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:

“and (the) taste of your (mouth) like the good wine…”
“…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).


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