August 31: Song of Songs 7:12-14

Song 7:12-14 [11-13]

As mentioned in the previous note, the young woman completes the sentence of the young man in v. 10, joining her song to his (as in an operatic love-duet). However, the girl’s song properly begins here with verse 12, framed by the two references to her beloved as “my love” (yd!oD).

“Come, my love, we will go out (into) the field,
spend the night among the henna-bushes;
we will go early to the vineyards—
we will see if the vine has sprouted,
(if) the blossom has opened,
(if) the pomegranates sparkle—
there I will give (all) my love to you.
The love-fruits give (out their) breath,
and at our openings (are) all precious (fruit)s—
newly (awake) and also sleeping,
my love, I have hidden (them here) for you.”

Translation note: The imperfect verb forms in vv. 12-13 (“we will…”) can be understood as having jussive or cohortative force (“let us…”); the latter rendering can be substituted into the translation above, with no loss of meaning, being largely a matter of translation style and preference.

This song echoes the earlier declaration by the girl in 6:11, where she states that she has “gone down” to the garden, exploring the newly blossoming fields and vineyards of spring-time. A quite similar idea is present in 2:10-14, where it is the young man who calls on the girl to go away with him into the fields, etc. Both of these earlier episodes inform the scene here. As noted on numerous occasions, the garden and vineyard serve primarily in the Song as symbols of the girl’s sexuality—as well as, secondarily, referring to the enjoyment of sexual pleasure by the two lovers. In 2:8-17, we are dealing with a romantic/sexual liaison between the two, and here there is a similar scene, only more explicit and suggestive of sexual intercourse. The latter aspect was already highlighted in the young man’s song (vv. 8-10a), as well as by the union of the two voices in v. 10 (cf. above).

The girl calls on her beloved (“my love”, yd!oD), to “go out” (vb ax*y`) with her into the field—meaning out into the open country at spring-time. The second line could be translated “we will lodge in the villages”, but this is inappropriately mundane for the context. The noun rp*K* can mean “village”, but there is an identical word that refers to a fragrant plant, usually identified with the cypress or henna-bush (cf. 4:13); the latter is clearly intended here. The verb /Wl (or /y!l) denotes spending the night in a place, and does not have any sexual connotation per se. However, the context clearly suggests that the two lovers are to spend the night together—i.e., sleeping together (in a sexual sense). Probably there is a bit of wordplay here, playfully indicating that the two will spend the night out in the fields just like one might lodge in a village house.

The sprouting/blossoming of the grape-vine and the pomegranate are essentially repeated from 6:11. In my prior note on that verse, I interpreted the scene as an expression of the girl’s blossoming sexuality—her journey being one of exploration as she becomes more and more aware of her sexual maturity. Here, she invites the young man to explore this with her. They both together will see whether the the vine and other plants have sprouted, whether the blossoms have bloomed, etc. Together, they will thus be exploring each other’s sexuality. The idea of “going early” (vb <k^v*) to the vineyard likely has a double meaning: (1) it indicates a time early in the season of growth (early spring), and (2) it suggests an eagerness to reach the garden/vineyard locale as soon as possible. The root <kv often denotes rising early in the morning and doing work or making preparations, etc; however, here, almost certainly the significance is more abstract and figurative, as I have indicated.

Their checking to see if the fruit-plants have blossomed, etc, could possibly include the further symbolic meaning of determining whether the ‘time is right’ for a consummation of their love (through sexual intercourse). Cf. further on this, briefly, below.

When they reach the garden locale, and if the time is ripe/right, then the girl declares that there (<v*, in emphatic position) she will give all her love to the young man. The plural form yd^D) essentially means “my expressions/gestures of love”, or, collectively, “my love-making”. In order to maintain the wordplay precisely, I have translated the plural here exactly as the singular yd!D), “my love”.

Another bit of similar wordplay is involved with the plural <ya!d*WD, which is presumably derived from the same root dwd denoting “love, beloved”. I have thus translated it here as “love-fruits”, i.e., fruits or plants which serve as an aphrodisiac. It is generally assumed by most commentators that the mandrake (or mandragora) plant is being referenced; however, to translate flatly as “mandrakes” would be inappropriate, instantly losing the important wordplay. The other main occurrence of the word is in Genesis 30:14-16 (cf. also Jer 24:1), where the context also indicates that it refers to a plant serving as an aphrodisiac. Yet, in the Song, the sense is not that the lovers will use this plant to aid in their love-making; rather, it simply makes explicit what is otherwise implied in the other garden-passages of the Song—namely, that the flowers and fruit, etc, are symbols of sexual love and enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The pleasure of these ‘garden-fruits’ is first encountered through their fragrant scent (lit. something blown, “breath,” j^yr@ [par. j^Wr]). It was through the fragrance of the garden, wafted by the wind, that the girl invites the boy into the garden of her sexuality in 4:16; much the same idea occurs here.

All of these fruits are most precious, meaning prized and delectable, etc; the same idiom, using the substantive dg#m#, occurred earlier in 4:13, 16 (cf. the earlier note). These fruits lie at the “openings” (plur. of jt^P#) of the two lovers. While I have translated this noun quite literally (primarily to capture the wordplay with the blossoms “opening” [vb jt^P*] in v. 13), it primarily refers to a door or other entrance. This could imply that the two lovers are together in the room of a house (cf. on the possible meaning of <yr!p*K= as “villages” in v. 12 above); however, the context clearly indicates that the place where they are to spend the night (sleeping together) is out in the open country—right there among the blossoming fields and vineyards. Most likely, the implied image is of a sheltered and secluded spot, surrounded by the fragrant and delectable plants; these fruits are thus right upon the door. There may also be a euphemistic sexual allusion with the idea of an “opening” —i.e., referring to a bodily orifice. The young man’s “hand” going through the ‘opening’ of the door to the girl’s room (in 5:4, cf. the earlier note) likely entailed a similar sort of sexual entendre (cf. also in 2:9).

In describing the ‘fruits’ of her sexuality, the young woman further characterizes them as <yn]v*y+-<G~ <yv!d*j&, which would be translated rather flatly as “new (thing)s (and) also old (thing)s”. If all that is meant is “new and old”, then it would simply serve as a summary expression (merism) referring to all kinds of sexual pleasure and lovemaking. However, the root /vy fundamentally refers, not to something being old, but to someone sleeping. Indeed, the plural adjective <yn]v*y+ here is virtually identical to the earlier <yn]v@y+ in v. 11 (according to the MT); and, if the MT is correct there (cf. the discussion in the prior note), then it is likely that <ynvy here is meant as a bit of wordplay echoing the earlier reference. For this reason, I have translated the expression as “newly (awake) and also sleeping”, which would fit the context of the lovers spending the night together, experiencing each others delight, both asleep and awake (cf. the upcoming discussion on 8:5).

In any case, the girl concludes her song by declaring that all of this love, all of the sexual delights to be experienced, she has hidden away (like a treasure, vb /p^x*) for her beloved. The implication is that she has hidden them away in the ‘garden locale’ where the two are to be united. The statement further implies that these are things which the two lovers have not yet experienced together, but it would be reading far too much into the verse to conclude that there had been no sexual intercourse between them in the previous episodes of the Song. The moral/ethical aspect of the relationship between marriage and sexuality, as understood and expressed within the Song, will be discussed in some detail once we have completed the notes on the text.

August 30: Song of Songs 7:10b-11

Song 7:10b-14
Verse 10b-11 [9b-10]

As I mentioned in the previous note, verse 10 joins together the song of the young man (vv. 8-10a) with that of the young woman (vv. 10b-14). This is an effective and appealing way of depicting, in poetic terms, the union of the two lovers. The girl finishes the boy’s sentence, much as in an operatic love-duet; one is reminded, for example, of how the two lead singers complete each other’s lines in the climax to the great second act love-duet in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Here is how this plays out in verse 10:

Boy:
“and (the) taste of your (mouth) like the good wine…”
Girl:
“…going to my love with smoothness, flowing (from the) lips <…>”

The portion in angle-brackets represents a textual and interpretive difficulty. The final expression, as it reads in the MT, is “lips of (the) sleeping (one)s,” “lips of (the one)s asleep” (<yn]v@y+ yt@p=c!). This expression makes more sense depending on how one understands the prior verb bbd (participle bb@oD). The verb only occurs here in the Old Testament, so its meaning remains in dispute. The cognate bbd in Aramaic suggests a meaning like “murmur”, while Arabic dabba, “move (gently)” would also be applicable; the meaning of the phrase could thus be something like “stirring (the) lips of (the one)s sleeping” (cf. Pope, p. 640).

However, another line of interpretation would explain the root bbd in terms of the later occurrence of the verb bb^D* in Mishnaic Hebrew, where it means “flow, drip”, similar in meaning to the comparable bWD in Aramaic (= bWz in Hebrew). This makes for a better fit in relation to the image of wine in v. 10a, but it is not clear how it would apply to the idea of “sleepers”. For this reason, Fox (p. 162f) suggests emending MT <yn]v@y+ to <yn]v* (plur. of the adjective “scarlet, crimson”). While this would be appropriate as a description of the girl’s lips (“flowing [from] scarlet lips”), there is admittedly no manuscript support for such an emendation. The translation in the LXX and the Syriac Peshitta assumes a reading ynvw ytpc (“my lips and my teeth”). This solution is most attractive, since it leads to a reading of the phrase that is simple and direct: “…flowing (from) my lips and teeth”.

There is no easy answer to this textual problem. Possibly, there is some dual-meaning wordplay involved surrounding the fundamental meaning of the verbal root [b]bd / b[w]d. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea manuscripts provide no help, since the two fragmentary (surviving) manuscripts preserve the text only up through 7:7[6]. I tentatively follow the MT, rendering verse 10b in the following sense:

“…going to my love with smoothness,
flowing (from) lips (even while) asleep.”

It may be important to the poetic scene to preserve this allusion to the young lovers sleeping together (to be discussed further in the note on 8:5b [and preceding]).

Having decided, however reluctantly, on a rendering of these lines, here is vv. 10b-11 in context:

“…going to my love with smoothness,
flowing (from) lips (even while) asleep.
I belong to my love, and over me (is) his longing.”

The wording of v. 11 echoes the earlier declaration in 2:16 and 6:3. The young woman expresses one side of this declaration of mutual belonging—a kind of covenant bond between the two lovers. This is a key theme that will be further developed in the final section of the Song (chap. 8). This single aspect, or direction, of the belonging is significant, because it suggests the girl’s willingness, her ‘invitation’, for the young man to unite with her. Recall the imagery in 4:12ff, where the ‘garden’ of the girl’s sexuality has a latched entrance—which temporarily separates the two lovers, until the girl lets (invites) him in (v. 16). Her sexuality—i.e., the garden and its central spring/fountain—is reserved for her beloved (and no other young man); his ‘seal’ of ownership is effectively stamped on the garden (4:12, and note the wording in 4:16-5:1). This same idea is expressed here, where the girl states, unconditionally, that she belongs to her beloved.

The other side of the declaration of mutual-belonging is expressed in the phrase that follows: “and over me (is) his longing” (otq*WvT= yl^u*w+). The preposition lu^ has a relatively wide semantic range—primarily, “upon, over, against”. This basic meaning, understood in a concrete sense, could very well allude here to sexual intercourse. In my view, this is, indeed, the context of the scene; however, in this particular line, the force of the preposition should probably be understood in the more general sense of direction or purpose: i.e., his longing is for me, is directed toward me. The noun hq*WvT= (“longing”) is used in a clear sexual context in Gen 3:16 (the only other occurrence being in Gen 4:7), where the meaning (and phrasing) is nearly identical to what we find here. In that famous reference, it is the woman’s longing that is directed to the man, while here the opposite is declared. The fact that the young man’s longing and (sexual) desire is directed completely toward his beloved demonstrates that he, too, belongs to her.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Jewish commentators struggled to understand v. 10b no less than modern scholars (cf. above). The Midrash Rabbah explained the “lips of the sleepers” in terms of the ancestors and other faithful/righteous ones of Israel who have died. God calls the angels to go down and ‘kiss’ the lips of these faithful ancestors, especially those who endured suffering and persecution. The movement of the sleepers’ lips suggested that the lips of the dead quiver in the grave, a  tradition being cited regarding the movement of the lips of a deceased scholar (cf. b. Yebamot 96b-97a; Sanhedrin 90b).

The Targum applied verse 11 to the holy city of Jerusalem—i.e., the longing of YHWH for it, which prompts Him to make it the dwelling-place for His Presence. The Midrash explained the “longing” (hq*WvT) in the opposite direction—viz., of Israel’s yearning for YHWH. The evil aspect of desire, associated with the word hq*WvT in the Genesis references (cf. above) was also noted; but, on the whole, the Jewish commentators tended to downplay the (negative) sexual aspect. Cf. Pope, pp. 642-3.

Ambrose examines the three occurrences of the formula of belonging in the Song (2:16; 6:3; 7:11). The first instance refers to the soul’s ‘initial schooling’ in the ways of God, the second emphasizes the soul’s progress, while the third (here in v. 11) describes the soul’s perfection, drawing upon the image of the palm (tree) in context (as a symbol of victory). Both Ambrose and Apponius follow the LXX in its rendering of hq*WvT as “turning” —i.e., “and his turning [e)pistrofh/] is toward me”. Because the girl (the soul) offers herself so completely to her Beloved (Christ), he now turns and offers himself completely to her. Apponius gave these words a Christological interpretation, explaining them in terms of the incarnation of Christ—i.e., his turning to become manifest in the soul of Mary. This reflects an early example of the Christian tendency to understand the young woman of the Song as representing the Virgin Mary.

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).

 

August 29: Song of Songs 7:8-10a

Song 7:8-14

Verses 8-10a [7-9a]

“This, your stature, was likened to a palm-tree,
and your two breasts to its clusters (of fruit).
(Well,) I said ‘Let me go up on (that) palm-tree
and grab hold on its (high) branches!’—
and, oh, may your two breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and (the) breath of your nostrils (be) like apples,
and (the) taste of your (mouth) like the good wine…”

The opening lines of this section build playfully on the prior waƒf praise-song (vv. 2-7), focusing on the girl’s body—from toe to head. Now the young man speaks of his beloved’s stature (hm*oq), that is, her appearance as she is standing. The idea of height is particularly being emphasized by the term hm*oq. Here she is compared to a tall palm-tree (rm*T*), whereas in prior poems a mountain-motif (spec. the white peaks of the Lebanon range) was utilized to express this aspect of height with its associations of majesty and grandeur. Particularly in 4:8, the mountain image was used to express the idea of separation between the two lovers. Verse 8 here alludes to the same idea (i.e., separation and difficulty of access), but the sense of any separating barrier (or distance) is quickly dissolving.

Indeed, the young man expresses his desire and intention to climb (lit. “go up on”) that tall palm-tree (the girl’s body). The fruit of that tree is identified primarily with the girls “two breasts”. Normally, the word loKv=a# refers to a cluster of grapes, but here it is used in a more general sense for any fruit-cluster (spec. the date-clusters on the palm-tree). The noun /s!n+s^ occurs only here in the Old Testament, but its meaning can be determined from the cognate Akkadian word sinsinnu, referring to the topmost branches (of the date-palm); this basic meaning is confirmed by the Syriac and Greek versions (cf. Pope, p. 636). The imagery in v. 9 combines the idea of the young man “climbing” onto his beloved, and then “grabbing hold” (vb zj^a*) of her breasts. This is perhaps the most graphic sexual imagery of the Song, and it unquestionably refers to sexual intercourse (the beginnings of it, at least).

The date-palm in the ancient Near East had strong connections with sexuality and fertility, and was a tree sacred to the goddess. In Mesopotamia, the palm-tree was closely associated with the goddess Inanna (later Ishtar), and the fruit of the date-palm plays an important role in the Sumerian love songs between Dumuzi and Inanna. In addition to the basic sexual motif, there were two key aspects to the symbol of the date-palm in these  songs. First, there was the seasonal mythic-ritual context of the date-harvest, in which the growing fruit of the date-palm, represented by Dumuzi in his aspect as worshiped by the orchard growers, was ritually placed in the communal storehouse (represented by the person of Inanna). Second, in the love songs, this ritual aspect is depicted in terms of the girl’s lover (Dumuzi) presenting the fruit (dates) to her (Inanna), like jewels, as a wedding gift.

As he climbs (or anticipates climbing) the ‘tree’, he expresses his deep wish (note the particle an`) that the ‘cluster’ of the girl’s breasts would be like a cluster of grapes (the regular sense of loKv=a#) on the vine. By this is presumably meant breasts that are soft and plump, juicy and succulent, like grapes; moreover, the motif of grapes immediately brings into view the image of wine (as a symbol of sexual delight).

The expression “breath of your nose/nostrils” (EP@a^ j^yr@) seems rather peculiar, prompting some commentators to deviate from the normal meaning of the word [a^. Pope notes, for example, that the cognate words in Akkadian (appu) and Ugaritic (ap) can refer to the tip of other parts of the body, including the breasts and the genitals (cf. p. 636f). To be sure, the nipple of the breasts would certainly fit the sexuality and eroticism of the scene, and the fragrance of the girl’s breasts was emphasized in 1:13 (cf. also 4:5-6). However, in my view, this misunderstands the poetry, where, as is often the case, an attempt is made to combine a number of different motifs and associations within just a few syllables. In this case, the following four aspects, or strands, can be noted:

    • The parallelism between sweet scent (j^yr@) and taste (Ej@)
    • The sweet fragrance of the girl’s breath
    • The fact that the scent is enjoyed through the nose/nostrils
    • The interlocking of nose and mouth, together, combine to depict passionate kissing

If the nose (and nostrils) are associated with a sweet smell, it is the mouth (spec. the tongue and palate, literally the “[place for] tasting”) that represents a sweet taste. Thus, the overall imagery of this scene reflects the young man’s desire to embrace his beloved, holding her close, the two pressing against each other face-to-face. He presses himself up against her breasts, and his nose and mouth joins with hers (in passionate kissing). This image of sexual union (and intercourse) is enhanced and further expressed, in poetic terms, by the way that the girl’s words take up from the boy’s words here in v. 10a, and she finishes the sentence (v. 10b). In terms of the poetic structure of the section, the portion sung by the young man (vv. 8-10a) is joined to the portion sung by the young woman (vv. 10b-14). This will be discussed further in the next daily note, but it is worth introducing here verse 10 in its entirety:

Boy:
“and (the) taste of your (mouth) like the good wine…”
Girl:
“…going to my love with smoothness, flowing (from the) lips <…>”

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum applied the imagery in verse 8 to the moment when the priests spread their hands in prayer to bless the people of Israel, his stature and outstretched hands resembling the palm-tree. The Midrash Rabbah preserves more of the genuine sexual context of the verse, though considered from a negative standpoint, according to the customary ethical-religious line of interpretation. The eroticism refers to the evil inclinations in the world (among human beings), toward idolatry and unchastity respectively; the tendency toward unchastity (sexual immorality) is the more difficult to withstand and uproot. Similarly, in verse 9, the Midrash interprets the sexuality according to the historical example of Daniel and his companions in resisting idolatry. The Targum mentions the same example, but without the pointed context of resistance to temptation; instead, the merit of the Fathers is emphasized, according to their endurance of various trials (in a more general sense). The same basic lines of interpretation, for both the Targum and Midrash (Rabbah) extend into verse 10. In particular, the ‘lips’ of the righteous ancestors are to be honored (‘kissed’) for their faithfulness to the Torah and endurance of persecution, etc. Cf. Pope, pp. 634, 637, 642.

Christian commentators tended to follow a similar line of ethical-religious interpretation when dealing with the eroticism of these verses. For example, Bede explains the ‘height’ of the young woman in terms of the moral uprightness and good works of believers (the Church). The Bride “is likened to the palm-tree because she stands upright in her love of things heavenly”. The grape-clusters of the girl’s breasts refers to the work of the Church’s teachers, especially when they move beyond giving basic instruction (‘milk’) to teach the more mature believers on deeper matters of the faith. The scent of the mouth likewise represents the sound speech of Christians, and the work of speech (teaching and preaching, etc) that is dedicated to God. The apples are fresh and new, but the wine is aged, reflecting two aspects—and levels of maturity—within the Church. Cf. Norris, pp. 261-3.

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 “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 2)

Psalm 52, continued

Verses 8-11 [6-9]

Verse 8 [6]

“(The) just (one)s will see and will fear,
and upon him they will laugh.”

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) presented a harsh polemic, inspired by both prophetic and Wisdom tradition, against the wicked (cf. the previous week’s study). The specific focus of the polemic was the false and deceitful speech of the wicked—their words may sound good, but they are belied by the action and intention of such people. In particular, their confession of loyalty to YHWH (and His covenant) is false. The section concluded with an imprecatory declaration regarding the fate of the wicked, and it is this fate (death and permanent dwelling in the grave) which is in view as we begin the second part of the Psalm. The suffixed preposition wyl*u* (“upon him,” i.e., at him) refers to the wicked person (and his fate).

There is obvious wordplay in the first line combining the similar sounding verbal phrases “and they will see” (War=y]w+, w®yir°û) with “and they will fear” (War*yy]w+, w®yîr¹°û). Viewing the miserable fate of the wicked brings fear, but also laughter (vb qj^v*). This may seem an inappropriate response for the righteous, to laugh at the punishment and suffering that awaits the wicked; perhaps it should be understood in the sense of rejoicing at the establishment of YHWH’s justice, made manifest through the punishment meted out, deservedly, to the wicked.

The 3+2 meter of this couplet establishes the rhythm of the remainder of the Psalm, which follows a 3+2 meter more consistently than in the first part.

Verse 9 [7]

“See—the strong (one who) would not set
(the) Mightiest (as) his safe place,
but sought protection in (the) abundance of his riches
and would be strong in his downfall!”

This pair of 3+2 couplets represents, apparently, the mocking words of the righteous, and should be associated—however inappropriate it may seem to us—with their laughter at the wicked. Overall, the tone fits the harsh polemic of the first half of the Psalm, and builds on the Wisdom-themed contrast between the righteous and the wicked in the second half. The righteous person trusts in YHWH, while the wicked person trusts instead in their earthly wealth and power. This contrast here is expressed both in negative and positive terms:

    • He would not make YHWH his “safe/secure place” (zoum*), i.e., the place where finds protection, but instead…
    • He “sought protection” (vb jf^B*) in his riches

The verb jf^B* is used frequently in the Psalms, denoting seeking (and finding) protection; implied is the trust one has in that protection. This usage has, as its background and context, the ancient covenant idea—specifically, the protection which YHWH (the Sovereign) is obligated to provide to His faithful servants/vassals, according to the terms of the covenant. Not only are the wicked disloyal to the covenant, they effectively disregard and ignore it, relying instead on their worldly strength and wealth for protection. Note how the false and empty strength of the wicked is contrasted with the true strength of YHWH (as the Mightiest [<yh!l)a$]):

    • the ‘strong’ one (rb#G#h^)
      • the Mightiest (<yh!l)a$)
    • he was ‘strong’ (zu)y`)

There is also a bit of alliterative wordplay between the words oZWum* (“his secure place”) and zu)y` (“he was strong”). The wicked clings to his false strength even in his downfall (hW`h^)—that is, even as he meets his terrible fate. Another bit of wordplay occurs here, since the word hW`h^ can also be read as a byform of hW`a^, referring to a person’s wicked/evil desire—i.e., the wicked remains ‘strong’ in his wickedness, clinging to it even as he perishes.

Verse 10 [8]

“While I (will be) like a fresh green olive-tree
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest—
I find protection in (the) goodness of (the) Mightiest,
(for the) distant (future) and until (the end).”

With this pair of 3+2 couplet, the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist) contrasts his fate with that of the wicked. While no future life awaits for the wicked—only death and the grave—the righteous will experience a blessed afterlife “in the house of God”. His faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant will result in blessing both in this life and in the life to come. Again the use of the verb jf^B* (cf. above) and the noun ds#j# must be understood in the context of the covenant idea—the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people. The “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH refers specifically to His covenant loyalty—i.e., He generously bestows blessings on those who have been loyal to Him. The protection God provides extends even to rescuing the righteous from the final fate of death and the grave. Moreover, dwelling in the house of YHWH is an extension of the covenant-idea of the faithful vassal having a place in the house (and at the table) of his sovereign. The specific motif of the righteous as a fresh and growing (green) tree derives from a separate line of (Wisdom) tradition—cf. Psalm 1:3, etc.

It is worth noting again that Psalm 52 is one of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, in which, most probably, occurrences of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) were consistently replaced by the name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim). In these verses, however, the use of the title <yh!l)a$ has its own special significance, since its presumed meaning (“[the] Mightiest [One]”) relates to the contrastive theme of strength/might—i.e., the false (worldly) strength of the wicked, and the true strength of YHWH (cf. above).

Verse 11 [9]

“I will throw you (praise), Eternal (One), for you have done (this)—
and I will call on your Name, for (it is) good—
in front of your good (and loyal one)s!”

Many Psalms, at least in the form they have come down to us, conclude with lines that apply the poem to a communal worship setting. That is certainly the case here, as the Psalmist speaks of praising and proclaiming the name of YHWH in front of [dg#n#] the righteous (“good/loyal ones”, <yd!ys!j&). This descriptive title of the righteous, specifically connoting loyalty to YHWH and His covenant, stands in contrast to the false and deceitful devotion of the wicked as a “good (servant) of the Mighty (One)” (in a sarcastic sense, cf. on v. 3 [1] in the previous study).

The expression <l*oul= echoes the use of <l*ou at the end of v. 10 (cf. above), and may be used here in the same temporal sense: “I will through you praise into (the) distant (future) [<l*oul=]”. However, it is also possible that there is a bit of wordplay involved, and that the occurrence of <l*ou here is actually part of the praise of YHWH, referring to Him by the title of <l*ou (requiring a translation something like “Eternal [One]”). In such an instance, the prefixed preposition (l=) would be an example of the vocativel—i.e., “O, Eternal (One)”. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 16f; with some hesitation, I have adopted this interpretation in my translation above.

I also follow tentatively follow Dahood (I, p. 121f; II, p. 17) in deriving the verbal form hW#q^a& here from the root hwq (II), “gather, collect”, in the sense of “call” (cf. the comparable occurrence in Psalm 19:5), and thus similar in meaning to the more common arq. The action of calling (on) the name of YHWH is more suitable to the public/communal worship setting of the verse.

The meter of this final verse is, loosely, 3+3+2.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

August 26: Song of Songs 7:2-7 (continued)

Song 7:2-7, continued

(For verses 2-5a [1-4a], cf. the previous daily note.)

Verse 5b [4b]—Eyes and Nose

“Your two eyes (are like the) pools in Hešbôn
upon (the) gate of ‘Daughter of Rabbîm;’
your nose (is) like a great (peak) of the White (mountains),
looking down (on the) face of Dammešek.”

Describing eyes as ‘limpid pools’ is quite natural and common, emphasizing both the clear whiteness and wetness of them (cf. the earlier imagery in 5:12). Moreover, the word for “eye” (/y]u^) is identical with the (presumably related) word for “spring, fountain” (the two words may derived from separate, but cognate, roots); so there is a bit of wordplay involved. The mention of Heshbon—usually identified with the site of Tell „esbân in the highlands of Transjordan—adds a bit of geographic color, as does the reference to Damascus in the second couplet. If the ‘pools of Heshbon’ were especially famous or noteworthy, that particular detail has been lost to us; however, excavation of the 10th century B.C. site did reveal a significant (20+ foot-deep) water reservoir.

There is unquestionably some wordplay involved in the expression <yB!r^-tB^, and it is impossible to choose between flatly transliterating it as a  place-name (as most translations) do, and thus losing its meaning, or to translate it and preserve its meaning (but then lose the geographic detail). I have chosen to combine the two approaches, rendering it above as “Daughter of Rabbîm.” Apparently, this was the name of a gate in Heshbon, the literal meaning of which would presumably be something like “daughter of the great (one)s” —at any rate, that is the sense that the Song is playing on here, alluding to the epithet of the girl as “daughter of a noble” in v. 2.

Comparing the girl’s nose to a mountain prominence may seem inappropriate, but it is really no different that describing her neck as a “great (tower)”. The same locative word lD*g+m!, “place of great (height)”, is used here, presumably in reference to a “great peak” of the Lebanon range. Throughout the Song, the Lebanon mountains recur as an important image, because it combines together a number of key motifs: majesty and height, the whiteness of its snowy-peaks, and its famous cedar-wood notable both as a luxury item and for its fragrance. The latter detail is particularly significant, since the association with fragrant spices is also established via the word-play between the Lebanon (/onb*l=, l®»¹nôn) and the word for “frankincense” (hn*obl=, l®»ônâ)—both deriving from a root denoting “whiteness”. Probably the straightness of the girl’s nose is being particularly emphasized, but also how it gives a proud and distinguished (i.e., noble, majestic) appearance to her face as a whole. The geographic span from the Transjordan to Syria may also allude to the sense of majesty the young man ascribes to his beloved’s beauty—according it a kind of transcendent, cosmic royalty.

Verse 6 [5]

“(Indeed) your head upon you (is) like the fruitful (mountain),
and (the) dangling hair of your head like the (royal) purple—
a king is held fast in the (flow)ing locks!”

The mountain imagery from v.5b continues here, comparing the girl’s very head with the “fruitful (mountain)” (lm#r=K^). As with the Lebanon range, there is a play on the literal meaning of the Karmel (Carmel) mountain; and it is best to translate the term, rather than transliterating it in English as a proper name (where the meaning is lost). The name lm#r=K^ literally refers to a fruitful and fertile place. Such a fertile mountain peak is fitting for a description of the top of the girl’s head. The ‘fertile growth’ alluded to, apart from its general sexual connotation, refers here specifically to the girl’s rich locks of lush, flowing hair. The hair is hanging or dangling (hL*D^) down from her head, dark and luxuriant as though it had been dyed with the royal purple. Playing on this imagery, the young man adds a third short line to the couplet, exclaiming how a ‘king’ (i.e., he himself) has been captured (“held [fast],” vb rs^a*) by the girl’s flowing locks.

Some commentators would include the noun El#m# as part of the second line—i.e., “…like the purple of (the) king”. However, this does not fit metrically; it is better to keep El#m# as the subject of the short concluding line, pivoting conceptually on the idea of the royal purple. In the world of their love, the boy and girl are ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other, with their love-making having a kind of majestic, royal quality. The reference to the girl as a “noble daughter” in v. 2 [1] (cf. the previous note) follows this same line of creative, playful expression. Note also the wordplay in the expression <yB!r^-tB^ above.

Verse 7 [6]

“How beautiful you are and how pleasant you are,
(my) love, (you) daughter of delights!”

The praise song ends as it began (in v. 2 [1]), with an exclamation with the particle hm*—an interrogative pronoun (“what”), rendered here in an exclamatory sense (“how…!”). In verse 2, the exclamation referred specifically to the beauty of the girl’s feet, but now the young man makes his (dual) exclamation in a comprehensive sense, referring to the entire beauty and attractiveness of his beloved. This double-reference has two layers of meaning. On the one hand, it relates to the narrative context of the praise-song, explaining how the girl’s beauty is truly perfect, far beyond the attractiveness of a mere dancing girl (cf. the prior note on v. 1b). On the other hand, it deftly combines the two aspects of the praise song—namely, the girl’s physical beauty, and her sexual appeal. The first aspect is indicated by the verb hp*y` (“be beautiful, fair”), the second by <u^n` (“be pleasant, sweet, delightful”).

In conclusion, he calls her hb*h&a^ (“love”), which is essentially synonymous with the more frequent doD—both terms, in the context of the Song, mean “beloved, loved one”, i.e., the one whom I love. Perhaps the regular verbal aspect of the root bha here alludes specifically to the act of love-making between the two—something which takes on greater prominence in the next unit of the Song (7:8-14).

MT <yg]Wnu&T^B^ (“with the delights” [?]) should instead be divided into the construct expression <yg]Wmu&T^ tB^ (“daughter of delights”), as many commentators recognize (supported by the Peshitta Syriac and Greek Aquila versions). It essentially means something like “(you) delightful girl”, but the formal expression carries important echoes of the earlier “daughter of the great ones” (v. 5) and “daughter of a noble” (v. 2). Again these references to nobility/royalty are part of the symbolic make-believe world of love-play and love-making, and this comes very much into focus here at the close of the praise-song (and the section [6:4-7:7] as a whole). Calling her “daughter of delights” anticipates the more explicit imagery and references to love-making in the following section (7:8-14), which we will begin discussing in the next note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The imagery of the praise-song in vv. 2-7 was interpreted, e.g. by the Targum and Midrash, in a manner quite similar to the approach taken with the earlier waƒf songs. For example, the feet and legs in v. 2 were explained by the Targum as representing the feet of Israel when her people faithfully appear before YHWH in observance of the holy festivals, while the loins (thighs) symbolize the devout children who are born from them. The Midrash similarly understood the “feet” in relation to Passover and the festival of Sukkot, with the sandal-latches referring to the completion of the people’s festival duties (which will lead to blessing and prosperity during the year). The thighs also suggested the specific association with the rite of circumcision, and the blessings of health, etc, which follow from it for Israel.

The Targum and Midrash each interpret the ‘navel’ in v. 3 as representing the head of the Sanhedrin, which also stands as the religious center for Israel in its study and observance of the Torah; the stomach/belly extends the motif to include all those sages who surround him in the Sanhedrin. The two breasts of the girl follow the interpretation of 4:5, while the Targum here specifically emphasizes the breasts as symbolic of the two Messiahs (son of David, and son of Ephraim) who will come to redeem Israel.

The mention of Mt. Carmel in v. 6 naturally brought to mind the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), while the purple color represents the exaltation (restoration) of the lowly but pious ones in Israel. The Midrash interestingly explains the ‘captive king’ of the verse as referring to YHWH (the King), in that He has bound Himself (by oath and the covenant) to make His presence manifest in the midst of Israel. Cf. Pope, pp. 616ff.

Theodoret typically interprets the girl’s body parts in an ethical-religious sense—the feet are praised because they “walk the straight path along the royal way”, the thighs signify practical virtue and the moral awareness of believers as they walk along the way; the navel (in terms of the umbilical cord) represents the sin and idolatry that is ‘cut off’, while the belly, depicted as a heap of grain, symbolizes the “storehouses of the soul full of hidden mysteries”. Christians such as Theodoret had to work hard to fit the various geographic details (“pools of Heshbon,” et al) into such an allegorical and ethical framework, giving explanations that sometimes verge on the preposterous. However, occasionally commentators might be aided by a peculiarity of translation in the Greek, such as when Aquila took /obv=j# (µešbôn) as a common noun (cf. Eccl 7:25, 27; 9:10) and translated it e)n e)pilogismw| (i.e., “in thought, contemplation”, cp. Sirach 27:5; 42:3); this allowed Theodoret to interpret the idiom of the pools as “reservoirs of an abundance of godly thoughts”. Cf. Norris, pp. 256ff.

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 “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

August 25: Song of Songs 7:2-7

Song 7:2-7

The poem in 7:2-7 [1-6] is another waƒf praise-song, the third such unit overall in the Song. In it, the speaker praises the beauty (and sexual appeal) of the beloved, focusing on one body part at a time. The first such waƒf song (using the term from Arabic love poetry tradition) was in 4:1-7 (by the young man), with the lines from vv. 1b-3 repeated in 6:5b-7; the second (by the young woman) was in 5:10-16. That praise-song by the young woman was set within the dramatic context of 5:2-6:3, essentially occurring as a response to the question by the “daughters of Jerusalem” in 5:9. Similarly, this current praise-song must be understood within the narrative of the section (6:4-7:7), in response to the call by the male youths (parallels to the “daughters of Jerusalem”) in 7:1a. As discussed in the previous note, while the protagonist agrees with their assessment of the girl’s physical beauty, their inclination to look at her as they might an attractive dancing-girl (v. 1b) is unworthy of his beloved. The transcendent perfection of her beauty is the focus of his praise-song.

In this particular waƒf, the praise of the beloved’s body parts proceeds in the opposite direction—beginning down at the feet and ending up at the head.

Verse 2 [1]—Feet and Legs

“How beautiful are your feet with (their) latch-straps,
O daughter of a noble!
The turns of your thighs (are) like (precious) ornaments,
(the) work of a steady (design)er’s hands.”

The initial line, with its opening interrogative pronoun, could perhaps be translated as, “What is the beauty (of) your feet…?”, i.e., “how should I compare them?” This question (rendered as an exclamation above) establishes the subsequent comparisons of the praise-song. The latch-straps (<yl!u*n=) of the girl’s sandals only add to the visual appeal and sensuousness of her small feet.

Her thighs are literally turning (noun qWMj^, from a root meaning “turn”)—either in the sense of how they move, or the sensuous curve of their shape. Probably the latter is meant, but in any case it continues the conceptual word-play of this section, utilizing the motif or theme of turning (cf. the previous note on v. 1 [6:13]). The curvature of her thighs is smooth and perfect, like the work of a skilled craftsman of jewelry, etc. The closing phrase literally reads “(the) work of (the) hands of a steady (crafts)man [/M*a*]”.

The expression “daughter of a noble” is part of a recurring theme throughout the Song—that the love between the young man and young woman has a royal quality to it. In the world of their love, the two are like great nobles, even ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other. Here the epithet emphasizes the majesty of the girl’s beauty (cf. earlier in 6:8-10), beyond that of any mere ‘dancing-girl’ (7:1b). It also plays on the reference (however enigmatic) to the noble young men in 6:12. Perhaps the sense here is that the girl, his beloved, is just as noble (if not far more so) than they.

Verse 3 [2]—Stomach/Belly/Pelvis

“(Below) your navel (there is) a rounded bowl—
may it not (ever) lack the (spic)ed wine!
Your belly (is like) a heap of (fine) wheat,
fenced around with lilies.”

The noun rr#v* occurs only here, but the equivalent form (> rv)) elsewhere in the Old Testament properly refers to the (place of the) umbilical cord—i.e., the navel (cf. Ezek 16:4, and note also Prov 3:8). However, it is unlikely that here it is simply a reference to the navel per se; rather, the navel serves as a point of reference for the two distinct areas of the body being described: (3a) the area below the navel down between the thighs, and (3b) the area above the navel (i.e., the “belly”, /f#B#) up to the breasts. Pope (p. 617) notes the cognate Arabic term surr, but also the similar word sirr (“secret”), which can serve as a euphemism for the female sexual organs (as well as for sexual intercourse). This is on the right track in terms of the meaning here, but Pope’s translation of rr#v) as “vulva” is inappropriately precise. In my view, v. 3a refers to the entire area, the surface from below the navel down to the sexual organs. This area is describes as a “rounded bowl”, that is, with convex or slightly hollowed shape. The noun /G`a^ refers to a small bowl used for mixing, etc (Exod 24:6; Isa 22:24), with cognate terms occurring throughout the ancient Near East (Akkadian agannu, Egyptian °ikn, Greek aggo$, cf. Pope, p. 618).

As in v. 2 [1], the first couplet here should be read as an exclamation, particularly the negative exclamation of the second line, “may it not (ever) lack the (spic)ed) wine!”, governed by the negative particle la^. The noun gz#m# occurs only here in the Old Testament, but the variant form Es#m# occurs in Psalm 75:9[8], along with the verb Es^m* in Isa 5:22; 19:14; Psalm 102:10[9]; Prov 9:2, 5. It refers to the mixing of wine—sometimes understood in the sense of wine being mixed with water, but here, most certainly, the reference is to wine that is mixed with spices (“spiced wine”). The “bowl” of this region of the girl’s body thus is a mixing bowl, where the spiced wine (to be drunk) can be found. This is important in terms of the overall imagery of the Song, and explains the force of the exclamation. Throughout the Song, “spices” serve as a fundamental symbol of (female) sexuality, and of sexual pleasure.

The comparison of the “belly”—that is, the area above the navel—with a heap of wheat may seem strange, but the principal idea would seem to be of a curved surface that is soft to the touch. Perhaps the tawny hue of the wheat may also be meant to describe the color of the girl’s skin. This ‘wheat’ is fenced (or hedged) around (vb gWs II) by lilies (<yn]v^ov). The blossoming lily-flower is another basic sexual image in the Song, occurring rather frequently (2:1-2, 16; 4:5; 5:13; 6:2-3). The grazing/eating of the flowers (or of ‘plucking’ them) symbolizes the enjoyment of sexual pleasure—spec. of the young man enjoying the beauty and sexual charms of his beloved. For the specific identity of the flower /v*ov, and the background/meaning of the motif, cf. the earlier note on 2:1-2.

Verse 4 [3]—Breasts

“(Your) two breasts (are) like two young stags,
twins of a gazelle… .”

This couplet is identical with 4:5, with the final phrase omitted (“…grazing among (the) lilies”). It may have been omitted because of the reference to lilies in the previous line. At the same time, the shortened couplet could help to explain the following truncated couplet in v. 5[4]a, which may have been shortened to give poetic balance. For a discussion of this verse, cf. the earlier note on 4:5. That prior praise-song ends, in rather tantalizing fashion, at the breasts of the girl; here, the breasts are set at the mid-point of the song—yet in both songs they are central to the sexuality of the imagery.

Verse 5a [4a]—Neck

“Your neck (is) like a great (tower) of ivory-tooth.”

It seems like a second line has dropped out here, and that may indeed be the case. On the other hand, as noted above, it may have been truncated to balance the shortened couplet in v. 4[3]. If so, then rhythmically vv. 4-5a belong together:

“(Your) two breasts (are) like two young stags,
twins of a gazelle;
Your neck like a great (tower) of ivory-tooth.”

The comparison of the girl’s neck with a tower echoes the earlier praise-song (4:4, cf. the earlier note), emphasizing its long and elegant shape. The additional detail here of “the tooth” (i.e., elephant tusk, ivory), brings out the smoothness of its surface as much as its bright/white gleam.

(The remainder of the praise-song will be discussed in the next daily note, along with a brief summary of some Jewish and Early Christian interpretation of the imagery involved.)

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

August 24: Song of Songs 7:1 (continued)

Song 7:1, continued

The previous note dealt with the specific meaning of the term tyM!l^WVh^ here in 7:1 [6:13].

“Return, return, (you) the complete (one)!
Return, return, and let us gaze on you!
(For) what [i.e. why] would you gaze on the complete (one),
like (one who is) twirling (in) the tent-circles?”

Many commentators, following the traditional verse numbering, regard v. 1 as the start of a new poetic unit, centered on the image of the young woman as a dancing-girl. In my view, this misunderstands the poetic and narrative structure of the Song at this point. In some ways the English verse numbering (counting the verse as 6:13) is more accurate; however, properly speaking, 6:11-7:1 is best regarded as an intermediate (and transitional) unit, centered between the two praise songs by the young man (6:4-10 and 7:2-7). The verses also establish the dramatic nexus for the section, but it is at just this point that the difficulties of interpretation arise. What, precisely, is the dramatic scenario being described in these verses? In this regard, the meaning of 7:1 depends on how one understands 6:11-12. Let me summarize my thoughts on those first two verses (cf. the prior notes on v. 11 and 12).

In verse 11, the young woman is the speaker, and she describes how she went out to explore the blossoming fields and vineyards of springtime (following the winter rains, cp. 2:10-14). Figuratively, this refers to the blossoming sexuality of the young woman, and thus the imagery symbolizes her own sexual self-discovery (and awareness).

On this journey, depicted with a brief and allusive dream-like quality (v. 12), the girl suddenly finds herself in the company of a group(?) of noble young men (with their chariots). This happened while she was unaware (“I did not know my soul”), and, as I discussed in the earlier note, the scene likely has, as its fundamental point of reference, the girl’s attractiveness (and attraction) to the young men. The noble aspect alludes to the idea, frequent in the Song, that the two lovers, in their beauty, have something of a royal status (for each other, at least, the boy and girl are ‘king’ and ‘queen’). The possibility of being taken up into the chariot of a young noble (a ‘Prince Charming’) is a suitable fairy-tale scenario for the girl. Also, the parallel with vv. 8-10 should be noted. There, the young women (including young noblewomen) look at the girl with wonder; here, it is the young men (and nobles) who find themselves looking at the girl—only with desire.

This, in my view, provides the narrative context for 7:1, which has two parts: (1) a reaction by the young men (v. 1a), and (2) a response by the young man who is the girl’s beloved (v. 1b). Let us look at each of these parts in turn.

Couplet 1 (7:1a)

“Return, return, (you) the complete (one)!
Return, return, and let us gaze on you!”

Each line begins with the double-imperative yb!Wv yb!Wv, “Return, return…!” Some commentators, under the assumption that v. 1 begins a new section, would understand the verb bWv (“turn [back]”) in the sense of “turn around” (i.e., spin, as in a dance); some would even emend the text to read imperatives of the verb bb^s*, in order to bring this out more clearly. However, the verb should be understood here in the customary sense of “turn back, return”, the voice calling on the young woman to return, so that they will be able to gaze (hz`j*) upon her. The call for her to return suggests that the girl has gone away somewhere; this can be explained two ways, based on the immediate context of vv. 11-12:

    • She is being called back from her journey off into the blossoming valleys, etc.
    • She has specifically gone away from the amorous young nobles whom she encountered, unexpectedly, on her journey.

The latter is to be preferred, even though the presumed scenario is far from explicit in the text. As discussed in the previous note, the term tyM!l^WVh^ is best understood as a descriptive title meaning “complete (one)” or “perfect (one)”, referring to the incomparable beauty (and purity) of the girl, something which the young men certainly would have noticed. They call her to come back, so that they can continue to look at her beauty, being attracted to her sexually (v. 1b makes this point quite clear). Why has she gone away from the young men? It may indicate that she is not ready for a romantic/sexual encounter; however, it would be more in keeping with the overall narrative of the Song, that she avoids these other amorous youths because she belongs to the young man who is her beloved (and her beauty is reserved for him alone).

Couplet 2 (7:1b)

“(For) what [i.e. why] would you gaze on the complete (one),
like (one who is) twirling (in) the tent-circles?”

I take the girl’s beloved (the young man of the Song) to be the speaker here. He is responding with a rebuke to the other young men, who, drawn by the girl’s beauty, are indeed attracted to her, but only with the most basic kind of sexual attraction. As he puts it, they gaze on her like they would look on an attractive young dancing-girl. The noun hl*ojm= has verbal force, referring to the action of one (a female) who “twirls” or “spins”, according to the basic meaning of the root lWj (I)—i.e., twisting/turning in a circular movement. The qualifying noun that follows indicates the context (or location) of such dancing: it takes place in the encampments (i.e., places where [young] men are gathered). This could refer to the encampments of soldiers (which would fit the motif of chariots in 6:12), or of herdsmen (cp. 1:7-8), or may have a more general significance. Fundamentally, the word <ynjm, best understood as a plural form (rather than the MT dual), refers to a place where tents, etc, are set up in a curved (i.e. protective) formation. There is thus a good deal of conceptual wordplay at work here in this verse, utilizing the basic idea of turning: (a) the verb bWv (turn around, i.e. return), (b) the root lWj (twist/turn in a circular motion), and (c) the curved shape of the encampment(s).

All of this is expressed through a single construct expression which is rather difficult to render literally into English. It might be translated “twirling (one) of the tent-circles”, which works better in English as I have given it above: “(one who is) twirling [i.e. dancing] (in) the tent-circles”. The reference is to a (paid) dancing girl, beautiful and provocatively (and scantily) dressed, performing before a group of young men who are gathered round to watch (rather lustfully, we may assume).

The young man of the Song shares this attraction to the girl’s physical beauty; but for him she represents something much more than an attractive young woman. He alludes to this by repeating the epithet the other young men used of her, “(you) the complete [i.e. perfect] one”, but means it in a rather deeper sense. For him, she is indeed perfect and complete, in every way. The praise song that follows in vv. 2-7 makes this quite clear, as will be discussed further in the next daily note.

It is possible to maintain this line of interpretation, which I have presented above, even if the term tyM!l^WVh^  be understood differently—e.g., as a gentilic referring to the city of Jerusalem. The young men, realizing she was a girl from Jerusalem, could have called to her:

“Return, return, O (lovely) Shulaim girl!”

Conceivably, the author could be utilizing the wordplay associated with the term, by having the girl’s beloved play on a dual-meaning of the base word <lv (šlm); the point of the contrast would be something like: “she is more than just a pretty Jerusalem [šlm] girl, for me she is the perfect [šlm] one!”

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum understood the call for the girl to return as a prophetic call (from God) for Israel to return—both to the city of Jerusalem (echoing the exilic prophetic theme of Israel’s restoration) and to the covenant with YHWH, faithfully studying the Torah and observing all of its precepts. This call is contrasted with the voices of the ‘false prophets’ which lead Israel astray. The Midrash Rabbah explained the four-fold call to return as corresponding to the ‘four powers’ which had subjugated Israel; the people had come under their dominance, but now have the opportunity to return unharmed. The various details in the verse were typically associated with Old Testament tradition and events from Israel’s history. The motif of the dancing girl, for example—the “dance of the two armies” (following a literal reading of the MT)—was related to Jacob’s famous encounter with the angels (i.e., the heavenly armies); the same motif was applied to the idea of the dancing of the righteous in the Age to come. Cf. Pope, p. 612.

Theodoret, following a Greek rendering of the Hebrew term tyM!l^WVh^ in something like a literal sense, explained the name as meaning “peace bringer”. The holy Bride of Christ, when she appears, is like a group of soldiers engaged in singing as a chorus (an unusual juxtaposition of images). These reflect the combination of attributes in the holy ones—faithfulness and courage in their resolve (like soldiers), but also having the praise of God in their mouths. The ‘weapons’ of these soldiers are those described in 2 Cor 10:4-5 and Eph 6:10-18. Theodoret’s interpretation is predicated upon the LXX rendering of the Hebrew <y]n`j&M^h^ tl^j)m= as xoroi\ tw=n paremblw=n = “chorus of the troop-arrays”.

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

August 23: Song of Songs 7:1

Song 7:1

The most significant textual issue in 7:1 [6:13, EV] involves the longstanding question regarding the precise meaning of the articular noun tyM!l^WVh^ (hašûlammî¾). Traditionally, tymlwv has been understood as a designation of place, i.e., a woman from <lwv, but often treated as a proper name for the young woman of the Song: “the Shulam(m)ite”. This does provide a convenient handle for referring to the girl, but many commentators use it carelessly, as though this really was her name. The term occurs in the Song only here, so it is scarcely a regular designation for the young woman, and should not be treated as such. The place-name theory is based largely on the similarly with the gentilic tyM!n~WVh^ (hašúnammî¾), “the Shunam(m)ite woman”, in 1 Kings 1:3, 15; 2:17, 21-22 (referring to Abishag); also 2 Kings 4:12, 25, 36. The assumption is that šûlammî¾ is a variant of šûnammî¾, with a town “Shulem” = Shunem. The identification of the girl with Abishag would allow for the Song to be placed in a Solomonic milieu, involving the figure of Solomon himself.

Unfortunately, nowhere else in the Song is there even the slightest reference to the town of Shunem/Shulem[?]; by all accounts, the poems are set entirely in Jerusalem and its environs. Thus, if the term is truly a gentilic (as its form suggests), it seems more likely that it is an allusive reference to Jerusalem (cf. below). I will here present what, in my view, are the three most likely explanations for the term tyM!l^WVh^ here in the Song:

    • As just mentioned, it may be understood as a gentilic referring to the city of Jerusalem—calling the young woman of the Song “the Shulam [= Yerushala(i)m] girl”. Though rare in the Old Testament, <l@v* (Š¹l¢m) is a shortened (poetic) form of <!l^v*Wry+ (Y®rûš¹laim), Psalm 76:4[3], and comp. Gen 14:18. This shortened, condensed form utilizes the vowel pattern of the full name (û-a-i); a similar kind of shortened gentilic occurs in Num 26:39, where hašû¸¹mî derives from the name Š®¸û¸¹m (šppm => špm). Cf. Bloch, pp. 197-9.
    • The name may be meant as a kind of parallel to Solomon (hm)ýv=, Š®lœmœh), playing upon the Solomonic setting of the Song, or, more probably, as an allusion to the young woman as a majestic ‘queen’. The more precise parallel, as a feminine form corresponding to hm)ýv=, would be tym!ýv= (Š®lœmî¾), occurring in Lev 24:11; 1 Chron 13:19 (cf. Fox, p. 157). I suspect that there is an intentional allusion to Solomon here, but only by way of wordplay, as both terms derive from the same root (<lv), and carry similar meanings.
    • The best solution, in keeping with the overall language and idiom of the Song, is to view tyM!l^WVh^ as a descriptive term—noun or substantive adjective—derived from the verbal root <lv. This root has the fundamental meaning “complete, fulfill”, or, in a stative (intransitive) sense, “be complete”. In context, the word would mean, “(you) the complete (one)”, or, in a vocative sense, “O, complete (one)”. In English idiom, we would probably say “perfect one”. There have been numerous such descriptive titles and epithets used in the Song, in reference to the beauty and ‘perfection’ of the young woman; it seems likely that this is another such title. In meaning, it is largely synonymous with yt!M*T^ (tamm¹tî), “my complete/pure (one)”, in 5:2 and 6:9.

I do feel that the third option best fits the language of the Song, as well as the specific context within this section—6:8-10 emphasizing particularly the majestic and perfect beauty of the girl. However, it is possible that all three explanations may play a role; certainly, the wordplay and thematic associations with Jerusalem and Solomon were well in mind for the author. There remain difficulties in terms of the specific morphology of the term, but I adopt the third explanation for it, given above, in my translation:

“Return, return, (you) the complete (one)!
Return, return, and let us gaze on you!
(For) what [i.e. why] would you gaze on the complete (one),
like (one who is) twirling (in) the tent-circles?”

In some ways, the scenario here in 7:1 is as obscure as that of 6:12 (discussed in detail in the previous note), and requires a substantial discussion. In order to avoid overextending the length of this note, I will continue it in the daily note tomorrow.

References marked “Fox” above are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
Those marked “Bloch” are to Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch, The Song of Songs: The World’s First Great Love Poem (Random House: 1995/2006).

August 22: Song of Songs 6:12

Song 6:12

Verse 12 is generally regarded as the most obscure and difficult of the entire Song. The Masoretic text as it stands is puzzling and seems barely intelligible. The early versions (Greek, Syriac) appear to have found the verse as difficult to understand as commentators today. Unfortunately, little help is at hand from the only relevant Dead Sea MS (4QCanta), since verse 12 is scarcely preserved in the fragmentary manuscript.

There are six syllables to the verse as it has come down to us, but it is not clear whether this should be divided into a 3-beat (3+3) couplet or a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The problem is that, by whichever division is used, each component makes sense individually but are problematic when combined.

Following a 2-beat division, the first line would be:

yT!u=d^y` al)
“I did not know”

If a 3-beat division is followed, the first line then reads:

yv!p=n~ yT!u=d^y` al)
“I did not know my soul”

This latter phrase finds an exact match in Job 9:21; it corresponds generally, in English idiom, to “I was beside myself,” —more literally, “I don’t know myself [i.e. what I am doing]”. We might also say “I was out of my mind”.

Going back to a 2-beat division of the verse, the second line would read: “my soul set me” (yn]t=m^v* yv!p=n~). Combining the first two lines together, we have:

“I did not know
my soul set me”

The sense of these lines could be glossed as follows—

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had set me”

perhaps in the sense of:

“Before I knew it,
my soul had put me”

This sense is rather different if one follows a 3-beat division:

“I did not know my soul,
she set/put me…”

This can be understood two ways, depending on who the speaker is. If the young woman is speaking, then the “she” refers to the soul (grammatically feminine), i.e. “my soul put me”. If it is the young man speaking, then it is possible that his beloved (the girl) is the subject of the phrase in the second line.

The final two words, or beats, of the verse are the most problematic. In the MT as it stands, the reading is: “chariots of my people of nobility”. The expression “my people of nobility”, quite awkward in English, is byd!n`-yM!u^ (±ammî-n¹¼î»). Earlier commentators labored under the influence of the LXX and Vulgate which transliterated the Hebrew expression as a proper name (Amminadab, cf. Exod 6:23; Num 1:7; 2:3, etc). However, it is most unlikely that a proper name is meant here, and the expression should be taken in its basic, literal meaning. In some ways, the expression would make more sense if the word order of the construct expression were reversed, i.e., “noble(s) of my people” (comp. Num 21:18; Psalm 47:10; 113:8). The awkwardness of the MT would also be alleviated somewhat if the suffix y– were read as a paragogic marker of the construct state: “(the) people of nobility”, i.e., noblemen; or, perhaps, “people [i.e. companions] of the noble (man)”.

It is also possible to vocalize ymu differently than the MT reading: yM!u! (“with me”) rather than yM!u^ (“my people”). Assuming the young woman is the speaker, and following a 2-beat division, the verse could then be translated:

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had put me
(in) a chariot, the noble (one) with me.”

Let us briefly consider the context of verse 12. As I understand verse 11, the young woman is speaking, and the imagery refers to the blossoming of the girl’s sexuality, as well as to an awareness of her own sexual development. When we turn to what follows in 7:1f (to be discussed), we find the idea of young men gazing at the girl’s beauty. It would thus be natural if, in the intervening verse 12, there would be some reference to the girl’s attractiveness to young men. Now let us see if this poetic narrative allows us to make sense of verse 12. I approach the verse here following a 3-beat (2-line) division.

Line 1:
“I did not know my soul”
(i.e., I did not realize what I was doing)

The girl had been wandering through the blossoming valleys—orchards, fields and vineyards, etc—that is to say, exploring her own sexuality. Lost in her thoughts and exploration, experiencing new feelings of love and desire, “her soul” takes her to an unexpected place.

Line 2:
“she put me (among the) rides of (the) noble people”
(i.e., I found myself among the chariots of young noblemen)

The implication is that the young men find her attractive, and, perhaps more to the point, she imagines that handsome young nobles are attracted to her. Being taken up into the chariot of a handsome young prince (a ‘Prince Charming’, if you will) is a suitable fairy-tale scenario for the girl. It also reflects the dream-like quality of many scenes in the Song. The girl being seen by the young noble men provides a precise parallel with vv. 8-10, where the noble women likewise look upon her. The difference is that while the other women look upon the girl with wonder (cf. the earlier note), the men look at her with desire; this becomes clear enough in 7:1ff, as we shall discuss in the next note.

Thus, it would seem that the basic scenario intended by the verse is more readily comprehended than the precise wording used to express it—at least as this wording is preserved in the Masoretic text. In conclusion, let me present two tentative translations, following a 2-beat and 3-beat division respectively:

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had set me
(among the) rides of noblemen.”

“I did not know my (own) soul,
she set me (among the) rides of noblemen.”

Finally, I would make mention of the emendation suggested by Fox (p. 156). He reads tbkrm (without the mater lectionis w) as the singular tb#k#r=m!, “[chariot-]ride of…”. Along with this, he would emend ymu to <u (omitting the y– suffix), read as the preposition <u! (“with”). The purpose of these changes is to bring the verse in accordance with the overall theme of the Song—viz., of the two lovers coming together in a luxurious garden-setting:

“I do not know my (own) soul—
she set me (in) a chariot with a nobleman!”

The nobleman’s chariot bed functions like the royal couch/bed (in an outdoor/garden setting) in 1:12ff, 16; 3:7ff. It is a place where the two lovers can be together embracing each other. Pope (p. 590) cites a Sumerian text in which, apparently, the god Enlil takes his wife/consort Ninlil into his chariot where the two of them embrace.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash clearly understand byd!n`-yM!u^ in its fundamental meaning, and not as a personal name (cf. above). The girl (Israel) is taken up into a nobleman’s chariot, understood in terms of YHWH as a king. The verse is thus explained in reference to the Exodus and other times when Israel’s fortunes were suddenly improved through God’s intervention. She is raised to an exalted, royal status, with a position of honor far above that of the other nations. Cf. Pope, p. 591.

Early Christian commentators, following the LXX and Vulgate (cf. above), took byd!n`-yM!u^ to be a proper name (Amminadab), which forced them to adopt some rather creative and elaborate interpretations. Ambrose explained the first line of v. 12 (“my soul did not know”) as referring to the temptation to sin that the soul experiences while in the body. The use of chariot (or horse-and-rider) imagery was popular in ethical philosophy, and learned Greco-Roman Christians would have been quite familiar with it. The good (= tamed, obedient) horses are the virtues cultivated by the soul, while bad/unruly horses represent the bodily passions which, if left unchecked, can bring the soul to ruin. Ambrose explains the name Aminadab as meaning “father of the people”, understood as representing the “soul whom God the Father protects” and whom Christ drives (as a chariot).

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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 1)

Psalm 52

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 5-11 [3-9])

This Psalm, like the prior Psalm 51, is part of the so-called ‘Elohist’ Psalter (cf. below), and is also a Davidic Psalm, being attributed in the superscription to David. The historical setting assigned (v. 2) is, however, rather puzzling, referring to events narrated in 1 Samuel 21:8 and 22:6ff. There is little about that narrative background that would apply to the thoughts expressed in the Psalm.

The heading designates Psalm 52 as a lyK!c=m^; the prior Psalms 32, 42, 44, and 45 were similarly described. The precise meaning of this term remains uncertain, but it is presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely.

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3+2 couplet format, though here in the first part a 3-beat (3+3) couplet is actually more common.

In terms of a poetic and thematic structure, I am inclined to divide the composition into two parts. The first part (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) contains a polemic diatribe directed at the wicked with their false and deceitful profession of trust in God; this part concludes, it would seem, with an imprecation against the wicked (see below on v. 7). The second part (vv. 8-11 [6-9]) declares the fate of the wicked, and also presents a familiar contrast between the wicked and the righteous—those who are truly faithful to YHWH. The Psalmist, of course, counts himself among the righteous.

Wisdom themes tend to dominate, centered around the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their fates). There are also prayer elements in the Psalm, related to the covenant appeal setting that we find in many of the compositions. By emphasizing the faithlessness and deceit of the wicked, the Psalmist uses this point of contrast to affirm his own loyalty to YHWH.

An interesting rhetorical aspect to this Psalm is the juxtaposition of the terms la@ and <yh!l)a$ as Divine titles. la@ (°E~l) occurs in the first part of the Psalm, in connection with the wicked, while <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm) occurs in the second part, connected with the righteous. As an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, many commentators believe that the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) was used in the original composition, but was later replaced by the title <yh!l)a$. This would mean that, originally, the Divine names la@ and hwhy were juxtaposed. There are two ways of explaining the specific association of the title la@ with the wicked here:

    • The wicked have, at best, a nominal and superficial faith in ‘God’ (used as a general designation), rather than a true faith in YHWH and covenant loyalty to Him.
    • The false character of the religion of the wicked is indicated by its association with the Creator El (as understood by the Canaanites), in contrast with a true faith in El-YHWH, the God of Israel.

Israelites and Judeans, having become increasingly familiar with Canaanite religion and culture over the centuries, must have been aware of certain clear differences between the Canaanite conception of the Creator El and the Israelite understanding of El-Yahweh. Interestingly, however, there is scarcely a trace of this sense of conflict in the Old Testament. For the most part, YHWH was identified simply with the Creator (El), and the title la@, though relatively rare, almost always refers to the God of Israel. Here, in Psalm 52, we have one of the only instances in the Old Testament where the title is used in a negative context, being contrasted with the name YHWH (here as Elohim).

For readers who might be new to these studies, a brief explanation of the titles El (la@) and Elohim (<yh!l)a$) may be helpful. The word la@ is a fundamental (and primitive) Semitic term for deity. While the precise meaning and derivation is not entirely certain, the basic meaning would seem to be something like “mighty” —as a divine title, “Mighty (One)”. The plural of la@ is <yl!a@, “mighty (one)s”, but this is only rarely used in the Old Testament; much more common is the plural form <yh!l)a$, which is an expanded form to match the triconsonantal pattern of words (i.e., hla instead of la) that is more common in Classical Hebrew. As a divine title, <yh!l)a$ would literally mean “Mighty (One)s”, rendered generally as “Gods” (or “gods”); however, as applied to El-Yahweh, in an Israelite monotheistic context, the plural form is best understood as an intensive (or possibly comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier studies on the names El and Elohim.

Verses 3-7 [1-5]

Verse 3 [1]

“(For) what do you give shout with evil, O strong (one),
(you) ‘loyal’ of (the) Mighty (One), all the day planning disasters?”

The polemic begins with a sarcastic tone, describing the wicked person by the descriptive titles “strong (one)” (roBG]) and “good [i.e. loyal] (one) of °E~l.” As indicated above, I translate the name la@ (°E~l) according to its fundamental meaning, “Mighty (One)”, which is loosely parallel in meaning here to roBG] (“strong [one]”). However, la@ refers to God, to the Creator Deity (El-Yahweh). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 13) in vocalizing dsj (MT ds#j#) as dys!j& (spelled defectively). The expression la@ ds!j& means “loyal one of El”, which may have a double-meaning here: (1) it is used in a sarcastic sense for the false religious devotion of the wicked, and/or (2) the loyalty of the wicked corresponds to the corrupt/idolatrous understanding of the Creator God by the Canaanites (El vs. YHWH).

Part of the “shout” (vb ll^h*) given by the wicked likely involves a boast regarding his own religious profession of faith and loyalty to God. The actions of the wicked belie his/her supposed faith and prove it to be false. It is made “with evil” (hu*r*B=), probably best understood as “with evil (intent)”. Whatever the wicked person may say or claim, he/she intends to bring about disastrous things. The noun hW`h^, here in the plural, literally means “(down)fall”. The verb bv^j* reveals the true intention of the wicked, the planning/plotting of evil.

With some reluctance, I have included the first two words of v. 4 [2] as part of the opening couplet (cf. Dahood, p. 12-3), yielding a 4-beat (4+4) bicolon.

Verse 4 [2]

“Your tongue, like a sharpened razor,
is (busy) working treachery.”

With this second couplet, the normative 3-beat (here 3+2) meter of the Psalm begins. The deceitfulness and false religious confession of the wicked person is described more pointedly here, with the image of a tongue that is sharp like a razor (ru^T^). With his speech, the wicked person is working deceit and treachery. The noun hY`m!r= (“deceit”) can carry the stronger meaning of “treachery” —that is, against the covenant, showing disloyalty to YHWH and intending evil against the righteous.

Verse 5 [3]

“You love (what is) evil more than (the) good,
falsehood more than speaking (what is) right.”
Selah

This couplet well-summarizes the character of the wicked, and also, implicitly, establishes the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The comparative use of the preposition /m! (“from”) essentially has to be translated in English as “more than”. The noun rq#v# (“[acting] false, falsehood, deceit”) is contrasted with speaking “(what is) right” (qd#x#), a specific manifestation of the more general contrast between “evil” (ur*) and “good” (bof). Again the focus is on the speech of the wicked, with the relation between what is actually spoken (which may seem good) and the underlying intent (which is evil). That is why the deceitfulness of the wicked continues to be emphasized.

Verse 6 [4]

“You love all (those) words devouring (the truth),
(with your) tongue of treachery!”

The deceitfulness and treachery (hm*r=m!) of the wicked person’s speaking is here colorfully summarized as “all words of devouring” (ul^B# yr@b=D!-lK*). The root ul^B* (I) refers to a mouth that opens up and swallows something. This language is often used in Biblical poetry, applied to the ravenous mouth (and appetite) of Death, and this same allusion is probably also intended here. The deceit of the wicked person leads to death—both for his victims, but also, more importantly, for himself. The immediate point of reference, however, is probably to the idea of the wicked person’s mouth/speech ‘devouring’ all truth and rightness.

Verse 7 [5]

“(So) also (the) Mighty (One) will bring you down to the end,
He will take hold of you and tear you away from your tent,
and will (up)root you from (the) land of (the) living.”
Selah

This first part of the Psalm concludes with a dramatic declaration, in a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, of the fate of the wicked. The death of the wicked was already alluded to in v. 6 [4] (cf. above), but here it is described clearly and graphically. Such references in Old Testament poetry tend to have a double-meaning: both the ordinary sense of physical death, and the idea of a death that is permanent and final (with no hope of a blessed afterlife).

The initial particle <G~, “(so) also”, allows the Psalmist to express the idea that the fate of the wicked person (in death) will correspond to his/her wicked conduct (in life). Just as, through deceitful words, the wicked would “swallow (down)” what is right, so also, in the end, God will “bring (them) down” (vb Jt^n`) to the realm of Death. The two-fold aspect of death, noted above, is expressed through the final two lines:

    • The ordinary aspect of death—i.e., being torn away from one’s “tent” (home and, figuratively, one’s body)
    • The second/final aspect of death—being torn up (lit. uprooted) from the “land of the living”, from the possibility of any future life.

Gunkel (Die Psalmen [1926], p. 230) claimed that the imperfect verb forms here in v. 7 are not simple declarative statements about what will happen, but are precative—expressing a wish for something to happen (cf. also Dahood, p. 14). There are many such imprecatory sections in the Psalms, which essentially serve as curse-formulas; following this sense, the force of the translation would be: “May (the) Mighty (One) bring you down…[etc].” Such a curse-formula would be fitting to the polemic of the Psalm, and would make for an appropriate conclusion to the first part.

The reference to the “Mighty (One),” °E~l (la@), matches the earlier reference in v. 3 [1] (cf. above), thus framing the first part of the Psalm. The first occurrence of la@ seems to been intended to highlight the false religious confession of the wicked; however, in terms of the judgment rendered against the wicked, here la@ functions in a manner consistent with the true God (YHWH). To be sure, in Israelite religious thought, la@ and hwhy are different names for the same God, though, as noted above, la@ is the more general title, used throughout the Semitic world, and could also apply to a false/distorted view of God (as with the Canaanite conception of the Creator El).

The first part of the Psalm closes with a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker. However, the presence of the marker itself really cannot be used to determine the structure of the Psalm (note the earlier occurrence of the marker after v. 5 [3]). In any case, the precise purpose and significance of these markers remains uncertain, other than that they relate to the performing tradition of the Psalms, and seem to indicate a musical pause or (possibly) a shift in tone or key, etc. They do not appear to have been applied consistently, nor is it particularly likely that they have been consistently preserved in the text as it has come down to us.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms II: 51-100, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 17 (1968).