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."
And though Delilah's reputation has been dragged through centuries of interpretation as an evil seductress who brought down a hero, Ackerman tells students to stay open to other explications of the text. "Nowhere in the Bible does it say Delilah is a prostitute, which is very commonly assumed," says Ackerman. "I always say, 'Show me where it says that in the Bible.' " Indeed, Delilah may have been a widow, Ackerman says. "She's clearly a woman who is independent of a man, and widows would fit that description."
Whatever her marital status, her community stature was high enough for each of the five lords of the Philistines to offer her 1,100 pieces of silver if she would discover Samson's weakness so they could destroy him. We do not even know from the Bible whether Delilah was an Israelite or a Philistine. "Winners write the history,'' says Ackerman. "I think she would come out looking quite well if we had the Philistine Bible.''
Betrayal is the concept most often associated with Delilah's actions when she agreed to the Philistines' request. But nowhere do we read that Delilah loved Samson; only that he loved her. Yee says the characterization of Delilah is often based on popular culture, pointing out: "There isn't any evidence that she seduced this guy; he fell in love with her." Nor is the image of Delilah as wily temptress supported by the biblical text. Ackerman notes that when she speaks to some alumnae groups, "they think of Deli-lah as a scantily clad Hedy Lamarr, like in the 1940s movie Samson and Delilah."
In fact, Delilah was direct and aboveboard in her attempt to find out the truth from Samson. "If you read the text, Delilah asks Samson, 'Please tell me what makes your strength so great and how you could be bound so that one could subdue you,' '' says Yee. "Then he tells a lie. You'd think he would clue in that she wants to know how he could be vanquished. He's the one who in his answers lies to her every time."