August 5: Song of Songs 5:6

Song 5:6

“I opened (up) to my love,
but my love had turned away (and) passed (on)!
My soul went out with his (go)ing out back—
I called (to) him, but he did not answer me.”

Just as we are ready to see the two lovers united and embracing one another (cp. the Sumerian Dumuzi/Inanna poem cited in the previous note)—and certainly the young woman herself is greatly anticipating this moment—it all dissolves with the sudden disappearance of the young man. No explanation is given (or even hinted at) for his disappearance. However the context of verse 1, along with what follows in verse 7, suggests the clandestine, surreptitious nature of their planned meeting; the young man may have left to avoid being discovered.

However, his sudden disappearance also adds to the dream-like character of the entire scene—recall that the young woman was asleep at the beginning of  v. 2 (cp. the situation in 3:1), and the whole scenario could well be explained as part of a dream-fantasy in which the girl expresses her deepest desires (and fears). This dream-like quality continues in verse 7 (to be discussed in the next note).

The young man’s disappearance as soon as the door is opened completely undercuts the view of some commentators that sexual intercourse is being described in vv. 3-5. The anticipation of intercourse is certainly being alluded to, but not a description of the act itself; the euphemistic imagery is indeed sexual and erotic, but only in the sense that the union of the two lovers is being anticipated (in a tantalizing manner). The young man vanishes before union can occur—i.e., when the door is “opened”.

The clever conceptual wordplay from the prior verses continues here. First we note the dramatic way the sudden disappearance of the boy is described, in terms of what the girl sees when she opens the door: “…he had turned away [vb qm^j*] (and) passed on [vb rb^u*]”; there is here also wordplay between rb^u* (“he passed over”) and the description of the myrrh as “flowing over” (going over, rb@u)) the girl’s fingers in v. 5.

Second, the girl states that her soul “went out” (vb ax^y`) from her, i.e., left her, just as her beloved had suddenly left her. Indeed, her soul ‘departed’ at the very moment he left—or, perhaps, when she realized he had left. This temporal aspect is expressed by the prefixed verbal expression orB=d^b=, “with his going (out) back”, implying that he had left and gone away, outside and back into the night. The verb rb^D* is not from the root meaning “speak”, but the separate root rbd denoting “to be behind, turn back”.

The final line is as simple as it is poignant in expressing the young woman’s helplessness and despair: “I called to him but he did not answer me” (yn]n`u* al)w+ wyt!ar*q=). This sets the stage for the dramatic narration in verse 7, which we will examine in the next daily note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Along the lines of the earlier interpretation of vv. 3-5 (cf. in the previous note), the Targum explains the lover’s withdrawal from the historical-religious standpoint of YHWH’s removal of His Presence from Israel.

Gregory of Nyssa continues his line of mystical interpretation, whereby the Beloved’s departure is intended to spur the young woman (the soul) on to follow after him and to be drawn ever closer to him. The example of Moses’ visionary experience (Exod 33:18-34:9) is applied to the spiritual experience of Christians:

“Everyone is familiar with those elevations which Moses enjoyed, for no matter how great he had become, he never stopped in his growth toward perfection.”

This is the start of one of the grandest passages of mystical exposition in all of Gregory’s writings (and in early Christian literature, for that matter). Following the earlier example of Philo of Alexandria’s Life of Moses (Gregory composed a similar work with the same title), Moses’ life experience is interpreted and applied in a mystical/spiritual manner, emphasizing this theme of continuous growth in virtue and understanding. The great visionary experience of Moses, when God revealed Himself, “passing by” in such a way that Moses could only see His back, brings this story of spiritual growth to a climax—and Gregory applies this to the experience of the purified soul of the believer, as expressed in the Song:

“By this I think we are taught that he who wishes to see God, will see his Beloved only by constantly following after Him, and the contemplation of His face is really the unending journey towards Him, accomplished by following directly behind the Word. So too in our text the soul has arisen up through death, and, filled with myrrh, she puts her hands to the bolt and desires her Beloved to enter in. But He passes by. And she goes out, not remaining where she was, but rather trying to touch the Word who leads on constantly ahead.”

Translations of Gregory are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001), pp. 261-3.

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