Voices October 03, 2018
Samson’s riddle gives a glimpse of divine logic
Samson fell in love with a Philistine woman in Timnah. She was so beautiful that he desired to marry her, rather than anyone in Israel.
While walking to Timnah, Samson encountered a young lion. With a roar, it attacked him. But Samson, being a mighty man spiritually endowed with supernatural strength, tore it to pieces with his bare hands.
Days later, en route to Timnah to marry his beloved, he came across the lion’s carcass. In its mouth was a swarm of bees and a honeycomb. He took the honeycomb and ate from it as he went on his way.
Later, at his wedding party, he posed a high stakes wager to the 30 Philistines with whom he feasted. Samson presented them with a riddle, which they would have to solve to win the bet: Out of the eater, something to eat. Out of the strong, something sweet.
To Samson, the riddle was not unsolvable because he had himself experienced the eating of honey that came from the mouth of the defeated lion. But to the Philistines, it was impossible.
Deciding to cheat in order to win, they coerced Samson’s bride to discover for them the answer to the riddle. They used threats of violence against her father.
What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?
Answering Samson’s riddle at his wedding party, the 30 Philistines asked: What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?
The solution to the riddle comes in the form of two questions, whereas the riddle is posed with two declarative sentences. Usually we would expect a riddle to be a question, to which a declarative sentence is given as the answer.
When the riddle and its solution are rearranged into this more conventional order, we find that its full meaning is still elusive. The train of thought is obscure: What is stronger than a lion? Out of the strong, something sweet. What is sweeter than honey? Out of the eater, something to eat.
But with this sequential ordering of the complete thought process, we can nonetheless see how the essence of the riddle actually consists in the strange challenge to identify honey as the food, and the lion as the eater: Out of the lion, honey.
The solution to the riddle consists in a seemingly illogical inference: If there’s a lion, then there’s honey. This particular inference would be false if we were to make it into a general rule. Yet, in the individual experience of Samson, it does happen to describe the rare episode of his life.
An inference that contradicts our usual experience is required
To solve Samson’s riddle, an inference that contradicts our usual experience is required: If there’s a lion, then there’s honey. Yet this apparently illogical inference discloses, for those who can see it, the entire divine logic governing Samson’s life.
That is, the logic of Samson is summed up in a riddle whose solution presupposes the unusual inference that from out of evil (violent force), good (something sweet) can come.
The rich symbolism of this vivid episode is glimpsed when we begin to understand how “honey from a lion” is a metaphor about good and evil. It is “the story within the story” symbolizing the meaning of Samson’s life.
The story of Samson is misread when the obvious, literal answers to the Philistines’ two questions about what is “stronger” and “sweeter” are superficially taken to be the Biblical lesson: Samson is the strongest, and his violent revenge is even sweeter than loving dalliances with Philistine women.
A more attentive reading reveals that the subsequent text calls into question the whole cycle of violence that Samson sets in motion at his wedding. His violent reciprocity seeks to punish the Philistines for cheating.
Samson wants to affirm that truth is more important than power
Although angry, Samson wants to affirm that truth is more important than power. But he mistakenly keeps on using his strength to escalate violence. The cycle eventually leads to his own death.
Samson’s fate illustrates that only a self-sacrificial gambit can bring an end to the cycle of violence. As a man of violence, he destroys all his Philistine enemies through “living by the sword.” But he learns the cost paid for this must be “dying by the sword.”
Many have taken Samson to be a symbol of how a human can achieve total victory by accepting the noble path of self-sacrifice. In that respect, he is like Christ, who humbly offers his life.
Yet, unlike Christ, Samson’s sacrifice is a violent one, whereas Christ’s commitment to nonviolence makes his sacrifice into an offering that bears witness to benevolence and forgiveness.
Out of such a death comes true life, because only such love can truly end violent retaliation. That unusual love is both the sweetest and strongest.