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A Taste of Honey

On honey in the Bible.


Softly humming for miles over dusty hills and brittle scrub, one wild ground bee happened across the gory remains of a predator. And instead of continuing down into the fertile vineyards of Timnah, this bee returned and danced before the hive to persuade his swarm to dwell within the carcass of a lion. For me, this is the magnificent peak of the entire Samson narrative. The blind Samson toppling the temple of Dagon on his enemies; Delilah’s persistence and Samson’s inability to withhold his strength; the jawbone; the gate of Gaza: all of these seem recognizably tragic or epic. It is only when the bumblebees arrive that we enter something like a picaresque episode, a fairy tale.

Admittedly, the series of events around the city of Timnah would have to be classified as an abrupt and violent sort of fairy tale, though, in defense of the Book of Judges, unhappy outcomes are at least equally likely (if not more so) in the genre. The innocent and the deadly often coincide, though not only as deception (the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing) or hypocrisy. Rather, powerful persons and objects appear alternately benevolent and then strangely indifferent to human welfare. Every token or prophecy oscillates between the sweet and the bitter. Perhaps a fairy tale is simply the blending of bright heroic adventures with the ambiguous shadow of the oracular. Samson ripping apart a lion with his bare hands is an adventure; Samson eating honeycomb from his newly inhabited victim is an oracle.

There is something charming about Samson sharing this honey with his parents while keeping the source secret. It is as if he is enjoying a private joke. Hercules famously killed the Nemean lion and paraded around in its skin, not only as a public sign of his victory but because the impervious hide kept him from injury. That adventure was grander and less funny than this strange story of Samson killing an ordinary lion, in which he finds material for a riddle to pose to the young men of Timnah before his wedding. But when his young bride-to-be presses him into sharing the answer and she, in turn, reveals it to the participants in Samson’s contest (who demand it upon pain of immolation for her and her father’s entire household), we are baffled. How could the stakes for this contest be so impossibly high? And why does Samson’s response to being humiliated appear to us disproportionate? He does in fact pay the reward of thirty garments to those who answered the riddle, yet to do so he kills thirty men from the city.

Perhaps the nuptials were always on shaky ground. Samson is, after all, attempting to marry outside his tribe; he is already notorious as a slayer of Philistines. Certain lines (“Did you come here to beggar us?”) suggest that the guests are aware that losing this bet will impoverish them. But this explanation is unsatisfactory. Why would the bride’s family and the leading men of the town even agree to the wedding or an expensive contest in the first place? Why would the young men attempt to sabotage the event by threatening the murder of a family of their own tribe rather than Samson directly?

The haunting final scene of the Timnah episode rests upon a parallel structure. A nursery rhyme commingles with the threat of coming slaughter. Robert Alter notes that both the answer to the riddle by the young men (“What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?”) and Samson’s response (“Had you not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle”) are lines of verse with three accents in each verset, like the original riddle Samson posed: “Out of the eater came something to eat, and from the strong came something sweet.” Samson remains governed by the hypnotic meter of his own riddle even in the midst of his shame and rage.

All of this horror is made possible because a swarm of bees came to live in a lion’s carcass. The emergence of this omen was contingent and for this reason all the more significant. Samson responded to this marvel with a riddle, a genre we associate with children and trivial games. Riddles are playful, and we may be tempted to contrast unfavorably the dressing up of answers in pleasing rhymes or images with the serious business of straightforward communication.

For the writers and compilers of the Hebrew scriptures, however, both the construction and exposition of riddles was a central feature of intelligent discourse. This is demonstrated by the prominence of the word מָשָׁל (mashal) in the wisdom literature. Its definition is notoriously fluid, though it is given a range of meanings such as “riddle,”“simile,” “allegory,”“maxim,” and even “parable,” all of which suggest a poetic, metrical, or even musical context. This is wonderfully conveyed in the Coverdale translation of Psalm XLVIII: “I will incline mine ear to the parable: and shew my dark speech upon the harp.” Or consider the passage which is later taken up in the Gospel of Matthew and applied to Christ: “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old.” And even if many have taken Christ’s parables as pragmatic aids for the teaching of pleasantly rustic folk, first-century Hebrews would have recognized this style as the mark of a sage.

In the Greco-Roman world, divine wisdom was also associated with ambiguous riddling poetry. Pilgrims both poor and powerful would travel to the spiritual capitals of Delphi and Dodona to consult the oracles there. Ecstatic utterances would be translated into poems composed in dactylic hexameters. The role of prophetic interpretation was not to make the unintelligible intelligible; it was to transfigure the excess of Pythian mania into a vaguely traceable and partially musical enigma. Divine inspiration and human artifice blend like well-mixed wine in the ancient understanding of wisdom. Man seeks the gods in natural signs and processes. Yet the divine seems to require human activity in a particular way: divination must be both ritually constrained and artistically creative.

In Judges the wild bees that make a home in a lion’s carcass are material for Samson’s riddle, but they are also an image of those who prophetically interpret omens and oracles. The bees confound the dichotomies of nature and artifice. The hive is a highly sophisticated communal work of engineering (even if most would describe beehives as unremarkably “natural” and not an “artifact”). In the seemingly erratic path of a bee scouting for pollen or a suitable dwelling place one can make out a chart of the terrain being investigated and see mapped out the steps of a public dance. Potential sites for new hives are even subject to communal deliberation, the existence of which complicates strict divisions between irrational, un-meaning nature and rationally meaningful human activity. Our oldest extant archaeological evidence of apiaries and domesticated honey production comes from Israel’s Beth Shean valley. The bees in our story chose to remain undomesticated. Instead of occupying prebuilt structures of clay and straw, they chose something ruined and forgotten—even fearsome. They made no mutually beneficial exchange with human civilization, electing instead to remain free and wild.

The wild, it should be noted, is by no means identical to the wilderness. We think of anything that cannot be put immediately to human purposes as “wild” and imagine the wild as an infertile wasteland or a void. Samson’s initial response, a secret joy, suggests a different understanding. The wondrous, oracular, ominous, and strange manifestations of nature and its wisdom can be communicated and shared without losing their wildness: this is why we riddle together.

Only one other story in the Old Testament features a honeycomb as consequential as the one Samson encounters. The fourteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings is similar to Judges in its atmosphere of fairy tale adventure: there is soldiering, hidden knowledge, divination. Following the martial exploits of Jonathan and his armor-bearer, the Philistine garrison is in disarray and full retreat. For some unspecified reason, Saul binds the army with an oath: “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged upon mine enemies.” Elsewhere, Jonathan comes into a forest and across a ground-hive which is gleaming with honey. Since he is unaware of his father’s deadly oath, he reaches out his staff and eats.

The effect of this honey is variously translated in English, but my favorites are those that follow the Douay-Rheims and the Authorized Edition: “His eyes were enlightened.” The reader’s mind races effortlessly back to Genesis, to different trees and another forbidden food, where other eyes were opened. What if Eve, like Jonathan, had been innocent of the prohibition? Would death and shame have followed or deifying refreshment? When the soldiers inform Jonathan of his father’s oath, Jonathan casts doubt on the wisdom of the prohibition, but he does so from a place of innocence as well as experience. He tasted the virtue of the honey without losing his own. “Then said Jonathan, My father hath troubled the land: see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey.” But still the prohibition has been violated and Saul has publicly sworn that anyone who is guilty, even his own son, shall surely die. With the high priest, Saul begins casting lots in order to discover the guilty party.

It is easy for modern readers, familiar with the iconoclastic denunciations of the prophets, to forget that faithful Israelites engaged frequently in divination, albeit without reference to the flights of birds or spilled entrails. Instead, the official Hebrew method used by Joshua, David, and Saul was a kind of cleromancy involving the sacred breastplate and linen ephod of the high priest. Two stones, the Urim and the Thummim, would provide answers to simple binary questions “yes” or “no,” or in the case of the eater’s identity, “this group” or “that group.” By process of elimination Saul divines that the oath-breaker came from within his own family and finally recognizes Jonathan as the culprit.

In fairy tales we encounter two seemingly antagonistic tropes: the immunity of innocent souls from harm; and the power of oaths, magical tokens, wards, and spells to operate regardless of individual intentions. In an old Norwegian tale a mill endlessly churns out salt after its owner forgets the magic word; in Scripture Uzzah is struck dead for attempting to catch the Ark of the Covenant as it topples. The magical or sacred is presented as immutable, with chaotic and occasionally tragic consequences for those unfortunately ignorant of its ritual operations. In the Hungarian legend “The Boy Who Could Keep a Secret,” the hero refuses to reveal his dream when threatened with imprisonment and even death. He withholds his secret dream from his own mother and from the princess whom he loves (a fortitude Samson might have envied). In the end, his dream is fulfilled and his heroic silence vindicated. In Holy Writ innocence and the power of oaths are set against each other: Jonathan is innocent of disobedience yet guilty of breaking a solemn oath to God. Surprisingly, perhaps for the first time in Scripture, a divine oath is put aside without consequence.

Unlike in the case of Jepthah and his daughter, the people are horrified at the prospect of this coming execution and intervene: “And the people said unto Saul, Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not.” There is no further gloss that suggests that God was displeased by this or felt cheated out of some sacrifice. In the Binding of Isaac, there is at least a nominal substitution of the ram for the son. Our first parents’ trespass in the garden of Eden brings death into the world. Jepthah follows through on the sacrifice of his daughter. But in the face of Jonathan’s invincible ignorance the seemingly inexorable machinery of magical prohibitions and sacred oaths stops.

The Israelites protest the execution and manage to stop it. (Here a Greek chorus would have fallen upon deaf ears.) This is strange. We are used to the idea of prophets interceding for the people, but here the people themselves do so on behalf of a son threatened by a royal father. We are reminded of the many occasions from Moses through Jeremias upon which prophets attempt to stay the divine wrath of God incurred by His children. The shock of the prophetic must be emphasized. In the face of explicit judgements and sometimes divine commands to cease intercession, solitary heroic figures seek to do the impossible: to change the mind and will of God. One imagines that Nietzsche was consumed with envy whenever he read the Hebrew prophets.

The theological puzzle of divine impassibility and intercessory prayer interests me less here than the union of moral rectitude and fairy-tale magic the prophets embody. They are a tribe of dream-haunted innocents who are invincible. Even kings cannot compel them to reveal their secrets; it is rather they who expound the secret dreams of kings. They conquer even the divine wrath and turn it to mercy, something acknowledged in scattered hints throughout the prophetic literature of the Old Testament even by God Himself (“Though Moses and Samuel stood before me”).

The prophetic is supposed to be the opposite of the mythic and oracular. It brings the clear words of divine judgement which sweep away all-too-human caviling and pagan obscurity. Myth and omens evaporate before the heat of revelation. Countless volumes of biblical scholarship and philosophy are predicated on these oppositions. But honey is too sticky. Both Ezechiel and Jeremias are fed scrolls tasting of honey, which recalls the description of manna in Exodus: “And it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” This food, which some rabbis and Christian fathers speculated was the very bread of angels, is for the prophets simultaneously a word which must be uttered. Ezechiel’s consumption of the honey-scroll in the third chapter is immediately followed by the return of the vision of the throne room and the chariot, the sound of wings beating as powerfully as churning waterfalls, and wheels that shake the earth. After this, Ezechiel sits stunned for seven days.

These visions, it should be noted, are recorded as taking place by the canal which connected the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Babylonian point of origin is more than geographic. As Peter Kingsley has brilliantly argued, the parallels between Ezechiel’s vision and Babylonian mythopoetic writings and images are not coincidental. The figure of God enthroned over the firmament with the royal materials of lapis lazuli and amber are “far too exact just to be a coincidence, and there can be no question of the Babylonian version deriving from the Jewish.” The honied taste of the prophetic scroll is matched by the honied appearance of celestial amber. No other mineral more closely resembles crystallized honey. The manna which was said to taste like honey in Exodus is curiously described in Numbers as having the appearance of bdellium, a mysterious crystallized resin or aromatic gum. One possibility taken up by the translators of the International Standard Version is amber. The image of manna as flakes falling from the celestial amber throne room is difficult to resist. The jars of three thousand-year-old honey discovered with King Tut remind us that this viscous food is as resistant to spoilage as crystal. It is fitting that the sweet immortality of honey is present at this intersection of the prophets and Babylonian myth. The quasi-divine  substance—now hardened, now fluid—oozes across and through all the cell-like categories of divination, prophecy, myth, and oracles to emerge as a single radiant crystal.

The marriage of the prophetic and the mythic might also be referred to as the apocalyptic. In the Apocalypse of Saint John a honeyed scroll is consumed; otherwise there are only two other references to honey in the New Testament. The first is the description of John the Baptist’s diet of locusts and wild honey; the second is the meal of broiled fish and dripping honeycomb which Jesus eats after his resurrection. According to Leviticus, honey was not acceptable as a burnt offering, but it was acceptable as an offering of first-fruits (possibly being poured out as a libation). Saint Paul refers to Christ’s resurrection as the first-fruits of our own, and the meal in Luke’s Gospel, after Our Lord has “expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself,” is a meeting of first-fruits. He was poured out for us like an offering of honey. All the multitudes of previous scriptural references to honey, divine speech, and wisdom from Leviticus, Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, Jeremias, and Ezechiel had previously culminated in the diet of John the Baptist, whom Christ called the greatest of the prophets. Like John’s wild honey and His own parables, Christ Himself was both riddle and revelation. In the Apocalypse, another John tells us that instead of meat sacrificed to idols, the elect will dine on the fruit of the Tree of Life and secret manna—manna that, one imagines, will taste as curiously sweet as honey.

Andrew Kuiper’s work has appeared in Church Life Journal, Touchstone, and many other publications.

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