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).

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