Auckland TheoRel are delighted to announce not one, but two wonderful seminars coming up next week. The first features TheoRel’s Caroline Blyth as the first guest speaker in a new seminar series hosted by the Gender Studies programme here at the University of Auckland. The seminar will be held in room 040B in the Owen G Glenn building on Grafton Road.
Next, on Friday 17th March, our visiting scholar, Jo Henderson-Merrygold will be delivering the first of our ‘My Queer Research’ seminars, brought to you by Hidden Perspectives: Bringing the Arts Out of the Closet – a new project at the University of Auckland, which provides a social and academic community for LGBTIQ+ students across the Faculty of Arts. This seminar will be co-hosted by Gender Studies and Theology and Religion.
Both of these events promise to be fabulous, so we hope to see you there!
For further inquiries about the seminars, or Hidden Perspectives, please contact Caroline Blyth.
Auckland TheoRel are delighted to welcome their first visiting scholar of the year, Jo Henderson-Merrygold, who has come all the way from the Sheffield Institute of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) to work with us for five weeks. Jo is a PhD Student at SIIBS, and her visit has been generously funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH), as part of their doctoral training programme. In her PhD research, she is developing a strategy to read the Bible against established gender norms. In particular, she wants to challenge the way many readers assume that biblical characters are cisgendered – that their assigned (and assumed) gender remains consistent and fixed throughout their lives. She calls her approach a Hermeneutics of Cispicion.
At Sheffield, Jo is co-director of Hidden Perspectives: Bringing the Bible out of the Closet. Hidden Perspectives showcases challenging voices and research which invite new perspectives on norms of gender, sex, sexuality, race and class. Recent events have included papers covering sex-work in Hong Kong, post-holocaust readings of gender norms, HIV and LGBT activism in Kenya, and a hugely successful ‘Orange is the New Bible’ symposium. Later in 2017 Hidden Perspectives will be organizing a showcase of student research from across the Faculty of Arts at Sheffield.
One of Jo’s main tasks while she is in Auckland is to work with Auckland’s Faculty of Arts staff and students to develop a ‘sister’ Hidden Perspectives programme here. Hidden Perspectives NZ: Bringing the Arts out of the Closet is a new venture organized by Rainbow Arts and Arts Equity that seeks to provide a platform for LGBTI+ student voices across the Faculty of Arts, and to foster a social and academic community where LGBTI+ Arts students can meet, share ideas, support each other, and get inspired by queer research and activism.
Jo is delighted to be working with Hidden Perspectives New Zealand during the time she is here. She is organizing a new HPNZ website, has been meeting staff and students involved in HPNZ, and is currently busy getting our HPNZ promotional material ready for Orientation Week at the University. She will also be participating in a few HPNZ events while she is here, including our official launch (16 March) and her very own ‘My Queer Research’ seminar (17 March – details to come). Jo is so dedicated that she doesn’t even take weekends off, and spent last Saturday evening parading with University staff and students at Auckland’s annual Pride Parade. But we do give her a wee bit of time off, and she is having a great time exploring Auckland, enjoying our blue skies and warm sunny days (a bit of a change from the snow she left in the UK) and relishing the chorus of cicadas that provide the songscape in NZ at this time of year . Welcome Jo, and we hope you continue to enjoy your time in Auckland!
This year, we had a load of fabulous essays from the students in our Bible and Pop Culture class. Today’s essay, though, has to be my favourite of 2016. It’s written by TianaTuialii, who recently completed her first year of a Bachelor of Arts and Law conjoint degree. Tiana was born and bred in Auckland city and has no intention of leaving anytime soon. She tells me that our Bible and Pop Culture course (THEOREL 101) was easily the most enjoyable course she took throughout the year, and she found it thought provoking, interesting and allowed breathing room for creative flair. Which is why she wrote not one, but two essays on the wonderful Beyonce Knowles. Tiana hopes that her future will be ‘a series of deliverances of justice’, as she intends to spend her lifetime working in the legal profession. I hope she continues to write too, as she has a real talent.
Beyoncé: debunking biblical condemnation of sexuality using metaphors of baptism, flame and menstruation.
By Tiana Tuialii
No image has been more dominating in popular culture of the twenty-first century than pop icon Beyonce Knowles. In her recently released album ‘Lemonade’, Beyonce deconstructs biblical condemnation of female sexuality through extensive metaphors relating to baptism, flame and menstruation. The need to invalidate biblical vilification of sexuality springs from a history in which women were consistently disadvantaged by not only their own femininity, but stereotypes of femininity. Indeed, long before biblical Eve arrived to partner with Adam, Pandora was fashioned out of clay by Hephaestus, described as a “beautiful evil” (Hesiod 1914). As is the nature of literary tradition, women are often an inherent dichotomy, both beautiful and sinful. Female oppression is historic and universal, the story cyclical. A woman is construed consistently as less of a human being and more as a force of nature. Considering aspects from the Second Edition of the New Living Translation Bible we can note a transformation of women as a destructive force of nature, to a significant and positive authority as shown in ‘Lemonade’.
The audience’s first glimpse of Beyonce in ‘Lemonade’ is of her sitting clothed in black, stark against the deep red of a stage curtain. The use of the colour red in scripture has symbolically meant sin and sinfulness. Indeed, “sins are like scarlet” (Isaiah 1.18). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a woman should be presented amongst sin. However, it is not only sin that is associated with red, but menstruation too. Regardless, both sin and menstruation share a common theme of undesirability and uncleanliness. Biblically, menstruation is one of the pains gifted to Eve by God for biting into the forbidden fruit. He exclaims “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth” (Genesis 3.16). The prior asserts that a female’s bodily functions are intended to be uncomfortable.
However, Beyonce expresses no such sentiment. Instead, she describes menstruation as simply tilling “blood in and out of uterus”. Further, it isn’t God or Eve she calls to blame “for the flush of blood”, but the moon. In refusing to recognize Eve’s sin as the source of discomfort as a result of regular bodily function, Beyonce rejects the idea that a woman should feel condemned under the aegis of the bible. In a prelude to ‘Daddy’s Girl’ Beyonce lyricises that “you look nothing like your mother, you look everything like your mother”. In essence, because a woman is sinful, we all look like Eve, the mother of humanity.
However, Beyonce is not discouraged by appearing sinful, expressing her desire to look like her mother by wearing her lipstick. In picking up and using the tube of lipstick and subsequently offering the lipstick to young girls, Beyonce shows how unashamed she is to be a woman. She isn’t fearful of being associated with sin, of looking like Eve. Instead, she actively pursues the feminine and finds power in doing so. Such is shown by the perversion of Matthew 5:5, where instead of God, Beyonce begs “Mother dearest, let me inherit the Earth”. In her replacement of God with a matriarch, Beyonce refuses to acknowledge the lords second punishment to Eve, subservience to the male figure. Womanhood, characterized by menstruation and pregnancy, is shown in ‘Lemonade’ as a source of power rather than shame. Using imagery, dialogue and metaphors associated with menstruation, Beyonce shows a clear shift between traditional biblical condemnation of sin to a more femininely powerful modern perspective – a rejection of the synonymous nature of womanhood and shame.
In baptism, believers rise from the water, immediately becoming symbols of spiritual longevity. They have accomplished a great feat: receiving resurrection-life through Jesus Christ (Moren 2010). Considering the prior, baptism has traditionally been the means by which one establishes a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ. In contrast, Beyonce uses baptism as a means to rebirth herself, rather than rebirth her faith. In doing so, Beyonce shows the regenerative nature of baptism can only be achieved for women once they accept power lies in femininity, not shame. She explains that as a result of shame, at not being enough to satisfy her husband, she “fasted for 60 days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex”. The list is extensive. However, despite the correct performance of the practices and not only the acceptance, but encouragement, of such practices by the bible, she is still left unfulfilled.
Pictured in a room flooded with water, Beyonce is literally drowning in her cloak of shame. It is not until she removes the cloak that she leaves the room freely, water rushing behind her. Consequent images show her walking through water, a line of women following. She gushes “baptize me. Now that reconciliation is possible”. Reconciliation has only become a possibility as a result of Beyonce leaving the room and the water where she was agonizing over her sin. Her choice to leave, to forget the ugliness committed against her is where shame dissolves. Shame does not dissipate as a result of baptism. Rather, baptism becomes possible once shame dissipates. This makes a broader comment on the oppressive structure of womanhood, perpetuated by the bible, that women who live in shame of themselves will never achieve freedom in life or through Christ. Matthew 3:13-17 notes that after Jesus’ baptism “the heavens were opened”. In a similar fashion, once Beyonce lets go of the questions “coiled deep”, she can undergo healing which will be “glorious”. Ultimately, imagery, dialogue and metaphor related to baptism in ‘Lemonade’ work to assert that for women, baptism is void of its regenerative properties until they can let go of the sin and shame that springs from the original temptation. While Beyonce’s music could be considered simple artistic expression, her message embodies feminism (Thompson 2016).
No image is more classically associated with hell, the devil and sin than flame. In ‘Lemonade’ the use of flame is rampant. When viewing flame as a symbol of sin, the audience sees Beyonce unafraid, happily sitting in the middle of a box of flame in a prelude to ‘6 Inch’. She remains unaffected, because if the female body is the site of sin, then the presence of fire outside of her body is only a reflection of the flame within. Therefore, her strut through a hallway alight, only alludes to the female’s ability to handle the sin of the world and the sin the world has pushed upon her.
Indeed, after Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit, it was Eve who God turned to and questioned “what have you done?”. The male remained free of accountability, granted the opportunity to “rule over” the female as a result of her treachery. However, Lemonade marks a significant divergence from the traditional view of flame as an associate of sin. Admittedly, Beyonce uses flame as a trope to establish herself as blissfully aware and unashamed of her sin, as previously noted. But, she also uses flame in a way which is much more consistent with Bachelards description of it being unique, life giving, “intimate and universal” (Manopriya 2015). In the prelude to ‘Sandcastles’ the camera focuses intently on a fire place, the flames welcoming and warm. Beyonce states “Do you remember being born?”.
Here, flame is directly associated with life. Bachelard describes flame as rising “from the depths” and offering “itself with the warmth of love”. Here, birth and flame are consistent with what could be considered the ‘warmth’ of love, ‘Sandcastles’ being a love song (Manopriya 2015). With the focus on the fire place Beyonce extends the metaphor between fire and birth, stating “are you thankful for the hips that cracked the deep velvet of your mother and her mother and her mother?”. In closely linking flame and birth, Beyonce twists what is usually a negative symbol into becoming something “magic”, allusive of a women’s potential to birth life, but also rebirth her own life. Such is confirmed in losing the house, a traditional associate of femininity, to flame. In burning down a recognizable site of female oppression, Beyonce offers women a chance to rebuild something worthy from the ashes. Here, fire grants the opportunity to ‘relive’, to start again free of the restrictions of femininity. Hence, fire in ‘Lemonade’ is not a destructive associate of sin, but a powerful positive force used by women.
Through her visual album ‘Lemonade’ Beyonce works to deconstruct biblical condemnation of sexuality through metaphors related to baptism, flame and menstruation. Since the story of Adam and Eve, where the Lord proclaimed “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth. And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you”, women have been dealing with adverse effects. They have been viewed as the site of sin, the original wrong-doers and the downfall of men.
Beyonce refuses such assertions. Instead, she claims that “God was in the room when the man said to the woman wrap your legs around me”. She refuses to allow men a complicit position in actions that involve two. She demands male accountability. The lyric “she don’t gotta give it up” is imbued with a double meaning. As a women, she doesn’t have to give up sex, doesn’t have to be subject to someone else’s desire. As a women, she doesn’t have to give up, nor be afraid of, her femininity. Ultimately, the use of baptism, flame and menstruation in ‘Lemonade’ act as “exhibitions of female and sexual empowerment which disrupt traditional notions of femininity” (Kumari 2016). It is in this way, that ‘Lemonade’ works to deconstruct biblical vilification of sexuality.
Hesiod. 1914. Theogony. Translated by H.G.Loeb Evelyn-White. Vol. 57. William Heinemann.
Kumari, A. 2016. “You and I: Identity and the Performance of Self in Lady Gaga and Beyonce.” The Journal of Popular Culture 49(2): 103-416.
Manopriya, M. 2015. The Two Elements of Nature. Vol. 15:5. Language in India.
Moren, Peter J. 2010. C.H Spurgeon and Baptism. Baptist Quarterly.
Thompson, Cheryl. 2016. The Sweet Taste of Lemonade: Beyonce Serves up Black Feminist History. Herizons.
Today’s Bible and Pop Culture essay comes from Bachelor of Arts student Jessica Marshall. Jessica has just finished her second year of her Arts degree, majoring in history and English. She was born in Manchester, in the UK, but has lived in Auckland since she was ten years old. Jessica hopes to be a journalist once she finishes her studies. Like Christiane Amanpour and Kate Adie, she is passionate about wanting to hold people responsible in the court of public opinion, in order to ‘right the wrongs’ that we see too much of in the world.
Katie chose the wonderful TV series West Wing as the focus of her essay, and her evaluation of President Bartlet as a contemporary saviour figure casts a cynical eye at contemporary US politics. Enjoy.
Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet: The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed
At this point in time, politics in the United States has become a mockery of the democracy it claims to stand for. So, in the time of such a travesty, we must look to fiction. The television series The West Wing (1999-2006) created and written by Aaron Sorkin has the greatest example of a President (fictional or otherwise) that the United States could hope for in Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet. As one writer put it, ‘One of the only things that has made life worth living for left-leaning liberals … is the small fact that, for one hour … [George W. Bush] is not the president’ (Clark 2005, 224). And unlike most presidential characters, Bartlet is multi-faceted and layered (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2006, 153). In this essay, I will argue that Bartlet shares a number of features with the figure of the contemporary messiah or ‘supersaviour’, who Jewett and Lawrence identify in their discussion of the American Monomyth (2002). I will do this through analysing several storylines and episodes of West Wing, including the Pilot (1×01), the shooting storyline (1×22 – 2×02), the episode ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2×22) and, finally, the parabolic episode ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (3×01).
There’s a phrase that came out of the protest movements of the 1960s: ‘The personal is political.’ It seems to be a sentiment that has continued over the decades, even going so far as to enter into the fictional White House, making itself pronounced in the pilot episode of The West Wing. One character, Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford), deals with a faux pas with regards to the religious right. This is how our hero, President Jed Bartlet, is brought into the picture. Josh is forced to apologise for the faux pas. In the midst of this meeting, after another staffer – Toby – becomes frustrated with the recipient of the apology over racist comments she has made towards Jews, a debate over the Ten Commandments breaks out between Toby and one member of the religious right, John Van Dyke. Van Dyke makes the claim that ‘Honour thy father’ (Exod. 20.3) is the First Commandment. An argument ensues between Toby and Van Dyke in which Toby explains that ‘Honour thy father’ is, in fact, the Third Commandment, to which Van Dyke responds with the question ‘Then what’s the First Commandment?’ At this moment, President Bartlet walks into the room, answering the question correctly. Here, Bartlet combines the selfless zeal of a man who rescues a staff member he should have fired for a one-liner (Josh) with the zealous saviour who rescues the White House from evil. Yet, perhaps his behaviour is not entirely selfless (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). Bartlet’s granddaughter, twelve-years-old, received a death threat from an over-zealous fringe group going by the name ‘The Lambs of God’, all because – in an article – she stated her opinions on reproductive rights. Bartlet, having already corrected them on the order of the Ten Commandments, then poses a question to those present in the room: ‘From what part of holy scripture do you suppose The Lambs of God drew their divine inspiration when they sent my twelve-year-old granddaughter a bloody Raggedy Ann doll with a knife through its throat?’ It is in this scene that Bartlet proves one of his messianic superpowers, according to the American Monomyth: his intelligence (Primiano 2009, 99). It shows up again and again throughout the show’s run, but the message is always the same: you would be best advised not to go up against him in a battle of wits.
Perhaps the best storyline that Aaron Sorkin ever tackled as the writer on The West Wing – and one of its most controversial – was that of the Roslyn shooting. Here, we see two resurrections. In flashback, we see the resurrection of Bartlet the politician and in the present we see the resurrection of Bartlet’s staffer, Josh Lyman. While the second resurrection is important to another storyline, one I will discuss later, the first is the more interesting. At the beginning of the flashback, it looks like Senator John Hoynes (the Vice-President in present time) will win the Democratic nomination. Bartlet, on the other hand, is the dark horse, the outside candidate no one expects to succeed. As a woman in a New Hampshire bar says to Toby, ‘I didn’t even know Bartlet was running’ (‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ 2000). In the following scene, however, Bartlet again proves his intelligence; during a speech in Nashua, New Hampshire, he talks about the economy and taxes – not exactly a rousing topic, let’s face it. But then, when asked about a vote in Congress over the New England Dairy Farming Compact (he voted against a bill that would have given dairy farmers more money, but caused the price of milk to rise), Bartlet responds simply with ‘Yeah, I screwed you on that.’ It is one of those turning points for an election campaign. Normally, these occur during the presidential debates after the parties have announced their nominees (for example, Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 or Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988; see Spacey and Brunetti 2016). That this could happen so early in a campaign that next to no one had even heard of is nothing short of miraculous. He continues, saying, ‘One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, backbreaking, gut-wrenching poverty… I voted against the bill ‘cause I didn’t want it to be hard for people to buy milk… if you expect anything different from the President… I suggest you vote for somebody else.’ It’s an honesty we rarely see in politicians, it’s endearing, it makes you want to vote for the guy who admits that he stiffed his own constituents and it raises from the dead a campaign few even knew existed. In reviving the campaign with one speech, Bartlet resurrects his career as a politician and, therefore, himself.
One of the most heart-breaking moments in this television series comes when President Bartlet yells at God in the National Cathedral in the episode entitled ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2001). It is flashback-heavy episode, as Bartlet deals with his grief for his secretary and friend, Mrs Landingham who has died in a car crash. The speech (a chunk of which is in Latin – the language of the traditional Catholic mass) is juxtaposed against Bartlet’s memories of his abusive father. In doing this, it pits God against Bartlet’s own father. The anger Bartlet felt towards his father for years is mixed in with his ire towards God in his moments of grief: ‘”You can’t conceive nor can it, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there ‘cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son.’ He all but screams, the sound of his voice echoing across the empty Cathedral. His anger is easily understandable. Christians are reminded that people are all ‘God’s children’ (Rom 8.16). Yet, even the most devoted of followers, the most desperate to please the father, cannot do so and even if they try their best to do so, God still takes and takes and takes. He’s taken Mrs Landingham, the only parental figure Bartlet had left, handed him a case of remitting-relapsing Multiple Sclerosis, and had his staffer, Josh Lyman – a man Bartlet has come to see as his own son – shot. Why? Bartlet, himself, asks this question: ‘What did I ever do to [Jesus] but praise his glory and praise his name?’ Confused and angry, Bartlet admits that he has lied to the American public with regards to his MS diagnosis, but surely that makes him like Jesus sending his disciples away before his crucifixion – he does not want the people around him to suffer because of who he is or the suffering he has to endure.
The final episode I wish to talk about is the first episode of the third season, entitled ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (2001). Officially, a special rather than an actual episode (at the beginning of the episode, the cast inform us that it does not fit in with the normal plot). It was filmed and aired within the four weeks after the events of September 11th, a point at which the majority of the entertainment industry avoided referencing even the idea of violence, let alone terrorism (Jones and Dionisopoulos 2004, 21). It is parabolic, as students from the Presidential Classroom programme wind up in the midst of what the Secret Service calls a ‘Crash’ (meaning that the White House has been breached). For a small moment, as his staffers – Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, Sam Seaborn, C.J. Cregg and Charlie Young – are in the midst of fielding questions regarding terrorism, President Bartlet walks in with his wife, Abbey. Here, he is asked by a student whether or not there is something noble in being a martyr. To this, he replies with the line ‘A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of an oppressor than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is sick, twisted, brutal, dumb-ass murder… we don’t need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he’d much rather live for it.’ Here, Bartlet crosses borders. His speech comes at a time in American history when they need a leader, a time when the Patriot Act was being passed with little to no forethought as to what it could do. In giving this speech, the United States is given a leader, a hero to quote the character himself, one who will not simply go to war because it is the easier option. The speech reminds people of who the enemy really is: not one particular race (as had already been explained earlier in the episode) or a particular religion but anyone who commits heinous attacks against America and its people. It is Bartlet’s sermon on the Mount moment, but instead of preaching to the poor and downtrodden, he preaches to those who form the future of society: children. Instead of saying ‘Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom in heaven,’ he says that America needs a hero and, like any Messiah, allows for the phrase ‘and I am it’ to go unsaid (Matt. 5.3).
There was a reason I subtitled this essay ‘The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed’ and, yes, it has to do with my own political leanings. It also has to do with the fact that Jed Bartlet, a creation of Aaron Sorkin’s own mind, represents the best of all the Presidents of American history. He’s honest like Lincoln, witty like Kennedy and Reagan. There’s an idea known as the cult of leadership and it’s normally applied to dictators like Stalin or Kim Jong-Il. In The West Wing, I believe we have a leader, albeit fictional, we could add to a list of political messiahs who actually deserve the cult of leadership. He is honest, a reviver of dead political campaigns, intelligent and he does not even realise that he is a hero. Jed Bartlet is the man America needs to bring it back from the abyss.
All references to the Biblical Text are from the New International Version (NIV).
Clark, J. Elizabeth. ‘The Bartlet Administration and Contemporary Populism in NBC’s The West Wing’ in Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Eds.), The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Pp.224-243
Jones, Robert and George N. Dionisopoulos, ‘Scripting a Tragedy: The “Isaac and Ishmael” Episode of The West Wing as Parable’ Popular Communication Vol.2 (1), 2004, pp.21-40
Parry-Giles, Trevor and Shawn Parry-Giles. The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2006
Primiano, Leonard N. ‘”For What I Have Done and What I Have Failed To Do”: Vernacular Catholicism and The West Wing’ in Diane H. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Waco, Texas. Baylor University Press, 2009, pp. 99-123
Shelton Lawrence, John and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
‘George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis’ Race for the White House, directed by David Bartlett, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016.
‘Government Surveillance’ Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Produced by Liz Stanton. United States: Avalon Television and Partially Important Productions, 2015
‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ The West Wing, directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2000
‘Isaac and Ishmael’ The West Wing. Directed by Christopher Misiano, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.
‘John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon’ Race for the White House, directed by Christopher Spencer, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.
‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.
‘Two Cathedrals’ The West Wing. Directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.
 John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, p.6
Today’s wonderful Bible and Pop Culture essay is by Lachlan Balfour, who takes us back for another look at my favourite biblical character, Delilah. Lachlan has just completed his second year of a law and arts degree, where he is majoring in politics. Lachlan hasn’t decided yet what he’ll do once he completes his degree (he has a while to decide!) but at this point, he is thinking about a career working in politics. Lachlan tells me that he enjoyed our Bible and Pop Culture course, as it allowed him to gain a knowledge of the bible and to understand just how prevalent it is in contemporary society. So sit back, and relish some more Delilah fabulousness.
Hedy Lamarr as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (Paramount, 1949)
Samson’s Judas: The Portrayal of Delilah as a Vindictive Femme Fatale
The portrayal of Delilah in cultural texts since the first mention of her in Judges 16 has tended to show her as a vindictive femme fatale, something that has little basis in the bible. Judges 16 provides limited background on Delilah, her motivation for betraying Samson or the nature of their relationship. Despite this, creators of cultural works, including Rembrandt in his 1636 work The Blinding of Samson, Rubens’ Samson and Delilah and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 film epic of the same name, attempt to fill these gaps to create Delilah the femme fatale. Delilah’s motivation for betraying Samson, the nature of their relationship, and whether Delilah regretted her betrayal are the biblical gaps discussed. This essay will focus on how the world behind the text, including the creator’s experiences and the views of those around them, and the world in the text – focusing on the piece itself, are used to fill these gaps to create the image of Delilah we have today.
Poster for Samson and Delilah (Paramount 1949)
In Samson and Delilah, DeMille gives Delilah a number of motivations for cutting Samson’s hair, all of which aid in portraying her as a vindictive femme fatale. Judges 16 only refers to the possible motivation of Delilah receiving “eleven hundred pieces of silver” from each of the Philistine elders in return for discovering the source of Samson’s strength (JDG. 16.5). While DeMille does incorporate this detail into his telling of the story, he does not make it the sole reason for Delilah’s betrayal. DeMille instead makes her primary motivation that of revenge for Samson’s rejection of her over her sister and an all-consuming jealousy that means if she can’t have Samson, no one can – both very femme fatale like qualities. The world in the text of the film shows Samson rejecting the offer of marriage to Delilah after her sister betrays him by marrying someone else, stating he would “not want a thistle from a rose” (Zwick 2014, 219). After becoming courtesan to King of the philistines, she offers her services in trapping Samson as revenge for his rejection. Once Delilah has cut off his hair she offers another motive for her betrayal – jealousy. Referring to the virtuous Mirjam who loves Samson and convinces him to leave Delilah to save his parents, Delilah remarks: “I could have loved you with a fire to make all others seem like ice…but one call from the milk-faced Danite and you run whining at her heels.” This is very much portraying Delilah as the femme fatale, a seductress who causes the downfall of a helpless man her for her own gratification. Her near hatred for Samson after his rejection also adds to this image, which is vastly different to the monetary reward which seems to motivate Delilah in the bible.
Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature, Samson and Delilah (Paramount 1949)
The society surrounding DeMille influenced him in making his Delilah a “scheming little dame,” taking from popular perceptions of Delilah in the 1940s and views on women more generally (Kozlovic 2010, 8). Delilah’s portrayal as a femme fatale fits very much within view of Delilah in the 1940s, that she was a temptress and therefore her whole character was bad. This is in line with the conservative view that promiscuous women were dangerous and immoral that existed during the period – though promiscuous men were not subjected to the same harsh judgement. Samson is portrayed as an Israelite hero for murdering Philistines in revenge for his broken engagement to Delilah’s sister, but Delilah is seen as a vindictive temptress for doing what was in the best interests of her people. By portraying Delilah as, in DeMille’s words, “quite the bitch” but Samson as above reproach is a reflection of the world behind the text of 1940s society in America where men were seen as the superior sex (ibid., 12). Further, DeMille is enforcing the stereotype of Delilah as a dangerous woman, determined to bring down Samson for initially rejecting her love. More recent interpretations consider that perhaps Delilah was only betraying Samson for her own survival, knowing that it was dangerous to disobey the Philistine elders (ibid., 10). No consideration is given to her situation, a single woman in a world very much dominated by men, and that maybe her motivations lay only in survival (Zwick 2014, 219).
Delilah makes the fatal cut (Paramount 1949)
Rembrandt portrays Delilah as unremorseful for her betrayal of Samson, instead relishing in his pain to add to her image as an evil, vindictive woman. Judges 16 offers no insight into how Delilah felt about her actions, so he has filled this gap in a way that enforces the stereotype of her as an evil femme fatale. The world in the text of The Blinding of Samson shows Delilah as being both repulsed by the gouging of Samson’s eyes but also has a look of fascination and almost satisfaction as she looks on at the struggling Samson (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 249). Further, she is seen to be mocking Samson by clutching his hair in her hand and “flaunting it” in front of him (ibid). He is enforcing the stereotype of Delilah as a femme fatale who revels in the destruction she has caused by painting her as a “projection of the feeling of attraction mingled with repulsion elicited by woman and the danger she denotes” (ibid.). Rembrandt has completely imagined her response cutting Samson’s hair as there is no mention of her after the gouging in Judges 16, and instead of giving her qualities of shame and remorse he has used it to give her the qualities of a femme fatale.
Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson (1636)
Looking behind the text, Rembrandt’s own fear of losing his vision, something that for a painter would be seen as ‘the ultimate deprivation’, combined with societal views impacts his portrayal of Delilah (ibid.). It is thought that the models for Samson and Delilah is the artist himself and his wife Saskia, with Rembrandt having only painted Samson during their marriage (ibid., 252). His own feelings about relationships between man and woman and the dangers that they contained were expressed through The Blinding of Samson. Rembrandt saw from his marriage that women could be unremorseful femme fatales, and used his deepest fear of going blind as a way to show the betrayal which can occur in relationships (ibid.). Further influencing his depiction of Delilah were those around him. There was a strong theme in Dutch art and literature at the time warning of the dangers of relations between man and woman (ibid.). This would have caused him to take a more moralistic approach to Delilah, portraying her as evil personified for betraying Samson and therefore unremorseful for her actions.
Rubens, Samson and Delilah (1609-10)
Rubens’ Samson and Delilah portrays the relationship between the pair as sex worker and customer to enforce the image of Delilah as a femme fatale. Judges 16 does not give a clear picture of the relationship between Samson and Delilah. Although it assumed she is a concubine, Samson acts differently towards her than the woman he lay with earlier in the text (Jdg. 16.1-3), saying that he is in love with her rather than there just being a sexual attraction (Sasson 1998, 334). In Rubens’ painting, we see from the world in the text that he includes many of the traits of a brothel with an old woman as a ‘procuress’ and the inclusion of towels and jars typical of brothel scenes (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 461). Further hints at this being a brothel scene are that Delilah’s breasts are exposed and she is waring in a red dress, the huge Samson resting on her lap hinting that they have just finished making love (Exum 1996, 192). This sexualisation of Delilah combined with the perception of sex workers as people with ‘loose morals’ contributes to her portrayal as a seductress and dangerous woman – despite this not being the case in Judges 16. That Rubens chooses to portray her as a concubine is very much a reflection of his world and the beliefs at the time. Other artists during the 17th century also adhered to Josephus’ description of Delilah as a “harlot among the philistines” by painting her with an expression of indifference toward Samson, never having loved him (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 462). It is only natural that Rubens would follow this theme in his portrayal, interpreting Judges 16 in such a way that Delilah is made into an immoral seductress.
The portrayal of Delilah in cultural texts differs greatly from her biblical portrayal in Judges 16. Looking at the texts and their creators’ influences for Delilah’s portrayal show a vindictive femme fatale where only a vague description of Delilah exists in the bible. Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah fills the biblical gap of the motivation for Delilah’s betrayal as revenge and jealousy, attributes that feed into the image of her as a femme fatale. DeMille’s world helped to shape this portrayal by its views around the interpretation of Delilah and women more generally. Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson also exhibits Delilah as an unremorseful, dangerous woman, with the moralistic Dutch contemporaries and his own personal views on relationships shaping this portrayal. Finally, Rubens’ Samson and Delilah fills the final gap in Judges 16, portraying the relationship between Samson and Delilah as a courtesan and customer. The prevailing view at the time of Delilah as a sex worker influencing his work and helping to add to Delilah’s image as an immoral femme fatale.
All biblical text references are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic press, 1996.
Georgievska-Shine, Aneta “Rubens and the Tropes of Deceit in Samson and Delilah”. Word and Image 23, no. 4 (2007): 460-473. doi:10.1080/02666286.2007.10435799.
Kahr, Madlyn. “Rembrandt and Delilah”. The Art Bulletin 55, no. 2 (1973): 240-259. doi:10.1080/00043079.1973.10789742.
Kozlovic K., Anton. “The Construction of Samson’s Three Lovers in Cecil B DeMilles Technicolor Testament, Samson and Delilah (1949).” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 1, no. 7 (2010): 1-31.
Sasson M. Jack “Who Cut Samson’s Hair? (And Other Trifling Issues Raised by Judges 16).” Prooftexts 8, no. 3 (1988): 333-339.
Zwick, Reinhold. “Obsessive Love: Samson and Delilah Go To the Movies”. In Samson: Hero or Fool? The Many Faces of Samson, edited by Erik Eynikel and Tobias Nicklas, 211-235. Leiden: Brill, 2014.
Today’s student essay comes from Flo Cardon, another student who took our Bible and Pop Culture class earlier this year. Flo is currently in the middle of completing her Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in Classics and a minor in Ancient History. She loves art and history and in her spare time, enjoys painting. Unsurprisingly, her primarily subject matter in her art relates to religion and mythology. She also loves watching films, particularly musicals (which can probably be deducted from her essay topic!).
Flo chose a controversial biblical character to focus on in her essay – Judas – considering his (equally controversial) afterlife in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a great essay, so read on, and enjoy.
Heaven on Their Minds: Judas in the Bible and Popular Culture
The name ‘Judas’ has become synonymous with ideas of betrayal, disloyalty and treachery. It is commonly known that in the Bible, Jesus Christ was betrayed by the only ex-disciple, Judas Iscariot, in exchange for money. The Bible presents Judas as a two dimensional person, simplified down to only that one moment in his life where he gave Jesus over to the Romans and sealed his fate as ‘Judas, the one that would betray him’ forever. Norman Jewison’s musical film Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) presents Judas as a complex and tragic character that plays an important part in the story of Jesus Christs’ life. By comparing Jewison’s Judas with his biblical counterpart, many investigations can be made into the history of Judas as a character and his portrayal as the one who brought down Jesus Christ.
Carl Anderson as Judas in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar
In comparison to the Bible, Jewison’s Judas is presented as the tragic figure and the one who the audience should sympathise with. He is shown as only wanting the best for Jesus and the Jews, and uses the entire first musical number as a soliloquy as to how he thinks Jesus is going to doom all his followers and friends as well as himself. Here Judas is not presented as a villain but Jesus’ worried friend. His motivation is to get Jesus to listen to him so that they can prevent Jesus’ movement from getting too large that it will get attention from Roman authorities. This is not a man with evil intent, but one that cares for his friends and the danger he sees they are bringing upon themselves. Biblical Judas is a stark contrast to this; Judas is referred to as ‘Judas, the one that would betray [Jesus]’ more often than not. In the Gospel of John, Judas criticises Jesus’ use of expensive perfume on himself and voices that he thinks the money used on this perfume could have gone to the poor, and is subsequently labelled as a thief (John 12.5-6). This shows that Biblical Judas is motivated to betray Jesus through money, and not friendship like in the film. Judas’ realisation of the inevitability of Jesus’ fate at the beginning of the film contrasted with his obliviousness of the fact that he would be the one that brought Jesus’ downfall brings about an extremely tragic aspect to Judas’ character that isn’t found in the Bible. Before Judas’ death, he sings about how he did not know he was handing Jesus over to die, which is another tragic contrast to how he only intended to betray Jesus so that he would protect the fate of all those that followed his growing movement, including Jesus himself. This emphasises the tragic nature of Judas’ part in this story, as he was unknowingly playing into Jesus’ inevitable arrest and crucifixion much more than he was let on.
However, in the Bible during the last supper, it is written in the Gospel of John that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus’ (John 13.2), meaning that Biblical Judas only needed to be prompted in order to actually betray Jesus in exchange for money. Both versions of Judas hang themselves in response to Jesus’ sentence to be crucified, but in the film we feel much sorrier for Judas here than the Judas in the Bible. In the Bible, Judas’ death is short and sweet, with no sympathy or remorse shown towards him, just that ‘he went away and hanged himself’ (Matt. 27.5). This seems to imply that he did deserve this tragic ending, as he was shown as the villain who handed Jesus over to the Romans and only that, nothing more. However, just after Jewison’s Judas dies, we hear ‘So long Judas, poor old Judas…’ sung repeatedly as the outro of his death song, reinforcing the idea that Judas was the victim of this story and that he did not deserve this outcome. No one listened to his accurate predictions of what would happen to Jesus and his movement, and he died as a result. Judas in Norman Jewison’s musical film compared to the Bible provides us with insight into the complexity of his character and differing nature of interpretations of it. Judas is clearly the villain in the Bible because of his betrayal of Jesus, but Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) presents us with a Judas with a much more composite, and therefore human, nature.
The Judas kiss
An important aspect of the change in Judas between the Bible and Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is Judas’ race. It is known that Judas was a Palestinian Jew born in Jericho and one of the most well-educated among the Apostles. However, in the film, Judas is played by Carl Anderson, a black man, which caused a variety of controversy when the film was released. Among the controversy was the accusation that making the ‘villain’ of the narrative black was anti-Semitic. It was argued that by making Judas the only black person gave the character evil connotations, as the ‘true villains’ of the story, the Jewish priests, are also primarily clad in black (Hebron 2016, 157). When the film was initially released, Rabbi Marc Tenenbaum described it as ‘a witch’s brew of anti-black and anti-Semitic venom’ (Bennette 2016). This is in reference to how Judas has been depicted as the prototype of an evil Jewish figure throughout history, with offensive and stereotypical anti-Semitic features like a hooked nose, large eyes and black hair (Meyer 2009, 2). This dehumanized Judas as a biblical figure, cutting him down to being the villain who sold off Jesus Christ to be executed.
The decision to make Judas black, as Marc Tenenbaum mentioned, also stirred up discussion of the portrayal as anti-black. This is the reversal of the anti-Semitic idea, as people thought Jewison’s Judas to be anti-black through the fact that the only black character is Judas, the primary image of betrayal and evil, according to the Bible. Carl Anderson being cast to play Judas is also argued to be ‘a comment on the history of African Americans’ (Grace 2009, 98). This can primarily be seen in Judas’ death scene, in which his suicide is clearly reminiscent of the lynching, especially the large amounts of black Americans that were lynched in the first half of the twentieth century as a result of extreme racial oppression and tension in the United States. This blurred the line between the actor and his role, as Judas knew of the violence and oppression that was being carried out by the Romans like no one else did (Hebron 2016, 159), which is a parallel to the racial suppression of black people that was still being carried out when the film was released, and still continues to this day, with the numerous racist responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. Judas understood violence and oppression like no one else did, yet no one listened to him. This afterlife of Judas is vastly different to that of the original biblical Judas, which can be seen in these varying responses to the choice to make Judas a black man in the musical film.
An interesting yet unique aspect of Jewison’s film is that it is told primarily through Judas’ point of view. It is obvious that Jesus is the hero in the Bible but that is because it is written by his devout followers, whereas it can be argued that Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) was created as a reaction to the lack of investigation into Judas’ side of the story, where Judas himself is the protagonist. This is because of Judas’ character development in the narrative; Judas started off as a follower of Jesus, he believed and supported him, subsequently betrayed him, and then felt such an overwhelming guilt at what he had done that he committed suicide. This is true for both the 1973 film and the gospels. But whereas in the Bible Judas’ feelings and thoughts are ambiguous, the film allows us a look into Judas as the main character and as someone who changes and learns (Miller 2011). The fact that the film is from Judas’ point of view means that the audience is being shown the story of Jesus through the eyes of someone who is critiquing him. Judas is allowed to critique Jesus here, as the audience goes into the narrative knowing the famous story of Judas’ betrayal, and knows that he is seen by many as the ‘villain’ of the musical. Judas’ critique of Jesus shows us mainly that he sees Jesus as not the son of God but a human man who put himself in danger by putting the focus on himself rather than the philosophies he preaches.
In the Bible, Judas is only mentioned in relation to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, which does not allow as much character development as the film. This contrast fills in a lot of gaps in the Bible, like what Judas’ thoughts, motives and opinions were when it came to Jesus and the last week of his life. He shows us a Jesus that is human enough to get angry, flip tables at the temple, get overwhelmed at his popularity and even doubt his own faith in his cause. Compared to the cool, calm and collected Jesus shown in the Gospels, this musical Jesus is a lot more unpredictable and human, as shown through Judas’ perspective. Judas can also be seen as he central character through the fact that in the film, Judas is the one resurrected, and not Jesus, as it is more commonly shown. Whether Judas’ reappearance after death is Jesus’ dream or, as some have put it, Satan himself appearing to Jesus to taunt him, Judas uses this last song of his to interrogate Jesus as well as apologise for what he did. Judas doesn’t get to apologise in the Bible, he is just said to have hanged himself and that was the end of biblical Judas. Judas in this film is not the hero, but he is more of one than Jesus is shown to be. Jesus, with his short temper and doubting faith, seems to be more of a villain than Judas in this film, showing how Judas’ point of view presents a unique take on the constantly retold biblical story.
In conclusion, Judas in the Bible can be compared to his counterpart in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) to reveal some in depth conclusions about his character and reactions to it. While the film may not change too much of the narrative presented to us in the Bible, Norman Jewison fills in gaps surrounding Judas’ thought processes and motivations as a complex character and puzzle piece in Jesus Christ’s last week alive. We are given the ending we expect to see but with new depth and details, which is what a successful rendition of a biblical tale, like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), should aim to do.
 This is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Cassandra, who was a prophet that no one listened to before she was killed; She is known as a central figure of epic tragedy, which shows how clearly Judas’ portrayal in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is one of the most tragic nature, emphasising how the complexity of this version of Judas is a stark contrast to the two dimensionality of Biblical Judas.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
Today’s advent essay comes from Joanna Fountain, one of the students who took our Bible and Popular Culture course (THEOREL 101) earlier this year. Joanna has just completed her third year of studies towards her Bachelor of Arts degree, double majoring in history and classical studies. After university she hopes to become a published writer, encouraging future generations to get off their screens and read a book instead. Joanna enroled in Theorel 101 out of interest, and assures me that she thoroughly enjoyed taking the course – and would highly recommend it!
Joanna’s essay touches on one of our more popular themes in the course – modern messiahs in pop culture. So read on, and enjoy.
Protector of the Realm, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen as a Christ Figure in Game of Thrones
“This Mother of Dragons, this Breaker of Chains, is above all a rescuer.”
-Tyrion Lannister, A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 5)
As Bruce David Forbes says, “religion appears not only in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; it also appears in popular culture” (2005, 1). Often appearing in the fantasy genre of literature and visual media, including film and television, is the common trope of a messianic protagonist who is very much the hero of the story. In George R. R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros, there is no one singular protagonist, but in the character of Daenerys Targaryen are numerous indicators of a Christ figure. Such a figure appears in popular culture again and again, subsequently creating the concept of the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). In many ways, Daenerys Targaryen provides an implicit parallel to the biblical Christ as a secular counterpart. The circumstances surrounding multiple events in her life, the messianic symbols attached to her character, and her perceived image by others as a liberator and a powerful contender all bear a close resemblance to the Biblical narrative of Jesus Christ as told in the New Testament Gospels. This essay will seek to explain how Daenerys Targaryen both fulfils and sabotages the notion of the American Monomyth in the way that she is a messiah figure who operates outside the standard black and white paradigm, rather operating within shades of grey in her characterisation. Because this essay will discuss plot details of both Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present) and the HBO television series Game of Thrones (2011-present), spoilers will follow.
Fig 1: Daenerys hatches three dragons in “Fire and Blood” (1.10)
According to the writings of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, the American Monomyth secularises “the Judaeo-Christian dramas of community redemption”, creating a character who embodies a combination of the ‘selfless servant’ who sacrifices their own needs for those of others and the ‘zealous crusader’ who triumphs over evil (2002, 6). The American Monomyth therefore serves the function in which a character in popular culture serves as a secular replacement to the Biblical Christ (ibid). What also is indicative of this supersaviour or the popular messiah is their justification for their use of violence for the greater good (5). These figures operate under a paradigm of black and white; the supersaviour is the light and good hero pitted against the bad villain. In terms of Daenerys’ character, she befits these prerequisites, but she is not wholly ‘good’ in the way she is portrayed. The constant use of warmongering imagery in her use of military might to free the slaves in Essos, and her unapologetic sexual appetites present her more as a character who operates in between the black and white paradigm, as a somewhat ‘anti-messiah’ who uses violence to fulfil and justify her noble task of freeing slaves. Constantly associated with Daenerys are the words ‘fire and blood’; words that do not necessarily match her with the image of the ‘perfect’ biblical Christ. But perhaps this is because Daenerys modernises and humanises the Christ figure of the American Monomyth concept. Therefore, this brutal side to her character is woven into the messiah rhetoric as a way of presenting a Christ figure who is flawed, humanised and relatable, thus shedding new light on the messianic individual of popular culture.
Fig 2: The Red Comet, seen in “The North Remembers” (2.01)
Robert Detweiler argues in his article ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’ that often in modern fiction the allegorical Christ figure offers the symbolic potential of Christ without the added implication of commitment to Christian faith (1964, 118). The likening of Daenerys Targaryen as a secular Christ figure is done implicitly in the way that the signs and symbols of the biblical messiah are translated into signs and symbols of Daenerys, the popular messiah. The first, and most obvious, of these is the Red Comet that appears in the sky soon after Daenerys successfully hatches three dragons from stone eggs (a ‘miracle’ in itself as the species were previously extinct). She even says herself in A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 2): “[the comet] is the herald of my coming”. Such treatment of a comet signifying her “coming” immediately bears resemblance to the star that proclaimed the birth of Jesus Christ in the New Testament Gospels (Matthew 2.2-10, Luke 21.25). Additionally, both Daenerys and Christ are descended from a line of kings (Matthew 1), and both undergo a “resurrection”. As highlighted in Luke 24.46, there is the emphasis that the death and resurrection of the biblical Christ was foretold in the old teachings long before the coming of the messiah. Such a prophecy of the messiah has a similar treatment in the world of Game of Thrones. Mentioned numerous times in the books and in the television adaptation is the prophecy of Azor Ahai, also known as “the Lord’s chosen” and very much the Game of Thrones’ version of a prophesied messiah. According to Melisandre, a red priestess, in A Dance with Dragons, the coming of the prophesied Azor Ahai will be signified “when the red star bleeds” and this saviour will “be born again … to awake dragons out of stone”. All three of these signs occur in short succession with Daenerys walking into a burning pyre, only to be discovered the next morning sitting amongst the ashes of the fire, alive, and holding three baby dragons (fig 1), while the red comet (fig 2) appears very soon after. Though it has not been confirmed in either the books or the television series if Daenerys is in fact the prophesied Azor Ahai, she has nevertheless fulfilled these three parts to the prophecy. Regardless, the fact alone that the symbols associated with the biblical messiah are translated to symbols of Daenerys therefore provide the implication that she indeed represents a secular Christ within her own narrative.
Fig 3: Daenerys proclaimed ‘mhysa’ (‘mother’) by the freed slaves of Yunkai in “Mhysa” (3.10)
Just as the biblical messiah’s noble task was to be a saviour to humankind, Daenerys Targaryen is again portrayed in a similar light in the way that her task to free all slaves in Slavers Bay makes her a saviour to many as a result. The aforementioned symbols of Daenerys as the popular messiah adds further justification to her role as a saviour. With three dragons in her possession, Daenerys becomes a powerful contender to those she considers her earthly enemies, in this case the slavers, and is able to wage war on them for their slaves’ freedom. In fact, this contempt for slavery is a common ideal in the Christ figure (Gunton 1985, 137, 143). This may be due to slavery often having strong connotations to sin in the Bible, particularly in the way that Jesus says in John 8.34 that mankind is “a slave to sin”. Therefore, it can be argued that Daenerys’ preoccupation with ending slavery takes a rather more literal interpretation of the biblical messiah’s task of liberating humankind from their sins. Daenerys’ resulting reputation as a saviour is best highlighted in the final scene of Game of Thrones’ third season in which she is proclaimed ‘mhysa’ by the freed slaves of Yunkai (fig. 3). The cinematography of the scene arguably bears some similarity to Jesus entering Jerusalem, declared a king (Luke 19.28-40). This image of Daenerys being surrounded by grateful slaves who declare her their “mhysa”, or “mother”, therefore provides the best visual justification as the “Breaker of Chains”, a liberator, and a saviour from “sin”.
Fig 4: A slave of Meereen beholds one of the many unlocked collars that Daenerys has catapulted over the city walls to show that all who follow her are freed in “Breaker of Chains” (4.03)
Hebrews 2.14-15 speaks about how Jesus Christ “shared in [mankind’s] humanity” so that “he might break the power of him who hold the power of death … and free those … held in slavery”. Therefore, Daenerys Targaryen is an equally human messiah with added flaws, and exists within the “grey areas” of the good/bad paradigm whose noble task is her attempts to liberate slaves in Essos, thus earning her a reputation as a saviour to those she frees. What further develops Daenerys as a popular messiah figure are the numerous implicit parallels of her character to the Biblical Christ of the New Testament Gospels, including messianic symbols and experiences. As a result, Daenerys Targaryen arguably serves as a secular counterpart to the Biblical Christ. But in the wide world of popular culture, Daenerys Targaryen is only one of many popular messiahs according to the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 3-5). This is perhaps because in a world that is becoming increasingly secular, popular culture is one of the ways that a secular audience may engage in religious themes. As Detweiler argues:
With the shift of interest away from religion and the relocation of values from the divine to the human sphere that have characterised the past one hundred years, the traits and mission have been transferred to man, so that for some writers the nature and intentions of Christ can be observed in any good, moral, or heroic person. (1964, 3-5)
Therefore, the American Monomyth serves to initiate a dialogue between religion and popular culture, so that readers of modern literature may learn about Jesus through a secular counterpart. Daenerys as the (theoretically) prophesied Azor Ahai parallels the Biblical prophesied messiah, just as her noble task to end slavery is a very literal adaptation of the Christ as a liberator of everyone who is a slave to sin. This is why Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen makes a great fictional, popular messiah to a secular culture seeking a saviour from the many growing tensions apparent in contemporary society.
All references to biblical texts are taken from the NIV.
Detweiler, Robert. ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’. The Christian Scholar 47, no. 2 (1964): pp. 111-124.
Forbes, Bruce David. ‘Introduction: Finding Religion in Unexpected Places’. In Religion and Popular Culture in America: Revised Edition, edited by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, pp. 1-20. University of California Press, 2005.
Game of Thrones. Television Series. Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. New York, NY: HBO, 2011-present.
Gunton, Colin. ‘“Christus Victor” Revisited: A Study in the Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning’. The Journal of Theological Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): pp. 129-145.
Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Lewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. W. B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Martin, George R. R. A Song of Ice and Fire. Bantam, 1996-present.
Today’s advent student offering is a marvellous essay written by THEOREL 101 student Wen-Juenn Lee. Wen–Juenn is a third year student majoring in English Literature and Media Studies. She tells me that she likes to read, write and discuss everything related to Harry Styles being a contemporary messiah. But, for her Bible and Pop Culture essay, she tore herself away from Harry and wrote this excellent piece on that most enigmatic biblical figure – Salome. Read on, and enjoy.
The Dance of Seduction: the Power of Popular Culture on Shaping the Portrayal of Mark’s Dancing Daughter in the Bible
Although religion and popular culture are often perceived as two distinct categories, the relationship between the Bible and popular culture has often been dynamic. This is seen in the biblical portrayal of Herodias’ dancing daughter in Mark, and her subsequent afterlives in film, literature and art. As society alters and gives meaning to biblical characters in a way they can understand, we see the dialectic process in which popular culture, societal attitudes and religion shape one another in an ongoing evolution.
In Mark 6:21-29, Herodias’ daughter danced before King Herod and his guests, which delighted the King. As a reward, he offered her “anything you like and I will give it to you.” Herodias, furious that John the Baptist had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, told her daughter to ask for John’s head. So the daughter requested, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In front of his guests and in swearing an oath to the girl, Herod was reluctant to break his promise to her. So Herod sent his guard to execute John, and to bring his head on a dish.
As Mark simply referred to the dancing daughter as “daughter of Herodias,” inevitable gaps surrounding the daughter’s identity and motivations emerge. In Flavius Josephus’ historical account The Antiquities of the Jews, a stepdaughter of Herod’s is referred to as Salome. (Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4) In this way, people came to identify Salome as the same person as the dancing daughter, explaining why the daughter is only ever referred to as Herodias’ daughter and not Herod’s. Thus, the dynamic between “Herodias’ daughter” and Herod becomes a crucial factor in the way artists and writers understood Salome’s dance. According to Josephus, Salome was born around 14 A.D and married twice. Her name, deriving from the Hebrew word Shalom, means peace. Her status as a daughter of a queen, and eventually becoming queen herself, gives her a position of relative power, not to mention indicating her wealth.
Nevertheless, apart from these few inferences we can make, information about Salome, and the dance she became associated with, are scarce and few. Referred to as “the girl”, Salome’s age when she performed the dance could range from a pre-pubescent to a young adult. Her personality, which may have contributed to her motivations to dance, remain unstated. Thus, society is fascinated with a character and a dance about which there is has virtually no historical information. Furthermore, the question of Salome’s motivations for performing her dance, and in obeying her mother to ask for John the Baptist’s head, remains a mystery. In both Mark and Matthew, Herodias tells Salome to ask for John the Baptist’s head, but Salome is the one who makes the specific request “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In asking for John the Baptist’s head, specifically “on a dish”, was Salome merely obeying her mother, or did she have personal investments in asking for his head?
A hugely significant force that influenced society’s perception of Salome was Gustave Moreau’s L’Apparition, where Salome is interrupted by an apparition of John the Baptist’s head in the climax of her dance. Although the Bible does not describe Salome’s dance, Moreau interprets it in an extremely sexualised manner. Using Jospheus’ report, Moreau understood Salome as a step-daughter dancing sexually in front of her king. A languid leg peeks out from behind the sheer fabric of her dress, and an outstretched arm directs us to the decapitated head of John. Her body, twisted at the waist, directs the male gaze to her fully frontal and almost nude torso. Crowned with ostentatious jewels and Byzantine-like patterns on her skirt, Salome reinforces Western attitudes on the eroticised and oriental ‘Other’ (Said). The power of the gaze is extremely important in L’Apparition.
Expressionless, Salome’s eyes directly meet John’s bloody head, floating in mid-air. His mouth is open in horror, while his eyes beseech and plead for Salome’s mercy. In the background, Herod, Herodias and the executioner gaze oblivious to the head of John the Baptist, while a performer looks off in the distance. While everyone averts their eyes, thereby averting their responsibility in the beheading, Salome’s expressionlessly gazes up to meet her victim’s, confirming her guilt. In depicting Salome as defiantly staring at the man she is about to behead, Moreau puts her at the forefront of the beheading, cutting out Herodias and Herod’s responsibility in John’s beheading. In this way, the nature of Salome’s dance changes. Salome is not a pawn who obliviously follows her mother’s orders, but a femme fatale who uses her sexuality to intentionally charm Herod, and simultaneously bring the downfall of a holy man. Like Eve tempting man to sin, Salome dances to ‘charm’ the King, “indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning,” to the consequences of her actions (Huysmans, 24).
In this way, the gaps of Salome’s dance and character in the Bible are filled in inadvertently by 19thcentury attitudes towards female sexuality. A dancing female who then follows her mother’s request for the beheading of a man can only be understood in one way; sexualised, immodest and manipulative. Moreau interprets Salome as solely guided by her sheer, destructive lust, an ‘enchantress’ intentionally wreaking havoc through dance. Similarly, Oscar Wilde expanded on Salome as evil seductress, seen in his L’Apparition-inspired play Salomé. Salomé, in love and spurned by John the Baptist, kisses John’s mutilated head after the climax of her vengeful dance. In this way, Moreau twists the biblical Salome to become the ultimate metaphor of destructive female sexuality, a metaphor that artists used to perpetuate patriarchal attitudes towards women. Merely referred to as “daughter of Herodias”, she is twisted into a sexualised step-daughter whose “dance”, barely described in the Bible, is interpreted as sexually manipulative. This is what shapes Salome’s appearance and personality, presented as a dark haired “exotic” temptress that is equally seductive as she is destructive.
More recently, Salome emerges in HBO’s Television Series True Blood, as an elite and powerful vampire and leader of the antagonist group “The Authority.” Speaking to, and engaging in, conversation with her portrayal in the Bible and in art, Salome says, “They made me a convenient villain, a symbol of dangerous female sexuality. But I was just a girl with a severely f**ked up family.” In this way, Salome presents herself as a victim, one who was “just a girl” as opposed to the sexually developed femme fatale Moreau portrays her as. Instead, “they wrapped me up and delivered me to my step-father’s bed,” which was a “dance, of sorts.”
Thus, Salome is portrayed as a pawn in which her mother “trades” her body in exchange for John the Baptist’s head. The syntax of “wrapped me” and “delivered me” stresses Salome’s passiveness in the face of her mother’s schemes. Helpless to the politics and “f**ked up family” she is a part of, Salome has no personal motivations in “dancing” in front of King Herod, or in asking for John the Baptist’s head. Instead, Salome is coerced by a heartless mother, and taken advantage of by her lustful step-father; the victim of the “dance” as opposed to its perpetrator. Thus, Herod and Herodias become the vilified agents that drive Salome’s dance and John the Baptist’s beheading. Although Salome’s dance is interpreted with an underlying sexual nature like Moreau’s L’Apparition,True Blood uses the “metaphorical” dance of coercive sexual intercourse to highlight Salome’s vulnerability as a victim of the sexual act, cementing her empathy with the audience. Bill’s horror, depicted in a close up shot of his face, and Salome’s own suppressed emotions reinforce the empathy we are meant to feel for her.
But as quickly as True Blood tries to deconstruct Salome as dancing femme fatale, it perpetuates it. Salome uses her sexuality as a tool for power, in gauging the trustworthiness of Bill and Eric, and in coercing them to join “The Authority.” Her attempts and success, in seducing both Bill and Eric, are depicted as calculative and insidious, rather than acting out of genuine affection. Meanwhile, Bill and Eric, unaware that the other has been “wooed” by Salome, are depicted as helpless victims in the face of Salome’s aggressive sexuality: “She gets what she wants.” The gratuitous panning shot over Salome’s nude body as she slowly disrobes in front of Eric parallels Moreau’s male gaze, directing our attention to Salome’s breasts and hips. Staring at Eric as she undresses, Salome’s defiant gaze also parallels Moreau’s Salome, depicting her sexual agency as diabolical through the power of her gaze. Clothed in black lace and pink silk, Salome’s dark hair, red lipstick and heavily accented speech reinforces her depiction as a “foreign” femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to bring about the downfall of men. As Bill and Salome become lovers, Salome is depicted as bringing about Bill’s moral downfall, coercing him to do increasingly immoral acts. Urging Bill to feed on a pregnant women, and causing him to betray his best friend, Salome “taints” Bill’s moral compass, threatening his notions of good and evil. In this way, Salome embodies the stereotype she claims not be, seducing men for her own evil purposes.
On the one hand, then, True Blood seeks to dismantle the patriarchal interpretation of Salome as destructive femme fatale, by offering an alternative interpretation of Salome as victim, rather than perpetrator of a dance that caused John the Baptist’s beheading. Echoing mainstream feminist thought, Salome draws attention to the misogynistic portrayals of women in art: “I became a convenient symbol of dangerous female sexuality.” But the on the other hand, Salome as victim also has the danger of perpetuating gendered stereotypes. She must either be a damsel in distress or a manipulative whore, there is no in between. True Blood, reflecting wider Hollywood discourses, still relies on simplified and dichotomous understandings of female sexuality to interpret and depict Salome’s dance; as a virtue, with Salome as victim, or as a sin, with Salome as sexual agent. Either way, Salome’s physicality, as an object to be dressed in revealing clothes, and to be gazed at with long panning shots, perpetuates society’s hyper-sexualised treatment of female bodies; Salome, as a biblical dancing woman, is part of that. Perhaps “a progressive straight feminist reading…is actually impossible in light of the heavy misogynist cultural burden the Salome figure has carried for almost two thousand years” (Dierkes-Thrun, 201). Thus, True Blood’s Salome reflects conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality, shaped by a society whose own negotiations with gender and sexuality attempt to be progressive, but are equally influenced by lingering, traditional ideologies.
From the gaps that emerge in Salome’s depiction in the Bible, her motivations to dance, and her responsibility in John the Baptist’s beheading, popular culture understands and depicts Salome’s motivations and character as a hyper-sexualised femme fatale, reflecting the varying and sometimes conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality. As L’Apparition and True Blood shows us, popular culture has the ability to adapt and shape Salome, through contemporary cultural attitudes that transgress the ambiguous and sometimes static depiction of a character in the Bible.
All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.
Moreau, Gustave. L’Apparition. 1876, oil on canvas, the Louvre, Paris.
“Whatever I Am, You Made Me.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by David Petrarca, HBO, 2012.
“Somebody That I Used To Know.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Mark Hudis, directed by Stephen Moyer, HBO, 2012.
“Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by Dan Attias, HBO, 2012.
Cooke, Peter. “‘It isn’t a Dance’: Gustave Moreau’s Salome and The Apparition.” Dance Research, Vol. 29 Issue 2, 2012. pp. 214-232
Clanton, Dan. “Trollops to Temptresses.” Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. T & T Clark International, 2009. Print.
Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.
Girard, Rene. “Scandal and the Dance: Salome in the Gospel of Mark”. New Literary History. Vol. 15, Issue 2, 1984. pp. 311-324
Today’s advent offering is from another Bible and Pop Culture (THEOREL 101) student, Pooja Upadhyay. Pooja is a fourth year student studying Law and Arts at Auckland, who thoroughly enjoyed this course, describing it as ‘a wonderful breath of fresh air’ in their otherwise hectic schedule. Pooja has written about British rap artist M.I.A., comparing her to Marcus Borg’s definitions of the biblical prophets. Enjoy!
M.I.A.: Present-day Pop Prophet
This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to the popular-music rap artist Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.), concluding that M.I.A.’s role in western popular culture is similar to that of a biblical prophet. Like biblical prophets, M.I.A. challenges the status-quo, has a passion for social justice, and engages with forms of prophetic speech. Although she does not have the same relationship with God as biblical prophets, her relationship with God still resembles biblical prophetic behaviour in more secular ways. In sum, this essay will conclude that M.I.A. and ancient biblical prophets play similar roles in society.
According to Marcus Borg, biblical prophets challenge the status-quo (2001, 124-5). M.I.A. certainly follows suit. Firstly, many pop-culture artists tend to create mass-produce music that avoids controversial themes (Hirsch 1971, 372). Unlike these artists, she produces music that is politically charged. In her music video for “Born Free” (2010), she depicts US soldiers arresting boys with ginger hair, taking them to a field, and graphically killing them. The video is a shocking portrayal of genocide in modern-day United States, which led to considerable flak for the artist. M.I.A. used this to condemn western institutions and audiences for their outrage against the fictional video, and their contrasting indifference to a real video of “naked dead bodies being shot in the head, blindfolded” that she had tweeted months before. Thus, she challenges the status-quo with her art.
M.I.A. also confronts another convention of the pop culture industry, which requires mass-produced artist to package, market and sell not just their art, but themselves as a commodity (Shuker 2016, 132). She rejects product endorsement opportunities and struggles with the idea of the musician becoming the focus, not the music. Thus, similar to biblical prophets and their role as agitators, she refuses to conform to multiple aspects of the mass-produced pop-culture artist paradigm.
Pursuant to Borg’s work, biblical prophets are also passionate about social justice and advocate for oppressed peoples (2001, 118). M.I.A. is a champion of refugees and persecuted Sri Lankan Tamils. Through her song “Borders”, she brings the harsh realities of refugees to the forefront of western media consumption. In “Borders”, she lists a number of antagonistic ideas such as “identities”, “your privilege”, and “egos”. She ridicules these by rapping, “what’s up with that?” after each one, condemning the powers of the world for their identity politics and general complacency in alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis. M.I.A.’s passion comes through when she advocates for solutions and discusses how multi-culturalism and integrating refugees enriches communities.
A strong parallel can be drawn between the archetypal biblical prophet Moses, and M.I.A. when she advocates for Tamils. Called upon by God in Exodus 3, Moses takes responsibility for leading the Hebrews out of oppression in Egypt (Exod. 3.7). Similarly, through media interviews, she acts as a leader for the liberation of Tamils oppressed by the Singhalese regime. The exile and displacement experienced by the Hebrews in Moses’ narrative (and in other prophetic texts, including Isaiah and Jeremiah) resembles the experiences suffered by the Syrian and Tamil refugees for which she advocates (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 28). Thus, through her advocacy, she performs the role of social justice warrior that is so fundamental to Borg’s conception of biblical prophets.
Borg posits that while some biblical prophets arouse feelings of hope through ‘prophetic energizing’, others engage in more pessimistic speech, called ‘prophetic criticising’ (2001, 130). This is where prophets speak critically of dominant systems of power, whose practices oppress others. M.I.A. criticises governments for their sins (their ignorance of others’ suffering and their persecution of particular groups), in a way that is similar to the prophetic critique Jeremiah performs when declaring the sins of Israel (Jeremiah 2). Rather than issuing a prophetic oracle though, M.I.A. uses 21st century media to convey her message, tweeting sarcastic and cynical comments such as, “Can u catch Pokemon Go at these refugee camps tho”, and “#SriLanka rejects international involvement in accountability + denies war crimes…again.” She thus fulfils the more negative function of prophetic speech, offering a voice of protest against those in power.
Despite, M.I.A.’s cynical dialogue, the effect of her prophetic behaviour generates hope. Although no current scholarship can demonstrate the effect she has on audiences, comments from Twitter and web articles suggest she arouses and inspires audiences. For example, Anupa Mistry, writing in the Pitchfork e-zine, discusses how she fears xenophobic attacks in Canada as a woman of colour, particularly after the Paris terrorist attacks (2015). Mistry argues that M.I.A. is a lifeline for outsiders like her. Additionally, on the release of M.I.A.’s new album AIM, some of her Twitter fans tweeted comments such as, “AIM uplifts me” and, “This album is a voice for the voiceless”. These are contemporary manifestations of M.I.A.’s prophetic impact.
Lastly, Borg asserts that biblical prophets have a strong relationship with God. This relationship involves ‘call stories’ whereby God appoints individuals with a sacred task (Borg 2001, 124). While M.I.A. may not have received a prophetic ‘call’ from God herself, she does call on God herself through her art, as a means of highlighting God’s absence. In her song, “Born Free”, M.I.A. raps “Lord whoever you are, come out wherever you are”. In the video for this song, images of Mary and the crucifix appear in the context of the ghetto. This Christian imagery, in conjunction with M.I.A.’s demand that God come out, reflects the idea that despite victims of violence and oppression looking to God for protection, God fails to save them. Further, in the song “Story to be told”, M.I.A. raps that she wrote a letter to the Pope but “he never gave me a rope”, highlighting once more God’s silence in her time of need.
However, even biblical prophets have doubted God’s efficacy. In Exodus 5. 22-3, Moses asks God, “Why have you brought trouble on this people?” and then criticises God for not rescuing his people. Furthermore, calling on God to answer for suffering is a recognized feature of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 37). Thus, M.I.A.’s apparent doubts about God’s power does not detract from the similarities that bind her to both biblical prophets and contemporary prophetic figures. And, while her proclamations, “I’m not a Christian girl”, and “I don’t even need a religion”, may appear to highlight her differences to religious prophets, I would argue that she still shares with the biblical prophets a passion for social justice, which, as with the prophets (Borg 2001, 123), is shaped and directed by the cultural context in which she is situated.
This essay has compared artist M.I.A. to the biblical prophets, as defined by Marcus Borg. Like these prophets, M.I.A. challenges the dominant expectations that come with being a pop-music rapper signed with a powerful record label. M.I.A.’s passion for social justice resembles Moses, whilst her prophetic critique may remind us of Jeremiah. Although, God did not call on M.I.A., she still has the sense of duty towards her people that biblical prophets inherited from God. Overall, despite being centuries apart and living in hugely different contexts, M.I.A. still shares a similar role with these ancient prophets.
Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. New York: PerfectBound, 2001.
Today’s wonderful student offering comes from Elizabeth Newton-Jackson, who focuses on one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah. Elizabeth has just finished the first year of her BA, majoring in religion and art history. Elizabeth has a passion for the study of religion and is particularly enthusiastic about exploring the relationships between religion and art. She therefore really enjoyed taking our Bible and Popular Culture course this year (THEOREL 101), describing it as ‘the perfect introduction to the study of religion’. The course has also increased her determination to study religion at postgraduate level.
So sit back and enjoy Elizabeth’s thought-provoking essay on Delilah and Judith – two biblical women who, despite similarities in their stories, are so often depicted very differently in popular culture.
Struck Down by a Woman
Elizabeth Newton Jackson
To be “ensnared by a woman” (Josephus Ant. 5.8), to be deceived and defeated by one of the fairer sex has long been considered one of the greater downfalls of man. This perceived weakness of men however, seems to reflect more negatively on the women involved. Artistic portrayals of the infamous Delilah of Judges 16 exemplify this perfectly. The deceptively dangerous woman is a trope well established in art, and yet the figure of Judith from the deuterocanonical book of Judith, who betrayed a mighty warrior for her people, is hailed as a hero. The two women, infamous and famous, are treated with vast differences in art. These artistic treatments take liberties in altering and adding to the original biblical narratives to a point where these biblical characters, Delilah the perceived harlot and Judith the virtuous widow, seem almost pitted against each other as the two sides of woman. Not only do these artistic representations reflect back onto readings of the biblical text, they also embody and perpetuate certain ideas of the intrinsic nature of woman in the world outside the text.
Delilah’s image as the artful seductress is so entrenched that her name has become almost synonymous with the danger of female allure (Kahr 1972, 282). Art has played a significant role in bolstering this image with Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, 1609-1610 unashamedly presenting Delilah as the “harlot among Philistines” (Josephus Ant. 5.8) The sensuality of the scene heightens the air of shocking betrayal as Samson the great warrior lies in a post coital slumber in the temptress’s lap, his hair gently cut under the soft light of a candle. Tension is suggested by the menacing presence of the Philistine soldiers at the open door, waiting for a signal to strike (Kahr 282). Delilah’s exposed breasts are explicit signifiers of her sexualized role in the scene but viewers are further assured of her status as a harlot through the rich red of Delilah’s dress (Exum 1996, 192) and the presence of the elderly procuress (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 461). A statue of Venus and Cupid perched in an alcove of the dingy wall further emphasises the brothel atmosphere (469). Even the inclusion of so many figures in an otherwise intimate scene helps to define a tone of detachment. Delilah is simply doing her duty, she has seduced Samson and has no qualms about betraying him. Although this Delilah is not vengeful or triumphant in the way she is in another work of the same subject by Rubens, titled Gefangennahme Simsons (Exum 1996, 194), she is clearly a woman who has surrendered to her senses and coerced Samson to do the same. Her utmost fault is in her sexuality.
This emphasis on sexuality does not come from the biblical text. Judges 16:1-22 discloses nothing of Delilah’s profession or personality. We are told only that she lives in the valley of Sorek, was given money by the lords of the Philistines in return for the secret of Samson’s strength and (depending on the translation) cut his hair or had it cut by a manservant (Clanton 2009, 68). There are many gaps within the story of Samson and Delilah and yet the specificity of the gaps that Rubens’ painting fills results in a clear portrayal of Delilah as a heartless femme fatale. Painting Delilah in this light solidifies ideas of the character that may have no real basis in the biblical text. Artists are known to approach subjects with licence, but in the illustration of biblical narratives there is perhaps an assumption of greater respect for the original source (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 463). Respect of this kind is particularly relevant when considering past uses of biblical art in depicting sacred stories to those who were illiterate or did not have access to the Bible in their own language. Many Northern European artists, likely Rubens himself, used not only the Bible itself as a source but commentary by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish scholar of the 1st century AD. Josephus barely changed the narrative of Samson and Delilah, but he did change it enough by pointing to Delilah’s identity both as a harlot and a Philistine in the very first sentence (Ant. 5.8). The world inside the text of Rubens’ Samson and Delilah depicts a narrative that is at odds with the world inside the biblical text and yet the strength and frequency of the portrayal of Delilah as a deceitful harlot reflects back on the biblical text, making it more difficult to distinguish between these two separate worlds.
Although the book of Judith does not have the ambiguities of Judges 16, revealing much about Judith and her defeat of Holofernes, the famous heroine is most certainly a character of paradoxes. She is virtuous (Judith 8:2-8) but knowingly uses her beauty to seduce (10:3-4). She is righteous but lies (11:5) and ruthlessly kills (13:8). Her actions seem to far exceed the mere ‘seduction’ of Rubens’ Delilah. However, Judith is an Israelite and thus cannot fit the femme fatale image her actions may suggest. Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-99 proves this through its lack of reference to the character’s lies and seduction. Caravaggio paints a figure of pure innocence, dressed in pale, modest clothing and bathed in light, the use of chiaroscuro splitting the canvas in two in a blatant display of good and evil. Viewing only the half of the canvas containing Judith herself, one would find difficulty recognising the murder being committed. Her expression displays pity and she stands as far away from Holofernes as possible, severing his head from his body in a detached, almost meek way.
The painting gives us no doubt as to Judith’s status as a heroine. Yet in the biblical text, Judith lies repeatedly, disrespects the dead by taking Holofernes’ head back to her people (Judith 13:15) and ultimately disregards the lives of her own warriors by sending them after the retreating enemy (15:2-3). However, in artistic representations these unsavoury deeds are brushed aside, likely due to Judith’s status as an Israelite. The point here is not to condemn or defame Judith but instead to explore the reasons behind her depiction in art. In Donatello’s bronze Judith and Holofernes, 1455-60, Judith is again a righteous heroine. This work was commissioned by the Medici family and used as a symbol of power and virtue, proving the dedication of this influential family to the people of Renaissance Florence (McHam 2001, 32). The fact that the biblical character of Judith could be appropriated for this purpose and used as recognisable symbol for power and purity proves how wide the divide is between representations of Delilah and Judith. While one is a heroine and invoked to defend and uphold the virtue and power of a great family and city, the other is used to warn men of the danger of women’s allure. The world inside Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes does not quite seem to add up with the world inside the biblical text and yet the two are conflated, resulting in an image of Judith that is far removed from that of Delilah.
Both Samson and Holofernes were struck down by women, charmed by words and beauty before an ultimate betrayal. Surely this common ending for the men of each story must also draw a parallel between the women. Both Judith and Delilah are witty with their words and take it upon themselves whether directly in the case of Judith or indirectly in the case of Delilah to destroy great warriors. There are ambiguities as to whether Delilah does this willingly but the book of Judith makes it clear that the widow formulates and single-handedly carries out her own plan of revenge.
There is far less known about Delilah than Judith but the holes in Delilah’s narrative have been liberally filled by artistic representations. If one was to simply read the biblical text without knowledge of these representations, perhaps it would not be so easy to condemn Delilah and praise Judith. However, there are aspects of the characterisations of these women which make it clear how we are to judge each. Judith is pure. She refuses to remarry after her husband’s death (Judith 8:4) and although she uses her beauty to seduce Holofernes into trusting her, she does not give him her body (13:16). This is emphasised within both biblical and artistic representations. Delilah on the other hand, although the Bible does not comment on her sexuality, is unequivocally labelled as a prostitute in Rubens’ two works and the works of other artists as well as within Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Perhaps this specific alteration of the biblical text is designed to emphasise Delilah’s definite place on the ‘wrong’ side of womanhood due to the part she played in the destruction of one of God’s chosen. However, bringing sexuality into the narrative does more than solidify a negative image, it makes this sexuality the reason for Delilah’s position as the enemy. This is because it is a point of clear difference between her artistic representations and not only those of Judith but of other saintly women of the Bible, the Virgin Mary being the most obvious example. For the world in front of the artistic representations, this makes Delilah and Judith more than two biblical characters. They are instead portrayals of the different sides of women, and respectively connote ideas of Eve (sinful temptress) and Mary (holy virgin). This categorisation marks a clear divide that equates ‘purity’ with self- sacrifice and sexuality with greed and betrayal.
Artistic interpretations of Delilah and Judith seem to work like a form of Chinese whispers. The two biblical women are taken out of the pages of the Bible, passed through the works of artists such as Rubens and Caravaggio who have the power to alter and add, and then presented to us, the world in front of the text as the unaltered originals; in reality, however, they are markedly altered. Presenting the Delilah and Judith of artistic interpretation as the same women as the biblical text also reflects back onto readings and interpretations of the women in the Bible, suggesting that there is always a clear black and white divide between the virtuous ‘virgin’ figure and the deceitful harlot.
The bible is a vastly influential spiritual, cultural and historical text and for this reason artistic portrayals of its characters are far more than depictions of narrative. The differences between Delilah and Judith as portrayed in the paintings of Rubens and Caravaggio do not simply reflect differences between two biblical characters but shape and emphasise ideas of the how the Bible addresses women and even how women are seen in our secular world, the world in front of the text. Although this may not be the explicit purpose of the artistic representations of Judith and Delilah, the division between purity and perceived sexual immorality as a division between right and wrong has and will continue to have a lasting impact.
All biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version.
Clanton, Dan W. Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: T & T Clark International, 2009.
Exum Cheryl J. Plotted, Shot, and Painted Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Georgievska-Shine, Aneta “Rubens and the Tropes of Deceit in Samson and Delilah.” Word & Image 23, no. 4 (2007): 460-473. doi: 10.1080/02666286.2007.10435799
Josephus, Flavius. The Whole Works of Flavius Josephus, Translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange. The Seventh ed. Aberdeen: Printed and Sold by J. Bruce and J. Boyle, 1768.
Kahr, Madlyn “Delilah.” The Art Bulletin 54, no. 3 (1972): 282-299. Doi: 10.2307/3048997.
McHam, Sarah Blake. “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence.” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001): 32.