Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Judges 14:1-4. Samson desires a woman of Timnath to wife. Judges 14:5-7. He kills a lion on his way. Judges 14:8-9. He finds honey in the carcass. Judges 14:10-11. The wedding feast. Judges 14:12-14. Samson’s riddle. Judges 14:15-18. It is treacherously revealed by his wife. Judges 14:19-20. He slays thirty Philistines, and so pays the forfeit.
And Samson went down to Timnath, and saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines.(1) To Timnath.—This town, of which the site still retains the name Tibneh, is perhaps the same as that in Genesis 38:12, unless that be a town in the mountains of Judah, as Judah is there said to have “gone up” not as here, “down” to it. In Joshua 15:10 it is assigned to Judah, but appears to have been afterwards ceded to Dan (Joshua 19:45). The name means “a portion,” and is found also in Timnath-serah, where Joshua was buried (Joshua 24:30).
Of the daughters of the Philistines.—This was against the spirit of the law, which forbad intermarriages with Canaanites (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4). The sequel showed the wisdom of the law (2Corinthians 6:14).
And he came up, and told his father and his mother, and said, I have seen a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines: now therefore get her for me to wife.(2) Get her for me to wife.—These arrangements were always left to parents, who paid the marriage dower (Genesis 34:4-12). (Comp. Judges 12:9; Nehemiah 10:30, &c.)
Then his father and his mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines? And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well.(3) Of the uncircumcised Philistines.—This on the lips of Israelites was a term of peculiar hatred (1Samuel 17:36). How repugnant such a marriage would be in the eyes of Manoah and his wife we may see from the story of Simeon, Levi, and the Shechemites (Gen. xxxiv).
But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the LORD, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.(4) That it was of the Lord.—All that can be meant is that in this marriage God was overruling the course of events to the furtherance of His own designs. He makes even the weakness and the fierceness of man redound to His praise. (Comp. Joshua 11:10; 2Chronicles 25:20.) See the same phrase in the story of Rehoboam’s folly (1Kings 12:15). “Behold this evil is of the Lord,” says Elisha in 2Kings 6:33. It is the strong sense of the Divine rule which we find even in heathen writers, so that in the very opening lines of Homer we find the poet saying, “that amid all the crimes and passions of men the counsel of Zeus was being accomplished.”
“Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumbered, heavenly goddess sing:
That wrath which hurled to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs unnumbered slain,
Whose limbs, unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore,
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,—
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!.”
That he sought an occasion.—Some commentators explain “he” to mean Jehovah, which seems most unlikely. The word rendered “an occasion” is rather, “a quarrel” (LXX., “retribution,” or “vengeance”).
Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him.(5)The vineyards of Timnath.—All this part of Palestine, and especially the neighbouring valley of Sorek (Judges 16:4), was famous for its vines (Isaiah 5:2; Jeremiah 2:21). The hills of Judah, which at that time were laboriously terraced up to the summit, like the hill-sides of the Italian valleys, were peculiarly favourable for vineyards (Genesis 49:11). Now they are bleak and bare by the denudation of centuries, but might by labour be once more rendered beautiful and fruitful.
A young lion.—Literally, a lion of lions, like “a kid of goats” (Judges xiii, 15). That lions and other wild beasts were still common in Palestine, we see, both from the direct statement of the fact (1Kings 10:19; 2Kings 17:25, &c.), from the incidents which show it to have been so (1Samuel 17:34; 2Samuel 23:20; 1Kings 13:25; 1Kings 20:36), and from the names Arieh (2Kings 15:6), Lebaoth (“lionesses,” Joshua 15:32), Beth Lebaoth (Joshua 19:6), Shaalbim (“jackals”), Zeboim (“hyenas”), &c.
And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.(6) The Spirit of the Lord.—Implying here an access of courage and strength. The verb rendered “came mightily” literally means pervaded, as in Judges 14:19, Judges 15:14; 1Samuel 10:10. (Comp. 1Samuel 18:10—of the evil spirit rushing upon Saul; LXX., “leapt upon him;” Vulg., irruit.)
Rent him.—Josephus (with the intention of making his Greek readers think of Hercules and the Nemean lion) says “he throttled him.” Of course this was a most heroic exploit, but it is not unparalleled. Pausanias, in his Eliaca (ap. Suid. Lex. s.v Polydamas), related a feat of the athlete Polydamas, who in his youth slew, while unarmed, a great and strong lion in Olympus, B.C. 400. Cases are recorded in which Arabs have done the same. Similar acts of prowess are attributed to David (1Samuel 17:54) and to Benaiah (2Samuel 23:28).
He told not his father or his mother.—This reticence shows how free he was from all boastfulness.
And he went down, and talked with the woman; and she pleased Samson well.(7) Talked with the woman.—His father and mother seem to have preceded him, and made the betrothal arrangements; otherwise he would not have been allowed by Eastern custom to talk with her. It cannot mean “talked about the woman,” as Rosenmüller says.
And after a time he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcase of the lion: and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion.(8) After a time.—There is nothing to show how long this time was. A betrothal might last a year. In Judges 11:4 the same phrase (“after days “) is used of many years.
To take her.—To lead her to his own home after the bridal feast.
A swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion.—This incident has been questioned, because it is truly said that bees hate all putrescence and decomposition, and that the notion of bees being generated in the rotting bodies of oxen (which we find in Virgil, Georgic 4, &c.) is a vulgar error. But it is overlooked that the word “carcase” here means (as the Syriac renders it) “skeleton.” The fierce sun of the East dries up all the animal moisture of a dead body, and reduces it to a skeleton with extreme rapidity, and bees have no dislike to dried bones as a place in which to swarm. Thus Herodotus tells us (v. 114) that when the Amathusians cut off the head of Onesilus, because he besieged them, and hung it over their gates, a swarm of bees filled the skull with their combs and honey. Rosenmüller also quotes the authority of the physician Aldrovand for the story that swarms of bees built their combs between the skeletons of two sisters who were buried in the Church of Santa Croce, at Verona, in 1566. (Comp. Plin. H. N., xi. 24; Varro, R. R., 3:16.)
And he took thereof in his hands, and went on eating, and came to his father and mother, and he gave them, and they did eat: but he told not them that he had taken the honey out of the carcase of the lion.(9) He took thereof in his hands.—Unless he considered that a skeleton could not be regarded as a dead body, he could not have done this without breaking the express conditions of his Nazarite vow (Numbers 5:6).
He told not them.—Perhaps from the general reticence of his character, but more probably because they might have been more scrupulous than he was about the ceremonial defilement involved in eating anything which had touched a carcase. Possibly, too, he may have already made the riddle in his head, and did not wish to give any clue to its solution.
So his father went down unto the woman: and Samson made there a feast; for so used the young men to do.(10) Went down unto the woman.—Formally, to claim her as the bride of his son.
And it came to pass, when they saw him, that they brought thirty companions to be with him.(11) When they saw him.—The reason why this clause is added is somewhat obscure, and this is perhaps the reason why the LXX. and Josephus, without any warrant, render it “when they were afraid of him, which would involve a change in the reading.
They brought thirty companions.—It was necessary to the splendour of the marriage feast that there should be these paranymphs (shoshbenim, or “children of the bride-chamber,” Matthew 9:15). The fact that Samson had brought none with him seems to prove that his marriage was highly unpopular among his own countrymen. Thirty, however, was a most unusual number.
And Samson said unto them, I will now put forth a riddle unto you: if ye can certainly declare it me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty sheets and thirty change of garments:(12) I will now put forth a riddle unto you.—Chidah, “a riddle,” comes from chud, “to knot.” The use of riddles at feasts is of great antiquity both among the Jews (1Kings 10:1, &c.) and Greeks (Athen. x. 457; Pollux, vi. 107, &c.). Jewish legends have much to tell us of the riddles which passed between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and between Solomon and Hiram (Dius ap. Jos., Antt. viii. 5, § 3); and as large sums often depended on the discovery of the answer, they were very much of the nature of wagers. A sharp boy named Abdemon helped Hiram, just as the Greek sage Bias is said to have helped Amasis to solve the riddles of the Ethiopian king, which would otherwise have caused heavy losses. The Sphinx of Theban legend devoured those who could not solve her riddle. Mirth and riddles are also connected with the rites of Hercules (Müller, Dorians, ii. 12).
Sheets.—Rather, as in the margin, shirts; but it means shirts of fine linen (sedinim; LXX. Vulg., sin-dones), such as are only won by the wealthy (Isaiah 3:23; Mark 14:51). Samson’s offer was fair enough, for if defeated, each paranymph would only have to provide one sindon and one robe, whereas Samson, if they guessed his riddle, would have to provide thirty.
And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle.(14) Out of the strong came forth sweetness.—The antithesis is not perfect, but we cannot strain the word “strong” to mean “bitter,” as the LXX. and Syriac do. Josephus gives the riddle in the form,”the all-devouring having generated sweet food from itself, though itself far from sweet” (Antt. v. 8, § 6). The whole of Samson’s life has been described by Ewald as “a charming poetic picture, in which the interspersed verses gleam forth like the brightest pearls in a circlet.” It must be confessed that the riddle was hardly a fair one, for the event to which it alluded was most unusual, and no one could have guessed such a riddle without some clue; for—
“ ’Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb
In the dead carrion.”
Shakespeare: Henry V., ii. 4.
Cassel quotes a curious parallel from the legends of North Germany. The judges offer a woman her husband’s life if she can make a riddle which they cannot guess. On her way to the court she had found the carcase of a horse in which a bird had built its nest and hatched six young ones, which she took away. Her riddle was (I venture rudely to translate the rude old lines):—
“As hitherwards on my way I sped,
I took the living out of the dead,
Six were thus of the seventh made quit:—
To rede my riddle, my lords, ‘tis fit.”
The judges failed, and the husband was spared (Mullen-hof, Sagen, p. 506).
In three days.—It is hard to see why this is mentioned if it was only on the seventh day (Judges 14:15) that they tried the unfair means of inducing Samson’s wife to reveal the secret. Bishop Hervey conjectures, with much probability, that we should read shesheth “six,” for shelsheth, “four.” The LXX. and Syriac read “on the fourth day,” and ד (7) may easily have been confused with ד (4).
And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson's wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father's house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?(15) On the seventh day.—When they were in despair.
Lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire.—As, indeed, they ultimately did (Judges 15:6). If Samson appears in no very favourable light in this chapter, the Philistines show themselves to be most mean, treacherous, and brutal.
To take that we have.—The Hebrew expression is stronger—“to spoil us,” or “make us paupers.” The “is it not so?” is added to show the vehemence of the question.
And Samson's wife wept before him, and said, Thou dost but hate me, and lovest me not: thou hast put forth a riddle unto the children of my people, and hast not told it me. And he said unto her, Behold, I have not told it my father nor my mother, and shall I tell it thee?(16) Wept before him.—Samson’s riddle had the effect of making the whole wedding-feast of this ill-starred marriage one of the most embittered and least joyous that ever fell to a bridegroom’s lot. This was a just punishment for his lawless fancies, though God overruled them to His own ends. A weeping, teazing, fretting bride and sullen guests might have served as a warning that Philistine marriages were not good for the sons of Israel.
And she wept before him the seven days, while their feast lasted: and it came to pass on the seventh day, that he told her, because she lay sore upon him: and she told the riddle to the children of her people.(17) The seven days.—The margin suggests that it may mean the rest of the seven days. If not, it can only imply that mere feminine curiosity had induced Samson’s wife to weary her husband to tell her the secret from the first.
On the seventh day.—Perhaps he hoped that he might prevent her from finding an opportunity to betray his secret.
He told her.—“Keep the door of thy mouth from her that lieth in thy bosom” (Micah 7:5).
She lay sore upon him—i.e., she grievously troubled him (LXX., Vulg.).
She told the riddle.—Perhaps she might have done so in any case, but she now had the excuse of violent menaces.
And the men of the city said unto him on the seventh day before the sun went down, What is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion? And he said unto them, If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle.(18) What is sweeter than honey?—Their answer is given in the same rhythmical form as the riddle itself.
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.
And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle. And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father's house.(19) To Ashkelon.—Probably he seized the opportunity of some great feast to Dagon, or even of another marriage festival, since the linen robes and rich garments would not be such as would be worn every day.
Gave . . . unto them which expounded the riddle.—They were unaware whence he had obtained the means to discharge his wager. The morality of the act can, of course, only be judged from the standpoint of the time.
But Samson's wife was given to his companion, whom he had used as his friend.(20) To his companion, whom he had used as his friend—i.e., to the chief of the paranyraphs (the bride-conductor, LXX.); “the friend of the bride-groom” (John 3:29). Hence, even if the suspicion as to the meaning of Samson’s words in Judges 14:18 be unfounded, it is clear that there was treachery and secret hostility at work. Bunsen renders the phrase, “to his companion, whose friend (amica) she was.”