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).

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