Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 39 (Part 2)

Psalm 39, continued

Verses 7-11 [6-12]

Verse 7 [6]

“Indeed, a man walks about in a shadow,
indeed, (in) emptiness he roars,
he heaps up, but does not know who will gather.”

This tricolon (3+2+3) continues the Wisdom-theme from verses 5-6 [4-5] (cf. the discussion in the previous study), emphasizing the brevity and transitory nature of human existence. Especially when compared to YHWH, human beings are nothing, a mere emptiness (lb#h#). The point being made here in v. 7 [6] has to do with all the activity and work a person performs during his/her life. Implicit in this is the idea of human ambition and earthly prestige, and how vain they are in the long run. This is a common theme in Wisdom literature, and it is emphasized here in the Psalm.

Human beings “walk about” (vb El^h* in the reflexive Hitpael stem) and are “in an uproar” (vb hm^h*, lit. “roar, cry out [loud]”), toiling, struggling, and fighting for earthly goods and gain. This is done “in a shadow” (<l#x#B=) and is characterized as “emptiness” (lb#h#). It is possible to read the initial preposition B= of <l#x#B= in an emphatic sense, i.e., “truly (as) a shadow”, emphasizing how a human being (especially with respect to human ambition and pride) exists only as a mere ‘shadow.’

The third line gives more clarity to the idea that humankind only works in vain to pile up earthly goods and riches. One’s lifespan is so short and uncertain that a person may “heap up” (vb rb^x*) wealth without really thinking about what will become of it when he/she dies—who will “gather” it (vb [s^a*) in the end. The final mem (<-) is usually read as a plural suffix (“will gather them [i.e., the heaped up riches]”), but it may simply be an enclitic particle (to fill out the rhythm of the line). Dahood (p. 241) also suggests the possibility that the MT has mispointed a participle (spelled defectively), <p!s=a).

Verse 8 [7]

“And now, what do I expect, my Lord?
My waiting—it is for you!”

Admitting as he does the shortness and transitory nature of human life, the Psalmist declares to YHWH that his focus is not on earthly goods or prestige, but on God Himself. There is possibly a play on words in the first line with the verb hw`q*. The most common root hwq means “wait [for], expect, hope”, but there is a separate root hwq with the fundamental meaning “gather, collect”, which would fit the context of v. 7 [6]. While many human beings are focused on gathering riches, etc, the Psalmist is only interested in gathering the things of God.

At the same time, hwq with the meaning “wait [for], expect” is clearly related in sense to the root ljy in the second line, which is synonymous in meaning (“wait, expect, hope”). The ultimate hope and expectation of the Psalmist is objectified by the noun tl#j#oT (“waiting”). His declaration to YHWH is that “my waiting is for you.”

Verse 9 [8]

“From all (those) breaking (against) me, snatch me away,
do not set me (as) a disgrace (before a) fool!”

The MT points yuvp as yu^v*P=, which suggests that it is the Psalmist’s sins that are in view. In this context, however, it is unlikely that the root uvp is being used in that sense, since its fundamental meaning relates to “breaking” a bond of faith (or of friendship, loyalty, the covenant with YHWH, etc). This more properly characterizes the wicked, than the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). I tentatively follow Kraus (p. 416) in repointing yuvp as a verbal noun (participle) with 1st person object suffix—i.e., yu^v=P), which serves as a shorthand for the expression yl^u* <yu!v=P), or something similar (cf. GKC §116i).

The Psalmist’s prayer thus echoes that of 38:12-17 [11-16], in which the wicked oppress and taunt the ailing protagonist; a similar scenario is alluded to in v. 2 [1] of the current Psalm as well. The wicked person is characterized as a “fool” (lb*n`), as we find frequently in Wisdom tradition. The folly of such a person is indicated here in verse 7 [6] (cf. above).

Verse 10 [9]

“I was bound, (and) did not open my mouth—
(Oh) that you would (now) do (this for me)!”

The Psalmist reiterates how he has remained silent, even in the face of taunts from the wicked. This also reflects his humility before God, and his willingness to accept responsibility for any wrong-doing (and to repent of it). This, he hopes, would demonstrate to YHWH his faithfulness and loyalty, and that God would act in response, by delivering him from his illness and suffering. I believe that this is the best way to understand the somewhat obscure second line “that you did” or “that you have done”. It could be an admission that YHWH is the one who has struck him (with illness); however, a precative perfect better fits the context, in line with the interpretation stated above.

Verse 11 [10]

“Turn from upon me your blow (that has) struck (me),
from the force of your hand, (or) I am finished!”

Again, the Psalmist clearly admits that it is YHWH who has struck him (root ugn) with illness. God is the ultimate cause, and this suffering has come from His “hand”. The meaning of hr*g+T! here would seem to be something like “force, pressure”, which causes affliction and suffering. The Psalmist pleads for deliverance, and confesses that, if YHWH does not soon rescue him, he will be finished (vb hl*K*)— “I am finished!”

Verse 12 [11]

“With your decisions against crookedness, you discipline a man,
and you dissolve his splendid (form) like a moth—
yes (indeed), every man (is merely) emptiness!”

This second strophe of the Psalm concludes with a striking tricolon (with irregular meter, 4+3+3) that echoes again the Wisdom theme established in vv. 5-6 [4-5] ff (cf. above on v. 7 [6]). YHWH disciplines (punishes) human beings for their “crookedness” (/ou*)—in this case, by inflicting suffering through illness, etc. Such punishment wears down a person’s physical health and beauty. Indeed, YHWH’s power is such that, if he wished, he could completely dissolve a person’s entire bodily form, like that of a moth consumed by the flame. It reiterates that, ultimately, human beings are merely “emptiness” (lb#h#) in the face of God’s sovereign power—to both give life and to take it away. YHWH is the Sovereign and Judge, and the punishment he inflicts reflects a legal decision (hj*k@oT, root jky) made against human sin.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

Verse 13 [12]

“Hear my plea (to you), YHWH,
give ear to my cry for help,
do not be deaf to my tears,
for I am (one who) lives with you,
(who) sits (with you), like all my fathers!”

The Psalm concludes with a prayer and plea to YHWH for deliverance. Verse 13 [12] is comprised of a tricolon (3+2+2) followed by a slightly irregular 3-beat couplet (loosely 3+3). The emphasis is on YHWH hearing the Psalmist’s prayer, expressed three ways: by the verb um^v* (“hear”), the more concrete /z~a* (“give/turn [one’s] ear”, Hiphil stem), and verb vr^j* (II) with the negative particle (“do not be deaf,” “do not be silent”).

His petition is squarely centered upon the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel. This binding agreement requires that YHWH act to protect and deliver his people, as long as they remain faithful to the agreement. The Psalmist places himself among the Israelite people, as one who journeys and lives together with YHWH. This is the basic meaning of the noun rG@. It is often used in the context of those people from other tribes and ethnic groups who live/travel with Israel; but here Israel is placed in the same role, in relationship to YHWH. God dwells with His people, and they with Him. The root bv^y` properly means “sit”, but is frequently used in the more permanent sense of “dwell, reside”. The faithful Israelite essentially “sits” together with YHWH, at His ‘table’ and in His Presence. Here the noun bv*oT (“one who sits/dwells”) is more or less synonymous with rG@.

Verse 14 [13]

“Turn your gaze from me, and I will brighten (again),
before I walk (off) and am no more.”

From the motif of YHWH hearing (v. 13 [12]), the focus shifts here to His seeing, but in a rather different sense. The Psalmist wants God to turn His ear toward him, but now he pleads that YHWH turn his gaze away from him. This draws upon the traditional idiom of judgment and punishment coming from the “face” of YHWH. His face burns with anger at disloyalty, sin, and wickedness. Moreover, this imagery reflects the idea of the all-seeing ‘eye’ of God, the Sovereign and Judge over all Creation. YHWH sees the wickedness of human beings, and renders judgment, punishing them accordingly. Since the Psalmist’s suffering, he admits, comes from God, as a form of discipline and punishment for sin (cf. above), deliverance can only be affected by God “turning away” this punishment. The turning away of His gaze thus means deliverance and healing for the Psalmist, and he will “brighten” once again.

The final line plays on two different, but related, Wisdom themes that have been expressed in the Psalm. The first has to do with the shortness of a person’s life; the second emphasizes how human beings are “emptiness”, having no abiding existence apart from God, whose sovereign power both gives life and takes it away. The Psalmist’s closing statement reflects both of these aspects. On the one hand, he is asking for healing, so that he can live bright and cheerful again for the relatively short time that remains in his life-span (until he “is no longer” alive). On the other hand, it is an effective admission that a human being is ultimately nothing. In terms of one’s earthly existence, when a person dies, he/she simply “is no more.”

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Saturday Series: John 6:1-15ff

John 6:1-15

Having now discussed the miraculous feeding narratives in the Synoptic Gospels (see last week’s study), it is time to examine the tradition as it appears in the Gospel of John. The corresponding passage in the fourth Gospel is found in Jn 6:1-15. The narrative setting of this episode in John is, of course, quite different:

    • Jesus has previously been in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1ff), and is now in Galilee (6:1); this abrupt shift would seem to indicate that we are dealing with the inclusion of traditional material, and no real attempt has been made by the author to smooth over the seam. Note the generic opening words, “After these things…” (metá taúta).
    • The occasion of Passover is mentioned (v. 4), which is almost certainly an insertion by the author to connect the miracle explicitly with the setting of the “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in 6:22-59.
    • Consider how the author includes the episode of Jesus’ walking on the water (6:16-20) right after the miraculous feeding, just as in the Synoptic tradition (Mark/Matthew), even though it doesn’t seem entirely to fit the narrative context in John (note the rather awkward transitional description in vv. 22-23). I take this as an indication that the two episodes were already coupled together at a very early point in the Gospel tradition. The connection with the walking-on-water episode will be discussed further below.
    • There is, certainly, nothing at all like the Bread of Life discourse following the feeding miracle in the Synoptic Gospels—it appears to be a tradition unique to John.

As I mentioned previously, the account of the Miraculous Feeding in John is interesting in that it appears to contain details or elements from both miracle episodes in the Synoptics. Special details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic feeding of the 5000:

    • Crossing the Sea of Galilee (by boat) (v. 1; see Mk 6:32)
    • Reference to Jesus’ healing the sick (v. 2) [see Matt 14:14; Luke 9:11]
    • Jesus looks (up) and sees the “great crowd” [polýs óchlos] (v. 5; Mk 6:34)
    • Specific mention by the disciples of the cost of (at least) 200 denarii to feed so many people (v. 7; Mk 6:37)
    • The number of loaves (5) (v. 9)
    • The specific (round) number of men in the crowd (5000) (v. 10)
    • The mention of grass (v. 10; Mark 6:39, par Matt)
    • There are twelve baskets [kophinos] of fragments left over (v. 13)

Details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic (Matthew-Mark) feeding of the 4000:

    • The specific location along/across the Sea of Galilee (v. 1) [see Matt 15:29]
    • Jesus going up onto a mountain (v. 3) [see in Matt 15:29, but note also the mountain theme in Mk 6:46 par. Matt).
    • Jesus takes the initiative regarding the crowd (v. 5) [see Mark 8:2-3 par]—however this is more of an original/distinctive element of John’s narrative.
    • Jesus’ question (v. 5b) is quite similar to the question by the disciples in Matt 15:33 (par Mk 8:4). The author’s comment in verse 6 suggests that he was uncomfortable with such a question coming from Jesus.
    • The verb “sit/fall back” [anapíptœ] is used (v. 10) instead of “lay back/down” [anaklínœ / kataklínœ]; also, there is no mention of the crowd sitting down in groups of fifty, etc.
    • Jesus “gives thanks” [eucharistéœ] (v. 11) as in Matt 15:36 and manuscripts of Mk 8:7, instead of “bless” [eulogéœ]
    • Jesus specifically directs the disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12; see Mk 8:6, 8, but also note Matt 14:20)

The number of details in common with the feeding of the 4000 is striking—another indication, perhaps, that the two narrative episodes (of the 5000 & 4000) stem from a single historical tradition. It is also worth pointing out some details which are unique to John’s account:

    • The Passover setting (v. 4), though the mention of “green grass” (Mk 6:39) might generally indicate springtime.
    • Jesus’ specific question about buying food for the crowd (v. 5), described as intended to test the disciples (Philip) (v. 6)
    • The mention of specific disciples Philip (v. 5-7) and Andrew (v. 8), which may indicate a distinct Johannine tradition (see 1:40-46).
    • The boy with the loaves and fish (v. 9)
    • The loaves specified as “barley” [krithinos] and the fish as “dried-fish” [opsarion, instead of ichthys / ichthydion]
    • Jesus’ command to his disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12), along with the use of sunágœ (“bring together”) instead of aírœ (“lift [up/away]”)
    • The reaction of the people to the miracle in vv. 14-15.

The significant number of details unique to John would seem to be incontrovertible evidence that John has not derived his account from any of the Synoptics, but has inherited an early Gospel tradition, some version of which is shared by the Synoptics as well. For a convenient chart comparing all of the miraculous feeding narratives in detail, see R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible vol. 29: 1966), pp. 240-243.

Several of the details have a theological significance in the context of John’s Gospel. These include:

    • Reference to Jesus’ miracles as “signs” (semeía) (v. 2, 14)
    • The reference to Jesus going up the mountain, using the verb anérchomai (v. 3)
    • The Passover connection (v. 4)
    • The people coming to(ward) Jesus, with the verb érchomai (v. 5)
    • The eucharistic allusions (v. 11), which are scarcely unique to John’s account, but which have special importance in connection with the Bread of Life discourse that follows.
    • The salvific context of Jesus’ words to his disciples in v. 12
    • Jesus’ identity in relation to popular Messianic conceptions—i.e. as Prophet (v. 14) and Davidic ruler (King, v. 15)

Some of these are especially important in terms of the discourse which follows in vv. 22-58. But before proceeding to that discussion, it is necessary first to address two topics related to the Miraculous Feeding tradition: (1) its connection with the walking-on-water episode, and (2) the eucharistic emphasis.

The Walking on Water (Mk 6:45-52; Matt 14:22-33; Jn 6:16-21)

The episode of Jesus walking on the water follows directly after the Feeding miracle, both in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark/Matthew) and in John. Being thus preserved in two separate lines of tradition, it would seem that the Feeding miracle and the Walking on Water were connected at a very early point. Mark and Matthew follow the same basic narrative, the main difference being the Matthean addition in vv. 28-31 (involving Peter’s walking on the water out to Jesus). Mark certainly has the earlier form of the tradition, confirmed by the parallel in John. The common elements of the tradition are:

    • Jesus goes up the mountain (to be) alone—Mk 6:46 / Jn 6:15b; however, there are two (very) different explanations for Jesus’ departure:
      —Synoptic: Mk 6:45-46a
      —John: 6:14-15a
    • The disciples go out by boat across the lake, though with a different geographical location indicated:
      —to Bethsaida (Mk 6:45)
      —to Capernaum (Jn 6:16-17)
    • At evening, the boat is in the middle of the lake—the wind is rough and the disciples are (having difficulty) rowing—Mk 6:47-48a / Jn 6:16-19a
    • The separation between Jesus and the disciples is indicated
    • After a time/distance, they see Jesus coming to them, walking on the water—Mk 6:48b-49a / Jn 6:19a
    • The disciples are frightened by the sight of him—Mk 6:49b-50 / Jn 6:19b
    • Jesus tells them not to be afraid (Greek: egœ¡ eimi m¢ phobeísthe)—Mk 6:50b / Jn 6:20
    • Jesus comes into the boat and a miracle occurs—Mk 6:51 / Jn 6:21

Mark’s ending probably reflects the original tradition. John’s account has been adapted to fit the verses following (22-23ff) which join the Bread of Life discourse to this episode. Mk 6:52 is an addition, most likely by the author, which points back to the feeding miracle.

The inclusion of the Walking-on-the-Water episode in John causes some difficulty for the author, in terms of joining the Bread of Life discourse to the Feeding miracle. The awkwardness of verses 22-23 is largely the result of his inclusion of the Walking-on-Water episode (vv. 16-21). He clearly felt compelled to include it, which indicates again the strength of the (early) Gospel tradition. Even so, there are several (subtle) details which demonstrate Johannine adaptation of this traditional episode:

    • When the disciples are out on the water, John specifically states that there was darkness [skotía] (v. 17). There is definite theological significance to this word in the Gospel of John, where darkness is contrasted with Christ as the light (1:5; 8:12; 12:35, 46; cf. also 20:1, and note 1 Jn 1:5; 2:8-11). The reason for the darkness is clearly stated: “Jesus had not yet come toward them”.
    • In the Synoptic version, the storm/wind is decidedly negative—it is something against which the disciples struggle (Mk 6:48), and which Jesus’ presence immediately calms (v. 51). These details are absent from John’s version; there the storm/wind seems to function as a kind of theophany, marking the presence and appearance of Jesus, prior to his coming near the boat (vv. 18-19).
    • The presence of Jesus is signified by his words to the disciples—egœ eimi m¢ fobeísthe (“It is I! do not be afraid!”). The words are identical in the Synoptics and John, being part of the original tradition. However, in John, they take on deeper significance. The expression egœ eimi could also be rendered “I am (he)”, “I am (Jesus)”, or, literally, “I am”. As such, the expression appears numerous times in John, in the famous “I Am” sayings of Jesus, which begin with the Bread of Life discourse (v. 35). This is the second occurrence of egœ eimi, spoken by Jesus, in the Gospel (cf. 4:26, and compare 1:20-21; 3:28).

The Eucharistic Allusions

Let us begin with Mark’s account (Mk 6:30-44); the key verse is v. 41:

“And taking [labœ¡n] the five bread-loaves and the two fish (and) looking up into the heaven, he gave good account to [i.e. blessed eulóg¢sen] (God) and broke down [katéklasen] the bread-loaves and gave [edídou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside them [i.e. the people], and the fish he divided (among) them all”

Matthew’s account (Matt 14:13-21, v. 19) is simpler, but shows only minor differences, most notably perhaps the use of klᜠ(“break”) instead of the compound verb kataklᜠ(“break down”). Luke’s version (Lk 9:10-17) of this verse (v. 16) is almost identical with Mark.

On the surface, there might not seem to be much relation to the Eucharist here; after all, there is no mention of a cup, nothing to suggest symbolism of Jesus’ body (or blood), plus the mention of fish—is there actually a connection to the Lord’s supper? The answer is yes, and there are several reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.

1. The Greek verbs used

Look at the Greek verbs indicated in square brackets in Mk 6:41 above, and you will see that, with just one slight variation, they are the same verbs (and in the same sequence) used to describe Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22 par):

“And in their eating, taking [labœ¡n] bread (and) giving good account [eulog¢¡sas] (to God), he broke [éklasen] (it) and gave [édœken] (it) to them and said, ‘Take (it)—this is my body'”

The only difference is that there, instead of the verb kataklᜠ(“break down”), the simple verb klᜠ(“break”) is used, as in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (cf. above). As I pointed out in an earlier note, the same sequence of four verbs also is used in the Emmaus scene, when the disciples finally recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst:

Lk 24:30: “And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labœ¡n] the bread he gave good account [i.e. blessed eulóg¢sen] and, breaking [klásas] (it), he gave [epedídou] (it) to them…”

2. Textual evidence from the Feeding of the Four Thousand

In some ways, the wording in the Markan account of the feeding of the Four thousand (Mk 8:1-9, v. 6) is even closer to that of Jesus’ acts of institution at the Last Supper:

“And taking [labœ¡n] the seven bread-loaves (and) giving (words of) good favor [i.e. giving thanks eucharist¢¡sas] (over it), he broke [eklásen] (them) and gave [edídou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside (the people)…”

The parallel version in Matthew (Matt 15:32-39, v. 36) differs little. Interestingly, in Mark 8:7, in Jesus’ handling of the fish, there is a textual variant—some manuscripts read eucharistéœ, others read eulogéœ. The verb eucharistéœ (“give/grant good favor, give thanks, be thankful/grateful”) also appears in Jesus’ acts of institution as recorded by Luke (Lk 22:17, 19) and Paul (1 Cor 11:24); it is also used in John’s account of miraculous feeding (Jn 6:11).

3. The Context in the Gospel of John

If we compare the wording in Jn 6:11

“Therefore Yeshua took [élaben] the bread-loaves and giving (words of) good favor [i.e. giving thanks, eucharist¢¡sas] (over it), he gave throughout [diédœken] to the ones (having) lain back [i.e. lain/sat down]…

it is noteworthy that we do not find nearly so close a parallel to Jesus actions at the Last Supper. Noticeably missing is any mention of breaking the bread (though “broken pieces” [klásmata] are mentioned in v. 12). This may well be an indication that John has inherited an early form of the tradition which was not yet shaped to fit the eucharistic imagery to the same extent (as we see it preserved in the Synoptics). However, the Johannine form of the narrative would have a considerable influence on Eucharistic formulae and imagery in the early Church, as we shall see below.

The miraculous feeding episode in John serves as the basic setting for the great “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in Jn 6:22-59, a discourse in which most commentators find at least some reference to the Eucharist (especially in vv. 53-58). This will be discussed in our next study (see below).

4. Early Christian tradition

Here I will limit discussion to several points and one or two references which show that early Christians understood a definite Eucharistic aspect or element to the miraculous feeding episode.

    1. The Johannine context. As mentioned above, the miraculous feeding is followed by the Bread of Life discourse, which has certain eucharistic elements. While the extent to which the eucharistic aspect applies to the meaning and intent of Jesus’ original words may be debated, there can be no doubt that Christians early on made the association. The Gospel of John is best dated somewhere between 70-90, and may include a late (c. 90-95) redaction.
    2. As discussed in an earlier note, the “breaking (of) bread” appears to have served as a kind of shorthand reference to the Eucharist. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where the breaking of bread is mentioned, there appears to be some connection to the Lord’s Supper. By way of “catch-word (or catch-image) bonding”, any occurrence of breaking bread in the narrative would likely have been associated with the Eucharist from a very early time on.
    3. The use of the verb eucharistéœ in John’s account (as in the Synoptic feeding of the four thousand) may have helped to increase the use of the verb in association with the Eucharist (a word which, of course, derives from a transliteration of the related noun eucharistía).
    4. There are a number of parallels between John’s account of the miraculous feeding and references to the Eucharist in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” [of the Twelve Apostles]).

      • The Bread is simply called kla/sma (plur. kla/smata), “broken (piece[s])” in Didache 9:3-4 as in the feeding miracle (cf. Jn 6:12)
      • Note especially the prayer in Did 9:4:

“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”

With the following details:

      • The bread scattered on the mountains (the mountain setting in Jn 6:3 [cf. also Matt 15:29]).
      • The verb translated “brought together” (sunágœ) is the same used in Jn 6:12-13 for the gathering up of the fragments (klásmata). The same verb is also used in a Eucharistic setting in Did 14:1. The image of the (twelve) disciples gathering up the twelve baskets of fragments “so that nothing might be lost” [Jn 6:12b] was a suitable symbol of Church Unity, as the Didache clearly indicates.
      • The mention of the Kingdom (of God/Christ); perhaps coincidentally, John’s account is the only one which makes any reference to a king (v. 14f).
      • Note the three relevant details in succession in Didache 14:1:

“having been brought together [synachthéntes], break bread [klásate árton] and give good favor [eucharist¢¡sate—i.e. technically ‘celebrate the thanksgiving/eucharist‘]

Despite the name ascribed to the writing, the Didache is almost certainly not a product of the Apostles. It is typically dated sometime between 125-150 A.D., but may possibly preserve earlier tradition. It is a “church manual” of sorts, and provides at least a partial glimpse of what early Christianity may have been like in the first half of the second century (a generation or two after the later writings of the New Testament).

All of this well documents the distinctive way that the Gospel of John has adapted and incorporated the Gospel tradition of the Miraculous Feeding episode. However, in order to understand its place truly with the context of the Johannine Gospel, it is necessary to turn our attention to the great “Bread of Life” Discourse that follows in verses 22-59. This we will do in next week’s study. It will help us to glimpse more clearly, I think, the importance of careful critical study when it comes to examining the rich and complex textures of the Gospel Tradition.

February 26: Song of Songs 2:2-3

Song 2:2-3

Following the declaration by the young woman in verse 1 (cf. the previous note), establishing the flowering/blossoming motif (as a sexual metaphor), we have a short exchange between the two lovers, in which each praises the other’s beauty and sexual attractiveness. This exchange follows the general pattern of the earlier one in 1:9-11 / 12-14 (and also vv. 15-16).

“Like a lily among the thorn-bushes,
so (is) my companion among the daughters.” (v. 2)

On the rendering of /v*Wv as “lily” —possibly to be identified with the white lily (Lilium candidum) that grows in the Sharon Plain—cf. the discussion in the previous note. The term j^oj here refers to a bush or plant with prickly spines (i.e., thistle, bramble, briar, etc; cf. 2 Kings 14:9; Job 31:40; Isa 34:13; Hosea 9:6). The fundamental association is presumably to the sharp “hooks” (i.e., thorns) on the bush, which set it in sharp contrast to the soft and beautiful flower. The prepositional particle /yB@ (“between”) can be understood in the more general sense of “among”; however, one should not minimize the basic idea of a visual comparison—best illustrated if the flower is seen beside two thorn bushes (lit. between them). The comparison applies to the beauty of the young woman, compared with that of other girls (“the daughters”); for the boy who loves her, all other women are as thorn-bushes compared with the flower and blossom of her attractiveness.

“Like an apple (tree) among the trees of the thicket,
so (is) my love among the sons.” (v. 3a)

The young woman responds with a couplet of praise that is formally identical. She compares his beauty, in a similar fashion, to that of all other young men (“the sons”). If she is like a lily-flower to him, he is like the sweet (and fragrant) fruit of the apple [or apricot] tree (jWPT^) to her. The fundamental meaning of this Hebrew term relates to a fragrant scent—literally a blowing/breathing (root jp^n`), i.e., a fragrance that wafts from the fruit of the tree. She calls him her “love” (doD, i.e., beloved, loved one), while he calls her his “(dear) companion” (hy`u=r^), just as in the earlier exchange in 1:9-17.

“In his shade I find delight, and I sit,
and his fruit (is) sweet to (the roof of) my mouth.” (v. 3b)

As in 1:12-14ff, the woman’s praise extends to include a couplet emphasizing the romantic/sexual experience shared by the two lovers. Here the fruit-motif is applied to this context, in a manner that is quite common (and a most natural expression) in Near Eastern love poetry. The sweetness (qojm*) of fruit stands as a symbol for love and love-making—but especially of the kiss(es) exchanged between the lovers. The apple-tree, in particular, was used in such a context, with examples going back to the Sumerian love poems (esp. those involving Dumuzi and Innana); several notable ones may be quoted here (translations in Sefati Love Songs, pp. 130, 166, 320-1):

“My blossoming one, my blossoming one, / sweet is your allure!
My blossoming garden of apple trees, / sweet is your allure!
My fruitful garden of celtis-trees, / sweet is your allure!…”

“It grows, it flourishes, (like) well-watered lettuce,
My shaded garden of the steppe, richly blossoming, favorite of his mother,
My barley full of allure in its furrows, (like) well-watered lettuce,
My choice apple-tree, bearing fruits, (like) well-watered lettuce.
‘The honey man,” “the honey man” sweetens me ever, …”

“The brother b[rought me] into his garden,
I stood with him among his standing trees,
I lay down with him among his lying trees.
He laid me down[…..] ,
The dates[…] my[…] ,
The wild-bull speaks with me among the apple-trees,
My precious sweet[…] on my head,
The wild-bull speaks with me among the fig trees,
My precious sweet[…] my[…] ,

That some sort of romantic/sexual intercourse is in view here in the Song seems clear from the specific imagery of tasting the fruit—specifically, the young woman states that the man’s ‘fruit’ is sweet to her Ej@, a term that refers the space inside the mouth (i.e., the tongue and roof of the mouth), and to the sense of taste. The fruit is thus inside of her mouth; at the very least, we can assume that passionate kissing is involved.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (on vv. 1-3)

The Targum interprets the flower and the shade of the apple-tree both in terms of the presence of YHWH in the midst of His people:

“Said the Assembly of Israel: ‘During the time that the Lord of the World makes His Presence dwell in my midst, I am like the narcissus fresh from the Garden of Eden and my actions are comely like the rose which is in the plain of the Garden of Eden…
…at that time [i.e. the time He revealed Himself on Mt Sinai] I longed to dwell under the shadow of His Presence and the words of His Law were as spice on my palate and the reward for my observances stored upon the world to come.” (Pope, pp. 369. 373)

The Talmud (Shabbat 88b) similarly compares the fruit of the apple-tree here with the willingness of the faithful ones of Israel to observe the Torah. According to one line of Rabbinic tradition in the Great Midrash, the apple-tree is identified with God when he gave Israel the Law at Sinai. The nations refuse to sit in His shade, but Israel rejoiced to do so. The words of His Instruction (Torah) taste sweet to Israel, but are bitter to the nations (Pope, p. 374).

Origen, in his Commentary on the Song, interprets the flower as a symbol of the incarnate Christ, when the Bridegroom, the Son and Word of God, was clothed in a robe of flesh (alluding to Jesus’ reference to Solomon and the flowers in Matt 6:28-30). The presence of the flower and apple-tree, in the midst of the thorn-bushes and wooden thicket, refers to the acceptance of Christ among the Gentiles (the ‘thorns’ of the field). On the more mystical level, the flower in the field represents the Word of God (Christ) that blossoms within the purified soul. He explains the “shadow” cast by the apple-tree to the “shadow of Christ”, which forms a direct contrast with the Law, etc, as merely the ‘shadow of things to come’. In Christ’s shadow (spec. the reality of his incarnation and Passion) the soul is enabled to have its mouth (and eyes and heart) open to receive the truth of the Word of God.

Following in the mystical line of interpretation, Gregory of Nyssa emphasizes the purity of the flower, which, by the grace of the One cultivating it, is allowed to “shoot up, by His Wisdom, from the valleys of human existence into the beauty of the lily….

The soul has now become a flower and has not been hurt by the thorns of temptation in her transformation…. She then rises higher and higher again and gazes upon the mystery with the eyes of the Dove….” (Daniélou, pp. 173-4)

References above marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Sefati, Love Songs” are to Yitschak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture (Bar-Ilan University Press: 1998).
Quotations of Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon cycle (here) come from Jean Daniélou, S. J., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S. J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

February 25: Song of Songs 2:1

Song of Songs 2:1-7

It is proper to regard 2:1-7 as distinct poetic unit within the Song, concluding as it does with the refrain addressing the “daughters of Jerusalem”. However, there are also signs that shorter poems or poetic fragments (lyrics) have been combined here as well. If so, they follow a chain of associations which clearly unites them into a single poem.

Song 2:1

” I (am) a saffron of the plain, a lily of the valleys”

Commentators (and botanists) continue to debate the identity of the flowers referred to by the terms tl#X#b^j& and /v^Wv here in verse 1. The former as variously been identified as a rose, tulip, narcissus, lily, crocus, and others. The purplish crocus or pink-purple meadow saffron is as good a guess as any. For smoother poetry, I have adopted the (meadow) saffron for my translation. The second flower-type (/v^Wv) probably refers to one of two lily types: either the white lily (Lilium candidum) or drooping red lily (Lilium chalcedonicum). Some commentators would instead relate it to the (Egyptian) lotus.

Each of these words occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, but only rarely. The noun tl#X#b^j& occurs only at Isa 35:1, in the context of a prophecy that the parched desert land (i.e., Israel following the punishment of conquest and exile) will once again blossom luxuriously. The noun /v^Wv is somewhat more common, occurring 7 times (in 5 locations) outside of the Song—1 Kings 7:19, 22, 26; 2 Chron 4:5; Psalm 45:1; 69:1; Hos 14:6. In Hosea 14:6-8, the context is similar to the Isaian passage mentioned above, referring metaphorically to the future blossoming of Israel. The main association with these flower-terms thus appears to be that of luxuriant fertility and growth. Its significance as applied to the young woman is as an expression of her blossoming sexuality.

The two expressions “saffron of the plain” and “lily of the valleys” are parallel, and should be taken together in a comprehensive sense—since the flat plain or tableland, along with the valley, comprise, in general terms, the two main fertile regions where flowers, etc, will grow especially well. It is possible that here the term /orv* (š¹rôn), with the definite article, refers to “the plain” —that is, the Sharon-plain, the fertile coastal region of Palestine, extending from Joppa (Jaffa) to just south of Mt. Carmel. If so, then it is almost certainly the white lily, which grows wild on the Sharon, that is meant by the term /v*Wv (cf. above).

In announcing her blossoming sexuality—with its implicit beauty and natural splendor—the young woman is essentially declaring her willingness and readiness for a romantic/sexual encounter with the young man she loves. Given the connection with what follows, in verses 2-3, it is possible to take the girl’s statement in verse 1 as part of the playful lovemaking, between the two characters, that runs poetically throughout the Song. The exchange in vv. 2-3, between the young man and young woman, will be discussed in the next daily note, at which point reference will be made to the Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation of vv. 1-3 together.

February 24: Song of Songs 1:15-17

Song 1:15-17

Following the two strophes of vv. 9-11 and 12-14, in which the young man and young woman praised each other’s beauty (and sexual attractiveness), we find a similar exchange in verse 15-17, which functions as a refrain to this poetic unit of the Song.

“See, (how) you are beautiful, my companion!
See, (how) you are beautiful, your eyes (like) doves!”

In verse 15, the young man exclaims how beautiful (fem. hp*y`) the woman is. He calls her his “(dear) companion” (fem. hy`u=r^), as in v. 9. He particularly emphasizes the beauty of her eyes, which he compares to doves (<yn]oy). Eyes are frequently mentioned as a mark of feminine beauty (and seductiveness), both in a positive and negative (i.e., wanton/immoral) context (cf. Gen 29:17; Prov 6:25; Jer 4:30; Sirach 26:9, etc; Pope, p. 356).

The comparison with doves has been variously explained. If the sense is the her eyes are like a dove’s eyes, then it is presumably the (oval) shape that is intended. More likely, the dove represents gentleness, purity, innocence, and so forth. The typical attribute of the dove’s “whiteness” may also be in view—i.e., her eyes gleam white/bright. Possibly, the eyes may be seen to flutter (seductively) like the dove’s wings in flight; however, since the same comparison is made of the man’s eyes (in 5:12), an attribute of brightness, purity or gentleness, etc, is probably intended.

“See, (how) you are beautiful, my love—
yes, (most) sweet (indeed)!
(So also is) our couch of green,
(with) cedars (the) beams of our house,
(and) fir trees our rafters.”

In verse 16, the young woman reciprocates, praising the beauty (masc. hp#y`) of the young man. The same adjective is used, and, while hpy tends to be used more frequently of women, it can be applied to men as well (cf. Gen 39:6; 1 Sam 16:12; 17:42; 2 Sam 14:25; Pope, p. 356). She follows up this exclamation, by declaring emphatically that he is sweet (or pleasant, <yu!n`) indeed ([a^). The adjective <yu!n` is more commonly used of men, though, conversely, it can also be applied to women; it is at the root, for example, of the name Naomi (ym!u(n`, “[my] sweet/pleasant [one]”).

This leads into a closing exclamation of praise for the couch (cr#u#) that the lovers share (vv. 16b-17). It applies to the young man and woman both, and serves as a fitting climax to the poem. This “couch” is green (/n`u&r^), indicating a luxuriant and fertile outdoor setting, a point made abundantly clear by describing the lover’s dwelling place (or “house”) as covered by cedars and fir (or cypress) trees. The derivation and precise meaning of the rare terms hr*q) and fyj!r= remain uncertain (the latter word occurs only here in the Old Testament). Most commentators understand them in relation to the roof or covering of the “house” —i.e., as wooden beams and rafters (on hr*q), cf. 2 Kings 6:2, 5). The plural “houses” (<yT!B*) is best understood in a comprehensive sense—viz., wherever the lovers meet, or in whatever place they can be together.

Given the apparent socio-economic status of the lovers in the Song—being from the ranks of herders and vineyard-workers—an outdoor location for their encounters is perhaps more realistic. However, we need not read these descriptions in an overly-literal fashion. They have more to do with the love that the young man and woman share, than with their specific meeting place. Any spot in the grass can be for them a royal banquet room; similarly, any bed or couch indoors can be like a luxurious garden, when viewed through the eyes of their love.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish commentators drew upon the motif of the dove’s purity and innocence, applying it to the Israelites who faithfully observe the Torah—including its sacrificial offerings (which could involve a dove). The righteous person, like the dove, remains pure and innocent even in the face of persecution and injustice. As for the couch of the lovers, the association with the term ty]B^ (“house”), and its luxuriant cedars, naturally brings to mind the Temple as the “House” of God. The Great Midrash (Midrash Rabbah) on the Song follows this line of interpretation, while the Targum alludes to it as well in its interpretive rendering of verse 17:

“Said Solomon, the prophet: ‘How lovely is the Temple of YHWH, built by my hands, with cedar wood. But more lovely will be the Temple which is to be build in the days of the King, the Messiah, the beams of which will be cedars from the Garden of Eden…'” (Pope, p. 362).

For Origen, in his Commentary on the Song, the eyes compared to doves refers to those believers who can understand (‘see’) the Scriptures according to the Spirit (and in their spiritual sense). The association of the dove with the Holy Spirit, is, of course, basic to the Gospel tradition (in the Baptism of Jesus, Mk 1:10 par). The beauty of the woman refers to that of the purified soul when it is “near to Christ and imitates Christ”. Correspondingly, the beauty of the young man refers to the beauty of Christ (the Son of God), while the bed/couch which the man and woman share is explained as the body of the incarnate Christ, with which the faithful souls (of believers) are able to be joined (as the Body of Christ). As for the “house” with its cedars, Origen follows the line of interpretation that associates this with the Temple (cf. above), but in the early Christian (and Pauline) sense of believers as the spiritual Temple of God.

Gregory of Nyssa, typically, adopts a more mystical approach to this passage. The ‘eyes of the dove’ represent the soul of the Christian who is walking according to the Spirit (Gal 5:16ff), and whose spiritual life thus “shines within the clarity of the soul”. This purified ‘eye’ enables the soul to truly see and recognize the beauty of Christ, her Bridegroom.

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

February 23: Song of Songs 1:12-14

Song of Songs 1:12-14

After the young man’s praise of the woman’s beautiful appearance (face and neck), in vv. 9-11 (cf. the previous note), the young woman responds in kind in vv. 12-14:

“During (the time) when the king (was) on his mesab,
my nard gave (out) its (fragrant) breath!
A package of myrrh (is) my love to me,
(who) stays (the night) between my breasts;
a cluster of cypress-flowers (is) my love to me,
(here) in (the) vineyards of Goat-Spring [En-Gedi].”

As in 1:4, the reference to “the king” has been variously explained by commentators. Those who take the reference literally would tend to apply it to Solomon. If one understands Solomon to be the poet and/or protagonist of the Song, then he (the king) is the male lover. A popular line of dramatic interpretation recognizes two romantic suitors for the girl: one, the shepherd whom she truly loves, and the other, the king (Solomon) who is attempting to woo her.

More plausible, in my view, is that the title “king” here (and in 1:4) is being used in a figurative sense. As I mentioned in the earlier note on v. 4, it is relatively common in Near Eastern love poetry for the young lovers to refer to each other as “king” and “queen”, “prince” and “princess”, etc. This is part of the playful ‘fantasy world’ that exists in the romantic sphere of the lovers, which also reflects the genuine regard which they have for each other. The young man is truly her “king”, even as the young woman is his “queen”.

The particle du^, used in a temporal sense, along with the relative particle –v#, would literally mean “until (the time) when…”, but can also be used in the sense of “during (the time) when,” i.e., “while”.

I have left the noun bs*m@ untranslated above, since it is rather difficult to render with literal precision in English. Fundamentally, the word means something like “place (positioned) round about”. Based on the context here, this is usually taken as a reference to a low couch (for reclining) that would be positioned around a central dining area (for a banquet, etc). A feminine noun (hB*s!m=) with this meaning is attested in later Hebrew (cf. Pope, p. 347). The image seems to be that of the king and his lover lying down together on a luxuriant couch, such as would be used at a royal banquet. Assuming that the title “king” refers to the girl’s young lover, then the royal couch must be understood along the same lines. The place where the young man and woman lie down together is, for them, like the royal couch at a sumptuous banquet.

The noun D=r=n@ (n¢rd) is a loanword, ultimately derived from Sanskrit (naladas), referring to the spikenard plant that grows in Northern and Eastern India. It was cultivated and processed to produce a fragrant perfume that was highly valued, and exported abroad as an expensive luxury item. Here it is used as an erotic motif representing sexual attraction. One need not imagine that the young girl is actually perfumed with expensive nard. Fragrance is an important component of sexual attraction, along with a decorated physical (visual) appearance (vv. 9-11). In verse 3, the love (and love-making) between the young man and woman is expressed in terms of fragrant perfume (oil) that is “poured out” so that it fills the room. The same basic idea is in view here: the woman’s desire, and the attraction between the lovers, fills the room as a fragrant “breath” (or “wind”, j^Wr, i.e., a wafting breeze).

The imagery of fragrant perfume, as a symbol of love and sexual attraction, continues in the lines that follow (vv. 13-14), which take the form of a fine pair of parallel couplets. The image in the first couplet is a “package of myrrh” that ‘spends the night’ (vb /Wl) between the woman’s breasts. There is a dual-sense to this image: on the one hand, it reflects the practice of women wearing a sachet of perfume, as a necklace that would literally hang down between the breasts; on the other, it is clearly intended here as a euphemism for the two lovers spending the night together.

The second couplet has the parallel image of a “cluster of cypress (flowers)”. The noun lK)v=a# usually refers to a cluster of grapes, and this (together with the mention of vineyards) led early commentators to explain the imagery here in terms of grapes/wine. However, the motif clearly is of a cluster of perfume—in this case, made from the flowers of the cypress-bush (or henna plant), rp#K) (kœ¸er) in Hebrew (cf. Pope, pp. 352-4). The same term kpr is attested in Ugaritic, for example, as applied in the Baal Epic to the goddess Anat—who is characterized both as a fierce warrior (personification of battle) and beautiful young maiden:

kpr of seven daughters,
breath [, i.e. scent] of musk and murex[?]”
(Tablet III [CAT 1.3], column 2, lines 2-3)

En-Gedi (“Goat-Spring”, yd]G# /yu@) is a luxurious oasis (in Judah), located in a ravine. It was known for its warm climate, vineyards and date-palm trees, and thus came to be stand as a symbol for richness and fertility (cf. Sirach 24:14; Ezekiel 47:10). Here it provides an outdoor location of luxury comparable to the indoor location of the king’s couch (v. 12a). It reflects the sexuality (and sexual relations) of the two lovers—especially the young woman, with its reference to “vineyards” (cf. the note on verse 6, regarding the vineyard as a symbol for female sexuality). There may also be a faint allusion to the idea of herding goats—also used as a sexual metaphor—in v. 8 (cf. the prior note).

The term doD, fundamentally refers to an intense love, often (but not always) in a sexual context. In verse 2 and 4, the plural <yd!oD is to be understood as “acts/gestures of love”, while here in vv. 13-14 the reference is to the person who is the object of love (i.e., the beloved).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish and Christian commentators struggled particularly with the frank sexual imagery in these verses. In the Targum and the Midrashim, the tendency was, rather oddly enough, to explain the fragrance (“breath”, j^Wr) in a negative sense, referring to Israel’s sin of idolatry. Some Rabbis, however, preferred to maintain a positive line of interpretation, drawing upon the imagery of Tabernacle/Temple with its offerings of incense, etc. The bundle of myrrh hanging between the woman’s breasts was even harder to explain, though as ‘the most excellent of spices’ it was possible to apply the image of myrrh to the righteous—and to Abraham as the most excellent of the righteous.

As noted above, the mention of “clusters” and the “vineyards” of En-Gedi, suggested to commentators the motif of wine rather than perfume—in particular, the sacrificial wine that is poured over the altar. The Hebrew word rp#K) (“cypress” or henna flowers) could be related to the verb rp^K* (“cover, wipe over”) in the sense of atoning for sin.

Origen explained the king “reclining at his table” in terms of the incarnation of Christ, and the soul desires to ‘rest at his table’ with him. The giving forth of the woman’s nard-perfume naturally was compared with the scene of Jesus’ anointing by the woman (Mark 1:3-4ff par, and note especially the description of the fragrant perfume in John 12:3). This was associated in the Gospel with the sacrificial death and burial of Jesus, as was the image of myrrh (John 19:39). Myrrh could also represent drops of the pure teaching by the Word of God which the purified soul receives. Origen interpreted the “breasts” of the woman in the sense of the innermost heart of the soul that holds the Word of God (i.e., the bundle of myrrh) within it.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his cycle of sermons on the Song, develops this mystical approach, explaining the fragrance of the nard-perfume as the “emanations of virtue”, reflecting the purification of the soul, enabling it to look upon the purity of the Word of God. This Christian concept of virtue is understood in the Pauline sense of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22ff), and according to the motif of believers as the “fragrance of Christ” (2 Cor 2:15). His interpretation of the “bundle of myrrh” is worth quoting:

“…what is the noble and courageous bride saying in the text? She is saying: I have a sachet which hangs down upon my breast, and with it I give my body a sweet fragrance. But it is not an ordinary perfume; the Lord Himself is the fragrant oil lying within the sachet of my conscience, dwelling within my heart…. The bride, then, receiving the sweet odor of Christ in the highest part of her soul, makes her heart a sachet, as it were, of this incense; she thus makes every single action of her life, like so many parts of the body, burn fervently with the breath that issues from her heart, so that the love of God may never be chilled in any part of her by disobedience.” (Daniélou, p. 167)

References above marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).
Quotations of Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon cycle (here) come from Jean Daniélou, S. J., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S. J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

February 22: Song of Songs 1:9-11

Song of Songs 1:9-17

Verses 9-11 stand alone as a short love poem; however, many commentators consider it as part of a larger poetic unit within the Song, spanning verses 9-17. There is some justification for this, as there is a certain parallelism between vv. 9-11 and 12-14. In vv. 9-11, the young man praises the lovely appearance of the woman, while, in vv. 12-14, the young woman praises the appealing scent/fragrance of the man. Following these two strophes, verses 15-17 function as a refrain, in which the lovers each exclaim the beauty of the other.

Song 1:9-11

“My (own) horse among (the) rides of Pharaoh,
(so) I have likened you, my companion—
your (soft) cheeks beautiful in the(ir) roundels,
your neck with (its) strings (of beads).
Roundels of gold we will make for you,
(decorated) with points of silver!”

The young man calls his beloved a horse (sWs)—that is, a female horse (hs*Ws) or mare. The suffixed form yt!s*s% has been difficult to explain in context. Many commentators interpret the y– as an archaic (genitive) suffix, which is certainly possible, since ancient Hebrew poetry preserves many archaic (and archaizing) features, including the occurrence of obsolete or enclitic suffix-forms. However, in this love-poetry context, where the lovers address each other, it seems better to retain the sense of a true personal possessive suffix (“my horse”); cp. 2:14 (“my dove”), etc.

By calling her “my (own) horse among the rides of Pharaoh”, he is comparing here with the finest and most beautiful of horses—the kind that would be found in the royal stables of the Egyptian king. Fox (p. 66) includes an Egyptian love poem (P. Chester Beatty I, group B love poems [Fox no. 38-39]), in which the girl similarly compares her lover to the horses in the royal chariot stable:

“If only you would come (to your sister swiftly),
like a royal horse,
the choicest of a thousand among all the steeds,
the foremost of the stables.”

In that poem, the emphasis is on speed, more than physical beauty. The girl urges her lover to come to her swiftly; the image of a gazelle is used for the same purpose (cp. 2:9 in the Song). The chariots (plur. of Hebrew bk#r#, lit. “ride”) of Pharaonic Egypt were legendary in the ancient Near East, and were a major factor in establishing the nation’s military power and royal prestige. Here the focus is more on the royal prestige and splendor of the Pharaoh’s chariot-rides, rather than the military aspect.

Such royal horses would have been magnificently outfitted, with decorated bridles and harnesses, etc. The young man uses this imagery to extol the beauty of his beloved. Though her own ornamentation may be relatively humble, it adds considerably to her beauty (in his eyes). The plural noun <yr!oT is presumably derived from the root rwt (“turn [round]”), and, as such, is explained as a decoration with a round or circular shape. There is artistic evidence for Egyptian women wearing ornaments (circular ear-rings, etc) that partially covered the cheeks (Fox, p. 105). The plural noun <yz]Wrj& is a hapax legomenon, occurring only here in the Old Testament. On the basis of Arabic and late Hebrew/Aramaic evidence, it is understood as referring to decorations (beads, etc) that are strung together (i.e., as a necklace).

For this young man, his lover’s beauty is such that she is deserving of far more valuable and luxurious ornaments, made of silver and gold (v. 11).

As a final note on this passage, it is worth mentioning the play on words between the noun hu#r@ (“[close] companion, friend”, here the feminine form hy`u=r^) and the noun for a shepherd/herdsman (hu#r), v. 8, cf. the previous note). Though derived from separate hur roots, it provides for an immediately recognizable bit of wordplay (which, unfortunately, is almost impossible to capture in English translation).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The mention of Pharaoh’s chariots naturally brings to mind the episode at the Reed Sea (cf. my recent series of notes on the Song of the Sea in Exod 15). The ‘mare’ was interpreted as the heavenly mount which YHWH rode when he brought deliverance to his people at the Reed Sea, defeating the military might of Pharaoh’s chariotry, and providing for the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt. This is the line of interpretation we see in the Targum and the Midrash Rabbah.

In applying the mare-image to Israel, the luxuriant bridle is the Torah, which keeps God’s people guided upon the right path. As the Targum puts it (Pope, p. 344):

“When they went forth from the wilderness, YHWH said to Moses: ‘How fit is this people to be given the words of the Law to be as bridles in their jaws that they might not depart from the good path… And how fit is their neck to bear the yoke of my precepts…’ .”

While recognizing this historical and typological background, Origen in his Commentary adopted a more allegorical and mystical approach. The horse(s) and horsemen represent those faithful souls who accept the bridle of the Lord’s discipline (thus purifying themselves), in order to be led by the Spirit of God and so find salvation in union with the Word of God (Christ). He draws upon the image of Christ as the Rider upon the white horse in Revelation 19:11-14, with the whiteness symbolizing the cleansing that comes through baptism and the process of self-purification undertaken by the faithful soul. The Word of God is thus both the Rider and the means of riding (the bridle/harness). The luxurious ornaments that bedeck the bridle, etc, of the white horse, is explained in light of the Pauline descriptions of the bride who is sanctified and made beautiful in preparation for her wedding (with Christ the Bridegroom)—cf. 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:26-27; cp. Rev 19:7; 21:2ff.

References above marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
Those marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 39 (Part 1)

Psalm 39

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (vv. 13-14 [12-13])

The superscription of this Psalm contains the interesting detail /WtWdyl! [Qere], “for/to Yedûtûn”. The word /WtWdy+ (Y®¼û¾ûn) is a proper name, which belonged to a priestly official overseeing aspects of musical activity in the Tabernacle/Temple, though the evidence for this is almost entirely limited to the books of Chronicles (1 Chron 25:1-6; cf. also 16:38ff; 2 Chron 5:12, etc. If the Davidic attribution of the Psalm here (i.e., a musical composition “belonging to David”) is historically accurate, then this additional detail may identify Yedûtûn as the ‘musical director’ (j^X@n~m=) in question. On the other hand, in Psalms 62 and 77 the name occurs in the expression /WtWdy+-lu^, which is usually taken to mean “in the manner/style of Yedûtûn”, indicating a well-known or established musical style. Since the direction in the superscriptions tends to refer to the performing tradition, this would seem to be correct, and it is probably the meaning here as well.

This particular Psalm follows generally in the pattern of the previous Ps 38 (cf. the most recent study), as well as a number of others we have examined thus far. There is a lament for the suffering (from illness) experienced by the Psalmist, with a plea to YHWH for deliverance. The Psalm also contains strong Wisdom-elements, including the familiar contrast between the righteous and wicked that characterizes so many of the Old Testament Psalms.

The meter is irregular, and makes surprising use of a tricolon (triplet, three-line) format at several points. The Psalm is also unusual in that it can be divided rather clearly on the basis of the Selah (hl*s#) markers. Many Psalms contain this marker, though in relatively few cases does it appear to define clearly the poetic or musical structure of the work. Here, the two markers would seem to divide the Psalm into two stanzas (vv. 2-6 and 7-12), followed by the concluding verses (vv. 13-14) which comprise a plea to YHWH (cp. the ending of Ps 38, in the previous study).

Verses 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“I said, ‘I will guard my paths (I walk)
from sinning with my tongue,
I will guard my mouth (like) a muzzle,
in (the time) while (the) wicked (is) in front of me’.”

In this opening pair of couplets (3+2 and 3+3), the setting of the Psalm is established, echoing that of the prior Ps 38—viz., the protagonist is suffering (presumably from illness), and his adversaries (the wicked) take advantage of this opportunity to mock and abuse him (verbally). In that Psalm too, the protagonist states that he remained silent in face of the attacks by the wicked (vv. 14-15 [13-14]). Here, the implication is phrased in more ethical terms; that is to say, the Psalmist is careful not to sin (vb af*j*) by speaking out against them.

Guarding (vb rm^v*) one’s tongue/mouth (i.e., one’s speech) is an important aspect of following the righteous path (Er#D#) that conforms to the Way of God. This “path” by which one ‘walks’ is a comprehensive image for an entire way of life—of thinking, speaking, and acting. The “tongue”, in particular, is apt to trip one up on this path (Ps 15:3, etc; and note the famous discussion in James 3:1-12, cf. also 1:26).

Verse 3 [2]

“I was bound (in) silence,
I kept still from dropping (words),
and (yet) my anguish was stirred.”

While the Psalmist may have remained silent, he was suffering inside (in his “heart”, see v. 4 below). The noun ba@K= denotes “anguish” (mental as much as physical), which can also result in suffering and sorrow. This anguish was “stirred” (rk^u*), both by his ailing condition, and from the virtuous requirement to stay silent in the face of attacks by the wicked.

In the second line, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 240) in relating boTm! to a root bfn (a by-form of [fn), meaning “drop, drip”, sometimes used in the sense of speaking (i.e. dropping words). He notes instances of interchange between p (p) and b (b) in Hebrew and Ugaritic, and cites Prov 15:2 for a similar example of bfn.

Metrically, this verse has the form of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, creating a terse staccato-like effect when recited.

Verse 4 [3]

“My heart was hot in my inner (parts),
(and) in my murmuring a fire burned,
(until) I spoke (with) my tongue:”

Another tricolon follows here (with loosely the same meter, 2+2+2), building upon the portrait in v. 3 [2], and leading into the moment when the protagonist speaks (out loud) in v. 5 [4] (cf. below). He is burning so inside that he is finally compelled to speak with his tongue (i.e., out loud), thus breaking his self-imposed silence (cf. above). It is fascinating to see how this dramatic scenario progresses. From a stirring of anguish within, his “heart” ignites and becomes hot (vb <m^j*); as this “burns” inside, he begins to mutter/murmur (vb gg~h*) quietly to himself, until it finally breaks out into full speech (“I spoke [with] my tongue”).

Verse 5 [4]

“Make me to know, YHWH, my end,
and (the) measure of my days, what it (is),
(that) I may know how fleeting I (am).”

When the Psalmist speaks, it is as a prayer to God. This is somewhat unexpected. His burning desire to speak out, in the face of attacks by the wicked (implied in v. 2 [1]), leads one to expect a denunciation, a declaration protesting his innocence/righteousness, a contrast between the righteous and wicked, or something of the sort. Instead, his speech is phrased as a noble Wisdom-saying, humbly declaring the transitory nature of human existence, in comparison with eternal sovereignty and power of God. On the Wisdom-theme of a human being understanding one’s “end” (Jq@) and length of life (“measure of days”), cf. Job 6:11; 7:1, 6; 8:9; 9:25; 14:5; Psalm 90:9, 12ff; 102:3, 11; 144:4; Prov 14:12; Eccl 3:11; 6:12; 7:2; 8:13ff.

It is not just that a human being’s “days” on earth are fleeting, it is the person himself/herself who is transitory in nature. The adjective ld@j* denotes something that ceases—i.e., ceases to be. The Psalmist truly makes the point personal by emphatically using the pronoun “I” (yn]a&): “I (am) fleeting”, i.e., “I cease to be”. YHWH knows the measure of his days, the length and extent of his earthly existence; this further implies the sovereign control God has over human affairs.

This verse is another tricolon, but with a longer 3-beat (3+3+3) rhythm.

Verse 6 [5]

“See, you have given a hand-breadth (to) my days,
and my duration (is) as no(thing) in front of you—
oh (yes), every (one is) an empty (wind),
every man (is but) a standing (shadow)!”

The Wisdom-theme continues here in verse 6, with a pair of couplets emphasizing again the shortness and transitory nature of human existence. Indeed, YHWH has ‘measured out’ the length of the Psalmist’s “days” (i.e., his life), and it extends merely a “hand’s breadth” (jp^f@)—that is, the width/length of one’s palm. This relatively short distance indicates rather dramatically the shortness of one’s life. Even more striking is the use of the negative (privative) particle /y]a^ (“[there is] no…”) to indicate that human existence amounts to nothingness in comparison with God (that is, when one is in His presence, “in front of” Him). This statement essentially recognizes the sovereign control YHWH has over human life (including the power to end it).

The second couplet is shorter (2-beat [2+2]), as if to express in poetic terms the shortness and insignificance of human life. In these two lines, a human being (“every [one], every man”) is likened to an “empty (wind)” (lb#h#) or a “standing (shadow)” (bV*n]). This last word is a bit difficult to translate precisely. As pointed, the MT reads a Niphal (passive) participle of the verb bx^n` (“stand, [be] set”). This root can be used for a standing image (i.e., statue, pillar, etc), in the specific sense of an idol. This makes a fitting parallel here with lb#h#, sometimes used in reference to the emptiness/nothingness and ‘vanity’ of idols. Here, however, the comparison is less pejorative, and is used merely to capture (most vividly) the idea of emptiness/nothingness.

The poetic marker hl*s# (selah) occurs here after verse 6. The precise nature and purpose of this marker remains uncertain, apart from the fact that it is a (musical) direction that almost certainly relates to the performing tradition. It can be explained as a pause, an indication of a change in tempo or style, and there are other possibilities as well. As I noted above, in the case of this Psalm, its use of the hl*s# marker seems to demarcate the essential structure of the work, dividing it into two stanzas, followed by a short closing section.

The second stanza (vv. 7-12 [6-11]) and the closing lines (vv. 13-14 [12-13]) will be discussed in next week’s study.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Saturday Series: Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10 par

In the previous two studies, we have looked at examples of the so-called “Triple Tradition” in the Synoptic Gospels. The term refers to narrative episodes, sayings of Jesus, and other traditions, that are found in all three Gospels. This is especially challenging for a critical study of the passages in question. On the one hand, the three Gospels all share the same basic tradition, and yet each has handled the tradition in distinctive ways. Occasionally, there are historical traditions that are preserved in all four New Testament Gospels—in the Gospel of John, as well as the Synoptics. One such tradition is the Miraculous Feeding (of the Five Thousand), surely one of the best known (and loved) of all Jesus’ miracles. This is the narrative episode I wish to discuss this week.

As it happens, there are aspects of this tradition which are especially problematic, from the standpoint of New Testament criticism, and which greatly complicate any critical study. Let us begin by addressing the most difficult question first—the occurrence of two Feeding Miracle episodes in the Synoptics (Mark/Matthew), each of which has a very similar outline, and many similar details as well (see below). The main question is: does this reflect two distinct historical events, or two versions of the same event? Most critical commentators hold to the latter view. Not only are the two episodes so closely alike, but, as we shall see, the account in John contains elements and details found in both Synoptic episodes. This would seem to confirm the critical view. However, at the same time, in the Synoptic narrative, Jesus himself refers to both of the miracles, mentioning distinct details from each. If the critical view is accepted, then the episode in Mk 8:14-21 par would have to be regarded as a kind of literary fiction. On the other hand, if one accepts the authenticity (and essential historicity) of Mk 8:14-21, then this would be proof that the two miracle stories reflect two historical episodes. Traditional-conservative commentators, naturally, are more inclined to accept the text—in this case, the Synoptic tradition (including Mk 8:14-21)—at face value.

Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10

First let us consider the similarities between the two episodes, as they are found in Mark [6:30-44; 8:1-10]:

    • Jesus and his disciples had traveled to a desolate place (6:31-32, 35; 8:4b)
    • A great crowd had followed Jesus there (6:30, 33f; 8:1)
    • Concern for the people, and how they could be fed (6:34-36; 8:2-4) —specifically Jesus is said to have had compassion on them
    • A question from the disciples regarding how food could be found for so many (6:37; 8:4)
    • Jesus asks his disciples “how many loaves do you have?” (6:38a; 8:5)
    • There are on hand only a small number of bread loaves and a few fish (6:38b ; 8:5b, 7a)
    • Jesus directs the people to sit down (6:39; 8:6a)
    • Jesus blesses, breaks and divides the loaves, along with the fish (6:41; 8:6-7)
    • All the people eat and are satisfied (6:42; 8:8a)
    • A number of baskets full of leftovers are gathered [by the disciples] (6:43; 8:8b)
    • The size of the crowd is identified by the (round) number of the men who ate—5000/4000 (6:44; 8:9)
    • Afterwards, Jesus and his disciples are described as getting into a boat, with a specific geographical location indicated, i.e. relative to the lake (6:45; 8:10)

There are also some notable differences:

    • The second episode contains no references to the travels and ministry work of Jesus, as in the first (6:30-34; but compare Matthew 15:29-31)
    • In the first episode, the disciples appear to initiate the concern/effort to feed the people (6:35-36), while in the second this is done by Jesus (8:2-3)
    • In the first episode, Jesus challenges the disciples to give the people something to eat (6:37)
    • The first episode contains detail regarding the people sitting down on the ground in groups (6:39-40)

Clearly, the similarities far outweigh the differences. The two episodes, of course, involve different specific numbers—5 loaves / 12 baskets / 5000 men vs. 7 loaves / 7 baskets / 4000 men—but these are rather minor compared with the overall points of agreement.

How does the Gospel of Mark make use of these two episodes in the context of the narrative? The author was clearly aware of the similarities between them; indeed, this is an important aspect of the symmetry and parallelism of the narrative in 6:14-8:30. I outlined this in a previous note; here it is again:

    • Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the declaration by Herod—6:14-16 [inclusion of an associated tradition, 6:17-29]
    • Feeding Miracle (5,000): the disciples/12 baskets—6:30-44
      Miracle on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—6:44-52
      (they did not understand about the miraculous loaves)
    • Healing Miracles6:53-56
    • Conflict/debate with religious authorities over tradition and ritual—7:1-23 including a Parable and explanation by Jesus (vv. 14-16, 17-23)
    • Healing Miracles: 2 episodes—7:24-30, 31-37
    • Feeding Miracle (4,000): the disciples/7 baskets—8:1-10
      Teaching on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—8:11-21
      (they did not understand, re. the miraculous loaves)
    • Healing miracle—8:22-26
    • Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the confession by Peter—8:27-30

In my view there is a definite (chiastic) symmetry to this section in Mark. Consider first—the framing episodes (6:14-16; 8:27-30) involving the question of Jesus’ identity, in which the general reaction by people to Jesus is noted (i.e. identifying him as “Elijah” or one of the Prophets). At the same time, Herod and Peter each make a declaration regarding Jesus’ identity:

    • Herod—he is John the Baptist raised from the dead (6:16)
    • Peter—”You are the Anointed One” (8:29)

The second pair of (parallel) episodes are the two Feeding Miracles:

    • Reaction to Jesus (declaration by Herod)
      Feeding of the Five Thousand (6:30-44)
      Feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-10)
    • Reaction to Jesus (confession by Peter)

The parallelism is reinforced by the inclusion, after the miracle, of an episode where Jesus and his disciples are together on the water (6:44-52; 8:11-21), and reference is made to the bread-loaves of the miraculous feeding (6:52; 8:19ff). The first episode involves a miracle (Jesus’ walking on the water), the second, teaching. A third parallel can be found in the healing miracles of 6:53-56 and 7:24-37:

    • Reaction to Jesus (declaration by Herod)
      • Feeding of the Five Thousand
        —Healing miracles narrated (6:53-56)
        —Healing miracles: 2 episodes (7:24-37)
      • Feeding of the Four Thousand
    • Reaction to Jesus (confession by Peter)

Finally, at the center of the section, we find the debate between Jesus and the religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) regarding religious tradition and the interpretation of the Law (7:1-23). This theme carries through the remainder of the section, especially the instruction of Jesus to his disciples in 8:11-21, in which he warns them of “the leaven of the Pharisees [7:1ff] and Herod [6:14-16ff]” (v. 15). It is part of the reaction to Jesus’ ministry that is illustrated in this section. While the people may react to Jesus at one level—viewing him as a miracle working prophet like Elijah (note the allusions in the feeding miracle[s] to 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Kings 4:42-44), or otherwise—his true disciples ultimately will recognize him as “the Anointed One” (and Son of God).

Thus we can see that the two Feeding Miracle episodes play a pivotal role in the Markan narrative, and are important in demonstrating Jesus’ identity—the primary theme of 6:14-8:30. Now let us examine how these traditions were utilized in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-39

Matthew follows the Markan narrative in recording both Miraculous Feeding episodes (of the 5,000 and 4,000). Indeed, Matt 14:1-16:20 appears to follow the entire outline of Mk 6:14-8:30 fairly closely. The main differences are:

    • An expanded version of the walking on water episode (cf. 14:28-33)
    • The sayings of Jesus in 15:13-14 and 16:2-3
    • An expanded version of Peter’s confession (with Jesus’ response) in 16:16b-19

The structure of Mk 6:14-8:30, with its rather careful symmetry (see above), I would attribute, on the whole, to the author of the Gospel (trad. Mark), rather than to an earlier stage in the Gospel Tradition. If so, then the presence of the same outline in Matthew would provide strong confirmation, at this point, of the critical hypothesis that Matthew made use of Mark’s Gospel. The author (trad. Matthew) has certainly included episodes corresponding to Mark 6:30-44ff and 8:1-10ff (Matt 14:13-21ff; 15:32-39ff), at more or less the same positions in the narrative. Notably, the basic information from Mk 8:11-21 is repeated in 16:5-12—i.e., Jesus’ own reference to both of the Feeding Miracles.

The differences between Matthew and Mark in the two Miraculous Feeding episodes are relatively slight, the most significant being:

Miracle #1 (14:13-21)

    • A simplified narrative introduction (vv. 13-14; compare with Mk 6:30-34), giving the basic information:
      —That Jesus departed to a “desolate” place, and crowds followed him there (v. 13)
      —and Jesus’ reaction to seeing the people, with the specific detail that he healed the sick among them (v. 14, cf. also Lk 9:11)
    • Matthew’s introduction (v. 13a) also makes a smoother transition with the Baptist episode immediately prior; Mark, by contrast, refers back to the mission of the Twelve.
    • The beginning of the narrative proper (vv. 15-16) is also simpler than in Mark. The author omits, or otherwise does not include, the disciples’ question (Mk 6:37) and Jesus’ question to them in response (6:38a, “How many loaves…?”); however, he also adds the words of Jesus in v. 16a: “They have no business going [i.e. there is no need for them to go] away…”.
    • There is no reference to the crowd sitting down in groups (Mk 6:39-40).
    • Verses 19-21 are very close to Mk, with a small addition in v. 21b.

Overall, Matthew’s narrative is simpler and smoother, with some of the dramatic and local detail of Mark’s account absent.

Miracle #2 (15:32-39)

    • Matthew’s version is framed by specific geographical references, in relation to the sea of Galilee (vv. 29, 39; cp. Mark 7:31).
    • We also have the detail of Jesus going up into the hill(s)/mountain (v. 29b)
    • The references to healing miracles (vv. 30-31) have been integrated more closely into the narrative of the miraculous feeding (cp. Mk 7:32-37).
    • The basic narrative of vv. 32-38 is quite close to Mk 8:1-9, with minor differences in wording.
    • There is a small difference in the geographical location at the close of the episode (v. 39; Mk 8:10).

Again, Matthew’s narrative is a bit simpler and more streamlined, by comparison with Mark. In both miracle episodes, the author adapts the tradition to set it more clearly within the context of Jesus’ ministry—especially the healing miracles of Jesus (cf. 14:13-14; 15:29-31). The second half of the Galilean Period in Matthew covers 10:1-16:20, and has a clearly defined theme of the disciples’ participation in Jesus’ ministry, along with the theme of discipleship. Matthew includes much more traditional material between the mission of the Twelve (10:1-5ff) and the confession of Peter (16:13-20) than do the other Gospels. The author retains the Synoptic (Markan) structure in 14:1-16:20, including the two Feeding Miracles, but sets them within a more developed and expansive narrative outline.

Luke 9:10-17

If Matthew appears to have used the Gospel of Mark at this point (see above), it is less clear in the case of Luke. The main reason is that the author has omitted (or has otherwise not included) the material corresponding to Mark 6:53-8:26, including the second Feeding Miracle (Mk 8:1-10). As a consequence, there is no way of knowing whether he knew of the second episode, and/or what he thought of it. If Luke made use of Mark’s Gospel, then he intentionally omitted that entire section; however, we must also consider the possibility that he inherited a Synoptic narrative that was simpler/shorter than Mark. Insofar as Luke records the Miraculous Feeding tradition, he follows a version that more or less corresponds to the first miracle in Mark (and Matthew). The following points of comparison may be noted:

    • Luke retains the Markan connection with the mission of the Twelve (v. 10; Mk 6:30); the importance of this will be indicated below.
    • Luke uniquely records the geographical reference which locates the miracle in the area around Bethsaida (compare Mark 6:45).
    • Like Matthew (see above), Luke has a simpler narrative introduction (vv. 10-11) than does Mark. Verse 11 would seem to be simplified version of Mk 6:33.
    • As in Matthew, there is incorporated into the narrative a summary reference to Jesus healing the sick in the crowd (v. 11b; Matt 14:14).
    • Luke adds the specific detail that Jesus spoke to the people “about the Kingdom of God” (v. 11); this definitely would seem to be an (editorial) addition by the author (on this theme, and wording, cf. Acts 1:3, also Lk 4:43; 8:1; 9:2; 17:20; 19:11).
    • Verses 12-17 generally follows Mk 6:35-44, but with simpler narration; with Matthew, the two questions in Mk 6:37-38 are omitted. There are a number of other (minor) agreements in wording between Matthew and Luke (cf. vv. 11-14, 17 par).
    • Luke has set the mention of the crowd’s estimated size earlier in the narrative (v. 14); instead, his version of the episode closes with the gathering of the twelve baskets of leftovers (v. 17).

The ‘omission’ of the Synoptic traditions in Mk 6:53-8:26 means that the Lukan account of this portion of the Galilean Period looks very different than it does in Mark or Matthew. Consider that the section from the mission of the Twelve, through to the confession of Peter, takes up just twenty verses in Luke (9:1-20). By comparison, the same relative division of the narrative in Matthew covers nearly seven chapters (10:1-16:20). The outline for this portion of Luke is amazingly simple:

    • Jesus with his disciples—the Mission of the Twelve (9:1-6)
      The reaction to Jesus: the question of Herod (9:7-9)
      • The Twelve return to Jesus, telling him of their mission work (9:10)
        —The Feeding Miracle (9:10-17)
      • The Twelve baskets gathered up (by the Twelve) (9:17)
    • Jesus with his disciples—praying together (with the Twelve) (9:18ff)
      The reaction to Jesus: the confession of Peter (9:18b-20)

The central section in bold represents the Feeding Miracle. Luke’s streamlined account, more than the other Gospels, uses the Feeding Miracle here to represent and summarize the ministry of Jesus. The connection with Jesus’ disciples (the Twelve) is more prominent as well. This is almost certainly the reason why mention of the estimated size of the crowd was moved back to verse 14—so that the feeding miracle would conclude with a reference to the twelve baskets gathered by the disciples (i.e. symbolic of the Twelve). Indeed, the Greek of verse 17 specifically ends with the word dœ¡deka (“twelve”).

Having compared the versions of the Synoptic tradition(s), it now remains to turn to the account of the Feeding Miracle in the Gospel of John. In so doing, we will return to the critical question (i.e. originally one or two miracles?), as well as examine the unique way that the tradition has been adapted in the Fourth Gospel, through its connection with the great “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6. This will be the topic of next week’s study.

February 18: Song of Songs 1:7-8

Song of Songs 1:7-8

Verse 7

“Put in front for me, (you) who my soul loves,
where (it is) you herd (the flock),
(and) make them recline in (the) double-bright (sun)!
What? should I be as (one go)ing about wrapped
upon [i.e. among] (the) flocks of your companions?”

The poem in verses 7-8 takes the form of a mini-dialogue, as the young woman (v. 7) is answered by another voice (v. 8), variously identified as that of the young man, the chorus (of ‘daughters of Jerusalem’), or another character—all depending on one’s preferred interpretive scenario. Since the girl is addressing the young man she loves (“[you] whom my soul loves”), it seems best to read verse 8 as the boy’s response.

One way of explaining the setting of this poem is that the two young lovers are making arrangements to meet at the time of the noon rest (or siesta). In any case, that is certainly the idea that the young woman has, for she clearly hopes to meet up with him at this time, while he is pasturing his flock. This verse indicates that the man she loves is a shepherd. However, as with the vineyard motif (cf. the previous note on vv. 5-6), the pastoral milieu (of shepherds and herding) was a common feature of ancient love poetry. Among the earliest examples are the Sumerian poems involving the love between Dumuzi and Inanna (cf. Jacobsen, Harps, pp. 1-84, and Sefati, Love Songs). Though both are deities, they are portrayed in the poems very much in the manner of normal human lovers. Dumuzi took many forms, but that of the shepherd was the most common characterization in the love poems.

In much later times, poems with a pastoral setting were extremely popular among the Greek and Roman poets (Theocritus, Virgil, etc). Pope (p. 328) cites an Arabic folksong that is indicative of the sexual suggestiveness of this poetic setting:

“Come, a spring pasture I will show thee,
which no man has yet trodden.”

Perhaps the most famous pastoral poem, at least among Jews and Christians (cf. below) is Psalm 23; though not a love poem as such, it certainly can be seen as reflecting the love and devotion between God and His people (the faithful ones). Especially significant here is the setting of noon time (lit. the time of the “double-bright” sun, i.e., when the sun is at its peak), since it is the time of rest, the siesta, when the two lovers have the opportunity to snatch away some moments to spend with each other.

The second part of verse 7 is more difficult to interpret (and translate). The initial word, a compound particle (hm*l*, “for what”, i.e. “why?”) that includes a prefixed relative particle, is actually very hard to translate into English. The basic sense of the line is that, if the young man does not tell her how she can find him (at noon-time), she will be forced to go about all of the grazing spots looking for him. Clearly, he should not want that, since it means that the girl will end up approaching other young men (his companions) in the process.

The precise word hy`f=u)K= is problematic. Literally, it means “like (one) wrapping/covering (herself)”, but, in context, clearly would have to mean, “like (one go)ing about covered up”. According to the cultural standards of the time and place, a young woman going about in public would normally do so covered/veiled. And yet, it would be rather improper for such a woman to go about from man to man, approaching them and making inquiries. The implication seems to be that this would make her look like a prostitute (cf. Gen 38:14)—and surely the young man doesn’t want that to happen!

Some commentators, finding difficulty with this line of interpretation, prefer emending the word from hy`f=u) to hy`u&T), essentially involving only a transposition of two letters. The root hu*T* means “be lost, lose one’s way, go astray”, and here would be used in the rather mundane sense of the woman wandering about from flock to flock. Even if this reading is correct (which I am inclined to doubt, in spite of some versional support for it), the point at issue is still sexual in nature. By wandering about, approaching different young men, there is the possibility that another man would take a liking to her, and might pursue a relationship with her.

Verse 8

“If you do not know yourself,
(you most) beautiful among women,
go out among (the) heel(-mark)s of the flock,
and herd your young goats
upon (the) dwellings of the herders!”

The interpretation of these lines depends almost entirely upon who is speaking them. This is a point debated among commentators; however, as I note above, since the young woman is apparently talking to the young man she loves (in verse 7), it is reasonable to assume that he is the one answering her in verse 8. Is is reply serious, playful, mocking, or some combination of these?

As with the vineyard-motif in verse 6 (cf. the discussion in the previous note), there is a double meaning to the herding motif here—the verb hu*r* refers both to the actual herding of sheep/goats, and figuratively, as a symbol of sexual relations (cf. above on the sexuality of the pastoral setting in ancient love poetry). In this regard, I take the young woman’s jibe in v. 7b to be playful in tone, and the young man’s response to be similar in kind. She depicts the image of a ‘wrapped up’ woman (resembling a prostitute) having to go about from flock to flock (and to different men) looking for him. His jest, in turn, is that she could always go out as (female) shepherd herself (herding female goats), and thus interact with the men without scandal.

At a deeper level, the herding image relates to sexual attraction (and sexual relations). The young man is essentially telling the young woman that she should already know for herself where he ‘herds’ his sheep—i.e., that his love is for her alone. The matter of searching/finding in this regard is symbolic of sexual love and longing. The “heel (print)s” of the young man’s sheep represent the signs of his love for her, and she should be able to follow them. If she cannot, then perhaps she does not really love him—and she should then go ahead and try her luck with the other young (herds)men.

There is a longstanding tradition in Near Eastern poetry of the tracks of nomadic encampments, etc, as a touchpoint for love, longing, and remembrance. It can be seen already in the Sumerian Dumuzi poems (cf. above), and extends down into modern Arabic poetry. An especially beautiful and evocative reflex of this tradition is found in the classical Arabic (Qasida) Ode. In the first part of the Ode (the nas£b), the poet, longing for his departed beloved, is drawn to the remains of her tribe’s encampment. There, those traces, in every detail, are a powerful evocation of his beloved, and the landscape is turned, for him, into a beautiful paradise that matches the beauty of his beloved. This will be discussed further at several upcoming points in the Song, were the sense of longing (of the young woman for her love) is expressed in similar terms.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish interpretation built upon the traditional motif of Israel as a flock of sheep who would go astray without the guidance of a Shepherd (Psalm 23). Moses, as the intermediary between YHWH and the people, served this role as shepherd, and, subsequently, through the Law (Torah) he gave to Israel at God’s command. The woman longing after the shepherd, and seeking to find him, represented the longing of the righteous ones to follow the precepts of the Torah.

The Targum gives an interesting interpretive paraphrase of verse 8 (God speaking to Moses):

“If the Assembly of Israel, which is compared to a beautiful maiden whom my soul loves, wishes to wipe out the Exile, let her walk in the ways of the righteous…let her teach (or lead) her children, compared to the kids of goats, to go to the Assembly House and to the House of Learning; then by that merit, they will be sustained…until the time when I send the King, the Messiah, who will lead them to rest in their Dwelling, the Sanctuary which David and Solomon, the shepherds of Israel, will build for them.” (Pope, p. 335)

The mixing of metaphors, with both woman/bride and the flock(s) symbolizing the Church, led Origen in his Commentary to draw a distinction between ordinary Christians (the sheep) and those (represented by the bride) whose soul seeks after the deeper truth of the Word of God (Christ). It is significant for him that this searching (and finding) takes place at noon-time, when the light of the sun is brightest, where the purified soul can be enlightened by the “full knowledge” of Christ.

Commentators such as Origen and Gregory Nyssa, following a translation that renders the Hebrew suffixed preposition El* (“for you”) in the sense of “(for) yourself”, drew upon this to emphasize the importance of “knowing oneself”. This self-knowledge by the soul is necessary in order to avoiding the evils and delusions of the world, achieve purity (in virtue and knowledge), and so then be able to attain to a full understanding of the Word of God. The nature of the soul itself reflects this purity, but becomes covered over by the things of the world; the Divine Truth can shine in it again only after it has been cleaned and purified. As Gregory exclaims, regarding the significance of this spiritual awareness and self-knowledge:

“You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, and image of the true Light; and if you look up to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, Whose glory is reflected in your purity.” (Daniélou, p. 162)

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References above marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Jacobsen, Harps” are to Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once…: Sumerian Poetry in Translation (Yale University Press: 1987).
Those marked “Sefati, Love Songs” are to Yitschak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture (Bar-Ilan University Press: 1998).
Quotations of Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon cycle (here) come from Jean Daniélou, S. J., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S. J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).