February 18: Song of Songs 1:7-8

Song of Songs 1:7-8

Verse 7

“Put in front for me, (you) who my soul loves,
where (it is) you herd (the flock),
(and) make them recline in (the) double-bright (sun)!
What? should I be as (one go)ing about wrapped
upon [i.e. among] (the) flocks of your companions?”

The poem in verses 7-8 takes the form of a mini-dialogue, as the young woman (v. 7) is answered by another voice (v. 8), variously identified as that of the young man, the chorus (of ‘daughters of Jerusalem’), or another character—all depending on one’s preferred interpretive scenario. Since the girl is addressing the young man she loves (“[you] whom my soul loves”), it seems best to read verse 8 as the boy’s response.

One way of explaining the setting of this poem is that the two young lovers are making arrangements to meet at the time of the noon rest (or siesta). In any case, that is certainly the idea that the young woman has, for she clearly hopes to meet up with him at this time, while he is pasturing his flock. This verse indicates that the man she loves is a shepherd. However, as with the vineyard motif (cf. the previous note on vv. 5-6), the pastoral milieu (of shepherds and herding) was a common feature of ancient love poetry. Among the earliest examples are the Sumerian poems involving the love between Dumuzi and Inanna (cf. Jacobsen, Harps, pp. 1-84, and Sefati, Love Songs). Though both are deities, they are portrayed in the poems very much in the manner of normal human lovers. Dumuzi took many forms, but that of the shepherd was the most common characterization in the love poems.

In much later times, poems with a pastoral setting were extremely popular among the Greek and Roman poets (Theocritus, Virgil, etc). Pope (p. 328) cites an Arabic folksong that is indicative of the sexual suggestiveness of this poetic setting:

“Come, a spring pasture I will show thee,
which no man has yet trodden.”

Perhaps the most famous pastoral poem, at least among Jews and Christians (cf. below) is Psalm 23; though not a love poem as such, it certainly can be seen as reflecting the love and devotion between God and His people (the faithful ones). Especially significant here is the setting of noon time (lit. the time of the “double-bright” sun, i.e., when the sun is at its peak), since it is the time of rest, the siesta, when the two lovers have the opportunity to snatch away some moments to spend with each other.

The second part of verse 7 is more difficult to interpret (and translate). The initial word, a compound particle (hm*l*, “for what”, i.e. “why?”) that includes a prefixed relative particle, is actually very hard to translate into English. The basic sense of the line is that, if the young man does not tell her how she can find him (at noon-time), she will be forced to go about all of the grazing spots looking for him. Clearly, he should not want that, since it means that the girl will end up approaching other young men (his companions) in the process.

The precise word hy`f=u)K= is problematic. Literally, it means “like (one) wrapping/covering (herself)”, but, in context, clearly would have to mean, “like (one go)ing about covered up”. According to the cultural standards of the time and place, a young woman going about in public would normally do so covered/veiled. And yet, it would be rather improper for such a woman to go about from man to man, approaching them and making inquiries. The implication seems to be that this would make her look like a prostitute (cf. Gen 38:14)—and surely the young man doesn’t want that to happen!

Some commentators, finding difficulty with this line of interpretation, prefer emending the word from hy`f=u) to hy`u&T), essentially involving only a transposition of two letters. The root hu*T* means “be lost, lose one’s way, go astray”, and here would be used in the rather mundane sense of the woman wandering about from flock to flock. Even if this reading is correct (which I am inclined to doubt, in spite of some versional support for it), the point at issue is still sexual in nature. By wandering about, approaching different young men, there is the possibility that another man would take a liking to her, and might pursue a relationship with her.

Verse 8

“If you do not know yourself,
(you most) beautiful among women,
go out among (the) heel(-mark)s of the flock,
and herd your young goats
upon (the) dwellings of the herders!”

The interpretation of these lines depends almost entirely upon who is speaking them. This is a point debated among commentators; however, as I note above, since the young woman is apparently talking to the young man she loves (in verse 7), it is reasonable to assume that he is the one answering her in verse 8. Is is reply serious, playful, mocking, or some combination of these?

As with the vineyard-motif in verse 6 (cf. the discussion in the previous note), there is a double meaning to the herding motif here—the verb hu*r* refers both to the actual herding of sheep/goats, and figuratively, as a symbol of sexual relations (cf. above on the sexuality of the pastoral setting in ancient love poetry). In this regard, I take the young woman’s jibe in v. 7b to be playful in tone, and the young man’s response to be similar in kind. She depicts the image of a ‘wrapped up’ woman (resembling a prostitute) having to go about from flock to flock (and to different men) looking for him. His jest, in turn, is that she could always go out as (female) shepherd herself (herding female goats), and thus interact with the men without scandal.

At a deeper level, the herding image relates to sexual attraction (and sexual relations). The young man is essentially telling the young woman that she should already know for herself where he ‘herds’ his sheep—i.e., that his love is for her alone. The matter of searching/finding in this regard is symbolic of sexual love and longing. The “heel (print)s” of the young man’s sheep represent the signs of his love for her, and she should be able to follow them. If she cannot, then perhaps she does not really love him—and she should then go ahead and try her luck with the other young (herds)men.

There is a longstanding tradition in Near Eastern poetry of the tracks of nomadic encampments, etc, as a touchpoint for love, longing, and remembrance. It can be seen already in the Sumerian Dumuzi poems (cf. above), and extends down into modern Arabic poetry. An especially beautiful and evocative reflex of this tradition is found in the classical Arabic (Qasida) Ode. In the first part of the Ode (the nas£b), the poet, longing for his departed beloved, is drawn to the remains of her tribe’s encampment. There, those traces, in every detail, are a powerful evocation of his beloved, and the landscape is turned, for him, into a beautiful paradise that matches the beauty of his beloved. This will be discussed further at several upcoming points in the Song, were the sense of longing (of the young woman for her love) is expressed in similar terms.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish interpretation built upon the traditional motif of Israel as a flock of sheep who would go astray without the guidance of a Shepherd (Psalm 23). Moses, as the intermediary between YHWH and the people, served this role as shepherd, and, subsequently, through the Law (Torah) he gave to Israel at God’s command. The woman longing after the shepherd, and seeking to find him, represented the longing of the righteous ones to follow the precepts of the Torah.

The Targum gives an interesting interpretive paraphrase of verse 8 (God speaking to Moses):

“If the Assembly of Israel, which is compared to a beautiful maiden whom my soul loves, wishes to wipe out the Exile, let her walk in the ways of the righteous…let her teach (or lead) her children, compared to the kids of goats, to go to the Assembly House and to the House of Learning; then by that merit, they will be sustained…until the time when I send the King, the Messiah, who will lead them to rest in their Dwelling, the Sanctuary which David and Solomon, the shepherds of Israel, will build for them.” (Pope, p. 335)

The mixing of metaphors, with both woman/bride and the flock(s) symbolizing the Church, led Origen in his Commentary to draw a distinction between ordinary Christians (the sheep) and those (represented by the bride) whose soul seeks after the deeper truth of the Word of God (Christ). It is significant for him that this searching (and finding) takes place at noon-time, when the light of the sun is brightest, where the purified soul can be enlightened by the “full knowledge” of Christ.

Commentators such as Origen and Gregory Nyssa, following a translation that renders the Hebrew suffixed preposition El* (“for you”) in the sense of “(for) yourself”, drew upon this to emphasize the importance of “knowing oneself”. This self-knowledge by the soul is necessary in order to avoiding the evils and delusions of the world, achieve purity (in virtue and knowledge), and so then be able to attain to a full understanding of the Word of God. The nature of the soul itself reflects this purity, but becomes covered over by the things of the world; the Divine Truth can shine in it again only after it has been cleaned and purified. As Gregory exclaims, regarding the significance of this spiritual awareness and self-knowledge:

“You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, and image of the true Light; and if you look up to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, Whose glory is reflected in your purity.” (Daniélou, p. 162)

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References above marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Jacobsen, Harps” are to Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once…: Sumerian Poetry in Translation (Yale University Press: 1987).
Those marked “Sefati, Love Songs” are to Yitschak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture (Bar-Ilan University Press: 1998).
Quotations of Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon cycle (here) come from Jean Daniélou, S. J., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S. J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

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