September 9: Song of Songs 8:8-10

Song 8:8-10

Verses 8-10 represent the last of the three poetic units of this section (vv. 1-10). In some ways, it is the most difficult to explain within the poetic narrative of the section; however, it does share two basic themes with the other poems: (1) a reference to the lovers’ family members, implying social acceptance of their love; and (2) an allusion to their eventual marriage.

Verse 8

“(There is) a little sister for us,
and (there are) no two breasts for her.
What shall we do for our sister
on the day that (one) is speaking for her?”

By all accounts it is the family of the girl speaking in verses 8-9—specifically her brothers. Up to this point in the Song, the girl’s family has played a marginal and indirect role, and speaks for the first time here. Indeed, her brothers were mentioned only in 1:6 (“[the] sons of my mother”); elsewhere in the Song, the terms “brother” and “sister” are used by the lovers in reference to each other (as terms of endearment and affection).

The context indicates the speakers are her older brothers: “(There is) a little [hN`f^q=] sister for us” (i.e., “we have a little sister”). Their statement in the second line can be easily misunderstood: “(there are) no two breasts for her” (i.e., “she has no breasts”). It has been clear that the girl in the Song is sexually mature and active, so we must understand the brothers’ words according to a specific nuance of meaning. I believe that the wording is intended to express two ideas at the same time:

    • The girl is still quite young, having only just recently developed, ‘blossoming’ into her sexuality (cf. the context of 6:11, and the earlier note on that verse)
    • The girl’s family (and especially her brothers) still tend to think of her as a little girl, perhaps being unwilling to recognize (or accept) that she has now grown into a sexually mature young woman.

On the strong likelihood that this may reflect playful, teasing banter between the brothers and their little sister, cf. Fox, pp. 172-3.

In any case, the second couplet shows that they have thought about the possibility that a man may ask for their sister in marriage (which could happen even while she was still very young). This is expressed in a most straightforward fashion: “…on the day that (one) is speaking for her” (i.e. asking for her in marriage, when she is ‘spoken for’). The rhetorical question they ask is, “What shall we do (on that day)?”. The force of the question, in the context of vv. 1-10, serves to anticipate marriage between the two lovers, giving it something of a sense of immediacy, even though there is no indication that the young man has yet asked for her hand.

Verse 9

“If she (is) a wall, we will build upon her a buttress of silver;
and if a door, we will bind upon her a plank of cedar-wood.”

This is one of the more enigmatic verses of the Song, primarily because the specific force of the imagery—and what meaning there may be in the juxtaposition of a wall (hm*oj) and a hinged-door (tl#D#)—is unclear. The brothers’ dual-declaration can be explained two ways—either in terms of decoration or protection. Since the immediate context is of an impending marriage arrangement and wedding, it would seem to be the former (decoration) that is primarily in view. But what meaning is there in the distinction between the girl as a wall and as a door? As they both represent flat surfaces, it is possible that we have here a playful reference to the idea that the girl “has no breasts” (cf. above, and the cited discussion by Fox). The girl’s response in v. 10 (below) argues strongly in favor of this interpretation. If so, then the wall/door juxtaposition is simply an instance of synonymous parallelism—with both lines carrying essentially the same meaning. Perhaps the idea being expressed by the brothers (playfully, it seems) is that, even though she is their kid sister, they will do what they can to ornament her and dress her up so that she will be as attractive and mature-looking as possible for her intended husband.

The precise meaning of the noun hr*yf! remains uncertain, even though it occurs 6 other places in the Old Testament (Ezek 25:4; 46:23, etc). It seems to refer to a row of stone-work on the top of a tall structure, but beyond this it is difficult to be more precise. Here the ‘buttressing’ is done with silver, indicating the luxurious decoration and ornament that would be appropriate for a wedding, etc. The noun j^Wl refers to a flat, smooth board (or plank, tablet); the image here is of a door paneled with valuable planks of cedar-wood.

Verse 10

“I (am indeed) a wall, and my two breasts (are) like great (tower)s,
(and) so I was in his eyes like (one) having found completion!”

The girl is clearly responding to the words of her brothers in vv. 8-9, though I am not so certain that she is speaking to them directly. In any case, she is picking up on their comparison with a wall (hm*oj)—responding that, indeed she is a wall, but not a flat wall that needs buttressing (to hide the fact that ‘she has no breasts’). Rather, she declares that she actually has quite prominent breasts, shaped like “great (tower)s” (tolD*g+m!, cf. 4:4; 5:13; 7:5). In other words, she is very much a sexually developed young woman, however much her family may still wish to think of her as a little girl, or her brothers tease her to that effect. More importantly, her developed sexuality was a principal factor in the young man (her beloved) becoming attracted to her and falling in love with her. This is the sense of the second line here, and I thoroughly disagree with Fox’s proposal to emend the text to read “I was in your [plur.] eyes…”, which labors under the assumption that the girl is addressing her brothers directly.

The final phrase “(one) having found completion” is important because of how it continues a line of word-play that runs through the Song, involving the root <lv. The fundamental meaning of the root is “complete, fulfill”, but it can be used within a wide semantic range. The noun <olv* is often translated “peace”, but this represents just one specific connotation—others are “good will, favor, health, safety, security,” etc. I prefer to render it here is something more like the fundamental meaning of the root—viz., “completion”. Earlier, in the note on 7:1 [6:13], I discussed how the name/title tyM!l^Wv is best understood in a similar sense, “complete/perfect (one)”, derived from the same root. The girl is thus referring to the fact that her beloved considers her to be the “complete (one)” (cp. 5:2; 6:9), but also that the two lovers find completion and fulfillment in each other—a covenantal bond of love that will soon be realized, in a more permanent (and socially acceptable) way, through the bond of marriage (cf. above).

There is also wordplay with <olv*  in relation to the name hm)l)v= (i.e., Solomon); cf. verse 11, to be discussed in the next daily note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

These verses taxed the ingenuity of Jewish and Christian commentators in attempting to give to the lines an allegorical or typological interpretation. The Targum explained vv. 8-9 as the Angels speaking, asking what they can do to help their little sister (Israel) who lacks the worldly greatness (and military power) of the surrounding nations. The Midrash Rabbah explains the scene in a slightly different way: the princes (Angels) of the nations accusing the ‘little sister’ (Israel) of lewdness and idolatry; the Midrash thus preserves, in its own way, something of the sexual context of the original poem. The absence of breasts was further explained in terms of the righteous ones of Israel (Abraham, et al) who were faithful and observant of the Torah, even before they were old enough to know that they should do so (i.e., before they ‘had breasts’).

The references to building (and ornamenting a building) in verse 9 were explained by the Midrash in relation to the Temple. The ‘little sister’ refers to the Israelites who returned from exile, and who were thus lacking in certain respects (as also the Second Temple in the post-exilic period was also lacking in certain ways). The girl as a “door” (which people walk through) was, in a related sense, interpreted as the continuation of the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, even after the Temple was destroyed.

The girl’s breasts as “towers” (v. 10) was understood by the Targum and Midrash as referring to the strength that Israel finds through the Torah (and those who study/interpret the Torah). The Law functions as a wall—for safety and protection—which also gives strength to its inhabitants, making them “strong as a tower”. Through faithful observance of the Torah, Israel finds favor (<olv*) in the eyes of YHWH (her Beloved). Cf. Pope, pp. 679, 682-3, 686.

Bede understands that the young man (the Lord/Christ) is speaking in vv. 8-9, and that he is addressing the Synagogue (Jews) as the ‘little sister’ to Christians. At the same time, the reference is to the early years of the (Gentile) Church when it was still small and inexperienced (having ‘no breasts’ yet). In verse 9, the Lord declares (to the Synagogue) the care and nurturing that is appropriate for him to give to the Church (as his sister), ornamenting and buttressing her with instruction and help, through the Scriptures and commandments, the teaching of equipped ministers, and so forth.

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).


September 8: Song of Songs 8:6-7 (continued)

Song 8:6-7, continued

This note continues the study of the ‘hymn to love’ in 8:6-7 (cf. the previous note), examining the final two couplets in verse 7:

“many waters are not able to quench th(is) love,
and (all the) streams cannot engulf her;
if a man should give all (the) wealth of his house for th(is) love,
there would be rejection, utter rejection of it”

The first couplet here (fourth of the hymn) relates to the earlier motifs of death and fire—both being connected, in different ways, with the motif of water. The expression <yB!r^ <y]m^ is translated above quite literally as “many waters”; however, this does not in any way capture the cosmic aspect of the expression—cf. Psalm 18:16 par; 29:3; 93:4; 144:7; Isa 17:12-13; Jer 51:55; Ezek 1:24; 43:2; Rev 1:15; 14:2; 19:6. The strength of the waters is emphasized as much as its expanse; thus many commentators prefer to translate the expression as “mighty waters”, which is accurate enough in its own way.

This couplet indeed builds upon the imagery in the previous two, emphasizing again how love is more powerful than death. Its fire—the fire of sexual love and desire (with its fiery emotions, etc)—cannot be extinguished or quenched (vb hb*K*) even by the greatest mass of water. These “many waters” are clearly related to the idea of death, as one can readily see from numerous examples in Old Testament poetry (e.g., Psalm 18:4-5, 16 par; Jonah 2:3-6). The waters are depicted in terms of the great expanse of the deep, rising up like a tidal wave, but also (in the second line) as powerful rushing streams (torh*n+). Even the mightiest such waters can neither extinguish the fire of love, not engulf it (vb [f^v*) so as to make it drown.

The imagery here can perhaps be better understood in light of ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Before the ordered universe came into being, the world existed as a great and dark mass of water (Gen 1:2, etc). Even after the establishment of the ordered universe, the world continued to be surrounded entirely by the waters—both above the upper hemisphere (of the heavens) and deep below the surface of the earth. The dark and chaotic primeval waters thus marked the boundary of the life-sustaining universe, as well as the threshold between existence and non-existence. The connection between the primeval watery expanse and death is thus natural and obvious. Moreover, the watery depths below the earth’s surface were generally proximate to the ‘underworld’, the realm of death and the dead. The references cited above clearly illustrate the cosmic aspect of this imagery. For more on this topic, along with the specific idea of the primeval waters being defeated or subdued by the Creator-Deity (during the process of the creation/establishment of the ordered universe), cf. my earlier article in the Ancient Parallels series.

Note that I have translated the pronouns in vv. 6-7a quite literally as “she/her”; I have done this since the word hb*h&a^ (“love”) is grammatically feminine, but also because it is presumably the girl who is speaking here, and in light of the traditional Near Eastern association of the twin aspects of sexual love and war/death with a female goddess figure (cf. the discussion in the previous note).

The theme of the strength of love is given a different emphasis in the final couplet—in the sense that it far surpasses the wealth and power possessed by any person. The noun used is /oh, a bit difficult to translate, but which generally means “wealth, goods”, perhaps according to the basic denotation of the root /wh, as that which is sufficient (enough) for a person to live and prosper, and to make life easy and enjoyable. Even if the richest man offered all the wealth of his house (and property, etc) in exchange for love, it would be mocked and rejected as far too little (double usage of the verb zWB, cf. the earlier usage in verse 1).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 6-7)

Generally the Targum and Midrash give a religious-historical interpretation to these lines, focusing on Israel’s status as beloved of God over all the other nations. The Targum curiously explained the “jealousy” as belonging, not to YHWH, but to the nations, who were jealous of Israel (and her relationship to God). Their jealousy and enmity is compared to the “fire” of Gehinnom, created by God to burn up all those who worship other deities. The Midrash Rabbah typically focused on Israel’s receipt and acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, referring the seal on the heart and arm, naturally enough, to the covenant and Israel’s observance of the Torah—especially through the application of the phylacteries (tefillin) to the forehead and arm.

The Targum’s explanation of the “many waters” as referring to the nations (and their rage/hostility to Israel) was fitting in light of the use of the expression in Isa 17:12-13; Jer 51:55; Rev 17:1, etc. The comparison of a man giving all his wealth for the love of God (and wisdom) comes quite close in sense to Jesus’ famous parable of the ‘pearl of great price’ (Matt 13:45-46). The Midrash Rabbah generally follows the same line of interpretation: the unquenchable love is YHWH’s love for Israel, the flood-waters are the other nations, and the treasure for which one would give all his wealth is the Torah (= Wisdom, and a sign of God’s covenant-love for Israel). Cf. Pope, pp. 671, 676-7.

Bede brings out the same connection, between v. 7b and Matt 13:45-46, and also makes insightful mention of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 13:3, noting a number of motifs shared here with vv. 6-7: “If I give away all that I have…and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing”. Of course, early Christians such as Bede understood this, not in terms of sexual love, but in the higher sense of love for God (and Christ) and the truth.

Augustine, in his commentary on the Psalms (48:12-13 [47:13-14]), mentions verse 6 (“Love is strong as death”) in passing, referring to Christian love in terms of the example of the martyrs, who were “on fire with this love” and so were willing to endure the fire and suffering of persecution. The raging waters are thus understood as the rage and hostility of the nations (cf. above), but also the temptations and opposition that comes generally from all worldly forces in this present Age:

“Love is the virtue that none can overcome. No deluge of this age, no torrents of temptation (will ever) extinguish the fire of love.”
Cf. Norris, pp. 286-8.

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).