Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Delilah's most powerful tool: her sexuality or her persistent nagging? (Judges 16:4-20)

The next woman we encounter in Judges is the infamous Delilah. In the last post we saw how Samson's wife was pushed around by her kin until finally meeting a terrible end. His lover Delilah is also influenced by the Philistines to betray Samson, but she is not so hapless. In the end, Delilah gets the better of Samson, on purpose, for money. 

What we learn about women

  • Delilah personifies the sexual manipulation women can exert over men which may cause them to lose all their strength and their sense.
  • Delilah ultimately gets the upper hand over Samson by continuing to nag him.
  • Nagging can only be done by those without authority, and for that reason it is often characterized as something that women do. Despite its association with lack of ability to compel, a continued request sometimes gets results.

What I'm wondering

  • What is the role of "nagging" in relationships of authority?
  • Does God want us to nag him? Does he sanction nagging in general?

There are some interesting parallels in the stories of the women in Samson's life. Both women are approached by Philistine leaders who pressure them to sabotage Samson. Both are described as tormenting Samson with nagging until he gives in and gives them information. But as noted above, there are huge differences between the women as well. Samson's wife, of course, was to enter into a legitimate, if politically and religiously unwise, marriage with him. There is no mention of marriage or family with Delilah. She does not pretend to ally herself with him. She entangles him with fairly open treachery--she is caught red-handed three times trying to offer him to his enemies before she finally succeeds. When she does, she is rewarded by the Philistines who come to capture him "with the money in their hands" for her. 

The most notable elements of Delilah's story are, first, her uncomplicated character as a femme fatale, second, the obviousness of this, even to Samson, and third, despite that, her success in bringing him down. It's a classic example of the bad guys winning. What are we to take away from observing her character? 

My hunch is that Delilah is portrayed in this way as an incarnation of the sexual temptation to which men are vulnerable and which causes them to be compromised in their strength, agendas, and good sense. Is this a complete picture of the real woman Delilah? Certainly not. But it is a caricaturized, you could even say mythologized (not in the sense of being untrue, but in the sense of capturing the nugget of a universal story or phenomena), look at what women can do to men with the power of sexual temptation. 

That said, I'd like to take a closer look at another element, the repeated descriptions of Samson's two main love interests "torment(ing) him with (their) nagging day after day until he was sick to death of it." Nagging is an interesting type of offense that is highly correlated with women in usage. Why is this so? I think it is because nagging can really only be done by someone who does not have the power to command. Nagging probably happens most often when a person agrees in principle to the request of someone who has no authority over them, (or in some sense allows that it would be right to do), but does not do it. Of course, a determined "nag" might continue to make requests even if she were outright refused. But in either case, it has historically often been women who are not in a power position to stand over a man and enforce his behavior, and therefore must resort to nagging or continuing to request. In contrast, if a man asks a woman or another man to do something, and then it is not done, the refusal comes across more like disobedience, and I think the man feels more permission to call to account without being accused of nagging. More generally, if a person in authority continues to request that someone under their authority do something without result, they will not be called a nag, but be seen as giving instructions or warnings that are being disregarded. You can only really nag if there is no way to enforce.

In the cases of Samson and his women, the nagging plays out in two different ways. In the first case, Samson doesn't agree to share the requested information with his wife, and she simply cries for days on end. Without the power to demand that he tell her the information, she simply continues her request, and in some sense keeps the conversation open, until he breaks down. In Delilah's case, we see what I think is the more classic scenario, where Samson does agree to tell her what she asks, but then he doesn't really tell her. "You still (still!) haven't told me" she says in verse 15, we could add, even though you said you would! Samson becomes "sick to death of it." So he finally tells her.

The irony of this is that nagging can only be done be someone without power to enforce . . . and yet it sometimes works to enforce! Perhaps this is why it is often met with an aggressive response, as the power of the continued request is felt. It even makes me think of Jesus's parable of the widow and the unjust judge. In this parable, a widow continually asks a judge, who is unjust and doesn't care about her, for justice. He eventually takes Samson's line: "this woman is driving me crazy. I'm going to see that she gets justice because she is wearing me out with her requests!" (Luke 18:5) Jesus says we are to learn from the story that we can continue to cry out to God day and night for justice, and he, unlike the unjust judge, will grant us justice quickly. Here the power dynamic inherent in nagging is hugely magnified when the relationship is between human beings and their God. We surely do not have the ability to enforce our will upon God, but there is power in continuing to request from him. I did not expect the result of this rabbit trail to be the idea that nagging is a God-ordained way to bring about justice! But here we are. : ) I suppose the application isn't perfect since these two Philistine gals were not seeking justice, but malice, with their nagging. Perhaps their fault was not in the nagging behavior but in the content of their requests. Much food for thought!

So was Delilah's real power over Samson due to her sexuality or her persistent nagging? I think it's hard to say. But before leaving this story let's take one final look at Delilah and the way she creates a foil for Samson's other major relationship partner, his first wife. Though their nagging in service of their countrymen is a parallel, the way their stories end could not be more different. If Samson deserves judgement for his abandonment of his first wife and the way he stokes tension with her people, he certainly gets it in this second story. Where his first wife is brutally murdered by her people, after failing in her relationship with Samson, Delilah laughs all the way to the bank after succeeding in hers. It does not bring any justice to Samson's wife, but it is in some way satisfying to see this other woman get the better of him in the same circumstances where his first wife was pushed around, abandoned, and terribly punished. Is that horrible and vindictive? Sometimes it's so hard to see what God is doing with these wild men he calls to greatness. 

This story with all of it's puzzles is certainly another example in Judges of women serving as foils to highlight the failings of men who should have done better for God. How sad that this role seems so common for women in our fallen world.