Re-examining Delilah: Survivor, Entrepreneur, Patriot, Hero – What African American Biblical Interpretation Offers UUs

The modern field of African American Biblical Interpretation approaches Jewish and Christian scriptures through the lens of the interpreter’s experience, rather than the author’s presumed mindset.  This approach avoids Eurocentric and patriarchal tendencies and liberates scripture from being anchored in time.  Delilah’s story exemplifies how dominant scriptural interpreters have marginalized and degraded women and cultural “others,” and how a fresh examination can reveal their heroism and courage.  The still-developing African American interpretive enterprise offers itself as a model for rehabilitating our Fourth UU Source to address injustice today.

Bob Clegg is a UU seminarian at Wesley Theological Seminary and is working on a Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Studies at American University.  Next year he plans to open Justice Jobs, a nonprofit jobs office in Baltimore or Frederick, serving people who are reentering the workforce from incarceration, addiction, and chronic unemployment.  Bob is a member of the UU Congregation of Frederick, MD, and he lives with his wife Connie in New Market, MD, with their three cats.

I got my first impressions of the African American religious experience when I was a boy. My dad was a Baptist preacher who, twice a year, swapped pulpits with Rev. Joe Smith. Rev. Smith preached at the one traditionally black church in town. I naturally generalized from these services, where our congregations worshipped together, so I soon came to the conclusion that all black churches were Baptist, like the one I had been in contact with. And since, as a boy, I wasn’t really listening closely to Rev. Smith preach, I assumed he was preaching a usual Baptist sermon, which meant taking a Bible verse and showing what the original author was thinking – as if we could ever know – and then applying that to our life and times, several millennia later.

I carried these misconceptions with me, about Rev. Smith and our sister congregation that we worshipped with, all the way up to just a few years ago. But in the past few years, I’ve been attending a racially and theologically diverse seminary that places an emphasis on critical thinking. Seminary has taught me the fallacy of my boyhood impressions of the amorphous institution called the black church in America. African American Christianity is itself rich in diversity – ranging from Baptists, to a lot of Pentecostals who also happen to be very active in social justice movements, to A.M.E. Zions to Anglicans to Catholics to who-knows-what-all else. And the black church in America takes a very different approach to Protestant Christianity’s traditional textbook – the Bible – than I ever thought, based on my limited boyhood exposure.

African Americans in this country were forcibly Christianized in the earliest days of slavery. They could never have taken the Bible literally, as Howard Thurman’s grandmother’s story shows. Accepting the Bible as without error would have been inconsistent with the African American experience of being uprooted from one world, transported across an ocean, and impressed in slavery in another world. The plantation owners hired white preachers to preach to the slaves – sermons with a take-home message of, ‘Just accept your lot in this life, be an obedient slave, and there’s another life coming where you’ll be free and walking the streets of gold.’ [1]

But the slaves were not so easily fooled. Often on Sundays – the one day off work on southern plantations – slaves would slip off to practice various blends of Christianity and indigenous African religions, like Yoruba. Gathering in the swamps and the hollows, African Americans taught each other, and pursued their own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” [2] This is what historians now call “The Invisible Institution.” Slave preachers who had learned to read, or who had memorized vast portions of “The Talking Book,” developed a theology about liberation as a promise – in this world, and not in an afterlife. They focused on narratives like the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible. They applied those stories to their own situation, emerging with a promise that some day, one day, freedom would come, and the chains of bondage would be broken, just like in the days of Moses and Pharaoh’s army. [3]

This was a different approach to the Bible than the one the plantation preachers taught. Over the centuries, as African Americans did escape physical bondage, some of them gained admission to graduate schools and seminaries. And gradually, the content of the Invisible Institution’s preaching evolved into what is rapidly becoming, in the 21st century, a distinct scholarly method for interpreting the Bible. This new field, called African American biblical interpretation, approaches Hebrew and Christian scriptures through the lens of the interpreter’s experience, rather than the author’s presumed mindset. This approach avoids Eurocentric and patriarchal tendencies. It liberates scripture from being anchored in time. It allows scripture to mean something to us today that was never recognized before. It unabashedly challenges traditional interpretations. It says, “Here’s a story about people who, in life, were treated unjustly and without compassion. Maybe the authors of the text, has also been treating these people unfairly – and maybe the traditional interpretation has also been treating them unfairly, ever since. What if these weren’t really bad people who got what was coming to them? How about if, the real meaning is that they actually have been and are still being treated unfairly, and the right thing to do is to learn from this “story about the story,” and work to bring justice to people in situations like these?” [4]

This is an “existentialist approach” to biblical interpretation. [5] It approaches the text from the interpreter’s location or “existence,” hence, “existentialist approach.” This approach may be rooted in the American slave experience, but it’s gone a long way since. Latin American liberation theology, and feminist interpretation also use a personal perspective for interpreting the Bible. Womanist interpreters interpret scripture through the lens of people who have been doubly oppressed, both as women and as people of color. [6] LGBTQ interpretation looks through the lens of gender orientation, identification, and expression. One can imagine liberation theologies using the lens of learning disabilities, deafness, or blindness, or interpreting from the perspective of people who are homeless, addicted, or HIV-positive. [7]

One example of how to take an old Bible story and glean new meaning from it, has been given to us by the African American scholar Wil Gafney, a womanist interpreter, in her article titled, “A Womanist Midrash of Delilah: Don’t Hate the Playa, Hate the Game.” [8] Some of you who are come-inners from Protestantism, like I am, may remember the story of Samson and Delilah, in the book of Judges, chapter 16. Briefly, Samson is an invincible Israelite warrior whose source of strength is apparently not God, but his long hair. He falls for the beautiful Delilah and can’t resist her charms, even though she’s a Philistine, and Sampson is at war with her people. The Philistine leaders come to Delilah and offer her a fortune in silver to discover and reveal the source of Samson’s strength. Delilah does as she is told; Samson dies, and he takes a bunch of Philistines with him. The way the story is written, it lends itself to a traditional interpretation of Delilah as a wicked woman, a prostitute, and the arch-enemy of the God of the Hebrews.

But we are intelligent people. We have the ability to figure out what might really have happened – whether this story has meanings that can still inspire us today. In her article, Wil Gafney reexamines this story and reveals what I now see, not as Delilah’s treachery, but her heroism and courage. First of all, Delilah was no prostitute. The text of Judges 16 contains absolutely nothing that says Delilah traded sex for money. It doesn’t even say she had sex with Samson at all!!! That inference is drawn from three otherwise unrelated verses about one of Samson’s “big man” sexual exploits, placed right before this story, which goes on about his tender and helpless infatuation for Delilah – which in the text, never goes beyond that. She does “cause him to fall asleep with his head in her lap” – the innuendo is that she must have been practicing sorcery – but none of that is actually in the text – which instead, actually does say Delilah was an independent woman who owned her own home.

After debunking those myths and misinterpretations, Gafney presents us with a very different picture. Delilah knew Samson’s past – she knew about all the people he had killed, many of them unfortunate women who just crossed his path at the wrong time. And Delilah was a Philistine. She owed it to her own people, as a matter of patriotism and loyalty, to deliver this Israelite warrior, if she could do that. And nobody can fault her for taking a nice pile of cash for doing her patriotic duty – she never asked to be caught in the center of a potentially deadly situation. Through it all, she stayed cool, and she acted calmly and rationally. And she was emotionally self-reliant – in contrast to the co-dependent Samson, who has absolutely no control over his own emotions, and who betrays his own self by telling Delilah the source of his strength, and in so doing, does get what he may well deserve.

This is a very different picture than the traditional interpretation. Gafney’s Delilah is a survivor and an entrepreneur. She makes the best of a bad situation without betraying anyone to whom she owes allegiance. Delilah is emotionally self-supporting. She’s a patriot to her people, the Philistines. This picture enables us to see through to the truth – that Delilah actually represents a true womanist hero, she’s a model for strong women in all times.

The Hebrew and Christian Bibles, which UU’s call our Fourth Source, contain a lot of other source material, much of which remains untapped by the new African American Interpretive project. This is especially true of womanist interpretation, because still, only nineteen black women have received their PhDs in the field of biblical interpretation. Womanist biblical interpretation is literally wide open. What would Queen Jezebel – that supposedly out-of-control, feminist/pagan she-monster – look like, if she had won, instead of Elijah? [9] What would Mary Magdalene’s story look like through the lens of a matriarchal society? What future womanist interpreters, what future feminist interpreters, will rise up to interpret stories like these in meaningful ways? Which of them might come from Unitarian Universalism, from future scholars, and lay interpreters – perhaps right here in this room?

But if, as I am suggesting, Unitarian Universalists were to borrow, and apply, the method of African American biblical interpretation to our own Fourth Source – what do we as UUs stand to gain from mining our Fourth Source for all it’s worth? What’s in it for us?

First, it’s in our own interest to communicate with evangelicals. Evangelical Christians are not all bad people – as this week’s news from Alabama shows – and our First Principle holds that there is really no such thing as “bad people.” And my own experience convinces me that that there are a lot more of them who are sympathetic to our UU causes of justice, equity, and compassion, and who are closet critical thinkers, than we might think. To communicate with other, we need to be able to speak their language. The Hebrew and Christian Bible is the central reference for evangelicals. Knowing that book enables us to demonstrate, in water-cooler conversations and parking-lot conversations, how literal and even allegorical interpretations often fail in the face of reason and the principles of justice, equity, and compassion. We UUs have a liberal religious witness that we can carry to the minds of critically thinking, liberal evangelicals who we need as partners in our all-important work for justice in this world. [10]

Secondly: For our own parts, UUs can use the method of African American biblical interpretation to access stories and tradition that illustrates and empowers us in the things we do. We UUs have a rich set of sources – possibly the richest of any world religion. They include not only World Scripture, our Third and Fourth Sources, but also literature, art, music, and dance; [11] science and reason; [12] earth-centered traditions; [13] and personal experience. [14] But not that long ago – fifty years or so – UUs were on the religious spectrum about where the UCC is now. [15] It is not healthy for any person or institution who deny their own past. [16] We UUs would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the texts that are our historical roots, and find narratives and truths within those texts that undergird our principles – to edify us and embolden us to change our respective worlds, one more time, each coming week.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Tao Te Ching, and I’m headed out to see Star Wars later this week. But I grew up with Bible stories. It hasn’t been easy for me to get back in touch with Bible stories, and to open myself to the possibility that they still hold something for me today. But the less I take them literally, the more I find myself quoting them. How rich, I have found it, to critically examine that book and find that my Jesus is the greatest single human example of a social justice warrior who paid the ultimate price for his principles. I have been liberated by no longer having to throw the baby out with the baptismal water. So the African American interpretive enterprise offers itself as a model for rehabilitating our Fourth UU Source to address injustice today.

And one final thing we UUs stand to gain from applying African American biblical interpretation, is to fully apply our Seventh Principle. To extract meaning from the Hebrew and Christian Bible through the lens of our own personal experience, amounts to more than “respect for the interdependent web of all existence.” To do that is to actively utilize “the interdependent web of all existence – of which we are a part.” I want to bring all of creation, to the extent possible, into my toolbox for promoting justice, equity, and compassion. When we speak to people on the margins – whether they are on the economic margins of society, or on the theological margins of congregations meeting up and down New Hampshire Avenue right this minute – we connect better utilizing the strands of the web that we already have in common – in this case, our common scriptural heritage.

My prayer is that as UUs venture forth into the coming century, which is still young – let us open ourselves to the entirety of uncertainty and possibility that rests in all our sources, so that we may be most useful to God and the people around us. Amen, blessed be, and let it be so.

© Bob Clegg, 2017

[1] Michael Joseph Brown, Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship (London: Trinity Press, 2004), 92.

[2] UU Principle 4.

[3] Allen Dwight Callahan, The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 1-20.

[4] Vincent L. Wimbush, “The Bible and African Americans: An Outline of an Interpretive History,” in Cain Hope Felder, Stony the Road We Trod (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991), 81-97.

[5] Michael J. Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 202-3.

[6] Alice Walker, “Womanist;” Clarice J. Martin, “Womanist Interpretations of the New Testament: The Quest for Holistic and Inclusive Translation and Interpretation;” and Renita J. Weems, “Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible;” in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader, edited by Mitzi J. Smith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2015), 17-55.

[7] Op cit., Brown, 175-83.

[8] Wil Gafney, “A Womanist Midrash of Delilah: Don’t Hate the Playa, Hate the Game,” in Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse, edited by Gay L. Byron and Vanessa Lovelace (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), 49-72.

[9] Ibid., 126-7.

[10] From my sermon at UU Congregation of Frederick, November 29, 2015.

[11] UU Source 2.

[12] UU Source 5.

[13] UU Source 6.

[14] UU Source 1.

[15] This thought from Carl Gregg in a 2017 sermon at UU Congregation of Frederick, Frederick, MD.

[16] Commission on Appraisal, Engaging Our Theological Diversity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005), 147.