A Closer Reading Of The Bible English Literature Essay

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Biblical interpreters tend not to view Delilah as a female counterpart of the youthful David; instead she has been immortalized as a temptress, the femme fatal, and a whore. However, these personifications are found nowhere in the text and are based solely on the idea that Delilah is as under Philistine influence. Some scholars believe that she was probably an Israelite, as she had a Semitic name and lived in an area near the birthplace of Samson (Zorah). The name "Delilah" is a wordplay on Hebrew layla, "night," as the name Samson is related to "sun," shemesh. This may be significant as the author is potentially laying out the concept that Samson and Delilah are polar opposites. It is here that the audience begins to see that Delilah will bring a closing to the days of Samson. For the night overcomes the mighty sun However, this may not be a negative act for Israel.

A closer reading of Judges reveals that Delilah is comparable to another heroic woman, Yael. For example, in Judg. 5:24-27 (and in the parallel account in Judg. 4:17-22) Yael acts on behalf of the Israelites and against the Canaanite leader Sisera, but the text is clear (in both accounts) that Yael is not an Israelite, but a Kenite. Delilah likewise, acts on behalf of the Philistines and against the Israelite hero Samson, even though nowhere is she identified as a Philistine. The text states that Delilah comes from the "Valley of Sorek" (Judg. 16:4), which lies between the hill country inhabited by the Israelites and the Philistine plains. Both Delilah and Yael can be envisioned as outsiders within their stories, playing a role within an ethnic conflict that is not necessarily their own.

Both Yael and Delilah also seem to conduct their lives independent of men and outside of the patriarchal structure of their society. This is clearer in the case of Delilah, who is never mentioned in relation to a man other than her paramour Samson. Delilah also seems to have her own house that she manages alone (the place where Samson sleeps and where the Philistines hide awaiting to capture him). Yael's abode is different, since it is a tent, not a house which is traditionally assumed she shares with her husband, Heber. The NRSV translates Judg 5:24:

'Most blessed of women be Jael,

    the wife of Heber the Kenite,

    of tent-dwelling women most blessed.

Many commentators prefer an alternate translation of this verse, arguing that the second line describes Yael as "a woman of the Kenite community." The basis for this translation lies in the texts from Mari, where the term hibrum is used to describe a community unit such as a clan or tribe. This suggests that heber (the Hebrew cognate of hibrum) should also be translated as a common noun referring to a band of people. This theory gains validity as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, heber has such a meaning. In Hosea 6:9, a company of priest is referred to as a heber. If the reader applies this understanding to heber to Judg. 5:24, it can be understood heber to be a reference to a small group of people (specifically the Kenites) and not as the name of Yael's husband. Therefore, Yael like Delilah, is also an "other" functioning outside a relationship with a husband or other male authority figure.

Sexual imagery is also a theme that is present in both narratives. However, in both cases the texts are unclear. For example, while Delilah in Judg 16:4-22 is commonly assumed to be a seductress, it is never explicitly stated. To be sure she has her own house where she entertains Samson: moreover, he is there (as the text states) because he loves her. All this could suggest a brother. Delilah's story is also prefaced by the story of Samson's Gazaite prostitute and this prologue might solidify Delilah's association with prostitution. Nevertheless, prostitutes are not the only women in the Bible who are depicted as owning houses of their own. Widows also do, and in many respects, Delilah is as much like a famous widow of the deuterocanonical tradition, Judith, as she is like the Gazaite prostitute of Judg 16:1-3 or like Rahab the prostitute of Jericho described in Josh. 2:1-24, 6:22-25 with whom Delilah is often compared. Like Judith, Delilah is called upon at her home by her regions nobility. Like Judith, Delilah sets out to engage an enemy warrior in a one-on-one confrontation and also like Judith; Delilah uses the warrior's attraction to her to gain mastery over him. Judith presents herself dressed in "all her women's finery" so that she can manage to be left alone with Holofernes in order to attack him in his ten (Jdt 12:15). Finally, Judith's triumph over Holofernes, beheading him while he is passed out drunk (Jdt 13:6-9) is not so different then Delilah's triumph in removing Samson's head of hair while he sleeps. The fact that Judith holds Holofernes' hair as she beheads him (Jdt 16:7) makes the connection between these women particularly clear. Still, in the Delilah story, while there may not be prostitution, there is sexual imagery.

Before being shaved, Samson sleeps between Delilah's knees, with "knees" possibly referring to female genitalia, which in this respect, is similar to Yael's "feet" which is also euphemistic for genitalia, between which Sisera collapses in Judg 5:27 after he has been pierced. However, Yael is not automatically identified as a prostitute, though Delilah is. What underlies this erotic imagery of both of these passages appears to be motherhood not prostitution. Samson lays shaved between Delilah's "knees" in the same way he lay as a newborn -bald and helpless. This interpretation of motherhood also applies to Yael as immediately following the description of Sisera laying between Yael's legs in Judg 5:27 is a verse that describes his mother. This Maternal imagery downplays the perceived sexuality of both sense and helps to refute the idea that Delilah is a prostitute.

Nevertheless, no matter how like Yael Delilah seems to be -in terms of an "outside" ethnicity, in terms of standing outside patriarchal norms, and in terms of combining a triumph over an enemy with sexual imagery -there is still the fact that Delilah betrayed Samson for money and this "selling" of herself might present a problem to extol Delilah in a Yael-like manner. However, this potential betrayal can be explained in many ways. One such explanation is that the texts state, "At that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel," (Judges 14:4) which could explain that Delilah accepted the bribe out of concern for her own well being -knowing the Philistines had the power in the situation. Regardless, Yael may also be considered a traitor by her own people. In Israelite tradition, the verse of the "Song of Deborah" that describe Yael offer no reason to explain why she, a Kenite, would act on behalf of the Israelites and against the Canaanites by killing the Canaanite leader Sisera. The prose account of the same episode in Judg. 4:17-22 likewise offers no explanation of Yael's actions. But the prose do offer a powerful argument against Yael's killing act in v. 17: it assumes that there was a peace treaty between King Jabin of Hazor, for whom Sisera was said to be fighting, and Yael's clan. Here Yael has endangered her community by breaking the peace. In the logic of Judges 4 -Yael is just as much a betrayer as Delilah is in Judges 16, "selling out" her Kenite kin even without a clear-cut motivation (like money). Yet in the biblical tradition as it has been passed down, Yael is still considered a hero despite her seemingly uncoaxed betrayal because she "sells out" on Israel's behalf.

By linking Delilah to Yael and seeing how her actions mirror another women that is acclaimed earlier in the book of Judges, an audience could conclude that Delilah is either a traitor to her people or she is acting in the best interest of Israel. Chapter 15 of Judges can attest to this idea as the men of Judah question Samson with "Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then have you done to us?" (Judg 15:11) Delilah appears to be in good company if her motivations were inspired by the idea of limiting the harm caused by Samson. This argument is only strengthened as the Hebrew men bind Samson (with his permission) and turn him into the Philistines -almost in the same manner that Delilah does later in the saga. It is logical to infer that (given Samson's questionable status as a judge and his actions) Delilah is the hero of Judges 16 as she brings down the aggressive character, who is harming Israel. While the argument can be made that Samson should be viewed as a positive figure due the fact that he killed many Philistines, it is important to keep in mind the words of YHWH when speaking to Jonah (Jonah 4:9-11):

But God said to Jonah, 'Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?' And he said, 'Yes, angry enough to die.' Then the Lord said, 'You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?'

The Hebrew Bible does not always contain black and white issues and the enemies of Israel are not always the enemies of YWHW. In that light, Samson's actions cannot be considered heroic based solely on the fact that Philistines died. Likewise, the heroic status of Delilah should not be diminished, as her actions mirror other characters labeled "heroic" in other biblical text. In Cecil B. De Mille's film "Samson and Delilah", the last words Samson speaks to Delilah before he is blinded by the Philistines are, "The name Delilah will be an everlasting curse on the lips of men" but this ennobled depiction of Samson and his everlasting curse of Delilah is all a matter of perspective. If Delilah is in fact an Israelite, it might be Delilah who would bear the epithet given to Yael in Judg 5:25, "most blessed of women."