Monday, February 01, 2021

Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney: “A Womanist Midrash of Delilah: Don’t Hate the Playa Hate the Game”

Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.
Twitter: @WilGafney

Author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne, a commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah; Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel; and co-editor of The Peoples’ Bible and The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible.


“A Womanist Midrash of Delilah: Don’t Hate the Playa Hate the Game” by Dr. Gafney might be my favorite academic essay I have ever read. (And I have read a lot!) She explains in a footnote that she is "framing Delilah's story in hip-hop lyrics" that have taken on different meanings from the way they were originally intended ("which can be sexist, misogynist, homophobic, and glorifying of violence" (50).  
footnote pg 50

Gafney centers Delilah, making her the main character of interest instead of Samson/Shimson. Gafney says she sees Delilah as a ‘bad woman” who “uses her sexuality to her own benefit within the overarching androcentric and patriarchal power systems” (50). Gafney tells us that a womanist reading of Delilah sees her as her own woman who makes her own decisions about her body and her life and for once, actually ends up better off than expected in the “androcentric scriptures of Israel” (50). Delilah plays the men’s game but she beats them at it.

Main points:

  1. Traditional “heteropatriarchal” readings of this text focus on Samson and glorify him as the hero of the story ("a playa") because the text is written with him as the main character and Delilah as a supporting character (51). I love all of the references to hip-hop and various vernacular phrases throughout this article, and the points Gafney uses them to make, such as when she says, “Women who object to normative readings of the saga might well be told, 'don’t hate the playa, hate the game' (Marrow and Ascencio 1999) since the game is biblical, hating or challenging the game has theological implications—since the game is presented as God-ordained” (51) Gafney then reminds us that womanist biblical interpretation “does not hesitate to talk back to the Bible or its God” (51). This gives such wonderful freedom to the interpreters of the text to push back on those traditional power dynamics.
  2. Gafney talks about Samson’s mother, who is not named in the text. There is a tradition in rabbinic interpretation that provides names for some of the women who were not given names in the text. After telling us that the name given to Samson’s mother in that tradition is “Zlelponith”, that is what Gafney calls her in the rest of the article (56). 
  3. Samson’s wife is also nameless in the text. Gafney says her story specifically influences Delilah’s choices in that Delilah learns from the infamous story about Samson and his wife. Gafney calls her “Yashirah” based on the aspects that Samson was drawn to, referencing Judges 14:3. The text blames her for her fate because she is the “other”: a “foreign” woman from a “foreign” place “out in public looking like that” (57). Gafney says that as a womanist she is “compelled to read from her position” and points out that the text itself is biased against because of her otherness, an outsider, a foreigner, and the people who wrote and compiled the text thought of her people and culture as inferior and did not see the divine image in her (57). Samson’s wife (Yashirah) only has one “sorrowful bit of agency” in this story - she cried every day of their seven-day wedding feast (Judg 14:17). Gafney says “she pressed him to the point of oppressing him. She pressed her way to her own deliverance” (59). However many translators say she “nagged” him for the answer to the riddle in order to save her life and her family’s lives.
  4. Gafney reiterates several times what she must do or cannot do as a womanist interpreter. Reflecting on Samson’s revenge when he sets foxes on fire to destroy the Philistine crops and at least thirty random men are killed along with his wife and her father she says: “As a womanist, I cannot ignore this wanton act of cruelty or its uncritical acceptance in the many sermons and Sunday school lessons I have heard on this text. [...] before moving to Samson's next woman or on to Delilah, I must pause in womanist solidarity with Yashirah, mark and mourn her passing. I do not know the name her mother called her. I call her Yashirah, good and pleasing in herself, to herself, not dependent on the approval of any man.” (60)
  5. Next, we learn about an unnamed foreign (Philistine) sex-worker (Judg 16:1) who Gafney names “Arishat” (61). Gafney uses her “sanctified imagination” to conclude that Delilah surely would have heard all of these stories of Samson’s violence and how he treated these other women (61).  Gafney points out that Samson’s love for Delilah is one-sided. The text does not mention her having feelings for him and does not care about her motives. Gafney argues that Delilah and Samson are not married because the text does not say that they are (64). And even though Samson is the one having sex with multiple women, few sermons address Samson’s promiscuity, nor is he criticized within the text for this or for all of his acts of violence (65).
  6. Gafney describes Delilah as “grown”: a single, independent woman who is financially secure, which is a dangerous thing for the patriarchy (65).
    Since it seems Samson is living with Delilah in her house, can she say of her house like Destiny's Child, "I bought it"?

    Delilah uses her wit to outsmart Samson and uses his own arrogance against him. Gafney also points out that unlike most of the women in the Bible, Delilah makes it to the end of this story not only alive but free and much wealthier (70). [Another delightful comment from Gafney: "Using my sanctified imagination I hear Delilah singing 'Bitch Better have My Money" by Rihanna (Pierre et al. 2015)" (70).] Delilah is not punished for her role in Samson’s death or forced to be under the authority of a man. Gafney’s fantastic conclusion to this article is that “Delilah is not tamed by her text. She is not rewarded with marriage or children. She does not need them. She can support herself. Delilah is free. She exits the text on her own terms. Like a boss” (71). 

Works Cited

Gafney, Wil. “A Womanist Midrash of Delilah: Don’t Hate the Playa Hate the Game” in Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse. Edited by Byron, Gay L., and Vanessa Lovelace. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.


This is part of my final project for "Womanist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.":

Key Terms in Womanist Bible Interpretation

Other essay summaries:

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