September 6: Song of Songs 8:5b

Song 8:5b-7
Verse 5b

“Under the apple-tree I stirred you—
there your mother came to be writhing (with) you,
there she was writhing and gave birth to you.”

The precise meaning of verse 5b remains enigmatic, as does its position within the section (vv. 1-10). As there is a general parallel with verses 1-2—with the motifs of mother and child-bearing—it is best to view these lines as the beginning of a new poetic unit (the second of three in the section). The main parallel involves the motif of the mother conceiving and giving birth to a child. In vv. 1-2 the reference is to the girl’s mother, while here it is to the boy’s mother—however, the basic image is the same. There are two primary thematic aspects to this image:

    • The sexual implication—of a boy and girl (father and mother as youths) making love, which eventually leads to pregnancy and childbirth
    • The two young lovers are following in the pattern of their own parents—who once were young lovers like themselves; this implicitly places the boy and girl within an established (and accepted) social setting, i.e., their love will find completion in marriage and child-bearing

The parallel with vv. 1-2 is even more precise (cf. the prior note), in the sense that, in several of the earlier episodes, there was a clear juxtaposition between a bedroom in the girl’s family house (in the city) and the outdoor garden/vineyard setting (cf. especially the framing of 5:2-6:3). Both locales symbolize the sexuality of the young woman, but the house/city setting also entails the social barriers that separate the lovers—and that require conformity of sexual love to social law and custom. It is only within the outdoor garden setting that the lovers can be together with perfect freedom.

The apple-tree represents an abbreviated form of the garden/field/vineyard motif—a specific location (where love-making can occur) within the garden (orchard) setting. On apples as a specific sexual symbol in Near Eastern poetry, cf. the earlier note on 2:3; the image also occurs in 2:5 (cf. note) and 7:8. Some commentators would hold that j^WPT^ properly refers to the apricot, rather than the apple, but this scarcely changes the meaning of the image or its use as a sexual symbol.

The verb rWu (I) is the same as occurs in the double prohibition in the recurring refrain of 2:7; 3:5, and 8:4. The basic meaning is to stir—either in the specific context of waking from sleep, or in the more general sense of being stirred to action. Here the form is from the Polel stem (related to the Piel), used in a causative sense much like the Hiphil stem—i.e., to stir someone (awake), to rouse them from sleep; the second occurrence of the verb in the refrain also is a Polel form. The meaning of the verb here is informed by its use in the refrain, where it can be understood in two different ways: (1) stirring awake sexual love, or (2) disturbing/interrupting the love-making. Here, however, it is specifically the young man (the girl’s lover) whom she “stirs”. There are three ways this can be explained:

    • The simple, natural meaning of rousing the young man from sleep, in the general context of the two lovers waking (after having spent the night together)
    • She is disturbing/interrupting his sleep, perhaps because there is something important she has to say to him (vv. 6-7)
    • It is a reference to the ‘awakening’ of sexual love and experience—i.e., the couple makes love (or has just made love)

The echo of the recurring refrain suggests that the latter aspect is primarily in view, though all three aspects would seem to apply quite well to the episode in context.

There can be no doubt that lovemaking (and sexual intercourse) is being referenced here. This is clear from the overall context of 7:8-8:5, but is further confirmed by the associated image of the mother becoming pregnant—in the exact same setting (under the ‘apple tree’) where the two lovers are now sleeping together. The verb lb^j* can refer to both conceiving a child (becoming pregnant) and giving birth. The fundamental meaning of the verb, “twist”, apparently is meant, in such a context, to describe the twisting and writhing of a woman in labor. The double use of the verb in the second and third lines is probably intended to distinguish between the two stages of conception and labor in the process of childbirth.

The implication that the couple has spent the night together (and has made love) can be troubling to many readers, since there is no real indication anywhere in the passage (or the wider context of 7:8ff) that the two are married. The moral and ethical implications of this aspect of the Song will be dealt with in a separate article once we have reached the end of the notes. However, even though the lovers may not be married in this scene, the passage does anticipate a marriage, though indirectly, much as we saw in the previous unit. This will be discussed in the next daily note on vv. 6-7.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash continue their line of interpretation for v. 5a (cf. the previous note). Upon their resurrection from the dead (i.e., coming up ‘out of the desert’), the righteous people of Israel will awaken, like newborn children, resembling their appearance when they first arrived at Sinai to meet YHWH and receive the Torah. “At that hour Zion, mother of Israel, shall bear her children and Jerusalem shall receive her captive children”. Likewise, the Midrash Rabbah continues the historical interpretation of the desert motif, as referring to the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai. The “apple tree” was specifically related to mount Sinai, with the Torah being given in the month of Sivan, when the apple-tree produces its fruit. Cf. Pope, p. 665.

Theodoret explains v. 5b in light of the earlier reference to the apple-tree in 2:3. The scene in that earlier passage (“in his shadow I rejoiced”) was only a “shadow of the good things to come”, things that are now described in the present verse—i.e., conferred on believers at the present time. He draws upon Paul’s famous statement in 1 Cor 13:12, contrasting our obscured/shadowed vision with the clarity with which we will see, looking at Christ our Beloved “face to face”. The awakening under the apple-tree is understood not of the young man (Christ) but of the girl (believers), referring to our ‘new birth’ from our ‘mother’ (the Spirit) once we came up from the ‘dead’ (i.e., out of the desert), as symbolized for us by our baptism. Cf. Norris, p. 281f.

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 “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).