August 22: Song of Songs 6:12

Song 6:12

Verse 12 is generally regarded as the most obscure and difficult of the entire Song. The Masoretic text as it stands is puzzling and seems barely intelligible. The early versions (Greek, Syriac) appear to have found the verse as difficult to understand as commentators today. Unfortunately, little help is at hand from the only relevant Dead Sea MS (4QCanta), since verse 12 is scarcely preserved in the fragmentary manuscript.

There are six syllables to the verse as it has come down to us, but it is not clear whether this should be divided into a 3-beat (3+3) couplet or a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The problem is that, by whichever division is used, each component makes sense individually but are problematic when combined.

Following a 2-beat division, the first line would be:

yT!u=d^y` al)
“I did not know”

If a 3-beat division is followed, the first line then reads:

yv!p=n~ yT!u=d^y` al)
“I did not know my soul”

This latter phrase finds an exact match in Job 9:21; it corresponds generally, in English idiom, to “I was beside myself,” —more literally, “I don’t know myself [i.e. what I am doing]”. We might also say “I was out of my mind”.

Going back to a 2-beat division of the verse, the second line would read: “my soul set me” (yn]t=m^v* yv!p=n~). Combining the first two lines together, we have:

“I did not know
my soul set me”

The sense of these lines could be glossed as follows—

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had set me”

perhaps in the sense of:

“Before I knew it,
my soul had put me”

This sense is rather different if one follows a 3-beat division:

“I did not know my soul,
she set/put me…”

This can be understood two ways, depending on who the speaker is. If the young woman is speaking, then the “she” refers to the soul (grammatically feminine), i.e. “my soul put me”. If it is the young man speaking, then it is possible that his beloved (the girl) is the subject of the phrase in the second line.

The final two words, or beats, of the verse are the most problematic. In the MT as it stands, the reading is: “chariots of my people of nobility”. The expression “my people of nobility”, quite awkward in English, is byd!n`-yM!u^ (±ammî-n¹¼î»). Earlier commentators labored under the influence of the LXX and Vulgate which transliterated the Hebrew expression as a proper name (Amminadab, cf. Exod 6:23; Num 1:7; 2:3, etc). However, it is most unlikely that a proper name is meant here, and the expression should be taken in its basic, literal meaning. In some ways, the expression would make more sense if the word order of the construct expression were reversed, i.e., “noble(s) of my people” (comp. Num 21:18; Psalm 47:10; 113:8). The awkwardness of the MT would also be alleviated somewhat if the suffix y– were read as a paragogic marker of the construct state: “(the) people of nobility”, i.e., noblemen; or, perhaps, “people [i.e. companions] of the noble (man)”.

It is also possible to vocalize ymu differently than the MT reading: yM!u! (“with me”) rather than yM!u^ (“my people”). Assuming the young woman is the speaker, and following a 2-beat division, the verse could then be translated:

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had put me
(in) a chariot, the noble (one) with me.”

Let us briefly consider the context of verse 12. As I understand verse 11, the young woman is speaking, and the imagery refers to the blossoming of the girl’s sexuality, as well as to an awareness of her own sexual development. When we turn to what follows in 7:1f (to be discussed), we find the idea of young men gazing at the girl’s beauty. It would thus be natural if, in the intervening verse 12, there would be some reference to the girl’s attractiveness to young men. Now let us see if this poetic narrative allows us to make sense of verse 12. I approach the verse here following a 3-beat (2-line) division.

Line 1:
“I did not know my soul”
(i.e., I did not realize what I was doing)

The girl had been wandering through the blossoming valleys—orchards, fields and vineyards, etc—that is to say, exploring her own sexuality. Lost in her thoughts and exploration, experiencing new feelings of love and desire, “her soul” takes her to an unexpected place.

Line 2:
“she put me (among the) rides of (the) noble people”
(i.e., I found myself among the chariots of young noblemen)

The implication is that the young men find her attractive, and, perhaps more to the point, she imagines that handsome young nobles are attracted to her. Being taken up into the chariot of a handsome young prince (a ‘Prince Charming’, if you will) is a suitable fairy-tale scenario for the girl. It also reflects the dream-like quality of many scenes in the Song. The girl being seen by the young noble men provides a precise parallel with vv. 8-10, where the noble women likewise look upon her. The difference is that while the other women look upon the girl with wonder (cf. the earlier note), the men look at her with desire; this becomes clear enough in 7:1ff, as we shall discuss in the next note.

Thus, it would seem that the basic scenario intended by the verse is more readily comprehended than the precise wording used to express it—at least as this wording is preserved in the Masoretic text. In conclusion, let me present two tentative translations, following a 2-beat and 3-beat division respectively:

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had set me
(among the) rides of noblemen.”

“I did not know my (own) soul,
she set me (among the) rides of noblemen.”

Finally, I would make mention of the emendation suggested by Fox (p. 156). He reads tbkrm (without the mater lectionis w) as the singular tb#k#r=m!, “[chariot-]ride of…”. Along with this, he would emend ymu to <u (omitting the y– suffix), read as the preposition <u! (“with”). The purpose of these changes is to bring the verse in accordance with the overall theme of the Song—viz., of the two lovers coming together in a luxurious garden-setting:

“I do not know my (own) soul—
she set me (in) a chariot with a nobleman!”

The nobleman’s chariot bed functions like the royal couch/bed (in an outdoor/garden setting) in 1:12ff, 16; 3:7ff. It is a place where the two lovers can be together embracing each other. Pope (p. 590) cites a Sumerian text in which, apparently, the god Enlil takes his wife/consort Ninlil into his chariot where the two of them embrace.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash clearly understand byd!n`-yM!u^ in its fundamental meaning, and not as a personal name (cf. above). The girl (Israel) is taken up into a nobleman’s chariot, understood in terms of YHWH as a king. The verse is thus explained in reference to the Exodus and other times when Israel’s fortunes were suddenly improved through God’s intervention. She is raised to an exalted, royal status, with a position of honor far above that of the other nations. Cf. Pope, p. 591.

Early Christian commentators, following the LXX and Vulgate (cf. above), took byd!n`-yM!u^ to be a proper name (Amminadab), which forced them to adopt some rather creative and elaborate interpretations. Ambrose explained the first line of v. 12 (“my soul did not know”) as referring to the temptation to sin that the soul experiences while in the body. The use of chariot (or horse-and-rider) imagery was popular in ethical philosophy, and learned Greco-Roman Christians would have been quite familiar with it. The good (= tamed, obedient) horses are the virtues cultivated by the soul, while bad/unruly horses represent the bodily passions which, if left unchecked, can bring the soul to ruin. Ambrose explains the name Aminadab as meaning “father of the people”, understood as representing the “soul whom God the Father protects” and whom Christ drives (as a chariot).

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).

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