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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Judges 14

 

 

Introduction

Samson the Deliverer

God’s Sixth Lesson - the Rise of the Philistines - God Raises Up Samson (Judges 13:1 to Judges 16:31).

The story of Samson is one of the most remarkable in the Bible. It demonstrates quite clearly that God can use the inadequacies of a man within His purposes. When God raised up Samson from birth He knew the propensities that he would have for good or evil. He gave him every opportunity for success but knew that he would eventually fail. Yet from that failure He purposed to produce success. Samson is an encouragement to all, that if the heart is right, God can use a man, even in his weakness, in His purposes.

Chapter 14 Samson’s Activities Begin.

This chapter deals with the commencement of Samson’s life’s work, with his courtship and marriage of a Philistine woman, his meeting with a young lion as he went courting, his killing of it with his bare hands, and afterwards of his finding honey in it. It speaks of a riddle which he framed out of this incident and put to his companions at his pre-marriage feast to solve as a bet, giving them seven days to solve it; of their solving it by means of his wife, who extracted the secret from him, which led him to slay thirty Philistines in order to make good his promise of thirty linen cloths and changes of raiment, and then to leave his newly married wife for a while, only to discover that she was then given to his companion.


Verse 1

Chapter 14 Samson’s Activities Begin.

This chapter deals with the commencement of Samson’s life’s work, with his courtship and marriage of a Philistine woman, his meeting with a young lion as he went courting, his killing of it with his bare hands, and afterwards of his finding honey in it. It speaks of a riddle which he framed out of this incident and put to his companions at his pre-marriage feast to solve as a bet, giving them seven days to solve it; of their solving it by means of his wife, who extracted the secret from him, which led him to slay thirty Philistines in order to make good his promise of thirty linen cloths and changes of raiment, and then to leave his newly married wife for a while, only to discover that she was then given to his companion.

Judges 14:1

And Samson went down to Timnah, and saw a woman in Timnah, of the daughters of the Philistines.’

There can be no doubt that Samson was to some extent a womaniser, something which he had to battle with all his life. He found it difficult to leave women alone. (Most men of his day married the woman chosen for them by their parents). Timnah was in Judah (Joshua 15:57), in the lowlands (the lower hill country), but was under the control of the Philistines, and on a trip there he saw a Philistine woman who took his fancy. The woman would be fairly high born for she was of the ruling class, the Philistines. Thus in seeking occasion against the Philistines he was able to combine business with pleasure.


Verse 2

And he came up, and told his father and his mother, “I have seen a woman in Timnah of the daughters of the Philistines, now therefore get her for me to be my wife.” ’

Samson was quite open about his aims. He had seen a Philistine woman who attracted him and he wanted her as his wife. Being a dutiful son he put the matter to his father and mother who, according to custom, were responsible for the marriage negotiations (compare Genesis 34:4; Genesis 34:8). He may indeed have loved her at first sight, but the speed of his decision suggests a more purposeful motive combined with it. Access to the Philistines without suspicion.

We might ask why a man dedicated to Yahweh would seek to marry a foreign woman. It may, however, be that the woman had approached him seeking to learn from him (he was a judge of Israel) something of the Law of his God, for she was not of a class of women who would just be met walking about. Women were often drawn to the morality of Israel’s God (compare Acts 13:50) which would have been in such contrast to the stern unforgiving religion of the Philistine overlords. This would certainly help to explain his behaviour.

Samson’s motives are difficult to interpret but he unquestionably behaved unusually in a number of ways. He selected a Philistine for his wife, even though he was a Nazirite; prior to the wedding feast he seems to have called only Philistines to his ‘stag’ week although his previous companions must have been Israelites; and all his belligerence was aimed at Philistines. Indeed He appears to have ingratiated himself with them only in order to attack them. The explanation for this is given in verse 4.


Verse 3

Judges 14:3 a

‘Then his father and his mother said to him, “Is there never a woman among the daughters of your kinsfolk, or among all my people, that you go to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?” ’

His father and mother were upset about his intentions. They were very much aware that he was the chosen of Yahweh, and this intermarriage with a foreigner, even if she was not a Canaanite and therefore forbidden (Judges 3:6; Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:1-3), was displeasing to them. Indeed the Philistines were uncircumcised, which told against them. Most people in Canaan underwent circumcision at some time. Furthermore the Philistines had taken to worshipping Canaanite gods and were to all intents and purposes Canaanite. Could he not choose an Israelite woman for his wife? Was there not plenty of choice there?

Judges 14:3 b

‘And Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, for she pleases me greatly.” ’

His father would have to conduct the negotiations and agree the dowry and wedding gifts. So Samson ignored their concerns and asked his father to proceed with the matter because of the great esteem he had for her. Here we must read between the lines. Either he knew that she was sympathetic to Yahwism, or he was patently breaking his vows. The fact that God continued to strengthen him even while on the way to his marriage suggests the latter.


Verse 4

And his father and mother did not know that it was of Yahweh. For he sought an occasion against the Philistines. Now at that time the Philistines had rule over Israel.’

What his father and mother did not know was that his plan was in the purposes of God. Yahweh was at work through the one whom He had chosen. This could hardly have been said if there had been Israelite doubts about what he was doing, confirming our suggestions above.

“He sought an occasion.” Many translations suggest that the ‘he’ mentioned here is Yahweh. But in view of Judges 13:25 this may well rather mean that it was Samson who sought the occasion. It suggests that it was the beginning of his plan to put himself in a position where he could attack the Philistines without blame coming on his people. However many see it as referring to Yahweh. It is difficult to see how Yahweh would arrange to marry him off to a heathen Philistine, or indeed why He should want to find an occasion against the Philistines. Yahweh already had an occasion against the Philistines. That was why He had raised up Samson. It was Samson who needed such an occasion, not Yahweh.

Furthermore the subject of a verb in Hebrew would normally refer back to a previous subject, and thus to ‘Samson said’. We should only apply it to a genitival noun when there is no alternative. So while we might certainly see Yahweh involved in Samson’s aims, it is Samson who is mainly described as seeking the occasion against the Philistines. That would indicate that consciously or unconsciously what he was doing was within God’s purpose against those who lorded it over God’s people. For while it is difficult to see why God should need to ‘seek an occasion’ for something like this (He was sovereign and could act how and when he liked) we can clearly see why Samson would.

The tight control of the Philistines over the Danites (compare 1 Samuel 13:19-21, conditions which no doubt held in Samson’s day), and the Danites fear of them, would necessitate that he acted on his own. And as a ruling elite who would hit hard at any sign of rebellion against them, he would know that any dealings that he had with them must be carefully arranged so that no blame could fall on his fellow-Danites. We may see this as the probable reason why he appeared to be almost on his way to becoming an adopted Philistine. As such he would be able to take them on man to man without it harming his fellowcountrymen.


Verse 5

Then Samson went down, and his father and his mother, to Timnah, and came to the vineyards of Timnah, and, behold, a young lion roared against him.’

It is clear that they made their separate ways to Timnah so that his parents were not with him when he met the ‘young lion’, or possibly that he had lingered behind, gathering grapes, so that they were ahead and were not aware of his doings, hidden by the trees. ‘A young lion.’ This means a young lion at its most dangerous, eager and ready for the hunt, in the prime of life (Psalms 104:21; Proverbs 20:2; Isaiah 5:29; Jeremiah 2:15). ‘Roared against him’ signified his direct designs on Samson. Perhaps the young lion was intended to strengthen his courage in the face of what was to come, or in order to manifest Yahweh’s approval of his actions, or indeed both. They were in the vineyards of Timnah. It was a land of many lions (1 Samuel 17:34; 2 Samuel 23:20; 1 Kings 13:24) and flourishing vineyards.


Verse 6

Judges 14:6 a

‘And the Spirit of Yahweh came mightily on him and he tore him as he would tear a kid, and he had nothing in his hand.’

Calling on the One to whom his life was dedicated, and thus endued with the Spirit of Yahweh, Samson exerted his strength against the man-eater and with no weapon in his hand seized it and broke its neck as though it had been a young goat. It was his life or the lion’s. From now on he knew that Yahweh was with him and would be his strength.

Samson’s strength was clearly an unusual phenomenon. We need not doubt that he was of strong build, and even stronger than most men. But it would appear that because of his awareness of his special dedication to Yahweh he was at times able to arouse within himself a huge amount of adrenalin which made him invincible (we might to some extent compare him with the berzerkers, although the source of their strength was probably demonic). Once his dedication failed he found himself unable to arouse such strength.

Judges 14:6 b

‘But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done.’

This may well have been through modesty, but the point behind this is that they did not know what he had done and so could not later give away the answer to his riddle.


Verse 7

And he went down, and talked with the woman, and she pleased Samson well.’

Further acquaintance with the Philistine woman confirmed his good first impressions. He was satisfied that she would make him a good wife. The fact that he did this prior to his marriage suggests that they had had previous contact. At this stage they presumably became betrothed, which would be why his father and mother had gone to see her and her parents. This might all be seen as further confirming that she had an interest in Israel’s God.


Verse 8

Judges 14:8 a

‘And after a time he returned to take her.’

It is clear that her parents were satisfied with the arrangements, and with the gifts offered, which confirms that Samson’s parents were also well-to-do. So as the marriage day approached he went again on his way to Timnah to take her as his wife. This was a marriage between two aristocracies, a judge of Israel and the daughter of one of the Philistine elite.

Judges 14:8 b

‘And he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion, and honey.’

On his way to Timnah he took a diversion in order to see the carcass of the lion he had killed, and found that bees had swarmed there. Bees are averse to flesh and it is thus probable that mainly only the bones were left which provided a nest for the bees in which to produce honey. Scavengers and ants had seemingly meanwhile done their work.

Like many young men Samson did not like turning up with his parents and so here, as previously, he took a separate route. This incident occurred en route, so that when he met his parents in Timnah he was able to give them some honey.


Verse 9

Judges 14:9 a

‘And he took it in his hands, and went on, eating as he went.’

As a Nazirite Samson had to avoid dead carcasses for they would render him ‘unclean’, but while he was fastidious about his hair he was possibly slacker about the other requirements. Perhaps as a lifelong Nazirite some leeway was given. On the other hand it may be that in collecting the honey he used some instrument and thus avoided touching the carcass, and satisfied his conscience in that way. He would have become used to different methods of keeping ‘clean’. There does not appear to be any condemnation of his action.

Judges 14:9 b

‘And he came to his father and mother, and he gave some to them, and they ate, but he did not tell them that he had taken the honey out of the carcass of the lion.’

Moving towards Timnah he met up with his father and mother and gave them some honey without telling them where he had obtained it from. This was something he should have done for they may have considered it wrong to eat honey from a carcass, especially his mother who may have seen herself as still ‘dedicated’ to Yahweh. But again the main point is that they would not know the answer to the riddle that is shortly coming, and he did not talk about his feat.


Verse 10

And his father went down to the woman, and Samson made a feast there, for so the young men used to do.’

His father then continued on to meet the woman to assist with preparations for the wedding, while Samson arranged a pre-marriage feast for the young men. This would seem to have been a feast for men only, taking place before the marriage. It lasted seven days. The fact that it was arranged by Samson himself indicates that it was not the wedding-feast.


Verse 11

And it happened that when they saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him.’

The Philistines were seemingly quite content for one of their daughters to marry a wealthy Israelite, demonstrating the reasonable relations that existed between the two nations, even though one was tributary and to some extent cowed. Indeed the Philistines may have seen this powerful young man as somebody who could be useful to them and therefore as someone to be encouraged. He was after all, almost becoming one of them. And they brought a full complement (thirty - that is, three intensified indicating completeness) of young men to share his pre-marriage feast. This suggests that he had gained recognition and respectability among the Philistines. They would be his daily companions while the wedding was in final preparation, for the feasting for the wedding that followed would also last seven days. In view of what follows (they were clearly no friends of the girl’s family) it may be that they were professional ‘companions’, hired for such an occasion. There is no mention of any others present at this feast. This in itself is remarkable. It emphasises that Samson is trying to find an occasion against the Philistines in which he does not want Israelites involved.


Verse 12-13

Judges 14:12-13 a

‘And Samson said to them, “Let me now propound a riddle to you. If you can declare its solution to me within the seven days of the feast, and discover its meaning, then I will give you thirty linen cloths and thirty changes of clothes, but if you cannot declare it then you will give me thirty linen cloths and thirty changes of clothes.” ’

The pre-feast being in process, and some already being somewhat tipsy, Samson propounded a riddle. This was quite a common feature of such feasts in order to pass the time, especially once the drink had flowed. Whether Samson broke his Nazirite vow by drinking wine and strong drink we are not told. It is not being reasonable to suggest that because he was at a wedding feast he necessarily did so. Many a godly person has been at such a celebration without breaking vows about drinking. He may well have explained it along with his long hair, which no doubt also caused comment. There is no suggestion that he did wrong at the feast. His real problem was with women, not with strong drink.

The "linen cloths" would be large rectangular pieces of fine linen which were worn next to the body by day or night, while the "clothes" would be festal garments which would be very expensive (see Isaiah 3:22-23; Proverbs 31:24). Perhaps he hoped by this to finally arouse the antagonism of the young men so that he had an excuse for fighting them.

Judges 14:13 b

‘And they said to him, “Propound your riddle that we may hear it.”

It sounded a good bargain to them. They had fourteen days in which to find the answer to the question, which had to be answered at the end of the wedding feast proper, and they were confident that someone would know it.


Verse 14

And he said to them, “From the eater came food, from the strong came sweet.” And they could not propound the riddle in three days.’

They at first, in their merry state, probably thought that it would soon be solved, but after a few days they became alarmed. No solution that they propounded was correct. ‘In three days’ signifies a standard short period of time, ‘in a few days’.

The riddle was not only a riddle. Samson probably intended by it amusing mockery. He was thinking that from the ‘devouring’ Philistines he would gain both a marriage feast and wealth, and from the ‘strong’ Philistines he would obtain the sweetest of all, a wife.


Verse 15

And so it was that on the seventh day they said to Samson's wife, “Entice your husband, that he may declare to us the solution to the riddle, lest we burn you and your father's house with fire. Have you invited us so as to take what we have? Is that not so?”’

Time passed by. It passed not only a ‘three day’ period but a ‘seven day’ period, a longer standard period of time (compare the ‘three days’ journey and the ‘seven days’ journey so often found in Genesis). We must remember that the Philistines had no concept of what we know of as a week. That was an Israelite conception.

Then the men began to panic and the situation turned ugly. They could not bear the thought of losing their fine and expensive clothing to an Israelite. (Samson had succeeded in antagonising them. What he had not considered was how they would react). So they pressurised Samson’s ‘wife’, warning her that if she did not entice the answer out of him by the time the wedding feast was over they would burn her father’s house with her inside it (compare Judges 12:1. This was clearly considered a standard punishment by powerful men offended. See also Judges 15:6). These were not pleasant men and their pride was hurt. And they were the warrior ruling class. They accused her of bringing them there with the intention of taking their fine clothes. The threat was real, compare Judges 15:6. We see here the typical Philistine male, proud, aggressive and unyielding, and with a contempt for all others.

It would appear that it was customary in a Philistine marriage for the wife to continue living in her father’s house, being regularly visited by the husband who would bring a gift when he visited (see Judges 15:1 where she was still there even though she had married another and would thus have been otherwise expected to have moved in with him). This was probably because regularly the husbands would be away on army duty, and it was therefore safer for their wives to be in her family home. Alternately it may be that the husband was expected to move into the bride’s house and become a part of her family. If that be so we find that later Samson, not having done this, brought a gift to rectify matters. Thus she would still be living at home when the wedding was over.


Verse 16

And Samson's wife wept before him, and said, “Really you hate me and do not love me. You have propounded a riddle to the children of my people and have not told me the answer.” And he said to her, “Look, I have not told it my father or my mother, and shall I tell it you?” ’

Samson was unaware of the threat to his prospective wife. So when she pressed him for the answer he was probably at first a little amused. Quite reasonably he pointed out that he had not even told his parents. But as her tears continued it began to ruin the wedding. Yet he still stood firm. If the solution leaked out he was a ruined man.

His wife must have been living in terror. She knew the threat hanging over her family and she had no doubt that they meant it. She was already looked on as Samson’s wife, for such arrangements as they had were binding. Thus they would blame her for what ‘her family’ had done to them.


Verse 17

Judges 14:17 a

‘And she wept before him the seven days, while the feast lasted.’

These were the days of the actual marriage feast itself, a time of feasting and merriment probably enjoyed by the whole town. But it was not pleasant for the fearful girl, and it was spoiling it for Samson. It seemed she would just not let go. No doubt constant veiled threats were passed on to her throughout the days of the feast

(As an alternative to fourteen days of celebration, seven with the men alone and seven of the actual marriage feast, some interpret the whole as but seven days. This involves translating Judges 14:15 with the versions (LXX and Syriac) as ‘on the fourth day’. Then the idea in this verse would then be that ‘the seven days’ means ‘the remainder of the seven days’ during which she pestered him for the answer).

Judges 14:17 b

‘And so it was that on the seventh day he told her, because she put great pressure on him, and she told the riddle to the children of her people.’

In the end Samson gave way. He did not want the last day of the feast and the final consummating of the marriage to be spoiled by his wife’s weeping. And greatly relieved she passed on the solution to the men in order to save her family.

The story is summarised. He had no doubt warned her not to tell them for it would be a costly affair. However one question that is difficult to answer is whether the marriage was finalised. Samson clearly thought it was (Judges 15:1). The fact that she was given to his ‘companion’, possibly to save her from being disgraced, suggests that the father did not think so (Judges 14:20; Judges 15:2), although he may have seen Samson’s anger and walking out as an instant divorce from an unconsummated marriage. The Philistines as a whole appear to have considered the marriage valid (Judges 15:6). Certainly the whole of the seven day ceremony was over, apart from the consummation, for the Philistine men approached him not long before sunset (Judges 14:18). We know nothing certain from elsewhere about the marriage or divorce customs of the Philistines.


Verse 18

Judges 14:18 a

‘And the men of the city said to him on the seventh day, before the sun went down, “What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?” ’

Late on the last day they provided the answer to his riddle, and we can hear in their answer their mocking tones, but neither would doubt where the answer had really come from. Samson now saw his hope of added status (compare Genesis 45:22; 2 Kings 5:23) disappear and himself soon to be greatly in debt. As with many riddles once the answer was given it was obvious. See Psalms 19:10; Psalms 119:103; Proverbs 30:30.

“The men of the city.” These were his companions, who were Philistine inhabitants of Timnah (or had possibly been brought from Ashkelon?), although others may have joined with them to enjoy his discomfiture. The riddle had probably become a talking point in the town. Not all would have known of the threats offered to the girl.

“Before the sun went down.” There may be intended to be a hint here that the sun was going down in more ways than one, that things would soon become very dark for Samson, the sun boy, although the word for sun here is not shemesh, but a rarer word, possibly with the aim of avoiding being too obvious). But the main point was that the riddle was solved just in time. (The alteration to the text to read ‘before he went into the (bridal) chamber’ is unnecessary and misses the point, although it would stress the point that he in fact never did so).

Judges 14:18 b

‘And he said to them, “If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.” ’

Samson’s answer was abrupt and very vivid. They had put the yoke on his woman to plough up the secret. It indicated both the unfair pressure they had exercised and the foulness of their behaviour. In his view this was both an insult to him, and an act of aggression which justified him in retaliation.


Verse 19

Judges 14:19 a

‘And the Spirit of Yahweh came on him, and he went down to Ashkelon and slew thirty men of them and took their spoil, and gave the changes of clothing to those who gave the answer to the riddle.’

Time would need to be given to him to provide the clothing for all would recognise that he would not have thirty changes of clothing with him. They would certainly have expected to wait until after the consummation of the marriage. But the matter had become too bitter, and he left the marriage feast without consummating the marriage and disappeared. No wonder the father thought that he wanted nothing further to do with his daughter. Nevertheless he paid Samson a great insult by giving his wife to someone else.

In fact Samson travelled the twenty three miles (thirty seven kilometres) to the major Philistine city of Ashkelon and sought out thirty Philistine warriors, killing them and taking their clothing. We are given no details about how this was accomplished, but it is noteworthy that no repercussions resulted. He may have killed them one by one, after personally challenging them in some recognised way, tracing them by the quality of their houses, or more likely he may have challenged them at some public festal celebration, possibly even at something like a mediaeval tournament, where such challenges were acceptable and expected. This would explain why there would appear to have been no repercussions. Or we may see this activity as similar to that of the Maquis in France during the second world war, a directed attack on an occupying enemy carried out in secret. Whatever way it was done he then returned to Timnah, (probably immediately in view of what he had done in Ashkelon), and handed the clothing over to the thirty men. Then, probably seething with fury he went to his own home without seeing his wife or father-in-law. He was hardly in a mood to want to consummate the marriage or to see his treacherous bride.

The trip to Ashkelon may have been because he thought it would be easier to cover up his activities in a large city, or because he thought that there he would not be recognised, or it may have been because he knew that there he would find men with the quality of clothing that he required, possibly at some well known local festivity, or it may have been because he knew that they would have some ‘games’ there where competitive fighting took place, or it may have been because the original thirty came from Ashkelon.

But the writer saw in this an aspect of the activity of the Spirit of Yahweh. The Philistines were the enemies of Israel and this was a powerful blow in Israel’s cause, for these thirty would be important as elite warriors. They were part of the elite ruling class. Samson clearly had no compunction in doing this. It was in order to somehow attack the Philistines that he had married the Philistine woman and now he saw his opportunity. Thus the action of the young men had precipitated his campaign against the Philistines. It may well, however, be that there was something in Philistine customs that could be seen as justifying his action, at least to some extent (in his state of mind he would not interpret it too particularly), especially if the young men at the previous pre-wedding feast had come from Ashkelon. Using threats to discover the answer to important riddles may have been heavily frowned on, like cheating at cards today, and they were a warlike nation to whom killing was almost a sport. So by using a personal excuse such as this, and being married to a Philistine, his behaviour would be looked on as a Philistine activity and not as rebellion by Israel. Thus he was safeguarding his people. If the original young men had come from Ashkelon it might even have been seen as a form of rough justice, or it may have been in fair competition. Ashkelon had attacked him, and he had returned the favour. Certainly the Philistines appear to have taken no action against him, just as they took no action against the men who slew his wife and her family. On the other hand perhaps they did not immediately connect Samson with what happened at Ashkelon. There may have been no witnesses.

It may be that the phrase ‘the Spirit of Yahweh came on him’ is intended to refer to the whole passage up to Judges 15:8, for Judges 15:8 was certainly of the greater significance. The thirty were the firstfruits but the great slaughter was the full final result. We can compare how the phrase has always previously referred, not just to one event, but to a series of events that followed the enduing.

Judges 14:19 b

‘And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father's house.’

His state of mind is made clear, and it is no wonder that he was angry. The fact that he ‘went up to his father’s house’ may indicate that normally he would have remained with his new family.


Verse 20

‘But Samson's wife was given to his companion, whom he had used as his friend.’

Samson had chosen one of the thirty companions to be ‘the friend of the bridegroom’, the one who stood by him during the marriage feast (compare John 3:29). It may be that this man had not participated in the threats to the woman and was her close friend, or perhaps he saw his main opportunity to marry into a wealthy and influential family, for when she was seemingly left stranded and husbandless he stepped in and married her to console her and hide her shame.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Judges 14:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/judges-14.html. 2013.

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