September 13: Song of Songs 8:13-14

Song 8:13-14

The final two verses of the Song comprise a short dialogue, or exchange, between the two lovers. Throughout the Song, the young man and young woman have alternated as the effective speakers in the various poems, and now they alternate one last time—with a pair of brief poems that, in their own way, summarize many of the key themes of the Song.

Verse 13

“(You) the (one) sitting in the enclosed (garden)s—
(with) my companions attending (me)—
make me to hear from your voice!”

These lines, spoken by the young man, echo the earlier scene in 4:12-5:1 (cf. the earlier notes on 4:12, 13-14, 15, and 4:16-5:1). As throughout the Song, the garden motif symbolizes the young woman’s sexuality, but also the enjoyment of sexual pleasure by the two lovers (when they are together). As in 4:12ff, the girl is understood as being present within the garden enclosure(s) (here, plural <yN]G~, as in 6:2). She is dwelling (literally “sitting,” vb bv^y`) there in her garden, and, from there, the young man awaits her call (to invite him in). The same basic scenario was depicted in 4:16-5:1 (cf. note). Here he is, apparently, waiting with a group of his companions—people (young men) to whom he is closely joined (participle from the root rbj, “be joined, united, bound [together]”). They are “attending” him (vb bv^q*), and it is conceivable—given the climactic place of these lines in the overall structure of the Song—that a wedding scene is implied. In 5:1, a group of friends/companions is also addressed, calling on them to join (with the two lovers) in feasting on the pleasures of love.

Verse 14

“Slip through, my love—
and be yourself like to a gazelle,
or to a young stag leading (the flock)—
upon (the) mountains of spices!”

The girl responds, as she does in 4:16, by inviting the young man, her beloved (“my love”), to come into her garden. However, this is done with different imagery, drawing upon separate scenes from even earlier in the Song—using phrases from 2:9, 17, and 4:6. The parallel with 2:8-17 is especially important. The general scenario in that earlier episode, as I understand it, is of a clandestine night-time meeting between the two lovers. In verses 8-9, the young woman describes her beloved as a swift and strong gazelle, or young stag, ‘leaping’ over the mountains and hills to come to her. Then, after they have been together, throughout most of the night it seems (v. 16), she warns him to turn back and ‘fly away’ before the light of day comes (v. 17); the wording in verse 17 is particularly close to what we find here:

“Until (the time) when the day breathes,
and the shadows fly (away),
turn round—you, my love, (and) be like
a gazelle (going) over (the) mountains of rt#b#!”

The wording may be similar, but the situation here at the close of the Song is very different. In the earlier episode, the young man is told to go (back) upon “the mountains of rt#b#,” which, as I discussed in the note on 2:17, is best understood as representing separation between the lovers. Now, by contrast, he is calls to be upon “the mountains of spices [<ym!c*b=],” which refers to union between the lovers. Throughout the Song, “spices” function as a key sexual symbol, representing sexuality and the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. These ‘spice-mountains’ (understood in 4:6 as referring to the young woman’s two breasts) share in the same basic symbolism as the garden with its fragrant spices, and the motifs are thus interchangeable—and there is no problem at all with the mixed imagery here.

Interesting is the use of the verb jr^B*, which occurs only here in the Song. The fundamental meaning of this root is something like “pass through, slip through”. It can refer to escaping out of danger (connoting flight), but it also is used in the more concrete sense of bolting a door, by passing through a bar or beam. Quite possibly, there is a double-meaning here, encompassing both of these semantic domains; we might paraphrase the girl’s invitation as: “Slip away, my love, into the garden…and bolt the entrance behind you!”. That the aspect of bolting a door is intended becomes more likely when we consider that, in the earlier episode of 4:12ff, the garden enclosure had a latched entrance. The latch/lock bars all other young men from entering the garden (of the girl’s sexuality), except for her beloved, to whom the garden belongs—i.e., her sexuality is reserved for him alone.

If marriage (and a wedding) is alluded to here at the close of the Song (cf. above, and in the prior note on vv. 11-12), then conceivably these final lines could contain an implied reference to the lovers’ wedding night (cp. 3:7-10). This is not to say that the two have not spent the night together before—since that is rather clearly implied (or at least suggested) in earlier episodes in each movement of the Song. Still, the context of a wedding would be most appropriate for the conclusion to the Song. It must be admitted, however, that if the motif of a marriage/wedding is intended here in vv. 13-14, it is presented in a most vague and allusive manner.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum interpreted these final verses of the Song as an eschatological prophecy regarding the future and ultimate destiny of Israel. Verse 13 was understood as spoken by Solomon himself on behalf of the people, while verse 14 represented a prayer by the elders of Israel for the redemption of Israel:

“In that hour shall the Elders of the Assembly of Israel say: ‘Flee, my Beloved, Lord of the universe, from this polluted earth, and let your Presence dwell in the high heavens. But in time of trouble, when we pray to you, be like a gazelle which sleeps with one eye closed and one eye open, or like a young antelope which as it runs away looks behind. So look on us and regard our pains and afflictions from the high heavens, until the time when you will be pleased with us and redeem us and bring us up to the mountain of Jerusalem and there the priests will offer up before you incense of spices.”

Cf. Pope, pp. 696, 700

Ambrose understands that it is the young woman who is speaking in verse 13, calling to her beloved (Christ) as the one sitting in the gardens, with his companions being the Angels—and their garden-dwelling is to be identified with the heavenly Paradise. The woman (the Church) wishes to hear her beloved’s voice (the voice of Christ)—but she is only able to receive this voice, the heavenly conversation, once she has been fully purified and matured, bringing forth the “flowers of virtue, the sweetness of grace”. She further calls on him to “flee away” to her, indicating the help and mercy that Christ should provide to believers in their time of distress and persecution. The “mountains of spices” are the saints, and Christ takes refuge with them (cf. Psalm 87:1, cited together with 2 Cor 2:15), the prayers of the saints being like fragrant incense that ascends to heaven. Cf. Norris, pp. 295-6.

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).


September 9: Song of Songs 8:8-10

Song 8:8-10

Verses 8-10 represent the last of the three poetic units of this section (vv. 1-10). In some ways, it is the most difficult to explain within the poetic narrative of the section; however, it does share two basic themes with the other poems: (1) a reference to the lovers’ family members, implying social acceptance of their love; and (2) an allusion to their eventual marriage.

Verse 8

“(There is) a little sister for us,
and (there are) no two breasts for her.
What shall we do for our sister
on the day that (one) is speaking for her?”

By all accounts it is the family of the girl speaking in verses 8-9—specifically her brothers. Up to this point in the Song, the girl’s family has played a marginal and indirect role, and speaks for the first time here. Indeed, her brothers were mentioned only in 1:6 (“[the] sons of my mother”); elsewhere in the Song, the terms “brother” and “sister” are used by the lovers in reference to each other (as terms of endearment and affection).

The context indicates the speakers are her older brothers: “(There is) a little [hN`f^q=] sister for us” (i.e., “we have a little sister”). Their statement in the second line can be easily misunderstood: “(there are) no two breasts for her” (i.e., “she has no breasts”). It has been clear that the girl in the Song is sexually mature and active, so we must understand the brothers’ words according to a specific nuance of meaning. I believe that the wording is intended to express two ideas at the same time:

    • The girl is still quite young, having only just recently developed, ‘blossoming’ into her sexuality (cf. the context of 6:11, and the earlier note on that verse)
    • The girl’s family (and especially her brothers) still tend to think of her as a little girl, perhaps being unwilling to recognize (or accept) that she has now grown into a sexually mature young woman.

On the strong likelihood that this may reflect playful, teasing banter between the brothers and their little sister, cf. Fox, pp. 172-3.

In any case, the second couplet shows that they have thought about the possibility that a man may ask for their sister in marriage (which could happen even while she was still very young). This is expressed in a most straightforward fashion: “…on the day that (one) is speaking for her” (i.e. asking for her in marriage, when she is ‘spoken for’). The rhetorical question they ask is, “What shall we do (on that day)?”. The force of the question, in the context of vv. 1-10, serves to anticipate marriage between the two lovers, giving it something of a sense of immediacy, even though there is no indication that the young man has yet asked for her hand.

Verse 9

“If she (is) a wall, we will build upon her a buttress of silver;
and if a door, we will bind upon her a plank of cedar-wood.”

This is one of the more enigmatic verses of the Song, primarily because the specific force of the imagery—and what meaning there may be in the juxtaposition of a wall (hm*oj) and a hinged-door (tl#D#)—is unclear. The brothers’ dual-declaration can be explained two ways—either in terms of decoration or protection. Since the immediate context is of an impending marriage arrangement and wedding, it would seem to be the former (decoration) that is primarily in view. But what meaning is there in the distinction between the girl as a wall and as a door? As they both represent flat surfaces, it is possible that we have here a playful reference to the idea that the girl “has no breasts” (cf. above, and the cited discussion by Fox). The girl’s response in v. 10 (below) argues strongly in favor of this interpretation. If so, then the wall/door juxtaposition is simply an instance of synonymous parallelism—with both lines carrying essentially the same meaning. Perhaps the idea being expressed by the brothers (playfully, it seems) is that, even though she is their kid sister, they will do what they can to ornament her and dress her up so that she will be as attractive and mature-looking as possible for her intended husband.

The precise meaning of the noun hr*yf! remains uncertain, even though it occurs 6 other places in the Old Testament (Ezek 25:4; 46:23, etc). It seems to refer to a row of stone-work on the top of a tall structure, but beyond this it is difficult to be more precise. Here the ‘buttressing’ is done with silver, indicating the luxurious decoration and ornament that would be appropriate for a wedding, etc. The noun j^Wl refers to a flat, smooth board (or plank, tablet); the image here is of a door paneled with valuable planks of cedar-wood.

Verse 10

“I (am indeed) a wall, and my two breasts (are) like great (tower)s,
(and) so I was in his eyes like (one) having found completion!”

The girl is clearly responding to the words of her brothers in vv. 8-9, though I am not so certain that she is speaking to them directly. In any case, she is picking up on their comparison with a wall (hm*oj)—responding that, indeed she is a wall, but not a flat wall that needs buttressing (to hide the fact that ‘she has no breasts’). Rather, she declares that she actually has quite prominent breasts, shaped like “great (tower)s” (tolD*g+m!, cf. 4:4; 5:13; 7:5). In other words, she is very much a sexually developed young woman, however much her family may still wish to think of her as a little girl, or her brothers tease her to that effect. More importantly, her developed sexuality was a principal factor in the young man (her beloved) becoming attracted to her and falling in love with her. This is the sense of the second line here, and I thoroughly disagree with Fox’s proposal to emend the text to read “I was in your [plur.] eyes…”, which labors under the assumption that the girl is addressing her brothers directly.

The final phrase “(one) having found completion” is important because of how it continues a line of word-play that runs through the Song, involving the root <lv. The fundamental meaning of the root is “complete, fulfill”, but it can be used within a wide semantic range. The noun <olv* is often translated “peace”, but this represents just one specific connotation—others are “good will, favor, health, safety, security,” etc. I prefer to render it here is something more like the fundamental meaning of the root—viz., “completion”. Earlier, in the note on 7:1 [6:13], I discussed how the name/title tyM!l^Wv is best understood in a similar sense, “complete/perfect (one)”, derived from the same root. The girl is thus referring to the fact that her beloved considers her to be the “complete (one)” (cp. 5:2; 6:9), but also that the two lovers find completion and fulfillment in each other—a covenantal bond of love that will soon be realized, in a more permanent (and socially acceptable) way, through the bond of marriage (cf. above).

There is also wordplay with <olv*  in relation to the name hm)l)v= (i.e., Solomon); cf. verse 11, to be discussed in the next daily note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

These verses taxed the ingenuity of Jewish and Christian commentators in attempting to give to the lines an allegorical or typological interpretation. The Targum explained vv. 8-9 as the Angels speaking, asking what they can do to help their little sister (Israel) who lacks the worldly greatness (and military power) of the surrounding nations. The Midrash Rabbah explains the scene in a slightly different way: the princes (Angels) of the nations accusing the ‘little sister’ (Israel) of lewdness and idolatry; the Midrash thus preserves, in its own way, something of the sexual context of the original poem. The absence of breasts was further explained in terms of the righteous ones of Israel (Abraham, et al) who were faithful and observant of the Torah, even before they were old enough to know that they should do so (i.e., before they ‘had breasts’).

The references to building (and ornamenting a building) in verse 9 were explained by the Midrash in relation to the Temple. The ‘little sister’ refers to the Israelites who returned from exile, and who were thus lacking in certain respects (as also the Second Temple in the post-exilic period was also lacking in certain ways). The girl as a “door” (which people walk through) was, in a related sense, interpreted as the continuation of the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, even after the Temple was destroyed.

The girl’s breasts as “towers” (v. 10) was understood by the Targum and Midrash as referring to the strength that Israel finds through the Torah (and those who study/interpret the Torah). The Law functions as a wall—for safety and protection—which also gives strength to its inhabitants, making them “strong as a tower”. Through faithful observance of the Torah, Israel finds favor (<olv*) in the eyes of YHWH (her Beloved). Cf. Pope, pp. 679, 682-3, 686.

Bede understands that the young man (the Lord/Christ) is speaking in vv. 8-9, and that he is addressing the Synagogue (Jews) as the ‘little sister’ to Christians. At the same time, the reference is to the early years of the (Gentile) Church when it was still small and inexperienced (having ‘no breasts’ yet). In verse 9, the Lord declares (to the Synagogue) the care and nurturing that is appropriate for him to give to the Church (as his sister), ornamenting and buttressing her with instruction and help, through the Scriptures and commandments, the teaching of equipped ministers, and so forth.

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).


September 6: Song of Songs 8:5b

Song 8:5b-7
Verse 5b

“Under the apple-tree I stirred you—
there your mother came to be writhing (with) you,
there she was writhing and gave birth to you.”

The precise meaning of verse 5b remains enigmatic, as does its position within the section (vv. 1-10). As there is a general parallel with verses 1-2—with the motifs of mother and child-bearing—it is best to view these lines as the beginning of a new poetic unit (the second of three in the section). The main parallel involves the motif of the mother conceiving and giving birth to a child. In vv. 1-2 the reference is to the girl’s mother, while here it is to the boy’s mother—however, the basic image is the same. There are two primary thematic aspects to this image:

    • The sexual implication—of a boy and girl (father and mother as youths) making love, which eventually leads to pregnancy and childbirth
    • The two young lovers are following in the pattern of their own parents—who once were young lovers like themselves; this implicitly places the boy and girl within an established (and accepted) social setting, i.e., their love will find completion in marriage and child-bearing

The parallel with vv. 1-2 is even more precise (cf. the prior note), in the sense that, in several of the earlier episodes, there was a clear juxtaposition between a bedroom in the girl’s family house (in the city) and the outdoor garden/vineyard setting (cf. especially the framing of 5:2-6:3). Both locales symbolize the sexuality of the young woman, but the house/city setting also entails the social barriers that separate the lovers—and that require conformity of sexual love to social law and custom. It is only within the outdoor garden setting that the lovers can be together with perfect freedom.

The apple-tree represents an abbreviated form of the garden/field/vineyard motif—a specific location (where love-making can occur) within the garden (orchard) setting. On apples as a specific sexual symbol in Near Eastern poetry, cf. the earlier note on 2:3; the image also occurs in 2:5 (cf. note) and 7:8. Some commentators would hold that j^WPT^ properly refers to the apricot, rather than the apple, but this scarcely changes the meaning of the image or its use as a sexual symbol.

The verb rWu (I) is the same as occurs in the double prohibition in the recurring refrain of 2:7; 3:5, and 8:4. The basic meaning is to stir—either in the specific context of waking from sleep, or in the more general sense of being stirred to action. Here the form is from the Polel stem (related to the Piel), used in a causative sense much like the Hiphil stem—i.e., to stir someone (awake), to rouse them from sleep; the second occurrence of the verb in the refrain also is a Polel form. The meaning of the verb here is informed by its use in the refrain, where it can be understood in two different ways: (1) stirring awake sexual love, or (2) disturbing/interrupting the love-making. Here, however, it is specifically the young man (the girl’s lover) whom she “stirs”. There are three ways this can be explained:

    • The simple, natural meaning of rousing the young man from sleep, in the general context of the two lovers waking (after having spent the night together)
    • She is disturbing/interrupting his sleep, perhaps because there is something important she has to say to him (vv. 6-7)
    • It is a reference to the ‘awakening’ of sexual love and experience—i.e., the couple makes love (or has just made love)

The echo of the recurring refrain suggests that the latter aspect is primarily in view, though all three aspects would seem to apply quite well to the episode in context.

There can be no doubt that lovemaking (and sexual intercourse) is being referenced here. This is clear from the overall context of 7:8-8:5, but is further confirmed by the associated image of the mother becoming pregnant—in the exact same setting (under the ‘apple tree’) where the two lovers are now sleeping together. The verb lb^j* can refer to both conceiving a child (becoming pregnant) and giving birth. The fundamental meaning of the verb, “twist”, apparently is meant, in such a context, to describe the twisting and writhing of a woman in labor. The double use of the verb in the second and third lines is probably intended to distinguish between the two stages of conception and labor in the process of childbirth.

The implication that the couple has spent the night together (and has made love) can be troubling to many readers, since there is no real indication anywhere in the passage (or the wider context of 7:8ff) that the two are married. The moral and ethical implications of this aspect of the Song will be dealt with in a separate article once we have reached the end of the notes. However, even though the lovers may not be married in this scene, the passage does anticipate a marriage, though indirectly, much as we saw in the previous unit. This will be discussed in the next daily note on vv. 6-7.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash continue their line of interpretation for v. 5a (cf. the previous note). Upon their resurrection from the dead (i.e., coming up ‘out of the desert’), the righteous people of Israel will awaken, like newborn children, resembling their appearance when they first arrived at Sinai to meet YHWH and receive the Torah. “At that hour Zion, mother of Israel, shall bear her children and Jerusalem shall receive her captive children”. Likewise, the Midrash Rabbah continues the historical interpretation of the desert motif, as referring to the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai. The “apple tree” was specifically related to mount Sinai, with the Torah being given in the month of Sivan, when the apple-tree produces its fruit. Cf. Pope, p. 665.

Theodoret explains v. 5b in light of the earlier reference to the apple-tree in 2:3. The scene in that earlier passage (“in his shadow I rejoiced”) was only a “shadow of the good things to come”, things that are now described in the present verse—i.e., conferred on believers at the present time. He draws upon Paul’s famous statement in 1 Cor 13:12, contrasting our obscured/shadowed vision with the clarity with which we will see, looking at Christ our Beloved “face to face”. The awakening under the apple-tree is understood not of the young man (Christ) but of the girl (believers), referring to our ‘new birth’ from our ‘mother’ (the Spirit) once we came up from the ‘dead’ (i.e., out of the desert), as symbolized for us by our baptism. Cf. Norris, p. 281f.

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).


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).

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).

August 31: Song of Songs 7:12-14

Song 7:12-14 [11-13]

As mentioned in the previous note, the young woman completes the sentence of the young man in v. 10, joining her song to his (as in an operatic love-duet). However, the girl’s song properly begins here with verse 12, framed by the two references to her beloved as “my love” (yd!oD).

“Come, my love, we will go out (into) the field,
spend the night among the henna-bushes;
we will go early to the vineyards—
we will see if the vine has sprouted,
(if) the blossom has opened,
(if) the pomegranates sparkle—
there I will give (all) my love to you.
The love-fruits give (out their) breath,
and at our openings (are) all precious (fruit)s—
newly (awake) and also sleeping,
my love, I have hidden (them here) for you.”

Translation note: The imperfect verb forms in vv. 12-13 (“we will…”) can be understood as having jussive or cohortative force (“let us…”); the latter rendering can be substituted into the translation above, with no loss of meaning, being largely a matter of translation style and preference.

This song echoes the earlier declaration by the girl in 6:11, where she states that she has “gone down” to the garden, exploring the newly blossoming fields and vineyards of spring-time. A quite similar idea is present in 2:10-14, where it is the young man who calls on the girl to go away with him into the fields, etc. Both of these earlier episodes inform the scene here. As noted on numerous occasions, the garden and vineyard serve primarily in the Song as symbols of the girl’s sexuality—as well as, secondarily, referring to the enjoyment of sexual pleasure by the two lovers. In 2:8-17, we are dealing with a romantic/sexual liaison between the two, and here there is a similar scene, only more explicit and suggestive of sexual intercourse. The latter aspect was already highlighted in the young man’s song (vv. 8-10a), as well as by the union of the two voices in v. 10 (cf. above).

The girl calls on her beloved (“my love”, yd!oD), to “go out” (vb ax*y`) with her into the field—meaning out into the open country at spring-time. The second line could be translated “we will lodge in the villages”, but this is inappropriately mundane for the context. The noun rp*K* can mean “village”, but there is an identical word that refers to a fragrant plant, usually identified with the cypress or henna-bush (cf. 4:13); the latter is clearly intended here. The verb /Wl (or /y!l) denotes spending the night in a place, and does not have any sexual connotation per se. However, the context clearly suggests that the two lovers are to spend the night together—i.e., sleeping together (in a sexual sense). Probably there is a bit of wordplay here, playfully indicating that the two will spend the night out in the fields just like one might lodge in a village house.

The sprouting/blossoming of the grape-vine and the pomegranate are essentially repeated from 6:11. In my prior note on that verse, I interpreted the scene as an expression of the girl’s blossoming sexuality—her journey being one of exploration as she becomes more and more aware of her sexual maturity. Here, she invites the young man to explore this with her. They both together will see whether the the vine and other plants have sprouted, whether the blossoms have bloomed, etc. Together, they will thus be exploring each other’s sexuality. The idea of “going early” (vb <k^v*) to the vineyard likely has a double meaning: (1) it indicates a time early in the season of growth (early spring), and (2) it suggests an eagerness to reach the garden/vineyard locale as soon as possible. The root <kv often denotes rising early in the morning and doing work or making preparations, etc; however, here, almost certainly the significance is more abstract and figurative, as I have indicated.

Their checking to see if the fruit-plants have blossomed, etc, could possibly include the further symbolic meaning of determining whether the ‘time is right’ for a consummation of their love (through sexual intercourse). Cf. further on this, briefly, below.

When they reach the garden locale, and if the time is ripe/right, then the girl declares that there (<v*, in emphatic position) she will give all her love to the young man. The plural form yd^D) essentially means “my expressions/gestures of love”, or, collectively, “my love-making”. In order to maintain the wordplay precisely, I have translated the plural here exactly as the singular yd!D), “my love”.

Another bit of similar wordplay is involved with the plural <ya!d*WD, which is presumably derived from the same root dwd denoting “love, beloved”. I have thus translated it here as “love-fruits”, i.e., fruits or plants which serve as an aphrodisiac. It is generally assumed by most commentators that the mandrake (or mandragora) plant is being referenced; however, to translate flatly as “mandrakes” would be inappropriate, instantly losing the important wordplay. The other main occurrence of the word is in Genesis 30:14-16 (cf. also Jer 24:1), where the context also indicates that it refers to a plant serving as an aphrodisiac. Yet, in the Song, the sense is not that the lovers will use this plant to aid in their love-making; rather, it simply makes explicit what is otherwise implied in the other garden-passages of the Song—namely, that the flowers and fruit, etc, are symbols of sexual love and enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The pleasure of these ‘garden-fruits’ is first encountered through their fragrant scent (lit. something blown, “breath,” j^yr@ [par. j^Wr]). It was through the fragrance of the garden, wafted by the wind, that the girl invites the boy into the garden of her sexuality in 4:16; much the same idea occurs here.

All of these fruits are most precious, meaning prized and delectable, etc; the same idiom, using the substantive dg#m#, occurred earlier in 4:13, 16 (cf. the earlier note). These fruits lie at the “openings” (plur. of jt^P#) of the two lovers. While I have translated this noun quite literally (primarily to capture the wordplay with the blossoms “opening” [vb jt^P*] in v. 13), it primarily refers to a door or other entrance. This could imply that the two lovers are together in the room of a house (cf. on the possible meaning of <yr!p*K= as “villages” in v. 12 above); however, the context clearly indicates that the place where they are to spend the night (sleeping together) is out in the open country—right there among the blossoming fields and vineyards. Most likely, the implied image is of a sheltered and secluded spot, surrounded by the fragrant and delectable plants; these fruits are thus right upon the door. There may also be a euphemistic sexual allusion with the idea of an “opening” —i.e., referring to a bodily orifice. The young man’s “hand” going through the ‘opening’ of the door to the girl’s room (in 5:4, cf. the earlier note) likely entailed a similar sort of sexual entendre (cf. also in 2:9).

In describing the ‘fruits’ of her sexuality, the young woman further characterizes them as <yn]v*y+-<G~ <yv!d*j&, which would be translated rather flatly as “new (thing)s (and) also old (thing)s”. If all that is meant is “new and old”, then it would simply serve as a summary expression (merism) referring to all kinds of sexual pleasure and lovemaking. However, the root /vy fundamentally refers, not to something being old, but to someone sleeping. Indeed, the plural adjective <yn]v*y+ here is virtually identical to the earlier <yn]v@y+ in v. 11 (according to the MT); and, if the MT is correct there (cf. the discussion in the prior note), then it is likely that <ynvy here is meant as a bit of wordplay echoing the earlier reference. For this reason, I have translated the expression as “newly (awake) and also sleeping”, which would fit the context of the lovers spending the night together, experiencing each others delight, both asleep and awake (cf. the upcoming discussion on 8:5).

In any case, the girl concludes her song by declaring that all of this love, all of the sexual delights to be experienced, she has hidden away (like a treasure, vb /p^x*) for her beloved. The implication is that she has hidden them away in the ‘garden locale’ where the two are to be united. The statement further implies that these are things which the two lovers have not yet experienced together, but it would be reading far too much into the verse to conclude that there had been no sexual intercourse between them in the previous episodes of the Song. The moral/ethical aspect of the relationship between marriage and sexuality, as understood and expressed within the Song, will be discussed in some detail once we have completed the notes on the text.

August 30: Song of Songs 7:10b-11

Song 7:10b-14
Verse 10b-11 [9b-10]

As I mentioned in the previous note, verse 10 joins together the song of the young man (vv. 8-10a) with that of the young woman (vv. 10b-14). This is an effective and appealing way of depicting, in poetic terms, the union of the two lovers. The girl finishes the boy’s sentence, much as in an operatic love-duet; one is reminded, for example, of how the two lead singers complete each other’s lines in the climax to the great second act love-duet in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Here is how this plays out in verse 10:

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

The portion in angle-brackets represents a textual and interpretive difficulty. The final expression, as it reads in the MT, is “lips of (the) sleeping (one)s,” “lips of (the one)s asleep” (<yn]v@y+ yt@p=c!). This expression makes more sense depending on how one understands the prior verb bbd (participle bb@oD). The verb only occurs here in the Old Testament, so its meaning remains in dispute. The cognate bbd in Aramaic suggests a meaning like “murmur”, while Arabic dabba, “move (gently)” would also be applicable; the meaning of the phrase could thus be something like “stirring (the) lips of (the one)s sleeping” (cf. Pope, p. 640).

However, another line of interpretation would explain the root bbd in terms of the later occurrence of the verb bb^D* in Mishnaic Hebrew, where it means “flow, drip”, similar in meaning to the comparable bWD in Aramaic (= bWz in Hebrew). This makes for a better fit in relation to the image of wine in v. 10a, but it is not clear how it would apply to the idea of “sleepers”. For this reason, Fox (p. 162f) suggests emending MT <yn]v@y+ to <yn]v* (plur. of the adjective “scarlet, crimson”). While this would be appropriate as a description of the girl’s lips (“flowing [from] scarlet lips”), there is admittedly no manuscript support for such an emendation. The translation in the LXX and the Syriac Peshitta assumes a reading ynvw ytpc (“my lips and my teeth”). This solution is most attractive, since it leads to a reading of the phrase that is simple and direct: “…flowing (from) my lips and teeth”.

There is no easy answer to this textual problem. Possibly, there is some dual-meaning wordplay involved surrounding the fundamental meaning of the verbal root [b]bd / b[w]d. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea manuscripts provide no help, since the two fragmentary (surviving) manuscripts preserve the text only up through 7:7[6]. I tentatively follow the MT, rendering verse 10b in the following sense:

“…going to my love with smoothness,
flowing (from) lips (even while) asleep.”

It may be important to the poetic scene to preserve this allusion to the young lovers sleeping together (to be discussed further in the note on 8:5b [and preceding]).

Having decided, however reluctantly, on a rendering of these lines, here is vv. 10b-11 in context:

“…going to my love with smoothness,
flowing (from) lips (even while) asleep.
I belong to my love, and over me (is) his longing.”

The wording of v. 11 echoes the earlier declaration in 2:16 and 6:3. The young woman expresses one side of this declaration of mutual belonging—a kind of covenant bond between the two lovers. This is a key theme that will be further developed in the final section of the Song (chap. 8). This single aspect, or direction, of the belonging is significant, because it suggests the girl’s willingness, her ‘invitation’, for the young man to unite with her. Recall the imagery in 4:12ff, where the ‘garden’ of the girl’s sexuality has a latched entrance—which temporarily separates the two lovers, until the girl lets (invites) him in (v. 16). Her sexuality—i.e., the garden and its central spring/fountain—is reserved for her beloved (and no other young man); his ‘seal’ of ownership is effectively stamped on the garden (4:12, and note the wording in 4:16-5:1). This same idea is expressed here, where the girl states, unconditionally, that she belongs to her beloved.

The other side of the declaration of mutual-belonging is expressed in the phrase that follows: “and over me (is) his longing” (otq*WvT= yl^u*w+). The preposition lu^ has a relatively wide semantic range—primarily, “upon, over, against”. This basic meaning, understood in a concrete sense, could very well allude here to sexual intercourse. In my view, this is, indeed, the context of the scene; however, in this particular line, the force of the preposition should probably be understood in the more general sense of direction or purpose: i.e., his longing is for me, is directed toward me. The noun hq*WvT= (“longing”) is used in a clear sexual context in Gen 3:16 (the only other occurrence being in Gen 4:7), where the meaning (and phrasing) is nearly identical to what we find here. In that famous reference, it is the woman’s longing that is directed to the man, while here the opposite is declared. The fact that the young man’s longing and (sexual) desire is directed completely toward his beloved demonstrates that he, too, belongs to her.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Jewish commentators struggled to understand v. 10b no less than modern scholars (cf. above). The Midrash Rabbah explained the “lips of the sleepers” in terms of the ancestors and other faithful/righteous ones of Israel who have died. God calls the angels to go down and ‘kiss’ the lips of these faithful ancestors, especially those who endured suffering and persecution. The movement of the sleepers’ lips suggested that the lips of the dead quiver in the grave, a  tradition being cited regarding the movement of the lips of a deceased scholar (cf. b. Yebamot 96b-97a; Sanhedrin 90b).

The Targum applied verse 11 to the holy city of Jerusalem—i.e., the longing of YHWH for it, which prompts Him to make it the dwelling-place for His Presence. The Midrash explained the “longing” (hq*WvT) in the opposite direction—viz., of Israel’s yearning for YHWH. The evil aspect of desire, associated with the word hq*WvT in the Genesis references (cf. above) was also noted; but, on the whole, the Jewish commentators tended to downplay the (negative) sexual aspect. Cf. Pope, pp. 642-3.

Ambrose examines the three occurrences of the formula of belonging in the Song (2:16; 6:3; 7:11). The first instance refers to the soul’s ‘initial schooling’ in the ways of God, the second emphasizes the soul’s progress, while the third (here in v. 11) describes the soul’s perfection, drawing upon the image of the palm (tree) in context (as a symbol of victory). Both Ambrose and Apponius follow the LXX in its rendering of hq*WvT as “turning” —i.e., “and his turning [e)pistrofh/] is toward me”. Because the girl (the soul) offers herself so completely to her Beloved (Christ), he now turns and offers himself completely to her. Apponius gave these words a Christological interpretation, explaining them in terms of the incarnation of Christ—i.e., his turning to become manifest in the soul of Mary. This reflects an early example of the Christian tendency to understand the young woman of the Song as representing the Virgin Mary.

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).


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).


August 26: Song of Songs 7:2-7 (continued)

Song 7:2-7, continued

(For verses 2-5a [1-4a], cf. the previous daily note.)

Verse 5b [4b]—Eyes and Nose

“Your two eyes (are like the) pools in Hešbôn
upon (the) gate of ‘Daughter of Rabbîm;’
your nose (is) like a great (peak) of the White (mountains),
looking down (on the) face of Dammešek.”

Describing eyes as ‘limpid pools’ is quite natural and common, emphasizing both the clear whiteness and wetness of them (cf. the earlier imagery in 5:12). Moreover, the word for “eye” (/y]u^) is identical with the (presumably related) word for “spring, fountain” (the two words may derived from separate, but cognate, roots); so there is a bit of wordplay involved. The mention of Heshbon—usually identified with the site of Tell „esbân in the highlands of Transjordan—adds a bit of geographic color, as does the reference to Damascus in the second couplet. If the ‘pools of Heshbon’ were especially famous or noteworthy, that particular detail has been lost to us; however, excavation of the 10th century B.C. site did reveal a significant (20+ foot-deep) water reservoir.

There is unquestionably some wordplay involved in the expression <yB!r^-tB^, and it is impossible to choose between flatly transliterating it as a  place-name (as most translations) do, and thus losing its meaning, or to translate it and preserve its meaning (but then lose the geographic detail). I have chosen to combine the two approaches, rendering it above as “Daughter of Rabbîm.” Apparently, this was the name of a gate in Heshbon, the literal meaning of which would presumably be something like “daughter of the great (one)s” —at any rate, that is the sense that the Song is playing on here, alluding to the epithet of the girl as “daughter of a noble” in v. 2.

Comparing the girl’s nose to a mountain prominence may seem inappropriate, but it is really no different that describing her neck as a “great (tower)”. The same locative word lD*g+m!, “place of great (height)”, is used here, presumably in reference to a “great peak” of the Lebanon range. Throughout the Song, the Lebanon mountains recur as an important image, because it combines together a number of key motifs: majesty and height, the whiteness of its snowy-peaks, and its famous cedar-wood notable both as a luxury item and for its fragrance. The latter detail is particularly significant, since the association with fragrant spices is also established via the word-play between the Lebanon (/onb*l=, l®»¹nôn) and the word for “frankincense” (hn*obl=, l®»ônâ)—both deriving from a root denoting “whiteness”. Probably the straightness of the girl’s nose is being particularly emphasized, but also how it gives a proud and distinguished (i.e., noble, majestic) appearance to her face as a whole. The geographic span from the Transjordan to Syria may also allude to the sense of majesty the young man ascribes to his beloved’s beauty—according it a kind of transcendent, cosmic royalty.

Verse 6 [5]

“(Indeed) your head upon you (is) like the fruitful (mountain),
and (the) dangling hair of your head like the (royal) purple—
a king is held fast in the (flow)ing locks!”

The mountain imagery from v.5b continues here, comparing the girl’s very head with the “fruitful (mountain)” (lm#r=K^). As with the Lebanon range, there is a play on the literal meaning of the Karmel (Carmel) mountain; and it is best to translate the term, rather than transliterating it in English as a proper name (where the meaning is lost). The name lm#r=K^ literally refers to a fruitful and fertile place. Such a fertile mountain peak is fitting for a description of the top of the girl’s head. The ‘fertile growth’ alluded to, apart from its general sexual connotation, refers here specifically to the girl’s rich locks of lush, flowing hair. The hair is hanging or dangling (hL*D^) down from her head, dark and luxuriant as though it had been dyed with the royal purple. Playing on this imagery, the young man adds a third short line to the couplet, exclaiming how a ‘king’ (i.e., he himself) has been captured (“held [fast],” vb rs^a*) by the girl’s flowing locks.

Some commentators would include the noun El#m# as part of the second line—i.e., “…like the purple of (the) king”. However, this does not fit metrically; it is better to keep El#m# as the subject of the short concluding line, pivoting conceptually on the idea of the royal purple. In the world of their love, the boy and girl are ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other, with their love-making having a kind of majestic, royal quality. The reference to the girl as a “noble daughter” in v. 2 [1] (cf. the previous note) follows this same line of creative, playful expression. Note also the wordplay in the expression <yB!r^-tB^ above.

Verse 7 [6]

“How beautiful you are and how pleasant you are,
(my) love, (you) daughter of delights!”

The praise song ends as it began (in v. 2 [1]), with an exclamation with the particle hm*—an interrogative pronoun (“what”), rendered here in an exclamatory sense (“how…!”). In verse 2, the exclamation referred specifically to the beauty of the girl’s feet, but now the young man makes his (dual) exclamation in a comprehensive sense, referring to the entire beauty and attractiveness of his beloved. This double-reference has two layers of meaning. On the one hand, it relates to the narrative context of the praise-song, explaining how the girl’s beauty is truly perfect, far beyond the attractiveness of a mere dancing girl (cf. the prior note on v. 1b). On the other hand, it deftly combines the two aspects of the praise song—namely, the girl’s physical beauty, and her sexual appeal. The first aspect is indicated by the verb hp*y` (“be beautiful, fair”), the second by <u^n` (“be pleasant, sweet, delightful”).

In conclusion, he calls her hb*h&a^ (“love”), which is essentially synonymous with the more frequent doD—both terms, in the context of the Song, mean “beloved, loved one”, i.e., the one whom I love. Perhaps the regular verbal aspect of the root bha here alludes specifically to the act of love-making between the two—something which takes on greater prominence in the next unit of the Song (7:8-14).

MT <yg]Wnu&T^B^ (“with the delights” [?]) should instead be divided into the construct expression <yg]Wmu&T^ tB^ (“daughter of delights”), as many commentators recognize (supported by the Peshitta Syriac and Greek Aquila versions). It essentially means something like “(you) delightful girl”, but the formal expression carries important echoes of the earlier “daughter of the great ones” (v. 5) and “daughter of a noble” (v. 2). Again these references to nobility/royalty are part of the symbolic make-believe world of love-play and love-making, and this comes very much into focus here at the close of the praise-song (and the section [6:4-7:7] as a whole). Calling her “daughter of delights” anticipates the more explicit imagery and references to love-making in the following section (7:8-14), which we will begin discussing in the next note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The imagery of the praise-song in vv. 2-7 was interpreted, e.g. by the Targum and Midrash, in a manner quite similar to the approach taken with the earlier waƒf songs. For example, the feet and legs in v. 2 were explained by the Targum as representing the feet of Israel when her people faithfully appear before YHWH in observance of the holy festivals, while the loins (thighs) symbolize the devout children who are born from them. The Midrash similarly understood the “feet” in relation to Passover and the festival of Sukkot, with the sandal-latches referring to the completion of the people’s festival duties (which will lead to blessing and prosperity during the year). The thighs also suggested the specific association with the rite of circumcision, and the blessings of health, etc, which follow from it for Israel.

The Targum and Midrash each interpret the ‘navel’ in v. 3 as representing the head of the Sanhedrin, which also stands as the religious center for Israel in its study and observance of the Torah; the stomach/belly extends the motif to include all those sages who surround him in the Sanhedrin. The two breasts of the girl follow the interpretation of 4:5, while the Targum here specifically emphasizes the breasts as symbolic of the two Messiahs (son of David, and son of Ephraim) who will come to redeem Israel.

The mention of Mt. Carmel in v. 6 naturally brought to mind the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), while the purple color represents the exaltation (restoration) of the lowly but pious ones in Israel. The Midrash interestingly explains the ‘captive king’ of the verse as referring to YHWH (the King), in that He has bound Himself (by oath and the covenant) to make His presence manifest in the midst of Israel. Cf. Pope, pp. 616ff.

Theodoret typically interprets the girl’s body parts in an ethical-religious sense—the feet are praised because they “walk the straight path along the royal way”, the thighs signify practical virtue and the moral awareness of believers as they walk along the way; the navel (in terms of the umbilical cord) represents the sin and idolatry that is ‘cut off’, while the belly, depicted as a heap of grain, symbolizes the “storehouses of the soul full of hidden mysteries”. Christians such as Theodoret had to work hard to fit the various geographic details (“pools of Heshbon,” et al) into such an allegorical and ethical framework, giving explanations that sometimes verge on the preposterous. However, occasionally commentators might be aided by a peculiarity of translation in the Greek, such as when Aquila took /obv=j# (µešbôn) as a common noun (cf. Eccl 7:25, 27; 9:10) and translated it e)n e)pilogismw| (i.e., “in thought, contemplation”, cp. Sirach 27:5; 42:3); this allowed Theodoret to interpret the idiom of the pools as “reservoirs of an abundance of godly thoughts”. Cf. Norris, pp. 256ff.

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).

August 25: Song of Songs 7:2-7

Song 7:2-7

The poem in 7:2-7 [1-6] is another waƒf praise-song, the third such unit overall in the Song. In it, the speaker praises the beauty (and sexual appeal) of the beloved, focusing on one body part at a time. The first such waƒf song (using the term from Arabic love poetry tradition) was in 4:1-7 (by the young man), with the lines from vv. 1b-3 repeated in 6:5b-7; the second (by the young woman) was in 5:10-16. That praise-song by the young woman was set within the dramatic context of 5:2-6:3, essentially occurring as a response to the question by the “daughters of Jerusalem” in 5:9. Similarly, this current praise-song must be understood within the narrative of the section (6:4-7:7), in response to the call by the male youths (parallels to the “daughters of Jerusalem”) in 7:1a. As discussed in the previous note, while the protagonist agrees with their assessment of the girl’s physical beauty, their inclination to look at her as they might an attractive dancing-girl (v. 1b) is unworthy of his beloved. The transcendent perfection of her beauty is the focus of his praise-song.

In this particular waƒf, the praise of the beloved’s body parts proceeds in the opposite direction—beginning down at the feet and ending up at the head.

Verse 2 [1]—Feet and Legs

“How beautiful are your feet with (their) latch-straps,
O daughter of a noble!
The turns of your thighs (are) like (precious) ornaments,
(the) work of a steady (design)er’s hands.”

The initial line, with its opening interrogative pronoun, could perhaps be translated as, “What is the beauty (of) your feet…?”, i.e., “how should I compare them?” This question (rendered as an exclamation above) establishes the subsequent comparisons of the praise-song. The latch-straps (<yl!u*n=) of the girl’s sandals only add to the visual appeal and sensuousness of her small feet.

Her thighs are literally turning (noun qWMj^, from a root meaning “turn”)—either in the sense of how they move, or the sensuous curve of their shape. Probably the latter is meant, but in any case it continues the conceptual word-play of this section, utilizing the motif or theme of turning (cf. the previous note on v. 1 [6:13]). The curvature of her thighs is smooth and perfect, like the work of a skilled craftsman of jewelry, etc. The closing phrase literally reads “(the) work of (the) hands of a steady (crafts)man [/M*a*]”.

The expression “daughter of a noble” is part of a recurring theme throughout the Song—that the love between the young man and young woman has a royal quality to it. In the world of their love, the two are like great nobles, even ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other. Here the epithet emphasizes the majesty of the girl’s beauty (cf. earlier in 6:8-10), beyond that of any mere ‘dancing-girl’ (7:1b). It also plays on the reference (however enigmatic) to the noble young men in 6:12. Perhaps the sense here is that the girl, his beloved, is just as noble (if not far more so) than they.

Verse 3 [2]—Stomach/Belly/Pelvis

“(Below) your navel (there is) a rounded bowl—
may it not (ever) lack the (spic)ed wine!
Your belly (is like) a heap of (fine) wheat,
fenced around with lilies.”

The noun rr#v* occurs only here, but the equivalent form (> rv)) elsewhere in the Old Testament properly refers to the (place of the) umbilical cord—i.e., the navel (cf. Ezek 16:4, and note also Prov 3:8). However, it is unlikely that here it is simply a reference to the navel per se; rather, the navel serves as a point of reference for the two distinct areas of the body being described: (3a) the area below the navel down between the thighs, and (3b) the area above the navel (i.e., the “belly”, /f#B#) up to the breasts. Pope (p. 617) notes the cognate Arabic term surr, but also the similar word sirr (“secret”), which can serve as a euphemism for the female sexual organs (as well as for sexual intercourse). This is on the right track in terms of the meaning here, but Pope’s translation of rr#v) as “vulva” is inappropriately precise. In my view, v. 3a refers to the entire area, the surface from below the navel down to the sexual organs. This area is describes as a “rounded bowl”, that is, with convex or slightly hollowed shape. The noun /G`a^ refers to a small bowl used for mixing, etc (Exod 24:6; Isa 22:24), with cognate terms occurring throughout the ancient Near East (Akkadian agannu, Egyptian °ikn, Greek aggo$, cf. Pope, p. 618).

As in v. 2 [1], the first couplet here should be read as an exclamation, particularly the negative exclamation of the second line, “may it not (ever) lack the (spic)ed) wine!”, governed by the negative particle la^. The noun gz#m# occurs only here in the Old Testament, but the variant form Es#m# occurs in Psalm 75:9[8], along with the verb Es^m* in Isa 5:22; 19:14; Psalm 102:10[9]; Prov 9:2, 5. It refers to the mixing of wine—sometimes understood in the sense of wine being mixed with water, but here, most certainly, the reference is to wine that is mixed with spices (“spiced wine”). The “bowl” of this region of the girl’s body thus is a mixing bowl, where the spiced wine (to be drunk) can be found. This is important in terms of the overall imagery of the Song, and explains the force of the exclamation. Throughout the Song, “spices” serve as a fundamental symbol of (female) sexuality, and of sexual pleasure.

The comparison of the “belly”—that is, the area above the navel—with a heap of wheat may seem strange, but the principal idea would seem to be of a curved surface that is soft to the touch. Perhaps the tawny hue of the wheat may also be meant to describe the color of the girl’s skin. This ‘wheat’ is fenced (or hedged) around (vb gWs II) by lilies (<yn]v^ov). The blossoming lily-flower is another basic sexual image in the Song, occurring rather frequently (2:1-2, 16; 4:5; 5:13; 6:2-3). The grazing/eating of the flowers (or of ‘plucking’ them) symbolizes the enjoyment of sexual pleasure—spec. of the young man enjoying the beauty and sexual charms of his beloved. For the specific identity of the flower /v*ov, and the background/meaning of the motif, cf. the earlier note on 2:1-2.

Verse 4 [3]—Breasts

“(Your) two breasts (are) like two young stags,
twins of a gazelle… .”

This couplet is identical with 4:5, with the final phrase omitted (“…grazing among (the) lilies”). It may have been omitted because of the reference to lilies in the previous line. At the same time, the shortened couplet could help to explain the following truncated couplet in v. 5[4]a, which may have been shortened to give poetic balance. For a discussion of this verse, cf. the earlier note on 4:5. That prior praise-song ends, in rather tantalizing fashion, at the breasts of the girl; here, the breasts are set at the mid-point of the song—yet in both songs they are central to the sexuality of the imagery.

Verse 5a [4a]—Neck

“Your neck (is) like a great (tower) of ivory-tooth.”

It seems like a second line has dropped out here, and that may indeed be the case. On the other hand, as noted above, it may have been truncated to balance the shortened couplet in v. 4[3]. If so, then rhythmically vv. 4-5a belong together:

“(Your) two breasts (are) like two young stags,
twins of a gazelle;
Your neck like a great (tower) of ivory-tooth.”

The comparison of the girl’s neck with a tower echoes the earlier praise-song (4:4, cf. the earlier note), emphasizing its long and elegant shape. The additional detail here of “the tooth” (i.e., elephant tusk, ivory), brings out the smoothness of its surface as much as its bright/white gleam.

(The remainder of the praise-song will be discussed in the next daily note, along with a brief summary of some Jewish and Early Christian interpretation of the imagery involved.)

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