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."
It's also not clear from the text whether Delilah pressed Samson for the secret of his strength because she was loyal to the Philistines, because she wanted the money offered to her, or because she was strong-armed into it. "The Bible doesn't give motivation," says Yee. Nor do we know Samson's motivation for revealing the secret on the fourth occasion. "He may be teasing her, or he may have an unconscious wish to be bound and vanquished by this woman," says Yee. "The biblical text engages your imagination so that you have questions about why Samson is nuts enough to do this three times."
In what is one of the most familiar stories of a strong man turned weak in the hands of a woman, Samson lies in Delilah's lap after his confession and is lulled to sleep. While she cradles his head, Delilah calls in a man to cut Samson's hair, robbing him of his superhuman strength and any hope of continuing as the Israelites' warrior. In Ackerman's view, this imagery is profoundly sexual. "Hair is a very sexual motif," she explains, particularly for ancient Israelites. "The whole business of the hair would have been a little bit titillating, as would the reference to Samson's head in her lap."
In spilling his secret to Delilah, Samson breaks his vow and suffers God's consequences. Shorn, humiliat-ed, and the prisoner of his Philistine enemies, Sam-son is bound, and his eyes are gouged out. In a final blow to his manhood, he is put to work in prison on a job viewed as a woman's chore—milling grain.
The story culminates not long afterward with the Philistines celebrating at an agricultural festival in the Temple of Dagon by bringing the ruined wreck of Samson out to parade around for their enjoyment. Unnoticed by them, his hair has begun to grow back and, with it, his strength. Standing between the pillars that support the temple, he calls on God to give him one more chance at redemption. In a final and impressive show of God-given power, the blind giant pulls down the pillars, collapses the temple, and dies with the 3,000 Philistines who have gathered to mock him.