The triumph of patriarchy: from matrilocal to patrilocal marriage—Samson

September 28, 2010

Samson  (Judges 13-16) had three sexual/romantic liaisons, all with Philistine women (the Philistines being the Israelites’ arch-enemies during the later period of Judges before Saul and David became kings). In each case, the hero goes to live in the woman’s household. Each case ends in catastrophe for the man and, ultimately, for the Philistines, too (for “this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel” Judges 14:4).

But the editors who put these stories together had more on their minds than moral lessons about sexual discipline and maturity (which is the angle most biblical scholars use in discussing the saga). These stories are running on almost every channel of human and theological concern, in addition to the personal/psychological/moral—religious tradition, politics, military conduct and sacred warfare, justice, and social custom. In terms of marriage, the story of Samson seeks to decisively demonstrate what happens when an Israelite betrays his patriarchal traditions for a matrilocal marriage.

Samson’s first marriage, to a Philistine woman from Timnah, doesn’t even survive the wedding party, which traditionally lasted seven days. In a scene reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’s first encounter with Gollum in The Hobbit (I suspect Tolkien mined the story for his own), Samson poses a riddle which fails to properly follow form and to which only he has the answer. His wife wheedles the answer out of him in bed and betrays him, Samson goes berserk, and Philistine blood flows.

For his second tryst, Samson visits a ‘harlot’ in Gaza. Now ‘harlot’ and ‘whoring’ were favorite metaphors for idolatry in the hands of biblical traditionalists, especially the prophets. The entire book of Hosea is predicated on this image. Harlots in the Bible were very often not sex workers but priestesses, in a mythico-religious culture in which creation was effected through divine procreation, and fertility of humans, herds and fields was ensured through sacred sexual relations between rulers and priestesses, as we discussed in the post on the patriarchs and matriarchs. The Philistines conspire to fall upon Samson at the city gate in the morning, when he leaves the bed of this ‘harlot’; the plaza before the city gates was both threshing floor for the community and where court was held. Samson surprises them by getting up in the middle of the night, dismantling the gates (with his bare hands!) and carrying them to a nearby hillside, where he apparently set them up as a sacrificial altar. It looks like he conquered the city.

It’s the story of Samson and Delilah, however, that has really captured the popular imagination. Here the mythology gets really thick, too involved to do justice in a blog post. But here are some of the bare bones: The name Samson means “Son of the Son,” a solar deity epithet of Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian hero, whose story has been thoroughly mined for the plot. Delilah was almost certainly a priestess of Astarte, the ancient Mesopotamian great goddess. Samson was a Nazirite, a warrior berserker sworn to Yahweh’s service, prohibited from drinking wine, having sex, touching corpses and cutting his hair. Samson systematically does all of these things.

The story of Samson is the tale of what happens when a man (or a people) consecrated to Yahweh abandons his (their) sacred covenant. They end up prisoners and slaves. And a tale of what happens when he (they) return to Yahweh: they are released, though they may pay an awful price. When Samson violates the last of his Nazirite vows and his hair is cut, God abandons him. The Philistines put out his eyes and chain him in a dungeon, and then drag him out to make sport of during a religious festival. But Samson prays for his strength one more time and brings the temple down on “all the rulers of the Philistines,” and on himself as well.

He is the last biblical figure to practice matrilocal marriage. The message concerning marriage is: that’s how the pagans do it; Yahweh doesn’t like it. Admittedly, this is a minor theme in a saga full of lessons, but it serves to close the door on the last vestige of matriarchal tradition in the evolving testimony of the Bible on marriage. Until Jesus comes along, that is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s