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From the story of Samson in Judges 14 (NIV):

Now his father went down to see the woman. And there Samson held a feast, as was customary for young men. When the people saw him, they chose thirty men to be his companions.

"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."

As per the continuation of this stoy, the solution Samson seeks is a beehive inside of a lion carcass. But this image was something that Samson encountered earlier in chapter 14 when he was walking by himself, so how is this a fair riddle?

How were Samson's companions supposed to figure this out?

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    Seems like you are anticipating me. I'm on the hook to teach on Samson this Sunday! – Jon Ericson Sep 19 '12 at 17:21
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It does remind one of "What have I got in my pocket?", doesn't it? In the Hobbit, Bilbo and Gollum agree that, since it isn't an entirely proper riddle, Gollum will get three guesses.

It seems that Samson and his potential in-laws agreed to a similar solution. Reading on:

And in three days they could not solve the riddle.

On the fourth day they said to Samson's wife, “Entice your husband to tell us what the riddle is, lest we burn you and your father's house with fire. Have you invited us here to impoverish us?” And Samson's wife wept over him and said, “You only hate me; you do not love me. You have put a riddle to my people, and you have not told me what it is.” And he said to her, “Behold, I have not told my father nor my mother, and shall I tell you?” She wept before him the seven days that their feast lasted, and on the seventh day he told her, because she pressed him hard. Then she told the riddle to her people.—Judges 14:14b–17 (ESV)

In other words, the young men had the entire seven days of the feast to solve the riddle. Presumably, they were allowed to make as many wrong guesses as they liked within that time and as long as they never made a correct guess Samson would win the riddle contest.

Since the text doesn't lay out the rules in detail, this form of riddle that did not contain enough clues to be solved in one guess must have been common practice. One hint we read is:

His father went down to the woman, and Samson prepared a feast there, for so the young men used to do.—Judges 14:10 (ESV)

It's speculation, but I wonder if the telling of riddles was a local tradition along the lines of tossing a garter or the kings' cake. In other words, a fairly meaningless tradition that people engage in to break the ice and pass the time. But it turned sour in Samson's case:

And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men of the town and took their spoil and gave the garments to those who had told the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father's house. And Samson's wife was given to his companion, who had been his best man.—Judges 14:19-20 (ESV)

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  • "rushed upon him." A very interesting word choice. I'll have to look at the Hebrew for it. Might get a question out of it! – Frank Luke Sep 12 '14 at 13:16
  • Yep. Couple of different words used to describe the Spirit coming upon people. Indeed, got a question out of it. Thank you so much for quoting the ESV here. If I hadn't seen the different phrasing in English, I would have assumed it used the standard phrasing in Hebrew. – Frank Luke Sep 12 '14 at 14:10
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In the Samson cycle of stories, the wedding riddle is a metaphor of the impossible situation that Samson, and by identification, the Israelites, are in.

This cycle of stories deals with the ambivalent nature of the relationship with the Philistines. On the one hand, they are bitterest of enemies. One the other, there is rampant assimilation into Philistine culture whose basis, particularly it religious basis, is in fundamental contradiction to Israelite culture. This hate/love situation is a natural outcome of Philistine suzerainty.

The riddle is not "fair", just as the contradictions of the Israelite plight under Philistine suzerainty cannot be rationalized away by any syncretist or assimilationist argument. The riddle, and the situation that it engenders, cannot be solved without recourse to both insider knowledge and "unfair" means, and with inevitable tragic consequences.

The impossibility of the riddle is nothing compared with the impossible situation of a nazirite, Samson, who has undertaken vows of purity more stringent than the purity required of the high priest, yet who goes to live among the impurest of the impure, the Philistines. The parable of the impossible riddle then purveys a powerful anti-assimilation message to the Israelite listener.

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"Okay, there's an eater. Bulldozers 'eat' buildings, don't they? Oh wait, we haven't invented those yet. Venus flytrap? Nope, haven't discovered those yet. OK, must be an animal. Or maybe a bunch of them like a swarm of locusts. Oh, but it's strong...maybe a dragon or a leviathan or a lion or a bull.."

"Now, something sweet. Hmm. Gummy bears? Snickers? No...pretty much figs and dates and honey are the only sweet things we've got to eat."

"So we're down to: How do you get figs or dates or honey out of a strong animal?"

Still a hard question, but not nearly the explosion of combinations (both literal and figurative) it would pose for us today.

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Sorry this is millennia late, but having first heard the riddle 6 days ago I felt I should answer it publicly.

It is a fair riddle, which has different answers for the Philistines and the faithful. The Philistines hear “casual sex” involving the withdrawal method, and rather than giving a sexually-explicit answer they use innuendo to show that they know what Samson was getting at. “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” is a polite exposition of Samson’s riddle, not a direct answer.

But the faithful hear “God’s lovingkindness”, in both the riddle and the Philistines’ exposition of it.

Heb:”ma-’ă-ḵāl” = Eng:“something to eat” is perhaps too purposive. It might at the same time mean Eng:“what it eats”. Heb:”ū-mê-‘az” = Eng:”out of the strong” is strong in a violent or bad sense, it never seems to be used of God but I wonder if it can be used of God’s retribution as we perceive it Heb:”mā-ṯō-wq” = Eng:”something sweet” is used in one place of God’s commandments (Ps.19:11).

Gen 3:17 - Adam is an eater and his food comes out of him because he farms the soil Gen 8:17 – the animals come out of the Ark. The Covenant comes out of the Flood Gen 22 – Isaac comes out of the sacrifice, God’s blessing comes out of Abraham’s trial The bread comes out of Christ, salvation comes out of the Crucifixion.

At Judges 17, Samson tells his bride-to-be about the literal lion and honey at Judges 14:8. As his bride-to-be she wouldn’t approve of the sexual answer, and as a Philistine she wouldn’t understand the religious answer. He is testing – not just her loyalty but also God’s will for him. When the Philistines mention the lion and the honey, he knows that the marriage isn’t God’s will – God’s will is the destruction of the Philistines. Samson comes out of the riddle as he went in: neither gaining or losing a wife or 30 tunics but now understanding his place in God’s will. Perhaps he comes out of the jaws of his own wisdom wiser, and out of the violence of his self-discovery comes Israel’s freedom.

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  • Why do you think the riddle has any sexual meaning? Please explain this more. – curiousdannii Mar 11 at 1:36
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Does "plow with heifer" have sexual meaning?

Is Job 31.10 related? https://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/job/31/1/t_conc_467010

"If ye had not plowed with my heifer.--Many commentators, following Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom, read in this proverbial phrase an implication that Samson suspected his wife of adultery; but there is no sufficient reason for this view." https://biblehub.com/judges/14-18.htm Ellicott's Commentary

Same link. Pulpit Commentary "They put their answer in a form to make it seem as if they had guessed the riddle; but Samson instantly perceived his wife's treachery, and showed that he did so by quoting the proverb of plowing with another person s heifer. They had not used their own wit to find out the riddle, but had learnt the secret at Samson's cost, through his wife."

"The third poetic fragment, in v 18b, provides in its vulgarity a counterpoint to the riddle proper." New Jerome Commentary

"sun went down" Hebrew word similar to word for "plow'.

Timnath reminds of Judah who hired "harlot" with "kid". See Judges 15.1 & Genesis 38.13.

In black "thug" vernacular "Did you 'f with my ho'? I'm going to 'f' you up(violence)"

"answer to riddle is love" New Jerome

I think of Samson as type of Christ. Philistine women as gentile "harlot" church.

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  • No, it does not. – Nigel J Oct 4 at 0:14
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The honey he found in the lion he fought and killed is the answer. Nothing is sweeter than honey and no animal stronger than a lion. Lions are known to eat men and animals, thus the from out of the eater something to eat, and the honey is something sweet from the lions strong jaws. Thus there is your answer!! Its not a metaphor it was a true situation he was speaking of!! As to the other question,it was actually quite fair in the fact as the Philistinians hated Samson and thus israel. It was teaching that you can be as strong as a lion but without the sweetness of love on your heart you are as dead as the lion the honey came out of.

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    The question includes the answer to the riddle itself, but inquires how this is a fair riddle. – user2027 Feb 2 '14 at 13:41

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