August 11: Song of Songs 5:10-16

Song 5:10-16

The second of the two songs in this section (5:2-6:3) is a ‘praise-song’, in which the beauty (and sexual appeal) of the beloved is described, one body part at a time. This is a specific genre of love poetry with a long history, known in Arabic tradition as a waƒf. This praise-song by the young woman, essentially an expansion of the declaration in 1:16-17, is parallel to the song by the young man in 4:1-7 (an expansion of 1:15).

The praise-song here (5:10-16), being a distinct genre, can stand as a separate poem, but the author has cleverly incorporated it into the drama of the section. It serves as the answer to the question by the “daughters of Jerusalem” in v. 9 (cf. the previous note). The praise-song offers a description of her beloved, so that the other girls can recognize him; it also explains what makes him so special to the young woman, that she would implore them so desperately for help.

Verse 10

“My love is bright and red,
able to be seen from (the) multitudes.”

The young woman assures the other girls (vv. 8-9) that her beloved is easily recognizable from out of the vast multitudes (hb*b*r=) of young men. As an overall description of his appearance, he is said to be “bright [jx^] and red [<oda*]”. This refers primarily to his skin and the complexion of his face, etc. A bright/shining face was a sign of health (Psalm 104:15), and a ruddy complexion was similarly an indication of youthfulness and beauty (1 Sam 16:12; 17:42); cf. Fox, p. 147. The verb lg~D* occurs only here in the Old Testament, but is presumably cognate to Akkadian dag¹lu (“see”); a related (denominative) form also occurs in the Song (6:4, 10; and in Psalm 20:6), while the noun lg#D# is used in 2:4 (cf. the earlier note), and in the book of Numbers (13 times) refers to a banner or standard raised up high (so that all the people can see it).

Verse 11—Head/Hair

“His head (is) gold, pure gold,
his bushy locks (are) palm-fronds,
black like (that of a) raven.”

The girl’s waƒf-song begins with the young man’s head (including his hair). His head is beautifully shaped, with a face (and skin) shining bright, leading her to compare it with something molded with pure gold. Two different words for “gold” are used in combination—<t#K# (probably a foreign loanword) and zP*, the latter term referring specifically to refined (pure) gold. He also has thick and bushy locks (cf. verse 2) of jet-black hair; the girl’s hair was similarly described as having flowing black locks (4:1). The meaning of the plural <yl!T^l=T^ is uncertain, the word occurring only here in the Old Testament; Akkadian taltall¥ and Arabic taltalat refer to the sheath or other parts of the date-palm, and the Hebrew term probably has a comparable meaning, resembling other words (e.g., <yl!z~l=z~, Isa 18:5) that refer to the shoots or branches of plants (cf. Pope, p. 536).

Verse 12—Eyes

“His two eyes (are) like doves,
(sitting) upon channels of water,
having been washed in milk,
having been set (in) a full (bowl).”

The young woman’s eyes were compared to doves in 1:15 and 4:1, and here the young man’s eyes are similarly described. The primary characteristics associated with the dove are whiteness and purity. The white and moist eyes are also described through the image of a full bowl (lit. “fullness,” taL@m!) of milk. The two images are combined with the idea of the dove bathing (“washing,” vb. Jj^r*) itself in milk (or milky-white water).

Verse 13—Mouth (Cheeks/Lips)

“His soft (cheek)s (are) a garden-bed of spice(s),
growing tall from (its) mix of perfumes;
his lips are (like blossoming) lilies,
dripping over (with) flowing myrrh.”

The description of the young man’s cheeks and lips is comparable to that of the young woman’s in 4:3, though somewhat different imagery is used. In particular, it is noteworthy how garden-imagery—aromatic spices (including myrrh) and flowers—is applied to the young man’s mouth. As I have noted on a number of occasions, the motif of “spices” (sing. <c#B#) in the Song symbolizes sexuality and the experience of sexual pleasure. It tends to be applied to the young woman (i.e., female sexuality), but here it refers to the young man (male sexuality). Much the same can be said of the garden-imagery in general—it represents sexual appeal and beauty, as well as the experience of sexual pleasure (and sexual union). In the young man’s praise-song of the girl’s beauty, the focus was upon her breasts—that is where the motif of spices/myrrh was used. Here, by contrast, those same motifs are applied to the boy’s mouth—indicating that here the focus of sexual appeal (and lovemaking) is on the mouth (i.e., kissing).

The derivation and meaning of the noun hg`Wru& is uncertain; it occurs again at 6:2 and elsewhere in the Old Testament only at Ezek 17:7, 10. It apparently refers to a ‘garden-bed’ —that is, a place of prepared ground where flowers and other plants can grow. In this case, it is particularly aromatic spices and flowers (“lilies,” <yn]v*ov, cf. the earlier note on 2:1-2; also 2:16; 4:5) that grow in the ‘garden-bed’ of the young man’s face and mouth. Along with Pope (p. 540), I read twldgm as a verbal noun (participle), i.e., “growing tall”, rather than a locative plural noun (tall places, ‘towers’). On the image of dripping myrrh, cf. the prior note on verse 5; the same basic wording is used here. Myrrh is a fundamental motif in the Song for sexuality and sexual pleasure, related to the broader “spice” motif.

(The remainder of the song [vv. 14-16] will be examined in the next daily note.)

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Since Jewish commentators tended to identify the young man (or Bridegroom) of the Song as representing God (YHWH), the Song in praise of the young man’s bodily beauty was explained as referring to the Divine attributes and characteristics.

The Targum interpreted the “white and red” appearance of the young man to the time God spends in study of the Scriptures and Mishnah (and thus being an example for the Bride [Israel] to emulate). The verb lgd was explained in terms of the related noun lg#D# (as a “banner,” cf. above), referring to the the heavenly army (of angels) under YHWH’s control. The Midrash Rabbah used the contrast between white and red colors to contrast how God appeared to Israel (white = mercy) and to Egypt (red = judgment) in the episode at the Reed Sea; other points of contrast from Israelite history and religion are also cited.

There is also a juxtaposition of colors in v. 11, between the bright/shining gold of the young man’s head and the raven-black color of his hair. The Targum and Midrash both explained these as different aspects or characteristic of the words of the Torah. The Midrash Rabbah, in particular, identified the “black curls” of hair with the color and shape of the written Torah, down to the minutest detail of its shape (every curl, hook, dot, etc). Again, the contrast could also be applied to God Himself—white (i.e., with snow-white hair, Dan 7:9) when sitting on His throne as Judge, but black when He acts as a strong warrior fighting the Egyptians, etc (Bab. Talmud Hagigah 14a).

The dove-like eyes in v. 12 symbolize the holiness/purity and surveillance of YHWH, as he looks toward those who are faithful in study the Torah. The Midrash similarly applied the image to the leadership of Israel (the Sanhedrin, etc) in guarding/guiding the study of Torah. The noun taL@m! (“fullness”) was applied to the fullness of the Torah itself. The Targum read the word yj!l= (“cheek”) in light of the noun j^Wl (“tablet”), explaining v. 13 in terms of the Ten Commandments and the tablets of the Law. The ‘lily lips’ and ‘myrrh-dripping lips’ were interpreted by the Midrash Rabbah as referring to those Israelites who had achieved varying degrees of mastery over the Torah and Mishnah. Cf. Pope, pp. 533-4, 537, 539, 541.

Early Christian commentators used a similar allegorical approach in applying the imagery of vv. 10-13 to the Word of God and the person of Christ. For example, Theodoret explained the ‘whiteness’ and ‘redness’ of the young man in Christological terms, as referring to the incarnate humanity (red/ruddy) and deity (shining white) of Christ. The redness, in particular, was associated with blood—both in relation to the sacrificial death of Jesus, and to his exaltation to glory (and subsequent return to bring judgment, Isa 63:1-2ff).

Apponius explained the raven-black locks of hair (on the top of the young man’s head) as referring to the heavenly power possessed by Christ—in relation to the angelic powers in service to him, but also to the dark (i.e. black) mysteries of the Divine judgments which he holds (and fulfills). While touching upon the historical judgments wrought by God (on the Egyptians, etc), Apponius also emphasizes the eschatological aspect—viz., of the day of the Lord as a time of “deep darkness” (Zeph 1:14-15).

Gregory of Nyssa, in his sermons, typically gives to these lines a more spiritual and mystical interpretation. The milky dove-white eyes are explained in light of the traditional association of the dove with the Spirit, and it is “the pure life of the Spirit”, which washes away all remnant and semblance of sin for the soul: “These waters flow all from the same source, merging their streams into a single one, and by these the eyes may be purified of all…passion”. The whiteness of the lily (as understood by Gregory) of the young man’s lips similarly represents the Divine purity and truth which the soul would receive from her Beloved. But the dripping myrrh, with its customary association with death, adds the aspect of self-mortification so necessary for purification, enlightenment, and the cultivation of virtue. In preserving and communicating true/pure doctrine, the Church fulfills its role as Christ’s representative in this regard, as the saints are ever “pouring on their listeners the myrrh that kills all passion, and the blossoming of flowers, with the lilies of the Word”.

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).
Quotation of Gregory of Nyssa above are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J. (translator and editor) in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2003), here pp. 274-9.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *