March 2: Song of Songs 2:6-7

Song 2:6-7

“His left (hand is) beneath my head,
and his right (hand) embraces me.
I call you to (bind yourselves) seven-fold,
daughters of Yerushalaim,
by the gazelles and by the deer of the field:
do not stir or stir up love until she desires (it)!”

The first two lines are simple enough, since they continue the sense of vv. 4-5 (discussed in the previous note). The young man and woman are laying down together in their meeting place (depicted as a grand banquet-hall [“house of wine”]). Their embrace was alluded to in v. 5, but is expressly described here (again, from the woman’s vantage point).

The meaning of verse 7 is problematic, not in the literal meaning of the words and syntax, but with regard to the overall sense. An oath formula is involved, using the verb ub^v* in the technical sense of making a vow or oath (the literal meaning of ubv is such instances is presumably to ‘bind oneself seven-fold’). Here, the Hiphil stem is used, in a transitive sense—that is, a person is calling on the “daughters of Jerusalem” to make such a vow. The vow is to be made “by the gazelles and the deer of the field” (i.e., as a witness to the vow). The animal imagery is part of the natural landscape in the Song, symbolizing sexual vitality and fertility (on the love-potency of the gazelle, cf. Fox, p. 109 [citing an earlier study by Robert D. Biggs on Ancient Mesopotamian Incantations]). It clearly relates to the love-making of the young man and woman, but in what sense is this ‘oath’ to be taken?

The particle <a! can be used in a conditional or demonstrative sense. In oath-formulas, it is often used to introduce the main statement or declaration that is to be binding on the person (or persons) who swear it. This is especially so when a negative formula is involved. The statement is as follows:

“do not stir or stir up love until she desires (it)”

The verb is rWu, used doubly (for special emphasis), in two stems (Hiphil and Polel). The basic meaning of the root is “stir”, often in the sense of “rouse, wake(n)”. But it is just here that commentators are divided on the precise significance of the verb in context:

    • The woman is urging the “daughters of Jerusalem” not to disturb her love (i.e., love-making) with the young man; or
    • The statement serves more as a proverbial warning for girls, not to arouse love (that is, sexual desire) until the time is right.

The second option better fits the fundamental meaning of the verb, but does not seem to fit the context very well. After all, since the young woman is (apparently) already in the midst of a romantic/sexual encounter with the young man, such a warning would be rather curious. Perhaps there is a more general proverbial meaning at work, to the effect that, as with all things in nature, there is a proper time when a boy and girl have matured sexually and are ready for a love encounter, and at a time when each is truly attracted to the other. For those who would adopt a more ethical, socio-religious interpretation of the Song, the warning—which occurs again as a refrain in 3:5 and 8:4—emphasizes that sexual experience should (only) occur within the context of marriage.

The “daughters of Jerusalem” function throughout the Song as a collective figure-type, representing the young woman’s status and her social environment (where young women/girls tended to be segregated, and would associate primarily with others of her age). In 1:5 there seems to be an intended contrast between the working-class status of the protagonist, and other more well-to-do girls in Jerusalem (and its environs). Curiously, though females are being addressed, the verb forms and the initial object pronoun are masculine plural forms. Some commentators would point to the gradual replacement of feminine plural forms (with corresponding masculine forms) in later Hebrew as a sign of the relatively late date of the Song.

In the final verb form “she desires” (of the vb Jp^j*) the proper subject is the noun love (hb*h&a^)—i.e., when love desires it. Based on one’s interpretation of these lines (cf. above), this could mean either: (a) until love (herself) wishes for the love-making to be disturbed, or (b) until the time is right for a young woman’s sexuality to be aroused. The preposition du^, followed by the prefixed relative particle (-v#), would literally mean something like “until the (time/moment) wh(en)…” .

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

One line of Rabbinic interpretation (cf. the Great Midrash on v. 6) relates the two hands (left and right) of the young man with the two tablets of the Law (one held in each hand), and associates adherence to the Law specifically with Israel’s love for YHWH (R. Johanan referencing Deut 11:22, cf. Pope, p. 385).

As for the difficult adjuration (oath-formula) in verse 7 (cf. above), both the Targum and Midrashim interpreted the plural noun toabx not as “gazelles,” but as “armies” (as in the expression “YHWH of the Armies [of Heaven]”). They applied it to Israelite and Jewish history, in terms of knowing the time when God wishes the people to go to war (e.g., in the Exodus and Conquest narratives). Or, as another possibility, it could refer to the persecution of Israelites and Jews throughout history, by the nations (and their foreign armies).

Origen explains verse 7 in terms of the Bride (Christian believers) desiring nothing that is against the mind and will of her Beloved. In the mystical sense, the “field” is the field of the soul, and the soul that is being purified “takes care to plant all the good dispositions and to cultivate the powers of the mind” (Lawson, ACW, p. 204). There is also a field that is common to all the “daughters of Jerusalem” (i.e., all those in the Church), and they, collectively, must be purified as well, and thus come to possess a love that is worthy of the Love of God Himself, embodied in the person of Christ. He aptly cites Ephesians 5:14 in connection with this verse.

Gregory of Nyssa understands v. 7 in a similar manner, in terms of the soul, on her way to perfection, who is also leading other souls still in a state of instruction. Their instruction should not follow the ordinary things of the world (i.e., the “field”), but should point to the eternal nature of the Angels (as the true “powers”). Souls who would attain to this purity, are promised, in the resurrection, to have a nature that is like unto the Angels.

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).
Quotations of Origen’s Commentary (here) come from R. P. Lawson, Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, Ancient Christian Writers [ACW] series vol 26 (The Newman [Paulist] Press: 1956).

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