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.