The Jawbone of an Ass

“Ho! Strong man! You’re wanted at the feast!”

The voice is drunk, and I throw off the rough hand that grasps my arm. The guard only laughs, then with a blow I cannot see coming he knocks me to my knees against the wheel of the prison mill. “I relieve you of your charge, jailer,” he boasts to the fat warden who grunts in reply. “The crowd has a notion to see the mighty Samson.” He laughs again and kicks me to emphasize the jibe.

Crouching, I hold my anger and await the next move. A curse is this blindness! Yet my remaining senses leap ahead. A feast. The temple. Noise. Crowds. So that is the meaning of the dull vibrations that have filtered down this day to my dusty hole. Now the Philistines think to make sport of me, their captured enemy, while they celebrate the victory of their god. Then all other thoughts flee as a rush, half hope, half fear, fills my mind. What if Delilah is there?

“Get up, go!” The guard delivers another kick to my ribs. His sword slaps against his leg; he reeks of warm beer. “You, boy, guide him.”

Footsteps scurry to my side. I know the lad, a nervous child of eight or nine, an orphan who hangs about the prison and runs errands in return for scraps of food and a corner in which to sleep. He lifts my hand to his shoulder where it lands like a bear paw on his trembling frame. I ease off its weight and heave myself to my feet. Then off we go in procession, the guard, the boy and me, shackles dragging between my legs. As we climb up, left, right, I memorize each turn, constructing a course through the blackness. The noise grows, then bursts into full strength as we pass through a doorway and my feet grip smooth stone floor, Dagon’s temple.

“Enjoy the feast, strong man!” The guard thrusts me forward, and I grope in my blindness not to stumble and fall.

“Samson! Look, it’s Samson! Ahhhhh!”

The shouts and clamor rise to fill the great hall. The crowd surges toward the steps and sensations flood over me, a heat and press of churning bodies, pungent incense, thick air. I picture a sea of faces, bright robes, flashing jewels. More noise pounds from above, a din of music and merriment on the temple roof. With a last guffaw the guard departs to his pleasures, leaving me to the amusement of the crowd. My heart swells in a mute cry. Delilah! Are you here?

A hard object strikes my shin, and my head jerks in the direction from which it came. The people gasp and shrink back, as if I might lunge upon them like a roaring lion, and a woman near the front rails at her son for pitching the stone. But when I make no move, the throng recovers its boldness in wine and jests.

“See!” booms a hearty voice, and I imagine a stout pot of a man, goblet raised in a tipsy toast. “Our god Dagon has triumphed over the false god of the Israelites. He has delivered our enemy Samson like a babe into our hands.”

The people cheer in agreement, some crying, “Make sport for us, Samson! Where is your great strength gone?” When I refuse to be baited, they grow annoyed. Taunts assail me, and rotten fruit splatters on my chest and in my beard. Sometimes blindness is a blessing for I would be ashamed to see myself today, humbled before my enemies, dirt-streaked from the prison mill, my face a grotesque mask, sagging lids covering eyeless holes. The sickly smell of the fruit mingles with my own strong sweat and the hot scent of burnt offerings that flavors the air. Yet even in disgrace, if I could but find Delilah, catch her voice, her perfume, her laugh…

“Boy.” I speak quietly to the orphan huddling behind one of the pillars. He sucks in his breath at my naming of him, thinking himself out of everyone’s way. “Boy, can you count?”


“How many?” I nod my head at the people below, then upward to the roof where they peck and crow like a thick flock of birds. For the moment the crowd has left off its taunts and turned back to dancing and the cups. The boy ventures out from his corner.

“I don’t know. Thousands. More than at any other ceremony I have seen.”

“Men, women, children?”

“Yes, and all our great lords, too.”

I nod again, satisfied. She must be here; she is the heroine of the day. But where? I strain every thought toward her, but my concentration is marred by an unpleasant feeling on my skin. It’s the boy, staring at me, and I sense in his look not only the open-mouthed awe of one who sees a mighty champion fall but innocent sorrow for a far greater loss. My thoughts fly to my shorn head, but my hands stop short of touching the uneven new growth. By my own folly I forsook my vow as a Nazirite, and the Spirit of the Lord left me. I am sunk below all men in faithlessness and despair. Yet day after day as I trudge in dark circles around the prison mill, my heart still whispers, She loves you, Samson. She would come if she could. And when a woman’s voice rises suddenly above the crowd, I forget God, pain, everything, in a mad hope and a rush of memory.


She lived in the Valley of Sorek where a wide brook ran through the foothills and made fertile the dry land. Below were the plains of the Philistines, above the highlands of Judah. We met in the middle, but still the territory was all hers. Her home was refined and gracious, the terrace cooled by a fountain’s spray. Lush gardens cut into the sloping hills. It was a place unfit for my roughness no matter how carefully I bathed my body, combed my hair, arranged my clothes. Yet from that first visit I tried to be part of it, and I spoke courteously to her servants and waited patiently for them to announce me. Then from the terrace I heard her speak. “Put the flowers there,” she said to a maid, and I started at the clear sound. It was as if light itself had found a tongue, and the simple words danced in my head. Then Delilah entered, and I let go the voice in hungry contemplation of her beauty.

How often had I heard her talked of and glanced up to her house. Why shouldn’t I have her? I bragged to myself. So what if she is Philistine? But she was not what I expected, neither bold harlot nor a spoiled woman of leisure. Like all her people, she was tall and slender, and her robe of Tyrian purple threaded with gold glittered as she moved toward me. Mouth, nose and chin were foreign, her skin the color of dark honey. But from the first a warmth emanated from her, as if her blood beat too close to the surface, and a faint dampness on her brow betrayed nervousness at my call. Her dark eyes swept me in, widening.

“Please.” She gestured toward a low couch, and awkwardly I took my seat. How many evenings I sat there, fumbling for conversation. How many nights I left, berating myself for my lack of brains. In no time I was falling in love with her, yet what luck had I ever had with women before? I was a judge of my people, but like a grinning, quivering dog I came to heel at the sandals of a Philistine woman. Delilah, too, seemed troubled at where this strange courtship would lead, though her practiced grace carried us through each meeting.

“Tell me how your people live on the uplands,” she might say, beckoning her servants to bring sweets and wine. Or, “Please explain to me the ways of your god.”

Sometimes I bragged stupidly of my exploits, like the time I let the men of Judah bind and deliver me to the Philistines in Lehi, then I broke my bonds and with the jawbone of an ass I slew a thousand men. Delilah’s face grew pained—of course, they were her countrymen—but though I cursed my words, she did not send me away. Other nights I tried to speak gently of flowers and the stars. Sometimes I made her laugh, then she paused in surprise and looked at me a different way. Once our hands touched and we stopped, burned by fire. Then back to tortured talk.

“I will not come again,” I told her one evening, rising angrily from the couch where we sat. But instead of relief, her face showed worry and dismay.

“But why? What have I done or said to displease you?” She opened her arms at her sides, and the moonlight from the terrace cast a silvery glow over her skin. “Samson, in what way have I offended you? Or do you love someone else?”

“I love no woman nor ever will again!” I shouted. Neither of us had spoken of love, and the very word incensed me. “You are a Philistine whore!”

She turned away as if slapped. Then she stood and faced me, eye to eye. Her hands went slowly to her shoulders. She unfastened her robe, and it slipped to the floor.

“Take what you want,” she said. “We both know why we are here.”

I uttered a cry—she was exquisite, sloping breasts and a slender waist, the dark nest of hair—and in a fury I felt myself rising. I hurled an oath at her and stormed out, but the next night I was back to beg forgiveness. She said nothing, only led me to her bed, and though I swear I was gentle as never before, afterward I saw tears in her eyes.

“There,” she said, “it is done.”

“Then why be sad?” I urged. “Say you love me.”

“Oh, Samson, do not ask that. Just pretend we are someone else and be happy while we can.”

And we were. Wondrous days followed, peerless nights. I scoured the markets to bring her presents, gold rings and perfumes, rare shells from the sea. I walked the streets with a swagger, and when other men looked my way their faces said it clearly, “There goes Samson, the lucky man.” Then I strode up the hill to Delilah’s house where we would eat and laugh and roll naked into bed.

“Ah, Samson, you have the eyes of a hawk, the mane of a lion, the chest of a bull.” She kissed over my body, telling its parts, mischief sparkling in her eyes. She slipped onto me and stroked her fingers into my hair. Her skin against mine was like silk on leather.

“So you like me a little then?” I coaxed, immensely pleased.

“Could any woman not?”

Her tone grew more serious and she sat back to study me, as if contemplating how I, Samson, had come into her hands. She seemed happy to possess me, as I did her, but now I half wished my reputation was otherwise. Too often my strength had served me ill, prompting me to acts of rashness and revenge. I wanted Delilah to see me in my true role as a judge of my people, prudent and wise.

“Laugh,” she commanded suddenly, and I could not help myself, I opened my mouth in a shout of joy. “That is how I picture you in battle,” she said, “your white teeth flashing as bare-handed you meet your foes.” Her face clouded and she would have rolled away, but I caught her and heard her murmur, “I am Philistine, I am Philistine.”

“No, you are Delilah, the woman I love.” I clasped both her wrists in a single hand, brought her lips close to mine. How easy it would have been to take her, to use her like a harlot, satisfy myself and walk away. A twist of my hand could have broken her neck, the weight of my body drive the breath from her soul. But always I waited for her to want me, need me, too. Softly her mouth met mine, and I felt her urging, yes, yes.

Afterward we lay quietly side by side. I looked down our bodies, and hers seemed to glisten in the dark. The flat sheen of her belly was beautiful to behold. Yet my body for all its corded muscles and pumping veins ended in this weak, limp object curled helpless in damp hair. I felt then how strong was her sex that could withhold love and pleasure, yet on granting it, drain a man powerless. And I had nothing else to give Delilah, for she was wealthy and independent. Only if she truly loved me could I call her mine.

“Do you love me?” I whispered, but as always at the question she averted her face. I knew she could not make that clear voice of hers lie, and her silence tormented me for it might mean anything: that she did love me, that she didn’t, that she did not know.

“Never mind then,” I said. “We won’t talk of it.”

She rolled gratefully back into my embrace, and I felt tears on my chest.

“They are laughing at us, Samson.”

“Who, Delilah, who?”

“The gods, yours and mine.”

“Hush.” I kissed her hair, and after a while she fell asleep. But her words troubled me. When I was with Delilah, I felt no inkling of God’s presence, unless a love this sublime was His ultimate gift. But what if God was indeed watching, brewing trouble for me through a woman as so often before? I was his, a Nazirite from birth, and as a sign of it no razor had ever come upon my head. Yet did he not make this passion for Delilah that nearly split my skull and left me spent and panting? And was it not so with my first wife, the woman of Timnah, whose death I caused? My conscience rumbled at the memory. She, too, had been Philistine, and through a boastful wager with her kinsmen I ended by killing thirty of their men. Yet more—I caught three hundred foxes, tied them tail to tail with a lighted torch between each pair, and set them loose in the grain fields and olive orchards of the Philistines. When they learned I had done this, they turned not on me but on my wife, and they burned her and her father to death. Then I slaughtered still more of them with that inhuman strength that could only have come from the Lord. It was His Spirit working in me to smite the enemies of His people. All this came back to me as I lay by Delilah’s side. My heart ached to think that she must fear me, knowing full well the history of my first wife. I stroked her dark hair, unbound and scented with oils, and she moaned in her sleep.

“Hush, hush.” I kissed her and slipped out to the terrace overlooking the moonlit valley. The roofs of the Philistine houses were many, scattered across the hills. They had arrived in this land before my birth, and the elders still told stories of their march along the coast. The column was led by armed men carrying round shields and bronze swords, followed by a train of ox carts piled with women, children and household goods. Their fleet of high-prowed ships coasted ominously along the shore. One by one, towns and settlements fell before them as they looted and burned. All the way to Egypt the Philistines marched, where at last pharaoh’s army drove them back. Then they turned inland toward us. The people of Israel had done evil in the Lord’s sight, said our elders. Now He had given us into the Philistines’ hands.

But tonight, looking down on their rooftops, I saw more practical reasons for their dominance. In their march, they had discovered the secret of the manufacture of iron, and with arms and tools far superior to ours, their army triumphed and crops grew abundantly in their fields. Where the lords of their five cities met to take counsel in all matters of peace and war, the scattered tribes of Israel were no match for them in organization or unity. Standing on Delilah’s balcony, gazing on my enemy’s success, I chafed with ideas. I would call a council, summon troops. Was I not a hero whose reputation and leadership could unite us against our foes? Yet these plans swirled in my head without conviction. All my past adventures had been single-handed, haphazard and short-lived as a summer storm. In plain words, I was a braggart, a bully, a brigand, a thief. And while I could name my faults, I could see no way to correct them. Despair overtook me, and I wondered why God had chosen me at all. I went back to the bed chamber, eased into bed, and drew Delilah, still sleeping, into my arms. The feel of her against me soon eased all other thoughts from my mind.

In the morning her place was empty, and I heard on the terrace the voices of several men. I started up in anger. How dare they intrude on us, how dare she give them entry? Then through the sheer curtains I glimpsed the fine robes of the callers and knew them to be Philistine lords. Their tone was low but persistent, and for once Delilah’s voice was muted, not clear. When they left she did not return to me, and at our parting she seemed worried. The next time I came, I sensed a change in her. Delilah wasted no time.

“Please tell me wherein your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you.” She tried to make her voice innocent but failed and knew it. Her eyes looked at me in unhappiness.

“If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings which have not been dried, then I shall become weak, and be like any other man.”

The lie sprang easily to my lips while my mind grappled with our trouble. She did not want to ask this nor I to answer. What had they promised her to entice me? Money? Of that she had enough. Power? Legend? Fame? Or had they threatened her, as the kinsmen of my first wife had threatened and then killed her? All I knew was that the trap was closing on us far too soon.

“Seven fresh bowstrings,” Delilah repeated. She seemed grateful for my answer, as if knowing it would buy us time. We made love, and while I slept she bound me according to my words. I awoke to find the Philistines upon me, but I snapped my bonds and sent them fleeing. Delilah and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. She ordered her servants to prepare a fine meal, and over roast lamb and spice cakes we mimicked the surprise of my routed captors. I was proud for Delilah to see this proof of my strength for until now she had only heard stories of it. That night when we made love again, all was as before. But in the instant before sleep, she clung to me.

“Don’t tell me,” she begged. “Don’t tell me, don’t.”

But the next day she was sad and posed the same question. Again I lied, saying this time “new ropes,” and again the Philistines were fooled. Yet a third night she asked, and now by a slip of my tongue I came close, telling her to weave the seven locks of my hair and make it tight with a pin. When the Philistines came I released the pin and tossed the men out.

“If only you did not love me,” she said, tears in her eyes.

“Come away with me.” Such a simple idea. Why had I not thought of it before? Why must I always let my strength be the answer when here my brain had lighted upon a peaceful solution? I would take Delilah to my people and free us both of this trap.

But Delilah shook her head. “If I leave, I am a traitor and cannot return. If I go, your people will scorn me as an enemy woman. And what if you ceased to love me?” She turned away, and though I protested that could never be, I knew my history told against me. “I am but a woman, Samson.” She held out her arms, beseeching me to regard her helplessness, and indeed I saw a slender creature whose safety lay in her ability to negotiate, appease and outwit. For the first time it dawned on me what it might be like to lose my strength, and the knowledge drained my heart.

“Oh, Samson, I should never have let this start. And the worst of it,” she clenched her fists and raised them to the roof, “is not knowing whether it is my own god who works in me or whether yours now twists me to his purpose. I think all gods must be false who toy with those who love!”

“I will slay them!” I flung my arms wide, toppling a table, vases, chairs. Had any Philistines been present, I would have massacred them to a man. Delilah stood unmoving, waiting for me to mow her down. Instead I knelt before her, craving forgiveness and her love.

“How can you say you love me?” she said dully, as if telling lines some storyteller had written for her to speak. “How can you say you love me when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times and still not told me wherein your great strength lies.”

Over and over she repeated her question, while I parried and answered with untruths. Day after day it continued until we did nothing but argue and fight. Finally a night came when I grew so wrathful I clutched her by the throat and lifted her on her toes. She gasped, straining for breath, then choked, her eyes beginning to close. A last whisper escaped her, “If you really loved me…”

Slowly I let her go. She slipped to the floor, bowed her head. In numbness I spoke, not knowing whether she heard.

“If my hair be shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.”

I sat down beside her. We both knew what must come to pass. I put my head in her lap, and she stroked my hair. Gradually I fell asleep. I dreamed a strange dream in which I walked with Delilah by the shore of a sparkling sea. Our hands touched, our eyes met, her voice said to me, “I love you.” But when I awoke my head was shaved and the Philistines were upon me, and with their knives they gouged out my eyes. I roared and raged, but only human strength was left me. Against their numbers I was lost.  As they bound and dragged me away, I caught the clinking of coins and the voices of the Philistine lords raised in self-congratulation.

“Delilah!” I cried. “Delilah!” No sound came in reply, and I knew not whether she had fled in terror or wept behind a curtain or looked on mocking at my defeat. With all the power left in me I shouted to make the roof tremble. “Delilah! Never will another man love you as I do!”


They brought me here to Gaza, bound me with bronze fetters, set me to work at the prison mill. My own people, it seems, had deserted me, for none came to see me or offer ransom for my release. Indeed, what use was I to them anymore? The Spirit of the Lord had left me, my shorn head testament to my fallen state. I strained and pushed against the mill wheel, enduring hard labor for the first time in my life. Like the wheel, my thoughts went round and round inside my head as I tried to make sense of my fate.

Delilah—I hated her. I called her bitch, liar, whore. I remembered the clinking coins. It was for money after all! I listened for her footsteps, her voice, that I might seize her if she came. I imagined the sound her neck would make as the fine bones cracked in my hands. Where was she? Laughing with some other man? Counting up her reward? But what if she took the money only to allay suspicion? What if even now she were weeping for me or in danger from the Philistine lords? I reviewed every word and gesture that had passed between us. It must have meant this; no, it must have meant that. In the end, I did not know her and I did not know myself, and I plodded like a dumb beast in a darkness of the soul.

Beside me, the orphan shuffles his feet on the stone floor. “Boy.” I nod my head in his direction. “I am searching for a woman. Do you know who?”

“Yes.” He hesitates. “The lady Delilah.”

“Do you recognize her? Is she here?”

A silence. “Yes.”

Yes? Delilah! I start forward and nearly step into empty space. A shout from the boy pulls me back. From below, laughter greets my near fall.

“Samson! Samson! Why so clumsy?” the people shout. A roar of amusement rolls through the hall. I catch my breath, controlling the fierce tremble that runs through my limbs. She is here.  She is here.

“Where?” I whisper to the boy.

He speaks quietly. “Across the hall is a long table where sit our lords. She is at the center.”

“Does she see me?”

“Her eyes have been nowhere else.”

Delilah. This time my heart speaks her name softly, as if we two can hear no matter how wide the gulf between us.

“How does she look, boy? Does she laugh?”

“No. She looks sad and does not touch her food.”

She loves me! I knew it! My heart gives a great heave and empties itself, my head clears at last. Oh, Samson, was there ever such a fool? Here I stand, a blind, dumb brute, a sight for mockery, an ass. Delilah is lost, our love over and done. Let it go, let it end. A calm passes over me, and my hand brushes the pillar at my side. Its hardness feels good to my touch.

“Boy, let me feel the pillars of the house that I may lean against them.”

The child guides my hands to the columns on either side. I stroke my palms along the stone. A tingling passes through my fingertips, an odd but familiar sensation that sends a prickle over my skin. Once, with the Lord’s help, I could have brought this place crashing down.

“Are these the pillars on which the house rests?”

“Yes. They go up to the roof.”

I picture the temple, gauging its size from the echo of voices off the ceiling and walls. And the crowd—two thousand, three? More than I have slain in all my lifetime. The enemies of my people. My fingers itch on the stone.

“O Lord God, remember me.” The words come to my lips, and my fingers press harder. The muscles flex up the length of my arms. “Strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once.”

With a faint gasp, the boy steps back. I am sorry for him, but the tremor in my soul has begun. Always the innocent have perished with the guilty; only the Lord can know why. His Spirit is upon me, His power flows from my head to my feet. I strain and push, and a slight noise sounds to my ears, a delicious, sweet cracking than runs up the columns to the roof. I brace myself and with all my strength thrust outward.

“Look! What is he doing?” someone cries. The crowd pauses, its merriment shifting to confusion, then horrified alarm. Shrieks and screams rise everywhere, and a panicked stampede to the doors begins. A din fills the hall as bodies are crushed and trampled underfoot. I flex my shoulders, grunt and strain. How good this feels! All through the temple, blocks are grinding and rocking as the walls weaken and chunks begin to fall.

“Let me die with the Philistines, Lord,” I pant, head bowed to my task. Stone dust clogs my nostrils, sweat runs down my sides. Ah, Samson, what an ass to think this strength was ever meant to serve you. The roof gives way, and blocks and screaming people rain onto the chaos below. With a last push I break the pillars and send a splitting crack around the temple to where Delilah sits immobile in our tomb.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1992)

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