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).

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