Samson and Delilah

Samson’s father was an Israelite named Manoah. Manoah was an intellectual and a man of peace. He believed the troubles between his people and the Philistines could be solved through …

Illustration by Phil Ashcroft

Samson’s father was an Israelite named Manoah. Manoah was an intellectual and a man of peace. He believed the troubles between his people and the Philistines could be solved through non-violence, so when a Philistine baited him – smacking him in the back of the neck – he would look at his tormentor with this “I pity you” look on his face. In this way, he felt he was initiating social change.

Samson was not given to thoughts of peace. Punching and throwing things around was his natural way. It wasn’t that he was bad; it was just that he was blessed with a great strength that needed continual venting. It was always that way. During his first few seconds of life, he bit the midwife’s finger with a force that caused her to bleed and cry out, “That little bastard!” At five, he could chop wood with the side of his hand, and at seven, he was able to wrestle a horse to the ground. For Samson, acts of brutishness were like what whistling was to a musical genius – something deep inside that had to come out. Kicking a camel in the stomach and watching it fall to its knees was like hitting a high C.

Manoah was embarrassed by his son’s feats of strength.

He found them oafish.

“If you sat down and read a book, then I would be impressed,” his father said.

When he was growing up, Samson wanted to be an angel. Partly it was because he thought it might make his father like him more, but also because he had heard about the feats of strength that angels pulled off – dragging an elephant off an old man’s foot, etc. – so being an angel seemed to be the best of both worlds. You could kick ass in the name of peace.

His mother had told him about a nice angel she’d met just before he was born.

“What is your name?” his mother asked the angel.

“It’s nothing you can pronounce,” the angel said.

The angel then told his mother that she would give birth to a special boy who would be as strong as a mountain.

“That’s what he said,” swore Samson’s mother. “A mountain.”

At the age of twelve, Samson went to the market with his father and found a man’s money purse on the ground. Samson scooped up the purse and rifled through it. Suddenly, his father was upon him, producing a little stick, which he broke over his son’s skull.

“I wasn’t stealing,” cried Samson.

Samson did not know if that was true or not. He hadn’t had time to think. People were looking at him. His head was hurting. He wanted to lift his father in the air and dash him against the earth. It was not the kind of thought that angels had.

Samson began thinking less and less about being an angel and concentrated more on what he was truly good at. As an adult, when he looked back upon the day at the market, he would think that that is how you become a certain way. That is how you become who you are. He would not think this thought with sentimentality. He would think it while biting into a stick of celery.

At fifteen, Samson made a friend named Jason. Jason was a Philistine but he and Samson got along just fine. Jason was always full of helpful advice. He told Samson that it wasn’t enough to perform feats of strength; you had to distinguish yourself. He told Samson he would need a catchphrase. Jason made a few suggestions: “Bring on the pain,” “Load me up, boys,” and “I am stronger than a tree trunk, and you?”

“Any schmuck can yank a crocodile’s tail off,” said Jason, “but to make the people love you, that’s a gift.”

When working on gimmicks, the first idea that came to Samson was to grow his hair long. His mother, when recounting the story of the angel, would sometimes say he told her Samson was going to be a Nazarite. A Nazarite was a kind of holy man who was not allowed to touch dead people, drink booze, or cut his hair. The angel had told her all kinds of other things, too, most of which she forgot almost immediately, but Samson’s mother had resolved to raise her son like a proper Nazarite.

Samson’s father, who did not have much use for God and superstitions, had attributed his wife’s angelic vision to an attack of the nerves. He refused to have his son go about with the hair of a pony.

There was one summer, though, when Samson was in his thirteenth year, when his father was away travelling on business, that his bangs got long enough to fall into his eyes. He liked the way they felt there. He liked blowing them out of the way, because it gave him something to do when people looked at him. He wanted to keep growing his hair until it reached his chin, but when his father returned, he told Samson that he looked like a girl. Samson told his father that he didn’t care and his father slapped him on the nose.

So now, two years later and quite full-grown, Samson decided to grow his hair once again. This was in the days before barbarians, and it was not common to see a long-haired warrior. Fighters and strongmen commonly kept their hair short because they tended to crack things against their skulls, and, aesthetically speaking, it was more pleasing to see a vase shatter against a clean scalp.

As the months wore on, Samson took great satisfaction in the growth of his hair. Seeing it get longer really made him feel as if he was doing something; and it might have been only his imagination, but he did feel stronger. And who in his right mind would accuse him of looking like a girl now? His biceps were the size of thighs and his thighs the size of watermelons. He cracked pecans between his pectorals! His fingers, when rigid, were as lethal as daggers. (He had once stabbed a pig through the neck with his index finger, and the shock of how soft and wet it was in there caused him to withdraw with a high-pitched yip that startled the gathering crowd.)

In his father’s presence, he tied his hair back in a bun. Manoah thought it made Samson look like a certain great-aunt of his, an unenlightened woman whom he could never stand.

When Samson was eighteen he met a young Philistine named Delilah. She worked at the market selling eggs and knick-knacks. Delilah was a class act. She was demure!

“One must be careful with eggs,” she spoke in a hushed voice. “They are the fragile heart of the world.”

When Delilah danced and her skirts rose into the air, for Samson it was as if God was pounding Himself on the chest. It was as if the whole world was nothing, just a joke, and the only thing that mattered was Delilah’s legs. He adored her so much that he sometimes pretended he was Delilah. He said things that he could imagine Delilah saying, things that he thought were intelligent and poetic.

He thought about Delilah all the time. Sometimes he thought about her so fiercely that it felt as if his mighty head was going to crack right down the middle. He found himself buying sixty to seventy eggs a week, and he pretended it was Delilah who had laid them, that she had kept each egg warmed beneath her buttocks, waiting for Samson to taste them. Eating her eggs made him feel close to her. He would crack each one into his mouth and let it leak down his throat.

When he saw Delilah, mostly all he could do was smile because when he spoke, only nonsense came out. Yet when he was alone in the fields near his home, he grew bold. He would swear his love to her while holding onto the bangs of his hair with his fists. “I love you, Delilah,” he would say, his arms wrapped around a tree. He would say it over and over, getting a little louder each time until the tree snapped. Speaking those words made him drunk.

Eventually, Samson came up with an idea to win Delilah’s heart: he would show up at the market and perform feats of strength. He and Jason set up the operation directly across from her stand, and all the while, during his performances, he looked her right in the eye. A part of him knew it was a pretty immature thing to do, but he didn’t know what else he had to offer.

So Samson would drag a baby elephant to the market and struggle with the poor animal before raising it over his head. As he performed, people gathered around to watch. He would scan the crowd to make sure his father was not present, then he would stick out his stomach and try to get his footing right. Next, he would haul the calf over his head and look right at Delilah, to see what she made of the whole thing. As Samson looked at her, he tried to fill his mind with the greatest, most beautiful things so that maybe she would see greatness and beauty in his eyes. As he watched her, the elephant held high in the air, he thought about running his hands up her legs. He thought about kissing her.

He continued his act in the market and made nice money out of it, too. At the end of each day he would hand all of the money to his father and his father would just stare at him blankly as though deep in thought about something political.

Samson often wondered what it was that made a man strong. As big as he was, there were men who were bigger, yet he was the strongest. There was just something inside him that pushed harder than anyone else. But what was that something? Was it an angel? An angel who was struggling to get himself out of there? An angel who was dying of frustration?

Yes, he was strong, but he was not as strong as people thought he was. The crowds who gathered to watch always figured Samson was holding a little something back. Holding something back was the way of the strongman. The strongman doled out a feat of strength here and there, always keeping you guessing. He made you feel that his greatest tour de force was yet to come, careful not to blow his load too soon. The truth was that Samson had nearly given himself a hernia when he lifted up the platform of twelve men. In the middle of the performance, he felt his balls drop and his spine become an uncertain worm. If Delilah had not been present, he would have started crying.

Samson talked about Delilah to his friend Jason all the time. He told him Delilah was a peephole to God, that Delilah was what music looked like. He tried to get Jason to agree.

“She’s all right,” Jason would say.

Samson begged Jason to tell him stories about Delilah because Jason was a storyteller. Jason invented long, complex epics about Delilah, the things she ate, the places she went. Samson would get all excited. He would lie on his stomach, his feet criss-crossed above him.

One day, Samson decided to start sending Jason to Delilah’s. He was too shy to speak with her, but Jason had a gift with words.

“Go forth and tell her of the deeds of good strength I have performed to honour her. Speak of the falcon whose beak I bit off, but make it sound like poetry.”

Jason, who loved Samson, did as his friend bid him. While he sat with Delilah, he would play his lyre. He would make up songs about the great things that Samson did.

“You play some lyre,” said Delilah.

As their visits together went on, Delilah and Jason saw that they had a great deal in common. They both loved traditional Philistine folk ballads and found avocado pits, when clutched in one’s hand, to be of inexplicable comfort. They began to speak less of Samson, and more of Jason and Delilah.

While Jason was with Delilah, Samson waited anxiously, curling great weights to pass the time. On one evening, after a particularly long visit with Delilah, Samson ambushed his friend along the road home.

“What did she say?” asked Samson.

“She is mightily impressed,” said Jason.

“Does she love me yet?” asked Samson.

“No, but she likes you, though. A lot. As a friend. She told me that underneath all the tough-guy antics you’re probably a big softy.”

“That is true,” said Samson. “What else did she say?”

Jason looked at him for a couple seconds.

“She said she loves me. And I love her. We want to wed.”

As matter-of-factly as he would lace up a sandal, Samson wrapped his long hair around Jason’s neck and slowly strangled his friend to death.

It was after killing Jason that Samson started to change. He moved out of his father’s house and became less satisfied with lifting and maiming animals. He felt it was time to move on to people. Philistine people. Some Israelites had approached him in the past about leading their uprising.

“You’re a Jew, Samson,” the emissaries would tell him.

“Come let us conquer the land of the uncircumcised.”

“No, thank you,” Samson would say. “I have no beef with the Philistines. They treat me just fine.”

He knew his father would fly off the handle if he saw Samson so much as talking to one of those “uprising” guys.

Now, though, he decided he wanted to deliver the Jews.

When asked about the change of heart, he would say, “Personal reasons.” Samson was not a political animal. He just wanted to hit people, hard enough to make them die. It would be like making Jason die again and again. Once was not enough.

News of Samson’s godlike power spread like wild. He was no longer a sideshow. He became famous. Men would pat his arms, nod, and say, “Nice,” while women longed to know him in the Biblical sense. (It was rumoured that even when Samson’s penis was half-flaccid, it was strong enough for a woman to perch on like a bird on a branch.)

Samson, for his part, spent most of his leisure time just sitting back and pondering all that he could kill. He’d look upon a man or beast and think of how long it would take to rob the creature of its life. Old man – four seconds; bear – three-quarters of an hour. At night he would dream of pushing his foot right through the chest of a Philistine and removing it like he was taking off a leather slipper.

Killing became a kind of therapy for Samson. This one looks like that teacher who called me lunk-headed; this one looks like my father. He lifted that man up to his face by the beard so he could spit in his eye. At such times, Samson felt as if he was working things out.

Unfortunately, his murdering only exacerbated his problems, which made him more murderous. He felt he was chipping away at one big enemy, but the more he chipped, the bigger it grew.

It was while Samson was in the market of Timnath buying ointments to apply to his massive, battle-wearied muscles that he met up with Delilah. She was on a road trip and was buying bread.

“Samson of the long hair,” she said sneaking up beside him. “How goes it?”

He felt his great skull-sized knees start to buckle. It was as though something inside him that he’d thought was dead had crawled out to face him. An angel. He stood before her, stammering, until Delilah smiled and told him she had a splinter and would he be so kind as to carry her to her inn.

Samson’s hands floated out from his sides. He placed his thumbs under Delilah’s armpits, which were warm and soft. He lifted her slowly off the ground until she was eye-level with him. He walked forward like a somnambulist. He stared into her eyes without blinking. She giggled and told him not to be silly, and he placed her on his shoulders. She spread her legs wide around the back of his tree-trunk neck. She rode him in silence. After a while, she gritted her teeth, swallowing down the vomit rising in her throat, and ran her hand through his knotted hair.

She knows all that I think, Samson thought.Even now. And even now.

The first time they made love, Delilah felt as if she was being dug away, that when he was finished there would be nothing left of her. Samson smelled like live chickens and saliva. The tips of his greasy hair poked her face. When he was done, Samson lay beside her, his hands behind his head, exposing his armpits.

“What is the secret of your strength?” asked Delilah. She said it quickly. She was impatient. She wanted revenge for Jason’s death. She wanted revenge for her people – all of this before passing out from the stink of him.

Samson considered telling her the story of his mother and the angel, but he did not want to get all serious so fast. He was aware of how intense he could be, and he decided to keep it in check. He knew that once he got started, he would never be able to shut up, pouring out his heart about everything: how he hates his father, how he can’t stop thinking about Jason, how he’s loved her so long that he feels, at this moment, that he could simply die of happiness. Just thinking about all those things, how true they were, made him feel like he was going to cry. So instead, he went for playful.

“I do not know the source of my strength, but I do know that if I were ever made the marshal in a parade, that would be the end of it.”

“Who told you this?” asked Delilah.

“An old weird-looking woman,” said Samson. “She had a limp.”

That evening Delilah met with her cohorts at the tavern. She told them what she had learned.

“It makes sense,” said Delilah. “If we honour him, it will throw a ray of light onto him and the gods will become jealous.”

“Killing a thousand men in battle hasn’t gotten the gods’ attention?” asked Delilah’s brother, Potifar.

The Philistines arranged for a parade to honour their mighty enemy. There was to be a marching band and even a banner that would read “May the gods anoint Samson.”

There were to be lyre players, snake charmers, mimics, and women gyrating their hips.

They marched to Samson’s front door, whereupon Samson moved swiftly among their ranks, from musician, to juggler, to belly dancer, slaughtering indiscriminately using only his feet, fists, and the jaw bone from the ass he was in the midst of munching. He bit their fingers and roundhouse-kicked their genitals.

“Let the smiting rain down like morning dew,” cried Samson, twirling two old men around by their beards.

Delilah turned away from the slaughter and looked up to the heavens. It was a clear, cloudless day. She was wondering if her family had made it away safely when she saw Samson stop dead in his tracks in front of her.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

The next morning, Samson showed up at their love nest, a bullock draped over his shoulder like a shawl.

“I brought us some grub,” he said.

Delilah watched Samson tear into the animal.

“You know, during your attack you broke my grandfather’s hip.”

“What did he look like? I never forget the face of one I have punished with my fists.”

“He has white hair. He looks like an old man.”

“Does he scream like a girl? There was an old-timer who had screams that tickled my ears.”

Killing people was making Samson number by the second. He liked it that way. He wanted to get so numb that he would no longer be able to hear the voices of the people he had killed, which haunted him nightly, or the chastising voice of his father, who had disavowed and disowned him. Even when he thought back to the last time he saw his father, out in the market, and how the old man had slapped him across the lips in front of everyone, he could not get worked up. The only thing that Samson got worked up about was Delilah. When she touched his face, he felt as though a sparrow’s wing had gotten under his flesh.

Again, Delilah asked her question. She asked it angrily. “What is the secret of your great strength?”

“It is my hatred of the Philistines that makes me strong. Aside from you, they bring out the worst in me. Just thinking about them makes my bowels watery.”

“Do you mean that if you did not hate the Philistines you would lose your strength?”

“Who knows?” said Samson. “Anything’s possible.”

Delilah set aside her anger, which was great, in order to win Samson over with the splendour of her kinsmen.

“The Philistines are a gentle, scholarly people,” she said.

“My brother Potifar weeps when he sees dead birds.”

“He will weep all the more when I bludgeon his skull with the heel of my foot.”

“My cousin Stephan prays each day for peace,” said Delilah.

“He had better pray for a speedy death, for when my sandal enters his kneeling arse he will wish he had never been born.”

“My great-uncle Serge plays a pan pipe that would bring tears to your eyes.”

“I will make Jewish his penis with my teeth,” spoke Samson.

As the weeks wore on, Delilah continued to bug Samson for his secret. After he told her that carrots were his weakness, he awoke the next morning to find carrots sticking out of every orifice on his body. When he told her that it was the Earth’s sun that fuelled him, he awoke the next morning to find himself in a pitch-black catacomb. He had to scrape his way out with his fingernails and toenails.

It was after eleven of these unfortunate events that Samson finally allowed himself to see what was happening. It was his sick love of Delilah that had been keeping him so deluded: Delilah had to be involved in the attempts on his life. All the coincidences that had been happening lately were just too odd to dismiss. And yet he simply could not allow himself to think that one he loved so much could possibly be acting as an agent of his destruction. What kind of unlovable monster would that make him? He pushed the thought from his head and continued to defer, offering Delilah jokes and lies instead of the truth. But, in the end, he was forced to confront her.

“Delilah, if I tell you the secret of my strength, I fear you will use it against me. I am not the smartest of men, but I do know that something is amiss.”

“Pranks of the gods,” she said. “Even the spirits try to tear us apart.

“It’s just so weird,” said Samson.

“You do like me?” she asked.

“I would tie my own tongue in a bow for you,” he answered.

“My being a Philistine doesn’t change anything, right?”

“Sometimes it makes me feel like a hypocrite, what with the way I murder you guys, but nothing could ever make me love you less.”

“Would you do anything for me?”

“I would walk through walls of fire for you.”

“Then tell me what makes you so strong. There is an old Philistine saying, ‘The truth will make you grow stronger.’”

Samson undid his ponytail and leaned back in bed. His hair fanned out across the pillow like the tail of a peacock.

Because of the drugs, Samson fell into a deep, deep sleep, and when he awoke, and opened his eyes and saw only darkness, his first thought was that he was buried alive again. He reached out his arms to begin scratching away at the dirt, but there was no dirt. He felt nothing. He stood up. His head hurt. He rubbed it and felt the stubble. He closed and opened his eyes. Carefully, he started to walk. He heard a giggle and swung out his arms. Then he felt the tip of his nose burned by fire. The giggle got louder. The fire was held to his lips, and then to his fingers. In the darkness, he could feel the fire burning his skin; he just could not see it.

He reached his hands up to his eyes, but his eyes were not there. The giggles turned into screams of laughter. It was as if his eyes were somewhere in the darkness, laughing at him.

When the impossible idea of his blindness finally sank in, Samson screeched like an eagle. It was the kind of screech he used to make when he was a little kid and his father was beating him unjustly. He would not have ever guessed he could still make sounds like that.

Samson was blind for only a few weeks before he forgot what the world looked like. He could no longer even recall what faces were. When he heard voices, he could only envision swirling rings of gas. He lay on the ground, clutching his forehead and crying. Sometimes he thought he heard laughter. Sometimes he thought he felt the tip of a finger on his back. He would flip around and slice his arms through the darkness, touching nothing.

In the gloom, old memories clawed at him. Once, when he was twelve, while out walking through the desert with his parents, a lion descended from the mountains, hungry for blood. To protect them all, Samson threw himself upon the lion. Even as he risked his life, he could not resist thinking of how stupid he must have appeared in his father’s eyes – rolling about in the sand, grunting through his nose. He was showing no dignity. At the end of the long battle, Samson tore open the lion’s stomach and revealed there to be honey inside. It was just like in a dream, how he reached in his hand and offered some to his father from the tips of his fingers. His father told him that it wasn’t honey, that his hands were covered in blood. Samson looked down and saw that his father was right. He couldn’t understand how he could have been so impossibly wrong about something so obvious. Often he would think his father was nearby in the darkness and he would try to keep himself from crying, but it was no use.

Even when he was a kid, Samson hated being alone. Now, in the dark, he was terrified that he would be alone forever. It was after just six imprisoned weeks that Samson pretty much lost the whole of his mind. It turned out that he was just that sort of guy.

In the darkness, he believed he was visited by God.

“You have spent your life making an ass of yourself,” said the Lord, “but you have done so in a most interesting way.”

God kissed Samson’s forehead and threw him into the air, where Samson flapped around and turned into a light that was pure and blinding. The brightness of the light that he was made his teeth hurt. He could not turn himself off! But he was free. The angel inside him had finally escaped.

When two guards showed up and dragged Samson out the door by his feet and into the sun, he thought he was being flown to heaven by angels. The guards brought him to the king’s court, where a party was in full swing. They dragged him before the king and bound his arms to pillars.

“Your short hair makes your face look fat,” said the king.

Samson thought that he was standing at the gates of heaven, and that the king was God. That God would be so cruel made sense to him. He tried to kneel, but his bound arms kept him upright.

Standing there, Samson no longer wanted to think upon his old life. Now, he only wanted to get into heaven. Again, he pulled at the pillars, trying to force his knees onto the ground, to supplicate himself, but his attempts were in vain.

Then he heard the sound of lips smacking.

The sound came from nearby, but Samson could not match the sound to any particular thing. It sounded as if the universe was being sucked up. It sounded as if the gates of heaven were being sealed. The sound came from Delilah’s lips, which were kissing the chest of her lover. She pulled herself away from his arms and stepped up to the bound man.

“I have always hated you,” she spoke, her mouth full of grapes.

Delilah then punched Samson directly on the belly button.

“That is for everything,” she said.

Samson’s eye sockets became wide, and you could see right into the blackness in his head. He lunged his chest forth and the pillars shook; they began to give, imperceptibly at first, but then, with each tug, more and more. He felt the ground beneath his feet tremble. Then he heard cracking sounds and the laughing turned to shrieking. Samson continued to thrust himself forward. He wanted to feel Delilah’s touch once more.

Jonathan Goldstein