September 1: Song of Songs 8:1-2

Song 8:1-10

Chapter 8 (specifically verses 1-10) represents the conclusion to the second movement of the Song, and is thus parallel to the close of the first movement (3:4-11), sharing many of the same themes and points of emphasis. In particular, we find the idea expressed that the love between the young man and young woman would find social recognition and acceptance (especially by their families), resulting in marriage (and a wedding). This is a fitting emphasis for the conclusion of each movement of the Song, but is presented more succinctly in 3:4-11, with the wedding-scene indicated in vv. 6-11. Here, in the second movement, the concluding section (8:1-10) is more complex. My outline of this section matches the division used by Fox (pp. 165-73), recognizing three distinct poetic units: vv. 1-5a, 5b-7, and 8-10. Unlike the earlier sections of this movement, there is less continuity between these units, and it is much more difficult to isolate a definite dramatic-narrative thread running through each unit. There are, however, several common features that can be mentioned.

First, each unit contains a reference or allusion to family members of the two lovers. This refers, primarily, to the social recognition/acceptance of their love, as noted above. There is also a playful positioning of the sexual relationship between the boy and girl, so that it implicitly follows the pattern of their parents. After all, their parents were once young lovers just like they are; as the parents’ youthful love led to acceptance and marriage (and bearing of children), within the construct of social order and custom, so also it can be for the two lovers of the Song. Second, along these lines, there is a sense in these units of the bond of love between the boy and girl deepening and becoming something more permanent (cf. especially the central declaration in vv. 6-7).

Song 8:1-5a

This first unit more precisely echoes the conclusion of the First Movement, with verses 2 and 5a closely resembling 3:4b and 6a.

Verses 1-2

“Who will give (that) you (would be) like a brother to me,
(one) having sucked the breasts of my mother!
I would find you in the (street) outside (and) would kiss you,
and even (so) there would be no indignity for me.
I would lead you and bring you into (the) house of my mother,
<into the inner room (where) she became pregnant with me>
(There) I would make you drink from the mixed wine,
from (the) pressed juice of my pomegranate.”

Verse 2 appears to be missing a line, the first line of the MT representing, it would seem, only a partial couplet. The final word yn]d@M=l^T= in the MT (“she will teach me”) doesn’t make much sense in context, and may be an indication of textual corruption. The LXX and Peshitta contain, instead, a second line matching that of the parallel in 3:4: “into the inner room (where) she became pregnant with me”. It is difficult to know whether the versions reflect a harmonizing expansion to match the earlier reference, or whether a line has dropped out of the MT. No help is available from the Dead Sea manuscripts, since nothing of chapter 8 has been preserved. I have chosen to emend (or restore) the text, adding a balancing second line (in angle brackets above) to match the LXX, etc.

The idiom “who will give (that)…?” (/ty ym!) is a way of expressing the wish that something would come to pass. A flat conventional translation in English might be: “If only you were like a brother to me!” At numerous points in the Song, the two lovers refer to each other as “brother” and “sister”, even though they are not actually related as brother-sister (as v. 1 here makes quite clear). These epithets elsewhere in the Song are terms of endearment and intimacy, following the conventions of Near Eastern love poetry (cf. the earlier note on 4:8-11). Here, the author plays on this motif, shifting the meaning of “brother” to its regular, familial sense.

Why does she express the wish that her lover could be like her brother? The reason is clear and expressed directly enough. It is so that they could kiss and express intimacy with other in public, without causing any scandal. In earlier episodes of the Song, the city locale and the girl’s family house represented barriers that effectively separate the two lovers. In such a setting, they are forced to meet secretly, at night, in order to be together (cf. 2:8-17; 5:2-6ff). As in 3:4, the girl now expresses the wish that they could be together, as lovers, in public. The image of bringing her lover into her mother’s house essentially means acceptance of their love by the family. Ultimately, this would entail a formal proposal by the young man, a marriage agreement, and (eventually) a wedding. But public recognition extends beyond family and friends to the wider society as well. This is implied by the reference to the “street outside” (JWj). As brother and sister, even out in the street, they could embrace and there would be no indignity for them as a result. The verb zWB in this context is a bit difficult to translate; it basically means “despise, belittle”, sometimes rendered more forcefully as “condemn, reject”. Here the verb connotes the social disapproval (and even rejection) that would come from the two young lovers expressing their love (by embracing, kissing, etc) out in public.

There is also a sexual double-meaning to the family relationships referenced here. First, the motif of a child sucking the breasts of his mother alludes to the idea of the girl giving her breast to her beloved (v. 2). Similarly, the ‘mother’s house’ (with its bedroom, cf. the textual note above) where the mother conceived her child contains an obvious sexual allusion. Overall, in thematic and dramatic terms, social acceptance of their love means that the young man and young woman can be together, as lovers, even in the girl’s family home. This context gives to verse 2 a dual meaning, assuming that it is the mother’s house/room that is the ‘location’ of the love-making—i.e., “(there) I would make you drink”.

First, it means that they would be able to exist and act as lovers even in the girl’s family house, at least in a limited way (embracing, kissing). Second, in a more figurative sense, the girl would be following the pattern of her own mother, who similarly had sexual relations with her beloved (the girl’s father). The bedroom in the mother’s house represents the socially accepted location (i.e., a marriage bed) where the lovemaking takes place. It is the second, figurative meaning, that is primarily in view. Once their love has been recognized and accepted by the family, etc, they will no longer have to rely on a clandestine meeting for their lovemaking—it can be done within the social bounds of a family bedroom.

A brief note on the sexual imagery in verse 2, which highlights at least three key motifs used throughout the Song: (1) wine, (2) spices (the “mixed” [jq^r#] wine clearly refers to being mixed with spices), and (3) the specific fruit of the pomegranate. All three symbolize sexuality and the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The primary reference, it would seem, is to lovemaking in terms of kissing. The association between wine and the mouth is certainly emphasized in 1:2 and 7:9; similarly, the pomegranate is used specifically to describe the lips and the region around the mouth (4:3; 6:7). As sexual symbols, wine and pomegranate-fruit are not limited to the idea of kissing (the pomegranate likely alludes here also to the girl’s breast), but that is primary point of reference, especially in the context of the two lovers expressing their love in public.

The desire for social recognition (by the families) of the couple’s love is similarly expressed in an ancient Egyptian love song (from the Papyrus Chester Beatty I, poem no. 36 in the collection by Fox). The girl describes how she was passing by the boy’s house, and saw him with his mother and relatives, and she longs to be able to have everyone see her love for him:

“If only mother knew my heart—
Then I could hurry to (my) brother
and kiss him before his company,
and not be ashamed because of anyone.
I would be happy to have them see
that you know me…”
(Fox, p. 55 [ellipses mine])

I find these parallels to be quite close to the situation here in the Song, even to conventional reference to the girl’s lover as her ‘brother’.

(In the next daily note, I will present examples of Jewish and Early Christian interpretation for vv. 1-5a as a whole.)

References marked “Fox” above are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

Leave a Reply

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