Samson's riddle

Samson’s riddle in the form of a Hebrew poem is translated in the agalog Magandang Balita Biblia (rev. 2005) into a form of a traditional Tagalog riddle of two lines with internal rhymes (-kain and –kain; –kas and –bas) and an (almost) identical number of syllables (6+7, 7+7):

Mula sa kumakain ay lumabas ang pagkain;
at mula sa malakas, matamis ay lumabas.

It back-translates as:

“From the eater came out the food;
and from the strong, sweet came out”

(Source: Louis Dorn in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 301ff. )

Similarly, in the English Contemporary English Version (publ. 1995) a translation is used that mimics the style of English riddles:

Once so strong and mighty–
now so sweet and tasty!

(Source: Ogden / Zogbo 2019)

Translation commentary on Judges 10:9

And the Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim: And, which renders the Hebrew waw conjunction, introduces an additional act by Israel’s enemies. Contemporary English Version uses the connector “Then,” but many versions leave this conjunction untranslated (New Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation, New International Version). The Ammonites, who lived on the east side of Jordan, crossed the river to attack the Israelites on the other side. In addition to Gilead, the Ammonites also attacked deeper into Israelite territory, which Good News Translation expresses as “even.” We may also say “as well” or “additionally.” The text is emphatic here with the repetition of the Hebrew preposition b- (against). The enemy attack against the Israelites became widespread, affecting Judah (verse 1.2), Benjamin (verse 1.21), and Ephraim (verse 1.29). As elsewhere, these names refer to tribal groups, not to individuals. The house of Ephraim refers to the members of this tribe. Good News Translation provides a helpful model: “The Ammonites even crossed the Jordan to fight the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim.”

So that Israel was sorely distressed: This is an independent clause in Hebrew, which is literally “and it was very cramped for Israel.” Revised Standard Version has opted for a result clause, rendering the Hebrew waw conjunction as so that to introduce the result of what happened under Ammonite oppression. Good News Translation keeps an independent clause here. For the Hebrew phrase rendered was sorely distressed, see verse 2.15, where it is translated “were in sore straits.” Contemporary English Version gives a very dynamic rendering here, saying “Life was miserable for the Israelites.”

Quoted with permission from Zogbo, Lynell and Ogden, Graham S. A Handbook on Judges. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2019. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Judges 11:26

Jephthah keeps questioning the Ammonite king, trying to convince him to stop his attack against Israel. Here he asks the king why the Ammonites had never tried to recapture the land in the past three hundred years while the Israelites lived there. The rhetorical question here is very long and will probably need to be broken up into smaller units or rearranged.

While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages …: After capturing the land east of the Jordan River from the Amorite king Sihon, the Israelites remained there. The places mentioned here were given to the tribe of Reuben when the land was divided. For Heshbon see verse 11.19. This city was on the King’s Highway in the middle of the area captured from the Amorites. Aroer was an important town on the northern rim of the Arnon River. For its villages (literally “its daughters”), see verse 1.27. They were smaller communities around the larger towns. Jephthah is making a point here, so he draws out his words by saying in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages. However, in some languages it will be better to say “in the towns of Heshbon and Aroer, and in all their surrounding villages.”

And in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon: The word cities may be rendered “towns,” since these settlements were not huge. Biblical cities were quite small and easily surrounded by an army. For the Arnon River, see verse 11.13. The banks of the Arnon is literally “the hands of the Arnon [river].” Translators can use any appropriate term for banks. As in many places around the world, the banks of a river are a good place to make a settlement, since there is easy access to outside commerce. Some of the banks on this river are high cliffs today, so the area referred to here is probably the eastern end of the river, where it would be possible to settle.

Three hundred years: As is usually the case in the Old Testament, the number three hundred is probably a round figure, representing approximately how long the Israelites lived in this area.

Why did you not recover them within that time?: This rhetorical question is a climax to all the others. Obviously the Ammonite king cannot answer it, because he knows that his ancestors were powerless to take the land back from the Israelites. For the Hebrew verb rendered recover, see verse 6.9, where it is translated “delivered.” The pronoun them refers to the towns just mentioned. This rhetorical question may be rendered as a statement by saying “you were powerless to recover them during all those years!”

A translation model for this verse is:

• You know we Israelites occupied the towns of Heshbon and Aroer and all their surrounding villages and the towns along the Arnon River for 300 years. You could have tried to regain the land during that time. Why didn’t you?

Quoted with permission from Zogbo, Lynell and Ogden, Graham S. A Handbook on Judges. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2019. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Judges 13:8

The focus now returns to the woman’s husband, Manoah (see verse 13.2). Over the years, Manoah’s personality has been analyzed in various ways, both positive and negatively. Most, however, see him as weak, not believing his wife and showing less faith than she does. Nevertheless, his first reaction is to turn to the LORD. Since a long speech citation has ended, a new paragraph can begin here.

Then Manoah entreated the LORD, and said: Then renders the Hebrew waw conjunction, which may be translated “At that point.” Entreated renders a somewhat rare Hebrew verb meaning “plead” or “beg.” For the moment Manoah seems to hardly believe his wife’s report and is not sure who was speaking to her. But despite his doubts, he turns to the LORD and begs for confirmation of what has happened. This sentence may be translated “Then Manoah pleaded with Yahweh, saying.”

O LORD, I pray thee is literally “With me, my Lord … please” (see comments on verse 6.13). The Hebrew word for LORD is ʾadonai, which is not the typical name Yahweh, but rather the word that means “my Lord [or, Master]”. This is a humble way of addressing someone. However, since Manoah is addressing Yahweh, translators may want to use an expression that includes another name for God. I pray thee renders the Hebrew politeness marker naʾ. Other possible translations are “Please” (Good News Translation) and “I’m begging you” (similarly New International Version).

Let the man of God whom thou didst send come again to us: Manoah prays that the LORD will allow the divine messenger to come once again, either because he wants to experience himself what his wife saw and heard or because he doubt’s his wife’s account. Some see this request as a lack of faith on the man’s part, either in the LORD or in his wife. Indeed, it is reminiscent of Gideon’s testing of the LORD (verse 6.36-40). For the man of God, see verse 13.6. Contemporary English Version refers to “the prophet” here, but it is good to stay close to the Hebrew text.

By saying whom thou didst send, Manoah acknowledges that the person who came to his wife was sent by Yahweh. Thou is an old English pronoun used to refer to God, replaced by most English versions with the pronoun “you.” Send renders the Hebrew verb shalach, which appears throughout this book (see verse 1.25). The Hebrew verb rendered let … come is softened by the naʾ politeness marker, so it expresses a wish or softened command. Many languages will follow the order in Revised Standard Version for this clause by putting the known information first as follows: “the man of God whom you sent, let him come to us again.” We might also reverse the order: “send to us again the man of God whom you sent” (similarly Contemporary English Version).

And teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born: Manoah apparently believes the messenger came and he appears to believe a child will be born, but he wants to know more about what to do once the child arrives. Teach renders a Hebrew root meaning “cast” or “throw,” with lots or arrows as possible objects. However, in its form here it means “teach,” “direct,” or “instruct.” It may be rendered “tell” (Good News Translation, Contemporary English Version) or “advise.” This verb is jussive in Hebrew, expressing a request or wish. We might say “and let him teach us…” or “so that he can teach us….”

What we are to do with the boy describes the advice Manoah is requesting. With renders a Hebrew preposition that may also be translated “for.” For Hebrew word translated boy, see verse 13.5. New International Version provides a helpful model: “how to bring up the boy.”

That will be born renders an unusual Hebrew passive participle, which is literally “the one being born.” It may be translated “that my wife will have” or “that is to be born [soon].”

Translation models for this verse are:

• Then Manoah prayed fervently to the LORD, saying, “Please, Lord, I beg you to let the man of God you sent come again to us. He can tell us what we should do for the boy who will be born.”

• Then Manoah pleaded with the LORD, saying, “Master, you sent a man of God to us. Please send him again, so he can teach us how to raise the son we will have.”

Quoted with permission from Zogbo, Lynell and Ogden, Graham S. A Handbook on Judges. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2019. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Judges 14:15

When the Philistines began to worry about finding the solution for the riddle, they formed a plan. They asked Samson’s bride to coax the answer out of him. In the Deborah story women played a role in the deliverance of Israel. Following the “bad to worse” scenario in this book, women are now asked to betray those close to them. This will be the first instance, but of course, the most well-known incident will later concern Samson and another Philistine woman, Delilah.

This verse begins with the Hebrew discourse marker wayehi (literally “And it was”), which marks a significant moment here. Many versions start a new paragraph here (Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation). Contemporary English Version begins with “Finally.”

On the fourth day: The Hebrew text has “on the seventh day.” Revised Standard Version‘s reading is based on the Septuagint. Most versions follow the ver Septuagintver*, but Contemporary English Version renders the Hebrew with “on the seventh day of the party.” According to verse 14.17, it was not until the seventh day that Samson’s bride convinced him to tell her the meaning. Hebrew Old Testament Text Project prefers the Hebrew text, but gives it a {C} reading. Translators are free to choose the reading they prefer and add a footnote if necessary. On the fourth day may be rendered “On the fourth day of the groom’s feast/celebration.”

They said to Samson’s wife: The pronoun they refers to the young Philistine companions of Samson whom he challenged with the riddle. As noted earlier, Hebrew has only one word meaning both “woman” and “wife.” The wedding had not taken place yet, but in many cultures an engaged woman is also a wife. Translators should use a term appropriate in their language. In English we might say “bride” (Contemporary English Version, NET Bible).

Entice your husband …: Compare verse 16.5. The Hebrew verb rendered Entice means “coax” or “persuade.” They are asking Samson’s bride to use her charms on him, so that he will tell her the riddle’s answer. Good News Translation uses the verb “Trick,” which is not exactly correct here. A better rendering is “Speak sweetly/nicely.” The Hebrew word for husband (ʾish) can also mean “man” in general. Here it specifically means “groom” since the wedding had not taken place yet. Like wife, in many cultures the engaged man is spoken of as the husband, even before the ceremony.

To tell us what the riddle is: Once again the verb tell reappears. There is a textual problem concerning the pronoun us. In Hebrew this pronoun could include the woman, as part of the Philistine group, or it could refer to only the young men. If this reading is accepted, an appropriate plural form, whether inclusive or exclusive, can be used here. But the ver Septuagintver* has the second person singular pronoun “you,” referring to the woman, a reading followed by Contemporary English Version and Revised English Bible. This reading makes good sense because Samson would more likely tell his fiancée the meaning, and then she would relate it to her countrymen. Even though Hebrew Old Testament Text Project gives an {A} rating to the Hebrew text, translators are free to make their own choice of interpretation. The wording here is also difficult, since the Philistines do not want to know what the riddle is, but rather what its solution is. In most languages this will need to be made explicit.

Lest we burn you and your father’s house with fire: It now becomes apparent that this bet is not just a game. Providing thirty fine pieces of cloth and changes of clothes would be difficult, but there must be something more at stake to make them so angry, namely, their honor. So Samson’s companions go so far as to threaten his bride and her family with death if she does not do as they request. For this threat see verse 12.1. The Hebrew conjunction rendered lest may be translated “otherwise.” In many languages it will be easier to begin a new sentence, saying “If you don’t [do as we say]…” or simply “If not….” The pronoun we clearly refers to Samson’s companions, excluding his bride. Many languages will find it redundant to say burn … with fire. The use of the verb burn will suffice. The Philistines are threatening more than fire, but actual death, which Contemporary English Version and New International Version make clear: “burn … to death.” The Hebrew noun for house (bayit) can refer to a physical home or set of buildings, but very often it refers to the extended family living together under one roof or in one courtyard. Both meanings could be present in the phrase your father’s house. Thus we might say “If you don’t, we’ll burn down your father’s house, with you and your family in it.”

Have you invited us here to impoverish us? is literally an emphatic “Was it to dispossess us that you called us? Isn’t that so?” The Philistines accuse Samson’s bride of calling them to the party so her fiancé could get the better of them and enrich himself. Invited renders the Hebrew verb meaning “call.” The adverb here points to the place of the party. The Hebrew verb rendered impoverish (yarash) is the same one translated “drive out” in verse 1.19, here meaning “dispossess” or “make poor.” Providing thirty fine pieces of cloth and sets of clothes would indeed cost quite a bit and given they are young men, use up all their resources. A rhetorical question may be kept here (“Did you invite us here to ruin us?”), or expressed as a statement (“You’ve called us here just to ruin us!”). A double question may also express their indignation, for example, “Is that why you brought us here? To ruin us?”

Translation models for this verse are:

• On the fourth day [of the party] the men said to Samson’s bride, “You had better get your fiancé to tell you the answer to the riddle. Otherwise, we will burn you and your whole family to death. Did you bring us here to strip us of everything we possess?”

• On the seventh day* of the celebration, the Philistine men threatened Samson’s wife, saying, “Persuade your husband to tell the meaning of the riddle. If you don’t, we’ll burn your house down, along with you and your family in it. Did you invite us here just to take everything we have?”
* The Septuagint and some other ancient versions say “fourth day.”

Quoted with permission from Zogbo, Lynell and Ogden, Graham S. A Handbook on Judges. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2019. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Judges 16:10

And Delilah said to Samson: Though this clause is linked to what precedes by the Hebrew waw conjunction (And), it is possible that there is a significant time lapse here. Samson has escaped from the Philistines but is once again back with Delilah. Thus we might say “Then” (New Revised Standard Version, New International Version) or perhaps, “Later.” The reintroduction of the two names Delilah and Samson shows that a new incident is beginning, and most versions begin a new paragraph here (Good News Translation, Contemporary English Version).

Behold …: Delilah begins complaining to Samson with the attention-getting Hebrew word hinneh, which is rendered Behold. It is omitted in some versions (New Revised Standard Version, Contemporary English Version), but translators should find a word or expression that fits this context, for example, “Look” (Good News Translation, NET Bible) or “Look here.”

You have mocked me: The Hebrew verb here (talal) means “deceive” ( NET Bible, New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh). It appears each time Delilah complains to Samson (verse 16.13, 15). Jacob used this verb to describe how Laban “cheated” him (Gen 31.7). The verb mocked seems rather weak, so we might rather say “misled” or “fooled.”

And told me lies is literally “and spoke/said lies to me.” Besides deceiving Delilah, Samson has lied to her. Translators can use a generic word or an idiomatic expression to express this notion of lying. We might say “Look, you’ve made a fool of me and you’ve lied to me.”

Please tell me how you might be bound: See verse 16.6. Though Delilah realizes she has been tricked, she is still after his secret. So she uses very polite language here, which is literally “now tell me please in/by what you will be bound.” Please renders the Hebrew politeness particle naʾ. The Hebrew verb rendered tell (nagad) is used often in the Samson story. In some languages the passive construction how you might be bound may be made active by saying “how they/one might bind you.”

A translation model for this verse is:

• Later Delilah said to Samson, “Look, you’re just playing with me and lying. Now, please tell me [really] how you can be bound.”

Quoted with permission from Zogbo, Lynell and Ogden, Graham S. A Handbook on Judges. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2019. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Judges 18:1a

In those days there was no king in Israel: See verse 17.6. Though some versions think a new section begins here (New Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation), it seems more likely that this part of 18.1 closes the episode concerning Micah and the Levite. In this context it reminds readers that Micah’s actions and observations are based on his own way of thinking. Another reason for making this division is that the phrase In those days appears again in the second half of this verse below, seemingly opening a new section.

Quoted with permission from Zogbo, Lynell and Ogden, Graham S. A Handbook on Judges. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2019. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Judges 19:5

And on the fourth day they arose early in the morning: And renders the Hebrew word wayehi (literally “And it was”). But translators can begin this verse with “Finally, on the fourth day….” The Levite had spent enough time at his father-in-law’s place to allow him to make a polite exit. The pronoun they may refer to the father-in-law and his household or, more specifically, the Levite and his concubine. The wider reading seems more logical since the Levite and the father-in-law were both present. Arose early does not render the Hebrew keyword qum, which occurs in verse 19.3, but a more specific word referring to “waking up early.” New Revised Standard Version proposes “On the fourth day they got up early in the morning.” Some languages may prefer to place the phrase in the morning at the beginning of this clause, for example, “On the morning of the fourth day they woke up early” (Good News Translation).

And he prepared to go: The pronoun he refers to the Levite. Prepared renders the key Hebrew verb qum (“arise”), which is used here to express irony as in verse 19.3 (see comments there). As there, it characterizes an “anti-hero.” While the audience expects this verb to introduce a hero, this man is anything but that. If it is possible to maintain this link by using the same verb throughout this section (see also verse 19.7, 9-10, 27-28), the irony will be well expressed. If this is not possible, translators may follow Revised Standard Version‘s rendering here. This clause means the Levite was gathering his things, putting his baggage on his donkeys, and so on. Contemporary English Version says “the Levite started getting ready to go home.”

But the girl’s father said to his son-in-law: But renders well the Hebrew waw conjunction here, since most would expect the father-in-law to accept their departure. But, unexpectedly, he keeps trying to stop them from leaving. Combining the clauses, we might say “As the Levite prepared to leave, the woman’s father said to his son-in-law.” Full noun phrases are used here for both main participants: the girl’s father and his son-in-law. Translators may use any forms natural in their language.

Strengthen your heart with a morsel of bread, and after that you may go: The father tries to stop his son-in-law from leaving. This request may be motivated by the simple fact that the father does not want his daughter and his son-in-law to leave, or it may be part of some ritual of leave-taking in that culture. In many cultures around the world, it is customary for the host to object at first to his guest’s departure.

Strengthen your heart with a morsel of bread is an invitation to the Levite to eat something before he starts to travel. This clause is literally “Sustain your heart [with] a piece of bread,” which means “Eat something to give you strength” (New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh). The word heart, which appears several other times in this section (verse 19.6, 22), here refers to the person and in most cases will not be rendered literally. A morsel of bread is a piece of bread. The Hebrew word for bread often refers to food in general, which it does here, thus “a bit of food” (New Revised Standard Version) or simply “some food.” We might say “Have a bite to eat” (similarly Contemporary English Version) or “Have a little something to eat.” In some cultures it may be necessary to soften this command by saying “My son, have something to eat” or “Please eat something.”

And after that you may go is literally “and afterward you will go.” After means “after eating.” The Hebrew pronoun for you is plural, referring to the Levite and his group, while the verb for Strengthen is singular, referring to the Levite. The father is saying that he will feel better if the Levite eats before setting off on his journey. The singular-plural alternation is probably just a result of the fact that it is customary to address and serve the head person, while the servants and others are served on the side. A possible model for this clause is “Then you and your people may leave.” In some languages these clauses may be reversed, for example, “Don’t leave until you have had a little bite to eat.”

Translation models for this verse are:

• On the fourth morning the Levite got up early and prepared to leave. But his father-in-law said to him, “My son, have something to eat before you go. Then you may leave.”

• On the morning of the fourth day, they got up early. As the Levite prepared to leave, the woman’s father said to him, “Please don’t leave until you have had something to eat.”

Quoted with permission from Zogbo, Lynell and Ogden, Graham S. A Handbook on Judges. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2019. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .