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


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!

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, 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.

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!


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.