August 29: Song of Songs 7:8-10a

Song 7:8-14

Verses 8-10a [7-9a]

“This, your stature, was likened to a palm-tree,
and your two breasts to its clusters (of fruit).
(Well,) I said ‘Let me go up on (that) palm-tree
and grab hold on its (high) branches!’—
and, oh, may your two breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and (the) breath of your nostrils (be) like apples,
and (the) taste of your (mouth) like the good wine…”

The opening lines of this section build playfully on the prior waƒf praise-song (vv. 2-7), focusing on the girl’s body—from toe to head. Now the young man speaks of his beloved’s stature (hm*oq), that is, her appearance as she is standing. The idea of height is particularly being emphasized by the term hm*oq. Here she is compared to a tall palm-tree (rm*T*), whereas in prior poems a mountain-motif (spec. the white peaks of the Lebanon range) was utilized to express this aspect of height with its associations of majesty and grandeur. Particularly in 4:8, the mountain image was used to express the idea of separation between the two lovers. Verse 8 here alludes to the same idea (i.e., separation and difficulty of access), but the sense of any separating barrier (or distance) is quickly dissolving.

Indeed, the young man expresses his desire and intention to climb (lit. “go up on”) that tall palm-tree (the girl’s body). The fruit of that tree is identified primarily with the girls “two breasts”. Normally, the word loKv=a# refers to a cluster of grapes, but here it is used in a more general sense for any fruit-cluster (spec. the date-clusters on the palm-tree). The noun /s!n+s^ occurs only here in the Old Testament, but its meaning can be determined from the cognate Akkadian word sinsinnu, referring to the topmost branches (of the date-palm); this basic meaning is confirmed by the Syriac and Greek versions (cf. Pope, p. 636). The imagery in v. 9 combines the idea of the young man “climbing” onto his beloved, and then “grabbing hold” (vb zj^a*) of her breasts. This is perhaps the most graphic sexual imagery of the Song, and it unquestionably refers to sexual intercourse (the beginnings of it, at least).

The date-palm in the ancient Near East had strong connections with sexuality and fertility, and was a tree sacred to the goddess. In Mesopotamia, the palm-tree was closely associated with the goddess Inanna (later Ishtar), and the fruit of the date-palm plays an important role in the Sumerian love songs between Dumuzi and Inanna. In addition to the basic sexual motif, there were two key aspects to the symbol of the date-palm in these  songs. First, there was the seasonal mythic-ritual context of the date-harvest, in which the growing fruit of the date-palm, represented by Dumuzi in his aspect as worshiped by the orchard growers, was ritually placed in the communal storehouse (represented by the person of Inanna). Second, in the love songs, this ritual aspect is depicted in terms of the girl’s lover (Dumuzi) presenting the fruit (dates) to her (Inanna), like jewels, as a wedding gift.

As he climbs (or anticipates climbing) the ‘tree’, he expresses his deep wish (note the particle an`) that the ‘cluster’ of the girl’s breasts would be like a cluster of grapes (the regular sense of loKv=a#) on the vine. By this is presumably meant breasts that are soft and plump, juicy and succulent, like grapes; moreover, the motif of grapes immediately brings into view the image of wine (as a symbol of sexual delight).

The expression “breath of your nose/nostrils” (EP@a^ j^yr@) seems rather peculiar, prompting some commentators to deviate from the normal meaning of the word [a^. Pope notes, for example, that the cognate words in Akkadian (appu) and Ugaritic (ap) can refer to the tip of other parts of the body, including the breasts and the genitals (cf. p. 636f). To be sure, the nipple of the breasts would certainly fit the sexuality and eroticism of the scene, and the fragrance of the girl’s breasts was emphasized in 1:13 (cf. also 4:5-6). However, in my view, this misunderstands the poetry, where, as is often the case, an attempt is made to combine a number of different motifs and associations within just a few syllables. In this case, the following four aspects, or strands, can be noted:

    • The parallelism between sweet scent (j^yr@) and taste (Ej@)
    • The sweet fragrance of the girl’s breath
    • The fact that the scent is enjoyed through the nose/nostrils
    • The interlocking of nose and mouth, together, combine to depict passionate kissing

If the nose (and nostrils) are associated with a sweet smell, it is the mouth (spec. the tongue and palate, literally the “[place for] tasting”) that represents a sweet taste. Thus, the overall imagery of this scene reflects the young man’s desire to embrace his beloved, holding her close, the two pressing against each other face-to-face. He presses himself up against her breasts, and his nose and mouth joins with hers (in passionate kissing). This image of sexual union (and intercourse) is enhanced and further expressed, in poetic terms, by the way that the girl’s words take up from the boy’s words here in v. 10a, and she finishes the sentence (v. 10b). In terms of the poetic structure of the section, the portion sung by the young man (vv. 8-10a) is joined to the portion sung by the young woman (vv. 10b-14). This will be discussed further in the next daily note, but it is worth introducing here verse 10 in its entirety:

“and (the) taste of your (mouth) like the good wine…”
“…going to my love with smoothness, flowing (from the) lips <…>”

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum applied the imagery in verse 8 to the moment when the priests spread their hands in prayer to bless the people of Israel, his stature and outstretched hands resembling the palm-tree. The Midrash Rabbah preserves more of the genuine sexual context of the verse, though considered from a negative standpoint, according to the customary ethical-religious line of interpretation. The eroticism refers to the evil inclinations in the world (among human beings), toward idolatry and unchastity respectively; the tendency toward unchastity (sexual immorality) is the more difficult to withstand and uproot. Similarly, in verse 9, the Midrash interprets the sexuality according to the historical example of Daniel and his companions in resisting idolatry. The Targum mentions the same example, but without the pointed context of resistance to temptation; instead, the merit of the Fathers is emphasized, according to their endurance of various trials (in a more general sense). The same basic lines of interpretation, for both the Targum and Midrash (Rabbah) extend into verse 10. In particular, the ‘lips’ of the righteous ancestors are to be honored (‘kissed’) for their faithfulness to the Torah and endurance of persecution, etc. Cf. Pope, pp. 634, 637, 642.

Christian commentators tended to follow a similar line of ethical-religious interpretation when dealing with the eroticism of these verses. For example, Bede explains the ‘height’ of the young woman in terms of the moral uprightness and good works of believers (the Church). The Bride “is likened to the palm-tree because she stands upright in her love of things heavenly”. The grape-clusters of the girl’s breasts refers to the work of the Church’s teachers, especially when they move beyond giving basic instruction (‘milk’) to teach the more mature believers on deeper matters of the faith. The scent of the mouth likewise represents the sound speech of Christians, and the work of speech (teaching and preaching, etc) that is dedicated to God. The apples are fresh and new, but the wine is aged, reflecting two aspects—and levels of maturity—within the Church. Cf. Norris, pp. 261-3.

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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