September 2: Song of Songs 8:3-5a

Song 8:3-4

“His left (hand is) beneath my head,
and his right (hand) embraces me.
I call you to (bind yourselves) seven-fold,
daughters of Yerushalaim:
(do nothing) whatever (to) stir or stir up love until she desires (it)!”

These lines are essentially identical with 2:6-7 (cf. the earlier note), with two differences:

    • The description of the binding force of the oath (“by the gazelles and by the deer of the field”) is omitted; certainly, anyone paying attention to the earlier portions of the Song would automatically ‘fill in’ the shortened version of the oath here with the phrase.
    • Instead of the conditional particle <a!, the interrogative (exclamatory) pronoun hm* is used. Normally, the particle <a! is rendered “if”, but, in the oath formula of 2:7, it refers to the apodosis of the conditional clause framed as a negative statement (or prohibition)—i.e., “do not…”. A similar negative use of hm* (“what”) is rare in the Old Testament (cf. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar [GKC] §137b); here the sense presumably is, “(do nothing) whatever to stir or stir up love…!”.

If the meaning of the refrain (in the earlier passages) is that sexual love should not be stirred (to consummation) until the time is right, then the sense here surely is that the time is now right for the two lovers. This point would seem to be confirmed by the context of 7:10b-14 (cf. the discussion in the prior note), and the position of these verses (along with chapter 8) to form the climax of the second movement of the Song.

Verse 3 here (as in 2:6) certainly refers to love-making, of the two lovers laying down together in each other’s embrace (vb qb^j*). Whether or not sexual intercourse (coitus) was indicated specifically in the earlier episodes, it is certainly in view here (in light of 7:8-14, cf. the notes on 7:8-10a and 12-14). But, again, we must also bear in mind the more immediate context of vv. 1-2 (cf. the previous note), in which the thematic emphasis is on social recognition and acceptance of the couple’s love—both by their families, and by the wider society. This, naturally enough, anticipates a marriage agreement and a wedding, which helps to explain the presence of v. 5a:

Verse 5a

“Who (is) this coming up from the outback,
supporting herself upon her love?”

The first line of this couplet echoes 3:6, which describes—in colorful symbolic language—the girl arriving at her wedding. It is a grandiose royal wedding that is depicted in 3:6-11 (cf. the earlier notes), however obliquely, by the references to Solomon, etc. In the Song, such royal motifs reflect the nature of the love between the young man and young woman—they are ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other, and, any place where they can be together, expressing their love, is like a majestic royal chamber or pavilion. Thus, though it may seem cryptic in the immediate context of chapter 8, we have here, I believe, at the close of this first unit, an allusion to the couple’s marriage and wedding.

The second line here, which does not occur in 3:6, provides an interesting (and telling) addition. Instead of coming alone to the wedding-scene, she approaches together with her beloved. The girl is leaning (or reclining) upon him—literally, the reflexive verb form (of the root qpr) means “supporting herself”. Almost certainly, this alludes back to verse 3 here, and to the lovemaking by the couple, where the young man’s two hands embrace (lit. enfold, vb qb^j*) her. It is intriguing to consider how these references to lovemaking (and sexual intercourse) in 7:8-8:3 relate to this climactic theme of marriage. The question touches on a range of interpretive concerns—including ethical, moral, and religious—regarding the relationship between sexuality and marriage in the Song. It is not possible to address these here, but they will be discussed, in some detail, when we have completed the remaining exegetical notes.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 1-5a)

The Targum understands the “brother” of v. 1 as a reference to the Messiah, who will serve as brother to Israel, and the two will “suck together” the precepts of the Torah. The Midrash further applied the brother-motif to the relationship between brothers in Israelite history and tradition, with the kissing specifically recalling the kissing of Moses by Aaron (Exod 4:27). The Targum continued its Messianic interpretation in verse 2, with the drinking of mixed/spiced wine as a reference to the ‘Messianic Banquet’ that ushers in the New Age, where the righteous will feast on the old wine preserved (in the Garden of Eden) since the day the world was created. The Midrash Rabbah explained the house/room of the mother in connection with the historical location of mount Sinai, since it was there that “Israel became like a newborn child”, when the covenant was established and the Torah given. The odd/stray MT reading “she will teach me”, which is probably a corrupt vestige of a lost second line (cf. the discussion in the previous note), is taken at face value by the Midrash, read as “you will teach me” —i.e., YHWH will instruct Israel through the Torah.

Verse 3, repeated from 2:6 (cf. the earlier note), was explained by the Targum as a reference to the tefillin—bound on the left hand and on the head. The Targum and Midrash treated the adjuration in v. 4 (echoing 2:7 and 3:5, cf. above) in a similar manner, adapting it only slightly (cf. the interpretation given in the note on 2:7). Verse 5a also echoes an earlier passage of the Song, which the Targum and Midrash explain here in several different ways. The motif of coming up from the desert suggested, for example, death and the resurrection from the dead—an eschatological reference to the time when the dead of Israel will rise up, appearing as they did, like newborn children, at Sinai to receive the Law. Indeed, the desert-motif naturally brought to mind the tradition of the Exodus and Israel’s arrival at mount Sinai. Cf. Pope, pp. 658-661, 664f.

Theodoret’s interpretation of vv. 1ff resembles the Messianic approach taken by the Targum, only adapted to an early Christian (Christological) context. Christ as the “brother” of the Bride, suckling at the same mother’s breast, was explained in terms of his incarnation and humanity. It was Christ’s willingness to humble himself and take on our human nature that causes us, especially, to love him. And it is because the soul (and the Church) follows the example of Christ, that she is made pure and able to embrace him and kiss him, even in public, without any shame. At a second level of meaning, the “house of the mother” refers to the house of the Spirit, where the Holy Spirit ‘gives birth’ to believers, a house patterned after the heavenly “Jerusalem that is above” (Gal 4:26).

In v. 5a, Theodoret contrasts the shining white appearance of the woman with her earlier black/darkened color (1:6). She is white now because she has “taken on the whiteness” of her Beloved, the pure and holy Bridegroom (Christ). This holiness and union with the Bridegroom makes her worthy of “going up” out of the desert, explained as a reference to the resurrection, much as Jewish commentators explained it (cf. above).

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).

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