Delilah (1200–1000 BCE?)

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Delilah (1200–1000 bce?)

Biblical woman. Name variations: Dalila. Delilah is portrayed in the Old Testament (Judges 16.4ff.) as the third romantic interest of the traditional Israelite hero, Samson.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the Biblical Delilah was a historical figure. As convention has it, she was a Philistine beauty from the Wadi Sorek (near modern Gaza) who attracted Samson's amorous attentions. According to our only source the Old Testament (Judges 16.4ff.), before meeting Delilah, Samson had already begun a deadly feud with the Philistines, Delilah's people. Seeking Samson's destruction, some Philistine leaders approached Delilah to enlist her in the cause of Samson's ruin. Convinced to betray Samson for a monetary reward, Delilah is said to have done everything within her wiles to bring about his fall. The element of the account that makes the story historically suspect are the three open betrayals of Samson that Delilah is said to have arranged before her fourth attempt succeeded. Thus, Samson must be seen either as one of history's dimmer heroes, or as a figure whose portrayal was intended to provide a negative moral example about the dangers of chasing beautiful women.

In the first attempt, after Delilah asks Samson about the source of his strength, he replies that he can be successfully bound only by "seven fresh bowstrings," which, if discovered by his enemies, would lead to his destruction. Acting upon the information forwarded by Delilah, the Philistines attempt to trap Samson but fail. In the next attempt, Samson's enemies learn from Delilah that he could only be restrained by ropes that "had never been used." Acting on this information, again the Philistine's fail. After more of Delilah's inquiries (apparently made palatable by her charms), Samson then responds that he can only be imprisoned by a rope woven from seven locks of his own hair. When that attempt also fails, Delilah gears up once more, this time to be taken into Samson's confidence as he finally

reveals that he can only be overcome if his hair is cut. (The belief in the magical potency of hair was not unique to the Israelites; the Germans, for example, who settled in France during the early medieval period long followed their Merovingian monarchs because of the strength represented in these "long-haired" kings.) The truth thus revealed, the Philistines succeed: with Samson asleep in Delilah's lap, a barber appears to shave Samson, leaving him helpless.

Taking her blood money, Delilah then vilifies Samson before turning him over to his enemies. Laid low by his lust for women, Samson is thus enslaved by his enemies and brought to Gaza, where he is put on public display in the temple of the god Dagon. Praying for a modicum of revenge, Samson begs for a return of his old strength, which God grants him. Samson then kills himself and a host of his enemies by pulling down, upon all, the chief temple of Gaza.

The folktale elements of this story support the ahistorical nature of the account. Available evidence suggest that Delilah is most accurately seen as an element in a morality tale meant to warn men against beguiling sexuality.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California