THE STORY OF DELILAH
Delilah is a play on the Hebrew word laylah, which means ‘night’; it can also mean ‘flirtatious’, or ‘inclined towards love’. The name may hint that Delilah worshipped a goddess of sexual love, and was a sacred prostitute (see the section on Tamar for an explanation of this role).
Samson means ‘the sun’.
Because their names mean 'night' and 'the sun', the story may have its origins in ancient mythological stories about the battle between night and day, the sun and the moon, darkness and light.
The story of Delilah is an episode in the life of Samson, a hero of the Israelite people at the time of the Judges. On the surface, the story condemned Delilah, and later generations saw her as an evil woman. However, a closer study of the story raises questions about the motives and behavior of both the main characters.
The story of Delilah contains four different episodes:
1 Delilah and the Philistine lords, Judges 16:4-5. Delilah was approached by the powerful Philistine lords who ordered her to help them.
2 Delilah questions Samson, Judges 16:6-14. Delilah attempted to find out the secret of Samson’s strength. He evaded her questions by giving her three false answers.
3 Delilah learns the truth, Judges 16:15-17. By persisting, Delilah found out the truth about Samson, that he was dedicated to God before he was born.
4 Samson’s hair is cut off, Judges 16:18-21. Delilah ordered a servant to cut off Samson’s hair while he slept.
The story describes the way that Delilah, a Philistine woman, discovered the secret of Samson’s strength, and sold that secret to the Philistine lords.
The story of Delilah is set during the period of the Judges, when the Israelites were still attempting to gain a foothold in the land they had invaded.
‘After this Samson fell in love with a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah. The lords of the Philistines came to her and said to her “Coax him, and find out what makes his strength so great, and how we may overpower him, so that we may bind him in order to subdue him; and we will each give you eleven hundred pieces of silver”.
Read Judges 16:4-5.
Delilah is introduced as a woman from the valley of Sorek, which in Hebrew means ‘vineyard valley’. It is about twenty kilometers southwest of Jerusalem. At the time of the story, it was held by the Philistines. She is not introduced as ‘the wife of….’ or ‘of the tribe of….’, and we are not told whether she was Israelite or Philistine. This is unusual. She may have been a courtesan, independent of either group; or an Israelite, disowned because of what happened to Samson. Perhaps the story-tellers took it for granted that she was a Philistine. We do not know for sure.
After the approach from the Philistine lords, Delilah set about finding the secret of Samson’s strength. Why was he so much stronger than other men? How could the Philistines curb that strength, and so protect themselves against Samson? She asked him this questions three times, Three times he lied to her.
‘Then Delilah said to Samson “You have mocked me and told me lies; please tell me how you could be bound”. He said to her “If they bind me with new ropes that have not been used, then I shall become weak, and be like anyone else”. So Delilah took new ropes and bound him with them and said to him “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” (The men lying in wait were in an inner chamber.) But he snapped the ropes off his arms like a thread.’
Read Judges 16:6-14
The answers he gave have some significance. They suggest a superstitious belief in magic and sacred numbers:
Each time, when Delilah called out “The Philistines are upon you”, Samson immediately broke the bonds.
Delilah was asking him to trust her enough to reveal his own weakness, perhaps to let go of the need to be in control, but he was reluctant to do this. The story was told by someone with an insight into human psychology. Samson recognized her power over him, and struggled fruitlessly against it.
Ultimately, Delilah’s persistence paid off. Samson confessed to her that the secret of his strength was that he was a ‘nazir’.
‘Then she said to him: “How can you say ‘I love you’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times now and have not told me what makes your strength so great.” So he told her his whole secret, and said to her “A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else.”’
Read Judges 16:15-17
Being a ‘nazir’ meant that Samson had been consecrated to God at birth, had never drunk wine, and had let his hair remain unshaven throughout his life.
Samson had to explain the customs of a Nazirite to Delilah, which suggests that she did not already know them. Had she been an Israelite, she would surely have been aware of them.
Delilah recognized the truth when she finally heard it. She did not need to test it, as she had in the previous three incidents. She sent a message to the Philistine lords.
The Philistine lords came, bringing the money promised to Delilah. That money would free her from economic bondage for the rest of her life. If she was a courtesan, it meant a new start for her.
‘She let him fall asleep on her lap; and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. He began to weaken, and his strength left him. Then she said “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” When he awoke from his sleep, he thought “I will go out as at other times, and shake myself free”. But he did not know that the Lord had left him.’
Read Judges 16:18-21.
Throughout this whole story, Delilah’s emotions are not mentioned. This omission dehumanizes her, as if she was detached from what was happening. But there is something very moving in the picture of Samson sleeping with his head in Delilah’s lap, unaware of the forces assembling against him. Unless she had good reason to hate all Israelites, Delilah must have felt some pity for him.
Samson believed that if his hair was cut, his superhuman strength would disappear, and it did. In the words of the story, ‘the Lord had left him’. We do not know the terms of the arrangement Delilah made with the Philistine lords, or what she expected would happen to Samson. In the context of the times, she probably expected a quick death for him, rather than the protracted torture which eventually followed his capture.
But in one of the most dramatic sentences in the Bible, Judges 16:22 gives an ominous glimpse of what is in store for the Philistines, as Samson’s hair began to grow back again - 'but the hair of his head began to grow again......'.
From that moment, we hear no more of Delilah. Samson will kill himself and many people when he topples the building at the great celebration in honor of Dagon, a fertility god and patron of the city of Ashdod (Judges 16:23-31), but there is no mention of her. It seems likely that she was absent from this horrifying event. If she had been among the dead, this fact would surely have been noted.
THE SETTLEMENT OF CANAAN
The land they entered was already occupied by Canaanites and Philistines, who held the area now covered by Israel and Lebanon. These two groups governed the land, particularly the fertile plains and sea-ports, through a sophisticated system of city-states. The Israelite tribes attempted to gain a foothold in the sparsely populated, less fertile hill territories.
Archaeological research shows that their occupation of Canaan happened by gradual infiltration. The Canaanites and Philistines naturally resisted this intrusion, as the stories of Delilah and Samson show only too well. They were more technologically advanced than the Israelites, who for a long time had only a precarious hold on the territory.
As they put down roots, the Israelites gave up their nomadic life. Instead of being wanderers, they became farmers and herders of animals. At this time (the beginning of the Early Iron Age), the following advances in technology were made:
Canaanite bronze weapons like these were being superceded by iron weapons
All of this meant that
WOMEN’S LIVES IN THIS ERA
Developments in technology and the demand for labor meant that
As well as having large families, Israelite women made a substantial contribution to the economy. They planted, weeded and harvested crops. They processed grain, olives and fruit for storage - archaeological evidence (ancient jars, vats and silos) tells us that large quantities of food were stored each year. This storage was largely the responsibility of women.
The religious beliefs of the Israelite women reflected, in part, their growing reliance on agriculture as a way of life. They were attracted to the beliefs and practices of the Canaanites, which centered on the power of Nature and the fertility of all living things. Canaanite myths explained the cycle of annual seasons and the vagaries of water, sun, rain and wind.
It was natural that the forces of Nature should figure in their worship. Matters relating to fertility in Nature and in people were of major importance to the women, engrossed as they were with feeding and keeping their families safe. At this stage, the worship of Yahweh and of the Nature gods seems to have co-existed fairly peacefully. Only later would the prophets, proponents of the worship of a single god, speak angrily against veneration of any other deities.