Earlier this year I began a series of daily notes on the Song of Songs. This series was interrupted (with the note on 2:6-7) for the Lenten, Easter and Pentecost seasons, and I am taking up with it again now this summer. This particular book of Scripture has long been controversial, due to the frankly erotic character of much of the love poetry in the Song. The longstanding tendency, among both Jews and Christians, has been to interpret the poetry in an allegorical or spiritual sense. While such modes of interpretation are both valuable and important, I have studiously avoided them in these notes. Instead, I focus almost entirely on the text itself, and to the fundamental meaning and significance of the words and imagery in context. However, in each note, I do make mention of certain ways that Jews and early Christians have explained the poetic lines.
If there is a specific interpretive approach that I follow, it is that the poems of the Song are very much of a kind with ancient Near Eastern love poetry, and must be read in that light. In particular, I have focused on parallels in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry, rather than more recent Arabic and Palestinian examples, etc. For more on these matters, cf. the introductory note in this series.
It is possible to view 2:8-17 as a distinct song or poetic section. In these notes, I prefer to analyze the Song on a narrower basis, looking at shorter individual lyrics. There is still much disagreement among commentators on how best to divide the Song and regarding theories of how it was composed.
“(The) voice of my love—
See, here he comes,
leaping over the mountains,
jumping over the (high) hills!
My love is likened to a gazelle,
or to a young stag, the leader (of the flock).
See, here he is standing
behind our back-wall,
gazing (in) from the pierced holes,
peering (in) from the lattices.
This lyric may be divided into two short stanzas, or strophes. An initial statement regarding the lover (lit., love, beloved, doD) of the young woman is followed by a poetic description of the lover’s approach. Let us consider this lyric from a formal standpoint, looking the common element in each stanza.
- “(The) voice of my love”
- “My love is likened to a gazelle…”
The “voice” (loq) in the first stanza is best understood as the sound of the young man as he draws near; perhaps even better is the idea of the young woman anticipating his approach by listening for it. It is the visual aspect that is emphasized in the second stanza, with the verb hm*D* (“be like, resemble”). In both stanzas, the primary image is of the young man as a strong young gazelle, deer, goat or ram—all of these animal-types apply to the wording.
The term yb!x= refers to a gazelle or deer, but a separate word yb!x= (derived from a different root) means “beauty, splendor”, so there is doubtless a bit of love-poetry wordplay involved here. The second compound term <yl!Y`a^h* rp#u) essentially signifies the young male animal (deer/goat/ram) who is the leader of the group (or flock/herd). The noun lY`a^ fundamentally means “(the one) in front”, i.e., foremost, leader, and the use of the plural here should probably be understood in a comprehensive sense.
- “See, here he comes”
- “See, here he is standing”
The principal lyric in each stanza begins with the compound particle hz#-hN@h!, an interjection that can be translated into English as something like “see here!” or “look here!” In the first stanza, the lover is coming (vb aoB); in the second, he has arrived and is standing (vb dm^u*) outside of the meeting place.
- “leaping over the mountains,
jumping over the (high) hills”
- “gazing (in) from the pierced holes,
peering (in) from the lattices”
- “leaping over the mountains,
The action of the young man in each stanza is described by a pair of participle-phrases. In the first stanza, describing the lover’s coming, the imagery is that of a strong and swift animal—gazelle, deer, or mountain-goat/ram—known for its leaping or jumping ability (vbs gl^D* and Jp^q*); both of these verbs are relatively rare, and are used almost exclusively in Old Testament poetry.
In the second stanza, the young man has arrived at the meeting-place, and he is standing outside. This meeting-place is the location where the two lovers can be together, envisioned as a secluded building or room (with walls). The young man stands at the “back-wall” (lt#K), a rare noun which occurs only here in the OT, and the meaning of which is indicated by parallels in Aramaic [cf. Dan 5:5; Ezra 5:8] and Arabic). The young woman calls it “our back-wall”, because it is the place where the two lovers are meeting, and so, in a sense, it belongs to them. Before entering, the young man looks inside, either to see if the young woman is there, or simply to gain a glimpse of her. Both of the verbs used to express this are quite rare: (1) jg~v*, which occurs elsewhere only in Psalm 33:14 and Isa 14:16, meaning “gaze (at)”; and (2) JWx (II), “peer/peep (in)”. The latter verb occurs only here, and is apparently separate from JWx (I), “sparkle, shine”, though perhaps a bit of wordplay is involved (i.e. sparkle of the eyes); the meaning (and existence) of the second root is suggested by a similar verb in Arabic (waƒwaƒ, cf. Pope, p. 391f).
The young man looks into the room through the openings in the wall; the poetic parallelism for this involves the nouns /oLj^ (literally a “pierced hole”, but usually understood as a window) and Er#j# (occurring only here, but its presumed meaning, “lattice-work”, is known from post-Biblical Hebrew).
According to my interpretation, the scenario is that the young woman is waiting for the young man to come to their place of meeting (i.e. for a sexual/romantic liaison). However, the image of the young man peering in to get a look at the girl allows for the possibility that she is tucked away in her own private room (perhaps by her family, to keep her away from the boy); in such a setting, “our back-wall” could refer to the family house. In at least one Sumerian love-poem, part of the corpus of Dumuzi/Inanna love songs, the young man (Dumuzi) is waiting longingly outside of the house of the young woman (Inanna), eager to know what she is doing inside (lines 1-2ff, Sefati, Love Songs; cf. also Kramer, SMR, p. 97).
Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation
In the Targum, Talmud and Midrash Rabbah, the imagery of the young man (as a gazelle, etc) ‘leaping over the mountains and hills’ tended to be applied to the greatness of Moses and the Patriarchs, or interpreted from the standpoint of the salvation/deliverance of Israel throughout history (to be fulfilled again in the Messianic Age), e.g. (from the Targum):
“…behold, the glory of YHWH was revealed to Moses on Mount Horeb and He sent him to Egypt to release them [i.e. the House of Israel] and to bring them out from the bitter oppression of Egypt. And they leaped over [i.e. had their time of exile shortened]…by virtue of the merit of their fathers and skipped over the time of servitude…for the righteousness of their mothers, who are likened to the hills.” (translation in Pope, p. 390 [glosses mine])
Origen, in his Commentary, explains the “voice” of the beloved leaping over the mountains, etc, as the Word of God made incarnate in the person of Christ, coming toward the Bride. The ‘lattice-work’ of the wall is understood as nets by which the enemy (Satan) wishes to ensnare people. Before we can see the Bridegroom coming for our deliverance, we must first hear his Voice. The various sizes of the ‘mountains and hills’ are explained a number of ways, including in terms of the degrees of understanding that people (believers) have with regard to the Word of God. When people receive the Word, they themselves then “…become mountains and hills by virtue of their life and knowledge and teaching. And the Word of God is rightly said to leap on them, and to spring forth from them”.
Gregory of Nyssa, in his cycle of sermons, takes a typically more spiritual approach to interpreting these lines. For the “purified and discerning eye of the soul” is able to see and know the reality of the Beloved (Christ the incarnate Word of God) speaking to it through the windows: “…though the wall between then separates the pair, their verbal communication is unimpeded since his head leans through the windows, while his eye peers through the lattice work of the windows upon the interior” (translation Norris, p. 119). The partial barrier of the lattice-work represents “a certain sequence” in the activity of the Word in adapting human nature to God, as, for example, of the Light shining through the dark lattices of the Law, illuminating the hearts and minds of those “who are in darkness and the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79). The illumination of the soul through these windows and lattices eventually leads to a desire to see the sun (the Light) out in the open air.
References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The 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).
Those marked “Kramer, SMR” are to Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite: Aspects of Faith, Myth, and Ritual in Ancient Sumer (1969).
The translations of Gregory of Nyssa here are by Richard A. Norris, Jr., in The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, general editor Robert Louis Wilken (Eerdmans: 2003).