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).