July 8: Song of Songs 2:10-13

Song 2:10-13

“My love responded and said to me:
Rise up yourself,
my companion, my beauty,
and go (away with me)!
For see, the winter has passed,
the rain passed on, it is gone.
The sparkling (flower)s are seen in the land,
(the) time of the z¹mîr has touched (us),
and (the) voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.
The fig-tree has sweetened her unripe fruit,
and the blossoming vines give their (sweet) breath.
Rise up and go (away),
my companion, my beauty,
go away yourself (with me)!”

Verses 10-13 form a distinct song, and poetic unit, beginning and ending with a common refrain. The young man is the speaker of the song, but introduced by the young woman: “My love responded and said to me…”. The idea of answering/responding denoted by the verb hn`u* should not be understood in an overly narrow sense. It is part of the narrative (and redactive) tissue of the Song, connecting one poem with the next.

In the refrain, the young man refers to the young woman as “my companion [fem hy`u=r^]” and “my beauty [hp#y`]”, indicating that she is his girlfriend and beloved. With a dual-imperative he urges her to “rise (up)” “go (away)” with him. The use of the so-called ethical dative with the preposition l= is difficult to translate in English; essentially the prepositional expression should be understood in a reflexive sense—i.e., “rise up yourself”, “go away yourself” —but even this makes for rather awkward English. I have rendered this reflexive aspect in two of the three occurrences of El* in the translation above.

In my discussion of the previous song (cf. the note on vv. 8-9), I understood the “back-wall” where the young man stands to be the meeting-place of the two lovers. However, if one connects that poem to the one here in vv. 10-13, assuming a dramatic sequence, then there is greater weight to the idea that the young man is standing outside the girl’s house, looking in to see her, and then speaking to her through the lattice, calling her to go away with him—presumably to a secluded spot in the fields where the two can be together.

If one takes seriously the seasonal indicator in verse 11, there is an added dimension to the setting of this song. During the rainy winter season, the girl would have spent more time at home, indoors, and there would be few opportunities for the lovers to be together. Now, with the coming of spring-time (and summer), they are able to find moments and places where they can meet outdoors. But it still requires that they “go away”, perhaps in the sense of steal/sneak away, for a romantic tryst.

The spring-time motif is expressed through a sequence of three parallel couplets. The first simply describes the change in seasons:

“For see, the winter has passed,
the rain passed on, it is gone.”

The rare noun wt*s= occurs only here in the Old Testament, but is attested in Aramaic and Syriac, as well as the cognate šit¹° in Arabic (Pope, p. 394); it refers to the rainy winter season in Palestine. The verbs rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) and [l^j* (“pass on, pass away”) here have a similar meaning; however, the latter root also denotes the idea of replacement (i.e., the winter rains being replaced by the life-giving sunshine of spring and summer). The final line contains another example of the reflexive ‘ethical dative’ (cf. above); the expression ol El^h* would literally mean “it has gone (away) itself”.

The second couplet is expanded into a tricolon by the inclusion of a third (central) line:

“The sparkling (flower)s are seen in the land,
(the) time of the z¹mîr has touched (us),
and (the) voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.”

The parallelism of the basic couplet (the first and third lines) is clear enough: “seen / heard”, “sparkling (flower)s / voice of the dove”. The ambiguity lies in the central line, and the use of the noun rym!z` (z¹mîr). It has a dual-meaning based on two separate roots: (1) “song, singing” (rmz [I]), and (2) “trimming, pruning” (rmz [II]). The first line suggests the second root, but the third line would seem to require the first root. This bit of rich word-play makes a definite translation of rym!z` in context virtually impossible; for this reason I have left the noun transliterated above. In any case, the couplet (or triplet) describes the new conditions in the land with the coming of spring (and summer).

The final couplet emphasizes the fertility of spring-time, which, of course, is especially fitting for the sexual imagery of the Song:

“The fig-tree has sweetened her unripe fruit,
and the blossoming vines give their (sweet) breath.”

The fig has strong traditional associations with sexuality, as well as being a fruit that is pleasing to the gods (cf. the discussion in Pope, p. 398). As a sexual symbol it is comparable to the traditional associations with the apple tree (cf. the note on vv. 3-5) and the date-palm. All three fruit trees are mentioned in a Sumerian love poem (part of the corpus of Dumuzi/Inanna songs):

“The brother [brought  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… ”
(translation in Sefati, Love Songs, p. 321)

The noun hG`P^ occurs only here in the Old Testament, but cognate words in Aramaic and Arabic indicates that it refers to the unripe (green) fruit, especially of the fig or date-palm. Parallel as a sexual symbol is the blossoming grape-vine, which, in the Song is used specifically as a symbol of female sexuality, reflecting a traditional line of imagery in Near Eastern love poetry. Within the dramatic setting of the Song, the young woman belongs to a family of vineyard-workers (cf. the earlier note on 1:6). This allows for some fine wordplay and double entendre in the Song. In addition to the specific aspect of female sexuality (i.e., the young woman’s blossoming sexuality), the vineyard also serves as a symbol for the love between the young man and young woman. It can also allude to the place outdoors (in the spring/summer-time) where the two lovers meet. This will be discussed further in the upcoming note on verse 15. The sweet “breath” (j^Wr) of the vine refers to the scent of its blossoms.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

In the Targum and Midrashim, this song typically is thought to refer to the exodus of Israel out of Egypt, marked by the thematic refrain “Rise up, go away…”. The winter was the time of bondage in Egypt, while the rains represented the actual time Israel spent there, which had been cut short by God. The Midrash understands rmz in the sense of “pruning” (cf. above), with the idea of ‘cutting off’ the uncircumcised Egyptians and their idolatrous ways; but the other meaning for rmz (“sing”) is also recognized, alluding to the Song at the Sea which Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites sang following their deliverance by YHWH. The ripening figs of spring-time also ties into the same line of interpretation.

For Origen, in his Commentary, this scene alternately represents the voice of the Word of God speaking to the soul or Christ speaking to the Church. The time for the soul to “come away” with the Word refers both to a departure from earthly/fleshly things, and to receiving the deep wisdom of God, which is otherwise hidden in mystery. To the perfect and mature ones (like the ripened figs), the Word gives this revelation in full, while for others (the less ripe, immature fruit) it is experienced to a lesser degree. The “winter” is the time of sin and ignorance and darkness (including the time of the Law) before this illumination in the bright sun of springtime comes.

Gregory of Nyssa gives even greater emphasis to this idea of a ‘springtime of the Spirit’. The ‘rising up’ of the soul entails both a departure from sin  and an advance in virtue and goodness, forming the course by which we become perfect. Such a purified soul approaches the Light until “…it draws near to the Beautiful and becomes transformed by the image of the divine Beauty”. In this regard, the singing of the dove symbolizes, of course, the presence of the Holy Spirit. The flowers blossoming in the spring-time fields represent the virtues which blossom and bring beauty to the purified soul.

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).
The translations of Gregory of Nyssa here are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, edited by Musurillo and selected by Jean Daniélou (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

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