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).

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