A riddle is a "question expressed in obscure or ambiguous terms, intended to test ingenuity." The Hebrew word of the Scriptures, pronounced kee-dah, means essentially the same as the English word, i.e. a hidden saying.
The Israelites were familiar with riddles in everyday life e.g. Samson's riddle to the Philistines about an incident that he and his parents had on the road with a lion (Judges 14:5-9), which was answered after the Philistines threatened Samson's Philistine wife (despite his parents' pleading with him to marry within his own Israelite people, Samson seemed to have a big problem with, and attraction to, Philistine women - the riddle incident destroyed his marriage to the Philistine woman, and was followed by his relations with Philistine harlots, and then Delilah, which resulted in his capture, blinding and death, Judges 16:1-31):
"And Samson said to them, "Let me now put a riddle to you; if you can tell me what it is, within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments; but if you cannot tell me what it is, then you shall give me thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments."
"And they said to him, "Put your riddle, that we may hear it."
"And he said to them, "Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet."
"And they could not in three days tell what the riddle was. On the fourth day they said to Samson's wife, "Entice your husband to tell us what the riddle is, lest we burn you and your father's house with fire. Have you invited us here to impoverish us?"
"And Samson's wife wept before him, and said, "You only hate me, you do not love me; you have put a riddle to my countrymen, and you have not told me what it is." And he said to her, "Behold, I have not told my father nor my mother, and shall I tell you?" She wept before him the seven days that their feast lasted; and on the seventh day he told her, because she pressed him hard. Then she told the riddle to her countrymen."
"And the men of the city said to him on the seventh day before the sun went down, "What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?" And he said to them, "If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle."
"And the Spirit of The Lord came mightily upon him, and he went down to Ash'kelon and killed thirty men of the town, and took their spoil and gave the festal garments to those who had told the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father's house. And Samson's wife was given to his companion, who had been his best man." (Judges 14:12-20 RSV)
The Lord also used riddles, or allegories, regarding Israel (see Where Are "Israel" and "Judah" Today?):
"The word of The Lord came to me: "Son of man, propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel; say, Thus says The Lord God: A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar; he broke off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it to a land of trade, and set it in a city of merchants."
"Then he took of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil; he placed it beside abundant waters. He set it like a willow twig, and it sprouted and became a low spreading vine, and its branches turned toward him, and its roots remained where it stood. So it became a vine, and brought forth branches and put forth foliage. "But there was another great eagle with great wings and much plumage; and behold, this vine bent its roots toward him, and shot forth its branches toward him that he might water it. From the bed where it was planted he transplanted it to good soil by abundant waters, that it might bring forth branches, and bear fruit, and become a noble vine."
"Thus says The Lord God: "I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar, and will set it out; I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it upon a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar; and under it will dwell all kinds of beasts; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I The Lord bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I The Lord have spoken, and I will do it." (Ezekiel 17:1-8,22-24 RSV)
Fact Finder: Why did Jesus Christ often speak in parables?
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