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Our Fall theme is Elemental Faith, each week with an element of what it means to be a Christ follower, be to people of God and followers of the way. I struggled with this one’s element because of how much of it has to do with how we read Scripture, and how it’s meaning changes over time.
You could say, as we read sacred texts, the text and it reads us back. How we understand, interpret the text says as much about us as it does the text itself.
Here’s the story, in the time of the judges, when there was no king over Israel, tribes and communities were always vying for position, resources, and power. Sometimes a judge was called to right some wrong, to bring the people back to their covenant with God.
Samson was one such judge to deal with their enemy the Philistines.
Samson was a great man of God, set aside for the work of God to defeat the evil and terrible Philistines. Have you seen him? He’s so big and so strong with such long beautiful hair. He fights lions, enacts the petty revenge we only imagine, and he hates all the right people. There’s an epic love story but this good man is taken down by a nagging, manipulative, hyper-sexual woman. She is called cunning, selfish, heartless, unholy. She stands as a warning to all men to beware of the charms and wiles of wicked, scheming women. He dies, taking a building full of Philistines with him and remains a hero. It’s a story that talks about good and evil, reminds people of a group not to marry or become sexually involved with outsiders, teaches the women are dangerous. That is a way to read this story. It’s how this story if often read. The authors were the Israelites, and they had been conquered by the Philistines. We have our good guys and our bad guys.
When talking with my sister about this story, she had to go back and read it, neither she, nor my niece, had any memory that it existed and they thought it was weird. I’m sure it comes up in Sunday school curriculum often, because he’s so strong! And it’s really fun for the kids!
But, being an adult reader of the bible, being a thoughtful reader of the bible, being folks who take the bible seriously and not literally, we might notice that there are other characters than Samson whose stories aren’t told.
I can’t help but wonder, what if we focused, not on Samson but on the women in his life.
There are 4. 3 of them are unnamed. One of those is his mother. Her role is to bear this miracle child into the world, and set him on the right path so that he might be a blessing to his people. Then you can go away, mom, your job is done, and we don’t see her again, ushered to the sidelines with all the other unnamed masses.
Samson became a man with physical strength, political power, and social position. Samson is set up to be a hero.
The second woman is Samson’s first wife. She is a Philistine, an outsider, an enemy. Samson saw her and decided he needed to have her, and we are told that the full 7 days of the wedding feast she wept, the text calls it nagging. Her townspeople, her own people! had threatened to burn her and her family alive if she didn’t get the answer to the completely ridiculous riddle that Samson told them. What choice did she have? She did everything she could to get that answer. Samson lashes out against the Philistines. And the reward she gets lynched by a mob of her own people.
The third woman was a prostitute in a Philistine city that he stopped by to…enjoy. The city men tried to trap him with her. We’re lucky he didn’t hurt anyone right then and there. Honestly, we know nothing else about this woman. A hooker is a convenient plot point to move the story on. We can forget her, because everyone else has.
And woman number four is Delilah. Do you think she knew about the first wife?
How the city men came to her and threatened her?
How she wept? How she died?
Do you think the other women from the city whispered stories of this powerful man taking away women for his own, just because he wanted them?
Because, I think she knew.
I think they’re right, and she was probably smart, smarter than men of her time gave any woman credit for. Here she was, she had no title, no power, no strength, no position, no one looking out for her! If she was going to survive she was going to have to do it on her own and for 3000 years we have called her a villain, evil, whore.
I was at my first church when one of the women said to me that she had tried to read the bible from the beginning but she always got stopped with the way the bible, the characters in the bible, treat women.
It is unfair to take our understanding of the world and apply it to the bible, a collection of books written for specific groups of people at a specific time long ago, and at distinct and specific points in time. But believing it still has something to say about to us about humanity and God.
And we don’t know what was factual and what is lore, this is the story as it was written: The story was told that a supernaturally strong man wielded his power over the women he encountered, took them from their homes and disregarded their wellbeing, let them be destroyed, and it did not changed his actions and he did it again; AND no one held him accountable AND then we’re taught he’s a hero.
This is just your periodic reminder that Chrystul Kizer is still awaiting trial in Kenosha with the charge of 1st degree homicide, for the 2018 shooting her rapist and sex trafficker when she was 17, a man known and being investigated for those same crimes when a different child called emergency services that he was going to kill her and was then later was found wandering the streets. A man with a history of violent violations against girls who gets killed, and while he is not painted as a hero, clearly someone is painting Chrystul as the villain.
Sure, that’s the extreme case. But…
Over half of all women have experienced physical sexual violence in their lifetime. Almost 1 in 3 men the same.
1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men report severe physical violence from an intimate partner.
It might not be you. But it might the story of someone near you, of your friends, your children or grandchildren, the person you’re passing on the street, your neighbor.
And we bring all these stories with us when we read a story like Delilah’s.
While, it’s unfair to place our understanding of the world on to the text, but we absolutely can critique what we have been taught about the stories, how we live the text, who we allow it to make us, how it teaches us to think of God, and how to view and treat creation. We absolutely can question the assumptions we have made or have been given. We can question the lessons we have been taught. The interpretations that have been handed down to us.
Was this a love story? Is Samson a hero or villain? Was Delilah evil or a survivor or the true hero? And I guess it depends on if you are an Israelite or a Philistine, if Samson is a great defender or an invader, if Delilah a manipulative nag, a victim, a freedom fighter.
We revisit these stories again and again because we are different people than who we were the last time we read them, because we will see different things, make different connections. We read these stories again and again together because we have different experiences than each other, we see different things, ask different questions, focus on different characters and ideas.
We’re all going to tell the stories differently. I tell Delilah’s story this way because of my experiences, some people need Samson to be the strong liberator. We focus on different things. You can make the bible say just about anything you want. Slave owners used the bible to affirm their stance, but they also didn’t want the enslaved people to be able to read the bible lest they find stories of liberation.
It matters what you are looking for, it matters your lens, it matters your intent, if you’re looking for an excuse oppress and hate or if you’re looking for love, if you’re looking for reasons to exclude or include, if you’re looking for reasons to condemn or to liberate. It matters, and we all bring that in with us.
Our experiences matter, our stories matter. We learn and grow from listening to the stories of people around us, and people completely different from us. From hearing stories of people from the margins and who have felt the boot of oppression. By reflecting on our own stories as we read and move through the world. We expand our understanding by hearing and learning from multiple perspectives, by reading broadly and deeply, by looking with a critical eye at the powerful as we search for those on the margins.
It’s looking at the people in our stories who are not the main characters. Who’s on the sidelines, who’s casually mentioned, who was clearly there but completely ignored? It’s being open to seeing the stories and the world in new ways, admitting we were wrong, learning and growing.
We can do with history and present news as well as with the stories in the bible. There are Palestinians who identify with the Canaanites, who were run from the land in these stories. What does it mean when we tell our stories that way, from the underside, from the margins, from the perspective of those whose voices were silenced? That there is another story we aren’t being told because it doesn’t benefit the narrative that is being crafted.
But sometimes characters peek through, and we can see and wonder, and ask.
Our work of interpretation lets us see people, we see Delilah not as an evil but as a survivor, as a freedom fighter, and then maybe it can be a liberating story for someone who is trapped. Then we can have narratives where the woman who gets out isn’t seen as the villain. Interpretation lets someone who has lived with violence know that there is a place for them to tell their story, or to sit quietly, but know they are not alone.
It is the work we do, it is part of what it means to be Christian that has this book that we need to do something with.
May our reading, our learning, our interpretation, and our living in the world bring more love, more peace, more justice and liberation, more wholeness and abundance. May we see those who are pushed to the side, oppressed, and villainized, may we offer them grace and liberation, too.