August 18: Song of Songs 6:8-10

Song 6:8-10

“Sixty (are) they, (the) queens,
and eighty (the) young wives,
and (of) maidens there is no numbering;
(yet) one she (is), my dove, my complete (one),
(as) one she (is) to her mother,
pure she (is) to the (one) having born her.
(The) daughters saw her and called her blessed,
(the) queens and young wives, and praised her:
Who (is) this, the (one) looking down like (the) dawn,
beautiful like the moon, pure like the sun,
(and) terrible like the (one)s seen (on high)?”

The young man’s song in vv. 4-10 is only a partial waƒf praise-song (cf. the previous note on vv. 5-7); the second portion of it shifts in focus to a mini-drama, in which the young man effectively compares his beloved with other women. The overall thrust of these lines clearly affirms the superiority of the beloved’s beauty to that of all other women, whether noble or common.

This comprehensive comparison (in vv. 8-10) involves three categories of women: queens, the second wives of wealthy/noble men, and the young beautiful maidens all throughout society. The noun vg#l#yP! properly refers to a concubine (i.e., secondary wives of royalty and wealthy men), but the word itself seems to be a Greek (or Indo-European [Hittite, etc]) loanword, denoting a young woman. The noun hm*l=u^ is even more general, referring to any young girl who has become sexually mature (for more on the word, cf. my study on the famous use of it in Isa 7:14). While there are many such attractive young maidens (lit. “there is no numbering” of them), there are obviously fewer queens and concubines. The sequence of sixty–eighty may be an extension of the three–four formula (e.g., Amos 1:3ff; 2:1, etc); a similar seventy + eighty formula is attested in Canaanite (Ugaritic) poetry (cf. Pope, p. 568).

There are thus many beautiful women, but only one (fem. tj^a^) who is like the young man’s beloved. This indicates both uniqueness and superiority—i.e., her beauty and attractiveness far surpasses that of all other women. These aspects are described in terms of a mother’s feelings for her precious young daughter (v. 9a); in the mother’s eyes, her daughter is both unique (tj^a^) and perfect (hr*B*, “clear, pure”) in beauty. This subjective view of a mother is shared, objectively, by all others who see the young man’s beloved—they, too, recognize that the girl is unique and perfect in her beauty.

Indeed, even the other young women are compelled to admit her beauty (v. 9b). The innumerable maidens (“daughters”) see her and ‘bless’ (vb rv^a*) her incomparable beauty; the term “daughters” (tonB*) alludes to the recurring chorus of the “daughters of Jerusalem”, i.e., all the other young women in Jerusalem. The queens and concubines also praise the girl when they see her; the verb ll^h* literally means “give a shout [i.e. of praise]”. Even the most glamorous royal (and upper-class) women are forced to exclaim how beautiful the girl is. This is also another example of the use of royal imagery (and the idea of royalty) in the Song to express the love the boy and girl have for one other; in the world of their love, they are ‘king’ and ‘queen’ for each other, and their bond of love like that of a royal marriage.

Verse 10 summarizes this declaration of praise, drawing upon the same formulaic language used by the young man in v. 4, thus framing the entire praise-song. The declaration here is phrased as a question: “Who (is) this…?” (twz)-ym!), repeating the reaction by the maidens in 3:6, likewise describing the young woman—in her beauty, purity, and majesty—as she approaches (cf. the discussion in the earlier note). In that passage, the image was of towering columns of fragrant incense; here, there is also an emphasis on height, focusing on heavenly bodies above. The girl’s seemingly transcendent beauty is like the dawn (rj^v^), and it is so great that she appears to be “looking down” (vb [q^v*) from on high—she above, and all other women down below, so prominent is the difference in beauty between them.

The remainder of the comparison matches the formula in verse 4 (cf. the earlier note). The sun and moon are the prominent (ruling) entities in the heavens (Gen 1:16), just as Jerusalem and Tirzah are the great (capital) cities on earth. The same verbal noun (Niphal/passive participle), tolG`d=n!, is used here in both verses, indicating that it has a more general meaning, and is not tied specifically to either the city or sun/moon motif. As discussed in the earlier note on v. 4, I render the expression quite literally, in terms of the fundamental meaning of the root lgd (“to see”); the reference is to something prominent, and positioned up high, to that people all around can see it clearly. The term also connotes the idea of greatness and majesty. Here the heavenly aspect—i.e., things visible up high in the heavens, in their brightness and splendor—is certainly being emphasized.

Fox (pp. 51-2ff) cites an Egyptian love song (from the Chester Beatty I Papyrus, 20th Dynasty) that has a number of similarities with our song; it has the following features in common with 6:4-10: (1) emphasis on the uniqueness and superiority of the girl’s beauty, (2) comparison with the heavenly bodies, and (3) it includes a partial waƒf praising the beauty of the young woman’s body parts. Here is the translation by Fox (ellipses and gloss mine):

“One alone is (my) sister, having no peer:
more gracious than all other women.
Behold her like Sothis [i.e. the star Sirius] rising
at the beginning of a good year:
shining, precious, white of skin,
lovely of eyes when gazing.
Sweet her lips <when> speaking:
she has no excess of words.
Long of neck, white of breast,
her hair true lapis lazuli.
Her arms surpass gold,
her fingers are like lotuses.
She makes the heads of all (the) men
turn about when seeing her.

Her coming forth appears
like (that of) her (yonder)—the (Unique) One.”

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash interpreted the queens, concubines and maidens in terms of all the other nations, whose beauty does not compare with that of the Beloved (Israel). Sixty + eighty = 140, which is double the traditional number (70) of the nations. The Midrash Rabbah also explains this imagery in a different way, as representing the Torah—the sixty queens being the tractates of Halakot, and the eighty concubines the sections of the Levitical law; alternately, they could represent the companies of righteous Israelites who study the Torah.

When the assembly of Israel served YHWH faithfully, with a single mind and holding to the Law, she resembled a perfect and undefiled dove, following the example of the Patriarchs. Cf. Pope, pp. 568, 571, 573.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his sermon on v. 9, explains the uniqueness (oneness) of the young woman (called a dove), in terms of Christian unity through the Spirit, citing Jesus’ famous prayer in John 17:21-23 (cf. also Eph 4:3, etc). Though born a slave and a bond-woman, the girl (the soul, the Church) “was honored with the royal dignity” —this occurred when the soul received the Spirit (cf. Jn 20:22), having first become purified and detached from all imperfection. The reference to the “one who gave birth” to the girl (i.e., her mother) naturally brings to mind the Johannine idiom of believers being ‘born of the Spirit,’ so as to become true children/offspring of God. For Gregory, throughout the Song, the “daughters (of Jerusalem)” represent those souls that have yet to achieve the Bride’s level of purity and perfection, and who are urged to follow her example. Thus, here the “daughters” bless the Dove, and “they too would desire above all to become doves”. This desire of all other women (i.e. all souls) to become like the Bride (the Dove) speaks to the ultimate realization of the ideal and promise of unity, when “God will become all in all and all evil will be destroyed, and all men will be united in harmony by their participation in the Good”.

[Note: Sadly, Gregory of Nyssa’s splendid cycle of sermons on the Song does not extend past 6:9; thus, for the remainder of the Song, we will be forced to rely on other sources—often later in time and lesser in inspiration—for examples of early Christian interpretation.]

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).
Quotations 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. 286-8.

Leave a Reply

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