So Samson said to them, “out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14:14).
When reading through the history, law, poetry, and prophecy of the Old Testament, many readers are caught off guard when they come across the strange riddle of Samson in the Book of Judges.
Riddles, enigmatic sayings, and proverbs are not exclusive to the Book of Judges and certainly not the boorish and brazen final judge of Israel either. However, the nature of this riddle and its relationship to the somewhat enigmatic man who delivered it is cause for exploration.
But what is the significance of Samson’s riddle, why did he give it, and what can we learn about Samson from it?
Who Was Samson in the Bible?
Samson is easily one of the most recognizable names of the Old Testament and probably the most popular of the judges before the anointing of Israel’s kings.
Though he is widely regarded as a hero of the Bible and Israel, Samson’s moral inconsistencies, violent behavior, and inability to withstand temptation make him a complex figure. That being said, despite his many shortcomings, Samson was instrumental in God’s plan for Israel’s deliverance.
Like many of the judges of Israel, Samson was called upon to deliver God’s people in a time of need. Of course, as was often the pattern following the death of Joshua, Israel had sinned, and God had delivered them into the hands of a foreign adversary (Judges 13:1).
However, God would also provide a way out in the form of an anointed military leader, known as a judge.
For 40 years, the Israelites had been harassed by the Philistines, a seafaring people who had migrated from somewhere in the Aegean Sea (possibly near modern-day Crete) to the Mediterranean coast of Canaan around the 12th century B.C.
With their advanced iron weapons, innovative technology, and aggressive military tactics, the Philistines invaded, harassed, and oppressed the children of Israel (Judges 13:1).
At this time, an angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah and his wife, letting them know that they would give birth to a son. This boy was to take a Nazirite vow and be set apart for God by never drinking alcohol, cutting his hair, or touching anything unclean, such as a dead body (Judges 13).
Samson’s renowned physical prowess, as gifted to him by the Spirit of the Lord, gave him the strength to perform mighty feats, such as tearing apart a young lion with his bare hands (Judges 14:5-6), killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:16), and carrying away the massive gate of Gaza when they thought he was trapped behind the city walls (Judges 16:3).
Needless to say, Samson was widely feared, violent, cunning, and brazen. However, he was also prone to fits of vengeance and lustful passion that frequently turned him away from God and his Nazarite vows.
Why Did Samson Give the Philistines This Riddle?
In Judges 14, we read that Samson had set his eyes on a young Philistine woman from Timnah and asked his mother and father to get her for him as his wife (Judges 14:2). Although his parents urged Samson to pursue a Hebrew woman from among his relatives, Samson was adamant that he marry this woman. “Get her for me, for she looks to me,” he insisted (Judges 14:3).
On the surface, it’s clear that Samson was guided by what he desired with his eyes. However, neither he nor his parents understood that this was part of God’s plan to act against the Philistines through Samson (Judges 14:4).
The Bible tells us that, on his way to Timnah, Samson ended up killing a young lion who attacked him (Judges 14:5). After Samson met with his prospective bride, he returned the way he came and noticed that the carcass of the lion was filled with honey and swarming with bees. “So he scraped the honey into his hands and went on, eating as he went” (Judges 14:9).
Whether or not this was a violation of his Nazirite vows is uncertain. However, the text implies clear sinfulness on Samson’s part. After all, Samson did not tell his father or mother what he had done. Instead, they proceeded to prepare the feast for Samson’s marriage to the Philistine woman.
As 30 Philistines gathered for the wedding feast, Samson said to them,
“Let me now propound a riddle to you; if you will indeed tell it to me within seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes. But if you are unable to tell me, then you shall give me thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes” (Judges 14:12-13).
And what was this riddle Samson introduced?
“Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14:14).
Samson was, of course, referring to the honey he had recently scooped from the carcass of the lion, an event his companions would have had no knowledge of. It was, therefore, an impossible riddle to solve and an unfair wager to begin with.
As one might expect, the Philistines were unable to solve Samson’s riddle.
Frustrated, the Philistines entreated Samson’s wife to give them the answer, threatening to burn her and her father’s house if she did not (Judges 14:15).
Samson’s wife then brought out the tears, begging Samson to reveal the answer to his riddle, and after seven days, Samson gave in (as he frequently did). His wife in turn delivered the answer to the Philistines.
Answer in hand, the Philistines finally returned to Samson. “What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?” they said (Judges 14:18).
Enraged that he had been deceived, Samson then traveled to Ashkelon and killed thirty of the Philistines, demonstrating his penchant for vengeance and violence at the slightest provocation (Judges 14:19).
Unfortunately, Samson’s father-in-law also assumed that Samon's rage and hatred of his wife had destroyed any chance they might have at a prosperous marriage. He then gave Samson’s wife to one of his friends (Judges 14:20).
In response, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied their tails together, tied torches to their tails, then set them loose to destroy the Philistine fields and vineyards (Judges 15:4-5).
Unlike the slaughter of the 30 Philistines who’d deceived him and answered his riddle, this was not an impulsive fit of rage or passion. Given the time it would have taken for Samson to catch, feed, and release 300 foxes, Samson demonstrated sincere patience, planning, and precision in seeking retribution against his enemies.
In many ways, this was also only the beginning of Samson’s one-man war against the Philistines.
Upon learning that it was Samson who had destroyed their fields, the Philistines retaliated by burning Samson’s former wife and her father (Judges 15:6).
Thus, the cycle continued.
What Does Samson's Riddle Reveal?
Now there is nothing particularly witty or clever about Samson’s riddle. In fact, it was not a traditional word puzzle or enigmatic saying, to begin with. If anything, it was a trick question based on hidden knowledge Samson alone possessed.
Not unlike Bilbo Baggins, famously asking the creature Gollum to guess what’s in his pocket in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Samson had given the Philistines a riddle they could not answer on their own.
In doing so, Samson’s own dishonesty was on full display as he had tricked the Philistines into a wager that he knew they could not win.
That being said, Samson’s further inability to withstand the wiles and petitions of a beautiful woman proved to be his undoing.
In many ways, Samson’s riddle and the events that followed were but a prelude to his eventual downfall at the hands of Delilah (Judges 16). Unfortunately, Samson would not learn his lesson from this encounter, falling into a much more sinister trap in the days to come.
Lustful, deceptive, dishonest, hot-tempered, violent, and vengeful, there are many things about Samson that made him a weak and foolish man despite his immense physical strength.
However, we must always remember that God was willing to use even a morally flawed and inconsistent man like Samson to deliver His people and fulfill His plans.
Yes, Samson had enormous potential. His feats of strength made him a national hero and legend in the annals of Jewish history. However, his weakness, moral failures, and acts of self-indulgence prove that even earthly leaders and the most powerful among us are bound to fall.
Therefore, we must always look to the true judge, deliverer, and hero of the story. Believe it or not, it is not Samson. That title belongs to God and God alone.
For further reading:
How Does the Story of Samson Point to Jesus?
Who Were the Philistines from the Bible?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Paolo Farinella
Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.