Professor Cyrus Gordon Solved Samson’s Riddle

Peter Buckley | January 14, 2012 in Articles of Interest,Biblical Interest | Comments (0)

One of Britain’s iconic foodstuffs is Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Everyone knows the century-old design: a round tin can with a lid you prise off with a knife; racing green bodywork with the golden words arching over a central picture of a dried dead lion, and emanating from its stomach is a swarm of bees. A strange image for a foodstuff?

Under the logo are the words: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”, a reference by its creator Abram Lyle to a scene in the Bible. While no one is certain why this quotation was chosen, Abram Lyle was a deeply religious man and it has been suggested that it refers either to the strength of the Lyle company which delivers the sweet syrup or possibly even to the trademark tins in which Golden Syrup is sold. Lyle’s is “Britain’s oldest brand” according to the Guinness Book of World Records , having remained almost unchanged since 1885. So the lion corpse definitely hasn’t done them any harm!

The full quote, a riddle, is “Out of the eater something to eat came forth, and out of the strong something sweet came forth” (Judges 14:14 NWT)

This is a good example of a bible account in the style of journalism, accurately conveying what took place. Samson killed a lion and later found that bees had made a hive in the carcass, from which honey was dripping. The strong aversion of most bees to dead bodies and carrion is well known. However, the account states that Samson returned “after a while” or, literally in the Hebrew, “after days,” a phrase that can refer to a period of even a year (The expression “from year to year” in Hebrew is literally “from days to days”). The time elapsed would allow for scavenger birds or animals and also insects to have consumed the flesh or the burning rays of the sun to desiccate the remainder. That a fair amount of time had passed is also evident from the fact that the swarm of bees not only had formed their nest within the lion’s corpse but also had produced a quantity of honey. He told nobody about the lion or the honey, but made a pact with the Philistines that within a week they could not solve the riddle. In translation there is no possible way to solve this riddle without being in on the secret about the lion and the bees. The Philistines found out the answer from Samson’s wife Delilah, who had nagged Samson into telling her. They succeded by saying to Samson just before the week expired: “What is sweeter than honey, and what is stronger than a lion (a-ri)?” (Judges 14:18)

It happens that while ‘a-ri’ is well-known in the sense of ‘lion’ it is at the same time a very rare word for ‘honey’ preserved in Arabic, but nowhere in extant Hebrew literature. The biblical text is cleverly constructed, because up to that point in the account, it refrains from calling the lion ‘a-ri’. Instead the solution is kept from the reader by calling the lion a ‘ke-fir a-rayot’ (maned young lion) and later, ‘a-ryeh’ (apparently distinguishing the larger African from the Asian lion), neither of use in solving the riddle. One example of how every word is there for a reason..

Thanks to: Cyrus H Gordon (1974): Riddles in history

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