The tale of Samson and Delilah has migrated over the centuries from the realm of Sunday-school stories to its current place in modern culture as—depending on one's perspective—a morality play, a feminine discourse, or a caution to lovesick men. Samson has become a byword for strength, Delilah a synonym for temptress. The crossroads of their lives is a train wreck whose meaning remains open to interpretation.
To recount the basics: Samson is the strong man who defends Israel, meets beautiful Delilah, and falls under her spell. His strength comes directly from God and depends on his hair never being cut, but Delilah pries that secret from him, his locks are shorn, and he falls from God's grace. It is a classic tale of romance and betrayal, complete with violence, money, and special effects. But like most biblical stories, what is not said about Delilah is as important as what is.
Who was Delilah? Was she a pawn, a Judas, or a strong woman and survivor? And what is this story really all about? "It's a story about God delivering Israel," says Susan Ackerman, professor of religion and women's and gender studies at Dartmouth College. Though, she adds, "one of the things that always strikes me about this story is what an unbelievable idiot Samson is."
Samson was an Israelite hero in the 13th century B.C. The Israelites' enemies included the Philistines, a loose confederation of city-states ruled by five lords. Samson's birth was foretold by an angel who appeared to his mother and extracted a promise from her that the boy would be consecrated to God, with this consecration cemented by a vow to refrain from drinking alcohol, touching dead bodies, and cutting his hair. In return, Samson was blessed with extraordinary powers—the long list of his feats well known throughout the ancient world. He became one of the judges of Israel, guiding the Hebrew people.
Samson's deeds now seem extreme in their violence. Whether it was dismantling and carrying on his shoulders the huge gate to the city of Gaza, tearing out two mountains with his bare hands, wrestling a lion to its death, slaying a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, or tying flaming torches to the tails of 300 foxes to burn down his enemies' grain and olive orchards, Samson was definitely a thorn in the side of the Philistines.
Samson, perhaps predictably, did not have a good track record with women. His name, meaning "sun hero," was an indication of the temperature of his passion in love and in war. He would visit a prostitute, a point singled out in the Bible, and had a weakness for Philistine women. At the rehearsal dinner for his first marriage, he made a bet with his guests, which his fiancée later divulged. Enraged, he slaughtered 30 men to pay off his wager, and his bride-to-be was burned to death in retaliation.
Thus it was Delilah's misfortune—or fortune, depending on one's perspective—that Samson's lustful eye settled on her. One of the few women in the Old Testament not identified as a mother or wife, Delilah is unique. "She was obviously a powerful woman," says Gale Yee, professor of Hebrew Bible at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "She'd be fine nowadays, a real Sex and the City type of woman."