August 2: Song of Songs 4:16-5:1

Song 4:16-5:1

These lines are transitional, joining the songs of the young man (in chap. 4) to those of the young woman (in chap. 5). They also build upon the garden theme of chapter 4, particularly the final song in vv. 12-15.

Song 4:16

“Awaken, north (wind),
and come, south (wind)!
May your breath blow (on) my garden,
(and) may its spices flow out!
Let my love come (in)to his garden,
and let him eat its precious fruits!”

The girl is speaking here in v. 16, responding to the scenario in vv. 12-15. The young man is essentially standing outside the garden, which belongs to him (the seal on the spring indicating ownership, “his garden”) as the beloved; however, its entrance is still latched and it is necessary for the young woman to invite him in. That is what she does here in v. 16. The invitation comes by way of the aroma of her fragrant spices, wafting out to where the young man waits at the entrance. She invokes the north wind and the south wind to come and carry the scent of her “spices” (symbolic of her sexuality) out to her beloved, where it will figuratively ‘let him in’. The Hiphil causative stem of the verb j^WP signifies a person’s breath actively blowing.

Once he is inside, the young man will be able to “eat” the fruits from the garden; on this idiom as symbolizing the delights of sexual experience (and intercourse), cf. below.

Song 5:1

“I have come (in)to my garden, my sister (and) bride!
(Now) I pluck my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honey with my syrup,
I drink my wine with my milk!”

The young man responds to the girl’s invitation and enters the garden. Again, the garden represents the sexuality of the girl—her beauty, vitality, and sexual appeal. It is thus her garden, but it is also his—that is, it belongs to him, as the beloved, since the two lovers belong to each other (2:16; 6:3). The girl already declared this in 4:16 (cf. above), and now the boy states it for himself (“my garden”). Moreover, everything in the garden also belongs to him (“my myrrh,” “my spice,” etc).

The verb forms here are all perfect forms, indicating that the young man has now done all the things described. This may be intended to describe the immediate love-making that occurs between the two once the young man ‘enters’ the garden. To avoid overloading the poetry, I have translated only the first verb as a true perfect (“I have come”), rendering the following actions as present verbs in English. The sense is that once he has come into the garden, he is now about to (or is in the process of) doing all these things— “plucking”, “eating”, “drinking”.

All of these actions symbolize sexual activity (foreplay and intercourse) between the two lovers. I have mentioned repeatedly how the motif of spice(s) in the Song represents female beauty and sexuality; myrrh and frankincense are the two primary spices which epitomize all the others—here it is, comprehensively, “myrrh and spice”. The “plucking” (vb hr*a* I) of fruit, etc, in the garden symbolizes the young man enjoying the sexuality of his beloved.

The sweet taste of honey also represents sexual enjoyment (cf. the earlier note on 4:11), both in terms of kisses with the mouth and in a comprehensive sense. There are three words used in the Song that can be translated “honey”: ru^y~ and tp#n) both refer to liquid honey (hived, from the comb), while vb^D= is a more general term that can refer to the thicker syrup produced from dates, etc. Here the words used are ru^y~ and vb^D=, while in 4:11 it is tp#n) along with vb^D=.

Sweetness of taste also applies to wine and milk, the emphasis being on drinking, rather than the eating of the honey/syrup. Wine, in particular, symbolizes lovemaking and sexual enjoyment. The drunkenness that comes from wine represents the ‘intoxication’ that comes over lovers. Examples along these lines are so common that they scarcely need to be cited. A particular strong “wine-song” tradition developed within the rich history of Arabic love poetry.

All of this symbolism is reinforced by the refrain to 4:16-5:1:

“Eat, (you) companions,
drink and become drunken, loved (one)s!”

It is not clear whether the young man is still speaking or whether it is a separate voice, that of a ‘chorus’ to the song. The latter seems more appropriate to the context. It is also not certain whether the lines are an exhortation to the young man and woman specifically, or whether they are addressed to all lovers. Both are possible, though in the context of the Song it is the two protagonists are primarily in view. The young man and young woman are the central characters, even if they are typical of young lovers in general. If the recurring refrain in 2:7 is an exhortation to wait (for sexual intercourse) until the moment is right (e.g., the wedding night, etc), then certainly that moment has now arrived.

Indeed, there can be little doubt that we have here a poetic description of the consummation of the lovers’ relationship (sexual intercourse). For many commentators, who believe a moralistic interpretation is required (for the Song to be regarded as sacred Scripture), this consummation can only occur on the couple’s wedding night. Given the wedding context of 3:4-11, it is possible that all the songs of 4:1-5:1 do have the wedding night for their setting. However, in my view, this does not fit the structure of the Song, which I divide into two movements, each of which concludes with the anticipation/expectation of a wedding (3:4-11; chap. 8). The earlier poems in each movement suggests a setting for the lovers that is prior to their wedding. What follows in 5:2-8 virtually requires that the young man and young woman are unmarried.

It should come as no surprise that the garden imagery of the Song is traditional, drawing upon the conventions of ancient Near Eastern love poetry. Here are some examples from the Sumerian (Dumuzi/Inanna) love songs (Sefati, Love Songs, pp. 89, 225, 262):

“My blossoming garden of apple trees, sweet is your allure!
My fruitful garden of mes-trees, sweet is your allure!”

“The flax rose up with her, the barley rose us with her,
The plain has been filled (with abundance) with her like a blossoming garden.”

“My blossoming garden of apple-trees,
My plant, my grown reeds—may my sheep eat.”

The young man similarly refers to the garden as his (“his garden, my garden”), though there are also instances in the Sumerian poems where the garden symbolizes male sexuality that is attractive to the young woman, essentially a reversal of the situation in the Song:

“My brother b[rought me] into his garden,
I stood with him among his standing trees,
I lay down with him among his lying trees.
He laid me down….. ,
The dates… my… “
(Sefati, Love Songs, p. 321)

“My sister, I would go with you to my garden,
My fair sister, I would go with you to my garden
My sister, I would go with you to my pomegranate-tree,
I would plant there the sweet[?] honey-covered[?]…”
(Kramer, pp. 100, 153 n5; Pope, p. 506)

Pope (p. 488) notes a modern Palestinian parallel, citing earlier work by S. H. Stephan, where the sexual aspect of the garden-motif is particularly explicit (including wasf elements, cf. the notes on 4:1-7):

“Your breast, O you, is like a pomegranate fruit,
And your eyes have captured us, by God…
Your cheek shines as it were a Damascus apple;
How sweet to pluck it in the morning and to open the garden.”

On similar garden-imagery in the Egyptian love songs, cf. Fox, pp. 15, 17, 20f, 26, 46ff.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explained the north- and south-winds as referring to the sides of the Temple—the Temple serving as the “garden” in which the Beloved (God) was invited to enter to receive the sacrificial offerings from His People (the Bride). The Midrash applied the imagery to the coming Messianic Age: the Messiah will ‘awake’ and come from the north, and he will build the Temple anew in the south. The Midrash Rabbah further interprets the garden-motif in 5:1, and the Beloved’s entry into it, as symbolizing the ‘descent’ of the Divine Presence, throughout the period of the Patriarchs, to the time of Moses when the Presence would be brought fully to earth to dwell among the people of Israel. Again, both the Targum and Midrash associate the Beloved’s eating and drinking with the sacrificial offerings; the refrain (cf. above) refers to the ‘friends of the Bridegroom’, explained as the priests, who also receive a share of the sacrificial meal. Cf. Pope, pp. 499, 509.

For early Christians, like Gregory of Nyssa, the entry of the Beloved (God/Christ) into the garden represents a sublime sort of communion, in which the soul that is rising up to heaven calls upon the Godhead to ‘come down’ and unite with it here below. The fruits and spices have a wide range of symbolic meaning; the fragrant/aromatic spices tend to symbolize the virtues possessed by the soul, as do the fruits; though Gregory also explains the fruits specifically as the salvation we receive from God, and the free will by which the soul turns to Him in faith and truth. The image of wine-drinking and intoxication, while problematic if taken in a naturalistic sense, is altogether appropriate to a mystical interpretation of the Song, since wine and drunkenness have been traditionally used as symbols for spiritual ecstasy and mystical experience. The Pentecost narrative in Acts (2:13-14ff) and other passages in the New Testament (e.g., 2 Cor 5:13) play on the idea of intoxication to explain the manifestation of the Spirit and the spiritual experience of believers.

Theodoret specifically connects the drinking of wine by the Beloved (Christ) with his very identity as the Vine (John 15:1ff); and for his friends, those who are on the path to perfection, he also invites them to drink with him, and to become drunk—a drunkenness that “works temperance and not delirium” (Norris, p. 190).

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 “Kramer” are to Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite: Aspects of Faith, Myth and Ritual in Ancient Sumer (1969).
Translations marked “Norris” are from The Song of Songs Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, in The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

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