Sex and Samson: Reading Old Texts with Modern Eyes

 This article by Dave Barnhart originally appeared in Ministry Matters.

“Samson and Delilah,” by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

“Tell me how you may be bound.” These would be kinky words on the lips of any lover, but the fact that they are in the Bible makes them especially scandalous.

Conventional readings of the Samson and Delilah story (Judges 14-16) paint Samson as a strong but stupid and gullible man who is undone by Delilah’s conniving and feminine wiles. “Don’t give your strength to women,” has been the moral of the story preached from more sexist pulpits. Women are dangerous, and a hero can be undone by his lust. A more creative reading might come away with “Loose lips sink ships.” Samson should have known from previous experience that sleeping with the enemy is dangerous business (see the story of his ex-wife in Judges 14:15-17).

A more careful reading, though, provides us with some very different takeaways. Some scholars point out that Delilah is completely above-board in her request. At no point does she lie. “Tell me how you may be bound” is a straightforward statement. “The Philistines are upon you!” is likewise true.

Samson, on the other hand, loves riddles and deception. Instead of being a dumb and honest brute, he is a clever boy, perhaps in love with his own cleverness. Some readers assume his fatal flaw is pride; being both strong and intelligent, he may believe he is invulnerable. I do not think that is his failure.

Samson submits to being tied up by the woman he loves. Multiple times. He can’t be under any delusion that she won’t follow through. What are we supposed to make of this, except that he wants to be bound?

But let’s back up a bit. What do we really know about Samson? Conventional depictions of him are of a hyper-masculine Hercules, with bulging muscles and long (but never long enough) hair on his head and face.

But why should he have bulging muscles? His strength comes from God, not from pumping iron; it is supernatural in origin. Samson may not be a man mountain at all, but a 5-foot, 150-pound guy wearing a turban (the best way to manage that much hair in a combat situation). Samson’s body may look less like a wrestler’s and more like Danny DeVito’s.

Henry Cavill as Superman. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Henry Cavill as Superman. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Our perceptions of masculinity have changed, along with image of Superman in the 80 years he has been around. When he was first introduced in comics in 1933 and played by George Reeves in 1951, Superman had a normal gut. Now, he’s ripped. Our changing ideas of masculinity affect Samson the same way.

George Reeves as Superman. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Television Distribution

 

Now, you may object to this picture of Samson, but that’s the point: we don’t really know what Samson looks like. It’s our cultural imagination that fills in the gaps with what isn’t there, our idealized image of hyper-masculine stereotypes. Our cultural biases make the turban invisible, even as they endow Samson with six-pack abs and enormous pecs. What does that say about us and what we believe about strength and masculinity?

Our stereotypes point to the fact that masculinity and femininity are things we perform. They are pictures we try to live into. Feminist and queer theologians also point out that these pictures don’t always fit. Is it significant that when Samson loses the one thing “feminine” about himself — his long hair — he loses his strength? In popular understanding, a man’s “masculinity” is located in a very different part of his anatomy. If Samson’s strength is in his hair, and not in his muscles or his genitals, doesn’t this turn our understanding of masculinity on its head?

I have a different theory about why Samson submits to being tied up and eventually tells the secret of his strength.

Even though Samson can kill 1,000 men with the jawbone of an ass, what if he gets tired of doing the strong man schtick all the time? Being the strongest man in the world — and performing masculinity all the time — may be exhausting. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that he looks for intimacy in the arms of a woman from the enemy camp, and that his taste in lovers or prostitutes (we don’t really know if Delilah is one or the other) tend toward a dominatrix who asks, “Tell me how you may be bound.” What he’s after may be just a few moments of feeling vulnerable, to let down his pretense for awhile, to be “naked and unashamed” with someone he can trust with his powerlessness. Isn’t this what intimacy is: to trust another person with our vulnerability? Would it be torture if we couldn’t? Does Samson prefer Philistine women because he doesn’t feel he can let his guard down with Hebrew women?

I don’t think it’s stupidity or pride that undoes Samson. I think it’s his lack of self-knowledge and his failure to recognize the difference between his performance and reality. His defining trait is his mistrust of others. From this perspective, his failure is not that he trusts Delilah, but that he doesn’t actually take her seriously. Isn’t this a typical male problem?

This reading raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions about masculinity and femininity, male anxiety, fear of intimacy, power inequality and racial and gender politics — too many to explore here.

Of course, I have no idea if the author meant any of this, but that’s one of the wonderful things about claiming that the Bible is inspired by God. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit at many points: in the first tellings of the story around campfires, in writing the words on the page, in the way editors and compilers put it together in our canon, in the way we read and interpret it, in the way we proclaim it and in the way hearers or readers receive it and live it out. This is why the words of Scripture seldom have only one meaning, and why rabbis have often said that “the Torah has seventy faces.” Authorial intent may have been that the story of Samson and Delilah is a tale with a sexist moral — but we don’t have to read it that way. I believe that the conventional reading is untrue not only because it is sexist, but because it is boring. The Word of God is a fountain of life; the conventional reading of Samson and Delilah is a stagnant pool of blah.

It would be fair to ask if I’m reading modern notions (like BDSM, feminist and queer theory) back into the text. But it’s equally fair to ask if we honestly think modern people invented those things. If we believe that there is nothing new under the sun, why would we be surprised if Samson seeks out a lover who will tie him up? And why would we be surprised for it to be included in the Bible — when stories with even more risqué flavor make the cut?

I think reading this text against the grain of conventional interpretation not only gives us a better perspective on the Bible, but it also allows us to resist abusive and exploitive modern culture. While I have not read “50 Shades of Grey,” the reviews I have read do not indicate that it asks critical questions about masculinity, femininity, ethnic prejudice, power, sexuality or intimacy. I think Bible stories often ask such questions.

It’s fascinating to me that most commentaries steer well clear of this reading of Samson and Delilah, preferring to couch Samson’s fatal flaw in more prosaic terms like “pride.” If we have a choice between a reading that is boring and doesn’t actually take the text seriously and a reading that is interesting and pays closer attention, why would we choose the boring reading? We often give lip service to the fact that biblical characters are “real people,” but tiptoe around the actual implications of that realness and avoid the kind of critical reading and introspection that would open us to personal and social change.

Reading against the grain frees us from that bondage.

For further reading:

  • Danna Nolan Fewell’s chapter on Judges in the “Women’s Bible Commentary”
  • Lori Rowlett’s “Violent Femmes and S/M: Queering Samson and Delilah” in “Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible”
  • Susan Ackerman’s “What if Judges Had Been Written by a Philistine?” in “Biblical Interpretation,” 8 no. 1 2000, p 33-41.
  • Karen Lebacqz’s “Appropriate Vulnerability” in “Sexuality and the Sacred.”

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