Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Keeping up Appearances: The Impossibility of Samson’s Heterosexual Performance

When Adriaan van Klinken invited me a few years ago to contribute to a Dutch edited volume with queer readings of the Bible, one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to engage in Biblical cruising, that is, trying to find any gays—or lesbians, or bisexuals, or transgender people—in the Bible. Such seemed to me both anachronistic and boring. After some preliminary explorations, I decided I wanted to write about Samson, the strong, long-haired warrior hero in the book of Judges (13–16) who had always fascinated me. But I didn’t yet know exactly what a queer reading of this story would look like—after all, wasn’t Samson, instead of being a queer character, actually a prototype of heterosexual machismo? But I had the feeling that some rather queer things were going on in the Samson narrative. After having finished this chapter in a Dutch popular volume,[1] I kept reading more literature and further developed my thoughts, resulting in the publication of a more substantial article in the academic journal Biblical Interpretation.[2] Let me first summarize its argument in order to make some general remarks about queer readings of the Bible.

On the face of it, Samson seems to be a hypermasculine, libido-driven hero. As a Nazirite—a cultic status of special devotion to YHWH—he is supposed to liberate the Israelites from the Philistines. But instead he is following his sexual desires for women, especially among the “uncircumcised” Philistines (Judges 14:3). Yet it often doesn’t work out the way he wanted and expected: before his wedding with a Philistine woman has come to an end—such a wedding usually took a couple of days and the groom would have sexual intercourse with his bride only at the end of it—his male Philistine companions have succeeded to solve the riddle he had posed to them. Samson knew his riddle was impossible to solve, but his companions had succeeded by asking his bride for help. As the ability to solve a riddle was a proof of (often sexual) maturity, the companions implicitly question Samson’s sexual maturity. They evoke in him great vengeance and furious anger.

Such outbursts occur several times in the narrative. But why does Samson feel the need to prove his masculinity if this is just “what all boys do”? Because he has never been—and never wants to be—“like the other boys.” He has never been such because of what I take as his queer origins: as a Nazirite from birth he has a set-apart status and, as his “father” Manoah doesn’t seem to play a role in his conception, Samson’s gendered identity is unstable from the very beginning. On the other hand, he never wants to be like the other men: he wants to be exceptional—not as a Nazirite, however, but as a strong man who gets laid with women and who successfully fights with Philistine men. Instead of merely leaving his hair uncut as a sign of his special status as a Nazirite, Samson had cultivated his hair and had turned it into a symbol of his masculine exceptionality and superiority.

There are many sexual innuendos throughout the story, but I consider Samson’s encounter with Delilah particularly interesting. For it is in this encounter that Samson’s “heterosexuality” starts to implode and, to use a phrase by Teresa Hornsby and Ken Stone,[3] finally dissolves back into queerness. As Delilah has a name and a voice, she is more powerful than the two women Samson has previously shown interest in. Her aim is to weaken Samson’s strength and then hand him over to the Philistine men, who want to put an end to the destruction and death Samson spreads in Philistia. Although there are several indications that Samson is aware of Delilah’s intentions, it doesn’t keep him from playing with her. As she asks ritual questions, binds him several times and finally shaves his hair, the scene has several characteristics of a bondage game. While “natural” sexuality centers around male genital penetration of a woman—which is what Samson had so far shown interest in—BDSM is a queer practice because it involves the eroticization of other body parts than the genitals and because the power dynamics are more ironic and less stereotypically gendered. After Samson has provided (partly false, partly true) answers to Delilah’s repeated question, he finally confesses that if his hair is cut, he will lose his strength—and that’s what happens. As he had turned his long hair from a sign of his Naziriteship into a phallic symbol, the cutting of his hair symbolizes his castration. The reason why Samson plays this bondage game with Delilah and why he finally reveals his secret, is that this mysterious and powerful woman has made him unable or unwilling to continue keeping up his “heterosexual” appearance.

One of the aims of my article is to show the value of focusing on the construction of Samson’s masculinity. This fits in a recent growing interest in the study of masculinities among Biblical scholars in general.[4] A few decades ago, feminist scholars such as Mieke Bal[5] and Cheryl Exum[6] have argued that the female characters in the Samson narrative are victims of male violence (by Samson, other Israelite men and the Philistine men) and that they have been negatively depicted by the narrator and negatively evaluated by many interpreters (esp. Delilah as a femme fatale). I agree with most of this, but the problem is that they hardly pay any attention to Samson, the construction of his masculinity, and the numerous men he slaughters. I have argued that Samson’s sexual “interest” in women and his violence against men are interrelated as being two operations of his libido dominandi. This results in the creation of a dichotomy between the Philistines and the Israelites—a dichotomy which is neither created by the narrator nor affirmed by YHWH (contra e.g. Bal, Exum and Lazarewicz-Wyrzykowska), but created by Samson through his performance of a hypermasculinity. He sees himself as the male representative of the Israelites, who penetrates the (“feminine”) cities of Philistia—including a “deflowering” of Gaza by taking away the doors of its city gate. The Philistines are primarily represented by the two nameless and speechless women Samson has shown interest in. Philistine men do play a role in the story, but Samson renders them inferior in matters of sexuality and he turns violent when they question his sexual maturity. It is Samson who creates the dichotomies of male vs. female, active vs. passive, strong vs. weak etc. His excessive gender performance and his use of violence originate from his inability or unwillingness to accept his queer positionality.

Put differently—and a little provocatively—I think the Samson narrative can be read as a kind of anticipatory critique of “heterosexuality”. It shows how Samson performs his “heterosexuality”; that his “heterosexuality” is not a “natural given”; that it produces—and is produced by—interrelated gendered, sexual and ethnic dichotomies; and that it results in different types of violence against both women and men. Here, I think, lies one of the values of queer readings of the Bible. Such readings are not created from a strong identity, but from the experience of a queer positionality—queer as a characterization of all kinds of possible non-heterosexual desires, practices and belongings. To read the encounter between Samson and Delilah as a bondage game[7] is also the fruit of a queer approach. Queer readings of the Bible do not necessarily or primarily seek to affirm a modern (marginalized) identity or to enable identification for a particular group of modern (marginalized) readers. Instead of, or in addition to, focusing on Biblical characters from marginalized groups (e.g. women, queers and/or foreigners), a gender-critical analysis of characters on top of social hierarchies (e.g. men, “straight” persons and/or Israelites/Jews) could affect a deconstruction of essentialized identities and their related dualisms and dichotomies. As Samson is a character whose gendered and sexual identity develops throughout the narrative, the Samson narrative is particularly fit for such a queer reading.

  1. Marco Derks, “Als de zon ondergaat: de deconstructie van Simsons ‘heteroseksualiteit’ naar aanleiding van Rechters 16, 4–22,” in Onder de regenboog: de bijbel queer gelezen, Adriaan van Klinken and Nienke Pruiksma, eds. (Vught: Skandalon, 2010), 29–44. [Return to text]
  2. Marco Derks, “‘If I Be Shaven Then My Strength Will Go from Me’: A Queer Reading of the Samson Narrative,” Biblical Interpretation 23:4-5 (2015), 553–73. [Return to text]
  3. Teresa Hornsby and Ken Stone, “Already Queer: A Preface,” in Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, Teresa Hornsby and Ken Stone, eds. (Leiden: Brill, 2011), ix–xiv. [Return to text]
  4. Ovidiu Creangă, ed., Men and Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010); Creangă, Ovidiu and Peter-Ben Smit, eds., Biblical Masculinities Foregrounded (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014); Ovidiu Creangă, Adriaan van Klinken, Jorunn Økland, and Peter-Ben Smit, eds, “Making Men: The Reception of the Bible in the Construction of Masculinities in Jewish and Christian Con/Texts,” Special issue of Journal of the Bible and its Reception 2:2 (2015); Ela Lazarewicz-Wyrzykowska, “Samson’s Masculinity in Terms of Male Honour,” in Men and Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond, Ovidiu Creangă, ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010), 171–88. [Return to text]
  5. Mieke Bal, Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). [Return to text]
  6. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives (Sheffield: JSOT, 1993); Cheryl Exum, Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 1996). [Return to text]
  7. Lori Rowlett, “Violent Femmes and S/M: Queering Samson and Delilah,” in Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible, Ken Stone, ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 106–15. [Return to text]