What does Judges chapter 14 mean?Samson was set apart, even before birth, as a Nazirite (Judges 13:5, 24–25). His unique mission as a judge (Judges 2:16–19) is not to achieve Israel's redemption, but to "begin to save Israel from the hand from the Philistines." The nature of Samson's early life might look like one deeply connected to God. Immediately, however, that image falls apart. The Samson we meet in his adulthood does not seem interested in this mission. Nor does he seem committed to maintaining a godly character.
Samson travels the short distance from his parents' home in Zorah to the Philistine city of Timnah. There he sees and likes a young Philistine woman. He returns home and demands that his parents get her for his wife. They object and ask him if there isn't any Israelite woman he could marry. Philistines were not among the explicitly-forbidden nations, from which Israel was never to take wives (Deuteronomy 7:1–4). Yet they are just as idolatrous, opposed to God, and currently oppressing the nation. Samson's parents seem to object more out of distaste than piety. Samson blatantly rejects any reasons other than personal preference: this is what he wants, so this is what he intends to get (Judges 14:1–3).
What follows is a statement which is key to understanding the entire story of Samson. Despite being irresponsible, impulsive, violent, and blatantly sinful, God empowers Samson in his conflicts with the Philistines (Judges 14:19; 15:14–15; 16:3). Here, God allows this designated man to insist on marriage into a pagan culture. That paradox is resolved by noting that God plans to use Samson as an instigator. The Lord's intent is for Samson to disrupt the Philistine's sense of control over Israel. Samson's poor choices will result in his own misery, but God will also arrange events so that they help Israel, in the end (Judges 14:4).
On his way to Timnah to make wedding arrangements, Samson is attacked by a young lion. The Lord's Spirit supernaturally empowers him. He tears the lion apart with his bare hands. He tells no one—perhaps because this is the first time such a thing has happened. He proceeds to Timnah to meet the young woman and talk with her. This affirms his infatuation; he resolves that marrying her is the right thing to do (Judges 14:5–7).
Once the wedding arrangements are made, Samson once again returns to Timnah for the wedding feast. Scripture does not say how much time passed between visits, but it might have been many weeks. On the way, he stops to see the lion's carcass. He discovers something extremely unusual: a beehive inside the remains. Whether this means a hive in the lion's skull, or the dried remnants of skin and bone, no details are given. Samson scoops out honey and eats some—a ritually unclean act. He even shares the honey with his parents without telling them what happened (Judges 14:8–9).
Samson hosts a traditional week-long wedding feast. This may have involved copious amounts of alcohol. Thirty Philistine companions are assigned to him for the week. He challenges them to a bet. If they can solve his "riddle" within the seven-day celebration, he will give each of them a set of clothes. If they cannot solve it, each of them will give him a set of clothes. True riddles can be solved by clever thinking; the guests might have thought Samson was adding entertainment to a gift. They agree, not realizing that what Samson has in mind is a blatantly unfair trick (Judges 14:10–13).
Samson's challenge is not a true "riddle," but a poetic reference to a secret only he knows: the lion carcass with a beehive in it. After three days, the Philistine men seem to suspect this is not a fair challenge. Frustrated, they threaten to kill Samson's bride and her family if she does not get the answer. Likely terrified, she manipulates Samson to tell her the secret. When he finally gives in, she tells her fellow townspeople, and they declare the answer to the puzzle on the last day of the feast. Samson immediately realizes that he's been betrayed, reacting with a crude insult of his bride (Judges 14:14–18).
In a rage, Samson heads to the fortified Philistine city of Ashkelon, about a full day's travel away. Once again empowered by the Spirit to spark rebellion against the Philistines (Judges 14:4), he attacks thirty men there. He takes their clothes and returns to Timnah to pay off his wager. He then leaves, without the bride, and likely without even consummating the marriage. Thinking that Samson will not return, his bride's father gives her to one of the groomsmen (Judges 14:19–20).
Samson will return after some time, while assuming he still has marital rights with the Philistine woman. When he realizes she's been given to someone else, his rage will again boil over (Judges 15:1–3).