August 12: Song of Songs 5:10-16 (continued)

(Verses 10-13 were discussed in the previous note.)

Verse 14a—Arms

“His two hands (are) rods of gold,
having been filled with taršîš;”

Here the dual “hands” should be understood in the wider sense of the young man’s two arms—from the shoulders down to the hands. Like his head, they are beautifully shaped out of smooth/pure gold, with his skin gleaming/shining like gold. They are described, loosely, as cylinder-shaped ‘rods’ (<yl!yl!G+) of gold. The sense of luxurious beauty is enhanced by adding the image of the rods being filled with precious gems; the precise stone indicated by the word vyv!r=T^ (transliterated above) remains uncertain.

Verse 14b—Belly/Loins

“His under parts (are) smooth ivory,
having been covered (with) sapîrîm.”

There is some debate regarding the portion (or portions) of the body denoted by the noun (hu#m@, only occurring in the plural); it presumably means something like “inward parts” (i.e., the intestines, etc), but I translate it here as “under parts” —referring comprehensively to the area covering the stomach down to the loins below. This area is compared with smooth ivory (lit. “smoothness of ivory”); the combination of whiteness and smooth shapeliness is comparable to the ‘pure gold’ of the young man’s head/face and arms (cf. above). The plural noun <yr!yP!s^, like vyv!r=T^, refers to a precious gem, the identity of which is not entirely certain; it is often translated as “sapphire(s)”, but many commentators believe it properly refers to lapis lazuli.

Verse 15—Legs

“His two legs (are) standing (column)s of marble,
having been fixed upon bases of (pure) gold—
his appearance (is) like (the) white (mountains)
(and) like the chosen trees of cedar!”

The legs of the young man are compared with white-stone (i.e. marble) columns, much as his arms were compared with pillars/rods of gold. The smooth whiteness of the stone also alludes to the ivory slab of his stomach (and loins) in v. 14 (above). The motif of whiteness gives the poet the opportunity to introduce again his favorite symbol of the Lebanon (lit. the white-peaked [mountains]). The Lebanon mountains serve as a sexual symbol in the Song, largely due to the word-play between the related words /onb*l= (l®»¹nôn) and hn`obl= (l®»ônâ)—the latter term refers to (frank)incense, bringing in the fundamental motif of “spices” as a sexual symbol; the fragrant cedar-wood from the Lebanon mountains helps to facilitate that association. Here, the tall cedar-trees also serve as a parallel to the marble columns as a description of the young man’s strong legs—identified specifically as the “chosen” (rwjB*) cedars of Lebanon.

Verse 16—Summary

“His taster (is itself) a sweet place,
and all of him a source of delight—
this (is) my love, and this my companion,
daughters of Jerusalem!”

In this final verse of the song, the young woman emphasizes that all of her beloved—that is, all of his body parts described above (and more)—is most beautiful and a source of delight (emphatic plural of the locative noun dm*j=m^, “place of delight”). This is a way of summarizing the young man’s sexual appeal. In particular, as noted above, this appeal is located particularly in his mouth, emphasizing kissing as the primary aspect of the couple’s lovemaking. The point is expressed most erotically—and playfully—with the statement that the young man’s “taster” (Ej@), i.e., the tongue and palate used for tasting, is itself sweet to her. The term used here is <yq!t^m=m^, an emphatic plural of a locative noun (“place of sweetness”), parallel to the entirety of the young man (his entire sexual appeal) as a “place of delight”.

The final lines tie back to the question by the “daughters of Jerusalem” in verse 9. The waƒf praise-song by the girl, in the poetic context, serves as an answer to their question. By describing him as she does, the other girls now know what he looks like, and will be able to locate him. Moreover, they also should realize what makes him so special for the young woman, understanding why she so fervently implores them for their help in finding him. This (hz#, the demonstrative pronoun in emphatic position) is the girl’s beloved.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explained the jewel-covered body of the young man in relation to the twelve stones on which the names of the twelve Tribes of Israel were engraved. The Midrash understood the smooth ivory with its sapphires, etc, in terms of the Torah and the study of it. The faithfulness of Israel to the covenant (i.e., the study of the Torah and Mishnah, etc) was like that of a faithful Bride who follows the example of her Beloved, and so demonstrates that she belongs to Him. The Midrash Rabbah, playing on the word for ‘marble’ (vv@), which is identical with the numeral six, associated v. 15 with the six days in which YHWH created the world, connecting the act of creation to the theme of the Torah (and its study). In the closing lines, the Targum identified the sweet mouth of the young man specifically with the Divine Commandments (spoken by the mouth of YHWH), while the “daughters of Jerusalem” are explained as the Prophets of Israel who serve as intermediaries communicating between the girl (Israel) and her Beloved (YHWH). Cf. Pope, pp. 545, 548, 550.

Early Christian exegesis of vv. 14-15 generally follows the lines of interpretation—Christological, ecclesiastical, ethical, and spiritual—illustrated in the previous note on vv. 10-13. Of particular interest is the way that Gregory of Nyssa essentially combines these aspects together in his comments on v. 16, utilizing the famous Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29ff). From an expository standpoint, this parable illustrates the characteristics of the Beloved, as described (allegorically and spiritually) through the girl’s praise-song of her beloved’s physical beauty.

“And by these characteristics that have been revealed we shall, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, be able to find Him and keep Him for the salvation of our souls. “

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
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. 279-281.

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