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Femmes Fatales in the Bible

Biblical femmes fatales such as Judith, Delilah, and Salome, who use their charms to accomplish lethal hidden agendas, epitomize the male fantasy of predatory female sexuality.

Judith and Holofernes trictrac checker

The femme fatale (French for “deadly woman”) epitomizes the male fantasy of predatory female sexuality. Irresistible, she entices men through expert use of her feminine wiles, ensnaring her victims within the bonds of desire. She is deadly because she is expert at the art of deception and always has a hidden agenda. Once her intended victim is trapped in her sensual web of deceit, she coldly and ruthlessly annihilates him.

The femme fatale’s lethal manipulation of male desire reflects a combination of two timeless male anxieties about women: the threat of autonomous female sexuality, unbound and outside male control, and the vulnerability created by sexual intimacy with women, especially the self-abandonment and loss of control at the moment of climax. Given the numerous femme fatale figures who appear in the Bible, men in the ancient world shared these anxieties.

Judith, Esther, and Jael are all biblical femmes fatales who are considered heroines, using their lethal charms to dispatch an enemy of Israel. Besotted by Judith’s beauty, Holofernes, in a clumsy attempt at seduction, drinks too much wine while trying to get Judith drunk and passes out. Judith, left alone with him, cuts off his head with his own sword (Jdt 12:10-13:9).

Esther, having already turned the king against Haman, delivers the coup de grâce when Haman, approaching her in supplication, throws himself prostrate on the couch where she is reclining. The king, arriving at that moment, mistakenly assumes that Haman is trying to rape Esther, an impression that Esther does not correct. Haman’s execution immediately follows (Esth 7:1-10).

Jael lures the fleeing, desperate Sisera into her tent, offering protection, nourishment, and nurturing. Feeling safe within her tent, snugly covered, sleepy from the milk she gave him, Sisera, exhausted, lets himself drift into sleep, assured that Jael will protect him. Jael seizes the opportunity and hammers a tent peg into his temple until it comes out the other side. In the account in the Song of Deborah, Sisera is described as falling dead between her legs, in a macabre parody of sexual conquest (Judg 4:17-23, Judg 5:24-30).

There are also villainous femmes fatales in the Bible. Delilah cajoles and nags Samson into telling her the source of his powers and then waits until he trustingly falls asleep on her lap. She then calls the Philistines, who shave off his hair, leading to his blinding, bondage, humiliation, and eventual death (Judg 16:4-31).

The unnamed daughter of Herodias, later identified as Salome, who takes full advantage of Herod’s offer of anything she pleases after seeing her dance, can be considered a fille fatale. A fille fatale (French for “deadly girl”) is a femme fatale in training, a young coquette already adept at manipulating older men with her combination of innocence and budding sensuality. Salome asks for John the Baptist’s head at her mother’s suggestion, adding the detail of serving it on a platter (Mark 6:14-29, Matt 14:1-12).

Ironically, the first figure that comes to mind for many doesn’t fit the biblical femme-fatale category at all. In the account in Gen 2-3, Eve is still unaware of her sexuality and thus not capable of using it for deceptive purposes. She gives Adam the fruit to share its benefits; she has no hidden motive. Yet later interpretations paint her as the seductress par excellence, the very first femme fatale, who uses her feminine wiles to get Adam to eat the fruit and whose actions lead to his expulsion from Eden and seal his death.

  • Hilary Lipka

    Hilary Lipka is an instructor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).