July 29: Song of Songs 4:13-14

Song 4:13-14

“Your branches (water the) pardes,
(giving) pomegranates with precious fruit,
(flower)ing henna and (spike)nard—
(yes,) nard and saffron,
cane and cinnamon,
with all trees of white,
myrrh and aloes,
with all heads of spices!”

Verses 13-14, describe the garden enclosure of v. 12 in more detail (cf. the previous note). In particular, the flowing water (from the spring) within the enclosure is the source of all the trees and plants. That, at least, is how I understand the difficult opening word Ey]j^l*v=. The noun jl^v# fundamentally means something that is sent out; it can be used to refer to the branches or roots of trees, etc, and that is often how it is interpreted here. The luscious plants and fruit that are listed in the rest of vv. 13-14 represent what the garden “sends forth”. Another possibility, however, is that it refers to branches of water, i.e. irrigation channels, which water the garden and allow the various trees and plants to grow and bear fruit. In Mishnaic Hebrew, /yjlv has this meaning (cf. the references in Fox, p. 137). There are two reasons why this explanation is to be preferred: (1) the immediate reference to the spring of water at the close of v. 12, and (2) the basic symbolism of the garden (and the spring of water) in relation to female sexuality (and fertility). The spring of flowing water, likely seen as located at a central location in the garden, represents the source of the woman’s vitality and sexual appeal—it ‘waters’ the garden and causes its plants/fruits to grow.
On the possible sexual allusion to the body of the young woman (her genitalia), with the use of Arabic šal— in that sense, cf. Pope, p. 491.

The term sD@r=P^ (pard¢s) is a Persian loanword, and so I have transliterated it above; it is essentially parallel to (and synonymous with) Hebrew /G~ from v. 12, in referring to an enclosed garden or park. It use, however, gives an exotic touch to the scene; it might just as well have been translated with our own related loanword in English, “paradise”.

The second line emphasizes the fruit produced by the garden, which is both beautiful to look at and sweet to taste (cf. the prior note on vv. 10-11). The lush red pomegranate, with its sexual associations (v. 3), is mentioned specifically, along with other “precious” (dg#m#) fruits.

The remainder of vv. 13-14 is devoted to fragrant spices, of the kind especially used for aromatic oils and perfumes. The motif of spices in the Song is of special significance, in that it represents both (a) female beauty and sexual appeal, and also (b) the sexual union between the lovers. The latter aspect explains why the spices are given such prominence in the description of the garden. Two terms, in particular, summarize all the many fragrant spices that are present in the garden:

    • hn`obl=, “white (stuff)”, specifically the white resin used to produce frankincense; the similarity in form and meaning with /onb*l= (the “white [peaks]” of Lebanon, source of fragrant cedar wood), allows for rich wordplay within the Song, as both words are used repeatedly.
    • <ym!c*B=, the regular term for “spices”, and a keyword in the second part of the Song, occurring earlier in v. 10, and again in v. 16; 5:1, 13; 6:2, and in the closing words of the Song (8:14)

The idiom “heads of…” (yv@ar*) here means “finest, best”; we might also keep to a literal translation and say “all the top spices”. It emphasizes the superlative character of the girl’s beauty and charms for the young man, and also the complete attraction she holds for him.

(Our discussion continues in the next note, on v. 15.)

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

July 28: Song of Songs 4:12

Song 4:12-15

This is the last of a series of three songs by the young man, praising his beloved and expressing his love (and desire) for her. It is related thematically to the prior song (4:8-11), particularly in terms of the broad themes of separation and union between the lovers—the former was emphasized in vv. 8-11, the latter here in vv. 12ff.

Song 4:12

“(You are) a garden latched (shut), my sister (and) bride—
a garden latched, (with) a spring (of water) sealed.”

The primary motif in this song is of the young girl as a garden enclosure (/G~), the root implying a fenced-off or otherwise protected area. Given some of the imagery we have seen earlier in the Song, it may be a royal garden that is in view here. In discussing the scene in 3:7-10, I mentioned the strong possibility that a (royal) gardened pavilion was intended, along the lines of the description in Esther 1:5-6. However, the fundamental intent of the imagery here is of the garden as a symbol of female sexuality, very similar to the use of the vineyard motif earlier in the Song (1:6, 14; 2:13-15). In addition to symbolizing the sexuality of the young woman, it also represents the love shared between the two.

The Masoretic text in the second line reads lG~ instead of /G~. This is translated as “spring” or “pool”, but the word would more appropriately refer to the rolling or mounting waves (of the ocean). The LXX, Syriac (Peshitta) and Vulgate all assume that the reading is /G~, just as in the first line, an example of the kind of repetition we see frequently in the Song; I follow the versional evidence in my translation above, even though the lone surviving Qumran manuscript (4QCantb) supports the MT. If lG~ is original, it may perhaps refer to a rolling stone that serves as the door/entrance to the garden, or to the gate/wall of the enclosure itself being made of a “heap” of stones.

The verb lu^n` properly indicates something that is latched (tight or shut); in the case of a door or gate (i.e. to a garden enclosure) perhaps the idea of it being “bolted” shut would be more appropriate. In any case, the emphasis is on the garden area being closed off, and thus inaccessible. This plays upon the theme of separation from vv. 8-11, only it is not a separation based on the idea of distance; rather, the girl is now close at hand, but there is still something that separates the two lovers.

There is a fountain or spring of water within the garden enclosure—the common noun /y`u=m^ essentially refers to a place of flowing water. Based on the nature-imagery used throughout the Song, we should understand a mountain spring of fresh and clear water, more than some kind of artificial fountain structure. Thus the mountain-motif from vv. 8-11 is suitably blended with the garden-imagery of vv. 12ff; this is all the more likely if the “Amana” of v. 8b alludes to the mountain-source of the Amana river (cf. also the motif of water flowing down a mountain slope in v. 1).

Here it is said that the spring of water is sealed (vb <t^j*). This can be misleading in context, implying that the spring has been sealed-off so that no one can drink from it, etc. While that idea may also be present, the primary significance of the seal is to indicate ownership of something. Thus, there are two lines of imagery at work in this scene:

    • A garden enclosure, the entrance to which has been latched shut, and
    • A spring of water inside which has a seal indicating to whom the spring belongs.

This seal can further be understood two ways: (a) it indicates that the water belongs to the young woman (she being the garden), or (b) it shows that the water in the garden (i.e., the sexuality of the woman) belongs to the young man, and only he can have access to it. Both aspects, I think, are present, but the latter is the primary point of reference. The beauty, youth, vitality, and sexuality of the young woman belongs to the one who is her beloved—and to him alone. No other man can, or should, have access to the ‘garden’ and its ‘spring’. That is certainly the sense of the comparable imagery in Prov 5:15-17.

The basic idea here is that the young man alone has access into the garden enclosure (of the girl’s sexuality), and there to enjoy its delights. However, even for him, the beloved, the entrance is latched shut; it is the girl herself who must ‘open up’ to him, and only then will the last barrier to union be removed.

The imagery of this scene will be discussed further in the next note, along with a brief consideration of the sensitive social, ethical, and religious issue surrounding the marital status of the lovers (in the note on v. 15), limiting the discussion to the immediate context of the songs in chapter 4.

(Examples of Jewish and early Christian interpretation, on vv. 12-15, will also be included in the note on v. 15.)

July 27: Song of Songs 4:8-11 (continued)

Song 4:10

“How beautiful your love is, my sister (and) bride,
how good your love is (more) than wine,
and (the) breath of your oils than all spices!”

The young man continues his song here in vv. 10-11 (cf. the previous note on vv. 8-9), essentially repeating his praise of his beloved’s beauty (and sexual appeal) from v. 9, referring to the girl again as his “sister” (toja^) and “bride” (hL*K%). As I mentioned in the previous note, these titles are terms of endearment and intimacy, and do not mean that the couple are currently married, any more than that they are actually related as brother and sister. For examples in Egyptian love poems, cf. Fox, pp. 8-9, 13-14, etc.; on the similar custom in the Sumerian Dumuzi/Inanna songs, cf. Sefati, Love Songs, pp. 77-8, 129, 135-6, 140, 212, 270, etc.

The exclamatory particle hm* is best rendered here as “how…!”, though more commonly it is translated “what…!”. I have translated the first line as “how beautiful your love is…!”, but equally good would be “what beauty your love has…!”. The physical beauty and goodness of the young woman are expressed verbally—hp*y` (“be beautiful, have beauty”), bof (“be good [i.e., fine, pleasing]”).

This physical beauty and sexual appeal of the young woman is further expressed in terms of sweet taste and fragrant scent (j^Wr, “breath, wind”). The comparative use of the preposition /m! (“from”) is a bit difficult to translate in English; usually it is rendered “more than”, and this is as good an option as any. The term doD (“love”) has a relatively wide range of meaning; here it is best understood as encompassing both the girl’s sexual appeal and beauty as well as her role in the couple’s lovemaking. The girl made much the same declaration regarding her young man in 1:2. The motif of spices (here plur. <ym!c*B=) throughout the Song has a double meaning: it refers to female beauty/sexuality and also to the (sexual) union between the lovers.

Song 4:11

“Your lips drip honey, (my) bride,
syrup and milk (are) under your tongue,
and (the) breath of your garments
(is) like (the) breath of (the) white (mountains).”

The juxtaposition of sweet taste and fragrant scent are developed in the two couplets of v. 11. The sweetness of the girl’s lips and tongue refer primarily to kissing, but the idea of sweetness of speaking is probably also in view (cf. Fox, p. 52, Egyptian song no. 31 [verse C]). There are numerous examples of this sort of imagery in ancient love poetry; note especially how the sweetness of honey is used as a metaphor for sexual pleasure, as in the following Sumerian love songs:

“The brother brought me into his house,
And laid me down upon a bed dripping with honey.”

“In the bedchamber dripping with honey—
Let us enjoy your allure, the sweet thing!”

“The honey man, the honey man sweetens me ever,
His hand honey, his foot honey—sweeten me ever,
His limbs are honey-sweet—sweeten me ever.”

“If only you would do to me your sweet things!
Your ‘place’, sweet as honey—if only you would lay hand on it!”
(Sefati, Love Songs, pp. 93, 167, 355)

Pope (p. 486) also cites a modern Palestinian parallel:

“O, how sweet is the sucking of her lips, sweeter than sugar or honey.”

The fragrant scent of the woman’s garments is like that of her oils in v. 10—it relates to the scented perfume which makes her body that much more appealing to the young man. The “breath of Lebanon” refers to the fragrant cedar wood that comes from those mountains. There is also an implicit word play between /onb*l= (l®»¹nôn) and hnobl= (l®»ônâ), the word for (frank)incense (v. 6). Both words derive from a root denoting whiteness—the snow-white peaks of the Lebanon range and the white-colored resin that is used to produce frankincense.

The references to Lebanon in vv. 8 and 11 frame the song, emphasizing the mountain-theme. In verse 8 the focus was on the separation between the two lovers, while here in v. 11 it shifts to an anticipation of union. The same thematic sequence, but with a reversal of emphasis, is found in the next song as well.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 8-11)

Jewish commentators found a wide range of symbolism in these verses. In the Targum, the mountain peaks and the dwellings of lions and leopards (v. 8) were explained in a realistic geographical sense, as the cities of Syria and Lebanon that would be given to Israel (the Bride) as a wedding gift. More generally, the lions and leopards could symbolize the surrounding nations as enemies of Israel. The difficult verb in the first line of v. 9 (cf. above) was paraphrased (in the Targum) as “fixed upon the tablet of the heart”, related to those in Israel who are devoted to God and the study of the Torah; a similar explanation was given in the Talmud to the “one eye” as referring to Israel’s spiritual perception of the Torah (b. Shabbat 88b). God’s love for Israel, the Bride, was emphasized in the Targum and Midrash on v. 10, praising her beauty as being more fragrant than all other spices (i.e., all the other nations). The sweet lips of the woman could be explained as referring to the prayers, etc, of the priests, while the ‘dripping honey’ (and the milk under the tongue) were likened to the skill and knowledge of those devoted to the study of the Scriptures. Cf. Pope, pp. 477-8, 484-5, 487.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his sermons on vv. 8-11, provides a good example of Christian mystical and spiritual interpretation. The call for the Bride to “come from Lebanon (Libanus)” is applied to the soul that is rising toward God and “constantly experiences this continual incitement toward further progress”. According to his line of interpretation, the Bride has followed her Beloved (the Word, Christ) up to the ‘mountain of incense’, dying and rising with Christ to ascend in communion with his divine nature. Now she is called to rise up to further peaks. The ‘lions and leopards’ are those beasts that have been conquered when the soul turns away from evil; here they serve as an example and exhortation for us to make further progress toward the good.

Gregory understands verse 9 as a declaration by the friends of the Bridegroom (that is, the angels and divine powers), saying to the Bride, “you have given us heart” —that is to say, they express admiration, recognizing the purified soul as one of their own kind (their “sister”); collectively, this applies also the Church (the Bride of Christ) as a whole. Along these lines, the “one eye” represents the person “who has sharp vision for God alone”, being blind to all other things that attract the multitude. He further explains the sweet fragrance of the Bride in sacrificial terms related to the New Covenant (citing, e.g., Psalm 50:19; 2 Cor 2:15), whereby the purified soul exudes a sweet spiritual fragrance and aroma of holiness. The honey dripping from her mouth is specifically connected with the possession of Wisdom, rooted in “the honeyed drops of the Christian message”, perfected in virtue, and illuminated in spiritual understanding by the Word. Cf. the selections and translations in Daniélou/Musurillo, pp. 213-26.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
References 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).
Those marked Daniélou/Musurillo are to From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, selected by Jean Daniélou, S.J., translated & edited by Herbert Musurillo, S.J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

July 26: Song of Songs 4:8-11

Song 4:8-11

Verse 8

“Come from (the) white (mountains), (my) bride,
come from (the) white (mountains), come to (me)!
Journey from (the) head of Amana,
from (the) head of Senîr and Hermôn,
from (the) dwelling-places of lions,
from (the forest) <lairs> of leopards.”

The mountain-theme from verses 5-6 (and earlier in the Song) continues here in vv. 8-11. As discussed previously (cf. the notes on vv. 5 and 6), this mountain motif can represent the idea of separation between the lovers, but also, at the same time, the expectation (and anticipation) of union. In vv. 8-11, the emphasis is on separation, while in the song that follows (vv. 12-17) it is union.

The high mountain peaks referenced here in v. 8 suggest an inaccessible location. The young man is currently separated from his beloved, and her location up in the ‘mountains’ symbolizes her inaccessibility, as well as the inability for the two lovers to be together. This is why the young man calls fervently to his beloved to come to him, since it would be difficult for him to come to her. With many commentators, I read yta as an imperative of the verb ht*a* (yt!a&, “come!”), rather than MT yT!a! (“with me”). The subsequent imperative in the second line, from the verb aoB (also meaning “come”), I take as specifically meaning “come near, come to me.”

There is also a textual question regarding the parallel imperative in line 3, yr!WvT*—does it derive from rWv I (“see, look, watch”) or rWv II (“travel, journey”)? Both are possible, but the second better fits the context here in v. 8, since for the woman to come to him means that she must travel to him from her mountain dwelling. The mountains are identified with two peaks—(1) Amana (Akkadian Umanum, Ammanna, Ammun), the source of the Amana (= Abanah, 2 Ki 5:12) river in the Anti-Lebanon; and (2) Senîr, apparently a specific peak in the Hermon range (cf. Deut 3:9; 1 Chron 5:23). The term /onb*l=, typically transliterated in English as “Lebanon” (l®»¹nôn), derives from a word designating white—referring to the snow-white peaks of the Lebanon mountain range. The Song makes considerable use of the Lebanon-motif, as part of its broader mountain-theme; it will be discussed further in the next note.

The reference to the dwelling-places of lions and leopards (or panthers) is problematic for commentators attempting to establish a real geography in this verse. The references, however, are all figurative, and need to be understood as such. Traveling from the mountain peaks entails passing through the forests and wilds that are the haunts of dangerous animals such as lions and leopards. With commentators such as Pope and Fox (p. 135), I tentatively emend MT yr@r=h^ (“mountains of…”) to yr@j) (“holes/lairs of…”); the focus is on the secret/covered dwelling places of these animals in the forests and mountain wilds. The mention of these wild animals adds to the sense of inaccessibility, of the barriers (and possible dangers) that currently separate the two lovers. Pope (pp. 475-7) makes much of the religious/ritual interpretation whereby the young woman is identified with ancient goddess figure-types; of these are the well-known “lady of the beasts” type, associated with the lion and other wild animals. According to this line of interpretation, the girl’s mountain dwelling includes the presence of lions, etc.

Verse 9

“You have (captur)ed my heart, my sister, (my) bride,
with (just) one (look) from your two eyes,
with one neck-bead from your necklace!”

Most commentators would derive the verb bb^l* here as denominative from the noun bl@ (= bb*l@), “heart”. It has alternatively been suggested that a separate root bbl (= Akkadian lab¹bu), denoting “enrage, arouse (to fury)”, is involved, but here with the specific meaning of sexual arousal (cf. Pope, p. 479). Assuming that the connection with bl@ (“heart”) is correct, the verb can be understood here in a couple of different ways: (a) “stir my heart”, or (b) “capture my heart”; the latter is to be preferred. The young woman’s beauty and sexual appeal have captured his heart, so that he is full of desire for her, and cannot but love her. This ‘conquest’ of his heart is so complete, that just a glance from one of her eyes, and even a single decorative bead from her necklace, is enough to overwhelm him with love and desire. Probably a round bead or gem-stone, resembling a human eye, is in mind. The nouns qn`u& and /orW`x^ both can refer to a necklace or other ornamentation for the neck; I take the first term as referring to a piece (bead, strand, jewel, etc) of the necklace.

There is a bit of alliterative wordplay here between the verb form yn]T!b=B^l! (liba»tinî) and /onb*l= (l®»anôn) in verse 8.

Mention should be made of the use of the terms “sister” (toja^) and “bride” (hL*K^) in v. 9. They are used repeatedly, but one should not necessarily assume that the young man calling the girl his “bride” means that they are currently married (or even engaged), any more than calling her his “sister” means that they are actually related (as brother and sister). Both titles are used figuratively, as terms of endearment and intimacy. However, given the wedding emphasis at the close of the first division of the Song (3:4-11), we may, at the very least, recognize here an anticipation of the couple’s future wedding/marriage. On the custom of lovers referring to each other as “brother” and “sister”, this simply reflects ancient Near Eastern cultural tradition; there are numerous examples that can be cited in the Sumerian and Egyptian love poems, and elsewhere. This will be discussed further as we proceed through the Song.

The remainder of this song (vv. 10-11) will be considered in the next daily note, along with examples of Jewish and early Christian interpretation for vv. 8-11 as a whole.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

July 25: Song of Songs 4:6-7

Song 4:6-7

“Until (the time) when the day breathes
and the shadows fly (away),
I will go myself to the mountain of myrrh,
and to the hill of white (incense).
All of you (is) beautiful, my companion,
and there is no defect in you!”

Verse 7 summarizes the wasf song in vv. 1-5; in those lines (cf. the previous note), the young man praises the beauty of his beloved, one body part at a time, moving from the eyes to the breasts. Now, at the close of the song, he declares that all of her (EL*K%, “all of you”) is beautiful. The sense is that, having reached her breasts in his praise-song, the young man, overcome with desire, is not able to continue. Instead, he longs to be united with her, and expresses this in no uncertain terms in verse 6.

This aspect of sexual union was implicit at the end of v. 5, with the motif of the (male) animals grazing—that is, of the young man enjoying the beauty and sexual appeal of the young woman, focused particularly at her breasts. It becomes more explicit in verse 6, pivoting on the playful echo of the girl’s words to him in 2:17. The same temporal phrase is used:

“Until (the time) when the day breathes
and the shadows fly (away)”

In both passages, this refers to the night-time, before the coming of daylight, when the two lovers can be together. In 2:17, the implication is that the two have been together, and the young woman is urging her beloved to depart before the dawn comes and their love is discovered. This seems to be the significance of the expression “mountains of rt#b#.” Assuming the reading rt#b# is correct, then it is best to explain the word in terms of the fundamental meaning of the root rtb, “cut in two (pieces)”. This can be understood in two ways (cf. the discussion in the note on 2:17):

    • The motif of separation between the two lovers, or
    • The two split mountains symbolize the woman’s breasts, and thus allude to the (sexual) union between the lovers

In my view, the primary meaning is that of separation, yet there is also contained within the expression the possibility of future union. And, indeed, the two mountains of sexual union are described here in 4:6. The mountains are associated with the fragrant spices that elsewhere symbolize the young woman’s beauty and sexual appeal—myrrh and (frank)incense (lit. “white [stuff]”, hn`obl=), 3:6; 4:14 (cf. also 1:13; 5:1, 5, 13). There can be little doubt that here these two mountains specifically refer to the young woman’s breasts, continuing the imagery from v. 5). The similarity of shape between a mountain and a breast is obvious; on this aspect of the word dv^, cf. the previous note.

The use of the verb El^h*, together with the reflexive suffixed preposition yl! (“[for] myself”), expresses the young man’s desire to go to his beloved and be united with her: “I myself will go…” to those fragrant ‘mountains’.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum interpreted the ‘fleeing shadows’ of the night as the demons that are dispelled by the burning of the spice-incense at the Temple altar (the Temple having been built on mount Moriah). The praise of the woman’s beauty in v. 7 was explained in terms of Israel’s beauty, when her people fulfill the Divine will through performance of the Torah regulations (including the Temple sacrifices). The Talmud and the Midrash Rabbah added the aspect of Israel’s ritual purity—pure both in terms of righteousness and the absence of any physical defect. Cf. Pope. pp. 472-3.

Gregory of Nyssa explains the praise of the woman’s entire body in relation to the Church (the body of Christ) as a whole, as opposed to the beauty of its individual members (i.e., the souls of believers). He connects this with the declaration of the young man (Christ) in v. 6, interpreting the ‘two mountains’ in a Christological sense: myrrh representing the humanity (suffering) of Jesus and the frankincense his Divine glory. In particular, his sacrificial death (i.e., going to the “mountain of myrrh”) allows human nature to be purified of its flaw (sin). The person who shares in Christ’s suffering will also share in his glory, so that we (the Church) will come to be “all beautiful”.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 1)

Psalm 50

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPse (vv. 3-7); 4QPsc (vv. 14-23)

This is the first of 12 Psalms attributed to [s*a* (“Asaph”), the others being Pss 73-83. According to 1 Chron 6:39, Asaph was one of three priestly (Levite) officials who were put in charge of the “service of the song” by David (cf. 25:1; 2 Chron 5:12); he also served as “chief minister” before the Ark in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:4-5; 25:5). He is said to have been a “seer” (hz#j), 2 Chron 29:30), and his sons apparently also functioned as prophets (1 Chron 25:1-2). The musical tradition associated with Asaph (and his descendants) is confirmed by the notices in Ezra 2:41 and Neh 11:22.

The prophetic role of Asaph (and his sons) is noteworthy, given the fact that Psalm 50 is itself a prophetic oracle. Though in Jewish tradition the Psalms were often regarded as inspired prophecy (with David as a prophet, etc), this is one of the only Psalms which has the form and style of a prophetic oracle. Even if Asaph was not the actual author/composer, due to the prophetic character of the Psalm it was natural for it to be attributed to him, and it may reflect his style.

Metrically, the Psalm follows a fairly consistent 3-beat (3+3, occasionally 3+2) couplet or tricolon (3+3+3) format.

The Psalm opens with a dramatic introduction (vv. 1-4), followed by an introductory address (vv. 5-6) that sets the stage for the oracle that makes up the remainder of the composition. It is a judgment oracle, delivered against the people of Israel/Judah as a whole, similar in tone and theme with prophetic passages such as Isa 1:2-20ff. The oracle itself has two parts:

    • Part 1 (vv. 7-15): Diatribe on the uselessness of sacrificial offerings when wickedness is present and prevails among the people.
    • Part 2 (vv. 16-23): The accusation against the wicked ones in Israel

Introduction (vv. 1-4)

Verse 1

“Mighty (One) of the Mighty (one)s (is) YHWH!
He spoke and called (forth the) earth,
from (the) rising of (the) sun unto its going  (down).”

This opening verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The first line reflects the character of this introduction as being in praise of YHWH as Creator and King (and Judge) over all. To say that he “called” (vb ar^q*) the earth alludes to His creation of the universe (“heaven and earth”) through the spoken word (Gen 1:1ff)—i.e., he called it into being. It also refers to his role as King over the universe, exercising control over it each day.

Verse 2

“From ‚iyyôn, (the) completion of (all) beauty,
(the) Mightiest (One), has shined (forth).”

This couplet picks up from the motif of the rising sun in v. 1, describing YHWH as the true Light shining forth. He shines “from Zion”, referring to the symbolic and ritual location of His throne in the Temple sanctuary. YHWH Himself is the “completion of beauty” (yp!y) ll^k=m!), but this expression could also apply to His Temple-dwelling on Zion.

Verse 3

“Our Mighty (One) will come and will not be silent,
a (raging) fire before him devours,
and around him a fierce (storm) is swirling.”

This is another 3-beat tricolon, using the imagery of storm-theophany to describe the approach and (manifest) presence of YHWH. Quite often in Old Testament tradition, including many passages in the Psalms, El-Yahweh is associated with the storm, much as was the case with Baal Haddu in Canaanite religious tradition; there are numerous similarities between YHWH and Baal in this regard, which helps to explain the fierce opposition to syncretistic adoption of Baal-worship among Yahwists in Israel.

The storm-imagery also relates to YHWH speaking (“He will not be silent”), since, in ancient Near Eastern thought, thunder was considered to be the “voice” (loq) of God. Here, however, the focus is on the fire that appears before YHWH, coming from in front of His face, and the devastating winds “swirling/whirling” around Him. The destructive character of these storm-phenomena reflects the judgment that will be brought against the wicked.

Verse 4

“He will call to the heavens from above,
and to the earth, to judge His people.”

This call to the heavens and the earth (i.e., the two main parts of the universe) reflects the “covenant lawsuit” genre, seen most notably in the openings of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and the oracle in Isa 1:2-20ff. It was customary in the ancient Near East to invoke God (or the gods) when establishing a binding agreement (covenant) between two parties, calling on the deities to be a witness to the agreement and to bring judgment/punishment in case the terms of the agreement are violated. In the monotheistic context of Israelite culture, the only Deity to call upon is YHWH, except that, in the case of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, He is one of the parties involved; therefore, “Heaven and Earth” are called upon to be witnesses instead.

The judgment-setting of the oracle here would indicate that heaven and earth, having witnessed the covenant, are being called upon now to give testimony against Israel (“His people”). In any case, they are taking part in the proceedings.

Introductory Address (vv. 5-6)

Verse 5

“Gather His loyal (one)s to Him,
(those) having cut a binding (agreement)
(made) upon a (ritual) slaughter.”

The poetic form is difficult to discern, the lines of these introductory verses (to the oracle) reading more as prosody than poetry. I have rendered v. 5 here as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon.

The y– suffixes should probably be read as reflecting the third person (rather that 1st person) singular (cf. Dahood, p. 307). This is not entirely uncommon in Old Testament poetry, where archaic features in the language are often preserved, causing certain confusion for later copyists.

The adjective dys!j* properly means “good, kind”, but frequently connotes (and denotes) loyalty, when used in the context of the covenant (as here). There may be a certain biting irony to the term; since the setting is an oracle of judgment against Israel, it might seem strange to call the people “loyal”. However, it is presumably used here in the more general sense of those who are bound by the covenant, who have been—and, more importantly, should have been—loyal to it.

The mention of “(ritual) slaughter” (i.e., sacrificial offering) refers primarily to the sacrifices which took place when the covenant was established (and ratified). This scene is described in Exodus 24. In Near Eastern tradition, such a binding agreement was often accompanied by the ritual cutting up of an animal; this is the background (and fundamental meaning) of the expression to “cut” (vb tr^K*) an agreement. At Sinai, the offerings had several specific purposes, including the ritual use of the blood (vv. 6-8), at which point the people affirmed their loyalty to the terms of the covenant, and a ritual meal (v. 11) to mark the ratification of the agreement.

Verse 6

“And (the) heavens shall put His justice out front,
for (the) Mightiest—He (is the) Judge.”

As noted above, the heavens (and earth) will give testimony in this courtroom-scene against Israel. Since heaven and earth were called on as witnesses to the covenant (cf. the tradition in Deut 32:1, etc), they can testify to how Israel had agreed to the terms, binding themselves to it; having violated the agreement, YHWH is perfectly in His rights to call for judgment/punishment to be brought against Israel. As it happens, YHWH is not only the plaintiff in the case, but is also Himself the Judge (fp@v)). Dahood (p. 307) would read fp^v=m! yh@l)a$ (“Mighty [One] of justice”) instead of fpv) <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One] [is] judge”), dividing and vocalizing the words differently from MT.

The Oracle, Part 1 (vv. 7-15)

Verse 7

“Hear, my people, and I will speak,
Israel, and I will repeat (it) against you,
(for the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One am) I!”

The oracle proper begins here in verse 7; it is now YHWH who is speaking, as the plaintiff in the “covenant lawsuit”, bringing the charge, the accusation, against His people Israel. The wording in the first and third lines frames the case, alluding to the very covenant bond that Israel has broken. By referring to Israel as His people (“my people”), and to Himself as their God, YHWH is affirming the central tenet of the covenant, going back to the time of Abraham and the Patriarchs.

The verb dWu literally means “repeat”, but it can be used in the sense of giving testimony (i.e., repeating what one has seen or heard). Here it has the broader meaning of the case that YHWH is presenting in the courtroom (before Himself as Judge).

Verse 8

“(It is) not over your slaughterings (that) I accuse you,
or your (offering)s going up continually in front of me.”

In verse 5 (cf. above) the sacrifice (lit. “[ritual] slaughter”, jb^z#) which established/ratified the covenant was mentioned. This reference, however, also serves the dual purpose of introducing the theme of sacrificial offerings that dominates the first part of the oracle. Here YHWH states that the problem is not related to any failure on Israel’s part to perform the sacrificial offerings required by the covenant. Indeed, even as they faithfully fulfill this ritual aspect of the binding agreement, they violate it, most egregiously, in other ways.

Verses 9-11

“I would not take from your house a bull,
(nor) goats from your enclosures;
for to me (belongs) every living (thing) of (the) thicket,
(the) beasts (are) on (the) hills of (the) Mighty (One),
and I know every flying (creature) of the mountains,
and every(thing) moving (in the) field (is there) with me.”

In the first couplet, YHWH points out the relative insignificance of the animal sacrifices per se, by declaring that He really has no need for those offerings. The reason is then stated in the final four lines, a pair of couplets with a chiastic conceptual structure:

    • to me belongs
      • every living thing of the forest
        • beasts of the mountains
          • (they belong to the) Mighty One
          • and I know them (all)
        • flying creatures of the mountains
      • every moving thing of the field
    • is with me (i.e. belongs to me)

This reflects, again, the place of YHWH as Creator and King over all the world (cf. the introduction, vv. 1-4, above). Since every animal in the world belongs to Him, clearly He does not need the relatively few animals, from the houses and stalls of the Israelites, that are offered as sacrifices. Moreover, since He already possesses a multitude of living animals, of what real value are those slaughtered animals?

A minor textual note: In the second line of v. 10, the correct reading is almost certainly la@ yr@r=h^B= (“on [the] mountains of [the] Mighty [One, i.e. God]”) rather than MT [l#a* yr@r=h^B= (“on [the] mountains of cattle [?]”); cf. Psalm 36:6. Dahood (p. 307f) would retain the final pe of MT [la and attach it as a prefixed conjunction (P^) to the following verb. Unfortunately, this verse is not preserved in the surviving Qumran manuscripts (cf. at top above).

Verses 12-13

“If I were hungry, I would not say (that) to you,
for (all that the earth) contains and its fullness (belongs) to me!
Would I (then) eat (the) flesh of (your) bulls,
or drink (the) blood of (your) goats?”

This is another way of YHWH stating that He has no actual need for sacrificial offerings. One basic concept in ancient sacrificial ritual was that the offerings provided a kind of nourishment for the deity (or for the spirits of the deceased, etc). In the case of the whole burnt offering, the entire animal was turned into smoke which then rose (lit. went up, hlu) to God in heaven; with such offerings, in particular, God could be seen as consuming (eating) the animal.

However, YHWH states rather bluntly that, even if He were in need of nourishment (“hungered,” vb bu^r*), it would hardly be necessary for Him to tell human beings about it. After all, every thing that the world contains (i.e., the term lb@T@)—all life and produce coming from the earth—belongs to Him, and He can take of its life-essence (for nourishment) anytime He wants.

All of this colorful polemic simply serves to devalue the importance of sacrificial offerings in and of themselves. This is a relatively common theme in the Prophet writings, perhaps the most famous example being found in Isa 1:12-15.

Verse 14

“(Instead) ‘slaughter’ to (the) Mightiest a declaration,
and fulfill for (the) Highest your promises (to Him).”

Much more important than sacrificial offerings are the things which a person declares to God, reflecting one’s personal character/integrity and the intention of one’s heart. The same verb jb^z` (“slaughter”) is used provocatively here; instead of cutting up an animal, it is more important to cut a declaration to God. This is the general significance of the word hd*oT, something which a person declares or confesses—viz., of one’s faith in YHWH, devotion to the Torah, including repentance and confession of sin, etc. The sacrificial offerings are just a small part of this wider portrait of covenant loyalty; without a true declaration, from the heart, fulfilling the letter of the ritual law is of little consequence.

Similarly the word rd#n# refers to something that a person promises (to God). It can involve a specific vow or obligation, but may also be understood in the broader sense of what every Israel promises in terms of being devoted to YHWH and faithful to His covenant. The verb <l^v* (“fulfill, complete”) can be used in the ritual context of the sacrificial offerings, but here its wider meaning is in view: fulfillment of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH.

Verse 15

“And (then) call on me in (the) day of distress,
and I will pull you (out) and you will be honored (by) me.”

If a person does what YHWH commands in v. 14, then the covenant bond will be fulfilled. This means that God will, in turn, fulfill His covenant obligation, which includes providing protection in time of danger (“[the] day of distress”). The faithful vassal can also expect to receive blessing and honor (dbk) from his Sovereign. I follow Dahood (p. 308) in parsing yndbkt as a passive (Pual) verb form, which is much better suited to the context of the line, referring to what YHWH will do for His faithful servant.

The apparent anti-sacrifice polemic in this first part of the oracle, as in prophetic passages such as Isa 1:12-15 (cf. above), may lead one to assume that fulfilling the Torah regulations regarding the sacrificial offerings is unnecessary and can (and perhaps even should) be abandoned. This would, however, almost certainly reflect a misunderstanding of the polemic. The point is, that a person can fulfill the ritual obligation without possessing a heart that is truly devoted to God. Especially for the rich or well-to-do in society, offering up an animal to the priesthood, in fulfillment of the ritual requirement, does not involve any real personal sacrifice. It can be done easily, in a half-hearted manner, or with wicked/impure motives. This is primarily the aspect of the sacrificial ritual that the Prophets are roundly condemning.

We will discuss this further when we examine the second part of the oracle in next week’s study.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 16 (1965).

July 22: Song of Songs 4:1-5

Song 4:1-7

With this section, 4:1-7, we move into a new phase of the Song. The love poetry suddenly becomes even more erotic, with more detailed descriptions of the lovers’ beauty and sexual appeal. Since 3:6-11 depicted a wedding scene (with a focus on the wedding bed), it would be natural to view these erotic songs as set during the wedding night. Indeed, for those commentators inclined to a moralistic reading of the Song, such eroticism virtually requires that the young couple be married.

The problem with this moralistic approach is that, as the graphic love songs extend into chapter 5, we suddenly find ourselves back in the world of furtive, secret meetings between the two lovers, indicating, rather clearly, that they are unmarried. How, then, can this be reconciled with the wedding scene of 3:6-11? The solution to this question lies in the overall structure of the Song. In my view, there are two major divisions, or movements, to the Song: the first (call it “Movement 1”) spans chapters 1-3, while the second (“Movement 2”) covers the remainder of the Song (chaps. 4-8).

The two movements generally follow the same, simple narrative arc. The two youths confess their love and attraction to one another, taking every opportunity to come together for a romantic/sexual encounter, in spite of the social and practical barriers to their meeting. Ultimately, they express their intention to be married, and each movement closes with an anticipation of the couple’s wedding (chap. 8 being roughly parallel to 3:4-11).

Movement 2 is more expansive, but contains many of the same phrases and motifs from Movement 1, developing and restating them, like variations on a (musical) theme. The nature of this expansion can be illustrated by the opening section 4:1-7, which essentially develops the declaration by the young man in 1:15 (cf. the earlier note on this verse), expanding it into a song. The declaration by the young woman (1:16-17) is developed in a similar way. The two lovers take turns praising the physical beauty (and sexual appeal) of the other, focusing on one body part at a time. In the tradition of Arabic love poetry, this sort of song is known as a wasf, and it dominates throughout chapters 4-7.

Song 4:1-5

In this first wasf, the young man sings the praise of his beloved’s beauty, beginning with her eyes and concluding, in rather tantalizing fashion, with her breasts. Let us briefly consider each portion of this song.

Verse 1a—Eyes

“See, (how) you are beautiful, my companion!
See, (how) you are beautiful, your eyes (like) doves!”

This couplet is repeated verbatim from 1:15; on the specific imagery (of the dove, etc), cf. the discussion in the earlier note.

Verse 1b—Hair

“From behind your veil your hair
(is) like a flock of goats
streaming (down) from mount Gil’ad.”

The derivation of the noun hM*x^ is uncertain, but the context makes reasonably clear that it refers to a woman’s veil; apart from the Song (also at v.3 and 6:7), the word occurs only in Isa 47:2. The meaning of the verb vl^G` is even less certain; it occurs only in the Song (here and in 6:5). It may be related to the root gl¾ in Ugaritic, and, if so, then it would seem to refer to the movement of water (i.e., flowing, streaming). This would fit the imagery here, of a ‘stream’ of goats descending down the side of a mountain. Clearly the image relates to thick, flowing locks of dark hair. The plural <yZ]u! is masculine in form, but refers to female goats.

Verse 2—Teeth

“Your teeth (are) like a flock of shaved (sheep)
that have come up from the washing,
all of them twin, bearing a double
and none is childless among them.”

The image of shaved/shorn sheep relates to both smoothness and whiteness; in addition, the association with the washing of the sheep adds an aspect of glistening wetness. The phrasing in the last two lines is a bit awkward, with its mixed metaphor, but the basic idea is clear enough: her teeth are neatly paired and none are missing.

Syntactically, each of the last three lines begins with the prefixed relative particle (-v#); however, translating all three of these in sequence would result in very awkward poetry, and so I have literally rendered only the first of these (in the second line).

Verse 3—Mouth

“Like a thread of crimson (are) your lips,
indeed, your place of speech (is) beautiful,
(and) like a slice of pomegranate (is) your cheek
from behind your veil.”

The focus here is on the red color of the woman’s mouth. The meaning of the noun hQ*r^ is not entirely certain. In Judg 4:21-22; 5:26 it seems to refer to the side of the (fore)head; while here the parallel would be the side of the mouth. Perhaps the root meaning of thinness (i.e., softness) is in view. Even so, it is difficult to decide whether the mouth itself or the soft flesh of the cheek is intended; many commentators assume the latter.

The use of the noun rB*d=m! to refer to the mouth is peculiar; literally it means “place of speech”, and that is how I have translated it above. It seems likely that there is an intentional place on the more common rB*d=m!, from a separate root rbd, meaning “place out back” —i.e., the hinterland, desert, wilderness, etc; the allusion would be to the steppe-land, where flocks and herds would graze (cf. on verse 5 below).

Verse 4—Neck

“Like a great (tower) of David (is) your neck,
built in (perfect) arrangement!
A thousand protective (cover)s hang upon it,
all (the) shields of the strong (one)s.”
Note: the meaning of the italicized expression is uncertain (cf. the discussion below)

A lD*g+m! (= loDg+m!) is literally a “great (i.e. tall) place”, often referring to a tower of some kind. It is uncertain whether the “tower of David” is meant to refer to a specific structure; more likely, it is a general reference to the fortifications of Zion—the fortified hilltop location taken over (from the Canaanites) by David and subsequently expanded. It was the location of the Temple and the royal Palace-complex, and its fortifications were described (and praised), for example, in Psalm 48 (on the imagery in that Psalm, cf. my recent study).

The plural noun toYP!l=T^ is perhaps the most obscure word in the entire Song; it occurs only here in the Old Testament, and attempts to determine its etymology and fundamental meaning remain guesses in the dark. One suggestion is that here it means something like “courses (of stone)” or “terraces”, referring to the manner in which the structure is built. Another possibility is as a more abstract plural, used in an adverbial sense, indicating the purpose or result of the building—i.e., something like “built for splendor, built for greatness”. Since the root would seem to be ypl, which, though otherwise unattested in the OT, has been identified as meaning “arrange (in rows, etc)”, I tentatively translate the prepositional expression as “in (perfect) arrangement”.

If the idea of a terraced structure is in view, then it may relate to the woman’s shape, with her neck broadening out below into her chest and shoulders. The necklace at the base of the neck might add to this impression. The “shields” hung on the tower clearly refer to a necklace and other ornaments that may hang from the woman’s neck. The meaning of the noun fl#v# is uncertain, but I take it as more or less synonymous with /g@m* (“place of protection,” i.e., “shield”). It is also possible that fl#v# refers to another kind of armament or piece of armor.

All of this imagery suggests that a long neck was part of the ideal of feminine beauty in Israel, just as it seems to have been in Egypt—cf. the love song cited by Fox (pp. 52, 130); clearly, that song is a wasf that resembles, in many ways, our song here:

“Behold her… .
shining, precious, white of skin,
lovely of eyes when gazing;
sweet her lips when speaking:
she has no excess of words;
long of neck, white of breast,
her hair true lapis lazuli;
her arms surpass gold,
her fingers are like lotuses.”

Verse 5—Breasts

“(Your) two breasts (are) like two young stags,
twins of a gazelle, grazing among (the) lilies.”

The young man ends his praise of the girl’s body parts somewhat abruptly once he reaches the breasts. An intriguing suggestion is that, overcome with desire, he now expresses his wish to unite with his beloved. The poetic imagery does seem to bear out this dramatic (and yet playful) line of interpretation. Indeed, the motif of the grazing (male) animals serves as an image with a dual-meaning: (1) the shape of the two animals grazing side by side, with their necks curved down, resemble the woman’s breasts; (2) the grazing represents the young man enjoying the woman’s beauty (including her breasts). This latter aspect was emphasized in 2:16, and occurs again at 6:2.

The Hebrew word for “breast” (dv^, šad) is likely related to Akkadian šadu, “mountain”, suggesting that the primary point of reference is to a mound, and that a woman’s breast is called dv^ because of its resemblance to a mound (or mountain). The Song itself is clearly aware of this association of images, playing on them here in vv. 5-6; this will be discussed further in the next note.

Most commentators automatically translate the masculine plural form <yr!p*u& as fawns, parallel with the she-goats of v. 1 and the ewes, etc. However, I do not know that this is correct. Elsewhere in the Song (2:9, 17; 8:14), the word rp*u* clearly refers to a strong young male animal (stag, ram, etc); moreover, as noted above, the act of grazing (that is, on the woman’s beauty) is certainly being done by the male (the young man).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish commentators tend to explain the woman’s beauty either in terms of the Temple (of Solomon) or of the Torah and those who are faithful/devoted to it. The comparative images used in these verses were interpreted in a variety of ways, drawing upon examples from Israelite historical and religious tradition. Particularly creative is the way that the washed wool of the sheep and the scarlet color of the thread were combined together by the Targum on v. 3, bringing to mind Isa 1:18 and associating that passage with the High Priest’s prayer on the Day of Atonement:

“…and his words changed the sins of Israel which resembled a scarlet thread and made them white like clean wool.” (Pope, p. 464)

In verse 5, the Targum gave a Messianic interpretation of the two breasts, viewing them as symbolic of the two Messiahs who are to come. Along with the Midrash Rabbah, the Targum also explained them in terms of Moses and Aaron, ‘twin’ brothers of a common ‘gazelle’ (Jochebed), who were the beauty and ornament of Israel, particularly in their association with the giving/teaching of the Torah.

For Christian commentators, the flock-imagery naturally brought to mind the Church (believers) as a flock of sheep, and the ecclesiastical associations that come with the motif. Ambrose is a good example of the ethical-religious approach to explaining the erotic praise of the woman’s beauty. Like the Targum (cf. above), he especially draws upon the image of the whiteness of the washed sheep as symbolic of baptism and the washing away of sin (he likewise cites Isa 1:18 in this regard); the white garments worn by believers play on this same symbolism.

Gregory of Nyssa focuses specifically on the teeth of the woman, relating the motif to the spiritual nourishment that comes from eating the Word (the living Bread from heaven); with the teeth the soul chops up and digests the Divine mysteries, implying a measure of understanding and interpretation, to the point that one is able to communicate the truth to others.

Apponius explains the ‘scarlet thread’ of the woman’s mouth in terms of those martyrs who shed their blood for the faith, while the redness of the cheek indicates modesty and chastity—very much in line with typical early Christian ethical (and ascetic) interpretation. Along these same lines, the breasts represent those ministers from whom other believers may suck the nourishing milk of Christian teaching. Such an explanation is about as far from the original erotic imagery of the Song as one can possibly imagine! Gregory of Nyssa, admittedly, gave a more mystical interpretation of the two breasts, as representing the two aspects of the Christian person—whether viewed as the individual soul or collectively as the Church—the “outer” and the “inner” man (to use the Pauline terminology), united in a single being (cf. Pope, p. 471).

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).


July 21: Song of Songs 3:11

Song 3:11

“Daughters of Yerushalaim, go forth,
and look, (you) daughters of ‚iyyôn,
on the king, Šlomoh, on the crown
with which his mother crowned him,
on (the) day of his marriage,
on (the) day of (the) joy of his heart!”

As discussed in the previous note, The last two words of v. 10 (separated from the prefixed preposition –m) properly belong to v. 11 here, forming an initial parallel couplet in which the speaker—most likely the young woman—calls on the other girls to look with amazement at her bridegroom as he approaches. The “daughters of Jerusalem” are referenced a number of times in the Song, including earlier in 1:5; 2:7; 3:5. Here they function as spectators at the wedding, possibly even members of the bridal party. In my view, all of vv. 6-11 represents an ideal portrait, in the mind of the young woman, of her (intended/future) wedding to the young man.

It may be that this scene draws upon historical traditions regarding king Solomon’s wedding, but here, in the Song, the reference to Solomon is most likely figurative. It is the young man, the girl’s beloved and intended groom, who plays the role of her “king”, her “Solomon”. The crown (hr*f*u&, lit. a band, etc, wrapped around [the head]) emphasizes the royal character of the wedding. Again, this is figurative, and the sense of role-play may be indicated by the role of the boy’s mother in “crowning” him as king at the time of their wedding. The girl imagines the ceremonial splendor of her wedding as being on a truly grand scale, akin to the wedding of Solomon himself.

If there were any doubt that a wedding scene is in view, this is made explicit in the final lines. The noun hN`t%j& occurs only here in the Old Testament, but it is related to /t@j) and /t*j* which essentially denote being (or becoming) a son-in-law. This aspect is quite difficult to translate literally in English; one can only become a son-in-law through marriage, and that is probably the best way to translate hN`t%j& here.

The approach of the young man (the royal bridegroom) is parallel to the approach of the young woman (the royal bride) in v. 6 (cf. the prior note). In my view, this parallelism is clear and definite, like facing panels of a triptych with the central scene of the wedding bed/night (vv. 7-10) portrayed in between.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explains the wedding/coronation of Solomon in terms of the king’s dedication of the Temple. The Midrash Rabbah played on the presumed derivation of the name Solomon (hm)l)v=) from the root <lv, “(be) complete”, applying it to God who created all things in their fullness and perfection. The “crown” and the wedding-day could also be explained in historical terms, being associated with the Tabernacle, the giving the Law to Israel, and again with the consecration of the Temple. The motif of Israel as a bride (and/or bridegroom), united to YHWH in a covenant bond, was natural and well-rooted in Old Testament tradition (Isa 61:10; 62:3-5, etc). Cf. Pope, p. 449-50.

As Gregory of Nyssa explains it, the “daughters of Jerusalem” are those other souls being saved who have not yet attained to her level of growth and understanding, and so the Bride calls to them that they may follow her example. Christologically, it would be God the Father who “crowned” Christ, so Gregory feels compelled to offer some explanation as to why it says here that the king was crowned by his mother. In this regard, the name is not significant—whether male or female, it refers to the Power of God. The Church itself is interpreted as the ‘living stones’ embedded, it is assumed, in the Bridegroom’s crown; however, the Church only becomes so when believers “come out” to witness the King in all his splendor, and are thus purified and enlightened together as the Bride of Christ.

Ambrose’s explanation of the scene has a more ascetic emphasis, interpreting the command for the daughters of Jerusalem (the souls) to “come forth” as meaning:

“…come away from the cares and thoughts of this age, come away from bodily constraints, come away from the vanities of the world—and behold what love the peace-bearing King has on the day of his wedding, how glorious he is…” (translation by Norris, p. 150)

His fine comments at the close of this section are worth repeating:

“This is the victor’s crown of the great contest, this is the magnificent wedding-present of Christ, his blood and his suffering. For what more could he give, who did not hold himself back, but offered his death for our benefit?” (ibid)

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, general editor Robert Louis Wilken (Eerdmans: 2003).

July 20: Song of Songs 3:9-10

Song 3:9-10

“King Šlomoh himself made a canopy
from (the) trees of the white (mountains):
its standing (post)s he made (with) silver,
(and) its spread (was made with) gold;
its seat(-cushion) (was made with) purple,
(the space) within it was inlaid (with) love.”

The meaning of the term /oyr=P!a^ (°appiryôn), which occurs only here in the Old Testament, remains uncertain and much debated. It is probably a foreign loanword, suggestions ranging from the Sanskrit paryanka to Greek phoreion (forei=on). While the derivation of the word cannot be determined with any certainty, cognate words in Aramaic can at least provide some clarity to its meaning. These terms (pwrywm°, prywn, pwryyn°, pwry°, pwryh, and note also Syriac pwrywn; cf, Fox, p.125) all refer to a bed or couch, including a portable unit that can be transported. The context here clearly refers to a canopied (covered) structure, with posts and a frame. Since the bed/couch itself was referenced in vv. 7-8 (cf. the previous note), I understand the description of the /oyr=P!a^ here as referring primarily to the covered structure (canopy) for the bed.

While it is possible that the description draws upon authentic historical tradition, regarding a grand structure which was actually made for Solomon, its purpose here is almost certainly figurative. The frame of the canopy is made out of cedar-wood from Lebanon (lit. the “white [capped mountains]”). The posts are additionally covered/decorated with silver, and its “spread” (the carpeted covering) with gold. Thus it is truly a luxurious (and expensive) structure!

The final two lines focus on the space inside the frame. The cushions (lit. place to sit, bK*r=m#) are made with expensive purple-dye, while rest of the space is said to be “fit together” (or “inlaid”, vb [x^r*) “(with) love”. This last phrase is problematic, complicated by the textual confusion in the MT, as the final two words of v. 10 almost certainly belong at the start of v. 11 (a point recognized by most commentators). It has been suggested that the initial –m of MT tonB=m! should be attached instead to the end of the previous word, as an enclitic <-, and this seems plausible; the expression “daughters of Jerusalem” fits better with what follows in v. 11.

Some commentators would emend <bha (“love”) to <ynba (“stones”); while this makes sense, there is really no textual support for such a change. Perhaps what the poet has in mind is the decoration of the bed-frame (and canopy) with scenes of lovemaking. Pope (p. 445) notes the ivory carvings on the bed of the king of Ugarit which include the scene of a man and woman embracing (photo provided by Pope in Plate II [following p. 360]). The ivory beds mentioned in Amos 6:4-7 may have contained similar sorts of decoration. Mention should also be made of the great ivory throne of Solomon (1 Kings 10:18); the principal reason for the use of ivory is it viability for carved (and inlaid) decoration.

It seems likely that the overall portrait in vv. 7-10 is of a portable canopied bed which could be set in a favored location. A gardened pavilion may be in view, akin to what is described in Esther 1:5-6. This “little house” (/t^yB!) of the king has parallels with the garden pavilions of royalty in Mesopotamia (where the cognate term bitanu is used) and Egypt. Such a royal chamber, with couches for drinking and love-making, seems to be in view earlier in the Song (1:4) as well.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 9-10)

The Targum and Midrash explained the (portable) bed of Solomon, in historical terms, as the Temple and/or the Ark of the Covenant. The posts of the canopy and the seat “inlaid with love” were particularly connected with the Ark and its cover. The Midrash Rabbah further develops this symbolism, whereby the interior “inlaid with love” was explained as the merit and virtue of the Torah, and of those righteous ones who study it (cf. Pope, p. 446).

Among early Christian interpreters, Theodoret takes advantage of the etymology of the name Solomon as meaning “peaceful” (cf. above on the root <lv), identifying him as a type of Christ (“he is our peace,” Eph 2:14), and turning to Psalm 72 [LXX 71], ascribed to Solomon, as an account of the “righteous deeds of the Savior” (Norris, p. 148), whose kingdom of peace will come to extend over the entire world. Theodoret interprets the sexuality of the wedding night (and the bed) primarily in a moral and religious sense: the Bride lies down with the Bridegroom (Christ) to receive the seeds of his teaching, eventually conceiving and ‘giving birth’ to offspring (in a spiritual sense). The sixty warriors and the canopy (cf. above) are similarly interpreted in a typological manner, as referring to the Old Testament saints and the apostles, the “pillars” of the canopy specifically being those leading apostles of the Jerusalem Church mentioned by Paul in Gal 2:9, etc.

Ambrose takes a more lyrical (and mystical) approach, identifying Solomon’s bed directly with the person of Christ, who is called “the bed of the saints, upon whom the weary hearts of every one of them rest from the struggles of this age” (transl. by Norris, p. 150). This is applied primarily to the Patriarchs and saints of the Old Testament, but it also anticipates the Bride (believers) mounting the bed to lie down with Christ (the Bridegroom) himself.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, general editor Robert Louis Wilken (Eerdmans: 2003).


July 19: Song of Songs 3:7-8

Song 3:7-10

I would outline the section 3:6-11 as follows:

      • The approach of the royal bride (the young woman), v. 6 (cf. the previous note)
      • Description of the marriage bed (or couch) for the wedding night, vv. 7-10
      • The approach of the royal bridegroom (‘Solomon’ = the young man), v. 11

Verses 7-10 provide a description of the couple’s couch/bed in preparation of their wedding night. As discussed in the previous note, the wedding of the young couple is depicted as a royal wedding, and traditions associated with Solomon (hm)l)v=, Šlœmœh, the grandest of Israelite kings, add to the sense of splendor.

Verses 7-8

“See, where he stretches out, (the bed) for Šlomoh!
Sixty strong (one)s (are) surrounding her,
from (the) strong (one)s of Yisrael,
all of them being (taught) to hold a sword,
(hav)ing been instructed in war,
(each) man (with) his sword upon his thigh,
from (the) terror (that comes) in the night.”

Literally, the first line would read: “See, (the) place for stretching out [hF*m!] which (belongs) to Solomon”; I have rendered it in a more poetic fashion. The use of the relative particle (v#) + the preposition l= is a pleonasm for the possessive, i.e., “Solomon’s place for stretching out” —that is, his bed or couch. The context clearly indicates that it is the bed/couch where the royal couple (the king and his bride) lie down together (on their wedding night).

The remainder of these verses focus on the swordsmen who stand guard around the royal bed. The adjective roBG] fundamentally refers to strong, powerful, vigorous young men; the expressions that follow, both utilizing descriptive passive participles, indicate the skill of these men with the sword and also their strength/ability as warriors in battle. One is reminded of the fame attached to David’s corps of elite warriors (2 Sam 10:7; 23:9, 16ff; 1 Kings 1:8).

The reason why they stand guard, with sword close at hand, is stated, however enigmatically, in the last line: it is to protect the bed “from (the) terror (that comes) in the night” (tolyL@B^ dj^P^m!). As in verse 1, the plural (“nights”) is used, indicating something that occurs regularly/frequently during the night.

Perhaps the best explanation of this imagery is that the warriors (“sixty” being a standard/traditional number) primarily serve a ceremonial or ritual purpose. They symbolically guard against demon-spirits that might attack or disturb the couple on their wedding night. Pope (pp. 434-6) provides strong arguments in support of this interpretation, drawing upon earlier studies by J. G. Wetzstein and Samuel Krauss; the evidence cited by Krauss (“Der richtige Sinn von ‘Schrecken in der Nacht,’ HL III 8” in Occident and Orient, Moses Gaster Eightieth Anniversary Volume [1936], pp. 323-330) is particularly convincing. The basis for such a superstition presumably lies in the natural sense of danger surrounding sexual activity, at night, within the sacred/consecrated environment of the wedding ceremony. On the potential dangers of the wedding night, cf. Tobit 3:7ff; 2/4 Esdras 10:1; on the source of the danger being the activity of demon-spirits, it is worth noting the tradition in Pirqê de-Rabbi Eliezer §12, where the angels are compared to “groomsmen who guard the bridal chamber” (Fox, p. 124). T. H. Gaster also cites a Mesopotamian incantation describing Zaqar, the deity governing dreams, as “the terror of the nights” (pulu—tu ša lilatî)—a nearly exact parallel with the expression here in v. 8 (Pope, p. 436).

There is a possible parallel with Mesopotamian tradition of the kurgarrû—ceremonial performers associated with the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, who, like the Canaanite godddess Anat, paradoxically embodies both love and war. The kurgarrû performers where men (and/or women) functioning, it seems, as dancers skilled in swordplay. For more on this, cf. Pope, pp. 437-40.

The guardians may also be seen as fulfilling a practical function, at least in part, if the bed was intended to be placed in an outdoor garden location; this will be discussed further in the next note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 7-8)

The Targum explains Solomon’s bed as the Temple, and the sixty warriors as the (sixty) letters of the priestly blessing (associated with the Temple ritual, Num 6:24-26). The Midrash Rabbah contains the same explanation of the sixty warriors, but also applies the number to the divisions of the priests and Levites (24 + 24 = 48) added to the the divisions of the rest of the people of Israel (12 +48 = 60). Alternately, it could be explained in terms of the Sanhedrin or of the 60 myriads (600,000) adult men who traditionally made the Exodus out of Egypt. Cf. Pope. p. 434.

Along a separate line of interpretation, the Targum explains the warriors’ skill with the sword in terms of the understanding of the Law. The sword at the thigh was also seens as a symbol of circumcision, marking a man’s faithful service and allegiance to the covenant. All of these things serve to protect one from the “terrors of the night”. The Midrash similarly cites a tradition regarding the circumcision of each uncircumcised Israelite male on the eve of Passover (in fulfillment of the requirement in Exod 12:48). A legal precept in the Talmud (b. Yebamot 109b) applies this verse as an admonition for judges—wearing a sword between his thighs was meant to prevent any perversion of justice (Pope, p. 440).

Gregory of Nyssa adopts a decidedly mystical (and ascetic) interpretation of the sword-carrying guardians: the imagery reflects the contrast (and conflict) between spiritual and carnal desire. The love of God can only arise from that is “contrary to carnal desire”, and, in this light, the Divine beauty can seem terrifying to the flesh. The weapons of those who stand guard are thus poised to destroy all “wicked thoughts”, penetrating into the darkness. The “sword” of hearing is to “listen to spiritual instruction”. The sixty warriors are explained as five ‘chosen ones’ from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (“Israel” representing all who are saved). Yet even believers (Israelites) must be purified and made perfect, so that, clean of heart, they will be able truly to see the Word of God, and to be united with him on the bed of the King (i.e., the marriage bed where the children are conceived [cf. 3:4]). The elect are thus represented simultaneously as a child, as a warrior, and as a true Israelite:

“As a true Israelite, he sees God with a clean heart; as a warrior, he guards the royal couch, that is, his own heart, in purity and freedom from passion; as a child he sleeps upon the couch of salvation.” (transl. Musurillo, p. 211)

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
The translations of Gregory of Nyssa here are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, edited by Musurillo and selected by Jean Daniélou (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).