August 4: Song of Songs 5:3-5

Song 5:3-9

The first of the two main songs of this section builds upon the exchange between the lovers in v. 2 (cf. the previous note). It is spoken by the young woman (as is the second song in 5:10-6:1), and is inspired both by the night-time rendezvous scene in 2:9-10ff and the mini-drama in 3:1-3. Verses 3-5 relate more properly to the earlier episode in 2:9-10. Once again, the young woman is waiting in a house/room, and the young man is standing outside, the interaction essentially taking place through a hole/opening in the wall.

Verse 3

“I have stripped (off) my garment, how shall I put it on (again)?
I have washed my feet, how shall I soil them (now)?”

There is a playful, teasing quality to the young woman’s response, coaxing her beloved to make the effort to come in to her. The verb [n~f* in the second line occurs only here in the Old Testament, but its basic meaning (“soil, be[come] dirty”) is established by parallels in Akkadian and Aramaic. The prolonged form (hk*k*ya@) of the particle Eya@ is rare in the Old Testament, occurring elsewhere only in Esther 8:6, an example of vocabulary that may be indicative of a relatively late dating for the Song (exilic or post-exilic period). The particle can be used in an interrogative or exclamatory sense.

Verse 4

“My love sent forth his hand from the hole
and my inner parts groaned over him!”

At first glance the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) is curious, but it is probably meant to describe the scene from the girl’s perspective, as she sees the young man’s hand coming through the key-hole. The door locks in ancient Near Eastern villages had a key hole that could be quite large, enough for a man to put his hand through; it is assumed by most commentators that the reference here is to a door-latch, a point confirmed by verse 5 (below). The girl’s coy response in v. 3 was intentional, hoping that the young man would take the initiative to come in to her. She is delighted by this, anticipating the moment when the two of them will be together, and her ‘inner parts’ (plur. of hu#m@) “groan” loudly (vb hm*h*).

It is likely that there is a euphemistic play on sexual intercourse at work in this scene, though it must be stressed that it is the anticipation of the moment that is in view, not the activity itself. The word dy` (“hand”) can be used as a euphemism for the male sexual organ, though this is rare in the Old Testament (cf. Isa 57:8-10); it is rather more common in the Canaanite texts from Ugarit, especially those depicting the Creator El as a sexually robust (and active) patriarch. In this sense, the thrusting of the ‘hand’ through the hole, followed by the insides of the young woman moaning/groaning, makes for a potent erotic allusion. The idiom of the latching/opening of the door also has definite sexual significance, as I have discussed in recent notes.

A general parallel to this scene can be cited from the Sumerian Dumuzi/Inanna love songs. The young woman (Inanna) is in her room, having prepared herself for the romantic/sexual encounter, and the young man (Dumuzi) arrives at night and pushes open the door:

“Inanna, as her mother told her,
Bathed herself in water, anointed herself with good oil,
Covered her body with the grand queenly garment,
And took her pin in (her) hand,
—She straightens the lapis lazuli stones on her neck—
Held the seal in her hand,
The young lady stood (waiting).
Dumuzi pushed open the door,
Came forth into the house like the moonlight,
He gazed at her, rejoiced in her,
Embraced her, kissed her…”
(Sefati, Love Songs, p. 291-2)

There are two main differences between the setting of this poem and the Song: (1) the encounter is part of an arranged (and approved) formal affair, and (2) the young man actually enters and embraces the girl.

Verse 5

“I stood up to open (the door) for my love,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers (with) flowing myrrh,
upon the palms of the (door-)latch.”

While she may have prompted the young man to come in for himself, the girl apparently cannot wait, and she gets up to open the door for him. The noun lWun+m^ confirms that we are dealing with a latched (or bolted) door. The scene is precisely parallel to that of 4:12-15ff, where the garden enclosure (symbolizing the young woman and her sexuality) also has a latched entrance (the related verb lu^n` is used in 4:12).

That her hands and fingers are wet and dripping with myrrh indicates that the young woman has perfumed herself in preparation for the young man’s arrival (cf. above). In the Song, ‘spices’ are symbolic of female sexuality and sexual love/pleasure, and myrrh is one of the chief aromatic substances used to represent this (cf. 1:13; 3:6; 4:6, 14: 5:1, and again in v. 13). There is a bit of conceptual wordplay between the dripping “hands” of the girl and the “palms” (i.e., “handles”) of the door-latch which also become wet with myrrh. Her “hands” touching the door-latch also parallel the young man’s “hand” reaching through the hole (to get to the latch). The scene tantalizingly depicts how close the two lovers come to meeting and embracing, as in the Dumuzi/Inanna song cited above. However, in this instance, as becomes clear in verse 6 (to be discussed in the next note), as soon as the door is opened, the young man suddenly disappears, and the sexual encounter remains unfulfilled.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum curiously interpreted the removing of the girl’s garments in a negative sense, as referring to the disobedience of Israel in removing the “yoke of God’s commandments” from her, and turning to the false gods (idols) of the nations instead. YHWH, in response, removes His Presence from her. The Midrash offers a more positive interpretation, of Israel’s short (but sweet) night of slumber on the eve of Pentecost (before receiving the Law at Sinai), and of the washing of feet as symbolic of removing the dirt of idolatry.

Even stranger is the Targum’s interpretation of verse 4 as referring to the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel—done by YHWH “sending forth” His hand to exact punishment; this was in response to the sin of idolatry (the molten calf of Jeroboam). Similarly, the bolted door in v. 5 symbolized the barring of the door to Israel in response to her sin; the Midrash likewise explained the image of myrrh in terms of the bitterness associated with the sin of worshiping the Golden Calf (Exod 32:4ff). Even though these lines of Jewish interpretation do not deal directly with the sexuality and eroticism of the Song, it is quite clear that the sexual aspect has been sublimated, giving a thoroughly negative character to the scene, essentially identifying sexual desire with the tendency toward idolatry (understood figuratively as sexual sin and infidelity). Cf. Pope, pp. 516-7, 520, 524.

The mystical approach by early Christians like Gregory of Nyssa enabled them to deal with the sexuality of vv. 3-5 in a rather different way. The spiritual emphasis is clear enough in Gregory’s explanation of verse 3, where the removal of the young woman’s clothing actual refers to the removal of her fleshly inclinations (the “old man”, to apply the Pauline terminology [citing Col 3:9; Eph 4:4]). This veil, this ‘garment of flesh,’ has been removed from her heart, and never again will the purified soul put this garment back on. The washed/purified feet likewise symbolize Christian holiness (referring back to Moses’ encounter with YHWH, Exod 3:5). Only in this purified state can the Bride (the soul) open up her door to the Bridegroom (the Word, Christ).

The association of myrrh with death and burial made it a popular Scriptural symbol for self-mortification and self-denial among Christian mystics. Naturally enough, Gregory explains the myrrh on the young woman’s hands and fingers in this sense of abandonment from all bodily passions. The believer who has been united with the death and burial of Jesus, now in the new life of his resurrection still continues to pursue goodness and virtue, and our “works” in this regard are symbolized by the activity of our five fingers.

It may seem odd that Christians like Gregory would explain the bodily desire in the Song in virtually the opposite sense—as an abandonment of bodily desire—but this is quite in keeping with the unique application of love poetry in Christian mysticism. This will be discussed in more detail at the conclusion of our notes on the Song.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
References marked “Sefati, Love Songs” are to Yitschak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture (Bar-Ilan University Press: 1998).

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