August 19: Song of Songs 6:11

Song 6:11-7:1

I regard 6:11-7:1 as intermediary, set between the two songs by the young man (6:4-10 and 7:2-7). Their central position also speaks to the guiding role of these three verses in defining the dramatic narrative (such as it can be discerned) in this section. Unfortunately, the verses are fraught with ambiguities which make any definite or coherent interpretation difficult to achieve. Verse 12, in particular, is almost impenetrably obscure, and it will be necessary to devote an entire note to an examination of it. The text of verse 11 is clear enough, but there remain difficulties for interpretation.

Verse 11

“To (the) enclosed nut(-garden) I went down,
among the green (growth)s of the river-bed,
to see if the vine had burst forth,
(if) the pomegranates had taken flight.”

The first question is: who is the speaker in these lines? Since, in the Song, the garden and vineyard both tend to be used to symbolize female sexuality, it might seem natural that it is the young man who is going to the garden/vineyard—i.e., to be together with his beloved—as in 4:12-5:1 and 6:2-3. However, the context here suggests rather that it is the young woman who is speaking. To begin with, she is clearly the one who is being called back in 7:1, suggesting that she has gone away somewhere. Moreover, this passage seems to allude to the earlier episode in chapter 2, where the young man calls on the girl to go away with him into the blossoming fields and vineyards (vv. 10-14). I have noted how numerous themes and motifs from the first movement of the Song (chaps. 1-3) are developed in the second movement (chaps. 4-8). Here in 6:11, the girl is, in a sense, responding to that (earlier) invitation by her beloved (note the similarity of wording in 2:13).

The garden theme occurs throughout the Song (and frequently in chaps. 4-6), and, in the notes on those earlier references, I explained the significance of the garden imagery in some detail; however, the specific motif of the “nut-garden” here requires some comment. The feminine term hN`G] (= hN`G~) is closely related to (and essentially synonymous with) the more common noun /G~, referring to an enclosed (and protected) space where plants grow and are cultivated (i.e., a garden or grove). The noun zoga$ occurs only here in the Old Testament, but is common in later Hebrew where it means “nut(s)”. A similar term (±rgz) is attested at Ugarit, where the precise meaning is not entirely certain, but it may also refer to nuts—e.g., in a price list for various commodities (including oil and vegetable products), as well in texts where it is used as an ingredient in medicines (nut-oil being thought to have medicinal properties); cf. Pope, p. 575f.

The (wal)nut tree seems to have had quasi-magical attributes for people in the ancient Near East. Nuts were a symbol of fertility, which could be associated with deities and/or used in religious rituals and celebrations. For further detail, cf. the discussion by Pope (pp. 577-8), who cites the Canaanite Nikkal hymn (praising the marriage of the deities Yarikh and Nikkal); there is an interesting line toward the end of this text (CAT 1.24):

“Let me sing of the Katharat-goddesses,
the radiant daughters of the new moon,
the lord of the sickle,
who descend with ±rgz-plants,
(translation by David Marcus in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, edited by Simon B. Parker, Society of Biblical Literature: Writings from the Ancient World Series [Scholars Press: 1997])

The phrases “descend with ±rgz plants” is strikingly similar to the wording here in the Song, “went down to the °§rgôz garden”.

Pope notes that the expression “nut garden” in v. 11 may refer specifically to the Qidrôn (Kidron) valley, east of Jerusalem. The noun lj^n~ refers properly to a wadi—that is, a river-bed valley which only has water running through it during times of heavy rain. This would certainly apply to the Kidron, which also happens to be called, in Arab tradition, W¹di al-Jôz (“Nut Valley”), cf. Pope, p. 579. Following the early rains, such valleys would be among the first locales to show signs of fertility, and that is almost certainly the significance here in the Song. The parallel section in 2:10-14 refers clearly to the spring-time blossoming of the fields and vineyards following the rainy season of winter, and that is the same basic setting here. By going to the “nut-garden” and to the wadi (after the rains), the young woman is looking for signs of the blossoming flowers and fruits: “to see if the vine had ‘burst forth’ [vb jr^P*] and if the pomegranates had ‘taken flight’ [vb JWn]”.

Both the vine-fruit and the pomegranate serve as sexual symbols in the Song (on the latter, cf. 4:3, 13; 6:7; 7:13; 8:2), and there is no question that the nut (walnut) has the same symbolic role. Nuts were traditionally used in wedding ceremonies (cf. b. Berakot 50b), and were also thought to aid in pregnancy (cf. the references in Pope, p. 578). Indeed, I would maintain that the principal significance of the nut here is not so much sexuality per se, but fertility.

If the young woman is indeed the speaker in v. 11, then her journey to the “nut garden” likely symbolizes the blossoming of her sexuality; the visit to the river-bed, with its first green growths of spring, has essentially the same symbolism. The journey itself (“I went down…”) may represent the girl’s growing awareness of her new-found sexual maturity. This will be discussed further in the next note (on v. 12).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash drew upon the traditional Old Testament use of the vine as a representation for Israel—and a fruitful vine thus represents the faithful/righteous ones who fulfill the Torah and are full of good works. The Midrash Rabbah likewise compared Israel to a nut-tree; among the points of comparison, the two shells of the nut symbolized the two main stages of the act of circumcision. The shell of the nut also served a protective role, and, for the one faithful in study of the Torah, though he may sin , yet he is protected and his understanding of God’s Law is not lost or condemned (b. Hagigah 15b). Cf. Pope, p. 583-4.

Ambrose explains how, after being praised by her Beloved, the young woman modestly flees from him, but then is brought back by the Bridegroom’s love to go “down into the nut orchard”. This place of fertility and growth is where the Church is flowering, having passed through the rain-torrents of hardship and temptation. Drawing upon the nut-image, the flowering vine and pomegranate-fruit of the Church’s faithfulness and virtue is kept safe (by faith and love) “through a hard skin that covers the body” (Norris, p. 247). This is typical of the early Christian line of ethical interpretation for the Song.

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 “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

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