“Seize for us (the) foxes,
(all the) little foxes
ruining (the) vines—
even our blossom(ing) vines.”
This verse has proven to be one of the most enigmatic of the entire Song. On the surface, the little song in v. 15 has no obvious connection with either the prior lines (vv. 8-14) or those following (vv. 16-17). Nor is it at all clear who the speaker is supposed to be. These lines have the character of a proverbial folk-song, the sort of ditty one could imagine being sung by vineyard-workers. It may have been included to give some local color and texture to the Song. However, whatever the origins of this verse, there can be no doubt that in the context of the Song it relates to the sexuality of the young woman, and/or to the love shared by the two youths. This is very much the symbolism of the vineyard throughout the Song.
There would seem to be three primary ways of understanding this verse in context:
- It represents the voice of a chorus, the concerns of the young woman’s family (and also the wider community) to safeguard her blossoming sexuality. The “little foxes” are those amorous young men who would “ruin” the purity of her sexuality. This line of interpretation also reflects the social barriers and opposition against the two young lovers coming together for a romantic/sexual encounter.
- The speaker is the young man, in which case there are two possible interpretations:
(a) It reflects his desire to keep any other young men (“little foxes”) away from his beloved, or
(b) The “foxes” refer, more generally, to anything that might interrupt or spoil their time together
- The speaker is the young woman, and her words follow the same line of interpretation as that above; however, if she is speaking, the verse would perhaps tend to be part of playful banter between the two lovers, akin to that in 1:7-8 (cf. the prior note on those verses).
The Hebrew noun lu*Wv, of uncertain derivation, is usually understood as referring to a fox or jackal (or similar animal). The catching of foxes would be a relatively common occurrence, in order to protect the fields and vineyards. In Judges 15:4, Samson catches a large number of ‘foxes’, though for a rather different purpose. Here they clearly refer to something which could “ruin” (vb lb^j* III) the young woman’s sexuality, and/or the sexual experience of the two lovers. The participle indicates that the ‘foxes’ are regularly ruining things, or are likely to do so. The girl’s sexuality (and/or the love shared between the two) is currently “blossoming”, according to the fundamental meaning of the noun rd^m*s= in the final line.
A strong argument can be made that these “foxes” represent amorous young men who are ‘on the prowl’ for attractive young women. This is the sense of the imagery, for example, of the a)lwpeke$ in the Odes of Theocritus (I. 48-50; V. 112). Yet, this need not be understood in an entirely negative sense, especially if the image is considered from the standpoint of the young woman. In an Egyptian love song from P. Harris 500 (a 19th dynasty papyrus manuscript), the girl speaks fondly of her lover as a little “wolf” or “jackal” (wnš); the context of this song is, my opinion, close to that of the Song here:
“My heart is not yet done with your lovemaking,
my (little) wolf cub [wnš]!
Your liquor is (your) lovemaking.
I (will not) abandon it
until blows drive me away
I will not listen to their advice
to abandon the one I desire.”
(translation Fox, p. 10)
In my view, the best explanation of this verse is as the voice of society and custom, adding a sense of tension to the lovers’ attempt to be together. I am reminded of the echo of Brangäne’s warning in the middle of the second act love-duet of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The problem with this view is that there is no clear shift to a different speaker; yet the Song is somewhat fluid in this regard, as we have already seen in 1:4, and by the regular refrain in 2:7, etc. Shifts between speakers are not always clearly indicated, and the ‘voice’ of other groups or segments of society occasionally crop up within the fabric of the Song.
There are unquestionably certain social barriers to the lovers meeting. The overall scenario depicted in vv. 8-17 is of the young woman tucked away at home (as she would have been, as a practical matter, throughout the rainy winter season). There the young man comes to her, calling her away to a rendezvous, to a secluded and private spot where the two of them can be together. This very much reflects her own desire as well, and, in v. 14 (cf. the discussion in the previous note), the two lovers would seem to be on their way to such an encounter, seeking out a secluded spot. In this context, v. 15 can well be viewed as a kind of warning against a sexual encounter.
On the other hand, if the speaker of v. 15 is identified with either the young man or the young woman, then the sense of the song would be of a concern that nothing should spoil (or interrupt) their time together. Many commentators would understand the refrain in 2:7 etc in a similar light. Lovers naturally would want their moment to be as perfect as possible, especially if it necessarily must be brief (i.e., a single night, before the coming of dawn [v. 17]). No “little foxes” must be allowed to ruin the “vineyard” of their love.
Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation
The Targum and Midrash explain the “foxes” as the enemies of Israel (Egyptians, Assyrians, Edomites, Amalekites, etc), while the righteous ones in Israel represent the blossoming of the vine. The Talmud (b. Sotah 12a) applies the verse specifically to the historical scenario of Exod 2:3ff, which interprets our song in a reverse sense—i.e., of the enemies of Israel (Egyptians) calling to “catch for us” the Israelite male children (“little foxes”); cf. Pope, p. 403.
Origen, in his Commentary, explains the “foxes” as the forces of sin and wickedness that threaten to “destroy the bloom of the virtues of the soul and ruin the fruit of faith”. Such tempting thoughts, placed in the ‘vineyard’ of the soul by demons, need to be caught; and they need to be taken away while they are still “little”, before they are allowed to grow to the point that, embedded in the soul as habitual behavior, they can no longer be driven out. This is very much an ethical (and ascetic) line of interpretation, but, for many early Christians, such ‘purification of the soul’ goes hand in hand with spiritual growth and enlightenment. In this line of interpretation, of course, the young man (Bridegroom) represents the Word of God (Christ). Within the context of the Church, and in terms of Christian doctrine, the “foxes” are those heretics and teachers of error, especially those who give false teaching regarding the person of Christ.
Gregory of Nyssa, in his sermon on this verse, gives greater emphasis to the role of angels and ministering spirits as the hunters who are directed to catch these “little foxes” —forces of sin which tend to “make their dens in men’s hearts”. The spiritual forces of evil also must be conquered (i.e., “caught”) from within, but it is not possible for the soul to do so purely by its own strength. It needs the help and assistance of the Word of God. However, if these forces are conquered, the soul will “win a grace that will be [its] own”, and the vine (of our human nature) will begin to put forth “clusters of fruit with the flower of perfection”.
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 “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
Translations from Origen’s Commentary on the Song are from R. P. Lawson, Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, Ancient Christian Writers [ACW], vol. 26 (Newman/Paulist Press: 1956).
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).