Shimshon and Delilah in Art
One of the most memorable episodes in the Shimshon narrative is Delilah convincing Shimshon to reveal the secrets of his strength. The three images shown here, the painting by Matthias Stom,1 the woodcut by Lucas van Leyden,2 and the picture attributed to Pietro Malombra,3 all portray the scene of Shimshon's hair being shaved, as described in Shofetim 16. The artists differ in their depiction of both of the main protagonists, Shimshon and Delilah, as well as the accompanying secondary figures, such as the barber and the Philistines. The varying depictions reflect unique understandings of many details of the original story, from the manifestation of Shimshon' strength to the character of Delilah and her plot.
Stom's painting is the least busy of the three, portraying just four figures, Delilah, Shimshon, the barber, and an unidentified woman (perhaps, Delilah's procuress). Delilah appears in the center of the portrait, richly dressed and with scissors in hand, making the barber superfluous. A very muscular Shimshon lies asleep on her lap, unaware of his surroundings. Nowhere is the Philistine ambush hinted to.
Lucas van Leyden
In contrast to Stom, Lucas van Leyden focuses on just Shimshon and Delilah. He sets the scene outdoors, with the two sitting on the ground under a tree. A fully clothed Shimshon rests his head on Delilah's lap as she cuts his hair. Delilah appears middle-aged and wears a stiff, modest dress, somewhat discordant with the common view of Delilah as a seductress. In the background, a mass of armed Philistines await their call.
Malombra sets the episode in the bedroom. A partially exposed Delilah sits on the edge of the bed with Shimshon draped across her lap. He appears somewhat smaller than expected and his limp pose offers no suggestion of superlative strength. Behind Shimshon, two Philistines stand with rope, prepared to bind and imprison him.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Van Leyden's Delilah appears somewhat elderly, and her dress is very prim and proper. In contrast, Stom and Malombra's Delilah is a young lady, and in the latter case, depicted only partially clothed. In addition, while van Leyden depicts no others participating in the event, Stom's painting portrays an elderly woman behind Delilah, presumed to be her procuress, directing the proceedings. These distinctions make one question the nature of Shimshon and Delilah's relationship. Was Delilah a wife or a whore? Was she Israelite or Philistine?
While Stom makes no allusion whatsoever to the Philistine ambush, Lucas van Leyden positions them at a short distance from the couple. Malombra brings them even closer, depicting them standing in the room itself. Where were the Philistines while Shimshon's hair was shorn? Verse 9 states explicitly that during Delilah's first attempt to uncover Shimshon's secret, the men were in the room, but there is no parallel statement in the subsequent scenes. Is it possible that the ambush was present and Shimshon was simply unaware? And if the Philistines had been present during earlier episodes, how could Shimshon not have foreseen the inevitable outcome of revealing his secret to Delilah!?
Might or Muscle?
While Stom's Shimshon is all muscle, neither Van Leyden nor Malombra's figure is extraordinary in his physique. Although Shimshon's extreme might is indisputable from the verses, whether he was Herculean in form as well is unclear. One naturally connects musculature with Shimshon's feats, but the fact that the source of Shimshon's strength was his hair might suggest instead that his abilities were totally supernatural and that he looked like an ordinary man.4
Bedroom or Backyard?
Malombra depicts Delilah on the corner of her bed, with her breasts exposed, in a sensual pose. Van Leyden, in contrast, sets the scene outside, under a tree, open to all. The verses do not identify the location of the episode, but the varying portrayals might relate to a textual ambiguity. In the middle of the shaving scene, the text relates: "וַתָּחֶל לְעַנּוֹתוֹ". What does this mean; how did Delilah "oppress" Shimshon? According to R. Yosef Kara the verse is simply explaining that the shaving led to Shimshon's subsequent oppression at the hands of the Philistines. Alternatively, as suggested by Malombra's painting, the words might refer to a sexual act. Perhaps, Shimshon was seduced by Delilah into revealing his secrets and the haircutting was performed as part of sexual foreplay.5
Van Leyden portrays Delilah as cutting Shimshon's hair on her own, while Malombra, in contrast, has a male barber hold the scissors. Stom adopts a compromise stance, depicting a man touching Shimshon's flocks while Delilah does the actual shearing. According to the verses, who acted as the barber? The text is ambiguous, reading, "וַתִּקְרָא לָאִישׁ וַתְּגַלַּח". This might refer to Delilah's calling a barber to aid in the cutting6 or to a totally separate invitation.7 Either way, what was the need for the third party? Did only men know how to shave hair in this era? Was Delilah worried that Shimshon might wake and harm her before the task was over, necessitating the presence of another male?