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Double Agent Delilah: Sapping Sampson's Strength

Delilah, who lived in the thirteenth century BC, breaks the heart of her lover, Samson, a man who devoted his life to fighting the enemies of the Israelites. In fact, she even betrays him to these enemies, the Philistines. She is the poster child of femme fatales for her intrigue, seductiveness, and treachery toward her lover, the iron man of the ancient world. In her story, she is the only woman in a numerous cast of characters who is identified by name.

Playing Samson

Samson, Delilah's "prey," is one of the Judges of Israel, a ruler who led the nation before the monarchy. Like Deborah, who had also been a Judge, Samson guides and governs the Hebrew people. Unlike Deborah, though, he is a bit of a loose cannon. He often loses his temper and shows a similar lack of control over his passions. Shortly before he meets Delilah, Samson visits a prostitute — a reward, perhaps, for slaying a thousand Philistines, his sworn enemies (Judges 16:1).

Delilah herself is a Philistine, the last in a string of Philistine women whom Samson seemingly can't resist. The Philistines were traditional rivals and enemies of the Hebrews for centuries. Although Samson is blessed with extraordinary physical strength, he suffers great weakness when it comes to Delilah. His first wife, also a Philistine, had perished as a result of Samson's conflict with these people.

When he meets Delilah, it's clear he hasn't learned from his previous mistake. Samson has a thing for Philistine women — and usually for women who are not totally devoted to him, either. His first wife was killed when, at the prenuptial party, a silly bet is made that no one can answer his famous riddles. The Philistine guests get Samson's Philistine wife to trick the answer out of him. She tells her countrymen the answer, and Samson loses the bet. In a rage to pay his debt, Samson slays 30 Philistines and takes their garments. The result is that his wife-to-be is given by her father to Samson's best man. He angrily goes out and destroys the grain fields of the Philistines, and they retaliate by burning his home with his former betrothed and her father inside.

Although he is physically the strongest man on earth, when it comes to Philistine women, Samson has weak knees. He acts impetuously and blabs secrets to them. He fails to learn from his experience with the first wife, and he soon makes a similar mistake with his lover, Delilah.

Understanding Samson's strength

Samson kills a lion with his bare hands and slays a thousand Philistines with just the jawbone of an ass that had been lying on the ground. His very name intimidates and infuriates the Philistine men.

Soon after Samson and Delilah meet, the Philistine overlords ask Delilah to discover the enigma of Samson's strength, unbeknownst to Samson. Being superstitious pagans, they suspect the secret to his strength is some magic amulet or talisman or perhaps some potion or spell. Whatever it is, they need to know so they can capture and destroy their archnemesis.

But Samson's strength comes from God, and it will remain only as long as Samson stays faithful to his Nazirite vow, one part of which means never cutting his hair. No one knows this source of his strength except the man of steel himself. The Nazirite (from the Hebrew word Nazir, meaning "dedicated one") vow was made first for Samson by his mother and then by Samson himself. Taking the vow means that he won't consume strong drink (wine with high alcohol content), won't contaminate himself by touching a dead body (animal or human), and won't ever cut the hair on his head. These external signs represent a special relationship of the person with the Lord God.

Delilah was to be Samson's ultimate downfall. For 1,100 pieces of silver she agrees to spy on her boyfriend and learn his secret, going to work as an undercover agent for her people.

Finding Samson's Achilles' heel

The Bible recounts three occasions when Delilah unsuccessfully attempts to learn the mystery of Samson's strength.

"If you really loved me. . . ." How many times has that line been spoken by women and men throughout history in an effort to get their beloved to do, show, or prove something? Delilah is no different. She comes right out and asks Samson: "Please tell me what makes your strength so great, and how you could be bound, so that one could subdue you" (Judges 16:6). No secrets between lovers, right?

Her tactic was simple but brilliant. Instead of plying him with booze to get him to tell all, and knowing she was no physical match for his strength, she takes the direct approach, which seems most logical. By explicitly asking him, Delilah thinks that it seems too obvious that she wants nothing more than a demonstration that he loves and trusts her.

Samson, for his part, must see through her wily ruse — at least at first. So he tells her that the only way to subdue him is to bind his hands with seven green bowstrings. She relays the secret to the Philistines, who obtain some of these ripe vines, and she ties Samson's hands while he sleeps. When the soldiers come to capture him, she yells and wakes him, "The Philistines are here!" But he easily snaps the chords. Obviously, he hadn't divulged the correct answer (Judges 16:6–9).

Delilah rebukes him for lying to her and asks him again. He gives her another answer, telling her that only unused rope can restrain him. She believes him and tells the Philistines, and once again an ambush is staged. And once again, Samson snaps the ropes as if they were a single thread (Judges 16:10–12).

Third time's the charm, right? Delilah thinks so. One more time she harangues Samson for mocking her. He never inquires as to why she keeps tying him up or how the Philistines keep popping up in his bedroom. Instead, he again answers her. The third reply gets closest to the truth. He tells Delilah that his capture requires seven locks of his hair to be woven together and fashioned into bands to bind his hands and feet (Judges 16:13–14).

For a third time, however, Samson breaks free and foils his attempted capture. Delilah resorts to nagging him incessantly until he relents and spills the beans.

Ensuring his capture

Was it the nagging that caused Samson to tell the truth, or did the game master enjoy the game too much, raising the stakes higher than he could handle? In any event, Samson finally reveals his secret to Delilah — that God is the source of his strength and that violating his Nazirite vow by shaving his head would be the cause of his downfall (Judges 16:15–17).

Delilah uses this information and takes matters into her own hands. She lulls him to sleep in her lap, and a servant cuts his hair. The hair wasn't the true source of his power, but it was a sign of his personal covenant with God as a Nazirite. For violating the confidentiality and thus allowing his vow to be broken, God takes away Samson's Herculean strength.

The Philistines, in turn, bind Samson and gouge out his eyes — both to ensure that his power is gone (there's nothing weaker than a man who can't see) and to engage in some personal sport (taunting him like a sick child would torment a fly by pulling off its wings). Humiliated, betrayed, and captured like an animal, he is dragged away in shame. Because they know his superhuman strength is no longer with him, the Philistines do to him what they never could do before — sort of like Lex Luthor beating up Superman after exposing him to kryptonite. Delilah is paid her betrayal money (Judges 16:18–21).

Although the Bible makes no more mention of Delilah after this treacherous betrayal, many scripture scholars suspect she went to the Philistine temple of Dagon, where Samson had been put on display before 3,000 people. Samson, in the meantime, repents and asks God's forgiveness. His last prayer is for enough strength to punish the Philistines, even if it means his own death (Judges 16:28).

As his hair begins to grow back and God answers his final prayer, Samson secretly pushes on the pillars to which he is chained. Unfortunately for the Philistines, these columns hold up the ceiling. Samson regains enough strength to tear down the entire building, killing himself and all 3,000 Philistines (Judges 16:30). We don't know whether Delilah was there too, but some people speculate that she may have been killed along with the Philistines.

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