Chapter: Samson (Judges 14)
General remarks on chapter 14
Chapter 14 deals with Samson’s marriage to a Philistine. The entire account is riddled with mysteries:
1. Samson’s desire to marry a foreigner is truly astounding if one knows of the divine prohibitions on mixed marriages. The man who is completely dedicated to divine service starts his ministry by wishing to unite himself with a pagan!
2. We are surprised again when the author indicates that the parents, who logically disapprove of their son’s decision, do not understand the divine will (14:4).
3. Samson’s prodigious act of killing a lion with his bare hands is kept secret (“But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done.” 14:6). The reader cannot help but question this avoidance of the parents whom the angel had nevertheless let in on the secret already prior to Samson’s conception. Wouldn’t it be natural to tell them of the exploit which saves a life and is a witness to the divine blessing?
4. When Samson finds honey in the lion’s body, he once again does not divulge the story to his parents (14:9). The author’s insistence in emphasising this fact is most intriguing.
5. The mystery becomes even more apparent when Samson poses a riddle to the wedding guests. What does Samson seek? Could the riddle have a different meaning and if so, why don’t the Philistines propose any solution?
6. Why does Samson reward the Philistines despite the fact that they have cheated?
7. The last secret derives from the coats’ origin: although the reader knows where they come from, the wedding guests do not have the slightest idea, because Samson has taken care to go far enough away from the wedding so as not to raise suspicion (Ashkelon is 37 km away from Timnah).
The account of the wedding cannot help but make us reflect, which is also Samson’s purpose, e.g. to stimulate Israel to reflection. The marriage with a Philistine serves as a lesson to Israel: a lesson meant to show the folly of an alliance with these strangers. By marrying a Philistine, Samson wants to show that an alliance with this people can only end in disaster. The Philistines seek only to crush and dominate. Their word is worthless and they can never be trusted. Alliance with them is sheer folly. To illustrate this fact, the judge chooses the most intimate bond with the greatest commitment: marriage. Some might consider this as pure masochism, but this is not Samson’s case. He is most intelligent. Knowing that the alliance will cause a stir, Samson hastens it. He pushes it so far that the defeat occurs prior to the consummation of the marriage. Thus, despite proposing marriage to a foreigner, Samson will never have the chance to complete such alliance.
The challenge issued by the riddle serves as a catalyst. It makes it possible to show the true nature of the Philistine people. It is useful to mention that the test between Samson and the Philistine is truly the key theme of this text on the marriage. The wedding is only a pretext to launch the challenge. In the account, the ceremony fades into the background. The literary development is remarkable. For the test to work, so it can reveal the Philistines’ true nature, the men have to lose, because Samson wants to show that these people are not good losers nor do they keep their word. The test is quite revealing: not only do the Philistines not keep their word (because they cheat), but they are prepared to kill their own people to get their way. Horrifying threats are addressed to the Philistine bride: “Entice your husband, that he may explain the riddle to us, or else we will burn you and your father’s house with fire.” (14:15). To kill their brothers to win a few cloaks-the entire horror of the Philistines’ nature is exposed. Israel would do well to stay on their guard. Resistance to all temptation of alliance with this people is imperative. If the Philistines treat their own people with such little respect, what will it be like for foreigners? Oppression and slavery are inevitable.
Because Samson’s commitment to a Philistine is so strange, the author increases the hints which guide the reader to a positive evaluation of the judge. With his first words, the author puts the reader on his guard to maintain a positive understanding of the account: The Spirit of the Lord rests on Samson (13:25). The judge’s actions are spiritual. The author cannot resist placing one of his own rare personal comments before the text on Samson’s insistence to marry this woman despite his parent’s reproaches (14:3): “But his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord--that He was seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines.” (14:4). The presence of the Spirit is repeated a second and even a third time in relation to his astounding strength (14:6, 19). The ease with which Samson kills a lion and then thirty Philistines testifies to the divine presence and blessing.
Detailed analysis of chapter 14
Proposition of marriage to a Philistine (13:25–14:4)
25And the Spirit of the Lord began to move upon him at Mahaneh Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol.
14. 1Now Samson went down to Timnah, and saw a woman in Timnah of the daughters of the Philistines. 2So he went up and told his father and mother, saying, “I have seen a woman in Timnah of the daughters of the Philistines; now therefore, get her for me as a wife.” 3Then his father and mother said to him, “Is there no woman among the daughters of your brethren, or among all my people, that you must go and get a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” And Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, for she pleases me well.” 4But his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord--that He was seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines. For at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.
Samson runs a dozen kilometres to Timnah, which had been attributed to Dan (Jos 19:43). The freedom with which Samson can enter into Philistine territory (three voyages prior to his marriage are reported: 14:1, 5, 8) and the possibility of a mixed marriage testify to the amicable relations between the two peoples. Yet the situation is deceptive, as the Philistines dominate Israel (14:4).
The Philistines are not mentioned among the peoples with whom marriage was forbidden (Deut 7:1-4), but the general law on the prohibition of an alliance with the inhabitants of the country (Exod 34:16) also applied to the Philistines (Jos 13:2-3). Any marriage with an unconverted foreigner was generally prohibited. The parents appear to be particularly opposed to an alliance with these people, whose men were not even circumcised (14:3), contrary to the other nations whom the Israelites knew at that time, such as the Egyptians, the Canaanites, etc.
Samson chooses a woman who pleases him (14:3, 7). One could believe that the woman has won his heart, but Samson’s attachment to this Philistine is not on the same level as the one he will have with Delilah, whom Samson loves (16:4, 15). The Hebrew 'âhab expresses a sentimental attachment. For the Philistine of chapter 14, the word yâchâr (translated as appropriate) is used. This word emphasises moral perfection. Samson chooses this woman not out of love, but because she appears to him to be the most trustworthy of the Philistines. Because Samson’s test must show that the Philistines cannot be trusted, Samson chooses the most upright to show that even the best ends up deceiving others.
The author’s comment in verse 4 poses a problem. The Hebrew text does not specify if it is the Lord or Samson “who was seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines.” (14:4). Due to their negative approach towards Samson, most commentators lean towards the first solution. God will act sovereignly despite Samson’s sin. Our approach obviously leads us in the other direction. Samson acts through the Holy Spirit to seek an occasion to begin his ministry as a deliverer and troublemaking prophet. The marriage he plans is an ideal occasion with which to start off his ministry.
The story of the lion (14:5-9)
5So Samson went down to Timnah with his father and mother, and came to the vineyards of Timnah. Now to his surprise, a young lion came roaring against him. 6And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he tore the lion apart as one would have torn apart a young goat, though he had nothing in his hand. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done. 7Then he went down and talked with the woman; and she pleased Samson well. 8After some time, when he returned to get her, he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion. And behold, a swarm of bees and honey were in the carcass of the lion. 9He took some of it in his hands and went along, eating. When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them, and they also ate. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey out of the carcass of the lion.
The expedition into Philistine territory proves to be dangerous. As soon as he crosses the border, a lion attacks Samson at “the vineyards of Timnah” (14:5), i.e. in a prosperous region. The lion acts as the guard of the territory and prevents Samson from entering the land which had been given as an inheritance to his ancestors. In a certain manner, the wild beast represents the Philistines, because they also prevent the Israelites from making use of the Promised Land. The comparison between the lion and the Philistines is even more interesting when one knows that for the Egyptians (distant ancestors of the Philistines according to Gen 10:14), the sphinx (mythical monster with the body of a lion and a human head) was the guardian of the land. The Philistines’ attack later on also recalls the lion’s attack, because their shouts (“The Philistines came shouting against him” 15:14) resemble the roars of a lion (“a young lion came roaring against him.” 14:5). In both cases, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon Samson at the moment of attack and lets him tear the lion apart with his bare hands as well as sever the new ropes with which he is bound (14:5; 15:14).
The story of the lion attack not only permits us to understand the riddle which follows, but also to show the divine power which Samson bears. The man who has been dedicated as from his infancy is invincible. He could attack the Philistines and deliver Israel, but he has a different task. The indication of the Spirit coming upon Samson does not signify that he did not have the Spirit at other moments, or that his intrinsic strength was generally sufficient, except in exceptional cases when he required additional force. The mention of the Spirit has a didactical purpose. The Spirit is mentioned (1) at the very start of Samson’s ministry to justify his acts in general and his marriage in particular (13:25); (2) at the first manifestation of his strength (14:6), (3) at the first physical confrontation with the Philistines (14:19), (4) when the author wishes to reinforce the parallels between the lion attack and the Philistine assault (15:14).
“After some time”, Samson returns to Timnah (14:8). A certain amount of time has passed between the two visits: the animal’s body has been reduced to a skeleton by birds and insects, because bees do not make their home in a cadaver. The bees have also had time to make honey. The judge, who is often described by commentators as being impulsive, takes his time. He plans the marriage and reflects on the ways to expose the Philistines’ character, because “he was seeking an occasion to move against” them (14:4). The double silence regarding the lion’s death and the honey found in the carcass (14:6, 9) show that Samson is thinking seriously about the trap he is going to set.
According to some commentators, Samson could have transgressed one or several Nazirite rules during his two visits. In particular, the judge touches a dead animal by taking the honey. This would explain why he does not divulge the source of the honey to his parents. His detour past the vineyards of Timnah could also indicate the desire to eat the fruit of the vine (Num 6:3-4). The second criticism is pure supposition, and the first overlooks the fact that the impurity related to contact with the dead refers to deceased persons and not animals (Num 6:6-7; see Nazirite regulations p. 279).
Presentation of the challenge (14:10-14a)
10So his father went down to the woman. And Samson gave a feast there, for young men used to do so. 11And it happened, when they saw him, that they brought thirty companions to be with him. 12Then Samson said to them, “Let me pose a riddle to you. If you can correctly solve and explain it to me within the seven days of the feast, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothing. 13But if you cannot explain it to me, then you shall give me thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothing.” And they said to him, “Pose your riddle, that we may hear it.” 14So he said to them: “Out of the eater came something to eat, And out of the strong came something sweet.”
Samson participates at the feast (michte). The word derives from the verb châtâ which means to drink. Some consider this as a further infraction of the Nazirite vow, but nothing indicates that Samson drinks wine on this occasion. Is it impossible for a teetotaller to participate at a banquet? Thirty companions are brought to him. Perhaps the family of the bride offers these men to prevent too many Israelites from participating at the feast, but more likely to protect themselves from Samson. From the moment he arrives, Samson will be surrounded by thirty guards disguised as wedding guests.
Without wasting time, Samson launches a challenge in the form of a riddle on the first day of the feast. Charades were a commonplace entertainment at feasts, and particularly during weddings, which lasted for seven days. Guests had the time to join in this type of amusement. The stakes of the game, however, suggest that the challenge was more than a simple amusement. The clothing proposed as a recompense is of superior quality (cf. Gen 45:22; 2 Kings 5:5, 22, 23) and most ordinary people generally only had one sole garment. In addition, the outcome of the challenge was apparently not limited to a material item. By proposing the gift of several garments, Samson chooses a sign of royalty as a recompense. In fact, in the culture of the Near East, a cloak was the traditional sign of investiture of an authority, just like the royal crown would be later on for the European monarchies. The story of the royal cloak which Haman demands from Ahasuerus is well known (Est 6:6-11). Elijah uses his cloak as a sign of his authority to part the waters of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:8), and this cloak will revert to Elisha, the worthy heir of his master (2 Kings 2:13-14). Joseph was honoured by his father with a multi-coloured coat, which made his brothers envious (Gen 37:3-4). By proposing the gift of a cloak, Samson indicates a sign of submission by the vanquished to the victor. As two people(s) live together following the marriage contract, the master of both shall be the one who is revealed as the most intelligent.
Samson’s challenge is rapidly accepted by the proud and greedy Philistines, who are only interested in material gain. The Philistines think they are superior and want to prove it to the Israelite champion. Furthermore, don’t they have thirty men to solve the riddle? Launching the challenge is easy and Samson has no trouble at all to convince them to enter this competition. Yet Samson has greater ambitions; he wants to win the contest to make the Philistines lose and thus expose their true nature.
The riddle is written in two lines with three rhyming words: (a) Out-of-the-eater came something-to-eat (b) And-out-of-the-strong came something sweet (14:14). The solution is easy for the reader, because he has just been told the surprising fact of the honeycomb in the lion’s carcass, and Samson’s refusal to share this story with his parents has aroused his curiosity and attention. On the other hand, for those who know nothing of the experience with the lion and the honey, the riddle seems unsolvable. Some accuse Samson of being dishonest, but that would be unjust. On one hand, the experience with the honeycomb is rare, but not unique, and the lion’s carcass was in the environs of the feast. On the other hand, the terms of the challenge are clear. The Philistines know in advance where they are going. They do not doubt for an instant that Samson will do his utmost to disguise the solution. They make the mistake of underestimating his intelligence.
The riddle’s difficulty also (and perhaps primarily) comes from the different meanings which can be given to it. Within the framework of a wedding feast, the Philistines might think of an orgy. The bravest of the young people would not have been able to resist the delicacies offered and the abundant food would not have prevented them from regurgitating the swallowed sweets in their overindulgence. The marriage could have also incited the Philistines to sexual innuendo. These two themes are popular during this type of meal, and are often mentioned in a roundabout way, particularly the second one. Thus, the husband is the consumer and the one who is strong on the sexual level, and his sperm is the sweetness which is sown in and feeds the wife. The variety of possible meanings is characteristic of some riddles, and the different interpretations are false leads meant to mislead the guessers. Even if the Philistines had found all of these meanings, they would not have known which one to present to Samson.
The nature of the Philistines exposed (14:14b-18)
Now for three days they could not explain the riddle. 15But it came to pass on the seventh day that they said to Samson’s wife, “Entice your husband, that he may explain the riddle to us, or else we will burn you and your father's house with fire. Have you invited us in order to take what is ours? Is that not so?” 16Then Samson’s wife wept on him, and said, “You only hate me! You do not love me! You have posed a riddle to the sons of my people, but you have not explained it to me.” And he said to her, “Look, I have not explained it to my father or my mother; so should I explain it to you?” 17Now she had wept on him the seven days while their feast lasted. And it happened on the seventh day that he told her, because she pressed him so much. Then she explained the riddle to the sons of her people. 18So the men of the city said to him on the seventh day before the sun went down: “What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?” And he said to them: “If you had not plowed with my heifer, You would not have solved my riddle!”.
The timeframe of a week does pose a few problems in the Hebrew text. The Philistines try to find the solution for three days (14:14) without success, and threaten the woman on the seventh day (14:15), whereas she implores Samson for seven days to reveal his secret to her (14:17). The Septuagint and the Syriac version partially resolve the difficulty by saying that the Philistines threaten the woman on the fourth day instead of the seventh day. The SEM and JER translations, as well as most of the English versions follow this reading. But other solutions present themselves. The woman obviously expects the Philistines. Conscious of the riddle’s difficulty and aware of her compatriots’ pride and hardheartedness, she foresees the family’s misfortune. On the other hand, the Philistines’ intimidation could have actually begun on the fourth day, but intensified and turned into threats of complete destruction on the seventh.
Samson’s test functions perfectly. Faced with defeat, the true nature of the Philistines is revealed. This people is less friendly than one might think. When they cannot find any solution, the Philistines break the rules of the game. As they cannot solve the mystery surrounding Samson with their intelligence they resort to illicit means to gain it. To go as far as to make death threats against one of their own members says a lot about their character.
Samson ends up revealing his secret, not due to weakness but to prove their sin. He lets them believe that he has succumbed to his wife’s tears, but makes sure to wait until the very last minute of the deadline. Because his secret has not been divulged even to those closest to him, the leak can only have come from his wife. Thus, the test also reveals the character of the woman whom Samson had chosen for her moral integrity (14:3). Even the best Philistine is untrustworthy. Some reply that the woman was threatened with death and that her deceit was excusable under those circumstances. The text does not seem to confirm this opinion. The men did not threaten the woman with death until after the expiration of the deadline (14:15). Thus, the woman seeks to obtain the solution as from the first day (“she had wept on him the seven days while their feast lasted” 14:17). The attempt to deceive Samson is present right from the start.
The Philistines’ reply is formulated in the same way as Samson’s riddle, in two lines of three words: (a) “What is-sweeter than-honey?” (b) “what is-stronger than-a-lion?” (14:18). The reply is given as a question. Is it done mockingly to show that the solution is obvious? Is it a literary device? As Samson had stated the question to them in the affirmative form, they reply with a question. Is it out of prudence? The Philistines notice that the riddle can have different answers, and they fear that Samson might change the meaning at the last minute (he who deceives always suspects the other of dishonesty). In the interrogative form, their reply contains a riddle and could include a hidden meaning. If Samson would hazard to reply that he is thinking of orgies or sex, they could say that their reply expressed that very idea, but that being distinguished persons, they had used imagery.
Samson does not contest the answer, because it is blatant proof that they have cheated, and he does not hesitate to tell them so. His answer is also constructed of three Hebrew words in two lines, with one rhyme more than the rhythm: (a) “If you had not plowed with my heifer” (b) “You would not have solved my riddle!” (14:18). Because heifers were generally not used for work, Samson lets them know that they have not respected the rules of the game. The references to a heifer and the planting of seeds in a field also carry a sexual connotation. The Philistines have cheated Samson in the most personal area, and their attitude can be equated to adultery with his wife.
Because Samson’s acts make people reflect, it is worth returning to the riddle itself for a moment. The reader, who is in on the secret from the start, appreciates the story and smiles at the Philistines’ vain efforts. But has he grasped the full import of the message? As Samson makes his contemporaries reflect, and the author does the same for his readers, perhaps the solution suggested at the start is incomplete. In fact, the riddle bears a double message. The first meaning is obvious, but not the second. To understand it, we must recall that the lion represents the Philistines and attacks Samson at the vineyards of Timnah. The beast, just like the uncircumcised, prevents access to part of the Promised Land. The fruit of the vine cannot be harvested. On the other hand, when the enemy is dead, the Jew can again enjoy his inheritance, the country where “milk and honey” flow. The honey in the defeated lion’s carcass symbolises blessing regained. Samson eats of it and give some to his parents (14:9) as if to show the Jewish nation that the Philistine enemy cannot be cajoled, but must be dispossessed and killed, as God had commanded them. By explaining the first solution to his wife (the lion represents strength, the honey sweetness), Samson does not reveal his key thoughts. The riddle basically alludes to the battle that Israel must lead against the Philistines. The adversary whom Israel must tame in order to be able to taste honey is not an animal, but a people. ‘Fight and kill the Philistines (the strong) and you will enjoy the fruits of the land (the sweet).’ This answer would be too offensive for the Philistines, so it could not possibly ever occur to them. This remark shows that once more, Samson reveals only what he wishes to, and that this judge is clearly the great winner of this intellectual confrontation.
Samson’s justice (14:19-20)
19Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily, and he went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty of their men, took their apparel, and gave the changes of clothing to those who had explained the riddle. So his anger was aroused, and he went back up to his father’s house. 20And Samson’s wife was given to his companion, who had been his best man.