By Bruce Chilton
The story of Samson and Delilah, Samson’s last paramour among many unsuitable women (Judges 16:4-31), has attracted painters such as Rubens, poets such as Milton, and even the film-maker Cecil B. DeMille. (He cast Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the title roles in his 1949 film.) Bob Weir with the Grateful Dead, inspired by musicians before him, sings a version of the story based on traditional lyrics. His rendering is a staple of today’s song book, and one of my favorite adaptations.
The magic of the song lies in reversing the course of events in the Bible in order to arrive at the heart of the story, which in the Bible is stated at the beginning.
The song puts the singer — and the hearer — in the position of Samson himself, “If I had my way, I would tear this whole building down.” In many of Weir’s performances, the audience thunders that refrain with him all the way through. Samson, at the end of his life blinded by his tormenters, can only venture one last effort against the Philistines. They are city-dwellers, inveterate enemies of the clans of related and semi-related herders and farmers who look the name of Israel during the Iron Age. (The story comes from two centuries before the Israelites built cities or captured Jerusalem for their use.) Samson stands in the temple of Dagon shackled to its columns, and with a final act of his supernatural strength, brings the edifice down on himself and his captors.
Having started at the end of life, the song then scrolls towards its beginning. It has Delilah wheedle the secret of Samson’s strength while sitting on his knee. That nicely cleans up of her sexual interrogation of the besotted Samson in the book of Judges; night by night she coaxes the truth out of him that the key to his strength lies in his unshorn hair. Shaved by the Philistines who have bribed Delilah, his eyes gouged out, he is put in prison. Celebrating their defeat of a hated enemy, they drag Samson into their temple for their entertainment. By then, however, Samson’s hair had started to grow back, and he did indeed tear that “whole building down,” dispatching more Philistines than he had ever before and losing his own life in the wreckage.
Scrolling back further to the time before Samson ever met Delilah, the song tells of another feat. He had single-handedly killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone left by a dead ass (Judges 15:9-17). In the song, that number becomes ten thousand, but there is no mention of the two new ropes that Samson had to burst through with his enormous strength in order to enter battle. The song pares down the Bible in the interests of bold simplicity, reverse-engineering its way to the source of Samson’s strength.
Before he had killed his thousand Philistines with the jawbone, he had killed a lion with his bare hands (Judges 14:5-9). He ripped it apart as if it were a kid, the book of Judges says. He later observed some bees had nested in the carcass, and happily ate of its honey, distributing some to his parents.
In the book of Judges, the cycle of stories about Samson weaves him in and out of conflict, always punctuating the events with his feats of strength. The legends are interrelated, complex, and full of humor as well as irony. In the midst of that, the underlying drive of the story can be lost: the song keeps its focus just there.
Samson’s aim from even before his birth, his parents are told by an angel (Judges 13:2-23), is to relieve the Israelites from the oppression of the Philistines. Theirs is the building he tears down at the end of his life, and the purpose of his life is to defeat their oppression.
His dedication to this purpose makes him a “consecrated person” (a “Nazirite”) from his birth. The fun of the story and the fun of the song, is that achieving that aim enables him to overcome every other kind of impurity – including sexual impurity – by means of his consecration. Tearing the building down enables Samson to have his way, and the song invites the singer and hearer to resisting tyranny with sacred demolition, designed to produce freedom from oppression.
Bruce Chilton (Ph.D. from Cambridge, 1976) is a scholar of early Christianity and Judaism. He wrote the first critical translation commentary for the Aramaic version of Isaiah (The Isaiah Targum, 1987), as well as academic studies that analyze Jesus in his Judaic context (A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible, 1984; The Temple of Jesus, 1992; Pure Kingdom, 1996). He has taught in Europe at the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Münster, and in the United States at Yale University (as the first Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament) and Bard College. Currently Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bard, he also directs the Institute of Advanced Theology there. Principal publications include Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000), Redeeming Time: The Wisdom of Ancient Jewish and Christian Festal Calendars (2002), Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (2004), Mary Magdalene: A Biography (2005), The Cambridge Companion to the Bible (2007), Abraham’s Curse: Child Sacrifice in the Legacies of the West (2008), The Way of Jesus (2010), Visions of the Apocalypse (2013), and Christianity – The Basics (2015).