July 19: Song of Songs 3:7-8

Song 3:7-10

I would outline the section 3:6-11 as follows:

      • The approach of the royal bride (the young woman), v. 6 (cf. the previous note)
      • Description of the marriage bed (or couch) for the wedding night, vv. 7-10
      • The approach of the royal bridegroom (‘Solomon’ = the young man), v. 11

Verses 7-10 provide a description of the couple’s couch/bed in preparation of their wedding night. As discussed in the previous note, the wedding of the young couple is depicted as a royal wedding, and traditions associated with Solomon (hm)l)v=, Šlœmœh, the grandest of Israelite kings, add to the sense of splendor.

Verses 7-8

“See, where he stretches out, (the bed) for Šlomoh!
Sixty strong (one)s (are) surrounding her,
from (the) strong (one)s of Yisrael,
all of them being (taught) to hold a sword,
(hav)ing been instructed in war,
(each) man (with) his sword upon his thigh,
from (the) terror (that comes) in the night.”

Literally, the first line would read: “See, (the) place for stretching out [hF*m!] which (belongs) to Solomon”; I have rendered it in a more poetic fashion. The use of the relative particle (v#) + the preposition l= is a pleonasm for the possessive, i.e., “Solomon’s place for stretching out” —that is, his bed or couch. The context clearly indicates that it is the bed/couch where the royal couple (the king and his bride) lie down together (on their wedding night).

The remainder of these verses focus on the swordsmen who stand guard around the royal bed. The adjective roBG] fundamentally refers to strong, powerful, vigorous young men; the expressions that follow, both utilizing descriptive passive participles, indicate the skill of these men with the sword and also their strength/ability as warriors in battle. One is reminded of the fame attached to David’s corps of elite warriors (2 Sam 10:7; 23:9, 16ff; 1 Kings 1:8).

The reason why they stand guard, with sword close at hand, is stated, however enigmatically, in the last line: it is to protect the bed “from (the) terror (that comes) in the night” (tolyL@B^ dj^P^m!). As in verse 1, the plural (“nights”) is used, indicating something that occurs regularly/frequently during the night.

Perhaps the best explanation of this imagery is that the warriors (“sixty” being a standard/traditional number) primarily serve a ceremonial or ritual purpose. They symbolically guard against demon-spirits that might attack or disturb the couple on their wedding night. Pope (pp. 434-6) provides strong arguments in support of this interpretation, drawing upon earlier studies by J. G. Wetzstein and Samuel Krauss; the evidence cited by Krauss (“Der richtige Sinn von ‘Schrecken in der Nacht,’ HL III 8” in Occident and Orient, Moses Gaster Eightieth Anniversary Volume [1936], pp. 323-330) is particularly convincing. The basis for such a superstition presumably lies in the natural sense of danger surrounding sexual activity, at night, within the sacred/consecrated environment of the wedding ceremony. On the potential dangers of the wedding night, cf. Tobit 3:7ff; 2/4 Esdras 10:1; on the source of the danger being the activity of demon-spirits, it is worth noting the tradition in Pirqê de-Rabbi Eliezer §12, where the angels are compared to “groomsmen who guard the bridal chamber” (Fox, p. 124). T. H. Gaster also cites a Mesopotamian incantation describing Zaqar, the deity governing dreams, as “the terror of the nights” (pulu—tu ša lilatî)—a nearly exact parallel with the expression here in v. 8 (Pope, p. 436).

There is a possible parallel with Mesopotamian tradition of the kurgarrû—ceremonial performers associated with the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, who, like the Canaanite godddess Anat, paradoxically embodies both love and war. The kurgarrû performers where men (and/or women) functioning, it seems, as dancers skilled in swordplay. For more on this, cf. Pope, pp. 437-40.

The guardians may also be seen as fulfilling a practical function, at least in part, if the bed was intended to be placed in an outdoor garden location; this will be discussed further in the next note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 7-8)

The Targum explains Solomon’s bed as the Temple, and the sixty warriors as the (sixty) letters of the priestly blessing (associated with the Temple ritual, Num 6:24-26). The Midrash Rabbah contains the same explanation of the sixty warriors, but also applies the number to the divisions of the priests and Levites (24 + 24 = 48) added to the the divisions of the rest of the people of Israel (12 +48 = 60). Alternately, it could be explained in terms of the Sanhedrin or of the 60 myriads (600,000) adult men who traditionally made the Exodus out of Egypt. Cf. Pope. p. 434.

Along a separate line of interpretation, the Targum explains the warriors’ skill with the sword in terms of the understanding of the Law. The sword at the thigh was also seens as a symbol of circumcision, marking a man’s faithful service and allegiance to the covenant. All of these things serve to protect one from the “terrors of the night”. The Midrash similarly cites a tradition regarding the circumcision of each uncircumcised Israelite male on the eve of Passover (in fulfillment of the requirement in Exod 12:48). A legal precept in the Talmud (b. Yebamot 109b) applies this verse as an admonition for judges—wearing a sword between his thighs was meant to prevent any perversion of justice (Pope, p. 440).

Gregory of Nyssa adopts a decidedly mystical (and ascetic) interpretation of the sword-carrying guardians: the imagery reflects the contrast (and conflict) between spiritual and carnal desire. The love of God can only arise from that is “contrary to carnal desire”, and, in this light, the Divine beauty can seem terrifying to the flesh. The weapons of those who stand guard are thus poised to destroy all “wicked thoughts”, penetrating into the darkness. The “sword” of hearing is to “listen to spiritual instruction”. The sixty warriors are explained as five ‘chosen ones’ from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (“Israel” representing all who are saved). Yet even believers (Israelites) must be purified and made perfect, so that, clean of heart, they will be able truly to see the Word of God, and to be united with him on the bed of the King (i.e., the marriage bed where the children are conceived [cf. 3:4]). The elect are thus represented simultaneously as a child, as a warrior, and as a true Israelite:

“As a true Israelite, he sees God with a clean heart; as a warrior, he guards the royal couch, that is, his own heart, in purity and freedom from passion; as a child he sleeps upon the couch of salvation.” (transl. Musurillo, p. 211)

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).
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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