July 15: Song of Songs 3:1-5 (continued)

Song 3:1-5, continued

The poem in 3:1-5, a mini-drama with the young woman as the protagonist/speaker, was discussed in the previous note. The central motif, the woman’s inability to find her beloved—both in her dreams and in reality—should be seen as representing the barriers and difficulties that keep the two lovers from being together. These difficulties involve a number of different factors.

First, there is the socio-economic situation. Within the setting of the Song, the young man is a herdsman, while the young woman, apparently, belongs to a family of vineyard-workers. These are very different kinds of occupations. Second, there are matters of social custom, including ethical and religious concerns. There is a genuine concern by the young woman’s family, and the wider community, to safeguard her blossoming sexuality, protecting it from amorous young men (the “little foxes” of 2:15, according to a plausible line of interpretation). There are also certain practical barriers, such as the seasonal aspect indicated in 2:9-12, whereby the girl would have been more or less tucked away at home during the rainy winter season, making any romantic meeting between the lovers difficult.

The only way that the young man and young woman can be together on a more regular, continual basis, is for the two to become married. As mentioned in the previous note, 3:4 contains the first reference (allusion) to marriage in the Song. The young man coming (publicly) to the girl’s family home (“the house of my mother”), means making public their love and their intention to be married. This marriage aspect continues in vv. 6-11, which I understand as a symbolic depiction of the expected wedding day.

However, in much of the Song, and certainly in the poems of the first two chapters, the couple is unmarried. This is especially clear in 2:8-17, where the poetic action leads, quite apparently, to a furtive nighttime tryst between the lovers. In any case, this desire and longing of the youths for such an encounter, shows that they are not married.

This question of the marital status of the boy and girl—and the role of marriage in the Song—is fundamental to the overall interpretation. The wider interpretive question must wait until the conclusion of this series; however, it is possible to address it here, at least in part. Perhaps the best way to do this is by considering (again) the refrain in verse 5, which repeats verbatim the refrain from 2:7.

Verse 5

“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)!”

For the literal meaning and syntax of these lines, cf. the earlier note (on 2:7). The specific force of the oath-formula is ambiguous, and can be understood a number of different ways. It is worth summarizing here the discussion from the earlier note; the key statement of the oath-formula is:

“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, which can be highlighted as a third line of interpretation:

    • 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.

Based on the context of v. 4, with the young woman finding her beloved, and her intention to be married to him, all three lines of interpretation are possible. The refrain is repeated again at 8:4, toward the close of the Song.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The girl’s search for her beloved was explained, by the Targum, in historical terms, as related to the departure of the Divine Presence (cloud of glory) from Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf. The nights spent by the young woman, filled with longing on her bed, were similarly interpreted (in the Midrash Rabbah) as referring to the different periods when the people of Israel were in bondage. In at least one line of midrashic interpretation, focused on the time of bondage in Egypt, it is Moses (the heaven-sent deliverer) who the object of Israel’s quest (cf. Pope, p. 416f). The Targum also explains the guards walking around the city in terms of Moses, Aaron and the Levites, who keep watch over the Word of God (the Torah) and the Tent of Assembly (Tabernacle). The “mother’s house” of v. 4 was similarly interpreted as the Tent, especially as a location for instruction in the Torah.

Gregory of Nyssa interprets the night-time search by the young woman in a profoundly mystical sense. In spite of her illumination by the Word, the soul has not yet fully possessed the object of her desire. The night here refers to the “contemplation of the invisible, just like Moses, who entered into the darkness to the place where God was”. She is searching for He Who is hidden in the dark cloud, whose ultimate presence and essence “resists the grasp of our thoughts”, and so we are unable to find Him at the rational level. In this context, the “city” represents “the entire spiritual and transcendental world” (that is of angels and powers), but even there the soul cannot find Him. Only by abandoning all creatures and passing by “all that is intelligible in creation” —understood in terms of “every finite mode of comprehension” —can the Beloved be found, by faith, in the “chamber of the heart”, which is then “filled by the Divine indwelling”.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
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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