Judges 14:18: Samson's Riddle Unriddled


Verse 18:[1] 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.


[They said…before lying down of the Sun [similarly most interpreters], בְּטֶ֙רֶם֙ יָבֹ֣א הַחַ֔רְסָה] חַרְסָה/sun is in the place of חֶרֶס/sun; as elsewhere חֲדָרָה/ chamber is in the place of חֵדֶר/chamber[2] (Drusius). What happens on the seventh day happens within seven days. See Labeo,[3] If anyone should thus speak, Digest “Concerning the Signification of Words and of Things;” and what things were said in Concerning the Law of War and Peace 3:20:4. The setting of the sun is the end of the νυχθημέρου/night-day among the Hebrews and surrounding nations (Grotius). But the Syriac translates it, before he undertook preparations; and the Arabic, before the meal was offered and prepared.


[What is sweeter than honey?] I respond, Sugar: but Sugar was unknown in that age. Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen were the first to make mention of Sugar, namely, of canes: but they had not achieved a method of melting and boiling it (Lapide).


[If ye had not plowed in my heifer, בְּעֶגְלָתִי] With my heifer, that is, wife (Vatablus). It signifies a wife, but insolent, impudent, and wanton. As bulls and calves are symbols of wantonness, Psalm 22, the calves have compassed me, etc.; thus heifers in Horace’s[4] Odes 2:5 (Serarius). The same calls Helen, wife of Menelaus, a Greek heifer:[5] And in Plautus Philocomasium is called a heifer[6] (Glassius’ “Rhetoric” 300). A wife is that to a man which a cow or heifer is to a bull; and so δάμαρ/wife and δάμαλις/heifer are words of the same origin; for both are from δαμάο, to tame or make subject (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:2:41:406). A new bride is aptly compared to a heifer on account of the yoke shared with her husband, whence also conjugium/marriage (Glassius’ “Rhetoric” 300). But what is it here to plow with his heifer? Responses: 1. Some take this in an obscene sense (Drusius’ Of Hebraic Inquiries[7] 70). Samson suspects that his wife has played the harlot with one of them, to whom, therefore, she revealed the explanation of his riddle (Rabbi Levi in Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals). Samson’s bride was already at that time seized by the love of the one that she afterwards married (Tostatus). Land and plowing are frequently used in matters of sexuality. He plows a strange tract of land; and he leaves his own uncultivated: Plautus.[8] Milo is not at home: but, with Milo away, his fields are idle: his wife, nevertheless, continues to bring forth children: Martial’s[9] Epigrams 7. This metaphor is not uncommon. The Complutensian and Syriac understand the same thing, and some of our own interpreters. But it hinders that in the Hebrew it is not, ye had plowed עֶגְלָתִּי, my heifer (as the Complutensian has it, if ye had not compelled/tamed my heifer), but בְּעֶגְלָתִי, by my heifer; which things differ not a little (Bochart’s Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:2:41:406). 2. The sense: If ye had not made use of the effort of my wife (Vatablus, thus Junius, Piscator, Serarius, Lapide, Bonfrerius, etc.): unless, as farmers by the labor of the heifer lay bare by plowing what things lie hidden under the earth, ye by the labor of my wife had searched out what things were hidden in my soul. It is an Allegory, which touches upon the treachery of his wife, and their deceit (Junius).


If ye had not plowed with my heifer, etc.: If you had not employed my wife to find it out, as men plough up the ground with a heifer, thereby discovering its hidden parts: he calls her heifer, either because he now suspected her wantonness and too much familiarity with that friend which she afterwards married; or because she was joined with him in the same yoke; or rather, because they used such in ploughing.

[1] Hebrew: וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ לוֹ֩ אַנְשֵׁ֙י הָעִ֜יר בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י בְּטֶ֙רֶם֙ יָבֹ֣א הַחַ֔רְסָה מַה־מָּת֣וֹק מִדְּבַ֔שׁ וּמֶ֥ה עַ֖ז מֵאֲרִ֑י וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ם לוּלֵא֙ חֲרַשְׁתֶּ֣ם בְּעֶגְלָתִ֔י לֹ֥א מְצָאתֶ֖ם חִידָתִֽי׃


[2] See, for example, Genesis 43:30: “And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber ( וַיָּבֹ֥א הַחַ֖דְרָה), and wept there.”


[3] Marcus Antistius Labeo (died c. 10 BC) was a Roman jurist; he is frequently cited in the Digests.


[4] Horace (65 BC-8 AD) was a Roman poet, perhaps the greatest of his day.


[5] Ovid’s Heroides 5 may be intended.


[6] Miles Gloriosus 304-310.


[7] Quæstionum Ebraicarum.


[8] Asinaria 874.


[9] Marcus Valerius Martialis was a first century Roman poet.

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.

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