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).

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