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In Judges 14, Samson kills a lion and leaves the body there. When he comes back to it, a swarm of bees has taken over and there is now honey there:

5 Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. 6 The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him 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. 7 Then he went down and talked with the woman, and he liked her.

8 Some time later, when he went back to marry her, he turned aside to look at the lion’s carcass, and in it he saw a swarm of bees and some honey. 9 He scooped out the honey 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.

Samson later uses this experience to create a riddle in 14:12:

12 “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. 13 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.”

14 He replied,

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

The answer is revealed in vs 18:

18 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?”

What is the significance of this image and Samson's riddle?

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  • Why must the honey be symbolic, why can it simply not be understood as the means God was using to provoke a fight as the text implies? – Jonathan Chell Apr 8 '15 at 11:20
  • @JonathanChell Samson is a picture of the Lord Himself, who destroys His enemies, yet brings the 'sweet' to those who abide in Him. One cannot ignore the allegorical reference, especially when it is hinted at by Samson himself. – Tau Apr 9 '15 at 3:06
  • @Tau you seem to be confusing allegory with typology. Simply because one may be able to establish that Samson is a type does not imply we must allegorise every detail of his story and I am not aware of Samson ever hinting that the honey has any signficance beyond his riddle. – Jonathan Chell Apr 9 '15 at 18:15
  • @JonathanChell While Samson is certainly a 'type', the fact that God used His 'supernatural strength' and the 'honeybee nest' along with the riddle to confound the Philistines is allegorical to God's relationship w/Israel. There are no 'accidents' here-it is God's determined will to set up a controversy and provide an alternative to their captivity. Another question: was it an 'accident' that the Philistines got hemorrhoids carrying the Ark of the Covenant? – Tau Apr 10 '15 at 5:12
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    @Tau I agree there are no accidents, and again even if the allegory is there (and I note you have shown where Samson hints at it) to go from the general to the specific and find meaning in every detail seems disingenuous to me, it is akin to looking at the parable of good Samaritan and finding a meaning in the fact that donkey had ears :-D – Jonathan Chell Apr 10 '15 at 6:45
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Dr. Martin Emmrich (Greek and Hebrew professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) has made an extensive explanation about the symbolism of bees and lion carcass. I happened to read this while pondering about the contradiction of the unholy act of Samson and the Nazarite status of his. Which also applied to Israel conquest of Canaan, since Canaan is the land inhibited by 'unclean', as opposite to Israel's holy (set apart) status.

We have noted earlier that the lion’s cadaver was an unlikely host for a “community” of bees. But so was Canaan for Israel. For although the promised land was introduced as a “good land” (see above), initially God’s holy nation (cf. Exod 19:6) entered an “unclean” zone. When Israel set foot on their new homeland, they were to destroy all traces of idolatry, on account of which the land was “defiled” (cf. Lev 18:24–25, 27). Of course, the defilement of the land had to do with the uncleanness of the people who used to live in it, so that the ignominious state of the land could only be lifted by the death of its inhabitants (cf. Num 35:33). Like bees in a carcass, Israel was to inhabit a country of idolaters, a country that became habitable for God’s community only through the death of God’s enemies.

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I will rarely put forward an idea if I can't find at least one solid commentary to argue the same thing, however in this case I think the solution is obvious and am surprised that after checking several commentaries I can't get a good quote to support it.

Note that 'honey' is one of the things the land was supposed to be flowing with (along with milk) when Moses lead the people out of Egypt, and that a lion is a man-slayer, or representative of the dangers that Israel faced in Canaan. The lion might logically represent the wicked Philistines oppressing Israel, or the dangers that Samson (as Israel’s representative) introduces to his own life by marrying one. Honey is the blessing to Israel that God will bring from the carcass of the Philistines, by mingling his sweet purpose in the joining of Samson to that Philistine woman by his amazing power.

The symbol makes sense as Samson was encountering this wonderful miracle that gave him strength and pleasure on his journey when going to get his wife, of which no Jew should marry. But out of ill-conceived plans and sins, God can arrange a link to his predetermined all-knowing accomplishment of his promise to Israel.

Regarding the riddle I find it hard to believe anyone could guess it unless it was previously known that on occasion bees might make their hive in a dead animal. Some commentators say that the constellation Leo is where the Sun is during the season that bees are busy but I really think this is not a plausible fact to have given someone a chance at guessing the riddle.

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    They didn't guess, Samsons betrothed nagged the answer out of him and told them. – Joshua Apr 8 '15 at 13:59
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St. Caesarius of Arles explains it like this:

Truly, this is very appropriate, for to us Christ is a lion in whose mouth we found the food of honey after His death. What is sweeter than the word of God? Or what is stronger than His right hand? In whose mouth after death is there food and bees, except His in whose word is the good of our salvation and the congregation of the Gentiles? The lion can further be understood as the Gentiles who believed. First, it was a body of vanity, but is now the body of Christ in which the apostles like bees stored honey of wisdom gathered from the dew of heaven and the flowers of divine grace. Thus, food came out of the mouth of the one who died; because nations which were as fierce as lions at first, accepted with a devout heart the word of God which they received and produced the fruit.1