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.
Melinda Bielas is currently a Masters of Arts student at Claremont School of Theology in Interdisciplinary Studies, focusing on Hebrew Bible and Feminist Theory. Art is a significant aspect of her interpretation process and you can see more of her art at mindypaints.weebly.com. She graduated from La Sierra University with a BA in Religious Studies and Pre-Seminary as well as a Masters of Theological Studies. When she is not studying or painting she enjoys playing with her cat and practicing her harp
16 thoughts on “Painting Women from Judges – Part 2: The Woman from Timnah Reframed by Melinda Bielas”
This story has been very helpful to me.
If Timnah saw herself as a passive consumer in her society (by consumer I mean someone who is simply given a set of goods/situations and then has to accept it), as someone who was denied the opportunity of building or contributing to a society of her choosing, then perhaps it wasn’t so very difficult for her to contribute to its demolition.
Great post! Excellent painting! I always thought Samson was a muscle-bound jerk. Of course, that may be because to this day, I see him (if I see him at all) as the hero of the 1949 Cecil B. DeMille movie starring Victor Mature, not one of the world’s best actors. Guess what–in the movie they gave the wife a name. Semadar. Who is the actress? Angela Lansbury. Mind-blowing! The poster’s a real killer–Hedy Lamarr’s breasts are almost totally exposed, Victor’s got her in what must be some sort of wrestling hold. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041838/
Can we just erase Samson from the Bible?
That’s some sexy/sexist poster! Yikes! I guess it had to be a Biblical movie in 1950 to get that explicit.
We actually watched that movie in one of my classes during our final session. It was very fascinating how they retell the story, how they hyper-sexualize Delilah, and make Samson the hero and Delilah the shallow, jealous, manipulative partner. Whatever you thought of the movie, the Samson of the text doesn’t come across very well either. I was very surprised during my researching process when I could find nothing on the woman from Timnah that didn’t blame her for seducing Samson!
If we taught youth bible study like this, there would be a lot more young people in our churches!
I remember resenting bible teachers of my youth when I first got to college and realized they hadn’t taught me how to think about the text critically or ask the difficult questions. In my experience of teaching groups now, people in the churches get excited when you show them how to discuss their sacred texts in critical ways. They find it engaging and interesting and applicable to their lives.
Thanks Melinda, enjoyed your painting of Timnah, like someone who can think outside the box!!
Melinda, thanks for this interesting post. For me the most important part was your description of Judith Hermann’s work. A friend of mine has been talking about this book for years, but reading your post, I now know I have to pick it up. Your succinct summary of her findings holds so many realizations about how violence against women works in this culture: “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.” I.e. not only does the victim have to explain what happened to her, she has to vindicate herself in the face of the perpetrator’s lies AND besides that, a victim necessitates that “bystanders” DO something, while the perpetrator just wants acquiescence and silence. Pfew! The first part of this analysis has always been clear to me, but the second half is where this analysis opened up new understandings for me. Thanks!
I am so glad! Thank you!
Melinda, I just have to ask why you focus on the Hebrew Bible. Having read much of it myself, it seems to me that you will have a lot of female victims you can analyze. But describing and analyzing victimhood only gets us so far as feminists. Of course, patriarchy victimizes us. But despite that we have survived and sometimes even thrived. For me, it’s more important to focus on our agency and see how we can move into the future as strong women. Perhaps there are other reasons for this focus?
Nancy V-S, who’s your favorite female character in the Bible?- For me, it’s Martha – she’s the only one who truly speaks her mind to everybody and anybody!!
These days my favorite female character in the Bible is Eve. I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching her pre-patriarchal roots as the “Mother of All Living,” composed a song about her, and told her story. Bu when I was a (Christian) child, it was Mary, sister of Martha. Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet, to learn, to become a disciple, to the extent that she could. In my early years, I wanted to be a minister, but figured out about the age of nine, that there were no women ministers in my denomination (Dutch Reformed Church of America). So I gave up that dream pretty young.
I focus on the Hebrew Bible because I think the stories are interesting and because I think they are one of the many sacred stories that affect how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and our contexts. My initial goal was simply to study female characters because I thought that would shed light on some of our collective views of women and the part they play in society, and if nothing else inform some of my personal views influenced by my fundamentalist Christian upbringing. It just so happened that I was attracted to the victims and started focusing more on them. I am sure this was affected by my personal struggle with the concept of and experience with victimhood. And I have found this focus has helped me very much with this struggle and internal processing as well as made it possible for me to address issues of violence and modern rape culture with many groups, religious and academic.
I agree with you that describing and analyzing victimhood can only go so far, however, I also think processing victimhood is an important first step (especially for those who have experienced violence) when it comes to healing. But don’t get me wrong, I think thriving is central and necessary for both individuals and the feminist community. One of my favorite parts of the feminist movement is that there is variety, and because we have so many people, each at a different part of their life, we have people focusing on victimhood, agency, and everything in between. Therefore, I think it is awesome and wonderful that you are more called to focus on agency. I just think that neither of us should forget how important each other’s focus is to feminists everywhere.
I am very much looking forward to a class next semester where I will have the chance to present and write on Tamar of Genesis, a strong woman who takes her life into her own hands and makes things happen despite the wrongs done to her. I think this will be a great conclusion for this project I’ve started as well as a great way to start incorporating agency into my work.
I hope this answered you questions.
Thanks, Melinda, for replying to my question. As I was writing it down, I felt that I was being presumptuous and maybe even impolite. But in reading your answer, I realized that my question had more to do with my age and my experience than it had to do with your focus on the Hebrew Bible. In my late 20s and early 30s, I wrote a dissertation about “Motherhood for the Fatherland: Nazi Propaganda about Women.” About halfway through my research and writing, I realized that I was actually processing my rape intellectually. I wanted to understand the rapist mentality, and I certainly found it among the male Nazi leadership. Although this was painful work, it was also cathartic. It freed up a lot of energy that had been repressed by my rape. So I understand from the inside-out, I think, why your Hebrew Bible focus is important.
Now at 68, I’ve processed my rape intellectually, physically, emotionally, and I believe, spiritually. From my vantage point, I want us to create a world in which women can thrive. To do this, we need all the creativity we can muster. So…I believe that your work on the Hebrew Bible and my work on Nazi propaganda are part of regaining the creativity and energy that patriarchy represses and suppresses, and, therefore, part of the process to get us to a better world. Just part that I forgot about since I’m decades away from my dissertation. Thanks for doing that work, too.
Nancy, you are very welcome and thank you for sharing your insight! It is comforting to know that I’m not the only one processing personal trauma intellectually. I also wanted to let you know I appreciate your work in SageWoman, I am a regular reader.