September 2: Song of Songs 8:3-5a

Song 8:3-4

“His left (hand is) beneath my head,
and his right (hand) embraces me.
I call you to (bind yourselves) seven-fold,
daughters of Yerushalaim:
(do nothing) whatever (to) stir or stir up love until she desires (it)!”

These lines are essentially identical with 2:6-7 (cf. the earlier note), with two differences:

    • The description of the binding force of the oath (“by the gazelles and by the deer of the field”) is omitted; certainly, anyone paying attention to the earlier portions of the Song would automatically ‘fill in’ the shortened version of the oath here with the phrase.
    • Instead of the conditional particle <a!, the interrogative (exclamatory) pronoun hm* is used. Normally, the particle <a! is rendered “if”, but, in the oath formula of 2:7, it refers to the apodosis of the conditional clause framed as a negative statement (or prohibition)—i.e., “do not…”. A similar negative use of hm* (“what”) is rare in the Old Testament (cf. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar [GKC] §137b); here the sense presumably is, “(do nothing) whatever to stir or stir up love…!”.

If the meaning of the refrain (in the earlier passages) is that sexual love should not be stirred (to consummation) until the time is right, then the sense here surely is that the time is now right for the two lovers. This point would seem to be confirmed by the context of 7:10b-14 (cf. the discussion in the prior note), and the position of these verses (along with chapter 8) to form the climax of the second movement of the Song.

Verse 3 here (as in 2:6) certainly refers to love-making, of the two lovers laying down together in each other’s embrace (vb qb^j*). Whether or not sexual intercourse (coitus) was indicated specifically in the earlier episodes, it is certainly in view here (in light of 7:8-14, cf. the notes on 7:8-10a and 12-14). But, again, we must also bear in mind the more immediate context of vv. 1-2 (cf. the previous note), in which the thematic emphasis is on social recognition and acceptance of the couple’s love—both by their families, and by the wider society. This, naturally enough, anticipates a marriage agreement and a wedding, which helps to explain the presence of v. 5a:

Verse 5a

“Who (is) this coming up from the outback,
supporting herself upon her love?”

The first line of this couplet echoes 3:6, which describes—in colorful symbolic language—the girl arriving at her wedding. It is a grandiose royal wedding that is depicted in 3:6-11 (cf. the earlier notes), however obliquely, by the references to Solomon, etc. In the Song, such royal motifs reflect the nature of the love between the young man and young woman—they are ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other, and, any place where they can be together, expressing their love, is like a majestic royal chamber or pavilion. Thus, though it may seem cryptic in the immediate context of chapter 8, we have here, I believe, at the close of this first unit, an allusion to the couple’s marriage and wedding.

The second line here, which does not occur in 3:6, provides an interesting (and telling) addition. Instead of coming alone to the wedding-scene, she approaches together with her beloved. The girl is leaning (or reclining) upon him—literally, the reflexive verb form (of the root qpr) means “supporting herself”. Almost certainly, this alludes back to verse 3 here, and to the lovemaking by the couple, where the young man’s two hands embrace (lit. enfold, vb qb^j*) her. It is intriguing to consider how these references to lovemaking (and sexual intercourse) in 7:8-8:3 relate to this climactic theme of marriage. The question touches on a range of interpretive concerns—including ethical, moral, and religious—regarding the relationship between sexuality and marriage in the Song. It is not possible to address these here, but they will be discussed, in some detail, when we have completed the remaining exegetical notes.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 1-5a)

The Targum understands the “brother” of v. 1 as a reference to the Messiah, who will serve as brother to Israel, and the two will “suck together” the precepts of the Torah. The Midrash further applied the brother-motif to the relationship between brothers in Israelite history and tradition, with the kissing specifically recalling the kissing of Moses by Aaron (Exod 4:27). The Targum continued its Messianic interpretation in verse 2, with the drinking of mixed/spiced wine as a reference to the ‘Messianic Banquet’ that ushers in the New Age, where the righteous will feast on the old wine preserved (in the Garden of Eden) since the day the world was created. The Midrash Rabbah explained the house/room of the mother in connection with the historical location of mount Sinai, since it was there that “Israel became like a newborn child”, when the covenant was established and the Torah given. The odd/stray MT reading “she will teach me”, which is probably a corrupt vestige of a lost second line (cf. the discussion in the previous note), is taken at face value by the Midrash, read as “you will teach me” —i.e., YHWH will instruct Israel through the Torah.

Verse 3, repeated from 2:6 (cf. the earlier note), was explained by the Targum as a reference to the tefillin—bound on the left hand and on the head. The Targum and Midrash treated the adjuration in v. 4 (echoing 2:7 and 3:5, cf. above) in a similar manner, adapting it only slightly (cf. the interpretation given in the note on 2:7). Verse 5a also echoes an earlier passage of the Song, which the Targum and Midrash explain here in several different ways. The motif of coming up from the desert suggested, for example, death and the resurrection from the dead—an eschatological reference to the time when the dead of Israel will rise up, appearing as they did, like newborn children, at Sinai to receive the Law. Indeed, the desert-motif naturally brought to mind the tradition of the Exodus and Israel’s arrival at mount Sinai. Cf. Pope, pp. 658-661, 664f.

Theodoret’s interpretation of vv. 1ff resembles the Messianic approach taken by the Targum, only adapted to an early Christian (Christological) context. Christ as the “brother” of the Bride, suckling at the same mother’s breast, was explained in terms of his incarnation and humanity. It was Christ’s willingness to humble himself and take on our human nature that causes us, especially, to love him. And it is because the soul (and the Church) follows the example of Christ, that she is made pure and able to embrace him and kiss him, even in public, without any shame. At a second level of meaning, the “house of the mother” refers to the house of the Spirit, where the Holy Spirit ‘gives birth’ to believers, a house patterned after the heavenly “Jerusalem that is above” (Gal 4:26).

In v. 5a, Theodoret contrasts the shining white appearance of the woman with her earlier black/darkened color (1:6). She is white now because she has “taken on the whiteness” of her Beloved, the pure and holy Bridegroom (Christ). This holiness and union with the Bridegroom makes her worthy of “going up” out of the desert, explained as a reference to the resurrection, much as Jewish commentators explained it (cf. above).

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

September 1: Song of Songs 8:1-2

Song 8:1-10

Chapter 8 (specifically verses 1-10) represents the conclusion to the second movement of the Song, and is thus parallel to the close of the first movement (3:4-11), sharing many of the same themes and points of emphasis. In particular, we find the idea expressed that the love between the young man and young woman would find social recognition and acceptance (especially by their families), resulting in marriage (and a wedding). This is a fitting emphasis for the conclusion of each movement of the Song, but is presented more succinctly in 3:4-11, with the wedding-scene indicated in vv. 6-11. Here, in the second movement, the concluding section (8:1-10) is more complex. My outline of this section matches the division used by Fox (pp. 165-73), recognizing three distinct poetic units: vv. 1-5a, 5b-7, and 8-10. Unlike the earlier sections of this movement, there is less continuity between these units, and it is much more difficult to isolate a definite dramatic-narrative thread running through each unit. There are, however, several common features that can be mentioned.

First, each unit contains a reference or allusion to family members of the two lovers. This refers, primarily, to the social recognition/acceptance of their love, as noted above. There is also a playful positioning of the sexual relationship between the boy and girl, so that it implicitly follows the pattern of their parents. After all, their parents were once young lovers just like they are; as the parents’ youthful love led to acceptance and marriage (and bearing of children), within the construct of social order and custom, so also it can be for the two lovers of the Song. Second, along these lines, there is a sense in these units of the bond of love between the boy and girl deepening and becoming something more permanent (cf. especially the central declaration in vv. 6-7).

Song 8:1-5a

This first unit more precisely echoes the conclusion of the First Movement, with verses 2 and 5a closely resembling 3:4b and 6a.

Verses 1-2

“Who will give (that) you (would be) like a brother to me,
(one) having sucked the breasts of my mother!
I would find you in the (street) outside (and) would kiss you,
and even (so) there would be no indignity for me.
I would lead you and bring you into (the) house of my mother,
<into the inner room (where) she became pregnant with me>
(There) I would make you drink from the mixed wine,
from (the) pressed juice of my pomegranate.”

Verse 2 appears to be missing a line, the first line of the MT representing, it would seem, only a partial couplet. The final word yn]d@M=l^T= in the MT (“she will teach me”) doesn’t make much sense in context, and may be an indication of textual corruption. The LXX and Peshitta contain, instead, a second line matching that of the parallel in 3:4: “into the inner room (where) she became pregnant with me”. It is difficult to know whether the versions reflect a harmonizing expansion to match the earlier reference, or whether a line has dropped out of the MT. No help is available from the Dead Sea manuscripts, since nothing of chapter 8 has been preserved. I have chosen to emend (or restore) the text, adding a balancing second line (in angle brackets above) to match the LXX, etc.

The idiom “who will give (that)…?” (/ty ym!) is a way of expressing the wish that something would come to pass. A flat conventional translation in English might be: “If only you were like a brother to me!” At numerous points in the Song, the two lovers refer to each other as “brother” and “sister”, even though they are not actually related as brother-sister (as v. 1 here makes quite clear). These epithets elsewhere in the Song are terms of endearment and intimacy, following the conventions of Near Eastern love poetry (cf. the earlier note on 4:8-11). Here, the author plays on this motif, shifting the meaning of “brother” to its regular, familial sense.

Why does she express the wish that her lover could be like her brother? The reason is clear and expressed directly enough. It is so that they could kiss and express intimacy with other in public, without causing any scandal. In earlier episodes of the Song, the city locale and the girl’s family house represented barriers that effectively separate the two lovers. In such a setting, they are forced to meet secretly, at night, in order to be together (cf. 2:8-17; 5:2-6ff). As in 3:4, the girl now expresses the wish that they could be together, as lovers, in public. The image of bringing her lover into her mother’s house essentially means acceptance of their love by the family. Ultimately, this would entail a formal proposal by the young man, a marriage agreement, and (eventually) a wedding. But public recognition extends beyond family and friends to the wider society as well. This is implied by the reference to the “street outside” (JWj). As brother and sister, even out in the street, they could embrace and there would be no indignity for them as a result. The verb zWB in this context is a bit difficult to translate; it basically means “despise, belittle”, sometimes rendered more forcefully as “condemn, reject”. Here the verb connotes the social disapproval (and even rejection) that would come from the two young lovers expressing their love (by embracing, kissing, etc) out in public.

There is also a sexual double-meaning to the family relationships referenced here. First, the motif of a child sucking the breasts of his mother alludes to the idea of the girl giving her breast to her beloved (v. 2). Similarly, the ‘mother’s house’ (with its bedroom, cf. the textual note above) where the mother conceived her child contains an obvious sexual allusion. Overall, in thematic and dramatic terms, social acceptance of their love means that the young man and young woman can be together, as lovers, even in the girl’s family home. This context gives to verse 2 a dual meaning, assuming that it is the mother’s house/room that is the ‘location’ of the love-making—i.e., “(there) I would make you drink”.

First, it means that they would be able to exist and act as lovers even in the girl’s family house, at least in a limited way (embracing, kissing). Second, in a more figurative sense, the girl would be following the pattern of her own mother, who similarly had sexual relations with her beloved (the girl’s father). The bedroom in the mother’s house represents the socially accepted location (i.e., a marriage bed) where the lovemaking takes place. It is the second, figurative meaning, that is primarily in view. Once their love has been recognized and accepted by the family, etc, they will no longer have to rely on a clandestine meeting for their lovemaking—it can be done within the social bounds of a family bedroom.

A brief note on the sexual imagery in verse 2, which highlights at least three key motifs used throughout the Song: (1) wine, (2) spices (the “mixed” [jq^r#] wine clearly refers to being mixed with spices), and (3) the specific fruit of the pomegranate. All three symbolize sexuality and the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The primary reference, it would seem, is to lovemaking in terms of kissing. The association between wine and the mouth is certainly emphasized in 1:2 and 7:9; similarly, the pomegranate is used specifically to describe the lips and the region around the mouth (4:3; 6:7). As sexual symbols, wine and pomegranate-fruit are not limited to the idea of kissing (the pomegranate likely alludes here also to the girl’s breast), but that is primary point of reference, especially in the context of the two lovers expressing their love in public.

The desire for social recognition (by the families) of the couple’s love is similarly expressed in an ancient Egyptian love song (from the Papyrus Chester Beatty I, poem no. 36 in the collection by Fox). The girl describes how she was passing by the boy’s house, and saw him with his mother and relatives, and she longs to be able to have everyone see her love for him:

“If only mother knew my heart—
Then I could hurry to (my) brother
and kiss him before his company,
and not be ashamed because of anyone.
I would be happy to have them see
that you know me…”
(Fox, p. 55 [ellipses mine])

I find these parallels to be quite close to the situation here in the Song, even to conventional reference to the girl’s lover as her ‘brother’.

(In the next daily note, I will present examples of Jewish and Early Christian interpretation for vv. 1-5a as a whole.)

References marked “Fox” above are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).