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.
“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).