Daughters of Eve On Delilah and the Villains We Make of Women Who Seek Power
Succubus, siren, gold-digger, temptress: There are so many words for a woman with money in her hands.
In high school, a friend of mine gave me a homemade trophy as a birthday gift. The main body was made of an old plastic figurine of Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast . In one gloved hand, my friend glued a nondescript flag, and around Belle’s voluminous canary gown, she wrapped a purple sash. At the base of the figure was what the trophy ostensibly was for. It read, in her precise, scientific handwriting: Most Diplomatic Temptress.
My friend was referencing a skill I had recently honed: that of convincing boy-baristas into giving me free drinks. It wasn’t that hard. I spent a few afternoons in a coffee shop making flirtatious eye contact with the man pouring hot beverages across the counter, and in no time, I was never paying for my own coffee.
I had no real interest in any of the baristas whom I accepted my drinks from. More than one of them attempted to pursue me outside of the coffee shop, asking if I needed a ride or wanted to come over—advances I never quite understood but always refused with a teasing coquettishness. I didn’t care at all for these boy-men, apathetic to their slouchy beanies and beat up fixed gear bikes parked performatively outside. I wanted nothing from their watery gazes and obvious nostalgia for youth, their gaunt beards and chapped, doughy-looking lips.
Instead, I was intoxicated by the way I felt my young, woman-self translating into something monetary and material. In short, what mattered most to me was not the male attention but the free coffee. It sounds laughable, but the exchange was an amorphous promise of myself for a concrete, tangible thing of value. I was wagering my womanhood against a currency exchange, thrilled to be receiving something for the promise of myself. Those long, cold days spent writing college essays in various coffee shops across town thrilled me. I felt powerful and flinty thanks to the ability to exercise a modicum of control over another human being.
As a result, I crowed often and loudly to my friends, explaining my detailed free-coffee strategy, running lists of the boys I’d “tricked” into giving me things. This is likely why my friend thought it would be a funny gift to give me, this hokey trophy to congratulate my newfound talent. I was wagering my womanhood against a currency exchange, thrilled to be receiving something for the promise of myself.
Oddly though, receiving it felt like an insult. I remember the smile I stretched on to my face, feeling it slip, attempting to slap it back on. I remember holding the hollow figurine with a sick, dragging feeling painting the walls of my stomach, like someone had confirmed something I wanted to deny. I felt angry and confused about that anger, given that it was my bad habit of bragging that got me here in the first place.
But past that, I felt exposed.
I stopped being the “diplomatic temptress temptressing” shortly after high school because the nauseous, embarrassed feeling of receiving that fake trophy lingered. Temptress—the word stuck itself in my mind, an unearned scarlet taxonomy. If I was tempting, did that mean that the lighthearted trap I played out was the true sin, not the bloated expectations of the man in question?
Tempting also seemed to imply that I was taking something that was not mine, as if the coffees offered to me were not offered to me of these men’s free will, but rather by something I forcibly pried away from them. I felt accused of stealing something integral from these men, like the small amounts of material property they gave me were somehow an essential part of their worth.
Succubus, siren, gold digger, temptress: There are so many words for a woman with money in her hands.
Delilah is a surprising villain. She appears suddenly and without warning, shifting the gravity in a man’s story. The man in question is Samson, the last Biblical Judge and Nazarite gifted with superhuman strength. In Judges , he kills a lion with his bare hands. He slays one thousand men using the jawbone of a donkey. In another story, Samson eludes a posse of Philistines who attempt to ambush him at a city gate by simply uprooting the gate itself and carrying it to the next town over to evade his attackers. He is great and terrible, a hero and a brute. And it’s in this ascent of Samson’s power and pride that we meet Delilah.
One day, Samson visits the valley of Sorek. There, he happens upon Delilah. Immediately, we are told that he falls in love with her, without preamble or context. Nevermind that previous chapters gave significant reasoning as to why Samson previously wanted to marry another woman, and that engagement failed. With Delilah, love is immediate, direct, and unquestioning. Here is a woman who tilts the earth under a hero’s feet.
Delilah jars us out of Samson’s odyssey: Before Delilah’s arrival, Samson’s story is centered entirely on him. His story is the realm of miracles and myth, the favor of God, lavish and grotesque, showered upon one man’s ropey shoulders. Samson leaves everyone nameless, even his own mother who is only ever described as “a woman.” And yet Delilah wrenches the focus of the story to herself, her name searing itself into our collective memories. After all, who among us can think “Samson,” without mentally filling in, “and Delilah?”
After Samson falls in love with Delilah, the story abandons his point of view. The next sentence begins “the lords of the Philistines came to her,” concerning itself not with Samson’s antics but Delilah’s dealings. The Philistine officials, fed up with Samson’s dangerous strength, offer Delilah eleven hundred pieces of silver to trick Samson into revealing the secret of his strength.
She agrees. Though it takes four separate attempts, Samson ultimately tells her that his hair is the source of his power. That if someone were to shear it off, he would be left as weak as any ordinary man. Once he is asleep for the night, Delilah, the consummate temptress, promptly shaves his head and hands Samson over to the Philistines, who arrest him, gouge out his eyes, and bind him in shackles to pillars in a public temple. Samson’s hair grows back a little during this humiliation, and he pulls the temple down by the pillars he is shackled to, killing himself and the Philistine officials in the process.
Delilah, by then, has disappeared from the text. She is never mentioned again in a story that took care to make sure we noticed her. I like to think she took her money and ran. Or at least, this is how I fill in her curious absence in a story where she wielded a crushing amount of power over a Herculean man, a brief spell of intense force stealing away into the night.
Now, when I think of Delilah, it’s the eleven hundred pieces of silver that I can’t get out of my head. The precise quantity, the imagined heft of it in her palm. Though I am no expert in Biblical exchange rates, it strikes me that Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver in comparison to Delilah’s eleven hundred. Which is to say, in the narrative continuity of the Bible, Delilah’s sum far outweighs that of Judas. The money is purposeful and telling, even more so when considering that it is Delilah who wields it.
The Bible, after all, is a book obsessed with money, mentioning it over eight hundred times. Women, when connected biblically to money, usually feature in the negative. Proverbs 31 scolds that men shouldn’t spend all their money on women. When widows appear to various prophets, they are destitute. Women are penniless, impoverished, without means of their own. If they do hold some sort of monetary power, it is to further their husband’s estate, to be admirably frugal, costing as little as possible. An expensive woman is a Bathsheba, a Jezebel, a Delilah. She is a temptress, taking money from the hands of men via cunning and betrayal.
Do you see what I am trying to say? Money is gendered in the Bible, and in it, is rendered a male resource. It means rightful power, strength, influence. When it changes into female hands, however, money becomes wrong, sours, rots, turning into something treacherous and backstabbing.
After quitting my time as a high school Delilah, I grew up and found myself becoming a money-obsessed woman. I am now the kind of person who is anxiety-stricken when I am unable to check my bank account daily, and each of my credit card purchases is monitored and neatly recorded in an Excel spreadsheet at the end of the week. When someone brings money up in conversation, I pounce on the topic, stretching it out, talking about it even as I see other people in the room beginning to shift in their seats, anxiety and discomfort atomized in the air.
I find myself looking at the numbers of my checking account like a capitalist crystal ball. Will the value there stay put long enough to confer value on to me? Or is it wrong that I have it at all, transgressive of me to call attention to it, to baldly state that I care about money and the stability and freedom it provides?
When I take a step back and look at this all, it strikes me that the story of Delilah and her eleven hundred pieces of silver, the story of my adolescent temptressing, the story of any woman who has declared money to assert herself, is precisely about freedom. Money, no matter its flaws, is a resource that allows women mobility and power. In a patriarchal society, it is better that women have no financial resources because they are then beholden to men and their cash. Taken a step further, the worth of a woman becomes intrinsically tied to what a man is willing to give. It’s the free coffee in the equation, the wager of womanhood.
It follows then that a woman would be seen as sinful when she declares money commensurate of her own worth, not a subsidiary value of the men around her. I don’t mean this in a Lean In- sort of way, but rather in a ‘fuck-off fund’ sort of way. Money has a separating power, a distinguishing capacity to allow a woman to exist on her own. Delilah distinguishes herself through a discussion of remuneration; she becomes separate from Samson, not simply a nameless woman who tricks him. Here is a woman who tilts the earth under a hero’s feet.
It might render her evil in the eyes of the Bible, but no matter: As she disappears into the night with her eleven hundred pieces of silver, she has an individual weight and worth.
Let me tell this story again:
Once upon a time, there’s a woman named Delilah who lives in the valley of Sorek. Her whole life she has grown up hearing of a monster, a man named Samson who has slaughtered her countrymen, decimated their crops, brought tragedy and bloodshed wherever he went. One day, this very monster appears at her door and demands that he be let in. He declares he is in love with her, and she is powerless to stop him.
The city officials ask for her help. They hear that this supposed holy man has broken many of his vows before and is weak for women. Delilah sees her chance and drives a hard bargain; she will find out his secret but for eleven hundred pieces of silver. It is a laughable sum, like nothing a woman in her valley has ever owned herself, but the officials are desperate and so they agree.
She returns home, where the monster is living, taking up space, malodorous and demanding. Each night she masks her dismay and disgust, plying him with honeyed words, asking after his strength. He lies to her over and over again, pawing at her all the while. Finally, one night he tells her the truth. And though she has only promised the Philistine officials the secret of his strength, not the eradication of it, she enacts her furious revenge and shaves Samson’s hair off herself, taking pleasure in each braid falling into her lap.
He awakes and is immediately weak, carted off to the temple. Later, she hears that he and the officials die in the toppling of the temple, but what should she care? The silver is heavy and wholly her own in her hands, and she is free of the man she never claimed to have loved.
Outside, the night air is cold, fresh and velvet, the door flung open to welcome it in.