Weddings are a big deal in our culture. There is so much about a wedding that people are fascinated with. What is it that you enjoy most about a marital celebration? Is it the dress? The ceremony? The venue? The vows? The reception party? The dancing? The toasts? The reunion with family and friends? Is it all of the above? In Samson’s day, weddings were a big deal also and yet, in Judges 14:10-20, Samson spoils the celebration in a foolish way leading to embarrassment, shame, and even separation from his own bride. YIKES! You have heard of a bridezilla. Samson proves to be a groomzilla. In today’s passage we are going to look at three actions that expose Samson’s weakness. In so doing we will learn how we might avoid the kind of shame that befalls him at his wedding feast in our own lives.
a. Samson Presents an Impossible Riddle -14:10-14
When we last left Samson he was heading back for his bride in Timnah with his parents while feeding on honey scraped out of a dead lion. We pick up the story of Samson’s life in verses 10-11 of chapter 14 as the wedding celebration commences—“Then his father went down to the woman; and Samson made a feast there, for the young men customarily did this…” This all seems innocent enough, except that the word for “feast” in this context “refers to a seven-day drinking bout at the home of his bride’s parents” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 431). Samson is not enjoying a traditional Israelite wedding celebration as much as he is a Philistine stag party with the young men of Timnah. Having already failed to keep his Nazarite vow by entering into marriage with a Philistine woman and coming into contact with a dead body, now Samson stands to break another element of this consecration with the consumption of strong drink. By giving into a pagan people and endorsing their pagan customs, Samson puts himself in another highly compromising situation and sets himself up for failure.
The already compromising situation grow tense, if not dangerous, as the text reveals that “When they saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him,…” (14:11). After the Philistines see Samson, they are afraid of him. Unwilling to take any chances, they surround him with bodyguards—enough bodyguards to easily overwhelm Samson if they need to for any reason.
Samson fails to see just how precarious his situation is. Instead, he believes that he can outsmart his hosts and trick them out of a great deal of assets. Rather than play things safe, Samson seems eager to pick a fight. This he does by presenting a riddle. However, before he shares the riddle, he must see if the partiers want to play his game. Therefore, he sets the terms, terms that appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of the Philistines: “Then Samson said to them, ‘Let me now propound a riddle to you; if you will indeed tell it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes. But if you are unable to tell me, then you shall give me thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes.’…” (14:12-13a). Samson suggests that if they can solve his riddle within seven days, he will provide each of them with a complete suit of clothes, consisting of long garments and shorter tunics (Block, Judges, Ruth, 432). This was no small prize. The wager here involves the equivalent of 30 modern-day three-piece suits worn for a special occasion. However, if they fail to provide the right answer, then they must provide Samson with thirty capes and suits of clothing.
If this sounds like a bar bet, that is because it is in many ways. After a few drinks, Samson is feeling cocky and the guards surrounding him are eager to take him up on the bet—“And they said to him, ‘Propound your riddle, that we may hear it.’…” (14:13b).
Samson’s riddle involves a short six words in the original language: “Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet” (14:14). The riddle includes two paradoxes: a consumer producing food and something strong producing sweetness. No doubt the Philistines would have begun searching around the room they were partying in for clues that might point them in the right direction. However, Samson knows all along that the answer lies in a distant field in a remote location that, as far as he knows, only he has visited. It is, for all intents and purposes, an impossible riddle and Samson, by all appearances, has this won from the beginning. The only one who could ruin this for Samson is, well, Samson himself.
b. Samson Is Tricked into Providing the Answer-14:15-18
Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens and Samson’s wife is the means by which the answer would be extracted and shared. After a few days of ruminating on the riddle, the Philistine fraternizers grow anxious, fearing that they are going to have to make good on the wager they made—"Then it came about on the fourth day that they said to Samson’s wife, ‘Entice your husband, so that he will tell us the riddle, or we will burn you and your father’s house with fire. Have you invited us to impoverish us? Is this not so?..." (14:15). First, to retrieve the elusive answer, the group of guards blackmail this woman, threatening her and her family’s house (hmmmm…nice countrymen this Philistine woman has on her side). Second, they suggest that she is complicit in Samson’s bet. Evidence of just how high the price was that they would have to pay if they lose is seen in their anxiety over their presumed fate if they failed to produce the answer—“have you invited us to impoverish us?”. Her loyalty to her people questioned and her home threatened, Samson’s wife is successfully enlisted by these guards to somehow pry the answer to the riddle out of her new husband and she wastes no time to get started.
“Samson’s wife wept before him and said, ‘You only hate me, and you do not love me; you have propounded a riddle to the sons of my people, and have not told it to me.’ (14:16a). Not a bad first attempt by this new bride. Her first ploy is to weep (playing the emotional card) and then to guilt her husband into giving what she wants by questioning his love for her (though I’m not sure how effective this will prove to be given that Samson didn’t appear to be as much “in love” with this woman as much as he was “in lust”). Then she questions his respect for her people the Philistines, “you have propounded a riddle to the sons of my people, and have not told it to me” (as if Samson cared at all for the fate of the Philistines). Samson’s response is terse and firm: “And he said to her, ‘Behold, I have not told it to my father or mother, so should I tell you?’…” (14:16b). This response reveals at least two things. First, it reminds the reader of Samson’s callousness toward his parents. His withholding of the details about the lion and the honey from them in chapter 14:1-9 shows just how little he cared for even them, let alone his new bride. However, the second thing this reveals is that regardless of how much he really cared for/loved his parents, the apron strings had not been severed and if it came to a choice between them and his new wife, his parents would receive priority (contrary to Gen. 2:24).
With time ticking (given the seven day timetable ascribed to this wager) and her first attempt unsuccessful, Samson’s wife persists in her efforts—“However she wept before him seven days while their feast lasted…” (14:17a). Never underestimate the power of persistence, especially in the home! “And on the seventh day he told her because she pressed him so hard” (14:17b). Apparently Samson could only take so much and “at the climactic ‘eleventh hour’ on the seventh day” he finally relents to her nagging demands, perhaps just to silence her many tearful appeals (Block, Judges Ruth, 434).
Like clockwork, Samson’s wife relays the newfound information to her co-conspirators—“she then told the riddle to the sons of her people” (14:17b). This whole ordeal reveals just how ill-conceived this whole relationship is on the surface. Samson doesn’t seem to really love her and she doesn’t seem in the least bit loyal to him. All of this leads to the another failure in Samson’s life—a failure that he got himself into by making this bet in the first place and then cracking under the pressure thereby losing the bet he was sure to win outright. Samson proves cocky, reckless, and mentally weak. This gets him into trouble.
c. Samson Reacts to His Embarrassing Failure-14:18-20
With a grin on their faces, the Philistines present their answer to Samson’s riddle just in time to win the wager in verse 18—“ So 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?’…” (14:18). Perhaps to twist the proverbial knife into Samson’s ego and maximize the drama of this moment, the Philistines wait until the last minute to provide the answer and when they do they answer Samson’s riddle with one of their own. The riddle doesn’t just reveal that they discovered the answer to the riddle, it also exposes Samson’s desecrating act of scarping honey out of a dead carcass. This was highly embarrassing for Samson and, I imagine, highly disappointing for his parents if they were nearby.
Furious after his loss and immediately aware of how these guards have won, Samson “said to them, ‘If you had not plowed with my heifer, You would not have found out my riddle,’…” (14:18b). “You cheated!” Samson exclaims, “and you used my wife to do it” (although he doesn’t use “wife”). His reference for his wife proves to be just as offensive today as it would have been in the ancient world. What a great way to end a wedding feast! YIKES!
However, the scene is not finished yet. “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily, and he went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty of them and took their spoil and gave the changes of clothes to those who told the riddle…” (14:19a). Though Samson got himself into this mess, the Lord gets him out of it. It is God’s Spirit that allows Samson the strength necessary to overwhelm his enemies here. Samson kills thirty men, took their spoil (personal effects), and then uses these articles to pay the debt he owed to those who won the bet.
Remember, God is using this ill-conceived marriage to stir things up between Israel and the Philistines because things have become too comfortable between these two people groups and Israel, as a result, is losing its special identity as the set-apart people of God.
The fallout of this episode continues as Samson—now posturing as a pouty and embarrassed brat—returning home to live with mom and daddy—“And his anger burned, and he went up to his father’s house…” (14:19b). As for Samson’s wife, she “was given to his companion who had been his friend” (14:20). Talk about marital bliss. Some have said that the first year of marriage is the most difficult, but I would have never imagined a more difficult first week!
In last’s week’s look at Samson’s life we saw how isolation and a sweet tooth got this young man into compromising situations. In this week’s passage we see how risky behaviors (fraternizing at a raucous party) and reckless wagers (in the giving of the riddle) can lead to embarrassment and shame. Ultimately, in both passages, these failures demonstrate what occurs regularly in a life ruled by the flesh. While last week we saw how familiarity with God’s Word and pursuing spiritual community can help God’s people live a life in the Spirit, today we might say that avoiding the wrong crowds and unnecessary risks can also help aide a Spirit-filled life.
However, we also learn that God can and will use anything and everything to wake his people up from misplaced complacency and comfort—even if it that means allowing us to fail miserably. For Israel, he allowed Samson to go through the motions of this chapter to stir his people toward long-overdue action that would have them appropriately distance themselves from the pagan influences and practices that they were entertaining and accepting. In our lives, God may use an embarrassing failure to draw our attention to areas of compromise and complacency that need fixing or avoiding too.
Maybe you have failed recently. Maybe you are fresh off an embarrassing episode. If you are a child of God today, do not lose heart and do not give up. The same God that so-empowered Samson despite himself is more than able to overwhelm the mess you have gotten yourself into and even use it to accomplish his will. Call upon him today and life a life ruled by the Spirit as you move forward.