July 14: Song of Songs 3:1-5

Song 3:1-5

The next section of the Song consists of a single poem, a mini-drama narrated by the young woman.

Verse 1

“Upon my place of laying down, in the nights,
I searched for (the one) whom my soul loves,
I searched for him but did not find him.”

This memorable tricolon describes the young woman “searching” (vb vq^B*) for her beloved in her thoughts and dreams. This is an expression of her longing to be with him, and takes place repeatedly—literally “in the nights” (i.e., night after night). The last line can be understood two ways: (a) in her dreams she could not find the young man, or (b) her longing was not fulfilled because she wasn’t actually with him.

Verse 2

“I will stand up now and go around in the city,
in the (narrow) walkways and wide (street)s,
(there) I will search for (the one) my soul loves—
(so) I searched for him, but did not find him.”

The young woman decides to get up from her bed and actually search for her beloved, within the space of the city. The imperfect verbs in the first three lines have jussive/cohortative force, reflecting the girl’s desire and intention (i.e., “let me…”, “I must…”, “I will…”). The “(narrow) walkways” (<yq!w`v=) and “wide (street)s” (tobj)r=) together make a comprehensive pairing that essentially covers the entire city. Unfortunately for the girl, her initial searching ends up no differently than in her dreams—she is unable to find her lover.

Verse 3

“The (one)s guarding found me, going round in the city,
(and I said to them:)
‘(The one) whom my soul loves, have you seen (him)?'”

There is wordplay in this couplet: the girl cannot find the young man, but she has been found by the watchmen of the city; and, just as she has been “going around” (vb bb^s*) the city, so the watchmen have been making their rounds (same verb bb^s*). She asks the help of these men in the search for her beloved; the lack of any response implies that, again, she is unable to get any help in finding him.

Verse 4

“(It was) a little (while) from when I passed by from them,
until (the moment) when I (finally) found (the one) my soul loves!
I will grab hold of him and will not let him go,
until (the time) when I bring him into the house of my mother,
into the inner room (where) she became pregnant with me.”

The first two lines are a bit awkward, with their overuse of the relative particle (v#), but they manage to extend the suspense of the scene, building to the moment when the young woman finally locates her beloved. The imperfect verb forms in the third line again reflect the intention and desire of the girl—to grab hold of the young man and never let him go. The only way she will be able to always have him with her is for the two of them to be married. That is what is alluded to in the final two lines: bringing him to her mother’s house essentially means making their love public, and, with it, their intention of being together (in marriage). This traditional motif is found in other examples of ancient Near Eastern love poetry; in one of the Sumerian Dumuzi-Inanna poems, it is clear that the young man (Dumuzi) will come (or be brought) to the girl’s (Inanna’s) family house (“the gate of our mother”) to make his proposal:

“He wants to stop at the gate of our mother,
I am fairly running for joy.
He wants to stop at the gate of Ningal,
I am fairly running for joy!
O that someone would tell my mother,
and she sprinkle cedar perfume on the floor
Her dwelling, its fragrance is sweet,
her words will all be joyous ones:
‘My lord, you are indeed worthy
of the pure embrace,…”
(translation by Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps That Once…: Sumerian Poetry in Translation [Yale University Press: 1987], p.11)

For more on the idiom of the ‘mother’s house’, cf. Gen 24:28; Ruth 1:8. Here the girl’s words only express her intention; as is clear from the context of the Song, and the repeating of this same imagery in 8:1-2, her intention is not immediately fulfilled.

This is first time in the Song that marriage is mentioned or alluded to. Up to this point, through the first 2+ chapters, the two young lovers are unquestionably unmarried. The idea of the two lovers having romantic and sexual encounters prior to their being married is quite troubling to many interpreters of the Song, to the point that it is considered a practical impossibility by some. Due to the sensitivity of the subject, and because a consideration of it is, in my view, central to a proper understanding of the Song, it is worth addressing in the next note, as we continue our discussion on this section.

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