August 1: Song of Songs 4:15

Song 4:15

“(This) spring of (the) gardens
(is) a well of living waters
and streams from (the) white (mountains)!”

This triplet essentially restates the imagery from verse 12 (cf. the prior note), bringing these songs by the young man in chapter 4 to a close. It clarifies that the water-source—/y`u=m^, place of flowing water, a “spring” or fountain—is to be identified as a mountain spring. I made that point in the prior note, but here in v. 15 the association is explicit. Thus the mountain and garden motifs in the Song are blended together. The plural <yN]G~, “(garden) enclosures,” i.e., “gardens” can be understood several ways:

    • In a general sense, referring to the kind of spring (or fountain) that might be located in a garden
    • It refers to all of the areas or parts of the garden that are watered by the streams (irrigation channels) coming from the spring
    • Based on the garden as an image of female sexuality, the meaning could be typical—that is, of female beauty and sexual appeal in a general sense
    • The plural may be taken as comprehensive or superlative—referring to the woman as the “garden of gardens”; that is, for the young man she is the most beautiful and attractive of women.

I take the last two lines as epexegetical or explanatory, describing the nature and character of this spring that is in the center of the garden. First, it is a source of “living waters” —this means fresh water, flowing naturally from a spring or other underground source (the mention of a ra@B=, pit or well, indicates an underground source). This would be contrasted with the stagnant (‘dead’) water of a pool, etc.

Second, it is specified as a mountain spring, as noted above. The verb lz~n` means “flow”, thus the substantive participle here is a verbal noun that refers to flowing streams of water. They come down the mountain, as with the imagery in verse 1; similarly, the reference to the “Amana” in in verse 8 likely alludes to the mountain source of the Amana river in the Anti-Lebanon. Certainly the Lebanon mountains are being referenced here, along with the regular wordplay between /onb*l= (l®»¹nôn) and hn`obl= (l®»ônâ) in the Song (both words deriving from a root denoting whiteness), associating the fragrant cedarwood from Lebanon with the aromatic resin used to produce frankincense. It is all part of the matrix of erotic imagery in the Song, focusing especially on the allure of female sexuality. In these final lines, the young man praises the beauty and appeal of his beloved in the strongest terms, emphasizing the very source of her vitality and sexuality, represented by the clear and fresh flowing waters from a mountain spring.

Note on Marriage and Virginity in vv. 12-15

Some of the imagery in vv. 12-15 could be taken to mean that the young woman is a virgin, implying that the context of these songs involves the wedding night of the couple (cf. the setting of 3:4-11). A moralistic interpretation of the Song virtually requires that the sexual intercourse described (or alluded to) in the poems can only take place when the two are married. The latched entrance to the garden and the sealed spring have been interpreted as references to virginity—only when the two are married will the entrance (to the girl’s sexuality) be opened.

It is certainly possible to read the Song—the poem in vv. 12-15 at any rate—in this manner. Pope notes, for example (p. 488), that in Arabic a girl who is no longer a virgin can be referred to as “opened” (maftûµa[t]). However, one must be extremely cautious about reading such specific meanings into the poetry here. As I mentioned in the earlier note on v. 12, the seal (vb <t^j*) properly signifies ownership, not the closing off of the spring. The seal indicates that the garden with its spring (that is, the sexuality of the young woman) belongs to her beloved alone—no other man can (or should) have access to it. The emphasis is thus on exclusivity, rather than virginity. In the world of the Song’s love poetry, the boy and girl belong to each other (2:16; 6:3a), regardless of whether they are currently married (or engaged to be married). The concluding sections of each movement (3:4-11; chap. 8) certainly point to the expectation and anticipation of a wedding, but I am not at all convinced that this is a significant theme in the earlier portions. Indeed, as we shall see, the scenario in 5:2-8 (like the similar scene in 3:1-3) strongly indicates that the two lovers are unmarried.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (on vv. 12-15)

Interestingly, the Targum tends to forgo its typical allegorical interpretation in these verses, relating verse 12, for example, more realistically to the question of female sexuality (and of relationships between men and women). The garden setting naturally brings to mind the paradise of Eden for the first couple in the Genesis account. The Midrash also explains verse 12 primarily in terms of sexual relations. Verse 13 was applied by the Targum to the young men of Israel, who follow the precepts of the Torah and love their wives, fulfilling their parental duty in bearing children, etc. The Midrash explained the noun jl^v# according to the fundamental meaning of something “sent”, in the sense of bridal gifts, broadened allegorically to the context of Israel as the Bride of God (and/or of the Messiah). Little attention was paid to the list of spices, etc, in verse 14, while the waters of “Lebanon” in v. 15 were given a strong allegorical explanation, in terms of blessings on those in Israel who study the Law and in the ritual sense of the water used for offerings on the altar of the Jerusalem Temple. The Midrash Rabbah notes that the word ra@B= (“well”) occurs 48 times in the Torah, corresponding to the “number of qualities by which knowledge of the Torah is acquired” (cf. Pirke Abot vi.6). Cf. Pope. pp. 489, 492, 494-7.

The garden-imagery provided a rich source for early Christian allegorical and mystical interpretation, such as we find in the sermons by Gregory of Nyssa. The one who would ‘lay down’ with the Lord, to be united with him, must “become a flourishing garden, having within himself the beauty of all kinds of trees”. The garden being closed on all sides refers to the ‘fence of the commandments’, indicating the strong ascetic component to early Christian spirituality—spiritual or mystical experience must be accompanied by self-denial and the cultivation of virtue. Gregory interprets the “fountain” as referring to the intellectual faculty of the soul, “because of all the ideas that are constantly bubbling and welling up from it”. The seal protects the soul (and the mind) from evil or extraneous thoughts, allowing it to remain pure and focused on God alone. Once the soul has reached a “more perfect stage of her progress”, what comes forth from her (and her mouth) is a “paradise of pomegranates”, fruit that proclaims the truth. All of the fruits and spices symbolize different qualities and virtues which the soul comes to possess and which are then cultivated. As for the well of “living water”, it is natural to interpret this expression along the lines that we find in the Gospel of John (4:12; 7:37-39), as referring to the divine nature of the Word of God (Christ) to which the soul is to be united. God Himself was called a “fountain of living water” in Jer 2:13, and this applies all the more to the person of Christ, who is embraced by the purified and enlightened soul:

“…the bride embraces and holds what flows into the well of her soul, and thus she becomes a storehouse of the living water that flows, or, rather, rushes, down from ‘Libanus'”

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Quotations from Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Song are courtesy of 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); here pp. 227-36.

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