks.
Jeremy Schipper goes through the evidence much more reluctantly, but approaches that conclusion. “Samson may interpret it as nothing more than part of a ‘love game’ after all,” he says.
But sexual pleasure seems very remote from Samson. An S&M scenario is happening, but Delilah is working through his layers, prompting him to disclose what he—reluctantly—longs to? How to end his life.
A reading by Amy Kalmanofsky evokes this dark undercurrent.
Broken by Delilah, Samson reveals the secret of his strength knowing full well, after three unsuccessful attempts, how she plans to use it. He confesses to Delilah, but he does not pray to God. I suggest that Samson does not pray to God because he fears that God will intervene and prolong his life. Samson wants to die and thinks that the best way of doing so is at the hands of the Philistines.
I read this, startled. Delilah, whose name might mean ‘night’ —to his ‘sun’—is doing what he’s engaged her to do? She’s there to destroy him—to end the life of a magical being.
It activates whenever he’s in danger. He knows how to make it stop—but that will involve . . . telling his mother’s secret.
“Letting his hair be cut off is a way to let the bond with his mother be severed,” suggests Mieke Bal.
“To free himself from his mother, he goes through symbolic death and rebirth in the arms of the Philistine other/mother,” says Francis Landy.
I work through the storyline. She prompts and prompts him to tell her the secret.
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.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it. (16:15–16)
The details are strange—moving in many directions. He says he loves her? The word is, in the Greek translation, agape.
In a Christian reading, Samson’s story radiates forward to Jesus, whose mother, likewise, converses with an angel. Then, as in Judges 16:16, Samson is “sick to death”—of being nagged?
Another translation is “grieved to death” — as Jesus in Matthew 26:38 is “sorrowful unto death.” Each realizes — he has to die.
Samson loves Delilah, but she doesn’t love him back. She’s unable to—she’s controlled by the Philistines, whom he knows are awaiting.
It’s her words that subdue him, that convince him he must do it.
“So he told her everything,” the text says.
Not a burst of annoyance, but a realization his storyline requires this terrible sacrifice? He can keep killing Philistines all the rest of his life. It will change nothing. It’s just killing.
The system that controls them all is unaffected.
“It is worth nothing that when he finally concentrates on Delilah acting upon him (‘you weave my hair’), rather than the Philistines acting upon him (‘they bind me’), he is able to sleep,” notes Jeremy Schipper.
The focus on Delilah—accepting her ministrations to his hair—is somehow important. He’s now no longer at war with men? Telling her his secret, he falls to sleep ‘on her lap’.
Mieke Bal assists: “The expression in Hebrew allows also for the translation ‘between her knees,’ an expression used for giving birth. The image of Samson resting on/between Delilah’s knees is that of a baby . . .”
When he awakes, head shaved, he doesn’t know his strength has left him. Perhaps he didn’t really believe it would.
A new sexual passage awaits Samson. Danna Nolan Fewell traces the possibilities:
The infinitive of the Hebrew verb, ‘inna, in verses 5, 6, and 19 is key, although most interpreters translate it as “to afflict,” “to weaken,” “to make helpless,” “to humble,” or “to subdue.” The one term that commentators do not use is “to rape,” perhaps because they believe it is impossible for a woman to rape a man or because they assert that this verb does not signify sexual violence. Yet the exegetical possibility exists. It is a rhetorical game, a connotative possibility, in which the text plays on the verb’s ambiguous meaning, ranging from “humiliate” to “force sexually.” The possibility of indirect sexual references is also present in 16:25 and 16:27, where Samson is forced to “play” or “perform” for the Philistines while imprisoned.
When Samson is brought before the Philistines, that is, he is asked to ‘play’ for them. This verb, as in Genesis 26:8, when Isaac is touching his wife, can include a sexual event.
It seems to involve, as in v.21, the process of grinding grain. This would be amusing because it’s perceived as women’s work.
“The sexual innuendo of the verb takes his ‘womanization’ one step further; in doing the woman’s work, he is not only ‘like a woman’, but like a sexually subdued woman,” suggests Ela Lazarewitz-Wrzykowska.
But this has deep theological meaning, for Israel must learn to be a woman toward God—to be His wife.
“To be in relationship with God, Israel must assume a submissive position,” notes Amy Kalmanofsky. “In essence, Israel, like Samson, assumes a woman’s perspective, and by doing so, recognizes that God is the man with the strength and authority.”
As a raped woman, essentially, Samson prays for his strength to return, and what then comes to him, as Kalmanofsky says, is “not a strength acquired through a predestined personal status, and meditated by hair. This strength comes directly from God.”
Chained to the pillars of their temple, he pulls them down—killing more than he had ever before, the text notes.
As it must be a powerful strike against their god.
Christians remember the great Samson (cf. Hebrews 11:32)—the S&M hero with sun rays coming from his head, as the ropes burn off him.
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