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.

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“If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” (Abraham to the servant whom he sent to his relatives in Nahor to bring back a wife for Isaac; Genesis 24:8)

In the first bloody battle we see in the Bible over ‘family values’ and the institution of marriage, the ancient Israelites finally succeed in eliminating the last vestiges of matriarchy when they replace matrilocal marriage with a patrilocal form. In the matrilocal marriage, the new husband goes to live with his wife’s family; in patrilocal marriage, the wife follows the husband to live with his family. In this post, we’ll see how the patriarchs struggled to free themselves from matrilocal traditions, though another powerful factor may be at work in their saga as well: In some of the stories chronicling this conflict, in Genesis and Judges, the women in question may have been priestesses, so the tradition may actually be more focused how these men wrested their religious practice from an older legacy of goddess worship, than on the institution of marriage itself.

The men in question are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Samson, and peripherally, Jephthah. On Sarah as a priestess, I highly recommend Savina Teubal’s Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis (though she talks quite a bit about Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, also). Teubal goes pretty far on not much evidence and I suspect that she’s pushed some of her arguments a bit too far. But much of her book had for me the solid ring of truth and it finally answers some of the most vexing enigmas in the stories of the patriarchs, most notably the weird episodes in which both Abraham and Isaac pass their wives off as sisters and allow them to bed local potentates. One of these dupes (Abimilech) does this with both Sarah and Rebekah; the story pretends that their beauty bewitched him (here we must pass up a fascinating sidebar on the depths of meaning in the Hebrew word for ‘beauty,’ which utterly transcends the superficial connotations of modern mass culture).

The Bible implausibly presents Abimilech playing the fool twice with the same family; many scholars think the second Abimilech was the son of the first to solve the problem of one guy being so dense or so driven by his gonads (though history is full of such fools). Teubal claims that they were priestesses of high status and that a “sacred marriage” was arranged. It’s worth quoting Wikipedia here for some possible background on one version of the sacred marriage between priestess and king in ancient Mesopotamia, the homeland of the matriarchs:

Zagmuk is a Mesopotamian festival celebrated around the winter solstice, which literally means “beginning of the year”. It celebrates the triumph of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, over the forces of chaos, symbolized in later times by Tiamat. . .

In Babylon, the battle was acted out at the royal court with the king playing Marduk, and his son-rescuer as Nabu, the god of writing. Once freed from the powers of the underworld, the king would enact the rite of the Sacred Marriage on the 10th day of the ceremony. During this rite, the king (or En, as he was known in Sumer) would perform sexual intercourse with his spouse, normally a high priestess who had been chosen from among the “naditum,” a special class of priestesses who had taken a vow not of celibacy precisely, but of a refusal to bear children. The high priestess was known as the entu, and her ritual act of intercourse with the king was thought to regenerate the cosmos through a reenactment of the primordial coupling of the cosmic parents An and Ki, who had brought the world into being at the dawn of Time. If an eclipse of the sun fell on any of the 12 days of the ceremony, a substitute for the king was put in his place, since it was thought that any evils which might have befallen the king would accrue to the substitute instead. On the last day of the festival, the king was slain so that he could battle at Marduk’s side. To spare their king, Mesopotamians often utilized a mock king, played by a criminal who was anointed as king before the start of Zagmuk, and killed on the last day.

In addition to the prisoner who was killed, it was traditional for one prisoner to be set free during this ceremony to provide balance. Thus, the background for what later became Easter is clearly visible here, for during Christ’s crucifixion the thief Barabbas was set free and Christ was crucified at the behest of the crowd.

So, as a pastoral nomad chieftain of a very large tribe, with lots of people and animals sojourning on another sovereign’s land at his pleasure, Abraham may not have been in a position to deny the Abimilechs access to his wife/sister, the priestess, who, in Sarah’s case, was famously childless (but by choice, according to Teubal, not because she was barren). The alternative for Abraham would have been some form of service, to pay for the privilege of pasturage and passage. (The word trespass comes from this necessity of pastoral economy, that one passage with your flocks across another person’s land is agreed to by contract/covenant, and this must automatically include a second passage, because you have to bring your flocks back; but a third pass—tres pass—is a crime.)

Throughout the stories of the patriarchs, their matriarchs have extraordinary power in the relationship, beginning with the fact that the patriarchs first live with them among their families. Jacob lives with Laban for fourteen years before he is able to escape, doing so under cover, and when he does, his wife Rachel ‘steals’ the household gods from her father. In fact, says Teubal, if I remember correctly, they actually belonged to her. This was no theft at all, but a working priestess taking the tools of her trade. Abraham buys a tomb for Sarah when she dies, and he is buried in her tomb, not vice versa.

But all three men do in fact escape the demands of matrilocal marriage by literally leaving with nowhere to go, even if they do not completely escape the power of their women. Centuries later, however, matrilocal marriage still persists among the ancient Israelites. This is most vividly illustrated in the saga of Samson in the book of Judges, another fellow portrayed as ruled by his sex drive. He might have been, but things are not so simple as this poor fellow seems. We still have powerful priestesses as partners, we still have the ancient myths of Mesopotamia as backdrop, and this time, we have a dramatic, bloody climax to a story intended to end the debate. The Samson saga is so rich with both humor and human drama, with both mythic dimensions and theological instruction, with narrative power and poetic symbol, and with riddles—riddles both sacred and profane, borrowed from folklore and yet loaded with mythico-religious meaning—there is so much going on in these three chapters of Judges that I plan to write a whole book about it, probably prose fiction—a ‘historical’ fantasy novel.

But we must leave Samson for the next posting. In his tragic story, the Bible seeks to close the first debate over the institution of marriage in the Bible—who will be head of household, the husband or his father-in-law?