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. 


Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Samson's wife: the worst wedding ever (Judges 14:1-15:8)

What we learn about women:
  • Women, as weaker members in the world's power structure, can become the horrible incarnation of the suffering which is the inherent result of evil.
  • We see an example of a woman faced with a choice between two bad options choose the worse one and suffer more than she might have otherwise.
  • Beauty is not an unmitigated good. Though we see it as offering a measure of power to women who possess it, it can also be a magnet that draws attention from even more powerful people who want to exploit.
What I'm wondering: (If you aren't familiar with these stories, read below first to make sense of the questions.)
  • Samson's wife appears to be a mere pawn in this story. Could she have used the little agency she had for a better outcome?
  • Is there an echo of this kind of conflict in the current horrific events in Palestine? What are the women who are "pawns" under the authority and power of the violent men of Gaza to do? 

It's time to talk about Samson and the women in his life. If you grew up in church, you probably encountered Samson as some sort of a strongman superhero in Sunday school. But the passages in the book of Judges that tell his story are not so fun and kid-friendly. These passages do have two interesting female characters that will contribute to our project. One is Samson's wife, though his marriage is of no significant length due to the chaos and tragedy that typify Judges. The other is his lover, also implicated in dark drama. Both women are crucial for moving his story forward. Neither knows God. But we are told repeatedly that in the context of the untrustworthy women and evil events that characterize Samson's life, God's Spirit is with him and helping him. This post will focus on Samson's wife, the next one on the notorious Delilah.

I have to confess that on first reading, the horror of everything that Samson is involved with makes me want to shut the book. These chapters recount mass killing, deceit upon deceit, animal cruelty, and burning alive to name a few. I'm sticking with it to try to keep to this task of putting together the whole biblical picture of women in the Bible without avoiding inconvenient parts. I read Matthew Henry's commentary to get some additional perspective, and I was surprised to see that though he acknowledged plainly the evil inherent in much of the action, he was not as squeamish as I felt about the totality of the story. He focused in on the fact that many of the people who are doing and receiving evil in the story are self-designated enemies of God. (Samson excluded.) Henry is able to look at Samson as a super hero fighting bad guys who deserve it. I think that context is important to keep in mind for those of us who are accustomed to a post-Christ way of seeing everyone in the world as a possible redeemed child of God. That was still true back in the days of the Judges. But this story focuses more on the deliverance of the people of God from those who do not chose to be redeemed than the redemption and turning of God's enemies into friends. Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising to see God's judgment on display in a book entitled, "Judges."

Samson chooses for his wife a Philistine babe who "looked good to him." His parents warn him about marrying outside of God's people but he does not take their advice. From Matthew Henry's point of view, everything that follows results from the ungodly character of the Philistines with whom he will keep company for the rest of his story. 

Samson's wife, we've already noted, was lovely enough to draw Samson's eye from afar. She is unlucky in the rest of her circumstances, and one has to wonder if she would have even seen the beauty that drew Samson to her as luck in the end. At her wedding, Samson challenges his male Philistine companions to answer a riddle, with 30 outfits of clothing on the line. They can't do it. They force his fiance to get the answer out of him and tell it to them, or else they threaten to burn her and her father in their home. And with that, we start to see the mood of these stories play out. 

Samson's poor fiance has been put into a terrible position. She must betray her new husband, or else face a threat of horrific violence from the thugs she grew up with. What would have happened if she had allied herself with her super-hero husband? We don't have that story. But one does feel pity for her when she approaches Samson "in tears" and asks him to reveal his answer if he really loves her. This is the first part of a pattern that repeats with the other woman in his life Delilah later. They are both described as nagging him until he gives in and tells the information his enemies need to get the better of him. Then they both promptly give that information to his enemies. 

After the riddle ends in this way, Samson flies off in a rage to collect 30 outfits from 30 people in Ashkelon, by killing them. The Spirit of the Lord enables him to do this. We are to see it as a feat which helps to deliver Israel from its oppressors. But it sure does ruin the wedding. Everyone leaves, Samson and his bride go home. Her father figures the marriage is off and gives his daughter in marriage to the best man. But later Samson comes back to make up with her, and wants to visit her in her bedroom. This is now impossible. Samson is furious, and the situation escalates through the burning of Philistine fields, the burning of Samson's bride and her father in their house as previously threatened, a great slaughter executed by Samson on the Philistines in response, and then Samson going to live alone in a cave. The Philistines will continue to try to capture him unsuccessfully until they get in league with a true femme fatale, Delilah.

Samson's first wife is a simple tragic character. She's a beautiful pawn who is taken advantage of by her people, and meets a terrible end. What can we learn from her? For one thing, she is an example of how the power structure within which women exist can be used for evil. Women find ourselves weaker physically and socially often in the world. When there is no love, respect, or protection offered to the weak by the strong, they often become a horribly vivid incarnation of suffering and oppression. This testifies loudly to the appalling evil that is done when the strong exploit and abuse the weak. We hate to see and hear of these kind of events. Those who perpetrate them are clearly exposed in their inhumanity and demand to be judged.  

Second, in the question of how this woman might have used her limited agency, there is a call to those who find themselves in positions of weakness to look at what power for good and for influence they still have. No human being is a completely passive recipient, unless this has been their choice. When we find ourselves in impossible circumstances, what can we do? With whom should we ally ourselves for security? When we look to thugs and bullies rather than God and his people, we take the side of evil which opposes God and will ultimately be overcome by him. It is vital for human beings, whatever their level of power amongst their peers, to ally ourselves with the ultimate power for good. God can be trusted to work for goodness in the end, regardless of the intermediate timeline. He can also be trusted to work against those who oppose him. 

This story could apply to women when we are pushed and pulled by conflicting obligations with potentially terrible consequences attending whatever choice we make, and we do not have the ability to ensure a good result through our own power. When we have these choices to make, it is vital to ally ourselves with God and his work even if it comes with a large social cost. Letting the loudest and most familiar voices dictate her behavior led to disaster for Samson's wife. If she had been able to see that God was at work in the life of her new husband and taken his side instead of her old community, her story might have ended differently, and God's wrath might not have been poured out on so many others. That's the simpler way to look at this story. The other angle which could be taken is to throw up our hands and weep at the tragedy that was so typical of the time of the Judges, where there was so much violence and immorality and "Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes."