July 13: Song of Songs 2:16-17

Song 2:16-17

“My love (belongs) to me and I to him,
he pastures among the lilies.
Until (the time) when the day breathes,
and the shadows fly (away),
turn round—you, my love, (and) be like
a gazelle (going) over (the) mountains of rt#b#!”

This is the final song of the section spanning 2:8-17; I am treating it as a poetic unit, though it is possible to read it as containing two separate lyrics (vv. 16 and 17). The young woman is speaking.

The opening line is a fundamental declaration of mutual love between the boy and girl, being repeated (with some variation) in 6:3 and 7:11[10]. The sense of belonging to (l=) another can be understood in a covenantal sense, and it should be no surprise that Jewish commentators interpreted v. 16 in terms of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel (cf. below).

The verb hu*r* in the second line is somewhat ambiguous. It fundamentally refers to the act of the herder, leading the herd (or flock) to pasture; at the same time, the verb sometimes specifically denotes the grazing (feeding) by the animal. Thus, the line can be translated two ways: (a) “he pastures (his herd) among the lilies”, or (b) “he grazes on the lilies”. The second is the more vivid and concrete image, and may indeed be what is intended here.

The blossoming flowers (lilies) symbolize the sexuality of the young woman, as in vv. 1-2—both in their beauty and freshness. To “graze” on the blossoms thus is a sexual image, referring to the young man enjoying the beauty and appeal of the young woman. The same imagery occurs in 6:2, where the grazing/pasturing (again the verb hu*r*) in the garden is coupled with the motif of “plucking” the flowers. This is one of the clearly erotic images in the Song, suggestive of sexual intercourse, that prompts many commentators to adopt an allegorical line of interpretation. On the specific type of flower indicated by /v^ov, cf. the note on vv. 1-2.

There are certain ambiguities in the second lyric (v. 17) as well. The position of the initial temporal clause creates a certain difficulty: does it relate to second line of v. 16 (“he pastures/grazes…until”), or to what follows in v. 17? In my view, the clause anticipates the imperative bs) (“turn around”), adding dramatic tension to the scene.

The time indicated is the coming of morning (dawn), expressed two ways: “when the day breathes [vb j^WP]” and “(when) the shadows flee [vb sWn]”. Daybreak represents the moment when the young lovers must part—a traditional motif in love poetry. The reason for parting, and the urgency to do so, is to avoid having their nighttime tryst discovered. This imagery leaves no doubt that the two lovers are unmarried, however problematic this may be from a religious and ethical standpoint.

The force of the imperative bs) is debated by commentators. The young woman may be telling the young man to “turn toward” her, or to “turn away.” The verb literally means “turn around”, often in the sense of “return”. The context of the coming dawn argues strongly in favor of this latter sense: i.e., “turn back” and leave while there is still time (before it is day). If one opts for the former meaning, then the woman is urging him to stay with her (for as long as he can) until daybreak.

Since the young man initially came to her “like a gazelle” leaping over the mountains, it is fitting that he departs in the same way. He should go back the same way he came, just as strong, swift, and beautiful, “like a gazelle (going) over the mountains”. The MT reads “like a gazelle or a young stag…,” repeating the wording from v. 9a. However, in my translation above I have adopted the shorter reading (apparently) of the Qumran manuscript 4QCantb. The shorter reading results in cleaner and more dramatic poetry, but the longer reading of MT (also reflected by the LXX) may well be original.

The meaning of the final word rt#b# remains quite uncertain. There are three possibilities:

    • It refers to a village SW of Jerusalem, Beter (= Beitar), identified with modern Bittîr. This would add a bit of local color, keeping with the Jerusalem locale/setting for the Song. The reference would be to the hills west of Jerusalem, where gazelles can still be seen today (cf. Fox, p. 116).
    • It is a word derived from the root rt^B*, apparently meaning “cut in pieces, cut (in two)”. This verb occurs only in Gen 15:10, along with the related noun (rt#B#), in the plural (“[cut up] pieces”); the only other occurrence of the noun is in Jer 34:18-19. It is still unclear what the meaning would be in context here; the main possibilities are:
      • Mountains that are cut/split into jagged or rugged cliffs, corresponding to the imagery in v. 14a
      • The cutting/splitting in two alludes to the separation of the lovers
      • The two mountain peaks, resembling a woman’s breasts, make for an erotic/sexual image, referring to the lovers continuing love-making (until dawn)
    • The similar expression in 8:14, and the close of the Song, is “…mountains of spices [<ym!c*b=]”, referring specifically to the fragrant powder from the balsam plant; based on this parallel, rt#b# would have a comparable meaning

All things considered, the second line of interpretation above is to be preferred. If v. 17 relates to the departure of the young man, then it seems likely that the idea of separation (between the lovers) is primarily in view. However, the sexual motif (i.e., resemblance of the split peaks to the woman’s breasts) cannot be completely disregarded. Pope (p. 410) cites a couplet from a Sumerian Shulgi-hymn that could be understood as a similar sexual motif:

“To prance on my holy bosom like / a ‘lapis lazuli’ calf, you are fit.”

The different expression in 8:14 is probably due to the different situation (for the two lovers) within the overall context of the Song.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

As noted above, the Jewish Midrash interpreted the opening line of v. 16 in terms of the covenant between Israel and YHWH—whereby Israel “belongs to” YHWH as His people, and He as their God. This covenant bond guarantees Israel protection from their enemies, as long as they remain faithful. The Targum and Midrash related the “mountains of rt#b#” both to the covenant scene in Gen 15:10 (cf. above) and to Mt. Moriah as the traditional site of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The phrase “until the day breathes” was explained from the historical standpoint of the shortening of Israel’s time of bondage in Egypt. Also noted was the historical connection of Bether (as a village near Jerusalem, cf. above) with the city Beithar, where the Romans crushed the Bar-Kochba revolt (cf. Pope, p. 411).

[Origen’s Commentary on the Song only survives up to his comments on 2:15; thus, unfortunately, for early Christian interpretation of the remainder of the Song, we must rely almost entirely on later sources, from the 4th and 5th centuries.]

Gregory of Nyssa explains vv. 16-17 in light of the earlier lines of the Song, including the “catching” (and removal) of the “little foxes” (evil influences and temptations to sin) mentioned in v. 15. With these removed, the soul is able to be united more perfectly with God, expressed by the declaration of mutual love (and belonging) in v. 16. The soul thus rises to greater heights, through contemplation, looking upon the Beloved (Christ, the Word of God) as he leaps over the mountaintops.

In the Commentary on the Song by Nilus of Ancyra (died c. 430 A.D.), these verses are explained in a more doctrinal light, identifying the declaration of v. 16a with an orthodox confession of faith in God and Christ (citing 1 Cor 8:5-6). The lilies who are shepherded by Bridegroom (Christ) are explained as the “souls who are free of care and anxiety… , who pay no mind to earthly things because their minds are truly fixed upon the kingdom of the heavens”. The “mountains of Bethel” (reading Bethel for Bether) are understood in a comprehensive sense, as the location—covering both the highest and deepest parts of the earth—in which the incarnate Word of God has made his revelation (i.e., the Gospel) known. He descends into the valleys, seeking out people, because of his overpowering love for humankind, in order to bring them up “to a higher and better state”. (Translations by Richard A. Norris, in The Church’s Bible: The Song of Songs [Eerdmans: 2003], pp. 130-2).

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).

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