Samson's riddle

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Samson's riddle is a riddle that appears in the biblical narrative about Samson. Samson wagered a riddle to thirty Philistine guests, in these words: "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet" (Judges 14:14). Instead of a fair riddle that could be discerned with deduction, the riddle was based on a private experience of Samson who killed a young lion (kephir)[1] and after a while found bees and honey in its corpse. "What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?" (Judges 14:18) is the answer to the riddle. The Philistines, who could not solve the riddle, extorted the answer from Samson's wife, who persuaded Samson to tell it to her. The wager's prize was 30 soft under shirts (sedin)[1] and good suits (chalipha)[1] to the winner, for which Samson slew 30 Philistine men to pay the terms.

The Jewish sages and the medieval commentators accepted the story literally and did not pay much attention to the riddle. In modern times, many biblical scholars have studied the Samson cycle and its components, including Samson's riddle. Some of them, mainly influenced by form criticism, have tried to reconstruct the original background and meaning of the riddle and of other components in the story, under the assumption that story in its current form is the product of a combination of originally independent traditions; These scholars proposed diverse answers to the riddle, not necessarily related to the answer proposed in the biblical text. Other scholars investigated the riddle and the narrative surrounding it in their final form, as a literary work of art.

The riddle[edit]

Samson's riddle (Book of Judges 14:14).

ויאמר להם
יצא מאכל מהאכל
יצא מתוק ומעז
wayyōmer lāhem
mêhā’ōḵêl yāṣā ma’ăḵāl
ūmê‘az yāṣā māṯōq
And he said unto them,
Out of the eater came something to eat,
and out of the strong came something sweet.

Biblical narrative[edit]

Samson's riddle is interwoven with the narrative about Samson and the woman from Timnah. This narrative appears in chapters 14-15 in the Book of Judges, and is part of the Samson cycle, which includes chapters 13-16. The first part of the narrative, in chapter 14, is the one that includes the riddle. There are several difficulties in the text, especially concerning Samson's parents involvement in the phases preceding the wedding, and concerning chronological aspects in the description of the feast and the riddle. In critical exegesis, these difficulties are usually treated assuming that the text has undergone several editorial phases. Traditional exegesis tends to harmonize the difficulties.[citation needed] [2]

Background: The incident with the lion[edit]

Samson Slaying the Lion, Doré

The first woman Samson befriended was a Philistine woman from Timnah, whom he chose as his appointed wife. His parents, Manoah and his wife, have pleaded him to take an Israelite wife instead, but Samson refused. They – and perhaps Samson himself – were not aware of the fact that Samson's stubbornness was part of a divine plan to provide him an excuse to strike the Philistines, as indeed will happen later. On his way to his wife Samson encountered a lion, and "he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat" (Judges 14:6). Eventually, when Samson returned to the place where he killed the lion, he saw that a swarm of bees has created a hive in the carcass. Samson collected honey from the hive for himself and for his parents, not telling them or anyone else about the source of the honey.

The wedding feast, the riddle, and its consequences[edit]

The wedding feast was held at the wife's household. The incident with the lion became the subject of a riddle that Samson posed to his thirty Philistine guests in the feast: "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet". Samson promised to give the Philistines thirty expensive garments if they solve the riddle within seven days, or else, if they don't solve the riddle, they will give him such garments. The Philistines, who couldn't solve the riddle fairly, threaten the life of Samson's wife so that she would tell them the answer. The wife begged Samson to tell her the answer until he did so, then she told the answer to the Philistines, who told it to Samson: "What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?". Samson, who understood that the Philistines had blackmailed the answer from his wife, reacted furiously: "If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle". In order to pay his debt, Samson went to Ashkelon, murdered thirty Philistines and took their garments. After this incident, Samson left his wife angrily and returned to his own family. The incident has set in motion, according to the divine plan, a series of violent conflicts between Samson and the Philistines, as described later in the story.

The individual elements in the narrative[edit]

Some scholars, especially the earlier ones, influenced by form criticism, tend to assume that the distinctive elements of the riddle and its surrounding narrative had existed separately before the literary crystallization that interwove them together, and that their original form and meaning might have been different than those reflected in their current context. For example, the Philistines' answer appears in the text as the correct answer to the riddle, but it is possible that the original answer was different. Scholars of this attitude tend to focus on the various elements of the story and treat them individually, outside their current context, trying to understand their original background. Hereinafter, the individual elements of the story will be discussed according to this exegetical attitude.

Some scholars think that the Samson cycle in general, and Samson's riddle and its surrounding narrative in particular, were largely influenced by ancient Greek culture; Some of them think that this influence was mediated by Philistine culture, which is generally thought to be related to Mycenaean culture.[3] Accordingly, some scholars treat the narrative, or certain motifs in it, in light of parallel stories of Greek mythology and folklore. Another widely accepted assumption is that the narrative should be interpreted in light of themes related to sex and gender arising from the Samson cycle in general, and from the context of the wedding feast in particular, which implies an erotic and reckless atmosphere. Accordingly, some interpretations tend to the erotic or the vulgar.

The incident with the lion[edit]

Samson Slays a Lion, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

Scholars have tried to explain the incident with the lion, which constitute the subject of the riddle. This incident, like other descriptions in Samson cycle, contains unrealistic elements: That Samson could tear apart the lion bare-handed is undoubtedly exceptional, but the description of bees nesting in the lion's carcass also seems unrealistic, as bees do not normally nest in carcasses. A few scholars have tried to explain the realistic background of this description, by suggesting, for example, that the bees nested in the lion's dry skeleton and not in his rotten carcass,[4] but such opinions are uncommon. The common opinion is that this is a description of an exceptional or even miraculous event, like that of the tearing of the lion. Accordingly, most scholars ignore the realistic background of the description and treat it with literary methods.

Some scholars examine the description with methods from comparative literature and form criticism. These scholars tend to separate between the description of the tearing of the lion and that of the bees and the honey, and to explain the background of each of these elements individually. It is widely conjectured that the two motifs originally existed separately, unrelated to each other and to Samson's riddle. Othniel Margalith, a scholar of Philistines and their culture, has suggested that the original background of the two motifs is Philistine-Mycenaean.[5]

Tearing of the lion[edit]

The tearing of the lion can be treated as a legendary description meant to exalt Samson as a superhuman hero, like other description in the Samson cycle that demonstrates his prodigious physical strength. The motif of a hero defeating a lion is widespread in world folklore, and appears in other places in the Hebrew Bible; it is told of David (1 Samuel 17:36) and about Benaiah (2 Samuel 23:20).[6]

According to Paul Carus, the lion is a mythical symbol of the heat of the sun, and Samson represents the solar deity who can "kill the lion", that is to diminish the heat of the sun.[7] Carus' conjecture is rooted in an old scholarly approach, not accepted in current research, which considers Samson a mythological "solar hero" – that is, a god or a demigod related to the sun – and interprets the stories about him from this point of view.

Margalith points out the fact that in other occurrences of the motif of the defeating of a lion in the bible, and in ancient Near East in general, the hero hunts the lion and doesn't kill him bare-handed as in the Samson story; On the other hand, this detail of killing the lion bare-handed is widespread in Greek sources. This indicates, according to Margalith, the Mycenaean background of the biblical story. Margalith compares the story about Samson tearing the lion to the story about Heracles killing the Nemean lion bare-handed; and to other heroes of Greek mythology, who like Samson kills a lion bare-handed on their way to captivate their beloved.[8]

Honey in the lion's carcass[edit]

Scholars have suggested parallels to the motif of bees nesting in the lion's carcass. In this context one frequently mention the alleged ritual of bugonia – raising bees in a cow's carcass – described in Greek and Roman literary sources, in Virgil's Georgics for example.[9] This fictitious literary description is understood in light of the ancient belief of spontaneous generation. Virgil describes bugonia as an Egyptian custom. Some speculate that the description arose in connection with the identity between apis, the Latin word for "bee", and Apis, the Latin name of the Egyptian bull-deity.[10] It is possible that the biblical description was influenced by a similar double meaning in Hebrew (see below). Also mentioned in the context of bees in the lion's carcass motif is the story about Onesilus and the bees that nested in his skull.

The riddle[edit]

The riddle Samson posed to the Philistines is the only explicit example of a riddle in the Hebrew Bible.[11] In its context, the answer to the riddle is honey from the lion's carcass: Honey is "something to eat" and "something sweet", and lion is "the eater" and "something strong". Apparently, the riddle is an unfair one, and can hardly be called a riddle, since it is based on a private experience of Samson which the Philistines could not possibly know about. The Philistine could not even think of an incident like this, since, as stated previously, bees do not normally hive in carcasses. In addition, the words "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet" can be interpreted in many ways other than referring to honey from a lion.

Many commentators have been uncomfortable with the riddle's unsolvable nature, and they have tried to interpret it according to the assumption that it can be solved without knowledge of the incident with the lion and the bees. It is assumed that the riddle originally had an independent answer, not necessarily identical with the one stated in the biblical text, and that only at a later stage in the creation of the narrative was the riddle connected to the incident with the lion and the bees. For instance, it has been posited that the riddle's original meaning, or at least one of its possible meanings, is sexual, with the description of honey as "something to eat" and "something sweet" having originally referred to semen.[12]


  1. ^ a b c Tom Bradford. "Old Testament Studies: Lessen 21 Chapter 14". Torah Class: Rediscovering the Old Testament. Seed of Abraham Ministries, Inc. Retrieved 2016-12-23.
  2. ^ see for example Soggin 1981, pp. 239-241;
  3. ^ Yadin 2002, p. 416.
  4. ^ This opinion is cited at Margalith 1986, p. 227.
  5. ^ For the lion's tearing motif see below. For the bees in the lion's carcass see Margalith 1986, pp. 228-229.
  6. ^ See Amit 1999, p. 234.
  7. ^ Carus 1907, pp. 42-43.
  8. ^ Margalith 1987, pp. 66-68.
  9. ^ Book 4, verse 295 onward, cited at Amit 1999, p. 234.
  10. ^ See M. Naor's note at Tur-Sinai 1966, p. 393.
  11. ^ Margalith 1986, p. 226
  12. ^ See discussion and literature cited at Crenshaw 1978, pp. 114-116.