Sunday July 10th, 2016, Sermon @ Holy Trinity, Lakefield
In the story of Samson and Delilah, Samson is usually the focus of the commentary but in our summer Spiritual Reflection we are focussing on the “Women of the Bible” and this past week, I lead the discussion of Delilah. I would like to expand on that discussion in today’s sermon, to link the Spiritual Reflection with our Sunday services.
Samson is one of the judges of Israel, after whom the book of Judges is named. He is also a Nazarite, dedicated to God from birth, and forbidden to drink wine or to cut his hair. It is through this hair, dedicated to God, that he has his enormous strength. He falls in love with Delilah, or is it in lust? The Philistine chiefs ask Delilah to find out the secret of Samson's strength. It’s pretty clear that she is not in love with him, but she uses his love for her to obtain the information they want.
The Philistines and the Israelites were neighbours but enemies, and Samson had been fairly systematically killing their people with his strength. Delilah lived in a valley between them and so had to keep on the right side of both Philistines and Israelites. Delilah asks Samson three times what makes him so strong and how he might be subdued.
He lies three times to her about the source of his strength, the Philistines fail to capture him, which makes a fool of Delilah in front of the Philistines.
Delilah has him bound with ropes as she thinks this will contain him and he escapes. Metaphorically, he was bound anyway, by his desire for Delilah. He had a choice to remain bound to God or become bound to Delilah - he chose the latter.
After the third time, Delilah says, "How can you say, 'I love you,' when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times now and have not told me what makes your strength so great.” The text does not report Samson's reply, but merely that finally, after she had asked him her question day and day, he was fed up with it. So he told her his secret.
Delilah then tells the Philistine lords what she has learned; they blind him, enslave him, and have him grinding grain. The word grind had a double meaning then, just as it does now, reinforcing the sexual nature of Samson’s betrayal of God. He ignored all common sense and what he should be doing in God’s eyes because of his lust for Delilah. Samson sealed his own fate because he cannot have not known what Delilah was up to; she was pretty obvious in what she was doing. Samson was as guilty as Delilah and instrumental in his own capture.
We are not given any indication of the relationship between Samson and Delilah, whether she was his wife or a prostitute. Most commentaries favour the latter, probably because she sold Samson out for money, without any apparent feelings of guilt.
She appears in the Bible only once and so we must assume that she is in the story to deliver a message to the reader. She is not an ongoing Biblical character like Samson, who is the real subject of the story. She is however placed there by the writer to tell us something. What is that?
She has become the symbol of sexual betrayal, but let’s explore who she was a little more. Clearly, whether she was a prostitute or a wife (Samson had at least one other wife and one other prostitute!), she was treacherous and a betrayer.
She was sensual, sexual, a temptress who used her sexuality in order to achieve what she wanted. Sexual desire is a strong human passion, secondly only to hunger I am told, and we are given that passion for a reason. We don’t only eat because we need food, we eat for pleasure also. Likewise, sexuality is not, for most people, only about reproduction. It is also provides physical pleasure and a mutually satisfying sexual relationship, particularly between long-term partners, deepens the mental relationship between them.
Physical love is one form of love and not disconnected from other forms of love, like neighbourliness, loyalty, generosity, worship and even self-love. All are needed as components of complete, rounded love. Delilah used her physical and sexual attractiveness to gain access to a leader of her people and to make financial gains. For her, sex was to be used to gain advantage.
Delilah was money-focussed and bribable, and it lead her into treachery. She eventually caused Samson’s death, although not before he was blinded, enslaved and used for entertainment by his enemies, the Philistines.
The parallels with today are obvious, as the need for money to live in today’s society causes many to accumulate excessive amounts of wealth or to use illegitimate means to procure the money they need. Delilah’s betrayal for what was an enormous amount of money, 5500 shekels or pieces of silver, is no different from a multitude of current forms of betrayal; robbery, bribery, fraud, tax evasion and so on.
On Wednesday, at the spiritual reflection, we had a discussion as to whether she was cunning and clever or whether she was foolish. You could argue that she was clever in that she seized two opportunities that fell into her lap. The first was that Samson, a chief, fell in love with her. We have no evidence that she orchestrated this, although that does not seem unlikely.
The second was that the Philistine lords offered her a bribe to deliver crucial information to them. How modern is that? It could not be more contemporary or more relevant to here. The Charbonneau Commission was all about bribes, disguised in various forms, being used to obtain information or contracts.
Delilah used these two opportunities to enrich herself, which would enable her as a single woman to have a dowry for a husband, to have children and to ensure security in her old age - none of which she would have had otherwise. She played with Samson, as a cat plays with a mouse.
You could also argue that, although she was scheming, she was not very swift because she asked Samson exactly the same question that the Philistines asked her, what gave Samson his strength, with very little cunning or subterfuge.
But then Samson equally played with her, giving her three false answers, before he finally betrays his birthright, God’s gift and trust, and tells her the real answer. Not too clever either, and it probably shows that he did know what she was doing. Samson was benefitting sexually from having Delilah wanting to be with him, so he was no less complicit in his downfall than Delilah.
You may well ask why Samson gave her the real answer at all, but then who here has not finally succumbed to something a partner wanted because they kept asking over and over again. Delilah was nothing if not motivated and persistent!
There are depictions of this story in which Delilah is shown as misguided and finally remorseful for what she did. That could be true if she was Samson’s wife and accepted the bribe in a moment of greed. Maybe she didn’t expect the consequences to be so drastic and thought that she would continue with a Samson shorn of his strength.
We are not given any indication of this, and it seems much more likely that her dispassionate behaviour indicates that she did not love him, showed no signs of remorse, much more indicative of a prostitute than a wife. She shows none of the regret that Judas showed when he betrayed Jesus for money, and regret is typical of someone who has temporarily acted out of character rather than someone who has behaved as they normally do or would.
It seems likely that Delilah was behaving in character and was not remorseful.
I think there are New Testament and modern elements to be added to this story. Firstly, one of Jesus’ closest followers was a prostitute and Jesus was as clear as could be about supporting those who are remorseful for their bad actions, although we don’t know if this applies to Delilah.
Secondly, our view of prostitution today is less categoric than it was 3000 years ago. We understand that prostitution, can be the result of poverty, social circumstances, addiction, violence and so on. Few choose prostitution voluntarily as a trade; today we consider its causes when analyzing a situation. The Book of Judges gives us none of Delilah’s history and so we cannot go very far with this line of thought. It does however provide a caution when discussing this story.
So if we look at this story from the Old Testament perspective only and from Delilah’s side, which is different than looking at it from Samson’s point of view, what do we have? We have a moral tale.
We have a series of examples in which the Christian moral framework is broken or ignored; betrayal, lying, the inappropriate use of sexuality, greed, lack of contrition. A morality tale that is as true and relevant today as it was some three thousand years ago.
No wonder that it made Tom Jones sing.