Student Showcase #5: Delilah Royale

Yesterday, we featured a fabulous essay by Katherine Sherliker on Delilah’s implicit cultural afterlife in Criminal Minds. Today, Anuja Mitra continues this theme by considering another implicit afterlife for Delilah, this time the character of Vesper Lynd in James Bond movie, Casino Royale (2006). Anuja describes herself as a “more-or-less native Aucklander” going into her fourth year of a Law and Bachelor of Arts conjoint degree here at the University of Auckland. She took the Bible in Popular Culture course because it allowed her to look at pop culture through a different lens – and to write a fun essay! It’s certainly a wonderful essay, so hope you enjoy.

The Curse of a Complicated Woman: Delilah’s Pop Culture Afterlives

By Anuja Mitra

Vesper Lynd: I’m afraid I’m a complicated woman.

James Bond: That is something to be afraid of.

Casino Royale (2006)

Vesper purple
Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale (MGM 2006)

The name of the biblical character Delilah immediately evokes a disreputable and traitorous woman, yet her appearance in Judges 16 is shrouded in ambiguity. The films Samson and Delilah (1949; dir. Cecil B. DeMille) and Casino Royale (2006; dir. Martin Campbell) both feature a Delilah figure, addressing gaps in Judges 16 concerning Delilah’s characterisation, her relationship with Samson, and her motives for betraying him. Looking at the worlds within and behind the texts, these films afford us insight into attitudes towards women as well new perspectives on the biblical text.

Judges 16 is silent on Delilah’s core traits, such as her family, personality and national origins. She ostensibly lacks a family, though is able to own her own house (Exum 1996, p.181). Delilah is similarly unattached in Samson and Delilah, with no husband or “master”. This independence makes her a femme fatale; a fatally irresistible woman who leads men to their downfall. The film highlights her irresistibility: Where little can be determined about the manner of the biblical Delilah, the personality of DeMille’s Delilah is rooted in her sexuality. Our first shot of her languidly eating plums is a picture of dangerous decadence, and this overt sexuality is compounded by her exoticism. Judges 16 leaves Delilah’s ethnicity ambiguous, never detailing whether she is a Philistine or an Israelite. In DeMille, Delilah is a Philistine courtesan whose foreignness makes her all the more beguiling for Samson. As a femme fatale who weaponises her sexuality, Delilah represents fears surrounding women’s emancipation in 1940s America (Blyth 2017, p.138). Her foreign status also plays upon post-war ethnic anxieties (ibid., p.126). There is nothing in Judges 16 to suggest DeMille’s rendering of Delilah as a “‘scheming little dame’” (cited in ibid., p.123), but by painting her as such, the film implies that a headstrong woman is nothing but trouble.

Lynd and Bond
James Bond and Vesper Lynd (MGM)

Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale is characterised differently. While Samson meets Delilah in the Valley of Sorek (Judges 16:4), the boundary between the land of the Philistines and that of the Israelites, Bond meets Vesper on the train; a similarly liminal space where she appears cloaked in inscrutability. Vesper’s mystery and beauty characterise her as a femme fatale, yet she is not framed as negatively as DeMille’s Delilah. The film emphasises her intelligence as she wittily challenges Bond’s arrogance. Vesper is also courageous, saving Bond’s life twice and finally accepting her death. We are encouraged to admire Vesper for qualities that are condemned in Samson and Delilah, such as confidence and resourcefulness. This perhaps reflects the changed social context between the mid-twentieth and twenty-first centuries. With the increased prominence of feminism, women’s independence is now applauded more than criticised. The positive portrayal of Vesper illuminates Judges 16 by drawing attention to positive aspects of Delilah’s character, like her determination and bravery (Smith 1997, p.46). It displays how misogyny can cause us to judge her harshly instead of acknowledging that she may have personality traits worthy of praise.

Vesper 3
Vesper Lynd (MGM)

An second gap in the biblical text is Delilah’s feelings for Samson. We know that Samson loved Delilah (Judges 16:4), but are unsure whether Delilah loved Samson. This ambiguity is erased in Samson and Delilah. Delilah is madly in love with Samson, insisting, “I’d kill to keep you. You’re the only thing in the world I want.” Delilah’s passion drives the film, and it is suggested that she never truly stops loving Samson. She hesitates betraying him, at first refusing to discover the secret of his strength because she would hate to be “armed with a weapon” against him. Even after she captures Samson, she insists that the Philistines do not physically harm him. Overall, Samson and Delilah frames Delilah’s story as a romantic epic, portraying Samson and Delilah as doomed lovers in a sexual relationship. This heightens the sexual connotations in Judges 16 of Delilah making Samson sleep on her lap (Judges 16:19). It also interprets Delilah’s remark that Samson would tell her his secret if he really loved her (Judges 16:15) as not mere emotional manipulation. Rather, her desire to know his secret may genuinely be driven by her passion for him and desire to win his trust. This is hinted by how she does not immediately call the Philistines when he tells her truth, unlike in Judges 16. Delilah’s unwavering love for Samson in the film potentially lends her a sympathetic edge, yet it also makes her look worse in the light of her betrayal.

James-Bond-Vesper-Lynd-daniel-craig-578272_333_500
Vesper Lynd and James Bond (MGM 2006)

Vesper’s feelings are also made clear in Casino Royale. She implies that she reciprocates Bond’s feelings for her, nursing him back to health after their dangerous mission and accompanying him on a romantic holiday. Yet when Bond explicitly tells her that he loves her, her reaction is unreadable. Later, however, her love is confirmed when she kisses his hand to apologise before submitting to her death. Whether Delilah loved Samson powerfully influences our assessment of her character and the depth of her betrayal. In DeMille, Delilah seems condemned because she loved Samson, suggesting that is more heinous to betray a loved one than a stranger. There is possibly a gendered element to this attitude, as a man abandoning a woman may not be considered as deplorable since men are assumed to hold the power in a heterosexual relationship. Women, meanwhile, are expected to be more submissive and accept the love of a man regardless of whether she reciprocates it. Yet thinking of Delilah as in love with Samson can also make her a tragic figure where she deceives Samson unwillingly. In Vesper’s case, she seems reluctant to admit that she loves Bond for fear of hurting both him and herself when she must betray him.

A final gap in Judges 16 is Delilah’s motive for betraying Samson. Various reasons for her betrayal have been proposed, including avarice, national loyalty and vengeance (Exum 1996, p.199). The clearest motive alluded to by Judges 16 is the eleven hundred pieces of silver Delilah is promised (Judges 16:5). In Samson and Delilah, however, this motive is eclipsed by her main goal: Revenge on Samson for leaving her. She tells the Saran that she wishes to punish Samson for the death of her family, but it is obvious that when she actually captures him it is because she believes he is abandoning her for Miriam. She confirms this when she declares, “no man leaves Delilah.” Delilah betraying Samson out of poisonous jealousy imposes a new layer of meaning on Judges 16, in which there is no other female character (and it is unclear whether Delilah loves Samson in the first place). This perpetuates ideas of women as motivated by possessiveness and competition with other women, and reinforces the femme fatale’s volatility: She may love a man one moment and leave him for dead the next.

Vesper gif

Vesper’s reasons for betraying Bond are strikingly different, and give us a glimpse into an alternative way of interpreting Delilah’s story. If Delilah were a Philistine, her tricking of Samson may be a patriotic act, causing her people to regard her as heroic (Klein 2003, p.28). Vesper’s motives can also be considered heroic, as it is revealed that she was only working for the enemy because they had threatened to kill her boyfriend if she did not cooperate. She attempts to resist her inevitable betrayal, seemingly commenting on her own plight when she tells Bond, “you’ve got a choice…just because you’ve done something doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.” Ultimately, Vesper is portrayed as a tragic heroine. Her arc suggests a vulnerable dimension to the femme fatale and to Delilah in Judges 16. A woman living alone in her historical period, Delilah was socially and politically vulnerable (Brenner 1999, p.111) and may have been unable to refuse the Philistine lords’ request. If she used her sexuality to trap Samson, it was because this was the only power her gender afforded to her (Smith 1997, p.46). Betraying Samson would have provided her with social and economic security, helping her rise from a position of relative powerlessness (ibid., p.55). A vulnerable reading of Delilah gives us a less blameworthy portrait of her, challenging us to the see the story through her perspective rather than a patriarchal lens.

vesper
Vesper Lynd (MGM 2006)

Despite appearing only briefly in the Bible, Delilah enjoys a rich legacy in popular culture. The frustrating ambiguities in her story have been filled by artistic works in differing ways: While Samson and Delilah paints her as a sensual and dangerous femme fatale, Casino Royale’s Delilah figure is a feisty and likeable heroine with a tragic fate. Examining the worlds within these texts, we can explore the filmmakers’ creative discretion in how they depict Delilah, while the world behind the texts shows us how these depictions were influenced by certain gender discourses. Overall, the shifting representations of Delilah reveal how she is moulded and remoulded based on the cultural understandings of different eras (Clanton 2009, p.65). This is arguably not only the reason for her power but the power of the Bible itself, as popular culture keeps its tales worthy of revisiting over and over.

Vesper poster
Vesper Lynd and James Bond (MGM 2006)

 

Bibliography

All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Blyth, Caroline. Reimagining Delilah’s Afterlives as Femme Fatale: The Lost Seduction. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Brenner, Athalya. Feminist Companion to Judges. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Clanton, Dan. Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

Exum, Cheryl J. “Samson and Delilah in Film”. In The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and its Reception in Film, edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, 83-100. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.

Exum, Cheryl J. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

Klein, Lillian. From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Smith, Carol. “Samson and Delilah: A Parable of Power?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22, no. 76 (1997): 45-57.

Weiner, Robert, B. Lynn Whitfield and Jack Becker, eds. James Bond in World and Popular Culture: The Films are Not Enough. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

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Student showcase 4: Delilah’s Criminal Mind

It wouldn’t be a true Auckland TheoRel student showcase without at least one piece of work on Delilah, our favourite biblical femme fatale. This year, we have not one but two essays to share, and each one offers us something a little bit different than our usual focus on Delilah’s explicit afterlives in popular culture. Starting us off, Katherine Sherliker considers a more implicit portrayal of a Delilah-like character in the hit TV series Criminal Minds. Katherine hails from Northampton, UK, and has been living in Auckland since 2008. She has just finished her first year of a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in linguistics, with a minor in education. She hopes to do a Master of Speech Language Therapy Practice after completing her BA. Katherine took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she thought it looked interesting, and was particularly drawn to the promise made in the syllabus that we’d be studying Harry Styles. It appears to have lived up to her expectations, as she describes it as her favourite course so far (and yes, Harry was the subject of one of our lectures).

So, if you are as big a Delilah fan as I am, you will enjoy this essay very much indeed.

Kat 2
Kat Adams in Criminal Minds (CBS)

A Game of Cat and Mouse

 Criminal Minds’ Cat Adams as an Implicit Portrayal of Delilah

Katherine Sherliker

Deceptive, vindictive, seductive and dangerous. This is how the biblical character Delilah is portrayed in popular culture, but it has no basis in the original text of Judges 16. This negative image of Delilah as a femme fatale, the fatal woman, is preserved in cultural retellings of the Samson and Delilah text, both explicitly and implicitly. The story of Cat Adams, a serial killer and hit-woman, from Jeff Davis’ crime drama television series Criminal Minds, is an implicit portrayal of Delilah from the Samson and Delilah story. Manipulation, selfishness and betrayal are common themes in both Cat’s and Delilah’s narratives, but can these characters be seen in more positive lights? This essay will explore how an implicit retelling of Judges 16 allows the Delilah character to be rethought in different ways that subvert the traditional tropes of the femme fatale.

In Criminal Minds, Cat is depicted as a manipulative femme fatale character, much like Delilah is in explicit retellings of the Samson and Delilah story. The femme fatale figure contains four common traits: she is seductive, she has power over men, she is deceptive, she is mysterious and therefore, she is dangerous (Clanton 2014, 1155). Hit-woman Cat specialises in seduction, and she acquires all information that she possibly can about the men she is hired to kill. In order for her victims to not foresee their death, Cat puts them in a compromised position by learning all there is to know about their physical, emotional and psychological state (“Entropy,” Season 11 Ep. 11, 2016). Extremely patient, she spends years studying her targets, so that her exploitation and manipulation has maximum effect, intending for them to commit suicide: “When I do it really well they pull the trigger themselves” (ibid.)

Kat gif2
Cat Adams and Spencer Reid (CBS)

Cat’s modus operandi is seen as outrageous and shocking, but it is also comparable to Delilah deceiving Samson, especially in explicit retellings. Despite not being as patient and insidious as Cat, in the Book of Judges (Judges 16:6-18) Delilah repeatedly asks Samson to tell her the source of his strength, eventually manipulating him by saying, “how can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” (Judges 16:15). This clever exploitation of Samson’s emotions is the statement that makes interpreters see Delilah as deceptive, as it appears that she had intent to instill guilt into him (Clanton 2009, 67-8). Smith argues that Delilah knew that she must get into Samson’s mind in order to overpower him physically (1997, 51). The characterisation of Delilah as a femme fatale stems from this perception that she knew of Samson’s lust for her, which is why she uses seduction and her sexuality to trap and weaken him (52).

Entropy
Cat and Spencer (CBS)

Much like the cultural portrayals of Delilah, Cat also uses her sexuality to get what she desires. Cat, despite being heterosexual, uses the art of seduction to deceive fellow hit-woman Lindsey Vaughn by pretending that she is in love with her – this convinces Lindsey to frame Dr. Spencer Reid, who is Cat’s main rival, in order to fulfil her partner’s wishes (“Green Light,” Season 12 Ep. 21, 2017). However, Cat also uses her high intelligence and quick wit to eliminate her enemies. This is a stark contrast to the Delilah character, who is commonly understood and portrayed to have used only her sexuality to undermine Samson. Cat is a genius at solving problems and planning, for example, she assembled a group of criminals with their sole purpose being to punish Dr. Reid, all while she was incarcerated in Mount Pleasant Women’s Correctional Facility (“Red Light,” Season 12 Ep. 22, 2017). She also terminated an undercover operation almost immediately by identifying all of the undercover agents in the restaurant, knowing that it was a trap because of her clever researching and planning beforehand (“Entropy” 2016). Cool and confident, the fatal woman says, “I didn’t walk into your trap, you walked into mine” (ibid.). The use of intelligence as the ‘dangerous’ aspect of the femme fatale is a refreshing way to rethink the character, given Delilah’s beauty and seductiveness, rather than her intellect, are consistently emphasised as her fatal qualities.

Maeve and Spencer
Maeve and Spencer …

Another prevalent depiction of the Delilah character is one that is selfish and jealous. A common theme in Delilah’s afterlives is that she is jealous of another female in Samson’s life. In the original story of Samson, there is an allusion to Delilah being the exact opposite of the perfect woman (Smith 1997, 52). Judges 13-16 reinforces the virgin/whore binary by identifying the “good” woman and the “bad” woman – the good woman being maternal, plain and chaste, and the bad woman being openly sexual and a harlot (Exum 1996, 186). In the biblical text, an example of a good woman is Samson’s mother in Judges 13, as she fulfills the two main gender roles – being a mother and a wife, while Delilah is the bad woman, as she is provocative and unattached (ibid.). In Delilah’s afterlives, there is often a woman who is a foil to her, and this also appears with Cat in Criminal Minds. Maeve Donovan was Dr. Reid’s partner, and she was plain and modest in appearance, and demure and meek in her personality – a complete contrast to Cat (“The Lesson,” Season 8 Ep. 10, 2012). Cat, being in love with Dr. Reid, was excessively jealous of Maeve, and this sparked her rampage of manipulation and deceit against him (“Red Light” 2017). This obsessive love and jealousy compels her to want the destruction of the man she desires – “if I can’t have him, no one can” – a classic femme fatale quality.

KS4
…compared to Cat and Spencer

The betrayal of the men that she is involved with further reinforces the view that the Delilah character is selfish and jealous. It is obvious that Delilah betrays Samson’s trust by submitting him to the Philistines, which paints her as untrustworthy and sinful (Gervin 2017). The biblical text declares that Samson is “in love” with Delilah (Judges 16:4), which makes her betrayal much more malicious than if he did not care for her. Delilah’s actions also disrupt gender boundaries as she emasculates the man – a corrupt act, and a main trait of the femme fatale (ibid.). This act of deception is why Delilah has become the epitome of the femme fatale, as her unconcealed sexuality and seduction is what was dangerous and ultimately fatal to Samson (Exum 1996, 176). Again, Cat is similar to this, as she is known to betray some of her clients by killing them instead, especially men who ask her to kill their wives (“Entropy” 2016). This brings a grim meaning to femme fatale – a literal fatal woman.

KS1
Cat (CBS)

With the femme fatale character’s betrayal and manipulation of men, a question needs to be asked – why do they do this? Both the biblical Delilah and her afterlives may have legitimate reasons for their actions, allowing them to be seen in a more positive light. For example, it is made obvious in Judges 16 that Samson has great physical strength. As a woman, Delilah is less physically powerful than Samson, especially with his extreme strength. Delilah may have been fearful of Samson, and finding the source of his strength would be the only way to overcome him (Smith 1997, 55). Cat is also physically vulnerable. As a contract killer, she has to get physically close and personal with her targets, which could end badly as many of them were powerful men (“Entropy”  2016). Also, in terms of wealth, the Delilah character may have been dependent on others for money. In Judges 16:5, the five Philistine leaders offer Delilah “eleven hundred pieces of silver” each to subdue Samson. As the biblical text does not mention any of Delilah’s relatives or any ways she was earning money, it can be interpreted that she was alone and perhaps financially unstable. The money that the Philistines offered her may have been her only way to gain economic independence (Smith 1997, 55). Again, Cat is somewhat similar to this, as being a hit-woman is her job, and if she mishandled a situation her career, and even her life, could be over.

KS3
Cat and Spencer (CBS)

Most importantly, Delilah can be seen as socially and emotionally vulnerable – though this is rarely considered in her afterlives. Delilah may feel like an outcast, as it is often suggested that she is a foreign woman, possibly a Philistine among Hebrews (Exum 1996, 181). She also may be fearful of repercussions if she does not fulfill the Philistine lord’s wishes, as it is feasible that she has no political power to negotiate. Despite some of her unlikable femme fatale qualities, Cat can also be seen as emotionally vulnerable. Her backstory is tragic, as she was abused as a child by her father, who was jailed for killing her mother (“Entropy” 2016). She was then mistreated by her foster father (ibid.). After this, Cat spent the rest of her life trying to find her father who was eventually released from prison, all while taking her anger out on men who reminded her of him (ibid.). The emotional turmoil Cat experienced as a youth could have changed her into the manipulative and vindictive femme fatale character that she was in her adult life. This is an interesting way to look at the femme fatale character – these women are often vulnerable and act to protect themselves. Viewing the femme fatale as sensitive and possibly defenseless allows the original Delilah character to be seen the same way.

Cultural retellings of the Samson and Delilah story usually lack positive views of Delilah, instead depicting her as destructive and scandalous. It is important to realise that this has no basis in the original text, and is instead a result of these traits being preserved in cultural retellings. Criminal Minds’ Cat Adams is an implicit portrayal of Delilah, as she is remarkably comparable to Delilah’s afterlives and the overall femme fatale figure. These indirect retellings of the story and recreations of the character allow Delilah to be rethought in a new light. Portrayals of Delilah such as this one allow us to rethink why she may have betrayed Samson. Instead of automatically blaming it on her being malicious, we can speculate about her economic, social and physical vulnerability, and why this drove her to her actions. The limited description of Delilah in Judges 16 leaves a great deal to the imagination, so why not reimagine her in a positive light for a change?

Kat gif
Cheers, Cat!

References

References to the Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

Clanton, Dan W. “Trollops and Temptresses.” In Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music, 65-77. New York: T&T Clark, 2009.

“Entropy.” Criminal Minds. Created by Jeff Davis. United States: CBS, January 13, 2016.

Exum, C. J., “Why, why, why Delilah?” In Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women, 175-237. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 1996.

Clanton, Dan W. “Femme Fatale: III Film.” In Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, 1155-7. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014.

Gervin, L. “Women as Deceivers in the Hebrew Bible.” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 13, no. 2 (2017): 1-11.

“Green Light.” Criminal Minds. Created by Jeff Davis. United States: CBS, May 3, 2017.

“Red Light.” Criminal Minds. Created by Jeff Davis. United States: CBS, May 10, 2017.

Smith, Carol. “Samson and Delilah: A Parable of Power?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22, no. 76 (1997): 45-57.

“The Lesson.” Criminal Minds. Created by Jeff Davis. United States: CBS, December 5, 2012.

 

Danger and Desire: More student work

I have another piece of student work for you to enjoy today, this time from Nicole Marais, who is nearing the completion of her BA, in which she is majoring in Media, Film, and TV studies. Nicole has focused on one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah, from Judges 16. She first looks at her presentation in a painting from the 19th Century, before turning to consider the ‘Delilah-like’ character of Meredith Johnson in the 1994 movie Disclosure. Nicole’s discussion is fascinating and creative – I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Delilah in visual culture

by

Nicole Marais

Paul Albert  Rouffio, Samson and Delilah (1874)
Paul Albert Rouffio, Samson and Delilah (1874)

Paul Albert Rouffio, Samson and Delilah (1874)

And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him. (Judges 16:19)

The first representation of Delilah we will be looking at is a painting by Paul Albert Rouffio entitled simply Samson and Delilah (1874). This is the moment just before Samson’s hair is shorn and the Philistines capture him and take him away to Gaza.

In Rouffio’s rendition, Delilah is being handed a pair of scissors by a female servant while the Philistine soldiers wait in an alcove for the moment to attack and seize him. This differs from the biblical text where the narrator tells us that Delilah called for ‘a man and she caused him…’ to cut Samson’s hair. (Judges 16:19) Here Delilah is the one to not only deceive Samson by telling the Philistines his secret, she deals the fatal blow by cutting his hair herself.

Again in the text we are not told where this scenario unfolds. (Exum 82) Are we in Delilah’s house? Is this a brothel? Wherever they are here it looks to be a very opulent and decadent setting. The Egyptian art on the walls in the back ground is intriguing. Perhaps a marker of Delilah’s foreignness?

None of the characters in the image engage with the viewer. At first glance Samson captures our eye, his vulnerability is twofold as he lays naked and asleep. I can’t help but feel compassion for this man who, in the glow of post coital bliss, has no idea that in an instant his world and legacy will change forever. The image serves a dual purpose too. While Delilah’s nakedness is intended to be a pleasure for the male gaze to behold, Samson’s vulnerability and the viewer’s knowledge of things to come serves as a warning against the power of female seduction. (Exum 78) If a great man like Samson can fall prey to the evil wiles of a woman’s sexual prowess, what hope do ‘normal’ men have?

The biblical text says only that Delilah ‘made him sleep on her lap’. There is no evidence in the bible to point to their love making, yet Rouffio (and countless other artists before and since him) implies this in his interpretation of the text. In Samson and Delilah shown above, the state of undress of both Samson and Delilah as well as the crumpled sheets of the bed are more than a subtle hint to what has come before. If that were not enough, the pomegranates and figs next to Delilah’s bed are themselves symbols of Delilah’s heightened sexuality.

But who was Samson to Delilah? Did she fear him, love him, loathe him? Or was she just a vindictive woman set on destroying a great man? The Biblical text says simply that she was a woman that Samson loved;

‘And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.’ (Judges 16:4)

She obviously knew of his love for her;

‘How canst thou say, I love thee, when thine heart is not with me?’ (Judges 16:15)

But there is no mention of her love for him. Indeed her actions lead us to believe the opposite. She manipulates him into telling her the secret of his power, betrays his confidence to the Philistines and hands him over to his enemy, without a hint of remorse. (Or at least there is no indication that she feels any in the text)

I don’t think Rouffio was in any doubt of whether she loved him or not. Her facial expression in his painting is one of smug victory. A woman content in the knowledge that she has succeeded in her task. She appears to be very assured of herself, confident that he will not awake before she cuts his hair and knowing that when the deed is done she will be a wealthy woman. Or, if the decadent room in which this is set is indeed in her home, and not a brothel like I suspect, an even wealthier woman.

So, what is next for Delilah? After she delivers Samson to the Philistines, she disappears from the biblical text. Does she become a member of the Philistine elite? Or does she take her silver and go home? The décor in the back ground of the painting leads me to believe that she is not from those parts and will most likely return to her home, be that Egypt or Mesopotamia (?) as a wealthy single woman who has no need for a man to look after her. Perhaps she even becomes the Madam of her own brothel…

Delilah-like Demi Moore as Meredith Johnson in Disclosure (1994)

Demi Moore in Disclosure
Demi Moore in Disclosure

Dan Clanton argues in Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music that there is a perpetual negative rendering of Delilah in literature, film and contemporary music. (Clanton 65) While Clanton focused on representations of Delilah in music, I will look at how Delilah, as the quintessential femme fatale, is given new life through Demi Moore’s portrayal of Meredith Johnson in Barry Levinson’s 1994 film Disclosure.

The film focuses on a week in the life of Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas). He has to fight to save his job after his new boss, and former lover, accuses him of sexual harassment following her failed attempt to seduce him. (Although, it must be said that director Levinson took a very ‘Clinton era’ approach to what constitutes sexual relations in this scene.)

Like the biblical text there is a three way split in the power play between the characters of the film: Meredith the femme fatale (Delilah), Tom the victim of the temptress (Samson) and the men that use a deviant female to ensnare their captive, in this case the board members of Didgicom (the Philistines). (Clanton 66)

Demi Moore is the ultimate Delilah incarnate. A femme Fatale that uses her sexual prowess to ensnare an unsuspecting man and thereby endeavouring to destroy him. However, unlike the biblical text where the all-powerful Samson is undone by Delilah, Tom Sanders manages to outwit Meredith and come out on top. Meredith is fired from her position of Vice President and Tom is lauded as the architect of a merger that will ensure his position at the company.

It is unclear what Meredith’s reasons are for wanting to destroy Tom in such a grandiose manner. In Judges 16, Delilah agrees to help the Philistines when they offer her a handsome financial reward in return. However in Disclosure, Meredith’s justification for setting up and betraying her former lover remains ambiguous. Could it be that she is a woman scorned, who after 10 years still wants revenge for a love affair that ended badly? Or is she seduced by the idea of power? Does she want to be the top woman in a man’s world? Meredith admits as much to Tom in the beginning of the film when she tries to rekindle their romantic relationship.

‘Now you got the power. You got something I want.’

Like Delilah in the book of Judges, we are not sure what will become of Meredith after she is booted from Digicom. She tells Tom that she has already been approached by 10 head hunters in the hour since her public shaming at a press conference. Here Levinson insinuates that she will land on her feet. Like Delilah of the bible she will not be too severely punished for her actions, for which she too shows no remorse.

Meredith Johnson in Levinson’s Disclosure and the Delilah of Rouffio’s Samson and Delilah are separated by a hundred and twenty years, yet have much in common. They are both used as pawns in facilitating the power play of a man’s world. Delilah is used by the Philistines to ensnare Samson and Meredith by the male members of the board at Digicom. They are both aware of their part in this power struggle and comply willingly.

Delilah and Meredith reinforce the ideology that women are responsible for men’s undoing and are a threat to the fundamentals of a patriarchal society. (Anders 97) A world in which hetro-normative ideals of procreation and the family unit are to be preserved above all else. Women who challenge these ideals with their desire to forge a life for themselves that is not guided by the moral compass that a husband and a family will give them, are dangerous.

What is interesting to me is that the Delilah of Rouffio’s painting seems to wield more power that Meredith does in Disclosure. This is of concern because Disclosure was set in the 1990’s, a time where gender roles were being questioned and women were being given opportunities that had since eluded them. In the end Levinson’s film, maintains the current gender status quo. Women are either sexually charged vamps who use manipulation to control and destroy men, or they are insipid and dowdy, only allowed to succeed if they put a lid on their sexuality so they can access their brains. A very disappointing rendering of Delilah indeed.

Primary Sources:

Rouffio, Paul Albert Samson and Delilah, 1874.

Disclosure. Dir. Barry Levinson. Perf. Demi Moore, Michael Douglas. Warner Brothers. 1995. Film.

Secondary Sources:

Anderson, Lesley Cecile Marie. ‘The Femme Fatale: A Manifestation of Patriarchal Fears’ UBC Retrospective Theses Digitization Project. University of British Columbia, 1995.

Clanton, Dan. “Trollops and Temptresses.” In Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music, 65-78. New York: T&T Clark International, 2009.

Exum, Cheryl. Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Federick Pickersgill’s Delilah. Bible Art Gallery. Edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96. The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.

Seminar: The Delilah Monologues

A reminder to everyone that there is another not-to-be-missed seminar coming up next week at Auckland Theology and Religious Studies. This is the last seminar of the semester in what has been a particularly fabulous series of presentations by our staff and PG students. So, next Friday, 12 June, I will be delivering ‘The Delilah Monologues’ to a (hopefully) rapt audience. This presentation/performance was premiered at Sheffield University’s SIIBS seminar series last year (and sponsored by Hidden Perspectives), so you could say it is a global phenomenon. And as extra incentive, there will be drinks and nibbles served thereafter. Hope to see you there.

The Delilah Monologues

Friday 12 June, 2-3pm, in Arts 1, Room 510

Drinks and nibbles afterwards!

Delilah_Henry_Clive
Henry Clive, Delilah (1949)

If Delilah could speak to us today, what would she say? How would this biblical character make sense of the multiple interpretive traditions and cultural retellings of Judges 16, which have portrayed her so frequently as a femme fatale par excellence – a fatal woman whose exotic feminine allure and lethal sexuality ultimately destroyed Samson, that most heroic Hebrew holy man? In ‘The Delilah Monologues’, I lend Delilah a voice, so that she can cast a queer eye over these retellings, and thus interrogate the very ‘straight’ ways in which they make sense of the multiple ambiguities surrounding her character within this biblical narrative.Focusing particularly on her sexuality, her gender, and her ethnicity, she will take you on a journey through a myriad of alternative performances for her persona, inviting you into the delightfully queer spaces that she may inhabit within this ancient story.

Advent offering December 18

Today I’m sharing an image of one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah (Judges 16). Indeed, it’s fair to say she’s become a bit of an obsession of mine. This beautiful picture of her by French artist Alexandre Cabanel is typical of her portrayal during the nineteenth century fin de siècle – an exotic, erotic, and dangerously seductive femme fatale, whose delicious allure was ultimately no match for even Samson’s extraordinary strength. Who, after all, could resist those smoky eyes, those luscious lips, those tantalisingly bare shoulders?

Cabanal appears to have captured Delilah here at the crucial moment – she reaches out her hand oh so carefully so as not to wake the slumbering Samson who rests his head on her lap, his long locks snaking across her skirts. We know what she’s reaching for – but what should we do? Leave her to get on with her hair snipping in peace or shout a word of warning to Samson before it’s too late? I know what I’m tempted to do – what about you?

For an earlier discussion about Delilah, see my blog post here.

Alexandre_Cabanel_-_Samson_and_Delilah
Alexandre Cabanel, Delilah (1878)

Advent – 4 December

In contrast to our last two posts, I’m moving away from angels today to share with you a painting of a biblical character who is usually considered anything but angelic – that femme fatale par excellence, Delilah (Judges 16). As I noted in a previous post, Delilah is often represented in the visual arts and popular culture as sultry, erotic, and lethal. Her portrait by Australian artist Henry Clive is no exception; here, Delilah positively glimmers with 1940s noir glamour, looking not unlike the totally gorgeous Hedy Lamarr, who starred in Cecil B. DeMille‘s classic movie Samson and Delilah (1949). Her dark smoky eyes, glistening pouty lips, and that tantalizing bare shoulder are irresistible, while the shears to the forefront of this picture remind us that she is every bit as treacherous as she is beautiful. Embodying such a fascinating mix of danger and desire, Clive’s Delilah would certainly spice up any festive party she was invited to, although it may be wise to hide any sharp objects before she arrives.

Image
Henry Clive, Delilah (1948)

Cultural representations of Delilah… a whore or more?

In recent years, there has been a growing interest within biblical studies in the interplay between the Bible and popular culture, particularly, the representations of biblical themes and characters within cultural texts such as film, literature, music, and art. One biblical character that has had her fair share of cultural portrayals is Delilah, the woman who, in Judges 16, played her part in the Philistine capture and imprisonment of Israelite judge and strongman Samson the Nazarite. Yet, as a number of scholars, including Dan Clanton, J. Cheryl Exum, and Bruce Herzberg, have noted, Delilah’s various cultural ‘afterlives’ often bear little resemblance to the rather ambiguous figure that we are presented with in the biblical narrative.

Hedy Lamarr

For example, in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie, Samson and Delilah [Paramount, 1949], Delilah, played by Hedy Lamarr, is a pathologically jealous and emotionally volatile femme fatale, while in David Maine’s 2006 novel, The Book of Samson, she takes on the persona of a sociopathic, conniving whore. Meanwhile, in Camille Saint-Saëns’ operatic retelling of the narrative, Samson et Dalila, Delilah
appears as a scornful and vindictive harpy, who seeks to wrest the priest-like Samson away from his loyalty to God.

Common to all these colourful and at times shocking cultural representations of Delilah is the fact that they play fast and loose with the biblical depiction of this character, whose persona, emotions, and motivations within the text itself actually remain tantalizingly obscure. Despite such textual ambiguity, Delilah, as character, is wont to inspire a strongly disapproving response from those she encounters within her ‘cultural afterlives’, often emerging from these encounters as a thoroughly ‘wicked woman’, whose treatment of Samson is steeped in a cruel, unfeeling treachery. Even her very name is enough to conjure in the minds of many readers a portrait that is tinted (or tainted) by feminine guile, betrayal, and dangerous sexuality.

According to Dan Clanton, such cultural renderings of biblical personas that twist and reshape the biblical text arise as the result of the authors’ desire to produce a characterization that is more ‘identifiable’ to the particular audience for whom the renderings are intended. That is, the authors of these cultural texts portray biblical characters in such a way that they become more familiar and make sense to their audience, displaying them in light of the recognizable, the comprehensible, the comfortably proverbial. These portrayals can therefore serve as a valuable mode of insight into the cultural contexts, worldviews, and ideological presumptions held by their authors and by the audiences who receive them. Delilah’s frequently uncomplimentary depiction as both a highly sexualized and lethally disloyal woman whose perfidy brings even the strongest warrior to his knees might therefore be regarded as wholly at home in those cultural contexts where physical potency, aggression, and sexual prowess are lauded as markers of idealized masculinity and where the potential for women to use their femininity and sexuality to threaten and undermine these markers is a source of male anxiety. Her very negative cultural representations may thus attempt to ‘explain’ her within the cultural milieus in which she is paraded, soothing the audiences’ disquiet regarding her ambivalent biblical characterization and reinforcing their presuppositions surrounding gender roles and relationships.

One particular way in which popular culture texts often ‘negativize’ Delilah’s characterization is by their suggestion that she did (initially, at least) reciprocate the love that Samson felt for her. While the biblical text itself leaves Samson’s love for Delilah in no doubt (Judges 16.4), it remains silent on the issue of whether Delilah had any reciprocal feelings of love towards Samson, either sexual or platonic. However, within a number of cultural representations of Delilah, her love for Samson is assumed, at the beginning of their relationship at any rate. Such love on her part does not evoke the audience’s sympathy, however; rather, she becomes even more disparaged given her capricious and shocking ‘betrayal’ of the man she was supposed to care so much about. It is bad enough, after all, to do the dirty on someone you don’t like; but, to turn over the man you love to his enemies in return for hard cash…well, that’s really scandalous!

Rubens

This shocking mix of love and betrayal presented within cultural representations of Delilah’s response to Samson is illustrated nicely in the painting Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). As in other pictorial representations of Delilah, Rubens presents her bare breasted here, thus symbolizing both her overt sexuality and her maternity vis-à-vis a somewhat vulnerable-looking Samson. That Delilah is intended to be regarded as a faithless harlot within this painting is confirmed by the presence of the elderly crone peering over her shoulder; this character appeared frequently in 17th Century Dutch art as an embodiment of sexuality that has been sullied for financial gain. Meanwhile, the maternal element of Delilah’s character within this picture is likewise confirmed by the very gentle way she rests her hand upon Samson’s back and by the way in which she gazes down at him with a placid and rather sleepy affection. As nursing mother, Delilah holds great sway over the giant who is dozing in her lap – she can nourish and strengthen him and sustain his life, providing persuasive guidance to this creature who is ultimately dependent on her. On the other hand, the calculated withdrawal of her care will ultimately lead to his demise. In one sense, the viewer of this painting may therefore stand appalled at Delilah’s willingness to betray Samson here, given the clear sexual and maternal bonds depicted therein; nevertheless, both her dangerousness and his vulnerability, as depicted in this painting, may also confirm an already-present male cultural anxiety regarding the destructive power of those women who are able to defeat a strength even as great as Samson’s.