The Layman's Bible

Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation

Samson’s Riddle

I’m not sure if you’ve ever noticed this, but during the story of Samson in the book of Judges, he tells a strange riddle during his wedding feast.  Samson is so confident in this riddle that he actually makes a bet that nobody can solve it.  We pick this story up in Judges 14:12-14,

“Let me tell you a riddle,” Samson said to them.  “If you can give me the answer within the seven days of the feast, I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes.  If you can’t tell me the answer, you must give me thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes.”

“Tell us your riddle,” they said.  “Let’s hear it.”

He replied,

“Out of the eater, something to eat;
Out of the strong, something sweet.”

For three days they could not give the answer.

There’s nothing wrong with the riddle in and of itself, in fact, the way it is organized is very cool and makes the reader wonder what the answer could be.  The problem, however, comes in the form of the answer.  The men were unable to figure out what Samson was getting at in his couplet, and so they prodded his new wife until she explained it to them.  And so we read,

Before sunset on the seventh day the men of the town said to him,

“What is sweeter than honey?
What is stronger than a lion?

Samson said to them,

“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
You would not have solved my riddle” (Judges 14:18).

Leaving the odd wording of his comeback aside; notice that right away Samson figured out that they had asked his wife about the riddle.  He knew this because the riddle applied only to him and therefore would have been impossible to answer unless they were Samson or his wife.  You see, the lion in the riddle is one that Samson killed.  We read a little earlier,

The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat.  But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done (Judges 14:6).

Did you catch that?  He didn’t tell anyone what he had done!  There’s more though,

Some time later, when he went back to marry her, he turned aside to look at the lion’s carcass.  In it was a swarm of bees and some honey, which he scooped out with his hands and ate as he went along.  When he rejoined his parents, he gave them some, and they too ate it.  But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the lion’s carcass (Judges 14:8-9).


"Hey guys, do you like riddles?  I've got a GREAT one."

“Hey guys, do you like riddles? I’ve got a GREAT one.”

After returning to the rotten carcass of the lion, Samson ate some honey out of it (which is gross in its own right), and he again didn’t tell anyone about it (although he did feed some of it to his parents).  Samson’s riddle was exclusive to his experience, and therefore it was a stupid riddle since it was theoretically impossible for anyone else to answer.  I’ve never known what to do with this.  Every time I read through Judges I’d stop on the riddle and say to myself, “Man, that’s a really stupid riddle.”  However, Paul tells me in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  Therefore, I prayed (nay, begged) the Holy Spirit to explain to me what redeeming value this stupid riddle has since it is featured in the Word of God.  Upon receiving no immediate answer, I decided to search the internet (which led me to an article I mentioned in “That’s Not What My Jesus is Like”), which turned out to be even less enlightening than the riddle itself.  However, after a few days to a week, the Spirit one day chimed in that Samson’s riddle does have a lesson in it.  The riddle illustrates what sin does by corrupting the person who is sinning.

Before getting too much into the effects of sin, let’s establish some things about Samson, the man behind the riddle in question.  Samson was a special guy.  In fact, even his birth was special.  His story begins,

A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless.  The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son” (Judges 13:2-3).

The Bible has a few of these miracle births, such as Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist.  However, Samson’s had special rules attached to it,

Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because you will conceive and give birth to a son.  No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines (Judges 13:4-5).

Samson was a Nazirite from birth.  A Nazirite is a person with a special vow to the Lord.  Theoretically, by fulfilling their vow and by abstaining from various things that would make a person unclean, a Nazirite achieves a closer relationship with God (or in Samson’s case, amazing strength).  I’ve read before many Rabbis and theology experts try to defend Samson and argue that his rules were different than those of the standard Nazirite; however, the Bible only has one definition of what a Nazirite is.  We pick it up in Numbers 6:1-4,

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazirite, he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink.  He must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins.  As long as he is a Nazirite, he must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins.

Ok, so rule number one, nothing from the vine.  Interestingly enough, most scholars suggest that Samson’s wedding party was almost certainly a drinking party.  So there goes that rule.  Let’s look then at another rule,

Throughout the period of his separation to the Lord he must not go near a dead body.  Even if his own father or mother or brother or sister dies, he must not make himself ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of his separation to God is on his head (Numbers 6:6-7).

One of the major rules of a Nazirite is that he must not be around dead things.  The laws of Leviticus are pretty strong on dead animals and dead people causing uncleanness.  Considering that God uses Samson to kill a ton of Philistines and allows him to defend himself against a lion in the first place, we can assume that killing is ok for Sammy.  However, since the angel told even Samson’s mom not to eat unclean things, it seems very likely that Samson was supposed say…not eat from a rotting corpse.  Heck, even the average Israelite would be considered unclean by doing something like that (Way to make your parents unclean before God, Sam).  So already Samson is down two points and he hasn’t even met Delilah yet.  Samson’s got one more major rule he has to follow for his Nazirite vow,

During the entire period of his vow of separation no razor may be used on his head.  He must be holy until the period of his separation to the Lord is over; he must let the hair of his head grow long (Numbers 6:5).

Most of us (even non-Christians) know that later when Samson allows his hair to be cut, he loses his Spirit-induced strength.  After failing to keep the remaining rule in his vow, God finally revokes the vow himself and Samson ends up captured.  Samson knew the rules for a Nazirite, and yet he broke them.  Judges 13 is all about his parents freaking out about how to raise him, so clearly he was instructed as to the rules very clearly while he was growing up.  Therefore, Samson was actively sinning against his Nazirite vow on several occasions (especially when he ate out of a dead lion’s body).

So let’s get back to the riddle, it’s weird.  This helps us to understand that when we’re sinning (that is to say, when we’re repeatedly doing the same sins) we start acting weird.  Samson started drinking and hanging around dead things more than he was supposed to, and sure enough (probably while drunk), he made a stupid bet with a stupid riddle that only he could answer.  Samson likely didn’t even know what he was doing when he asked the riddle in the first place.  Solomon tells us,

The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn,
Shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
They do not know what makes them stumble (Proverbs 4:18-19).

“How could something so tastey be sinful?”

When a person is caught in sin, they can’t even remember that what they are doing is wrong.  It is like walking through darkness, everything seems dark so nothing seems like light.  Scripture also suggest that the more sin you partake in, the more you walk into the darkness.  Samson first ate from the dead lion, but later he threw what most believe to be a drinking party, and who knows what kind of other sins Samson may have had part in.  Paul talks about sin and purity in his letter to Titus.  Samson was supposed to be completely pure as a Nazirite, but his actions suggested that he was not.  Therefore we read, “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure.  In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15).  Clearly if Samson is making quizzes about dead animals, something is off.  Once sin starts taking root, it will come out automatically and betray a person.  We’re told that, “An evil man is trapped by his sinful talk, but a righteous man escapes trouble” (Proverbs 12:13).  With his stupid riddle, Samson actually accidentally boasted about a sin he had committed.  Likewise, with us, sin will cause us to slip up on our speech and actions.

While teaching the Israelites about what to do and what not to do, Moses gives them a stern warning that we all need to remember.  He says in Numbers 32:23, “But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.”  The devil tries to convince us that we can keep our sins a secret, but in the end, if we do not stop, our sin will find us out.  Jesus spoke very clearly on this topic during his time on earth.  Our savior tells us, “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open” (Luke 8:17).  And, oddly enough, often the person committing the sin will be the one who outs themselves.  We’ve seen Samson do it through his riddle, thank goodness the people in attendance were likely mostly Philistine, otherwise Samson might have been in some real trouble when it was realized that he was eating out of dead bodies.  Why does this happen?  Jesus tells us,

The good man brings the good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.  For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).

Just like we already discussed, when a person is in sin, they don’t know what they’re doing (like walking in darkness), and so it’s very easy for a person who is caught in sin to betray themselves.  I suppose one could say it is like a spiritual version of a Freudian Slip, what’s on your mind is what comes out.  So Samson, by making a big production of a supposedly great riddle that actually highlighted the sin he had committed against his vow to the Lord, showed just how much sin had permeated his life through his words.

“Oh no!  I’m in sin!  I don’t want people to think I’m stupid after I say something that doesn’t really make much sense and also makes me look bad!  What can I do!?”  The best advice comes from Paul, he writes, “Flee from the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).  Paul says to run away from sin and hang out with more spiritual people.  Samson definitely needed this advice, considering that not only was he in sin, but his new wife and crew were all Philistines, the enemies of God and Israel at the time.  Samson also would have done well if he was able to have heard God’s advice through Asaph,

Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
Fulfill your vows to the Most High,
And call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me (Psalms 50:14-15).

If you make a promise to God, do your best to fulfill it.  Samson was a man born of promise and his life was a living vow to God.  When that vow was fully broken, God took his protecting hand off of Samson and he got his eyes gouged out.  Hmm….perhaps that’s why Jesus later took it a step further and taught,

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.”  But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King (Matthew 5:33-35).

Jesus advises not making vows, promises, or oaths to God at all, because the Bible records that generally people have trouble keeping them anyway.  Instead do your best to live an honest, transparent life.  This means trying to keep your life as clean as possible.

But even if you have messed up and have gotten in pretty deep into sin, fear not!  Repentance always brings restoration.  As a Nazirite, Samson had three major rules to follow in order to retain his relationship with God.  Samson broke all of these and eventually God left him on his own.  Scripture tells us, “Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza.  Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding in the prison” (Judges 16:21).  After failing his vow, Samson was very severely punished.  Now blind and powerless he had nothing left.  But knowing he had sinned, Samson, while on display in front of the Philistines prayed to God for one last chance to prove himself.  God is faithful.  We read, after Samson prayed,

Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood.   Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!”  Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it.  Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived (Judges 16:29-30).

Samson's Riddle (Jesus Interceding)Samson’s story seems tragic, but considering the rather wild lifestyle he lived it’s amazing to see that the Lord still used him for good when he cried out to God.  How much more for us who have been saved by the blood of Jesus!  The Bible tells us about Jesus, “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25).  Not only are we purified forever through Jesus’ death on a cross, bringing us to heaven upon the expiration of our mortal bodies, but even after salvation, Jesus continues to defend us through his intercessions.  So even when you get caught deep in sin, pray to the Lord; and he will lift you out of the muck and the mire and light your way.  You were already declared clean in his sight when you came to a belief in his Son Jesus Christ.  Even now, if you reach out for help, the Lord will always extend his hand, because you’ve got the Son of God on your side.  So flee from sin, my friend, and take shelter in the Lord before you end up saying something really stupid and (God forbid) someone writes it down and makes you look bad.

Rock on God!

6 comments on “Samson’s Riddle

  1. Naomi
    May 26, 2016

    I came across your site when looking for a picture to illustrate my pastor’s sermon on the life of Samson. I ended up using the beautiful one of Samson eating honey from the dead lion. Then I got to reading your article and was kinda blown away. The heart of your message is what my pastor preached too, such a blessing for me to read both perspectives.

    I’ve followed your site on WordPress and hope to read more from you.

    If you’re interested, here is my pastor’s sermon on Samson’s riddle:

    God bless. 🙂

  2. The Layman
    May 26, 2016

    Thank you for the kind words 🙂

    I really like that picture too, whoever originally made it did an excellent job.

    I checked out the sermon and it was very cool. It’s fun seeing the same story in a different light; so thanks for linking that!

    Continue rocking on with God!
    -The Layman

  3. Mr Tannehauser
    January 9, 2018

    “Out of the eater, something to eat; Out of the strong, something sweet.”

    The eater, which references the lion, is a euphemism for the Philistine priesthood of Ishara. She was the cosmological consort of Dagon, whose temple is destroyed by Samson. Ishara was the Philistine incarnation of the deity Al-Lat (literally “Allah’s consort”) worshiped in pre-Islamic Mecca. She was routinely depicted as standing or sitting with a lion to indicate her role as Potnia Theron: the mistress of wild animals.

    The authors of Judges were referencing Delilah as a sacred prostitute of Ishara. Sampson’s violation of his Nazarite vows is his infidelity to the Jewish nation, which includes eating components of the sacred drink and fornication with a temple prostitute.The “something sweet” is a reference to Philistine rituals of mead and sacred prostitution, and the false allure of an exotic woman.

    The Greek historian Heterdotus equates Ishara to the muse, Melissa, of the Mycenaean civilization. Philistine grave wares found in Israel suggest a Mycenaean culture that had appropriated the Semitic temples. The equivalent Semitic deity Mylitta fed “milk and honey” to the infant Zeus. She was considered a psychopomp, and in the mythologies the bees that sprung from Mylitta’s carcass symbolized her ushering of the recently dead. Her name means honey, and she belongs to a broader Indo-European mythology of sacred mead.

    Bees don’t actually build hives in carcasses.The Biblical “land of milk and honey” was a reference to the extinction of Canaanite and Philistine polytheism.

    “What is sweeter than honey?What is stronger than a lion?”

    Judges answers Yahweh. The authors posit that fidelity to Yahweh is sweeter than Ishara’s temple prostitutes and stronger than her fury, the lion. For an interesting parallel look up the Muslim destruction of Al-Uzza’s temples.

    “If you had not plowed with my heifer, You would not have solved my riddle”

    in this passage the heifer is the moon, which was envisioned as plowing the seeds of heaven every night. The priesthood would ferment a fertility beverage, a mean, which was “ritualistically stolen” from El or Allah every month, and given to the priesthood.

    The symbols are agricutural. The name Ishtar/Ishara refers to the irrigating ditch, and she was called the “bringer of waters” Meanwhile another deity, Molech/Chemosh (i.e. the Mycenaean Minotaur), represented the plow and the burning of fallow. There is a Near Eastern narrative in which Demeter is also involved in a child sacrifice to fire.

    Together these deities represented the agricultural and the lunar cycles. The “plowed with my heifer” is a debasement of the foreign appropriation of Semitic temples to Al Lat and Ishara. It probably references the infidelity of Delilah too, because fidelity to God is the theme.

    • The Layman
      January 10, 2018

      You make some interesting points.

      While it is true that “Bees don’t actually build hives in carcasses” at least usually, the Bible is clear that Samson found a hive in a lion. (Judges 14:8-9)

      The Bible also gives the answer to the riddle in Judges 14:18. Taken from a plain reading and assuming that Scripture is true, we are to assume this lion beehive actually happened.

      I am glad that you are delving deep into Scripture. Just be careful that as you do that you never forget that if we can’t take the Word as written then there is no reason to take it at all. After all, if one part actually happened, and another did not- what is the criteria for picking and choosing? If there was no creation then there was no fall. If there was no fall then there is no reason for Jesus. At that point one may as well stop studying this book and go out and enjoy their lives while it lasts.

      Anyway, thank you for your interest in this article, may the Lord guide your Biblical studies.

  4. Tannehauserlives
    February 13, 2018

    You’ve stated:

    “Never forget that if we can’t take the Word as written then there is no reason to take it at all. After all, if one part actually happened, and another did not- what is the criteria for picking and choosing?”

    Believers don’t have to adopt mainstream views to be accepted among the faithful. People of faith don’t have to choose between a rubber-stamped, consensual interpretation of scripture and complete abandonment of faith. All God requires of us is just action and trust: salvation requires no mediator.

    In adopting literalism, we gain uniformity, which has empowered the Church politically. However, to secure uniformity many pastors have shamed the people. Am I correct in assuming that you comment, “What is the criteria for picking and choosing?” alludes to the derogatory “cafeteria Christianity.”

    Some pastors put Jesus’s teachings of tolerance aside in pursuit of uniformity and empowerment, but this is folly. These practices split the congregation and can destroy the spiritual authority of the faith. Consider the Islamic literalist movement: salafism. Adoption of these views has led to Muslim genocide. The empowered clergy has done a great evil to the former members of its faith. I believe this has occurred because, in their pursuit of power, the Salafi have failed to follow Christ’s message of universal acceptance. The origins of the Reformation lay in this same process.

    Beyond the rejection of non-conforming Christians, literalism limits our capacity for Biblical interpretation. I’d like to illustrate the process.

    All words are given “as written” and require interpretation—even sacred words. Let’s compare the analysis of scripture to the analysis of historical texts. Since our faith was developed in conjunction with rituals, let’s review texts which still retain a ritual use in society:

    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
    All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
    Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

    Because we’ve a common tradition, most Americans would agree that those are the correct words to the nursery rhyme. Though the narrative is odd, we accept that Mary’s garden is filled with sea shells, bells and some ladies have come to observe it.

    However, if an Englishman were to provide alternative verses, and ask that we refrain from our verses because they are innovations of the original

    Humpty Dumpty lay in a beck.
    With all his sinews around his neck;
    Forty Doctors and forty wrights
    Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty to rights!

    Unfortunately, we don’t arrive at the same as understanding. So not we’ve split ourselves into two groups. In researching the narrative we might find the English version predates the Humpty of American memory. Ultimately we’d discover that the story is not a moral lesson at all; Humpty Dumpty was a canon that fell from a defensive wall and left the Royalists defenseless.

    We could take a literalist approach, denouncing the earlier narrative, insisting that there was a walking egg, establishing the narrative as a cautionary miracle. Conversely, we could accept that a historical event became a cautionary tale. The miracle is that morality begins to be actualized from a growing narrative. I see the hand of divine providence.

    To me literalism is a manifestation of doubt. Supposing there were no miracles, does the literalist have the capacity for faith without proof? I’m not telling you that you have to see it my way. I’m telling you that I see literalism as a crutch for those who need proof. It occurs as providence because it is needed.

    In contrast, you warn “Never forget that if we can’t take the word as written, then there is no reason to take it at all.” Is there no room for those who seek a deeper understanding? Are my observations not providence for my faith?

    I’m curious. How exactly should we we apply that criteria? Am I supposed to stop believing in God and become an atheist? I wonder how many of us have abandoned the faith through this mechanism. Why is it that so many atheists come from religious families?

    We need to provide room at the table. It is a shame that we do not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on December 21, 2013 by in Bible Stuff and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: