September 12: Song of Songs 8:11-12

Conclusion to the Song (8:11-14)

Song 8:11-12

“A vineyard there was for Šlœmœh in Lord-of-a-Multitude {Baal-Hamon}…
he gave (out) the vineyard to the (one)s keeping (it),
(and each) one would bring in its fruit (for) a thousand (pieces) of silver.
My vineyard, which belongs to me, (is right) before me.
The thousand (silver pieces) belong to you, Šlœmœh,
but two hundred (go) to (the one)s keeping its fruit!”

These witty lines—a kind of mini-parable—serve a double purpose here in the Song. On the one hand, they bring the second movement of the Song (4:1-8:10) to a close; on the other hand, they form (along with vv. 13-14) a separate conclusion to the Song as a whole.

The closing section of the second movement (8:1-10) is parallel, in a number of ways, to the close of the first movement (3:4-11). While there is nothing quite comparable to the royal wedding scene of 3:6-11, there is a parallel reference to Solomon (hm)ýv=, Šlœmœh, vv. 7, 9, 11). And, if one reads carefully (between the lines, as it were), there is here an allusion to the marriage of the two lovers. However, instead of Solomon serving as a positive image (for a grand royal wedding, in 3:6-11), he functions here as a negative foil, a point of contrast for the lovers of the Song.

The little parable in verse 11 is simple and straightforward: Solomon possesses an enormous vineyard, so large that it is necessary for him to sublease it (“give it [out],” vb /t^n`) to a number of “keepers” (<yr!f=n)). Each of these “keepers” possesses a substantial vineyard in its own right, enough to receive a thousand pieces of silver (a large amount) for its fruit. The verb rf^n` is frequently used in a farming context, such as the cultivating of a vineyard. It was used earlier in 1:6 (cf. also Isa 5:1-7); indeed, there is almost certainly an intentional echo of the earlier reference in 1:6, referring to the girl as belonging to a family of vineyard-workers. In the symbolic context of the Song, the idea of “keeping” a vineyard means cultivating feminine sexuality.

Commentators have tended to trip over the location of the vineyard, /omh* lu^B^ (Ba±al H¹môn), attempting to identify it with a real historical location (cf. the “Did You Know…?” section below). In my view, it is a serious mistake to read the expression as a simple place-name (Baal-Hamon) with no further significance. Almost certainly, the fundamental meaning is figurative and symbolic. Literally, the name would mean something like “Lord [lu^B^] of a Multitude [/omh*],” and this is how I have rendered it in the translation above. It thus alludes to the wealth, power and prestige of Solomon, the greatest (in that sense) of Israel’s kings. Perhaps more importantly, the noun lu^B^ can be used specifically of a husband—i.e., “husband of a multitude,” most likely a thinly veiled reference to the royal harem of Solomon, his multitude of wives (1 Kings 11:3ff). His harem was so large that he could not possibly care for all his wives himself, leaving most of the work to other royal officials and servants (the “keepers”).

By contrast, the young man of the Song has only one wife—his beloved, the young girl of the Song. And this one wife truly belongs to him, being always there right before his face. This specific contrastive parallel to the wives of Solomon does, I believe, allude to the fact that the two lovers of the Song are intended to be husband and wife for each other, and will, indeed, be married.

The final two lines bring the contrast—between Solomon and the young man—to a sharp and satiric point. It draws upon the economic reality for a large vineyard that has been leased out to workers/keepers. In this particular illustration, the fruit for each subleased sector of the vineyard comes to a thousand pieces of silver, which technically belongs to Solomon; however, of this price, two hundred pieces (of the thousand) go to the keepers. Thus, Solomon is unable himself to enjoy all of the fruits of his vineyard. Throughout the Song, the motif of the “fruit” of the garden/vineyard represents primarily the enjoyment of sexual pleasure—specifically, enjoying the sexual charms and appeal of the young woman. This suggests that, within the context of the parable here, other royal officials are able (or allowed) to enjoy the women of Solomon’s harem.

By contrast, the young man enjoys all the fruit of his vineyard—that is, the beauty, charm, and sexuality of his beloved.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explained these verses as an historical reference to the division of the Israelite kingdom following the reign of Solomon. The Midrash followed the Old Testament symbolism identifying Israel as a vineyard (Isa 5:7, etc). The reference to “Baal-Hamon” alludes to the fact that Israel sinned by “thronging” (Wmh*, h¹mû) after Baal—idolatrous practices that ultimately led to the destruction of the Kingdom and the Exile. The giving over of the vineyard to “keepers” was understood as referring to the Babylonian Captivity.

Bede follows the Vulgate in reading “the peaceful one” (assuming a substantive adjective from the root <lv) rather than the personal name Solomon (hm)ýv=); similarly ‘Baal-Hamon’ was translated as “that which contains people” —the first line of verse 11 thus reading, “The peaceful one had a vineyard in that which contains people”. This allowed Latin commentators like Bede to interpret the verse in a completely positive sense, as referring to the Church as the vineyard belonging to the “peaceful one” (Christ). The “keepers” are the prophets and apostles, and their successors in roles of leadership, exercising care and cultivation of the vine, guarding its fruit. According to this line of interpretation there is no point of contrast in the illustration; rather, the keepers work in the presence of the “peaceful one” who ultimately oversees his own vineyard—all things thus functioning harmoniously.

Interestingly, Theodoret, in his interpretation of vv. 11-12, does maintain a sense of contrast, but in terms of the earlier reference to the vineyard in 1:6 (cf. above). That vineyard, the young woman (i.e., the Church) says, she did not keep; now, however, it has been restored to her—through the work of the “keepers” (working for her salvation), under the authority of the Bridegroom (Christ).

While “Baal-Hamon” may have figurative/symbolic meaning here in the Song, it likely draws upon ancient (Canaanite) historical tradition. Originally, the designation –amœn (> „amœn) may have referred to ‘Mount Amanus’ in northern Syria, and that the Creator °E~l was called by the title “Lord (Baal) of the Amanus mountain(s)” (Ba±l –amœn). The great high-deities in the Semitic world tended to be associated with mountain locations (symbolic of their cosmic mountain-dwelling). For more on this, cf. the discussion in F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Harvard: 1973), pp. 26-28. There were many Baal- place names in Palestine, inherited by Israel, which likely were originally associated with the Creator El (= Yahweh), rather that storm deity Haddu.