August 9: Song of Songs 5:8-9

Song 5:8

“I call you to (bind yourselves) seven-fold,
daughters of Yerushalaim,
if you find my love,
what will you put in front for him?
—that being weak (from) love (am) I!”

Verse 8 marks the conclusion of the first song in this section; indeed, both songs end with an address by the young woman to the “daughters of Jerusalem”. These “daughters of Jerusalem” play a distinct role in the Song, functioning as an audience to events and a chorus whose voice punctuates individual poems and episodes. Here we have an adjuration that resembles the recurring refrain in 2:7 and 3:5 (also in 8:4). It begins with the same Hiphil imperative of the verb ub^v*. Related to the number seven (ub*v#), this verb is typically used in the specific context of swearing an oath or vow (cf. the earlier note on 2:7); in such cases it probably has the basic meaning “bind (oneself) seven times (or sevenfold)”. The use of the Hiphil (causative) stem denotes making (or requiring) a person to bind themselves in such a way. Here in the Song, this technical (ritual) usage has a more general significance, by which the young woman implores the other girls, seeking to compel them to act on her behalf.

In the adjuration of 2:7; 3:5, the conditional particle <a! (“if…”) represents the main clause of a conditional sentence (the apodosis, “if…then…”), framed as a negative prohibition (i.e., “if…then you must not…!” = “Do not…!”). Though some commentators would disagree (cf. Fox, p. 146), here we have a something closer to a standard conditional sentence: “If you find my love, (then)…”. The apodosis is framed as a question/answer, using the (interrogative) pronoun hm* (“what”), similar in form to that in Hosea 9:14. The question posed is: “what will you put in front for him?” The verb dg~n` means “be (in) front”, and in the Hiphil stem (as here), “put (in) front”, in the general sense of “present (the) information” (i.e., give the news). The ‘answer’ to this question is marked by the use of the prefixed relative pronoun (v#)—the news the girls are to give to her beloved is “that [-v#] I am weak from love”.

The phrase “being weak (from) love” (hb*h&a^ tl^oj) reflects the traditional theme of love-sickness—a passionate love so overwhelming that it leads to physical and emotional sickness, especially when it remains unfulfilled. In English idiom, the young woman would say, “I am love-sick”. In the context of this section, the girl’s ‘sickness’ relates to her desperate search through the city, looking for her beloved. The desperation of her search, implied by the context of v. 7 (cf. the previous note), led her to act in a reckless and scandalous manner. Such love-madness (related to the idea of love-sickness) is also a common feature in love poetry; an example from an ancient Egyptian love song may be cited (the girl is speaking):

“My heart quickly scurries away / when I think of your love.
It does not let me act like a (normal) person / it has lept <out> of its place.
It does not let me don a tunic / I cannot put on my cloak.
I cannot apply paint to my eyes / I cannot anoint myself at all!
‘Don’t stop until you get inside’ / thus it says to me, whenever (I) think of him.
O my heart, don’t make me act foolish! / Why do you act crazy?
Sit still, cool down, until the brother comes to you / when I shall do many such things.
Don’t let people say about me: / ‘This woman has collapsed out of love.’
Stand firm whenever you think of him / my heart, and scurry not away.”
(Fox, pp. 53-4)

Verse 9

“What (distinguishes) your love from (another) love,
(you) beautiful (one) among the women?
What (makes) your love (different) from (another) love,
that (in) this (way) you would bind us sevenfold?”

Verse 9 represents the response by the “daughters of Jerusalem” to the young woman’s request (a similar refrain/response occurs at the end of the second song [6:1]). They respond with a comparable question for the girl, also beginning with the interrogative pronoun hm* (“what…?”). There is a double-meaning for the preposition /m! (“from”) in their question, which literally reads: “What (is) your love from [/m!] love?”. This is an example of the comparative use of /m!, but in a double sense:

    • If we are supposed to find your beloved, how will we know it is him? What does he look like? How is your beloved different from any other girl’s beloved?
    • What makes your beloved so special? How is he so different from other fine young men that you would implore us so desperately, asking us to ‘bind ourselves (sevenfold)’ to help you?

This dual-aspect reflects the transitional character of verse 9—not only does it conclude the song of vv. 3-8, but it leads in to the next song in vv. 10ff. That song specifically involves the physical appearance of the young man, as praised by the young woman, describing each body part. Thus, at one level, the song in vv. 10-16 is an answer to the question posed by the “daughters of Jerusalem” here in v. 9. We will be discussing that song in the next daily note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum compared the “daughters of Jerusalem” with the Prophets of Israel who are asked to inform God of Israel’s love-sickness (i.e., longing for Him). The Prophets, in turn, are seen as the ones speaking in v. 9, inquiring of Israel regarding her faithfulness and intentions toward God. During Israel’s exile in Egypt she yearned for YHWH’s deliverance like a love-sick girl (Midrash Rabbah). The Midrash also compared the query by the women to that of the nations addressing Israel, regarding the superiority of her God: “What is your God more than other gods?…”. Cf. Pope, pp. 529-30.

On early Christian interpretation of the “daughters of Jerusalem”, cf. the earlier note on 2:7.

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).

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