Judges 14 Samson and the Marriage at Timnah

Samson Slaying the Lion (1628) by Peter Paul Rubens

Judges 14

Once Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw a Philistine woman. 2 Then he came up, and told his father and mother, “I saw a Philistine woman at Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.” 3 But his father and mother said to him, “Is there not a woman among your kin, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, because she pleases me.” 4 His father and mother did not know that this was from the LORD; for he was seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.

5 Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah. When he came to the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion roared at him. 6 The spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done. 7 Then he went down and talked with the woman, and she pleased Samson. 8 After a while he returned to marry her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. 9 He scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went. When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them, and they ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the carcass of the lion.

10 His father went down to the woman, and Samson made a feast there as the young men were accustomed to do. 11 When the people saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him.12 Samson said to them, “Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can explain it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments. 13 But if you cannot explain it to me, then you shall give me thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments.” So they said to him, “Ask your riddle; let us hear it.” 14 He said to them,

“Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.”

But for three days they could not explain the riddle.15 On the fourth day they said to Samson’s wife, “Coax your husband to explain the riddle to us, or we will burn you and your father’s house with fire. Have you invited us here to impoverish us?” 16 So Samson’s wife wept before him, saying, “You hate me; you do not really love me. You have asked a riddle of my people, but you have not explained it to me.” He said to her, “Look, I have not told my father or my mother. Why should I tell you?” 17 She wept before him the seven days that their feast lasted; and because she nagged him, on the seventh day he told her. Then she explained the riddle to her people. 18 The men of the town said to him on the seventh day before the sun went down,

“What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?”

And he said to them,

“If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.”

19 Then the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house. 20 And Samson’s wife was given to his companion, who had been his best man.

The tragedy of the story of Samson in several ways parallels the larger tragedy of Israel as portrayed in the book of Judges. Both Samson and Israel have God call them in dramatic ways and both are given specific practices which are to set them apart from the surrounding people. Just as Samson seems unable to resist his attraction to Philistine women, the people of Israel have often not only intermarried with the Canaanites and the other nations but have also adopted the worship of their gods and their practices and life have become indistinguishable from their neighbors. Underneath the tragedy of Samson’s story is the wonder at what this promised child could have been if he had used his prodigious strength to carry the hopes of the people instead of acting like a petulant child who flaunts the boundaries and expectations that have been placed upon him.

Samson’s narrative follows a pattern where he becomes involved with a woman who betrays him (his Philistine ‘bride’ and a prostitute in Gaza) he is bound and handed over to the Philistines (by Judah in the next chapter and by Delilah in chapter sixteen) and he is then empowered by the LORD to kill his captors by brute force and violence. Samson as he is portrayed in the narrative is driven by his hunger and passion and quickly casts aside the expectations of a Nazirite or his obligations to his family’s wishes when it pleases him. Samson will do what it right in his own eyes, just as Israel will later be accused of doing as it quickly moves towards an internal conflict which poses a far greater threat than the Philistines. Samson’s individualistic hunger driven life which has no place to regard the covenant God has placed on him, the desires of his parents, and his calling within the community reflect the degradation of the covenant identity of Israel’s tribes as the devolve into warring factions.

The narrative of Samson we have in Judges has probably been condensed to be told efficiently but there are several minor gaps in the story which I’ll highlight as we journey through. Samson goes down to Timnah[1] and sees a Philistine woman and desires her. Throughout Judges intermarriage has been an issue with the Canaanites. It is likely that there had been intermarriage with the Philistines prior to Samson, but this is the first recorded instance in Judges and there seems to be an additional concern about the Philistines not practicing circumcision. The Philistines had come to the region of Canaan later, and it is known that Israel was not the only community that practiced circumcision. Yet, this difference in practices is a boundary that causes additional concerns for Manoah.[2] This also overturns the normal order of a family relationship since a father would normally decide who his sons (or daughters) would marry. The promised child who was to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines begins by breaking the religious and cultural boundaries of Israel and turning the family order on its head. All because the woman is ‘right in his eyes.’[3]

The perspective on God in this story is peculiar. God’s perspective as told in the story accepts the personality of Samson because God intends to use Samson’s bad behavior to incite conflict between him and the Philistines. Yet, if the Philistines were the oppressors they are portrayed as there should be multiple opportunities for an individual to rise up against that oppression. Perhaps it is that Israel has simply accommodated to the life under Philistine rule and that even Samson with his prodigious strength see no alternative or any injustice that needs to be opposed. Nevertheless, there is a tension in the narrative when the action of God steers Samson to violate the prohibitions against intermarriage God gave in the covenant to the people. While I don’t doubt that God can work through a chaotic and troublesome individual like Samson the suspicious part of me, especially when combined with Samson’s violation of the Nazirite vows below, wonders if this is an attribution of God’s approval on Samson’s action in order to bring him closer to the image of a paragon of faithfulness.

The famous story of Samson and the lion is critical to the narrative but like the riddle it inspires it is full of strange and unexpected things. Samson is walking with his parents but when he arrives at the vineyard of Timnah his parents are gone. This is likely a place where the story is condensed in telling and it is important to the later narrative that his parents are not there. The presence of Samson in a vineyard is troubling since as a Nazirite he is not to eat anything from the vine, but the unexpected presence of a lion in the vineyard is also troubling. Lions live in wilderness areas not in cultivated vineyards, and yet here in this vineyard a Nazirite meets a lion and kills it violently with his bare hands. The carcass of the lion remains undisturbed in the vineyard and perhaps it is too early for workers to be tending the vineyard but it is seasonally warm enough for bees to make a hive in the midst of the carcass. The Nazirite Samson again enters the vineyard and sticks his hands into the carcass harvesting honey and breaking the Nazirite vow not to touch a corpse. Like Adam and Eve, he has eaten something he is forbidden to eat and he shares it with his parents without letting them know the source, perhaps indicating he knows they would not approve.

The Philistine woman of Timnah is essentially passive in this story. She never is given a name or a choice, she is simply the object of Samson’s passion. She pleases Samson, she is right in his eyes, therefore his father is to arrange the wedding. The seven-day feast could be an Israelite observance since many Israelite festivals are seven days, but it is likely that the companions at the feast are Philistines and the celebration banquet is a normal practice among the Philistines. The word for ‘feast’ (misteh) suggests a drinking feast (NIB II: 850) and the presence of Samson in the vineyard and now his presence at the feast likely means that Samson has now violated two of the three primary provisions for a Nazirite.  The presence of riddles at a feast would be common but Samson’s riddle is almost unsolvable without knowing about the story of the lion in the vineyard. It is possible that someone could stumble upon this corpse infested with bees, but it is telling that prior to this no one had been in the vineyard and disposed of the rotting carcass. The wager is a costly one in the ancient world, thirty garments is too large a price for these ‘companions’ to willingly pay. The timeline of the feast is confused. For the first three days the companions are unable to explain the riddle, the Greek Septuagint (which the NRSV follows) has the companions come to his wife on the fourth day, while the Hebrew text states they come to her on the seventh day. Yet, Samson’s wife weeps before him the seven days of the feast and whether she is threatened on day four or day seven the narrative indicates that her weeping over a period of time causes Samson distress. Samson’s actions have placed her and her family under threat of these young men, but it is also possible that this woman who Samson decided would be his wife is not joyous about the match after seeing her husbands conduct at the festival.

The tears of Samson’s wife finally convince him to release the answer to the riddle and she passes it on to the men who give the answer at the conclusion of the seven days. Samson departs in a petulant rage towards Ashkelon, twenty-five miles away in the heart of the Philistine confederation of five cities, and his rage turns murderous. Thirty men of Ashkelon lose their lives to provide the garments he now owes the men of Timnah and once Samson pays this debts he abandons his wife and returns to his father’s home. The woman who was right in his eyes is no longer right in his ears after seven days of weeping. The woman is given a new husband, one of the companions from the feast as Samson lives with his hot anger in his parent’s household.

This initial story of Samson desiring a Philistine bride and the trouble that ensues due to his actions sets the stage for a growing conflict between Samson and the Philistines. Samson’s actions are already in sharp contrast to the hope of the previous chapter. Yet, in many ways the Samson mirrors the degradation of the life in Israel. Just as the people have intermarried with their neighbors and have turned aside from their way of life, Samson has chosen a Philistine bride and abandoned many of the Nazirite practices. Samson’s choices have left him fuming with anger in his father’s home and with the blood of a lion and thirty men already on his strong hands.

[1] Timnah is in the Valley of Sorek. The Danites at the beginning of Judges were confined to the hills in their territory (1:34). (Webb, 2012, p. 364) It is likely that under the Philistine domination of the area that the remaining Canaanites, Philistines, and Israelites all lived in close proximity.

[2] In the Hebrew the words of his father and mother are spoken as singular (my people-‘ammi) and I take this to be Manoah speaking for both himself and Samson’s mother. This is one place where the text may be condensed.

[3] Hayyasar beenayo this is the same term used in Judges 17:6 and 21: 25 of Israel.

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