In the book of Judges, we encounter the mighty Israelite judge, Samson. He is perhaps best known for his herculean strength. Yet, he is also known for his weakness for women—especially Philistine women. His relationship with Delilah, often portrayed as a sneaky seductress, was his undoing. She coaxed him into divulging the secret of his strength: his long braids of hair. Though they were the symbol of his devotion to God, they were also his “Achilles’ heel.”
But was Delilah a Philistine?
Throughout the ages, she has been portrayed as a Philistine. Indeed, she takes her place alongside the other Philistine women in Samson’s life. His wife (for all of a week) was a Philistine girl from the town of Timnah (Judges 14.1–2). Samson also visited a prostitute in Gaza, which was one of the five towns of the Philistine ‘Pentapolis’ (Judges 16:1). But was Delilah actually a Philistine too?
Let’s look at the evidence.
First, unlike the other two women in Samson’s life, the biblical text never identifies Delilah as a Philistine. All it says is that she was “in the Valley of Sorek” (Judges 16:4). Where was this valley? Was it in Philistine territory? Well, not quite. The Valley of Sorek begins in the highlands, a few miles from Jerusalem. It twists and turns westwards, descending down into the foothills (the “Shephelah”). At this point, the valley formed the border between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. It keeps descending until it eventually hits the Coastal Plain, which is where the Philistines lived. At that point the land flattens out—it is a plain after all. The seasonal stream that runs through the valley continues across the Coastal Plain and eventually hits the Mediterranean. If the biblical text is referring to this seasonal stream, then Delilah could have lived anywhere along its course—from the highlands of Judah to the Mediterranean coast.
But the biblical text makes a particular statement that means Delilah could not have lived by the Sorek stream on the Coastal Plain. Judges 16:5 tells us that the Philistine leaders “went up” (Heb: ויעלו) to Delilah and paid her to trick Samson into revealing the secret of his strength. That is, they ascended into the hills in order to reach her. This means she was most likely not in Philistine territory. If she was, she was at best on the very edge of it.
Yet, if Delilah was a Philistine, why do the Philistine leaders not simply command her to trick Samson? Why do they each pay her 1100 pieces of silver to do the deed? Since there were five Philistine rulers from the five Philistine centres (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Gath), that’s probably 5500 pieces of silver! Would not the threat of death by a direct authority be enough? Why are they so willing to empty their coffers for her, but never once empty their scabbards?
Some modern depictions of Delilah portray her as the opportunist seductress, who uses her wiles and lack of scruples to make a quick buck. Some view her as a prostitute making a bit of extra cash while tricking her trick. Of course the Philistine leaders would pay for her services! Why, perhaps she even once serviced them? But Delilah was not the prostitute whom Samson visited in Gaza along the coast. Delilah didn’t live in Gaza! She lived up in the hills in the Valley of Sorek. And the biblical text never so much as implies that she was a prostitute. It seems that, as with Mary Magdalene, Delilah has been mistakenly thought of as a hustler when she wasn’t!
So if Delilah wasn’t a wily seductress or an opportunist prostitute, how did she come to have a dalliance with Samson? The biblical text simply states that she was a woman in the Valley of Sorek with whom Samson fell in love (Judges 16:4). This was Samson’s own home territory. He grew up in Zorah, Eshtaol, and Mahaneh Dan (Judges 13:2, 25)—all sites on the northern side of the Valley of Sorek. Samson simply fell for a local girl. Perhaps she was a Danite woman, since this territory was associated with Dan for a time. Or perhaps she was an Ephraimite woman, since the area was also associated with Ephraim.
Moreover, Delilah didn’t hatch the scheme to trap Samson. She did not approach the Philistine leaders, like Judas did with the Jewish leaders when he agreed to betray Jesus. She was not agreeing to trap the nemesis of her own people. Rather, the Philistine leaders “went up” to her and enticed her with a princely sum—1100 pieces of silver from each of them—to put their nemesis in chains. The exorbitant amount they paid her makes sense if they were asking her to betray one of her own—a leader of her own people, no less!
Samson unwittingly foiled the whole scheme to capture him three times. Rather than being tricked, he himself tricked Delilah (and the Philistines sponsoring her). On each occasion, the Philistines waited to pounce on him. And just when Delilah thought that Samson’s strength had left him, she called out, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” (Judges 16:9, 12, 14). This doesn’t sound like the cry of a Philistine woman in Philistine territory referring to her own countrymen. Perhaps if she referred to “guards” or “soldiers” or even “men,” we might suspect that Delilah was herself a Philistine. But to Delilah, the would-be captors of Samson were “Philistines”. They were other—people to be referred to by their ethnicity as different to “us.”
Evidently Samson didn’t make the connection between leading Delilah on and the sudden appearance of pouncing Philistines. So on the fourth occasion, Samson finally revealed the secret of his strength to Delilah. We’re told that it was because she harangued him constantly until he told her (Judges 16:16–17). If Delilah was a Philistine, perhaps Samson would have seen through the whole situation. Telling her the truth of his strength would have seriously endangered him. But he seems to trust her, albeit after considerable nagging, probably figuring that there can be no harm in revealing the secret to a fellow Israelite. Once he does, though, Delilah the Israelite betrays him. She summons the leaders of the Philistines to “come up” once more into the hills (Judges 16:18). They capture him and then “bring him down” to Gaza.
There is one further tantalising possibility that may suggest Delilah was an Israelite. We meet Delilah in Judges 16 when the Philistine rulers each agree to pay her 1100 pieces of silver for Samson. After Samson’s death, in the very next chapter, we are introduced to an Ephraimite (and therefore Israelite) man named Micah who steals 1100 pieces of silver from his unnamed mother (Judges 17:1–2). The correspondence with the sum paid to Delilah is uncanny. And coming immediately after the Samson and Delilah narrative, we are led to wonder whether this unnamed woman is, in fact, Delilah. The unnamed woman’s husband is never mentioned. Is it because he is dead? Is it because the woman was never married and had a son out of wedlock? Is Micah the son of Samson born to Delilah the Ephraimite after Samson’s death? Interestingly, this Micah narrative dovetails with the story of the migration of the Danite tribe (to which Samson belonged) from its land around the Valley of Sorek to land in the far north near Laish/Dan. It is, therefore, a fitting epilogue to the narrative of Samson the Danite. The fact that the woman with 1100 pieces of silver is not named means we cannot be sure that this is Delilah. Perhaps the 1100 pieces of silver are simply a thematic association that helps explain the placement of the two chapters (16 and 17) within the book of Judges. But the placement and narrative contexts are very suggestive.
In any case, it seems we have been treating Delilah as a Philistine, when she is actually an Israelite. She is not a conniving professional seductress, but a local girl who betrays a leader (albeit a very flawed one) of her own people. She was more traitor than temptress. In that way, she is perhaps the antithesis of Jael, wife of Heber, who causes the downfall of Sisera in Judges 4. This would be in keeping with the upending of Israel’s fortunes throughout the book of Judges and the portrayal of Israel’s descent into chaos. Delilah is still a sinister figure, but for perhaps slightly different reasons to what we previously thought.