(This post was first shared on feminismandreligion.com)
The story of the woman from Timnah, Samson’s first wife – found in the Hebrew Bible, Judges 14:1-15:6 – is often interpreted as yet another wickedly seductive woman who distracts and confuses the heroic judge, preventing him from enacting the deity’s will. I remember the first time I questioned this interpretation: I was an undergraduate student teaching a youth bible study.I asked the high school students in the room what they thought about the Timnah woman and how we might understand the story differently if we read it from her perspective. Neither the students nor I had any idea how to answer these questions because we did not know how to see Samson as anything but a hero.
In her groundbreaking work, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman points out that it is impossible for bystanders to remain morally neutral in cases of traumatic events. However, especially in cases of violence against women, our society is biased towards the perpetrator, requiring the victims to not only explain their painful experiences but also to refute the silence, denial, and rationalization of the perpetrators. In addition, the victim asks much more from bystanders than does the perpetrator. Whereas victims ask for action, engagement, and remembrance, the perpetrator requires that the bystander do nothing. Herman’s work is significant in this context because our societal norms affect how we understand narratives and determine which morals we take from the biblical text.
While it is a prevalent view in the academy and church, I think the interpretation of Samson as the victim in this narrative is wrong. This becomes clearer when one assesses Samson’s actions when women are absent and considers the text from the woman’s perspective. Some of Samson’s actions in Judges 14 that do not occur when the Timnah woman is around to “lure” him from his divine path include: walking through vineyards, touching unclean carcasses, and participating in non-Israelite cultural traditions (i.e. drinking parties). As a Nazirite, Samson was not supposed to interact with impure things like wine, grapes, and dead bodies (Num. 6:1-21). It is odd that someone who should not be eating grapes would be walking through a vineyard (Judg. 14:5); that someone who was supposed to stay away from dead bodies would scoop honey from a carcass (Judg.14:9); and that someone who is supposed to refrain from intoxicants would participate in a drinking party (Judg. 14:10). It is clear that Samson was not an upright judge, and that loose women were not the primary cause of his unrighteous behavior.
When one considers this text from the Timnah woman’s view, Samson is much different from the hero often portrayed. First of all, she does not seem to have a choice when it comes to marrying Samson. Samson demands that his parents get her for him, which shows Samson did not intend to discuss the matter with anyone, let alone his future fiancé (Judg. 14:2). However, even if Samson had asked politely, his physical strength was intimidating and disagreeing with him or denying him what he wants could be fatal. Secondly, she is threatened by her own countrymen to entice Samson into sharing the answer to his “riddle” (Judg. 14:2). Her “seduction” of Samson in verses 16 and 17 is not to gain personal power over Samson; it is for the purpose of prolonging her life (Judg. 14:16-17). Lastly, she is blamed for Samson’s wild temper tantrum that results in the destruction of the grain, grape, and olive crops, presumably Philistine people, and 300 foxes (Judg. 15:3-5). Her punishment for being given to another man – probably also not her choice, if her first engagement is considered – and inciting Samson’s wrath, is a torturous death by fire (Judges 15:6). There is very little space within the textual account to suggest she had much control over the situation, let alone the ability to influence Samson for her own wicked purposes. It is much more likely that she is not the perpetrator, but the victim.
I understand the Timnah woman to be the victim – viewing contrary interpretations as erroneous – and in my painting choose to appropriate the textual and interpretive symbols of Samson’s victimhood to emphasize the injustice of the common erroneous interpretations. These symbols come from the end of Samson’s life, when he can justifiably be labeled a victim (Judg. 16:18-30), as opposed to his interaction with the Timnah woman. Samson’s strength to control his own fate comes from his hair; when his hair is cut his agency is removed. Since the Timnah woman had little control of her life – whom she would marry and to whom she would listen – in my painting, she is portrayed with short hair. After Samson’s hair is cut he is blinded, so the Timnah woman’s eyes are not visible. Samson is portrayed as fighting against his perpetrators in one final effort by pushing against the Philistine temple columns, whereas the Timnah woman is pushing against the box as though the vertical sides are columns. She is also portrayed in a twisted position to show her struggle, despite her lack of available alternatives.
The box surrounding the woman from Timnah represents any and all aspects of the biblical text and interpretation that have limited her. The colors of the box surrounding Samson’s first wife are blue, purple, and red. As mentioned in my previous post, blue is the representation of patriarchal influence on her experience, the textual account, and textual interpreters. Purple – because of its royal associations – represents unequal power relationship between the Timnah woman and Samson. The red represents the flames Samson sets to the Philistine crops that then result in the flames set to the Timnah woman’s house and body.
It is only by acknowledging the bias our society has towards male perpetrators that we can learn from stories like the Timnah woman’s narrative. Instead of a traditional moral like “stay vigilant against temptation,” this narrative calls us to action, engagement, and remembrance on behalf of both ancient and modern victims.