August 9: Song of Songs 5:8-9

Song 5:8

“I call you to (bind yourselves) seven-fold,
daughters of Yerushalaim,
if you find my love,
what will you put in front for him?
—that being weak (from) love (am) I!”

Verse 8 marks the conclusion of the first song in this section; indeed, both songs end with an address by the young woman to the “daughters of Jerusalem”. These “daughters of Jerusalem” play a distinct role in the Song, functioning as an audience to events and a chorus whose voice punctuates individual poems and episodes. Here we have an adjuration that resembles the recurring refrain in 2:7 and 3:5 (also in 8:4). It begins with the same Hiphil imperative of the verb ub^v*. Related to the number seven (ub*v#), this verb is typically used in the specific context of swearing an oath or vow (cf. the earlier note on 2:7); in such cases it probably has the basic meaning “bind (oneself) seven times (or sevenfold)”. The use of the Hiphil (causative) stem denotes making (or requiring) a person to bind themselves in such a way. Here in the Song, this technical (ritual) usage has a more general significance, by which the young woman implores the other girls, seeking to compel them to act on her behalf.

In the adjuration of 2:7; 3:5, the conditional particle <a! (“if…”) represents the main clause of a conditional sentence (the apodosis, “if…then…”), framed as a negative prohibition (i.e., “if…then you must not…!” = “Do not…!”). Though some commentators would disagree (cf. Fox, p. 146), here we have a something closer to a standard conditional sentence: “If you find my love, (then)…”. The apodosis is framed as a question/answer, using the (interrogative) pronoun hm* (“what”), similar in form to that in Hosea 9:14. The question posed is: “what will you put in front for him?” The verb dg~n` means “be (in) front”, and in the Hiphil stem (as here), “put (in) front”, in the general sense of “present (the) information” (i.e., give the news). The ‘answer’ to this question is marked by the use of the prefixed relative pronoun (v#)—the news the girls are to give to her beloved is “that [-v#] I am weak from love”.

The phrase “being weak (from) love” (hb*h&a^ tl^oj) reflects the traditional theme of love-sickness—a passionate love so overwhelming that it leads to physical and emotional sickness, especially when it remains unfulfilled. In English idiom, the young woman would say, “I am love-sick”. In the context of this section, the girl’s ‘sickness’ relates to her desperate search through the city, looking for her beloved. The desperation of her search, implied by the context of v. 7 (cf. the previous note), led her to act in a reckless and scandalous manner. Such love-madness (related to the idea of love-sickness) is also a common feature in love poetry; an example from an ancient Egyptian love song may be cited (the girl is speaking):

“My heart quickly scurries away / when I think of your love.
It does not let me act like a (normal) person / it has lept <out> of its place.
It does not let me don a tunic / I cannot put on my cloak.
I cannot apply paint to my eyes / I cannot anoint myself at all!
‘Don’t stop until you get inside’ / thus it says to me, whenever (I) think of him.
O my heart, don’t make me act foolish! / Why do you act crazy?
Sit still, cool down, until the brother comes to you / when I shall do many such things.
Don’t let people say about me: / ‘This woman has collapsed out of love.’
Stand firm whenever you think of him / my heart, and scurry not away.”
(Fox, pp. 53-4)

Verse 9

“What (distinguishes) your love from (another) love,
(you) beautiful (one) among the women?
What (makes) your love (different) from (another) love,
that (in) this (way) you would bind us sevenfold?”

Verse 9 represents the response by the “daughters of Jerusalem” to the young woman’s request (a similar refrain/response occurs at the end of the second song [6:1]). They respond with a comparable question for the girl, also beginning with the interrogative pronoun hm* (“what…?”). There is a double-meaning for the preposition /m! (“from”) in their question, which literally reads: “What (is) your love from [/m!] love?”. This is an example of the comparative use of /m!, but in a double sense:

    • If we are supposed to find your beloved, how will we know it is him? What does he look like? How is your beloved different from any other girl’s beloved?
    • What makes your beloved so special? How is he so different from other fine young men that you would implore us so desperately, asking us to ‘bind ourselves (sevenfold)’ to help you?

This dual-aspect reflects the transitional character of verse 9—not only does it conclude the song of vv. 3-8, but it leads in to the next song in vv. 10ff. That song specifically involves the physical appearance of the young man, as praised by the young woman, describing each body part. Thus, at one level, the song in vv. 10-16 is an answer to the question posed by the “daughters of Jerusalem” here in v. 9. We will be discussing that song in the next daily note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum compared the “daughters of Jerusalem” with the Prophets of Israel who are asked to inform God of Israel’s love-sickness (i.e., longing for Him). The Prophets, in turn, are seen as the ones speaking in v. 9, inquiring of Israel regarding her faithfulness and intentions toward God. During Israel’s exile in Egypt she yearned for YHWH’s deliverance like a love-sick girl (Midrash Rabbah). The Midrash also compared the query by the women to that of the nations addressing Israel, regarding the superiority of her God: “What is your God more than other gods?…”. Cf. Pope, pp. 529-30.

On early Christian interpretation of the “daughters of Jerusalem”, cf. the earlier note on 2:7.

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).

August 8: Song of Songs 5:7

Song 5:7

“The (one)s keeping watch found me,
the (one) going around in the city,
they struck me (and) bruised me,
they lifted my fine wrap from upon me,
(these) watch-keepers of the (city) walls!”

This part of the young woman’s song is clearly related to the earlier scene in 3:2-3. There, the girl goes about the city looking for her beloved, but we are not told precisely what prompts her search. Here, however, it is the boy’s sudden disappearance that sets her off (cf. the previous note). At first she calls to him (v. 6), but he has gone away and there is no answer. This leads her to follow after him, in hopes of finding him somewhere in the city. We can assume that her search resembles the one described in 3:2.

Again, there is a harsh irony in that, while she is unable to “find” her beloved, the city guards manage to “find” her. Little is said of this encounter with “the (one)s keeping watch” over the city (and “going around in the city”) in the earlier episode (3:3), other than the fact that they cannot tell her where the boy has gone. Here, by contrast, they respond harshly, with blows, “striking” her and wounding/bruising her (vb ux^P*). They also take off her dyd!r*, a word of uncertain derivation, but which refers to a light wrap or shawl of some kind, worn by women. This is confirmed by cognate terms in Aramaic and Arabic, as well as by the only other occurrence in the Old Testament (Isa 3:23).

How are we to explain this scene? To begin with, the “ones keeping watch” are symbolic (and abstract) figures, representing the social order and those who guard it. The two young lovers, with their unbridled desire for each other, pose a threat to the well-regulated order of society, in terms of sexual relations. This scene makes abundantly clear that, at least in this particular section of the Song, the couple is unmarried.

Their unregulated sexuality (and sexual expression) is further enhanced by the boy’s night-time clandestine visit to the girl’s house, his sudden flight away (back into the night), and the girl’s hasty pursuit after him. The harsh response by the city guards suggests that they have mistaken her for a prostitute, much like the wandering woman depicted in Proverbs 7:5-17. The focus on her dyd!r* would also tend to confirm this. By all accounts the term refers to a fine, light garment, which suggests that the girl was out wandering the city only lightly dressed. Moreover, in Isa 3:23, the only other occurrence of the term, it is part of the finery of the wanton women of Jerusalem. As guardians of the social order, these patrols inflict punishing discipline upon the girl for her scandalous behavior. The removal of her fine wrap adds further insult to injury, resulting in a most humiliating (and painful) experience.

In 3:1-3, the girl’s night-time search in the city repeats something she had already been doing while asleep—that is, in her dreams. This raises the question of whether the episode here in 5:7 is also meant to depict a dream-experience. Again, the episode begins with the girl sleeping (v. 1), and the whole scene, with the boy’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, the girl’s wandering the city without being properly dressed, etc, has a dream-like quality to it. However, it must be remembered that, in love poetry—where we are dealing primarily with imagination and desire—reality, dream, and fantasy all blend together in powerful and provocative ways. It would thus be foolish to attempt to draw a clear line here in the Song between dream and reality.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum connected the image of the city guards with the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. The Midrash adopted a wide range of interpretation to the scene, including the more positive explanation of the guards as the Levites in their role as guardians of the Torah and the priestly ritual—which, indeed, is an important component in the regulation of Israelite society (on the guards as symbols of social order, cf. above). The “walls” that were guarded could be explained as the ‘walls of the Torah’.

Gregory of Nyssa connected the ‘veil’ that the guardians remove with the earlier mention of the young woman having removed her garments (v. 3). He explains this in terms of the continuing progress that the soul makes toward God. Having already taken off the ‘old self’ (her main garments), there yet remains something to be removed on the way to perfection. The city symbolizes the soul, and the guardians are those “ministering spirits” of God who assist and guide the soul on its path (cf. Heb 1:14). Indeed, it is the Spirit of God Himself (the Holy Spirit) who ultimately removes the veil for believers (cf. 2 Cor 3:16-17). The blows delivered by the guards represent the discipline of the Divine Wisdom that the soul receives (citing Prov 23:13). The removal of the veil indicates the ability to see more clearly—that is, the enlightenment which the Spirit brings to the purified soul. The wounds the soul receives in this regard are a reflection of the wound of love that she has already received—her deep and abiding love for the Bridegroom and Beloved.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 51 (Part 1)

Psalm 51

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-5 [1-3]); 4QPsj (vv. 2-6 [1-4])

Psalm 51 is certainly one of the most famous compositions in the Psalter, a prayer-Psalm attributed to David (according to the superscription) on the occasion of his sin with Bathsheba (and his condemnation by Nathan), cf. 2 Samuel 11-12. Most commentators are inclined, at the very least, to doubt this traditional background for the Psalm; the events surrounding the Bathsheba affair happen to be best fit for a such a petitionary prayer in the recorded life of David, so it is natural that scribes and editors would assign that historical background to the Psalm.

It is, indeed, a petitionary prayer, in which the Psalmist asks God to forgive his sin and to renew his heart. Commentators continue to debate whether this petition relates to healing from sickness, a situation that we have already seen emphasized in a number of the prayer-Psalms we have examined thus far. Since, in the ancient mind, disease and illness were often viewed as the result of sin, brought about as divine punishment, the two aspects—forgiveness and healing—can be closely connected.

After the sequence of Psalms attributed to the sons of Korah or to Asaph (cf. the previous study on Ps 50), we return here to David as the ascribed author. It is another musical composition (romz+m!), with no other direction (on performance, etc) given in the superscription. Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates, with a few exceptions.

From a structural and thematic standpoint, the Psalm can be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9]) focuses on forgiveness of sin, while the second (vv. 12-21 [10-19]) emphasizes the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin.

This is one of the seven “Penitential Psalms” in the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, recited (or sung/chanted) especially during the Lenten season. Psalm 51 is certainly the most famous of these, known by its opening words in Latin (Miserere mei Deus, “God have mercy on me”). There have been many wonderful musical settings of the Miserere over the centuries; perhaps the one most widely heard is the two-choir setting by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).

Part 1 (vv. 3-11 [1-9])

Verse 3 [1]

“Show favor to me, Mightiest, according to your goodness,
according to your many (act)s of love,
may you rub out my (act)s of breaking (faith)!”

This opening couplet has an irregular (extended) 3+4 meter, which I prefer to treat as a 3+2+2 tricolon—an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet.

The use of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) marks this as another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which (most) instances of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) have been replaced by the plural name/title <yh!l)a$. In all likelihood, the original composition read hwhy here in v. 3 [1].

The verbs are imperatives, by which the Psalmist implores YHWH to show mercy to him and to forgive his sin. The verb /n~j* fundamentally means “show favor”; it is relatively common verb (and religious term) which occurs frequently (32 times) in the Psalms. The second verb (hj*m*) means “wipe out, rub out”, here in the religious sense of wiping away the guilt of sin (and its effects).

The common noun ds#j# means “goodness, kindness”, but often connotes “loyalty, faithfulness” in the context of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. ds#j# carries this specific meaning often in the Psalms, as indeed it also does here. This relates also to the deep and abiding love (<j^r^) God has for his people, being expressed many different ways, including specific acts of love shown to them. Thus the use of the plural here, qualified by the construct noun br) (“multitude, abundance”), used in an adjectival sense (“many”). YHWH’s acts (and feelings) of deep love are contrasted with the Psalmist’s acts (again in the plural) of breaking faith (uv^P#) with God. The context of the binding agreement (covenant) is in view throughout.

Verse 4 [2]

“Many (times) may you stamp me (clean) from my crookedness,
and from my sin may you make me pure.”

The many (br)) acts of love by YHWH are paralleled here by repeated acts of cleansing, utilizing the modal verb hb*r* (related to br)), “be(come) many”. Probably the written MT is correct in reading an infinitive absolute (hB@r=h^), used here in an adverbial sense, i.e., doing something many times, or repeatedly. The verb sb^K* refers to washing a garment, etc, by stomping or kneading it in water; I have retained the harsh idea of stamping/stomping on something (to make it clean). This repeated and forceful washing results in making the object clean and pure (vb rh@f*).

The noun /ou* literally means “crookedness”, indicating something that is crooked or twisted (in a moral or religious sense). Parallel with this is the more general noun ha*F*j^, basically denoting an error or failure, but almost always in the sense of a moral or religious failure (i.e., sin).

Verse 5 [3]

“For my (act)s of breaking (faith) do I acknowledge—
indeed, my sin is continually in front of me.”

The Psalmist admits and recognizes the times and moments that he has broken faith (i.e., violated the covenant bond) with YHWH. This refers primarily to violations of the Torah regulations, which represent the terms of the covenant. These can be either intentional or unintentional sins—the former being much more serious and beyond the normal ritual means (sacrificial offerings, etc) for correcting the offense. David’s sin with Bathsheba, indicated in the superscription (cf. above) is an example of a grave (intentional) sin that requires a special act of mercy and forgiveness by God to remove its effects.

The verb ud^y` (“know”) is used here in the sense of “acknowledge”. The acknowledgement of sin is necessary before repentance can truly take place. Until YHWH forgives and cleanses him, the protagonist is constantly aware of his sinfulness (“my sin [is] continually in front of me”), suggesting that it is keeping him from having any peace with himself. This may also mean that the effect of his sin, possibly in the form of suffering (from illness, etc), is also continually present, and will not be removed until YHWH removes his guilt. By being “in front of” (dg#n#) him, the Psalmist’s sin may also be functioning in the role of his accuser (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 12).

Verse 6 [4]

“Against you—against you alone—have I sinned,
and (what is) evil in your eyes have I done.
(This is) so that you be (considered) just in your speaking,
and clear (of wrong) in your judging.”

The relation of these two couplets to each other is problematic. The meaning of the first couplet is straightforward enough: the Psalmist acknowledges that, in his failure, he has sinned against YHWH Himself. This involves a tacit recognition of sin in terms of the covenant bond with YHWH—violation of the bond means breaking faith with YHWH. What is “evil in God’s eyes” is expressed fundamentally through the regulations of the Torah.

More difficult is the sense of the second couplet. It would seem to be dependent on the Psalmist’s confession/admission of sin. He is fundamentally admitting that YHWH, in rendering judgment against him (in the form of disease, illness or other suffering?), has acted justly/rightly and is clear of any (judicial) wrongdoing Himself.

Syntactically, the difficulty lies in the opening particle—the prefixed conjunction /u^m^l=, used in something of an adverbial sense. This expression is notoriously difficult to translate in English. Here it would seem to summarize the Psalmist’s confession in vv. 3-5, indicating purpose: i.e., “this is so that…” —I say all of this so that you will be considered right/just in how you have judged me. This right judgment by YHWH is expressed verbally, using the verbs qd^x* (“be right/just”) and hk^z` (“be clear, clean, pure”).

Verse 7 [5]

“See, in crookedness I was twisted (into shape),
and in sin did my mother become warm (with) me.”

The two verbs—lWj and <j^y` —which I here translate quite literally, in their fundamental sense, both refer to a woman giving birth. The “twisting” (vb lWj) alludes to the writhing of the mother in childbirth, but also relates conceptually to the idea of “crookedness” (/ou*) and of being ‘twisted’ into shape (i.e. born as a human being). The Psalmist’s sinfulness, however, goes back even to the moment when his mother became pregnant (lit. became warm/hot, vb <j^y`) with him. This is one of the few Old Testament passages that suggests something akin to the later doctrine of ‘original sin’.

Verse 8 [6]

“See, you delight in firmness in the covered (part)s,
and in the closed up (part)s you make me know wisdom.”

There is a certain parallelism of thought between this couplet and the one preceding (v. 7 [5]), contrasting the sinfulness in which the Psalmist was born (outwardly) with the faithfulness of the heart that is established (within). The “covered (part)s” (hj*f%, plur.) and the “closed up (part)s” (passive participle of the verb <t^s*) essentially refer to the same thing: the innermost part of the person—in Pauline terms we might refer to the contrast between the “inner man” and the “outer man”.

Even though a person may be ‘born in sin’, one is still able to follow God, being faithful and loyal to Him, in one’s heart. The “firmness” (tm#a#) of one’s intention is manifest through action—that is, a willingness to fulfill the requirements of the covenant bond, the regulations, etc, in the Torah. At the same time, such a person is also receptive to being taught (lit. made to know) wisdom by God in the heart. It is thus possible to have wisdom and understanding, and to think and act in a way that is pleasing to God, despite being ‘born in sin’.

Verse 9 [7]

“Purge me of sin with hyssop, and I will be pure;
stomp me (clean), and like snow I will be made white!”

Hyssop (boza@) was used in several different ritual contexts; most notably, it was part of the cleansing rituals outlined in Leviticus 14 (vv. 4, 6, 49, 51-52), and also the ‘Red Heifer’ purification rite in Numbers 19 (vv. 6, 18). There, it was a question of ritual purity (for the physical body), while here, in the Psalm, the sinfulness is of a moral (and/or religious) kind. Yet, the Psalmist asks God to perform a similar kind of ritual act (as with the hyssop) in order to cleanse him of sin. This is further described in terms of washing a garment (by stomping or treading on it), using the same idiomatic verb (sb^K*) as in v. 4 (cf. above).

This ‘washing’ will make the Psalmist clear (of sin) and thus clean and pure (vb rh@f*). This also expressed through the idiom of whiteness (vb /b^l*, “be [or make] white”), like that of freshly fallen snow (cp. Isa 1:18). The prefixed /m! (“from”) on the noun gl#v# is an example of the preposition used in a comparative sense (i.e., “like” or “more than”). This can be difficult to render in English; to preserve a smooth poetic line, I have translated it as “like” above, but one could also say, “…and even more than snow will I be made white” (i.e., “I will be made whiter than snow”).

Verse 10 [8]

“Let me hear (again) joy and rejoicing,
and may (the) strong (limb)s you crushed spin (for joy)!”

This verse is cited by those who believe that the Psalmist is suffering from some form of illness or disease, viewed as punishment by God (for his sin). The mention of the crushing (vb hk*D*) of his once-strong limbs (or “bones”) would certainly seem to suggest this, as in previous Psalms we have examined (cp. 6:2; 22:14, 17; 31:10; 32:3; 38:3). Similarly, the desire to be able to “hear” joy and happiness again, and to dance (“twirl, spin”) for joy, suggests that he has been experiencing suffering. The removal of his sin (and its guilt) will also remove any suffering that had been imposed by God as punishment for it.

Verse 11 [9]

“May you cover up your face from my sins,
and all my crooked (deed)s may you rub out!”

At the close of this section (or stanza), the Psalmist repeats his plea from v. 3 [1], asking YHWH to “rub out” (vb hj*m*) his sins and “crooked” deeds. He also asks God to “cover up” (vb rt^s*) His face so that He cannot see the sin. The covering of the face is parallel with the act of wiping away—these are two different aspects of the same process of forgiving/removing sin; in classical theological terminology, we would describe these as propitiation (God’s favorable view of the sinner) and expiation (the removal of the actual guilt).

References above marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

August 5: Song of Songs 5:6

Song 5:6

“I opened (up) to my love,
but my love had turned away (and) passed (on)!
My soul went out with his (go)ing out back—
I called (to) him, but he did not answer me.”

Just as we are ready to see the two lovers united and embracing one another (cp. the Sumerian Dumuzi/Inanna poem cited in the previous note)—and certainly the young woman herself is greatly anticipating this moment—it all dissolves with the sudden disappearance of the young man. No explanation is given (or even hinted at) for his disappearance. However the context of verse 1, along with what follows in verse 7, suggests the clandestine, surreptitious nature of their planned meeting; the young man may have left to avoid being discovered.

However, his sudden disappearance also adds to the dream-like character of the entire scene—recall that the young woman was asleep at the beginning of  v. 2 (cp. the situation in 3:1), and the whole scenario could well be explained as part of a dream-fantasy in which the girl expresses her deepest desires (and fears). This dream-like quality continues in verse 7 (to be discussed in the next note).

The young man’s disappearance as soon as the door is opened completely undercuts the view of some commentators that sexual intercourse is being described in vv. 3-5. The anticipation of intercourse is certainly being alluded to, but not a description of the act itself; the euphemistic imagery is indeed sexual and erotic, but only in the sense that the union of the two lovers is being anticipated (in a tantalizing manner). The young man vanishes before union can occur—i.e., when the door is “opened”.

The clever conceptual wordplay from the prior verses continues here. First we note the dramatic way the sudden disappearance of the boy is described, in terms of what the girl sees when she opens the door: “…he had turned away [vb qm^j*] (and) passed on [vb rb^u*]”; there is here also wordplay between rb^u* (“he passed over”) and the description of the myrrh as “flowing over” (going over, rb@u)) the girl’s fingers in v. 5.

Second, the girl states that her soul “went out” (vb ax^y`) from her, i.e., left her, just as her beloved had suddenly left her. Indeed, her soul ‘departed’ at the very moment he left—or, perhaps, when she realized he had left. This temporal aspect is expressed by the prefixed verbal expression orB=d^b=, “with his going (out) back”, implying that he had left and gone away, outside and back into the night. The verb rb^D* is not from the root meaning “speak”, but the separate root rbd denoting “to be behind, turn back”.

The final line is as simple as it is poignant in expressing the young woman’s helplessness and despair: “I called to him but he did not answer me” (yn]n`u* al)w+ wyt!ar*q=). This sets the stage for the dramatic narration in verse 7, which we will examine in the next daily note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Along the lines of the earlier interpretation of vv. 3-5 (cf. in the previous note), the Targum explains the lover’s withdrawal from the historical-religious standpoint of YHWH’s removal of His Presence from Israel.

Gregory of Nyssa continues his line of mystical interpretation, whereby the Beloved’s departure is intended to spur the young woman (the soul) on to follow after him and to be drawn ever closer to him. The example of Moses’ visionary experience (Exod 33:18-34:9) is applied to the spiritual experience of Christians:

“Everyone is familiar with those elevations which Moses enjoyed, for no matter how great he had become, he never stopped in his growth toward perfection.”

This is the start of one of the grandest passages of mystical exposition in all of Gregory’s writings (and in early Christian literature, for that matter). Following the earlier example of Philo of Alexandria’s Life of Moses (Gregory composed a similar work with the same title), Moses’ life experience is interpreted and applied in a mystical/spiritual manner, emphasizing this theme of continuous growth in virtue and understanding. The great visionary experience of Moses, when God revealed Himself, “passing by” in such a way that Moses could only see His back, brings this story of spiritual growth to a climax—and Gregory applies this to the experience of the purified soul of the believer, as expressed in the Song:

“By this I think we are taught that he who wishes to see God, will see his Beloved only by constantly following after Him, and the contemplation of His face is really the unending journey towards Him, accomplished by following directly behind the Word. So too in our text the soul has arisen up through death, and, filled with myrrh, she puts her hands to the bolt and desires her Beloved to enter in. But He passes by. And she goes out, not remaining where she was, but rather trying to touch the Word who leads on constantly ahead.”

Translations of Gregory are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001), pp. 261-3.

August 4: Song of Songs 5:3-5

Song 5:3-9

The first of the two main songs of this section builds upon the exchange between the lovers in v. 2 (cf. the previous note). It is spoken by the young woman (as is the second song in 5:10-6:1), and is inspired both by the night-time rendezvous scene in 2:9-10ff and the mini-drama in 3:1-3. Verses 3-5 relate more properly to the earlier episode in 2:9-10. Once again, the young woman is waiting in a house/room, and the young man is standing outside, the interaction essentially taking place through a hole/opening in the wall.

Verse 3

“I have stripped (off) my garment, how shall I put it on (again)?
I have washed my feet, how shall I soil them (now)?”

There is a playful, teasing quality to the young woman’s response, coaxing her beloved to make the effort to come in to her. The verb [n~f* in the second line occurs only here in the Old Testament, but its basic meaning (“soil, be[come] dirty”) is established by parallels in Akkadian and Aramaic. The prolonged form (hk*k*ya@) of the particle Eya@ is rare in the Old Testament, occurring elsewhere only in Esther 8:6, an example of vocabulary that may be indicative of a relatively late dating for the Song (exilic or post-exilic period). The particle can be used in an interrogative or exclamatory sense.

Verse 4

“My love sent forth his hand from the hole
and my inner parts groaned over him!”

At first glance the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) is curious, but it is probably meant to describe the scene from the girl’s perspective, as she sees the young man’s hand coming through the key-hole. The door locks in ancient Near Eastern villages had a key hole that could be quite large, enough for a man to put his hand through; it is assumed by most commentators that the reference here is to a door-latch, a point confirmed by verse 5 (below). The girl’s coy response in v. 3 was intentional, hoping that the young man would take the initiative to come in to her. She is delighted by this, anticipating the moment when the two of them will be together, and her ‘inner parts’ (plur. of hu#m@) “groan” loudly (vb hm*h*).

It is likely that there is a euphemistic play on sexual intercourse at work in this scene, though it must be stressed that it is the anticipation of the moment that is in view, not the activity itself. The word dy` (“hand”) can be used as a euphemism for the male sexual organ, though this is rare in the Old Testament (cf. Isa 57:8-10); it is rather more common in the Canaanite texts from Ugarit, especially those depicting the Creator El as a sexually robust (and active) patriarch. In this sense, the thrusting of the ‘hand’ through the hole, followed by the insides of the young woman moaning/groaning, makes for a potent erotic allusion. The idiom of the latching/opening of the door also has definite sexual significance, as I have discussed in recent notes.

A general parallel to this scene can be cited from the Sumerian Dumuzi/Inanna love songs. The young woman (Inanna) is in her room, having prepared herself for the romantic/sexual encounter, and the young man (Dumuzi) arrives at night and pushes open the door:

“Inanna, as her mother told her,
Bathed herself in water, anointed herself with good oil,
Covered her body with the grand queenly garment,
And took her pin in (her) hand,
—She straightens the lapis lazuli stones on her neck—
Held the seal in her hand,
The young lady stood (waiting).
Dumuzi pushed open the door,
Came forth into the house like the moonlight,
He gazed at her, rejoiced in her,
Embraced her, kissed her…”
(Sefati, Love Songs, p. 291-2)

There are two main differences between the setting of this poem and the Song: (1) the encounter is part of an arranged (and approved) formal affair, and (2) the young man actually enters and embraces the girl.

Verse 5

“I stood up to open (the door) for my love,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers (with) flowing myrrh,
upon the palms of the (door-)latch.”

While she may have prompted the young man to come in for himself, the girl apparently cannot wait, and she gets up to open the door for him. The noun lWun+m^ confirms that we are dealing with a latched (or bolted) door. The scene is precisely parallel to that of 4:12-15ff, where the garden enclosure (symbolizing the young woman and her sexuality) also has a latched entrance (the related verb lu^n` is used in 4:12).

That her hands and fingers are wet and dripping with myrrh indicates that the young woman has perfumed herself in preparation for the young man’s arrival (cf. above). In the Song, ‘spices’ are symbolic of female sexuality and sexual love/pleasure, and myrrh is one of the chief aromatic substances used to represent this (cf. 1:13; 3:6; 4:6, 14: 5:1, and again in v. 13). There is a bit of conceptual wordplay between the dripping “hands” of the girl and the “palms” (i.e., “handles”) of the door-latch which also become wet with myrrh. Her “hands” touching the door-latch also parallel the young man’s “hand” reaching through the hole (to get to the latch). The scene tantalizingly depicts how close the two lovers come to meeting and embracing, as in the Dumuzi/Inanna song cited above. However, in this instance, as becomes clear in verse 6 (to be discussed in the next note), as soon as the door is opened, the young man suddenly disappears, and the sexual encounter remains unfulfilled.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum curiously interpreted the removing of the girl’s garments in a negative sense, as referring to the disobedience of Israel in removing the “yoke of God’s commandments” from her, and turning to the false gods (idols) of the nations instead. YHWH, in response, removes His Presence from her. The Midrash offers a more positive interpretation, of Israel’s short (but sweet) night of slumber on the eve of Pentecost (before receiving the Law at Sinai), and of the washing of feet as symbolic of removing the dirt of idolatry.

Even stranger is the Targum’s interpretation of verse 4 as referring to the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel—done by YHWH “sending forth” His hand to exact punishment; this was in response to the sin of idolatry (the molten calf of Jeroboam). Similarly, the bolted door in v. 5 symbolized the barring of the door to Israel in response to her sin; the Midrash likewise explained the image of myrrh in terms of the bitterness associated with the sin of worshiping the Golden Calf (Exod 32:4ff). Even though these lines of Jewish interpretation do not deal directly with the sexuality and eroticism of the Song, it is quite clear that the sexual aspect has been sublimated, giving a thoroughly negative character to the scene, essentially identifying sexual desire with the tendency toward idolatry (understood figuratively as sexual sin and infidelity). Cf. Pope, pp. 516-7, 520, 524.

The mystical approach by early Christians like Gregory of Nyssa enabled them to deal with the sexuality of vv. 3-5 in a rather different way. The spiritual emphasis is clear enough in Gregory’s explanation of verse 3, where the removal of the young woman’s clothing actual refers to the removal of her fleshly inclinations (the “old man”, to apply the Pauline terminology [citing Col 3:9; Eph 4:4]). This veil, this ‘garment of flesh,’ has been removed from her heart, and never again will the purified soul put this garment back on. The washed/purified feet likewise symbolize Christian holiness (referring back to Moses’ encounter with YHWH, Exod 3:5). Only in this purified state can the Bride (the soul) open up her door to the Bridegroom (the Word, Christ).

The association of myrrh with death and burial made it a popular Scriptural symbol for self-mortification and self-denial among Christian mystics. Naturally enough, Gregory explains the myrrh on the young woman’s hands and fingers in this sense of abandonment from all bodily passions. The believer who has been united with the death and burial of Jesus, now in the new life of his resurrection still continues to pursue goodness and virtue, and our “works” in this regard are symbolized by the activity of our five fingers.

It may seem odd that Christians like Gregory would explain the bodily desire in the Song in virtually the opposite sense—as an abandonment of bodily desire—but this is quite in keeping with the unique application of love poetry in Christian mysticism. This will be discussed in more detail at the conclusion of our notes on the Song.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
References marked “Sefati, Love Songs” are to Yitschak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture (Bar-Ilan University Press: 1998).

August 3: Song of Songs 5:2

Song 5:2-6:3

The next section of the Song is one of the longest, spanning 5:2-6:3. It is a sophisticated literary work, and no mere arrangement of individual poems; the hand of a true artist and poet is evident, here more so than perhaps anywhere else in the Song. Important themes from the first movement (chaps. 1-3) are developed and expanded, woven together into an effective and powerful dramatic scene. At the core of this section are the two major songs of 5:3-9 and 5:10-6:1, each of which ends with an address to the “daughters of Jerusalem”, with a question from that chorus in response. The overall structure is as follows:

    • Introductory scene between the Girl and Boy (5:2)
    • The Girl’s First Song (5:3-9)
      • Chorus of the “daughters of Jerusalem” (v. 9)
    • The Girl’s Second Song (5:10-6:1)
      • Chorus of the “daughters of Jerusalem” (6:1)
    • Closing song of the Girl (about the Boy) (6:2-3)

The overall drama of the section is inspired by the earlier mini-drama in 3:1-3ff; the first song in 5:3-9 is specifically related to that earlier scene. However, other portions from chapters 1-3 are also developed, such as the night-time rendezvous in 2:9-10ff and the girl’s search for her beloved in 1:7-8. The praise song of 5:10ff is essentially an expansion of 1:16-17, just as the corresponding song by the young man (4:1-7) is an expansion of the declaration in 1:15.

Song 5:2

“I (am) asleep, but my heart is waking—
(the) voice of my love (is) urging (me):
‘Open (up) to me, my sister, my companion,
my dove, my perfect (one)!
(For it is) that my head is filled by dew,
my locks with (dew-)drops of (the) night.'”

This is a wonderfully enigmatic scene, with echoes of 3:1 and 2:9-10. As in the earlier night-time rendezvous scene in 2:9-10ff, the young man is apparently standing outside of the young woman’s room (or the wall of her house, since he seems to be outside). At the same time, as in 3:1, the girl is asleep, and so the entire scene has the flavor of a dream. The phrase “my heart is waking” primarily reflects her longing and desire, expressed most vividly even when she is asleep. The wording allows for the dramatic scenario of an anticipation of the young man’s arrival while she is sleeping—the girl awakes to find that he is indeed there outside, calling to her.

The overall scene is parallel to that of 4:12-15ff. There the boy was outside of the garden enclosure waiting for the girl to let him inside; here she is in her own room, while the young man is outside, hoping that she will let him in. The poetic location may be different, but the conflict is the same—the young man is eager and longing to come in to be united (romantically and sexually) with his beloved. There is almost certainly a sexual double entendre here when he urges her (vb qb^D*) to “open (up)” to him.

The urgency is also due to the circumstances of the young man’s night-time journey to her. He has clearly come from some distance, in the middle of the night, for the chance to be together with her. His hair is wet, soaked with the night-time dew. There is a clear parallel in (Ps-)Anacreon’s description of Love personified asking for entrance (iii. 10):

“Open! I am just a youth, do not fear. For I am drenched with wandering about in the moonlit night.” (Fox, p. 144)

The noun toXw%q= occurs only here (and also v. 11) in the Old Testament; its presumed meaning of “locks of hair” has to be determined from parallels in Syriac, Arabic, and later Hebrew. Similarly, the noun sys!r* occurs only here, and its meaning (“drops”) must be discerned from the poetic parallelism in context. It may be the same as the sys!r* in Amos 6:11, presumably from a root (again determined from Late Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic) meaning “break into pieces” —i.e., “pieces, fragments”.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum interpreted the woman’s “sleeping” historically, in terms of Israel’s sin and exile, while her “waking”, correspondingly, referred to her repentance and return from exile. The Midrash followed a similar ethical-religious line of interpretation, relating the states to ‘sleepiness’ and ‘alertness’ in the observance and study of the Torah, performance of the required ritual, and so forth. The expression “my heart” referred to God, on the basis of Psalm 73:26, and the call to “open” was explained as the opening through which Israel’s repentance would come, and which God had enlarged by His mercy. The various images used by the young man for his beloved were similarly explained in terms of God’s love for Israel and His relationship to her. Cf. Pope, p. 513f.

The imagery of the sleeping body but the waking heart was given a suitably philosophical and mystical interpretation by Gregory of Nyssa in his sermon. The higher part of the soul, purified of sin and earthly concerns, lives within itself, undisturbed by the senses as the rest of the body “sleeps”:

“The contemplation of our true good makes us despise all these things, and so the eye of the body sleeps. Anything that the eye reveals does not attract the perfect soul, because by reason it looks only to those things which transcend the visible universe.” (Daniélou/Musurillo, p. 242)

The higher form of pleasure that the purified soul experiences is spiritual and without passion. Theodoret gives to the passage a more ethical-religious explanation, drawn from references to sleep/wakefulness in the New Testament. In calling his beloved “perfect” (Heb <T*), this description was explained in terms of Jesus’ directive to his disciples in Matt 5:48 and 19:21, etc, thus being applied to the believer who truly follows the teaching and example of Jesus. Only the one who follows the Bridegroom (Christ) will be able to come close to him and unite together in spiritual union; Theodoret cites James 4:8 in this regard: “Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you”.

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).
Those marked Daniélou/Musurillo are to From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, selected by Jean Daniélou, S.J., translated & edited by Herbert Musurillo, S.J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

August 2: Song of Songs 4:16-5:1

Song 4:16-5:1

These lines are transitional, joining the songs of the young man (in chap. 4) to those of the young woman (in chap. 5). They also build upon the garden theme of chapter 4, particularly the final song in vv. 12-15.

Song 4:16

“Awaken, north (wind),
and come, south (wind)!
May your breath blow (on) my garden,
(and) may its spices flow out!
Let my love come (in)to his garden,
and let him eat its precious fruits!”

The girl is speaking here in v. 16, responding to the scenario in vv. 12-15. The young man is essentially standing outside the garden, which belongs to him (the seal on the spring indicating ownership, “his garden”) as the beloved; however, its entrance is still latched and it is necessary for the young woman to invite him in. That is what she does here in v. 16. The invitation comes by way of the aroma of her fragrant spices, wafting out to where the young man waits at the entrance. She invokes the north wind and the south wind to come and carry the scent of her “spices” (symbolic of her sexuality) out to her beloved, where it will figuratively ‘let him in’. The Hiphil causative stem of the verb j^WP signifies a person’s breath actively blowing.

Once he is inside, the young man will be able to “eat” the fruits from the garden; on this idiom as symbolizing the delights of sexual experience (and intercourse), cf. below.

Song 5:1

“I have come (in)to my garden, my sister (and) bride!
(Now) I pluck my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honey with my syrup,
I drink my wine with my milk!”

The young man responds to the girl’s invitation and enters the garden. Again, the garden represents the sexuality of the girl—her beauty, vitality, and sexual appeal. It is thus her garden, but it is also his—that is, it belongs to him, as the beloved, since the two lovers belong to each other (2:16; 6:3). The girl already declared this in 4:16 (cf. above), and now the boy states it for himself (“my garden”). Moreover, everything in the garden also belongs to him (“my myrrh,” “my spice,” etc).

The verb forms here are all perfect forms, indicating that the young man has now done all the things described. This may be intended to describe the immediate love-making that occurs between the two once the young man ‘enters’ the garden. To avoid overloading the poetry, I have translated only the first verb as a true perfect (“I have come”), rendering the following actions as present verbs in English. The sense is that once he has come into the garden, he is now about to (or is in the process of) doing all these things— “plucking”, “eating”, “drinking”.

All of these actions symbolize sexual activity (foreplay and intercourse) between the two lovers. I have mentioned repeatedly how the motif of spice(s) in the Song represents female beauty and sexuality; myrrh and frankincense are the two primary spices which epitomize all the others—here it is, comprehensively, “myrrh and spice”. The “plucking” (vb hr*a* I) of fruit, etc, in the garden symbolizes the young man enjoying the sexuality of his beloved.

The sweet taste of honey also represents sexual enjoyment (cf. the earlier note on 4:11), both in terms of kisses with the mouth and in a comprehensive sense. There are three words used in the Song that can be translated “honey”: ru^y~ and tp#n) both refer to liquid honey (hived, from the comb), while vb^D= is a more general term that can refer to the thicker syrup produced from dates, etc. Here the words used are ru^y~ and vb^D=, while in 4:11 it is tp#n) along with vb^D=.

Sweetness of taste also applies to wine and milk, the emphasis being on drinking, rather than the eating of the honey/syrup. Wine, in particular, symbolizes lovemaking and sexual enjoyment. The drunkenness that comes from wine represents the ‘intoxication’ that comes over lovers. Examples along these lines are so common that they scarcely need to be cited. A particular strong “wine-song” tradition developed within the rich history of Arabic love poetry.

All of this symbolism is reinforced by the refrain to 4:16-5:1:

“Eat, (you) companions,
drink and become drunken, loved (one)s!”

It is not clear whether the young man is still speaking or whether it is a separate voice, that of a ‘chorus’ to the song. The latter seems more appropriate to the context. It is also not certain whether the lines are an exhortation to the young man and woman specifically, or whether they are addressed to all lovers. Both are possible, though in the context of the Song it is the two protagonists are primarily in view. The young man and young woman are the central characters, even if they are typical of young lovers in general. If the recurring refrain in 2:7 is an exhortation to wait (for sexual intercourse) until the moment is right (e.g., the wedding night, etc), then certainly that moment has now arrived.

Indeed, there can be little doubt that we have here a poetic description of the consummation of the lovers’ relationship (sexual intercourse). For many commentators, who believe a moralistic interpretation is required (for the Song to be regarded as sacred Scripture), this consummation can only occur on the couple’s wedding night. Given the wedding context of 3:4-11, it is possible that all the songs of 4:1-5:1 do have the wedding night for their setting. However, in my view, this does not fit the structure of the Song, which I divide into two movements, each of which concludes with the anticipation/expectation of a wedding (3:4-11; chap. 8). The earlier poems in each movement suggests a setting for the lovers that is prior to their wedding. What follows in 5:2-8 virtually requires that the young man and young woman are unmarried.

It should come as no surprise that the garden imagery of the Song is traditional, drawing upon the conventions of ancient Near Eastern love poetry. Here are some examples from the Sumerian (Dumuzi/Inanna) love songs (Sefati, Love Songs, pp. 89, 225, 262):

“My blossoming garden of apple trees, sweet is your allure!
My fruitful garden of mes-trees, sweet is your allure!”

“The flax rose up with her, the barley rose us with her,
The plain has been filled (with abundance) with her like a blossoming garden.”

“My blossoming garden of apple-trees,
My plant, my grown reeds—may my sheep eat.”

The young man similarly refers to the garden as his (“his garden, my garden”), though there are also instances in the Sumerian poems where the garden symbolizes male sexuality that is attractive to the young woman, essentially a reversal of the situation in the Song:

“My brother b[rought me] into his garden,
I stood with him among his standing trees,
I lay down with him among his lying trees.
He laid me down….. ,
The dates… my… “
(Sefati, Love Songs, p. 321)

“My sister, I would go with you to my garden,
My fair sister, I would go with you to my garden
My sister, I would go with you to my pomegranate-tree,
I would plant there the sweet[?] honey-covered[?]…”
(Kramer, pp. 100, 153 n5; Pope, p. 506)

Pope (p. 488) notes a modern Palestinian parallel, citing earlier work by S. H. Stephan, where the sexual aspect of the garden-motif is particularly explicit (including wasf elements, cf. the notes on 4:1-7):

“Your breast, O you, is like a pomegranate fruit,
And your eyes have captured us, by God…
Your cheek shines as it were a Damascus apple;
How sweet to pluck it in the morning and to open the garden.”

On similar garden-imagery in the Egyptian love songs, cf. Fox, pp. 15, 17, 20f, 26, 46ff.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explained the north- and south-winds as referring to the sides of the Temple—the Temple serving as the “garden” in which the Beloved (God) was invited to enter to receive the sacrificial offerings from His People (the Bride). The Midrash applied the imagery to the coming Messianic Age: the Messiah will ‘awake’ and come from the north, and he will build the Temple anew in the south. The Midrash Rabbah further interprets the garden-motif in 5:1, and the Beloved’s entry into it, as symbolizing the ‘descent’ of the Divine Presence, throughout the period of the Patriarchs, to the time of Moses when the Presence would be brought fully to earth to dwell among the people of Israel. Again, both the Targum and Midrash associate the Beloved’s eating and drinking with the sacrificial offerings; the refrain (cf. above) refers to the ‘friends of the Bridegroom’, explained as the priests, who also receive a share of the sacrificial meal. Cf. Pope, pp. 499, 509.

For early Christians, like Gregory of Nyssa, the entry of the Beloved (God/Christ) into the garden represents a sublime sort of communion, in which the soul that is rising up to heaven calls upon the Godhead to ‘come down’ and unite with it here below. The fruits and spices have a wide range of symbolic meaning; the fragrant/aromatic spices tend to symbolize the virtues possessed by the soul, as do the fruits; though Gregory also explains the fruits specifically as the salvation we receive from God, and the free will by which the soul turns to Him in faith and truth. The image of wine-drinking and intoxication, while problematic if taken in a naturalistic sense, is altogether appropriate to a mystical interpretation of the Song, since wine and drunkenness have been traditionally used as symbols for spiritual ecstasy and mystical experience. The Pentecost narrative in Acts (2:13-14ff) and other passages in the New Testament (e.g., 2 Cor 5:13) play on the idea of intoxication to explain the manifestation of the Spirit and the spiritual experience of believers.

Theodoret specifically connects the drinking of wine by the Beloved (Christ) with his very identity as the Vine (John 15:1ff); and for his friends, those who are on the path to perfection, he also invites them to drink with him, and to become drunk—a drunkenness that “works temperance and not delirium” (Norris, p. 190).

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).
References marked “Sefati, Love Songs” are to Yitschak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture (Bar-Ilan University Press: 1998).
Those marked “Kramer” are to Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite: Aspects of Faith, Myth and Ritual in Ancient Sumer (1969).
Translations marked “Norris” are from The Song of Songs Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, in The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

August 1: Song of Songs 4:15

Song 4:15

“(This) spring of (the) gardens
(is) a well of living waters
and streams from (the) white (mountains)!”

This triplet essentially restates the imagery from verse 12 (cf. the prior note), bringing these songs by the young man in chapter 4 to a close. It clarifies that the water-source—/y`u=m^, place of flowing water, a “spring” or fountain—is to be identified as a mountain spring. I made that point in the prior note, but here in v. 15 the association is explicit. Thus the mountain and garden motifs in the Song are blended together. The plural <yN]G~, “(garden) enclosures,” i.e., “gardens” can be understood several ways:

    • In a general sense, referring to the kind of spring (or fountain) that might be located in a garden
    • It refers to all of the areas or parts of the garden that are watered by the streams (irrigation channels) coming from the spring
    • Based on the garden as an image of female sexuality, the meaning could be typical—that is, of female beauty and sexual appeal in a general sense
    • The plural may be taken as comprehensive or superlative—referring to the woman as the “garden of gardens”; that is, for the young man she is the most beautiful and attractive of women.

I take the last two lines as epexegetical or explanatory, describing the nature and character of this spring that is in the center of the garden. First, it is a source of “living waters” —this means fresh water, flowing naturally from a spring or other underground source (the mention of a ra@B=, pit or well, indicates an underground source). This would be contrasted with the stagnant (‘dead’) water of a pool, etc.

Second, it is specified as a mountain spring, as noted above. The verb lz~n` means “flow”, thus the substantive participle here is a verbal noun that refers to flowing streams of water. They come down the mountain, as with the imagery in verse 1; similarly, the reference to the “Amana” in in verse 8 likely alludes to the mountain source of the Amana river in the Anti-Lebanon. Certainly the Lebanon mountains are being referenced here, along with the regular wordplay between /onb*l= (l®»¹nôn) and hn`obl= (l®»ônâ) in the Song (both words deriving from a root denoting whiteness), associating the fragrant cedarwood from Lebanon with the aromatic resin used to produce frankincense. It is all part of the matrix of erotic imagery in the Song, focusing especially on the allure of female sexuality. In these final lines, the young man praises the beauty and appeal of his beloved in the strongest terms, emphasizing the very source of her vitality and sexuality, represented by the clear and fresh flowing waters from a mountain spring.

Note on Marriage and Virginity in vv. 12-15

Some of the imagery in vv. 12-15 could be taken to mean that the young woman is a virgin, implying that the context of these songs involves the wedding night of the couple (cf. the setting of 3:4-11). A moralistic interpretation of the Song virtually requires that the sexual intercourse described (or alluded to) in the poems can only take place when the two are married. The latched entrance to the garden and the sealed spring have been interpreted as references to virginity—only when the two are married will the entrance (to the girl’s sexuality) be opened.

It is certainly possible to read the Song—the poem in vv. 12-15 at any rate—in this manner. Pope notes, for example (p. 488), that in Arabic a girl who is no longer a virgin can be referred to as “opened” (maftûµa[t]). However, one must be extremely cautious about reading such specific meanings into the poetry here. As I mentioned in the earlier note on v. 12, the seal (vb <t^j*) properly signifies ownership, not the closing off of the spring. The seal indicates that the garden with its spring (that is, the sexuality of the young woman) belongs to her beloved alone—no other man can (or should) have access to it. The emphasis is thus on exclusivity, rather than virginity. In the world of the Song’s love poetry, the boy and girl belong to each other (2:16; 6:3a), regardless of whether they are currently married (or engaged to be married). The concluding sections of each movement (3:4-11; chap. 8) certainly point to the expectation and anticipation of a wedding, but I am not at all convinced that this is a significant theme in the earlier portions. Indeed, as we shall see, the scenario in 5:2-8 (like the similar scene in 3:1-3) strongly indicates that the two lovers are unmarried.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (on vv. 12-15)

Interestingly, the Targum tends to forgo its typical allegorical interpretation in these verses, relating verse 12, for example, more realistically to the question of female sexuality (and of relationships between men and women). The garden setting naturally brings to mind the paradise of Eden for the first couple in the Genesis account. The Midrash also explains verse 12 primarily in terms of sexual relations. Verse 13 was applied by the Targum to the young men of Israel, who follow the precepts of the Torah and love their wives, fulfilling their parental duty in bearing children, etc. The Midrash explained the noun jl^v# according to the fundamental meaning of something “sent”, in the sense of bridal gifts, broadened allegorically to the context of Israel as the Bride of God (and/or of the Messiah). Little attention was paid to the list of spices, etc, in verse 14, while the waters of “Lebanon” in v. 15 were given a strong allegorical explanation, in terms of blessings on those in Israel who study the Law and in the ritual sense of the water used for offerings on the altar of the Jerusalem Temple. The Midrash Rabbah notes that the word ra@B= (“well”) occurs 48 times in the Torah, corresponding to the “number of qualities by which knowledge of the Torah is acquired” (cf. Pirke Abot vi.6). Cf. Pope. pp. 489, 492, 494-7.

The garden-imagery provided a rich source for early Christian allegorical and mystical interpretation, such as we find in the sermons by Gregory of Nyssa. The one who would ‘lay down’ with the Lord, to be united with him, must “become a flourishing garden, having within himself the beauty of all kinds of trees”. The garden being closed on all sides refers to the ‘fence of the commandments’, indicating the strong ascetic component to early Christian spirituality—spiritual or mystical experience must be accompanied by self-denial and the cultivation of virtue. Gregory interprets the “fountain” as referring to the intellectual faculty of the soul, “because of all the ideas that are constantly bubbling and welling up from it”. The seal protects the soul (and the mind) from evil or extraneous thoughts, allowing it to remain pure and focused on God alone. Once the soul has reached a “more perfect stage of her progress”, what comes forth from her (and her mouth) is a “paradise of pomegranates”, fruit that proclaims the truth. All of the fruits and spices symbolize different qualities and virtues which the soul comes to possess and which are then cultivated. As for the well of “living water”, it is natural to interpret this expression along the lines that we find in the Gospel of John (4:12; 7:37-39), as referring to the divine nature of the Word of God (Christ) to which the soul is to be united. God Himself was called a “fountain of living water” in Jer 2:13, and this applies all the more to the person of Christ, who is embraced by the purified and enlightened soul:

“…the bride embraces and holds what flows into the well of her soul, and thus she becomes a storehouse of the living water that flows, or, rather, rushes, down from ‘Libanus'”

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Quotations from Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Song are courtesy of From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, selected by Jean Daniélou, S.J., translated & edited by Herbert Musurillo, S.J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001); here pp. 227-36.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 2)

Psalm 50, continued

The Oracle, Part 2 (vv. 16-23)

In the second part of the prophetic oracle that forms the core of Psalm 50 (cf. the previous study for discussion of the introduction and Part 1), YHWH turns His address to those among the people who are the cause for Him bringing this accusation and charge against Israel. The principal accusation is that many people perform the requirements of the covenant (as outlined in the Torah), fulfilling the letter of the Law, even though their thoughts and actions are otherwise wicked.

Verse 16

“And to the wicked (the) Mightiest says:
What (use is it) for you to recount my engraved (law)s,
and (that) you take up my agreement upon your mouth?”

The people whom YHWH is addressing are characterized as “wicked” (uv*r*). We do not know what percentage of the population fits this description, and/or to what extent it applies to the Israelite people as a whole. The judicial setting of the Psalm makes clear that YHWH has called the entire people into judgment; at the same time, v. 15 would seem to establish a contrast between righteous and wicked persons. In the Old Testament Scriptures, one often cannot draw a definite line between the individual and the wider community—the action of the individual affects the community as a whole.

The “engraved (law)s” (<yQ!j%) are essentially identical with the regulations and statutes of the Torah, in a comprehensive sense—beginning with the “ten words” (Decalogue) which, according to the traditional narrative, were actually engraved in stone. A person who “recounts” them (vb rp^s*) knows them well enough to quote or recite them, and thus has the terms of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, or ‘covenant’) “upon” (lu^) his mouth. YHWH declares that there is little value in the wicked person knowing the Torah and fulfilling its requirements (esp. in terms of the sacrificial offering)— “what (good is it) for you…?”

Verse 17

“Indeed, you have hated (my) instruction,
and threw down my words behind you!”

The initial w-conjunction, if original, should be understood as emphatic—i.e., “indeed, you have…”. Even though the wicked may recite the Torah, such a person actually hates (vb an@v*) the instruction from YHWH. The verbal noun rs*Wm is used (from the root rs^y`), emphasizing the idea of corrective education and discipline, but is more or less synonymous with hr*oT (Torah, the “Instruction”). In reality, the wicked person “throws down” (or “throws away,” vb El^v*) God’s words in back of him, thus disregarding them completely, even as he may fulfill certain of the requirements accurately enough.

Verse 18

“When you see a thief, even (so) you are pleased with him,
and with (those) committing adultery, you would (have) a part.”

The way in which the wicked “throws away” the words and instruction of YHWH is described here in v. 18. The irregular 4+3 rhythm creates a certain kind of poetic tension that is appropriate to the moment. The wicked person does not necessarily commit the crimes mentioned here (theft, adultery); indeed, the wording in v. 17 suggests that the person may actually avoid such crimes in practice, but in his heart he is pleased by them, indicating that he would perhaps be willing to do the same. There is thus wickedness in one’s heart and intention, even if the regulations of the Torah are being fulfilled.

The opening particle (<a!) is usually translated in a conditional sense, “if…”, but here “when…” is more appropriate to the context.

Verse 19

“You mouth casts (forms) in evil,
and your tongue joins together deceit.”

In addition to the condition of his heart, the wicked person demonstrates his true nature through evil speaking. This couplet (returning to the 3+3 meter) actually builds upon the prior (v. 18), by indicating how through speech (mouth and tongue) a person can give shape to the evil in the heart. The verb jl^v* means “send (out)”, but Dahood (p. 309) notes a separate root, attested (albeit rarely) in Ugaritic, meaning “forge, cast (in metal)”. I have tentatively adopted his suggestion, based on the idea that seems to be expressed here, viz. of giving shape to evil.

The verb in the second line, dm^x* (“join, bind”) fits with this same line of imagery, even to a possible allusion to metal-working (forming a necklace or bracelet, etc). The sense would be that, through speaking, a person “joins (welds?) together” pieces of evil, giving them a distinct and insidious form. The deception (hm*r=m!) brought about by the wicked person could be taken as including the deceptive and hypocritical way that he fulfills the Torah regulations, all the while his heart is full of evil.

Verse 20

“You sit with your brother (and) speak (evil),
with (the) son of your mother you give (out) blame.”

In the first line of the MT (supported by the Qumran MS 4QPsc), there are two verbs: “you sit…(and) speak”. This perhaps captures the sense of deception and hypocrisy of the wicked person, who sits with his neighbor (apparently as a friend) and yet speaks evil to and/or about him. The evil nature of the speaking has to be implied from the context, since the verb is simply rb^D* (“speak”). It has been suggested (e.g., by Kraus, p. 487-8) that MT bvt (bv@T@, “you sit”) is a corruption (through reversal of letters) of original tvb (tv#B), “shame, shameful thing”); this is certainly possible, and, if correct, results in a more precise parallelism for the couplet:

“Shame(fully) with your brother do you speak,
with (the) son of your mother you give (out) blame.”

The parallelism of “brother…son of mother” may be intended to include both one’s neighbor (“brother” in a generic sense) and actual blood-relative.

Verse 21

“These (thing)s you did, and should I keep silent?
You imagine (in your) fallen (way)s (that) I am like you,
but I will prove you (wrong) and lay (it) out before your eyes!”

This tricolon, with loose 3-beat (3+3+3) meter in the MT, is fraught with certain difficulties, though the general meaning is clear enough. The second line, in particular, is problematic, with the odd construction hy#h=a# toyh$ at the center. Possibly it is intended as an instance of the cognate infinitive + imperfect used in an emphatic sense; the meaning would thus be something like:

“(Do) you imagine (that) I am at all like you?”

The use of a construct infinitive to achieve this would be curious. Dahood (p. 310) offers the intriguing suggestion that toyh should be read as toYh^ (rather than MT toyh$), as an orthographic variant of toWh^, plural of hW`h^ (“desire”, a byform of hw`a*), cf. Job 6:2; it would thus mean “(evil) desires”. However, the noun hW`h^ more properly denotes a “falling”, i.e., falling into an evil condition, etc. Perhaps the clearest parallel is in Ps 52:11[9], where the idea of wicked/evil heart is in view; such wicked persons have fallen into evil ways and are on the path to destruction (on hW`h^ in this sense, as characteristic of the wicked, cf. also Prov 10:3; 11:6; Mic 7:3).

In the final line, the judicial setting of the Psalm comes more into focus, as YHWH indicates that He will prove his case against the wicked, laying out (vb Er^u*) all the facts right in front of them (“before your eyes”).

Verse 22

“Discern this, you (who are) forgetting (the) Mightiest,
lest I tear you off (and there) be none snatching (you back)!”

The harshness of this couplet is expressed, in part, by its irregular (and rather awkward) 4+3 meter. The wording/phrasing also is cumbersome, giving to the whole verse a kind of poetic tension that reflects the coming judgment. The implication is that YHWH has now made His case (cf. the last line of v. 21), and the judgment against the people (the wicked, in particular) awaits.

At this moment, the prophetic oracle urges the people to repent, indicating that there is still time to experience a reprieve from the sentence of judgment that is about to be handed down. There is hope that the wicked (“[those] forgetting the Mightiest”) will come to understand (vb /yB!, “discern”) what YHWH Himself has presented to them, and act appropriately, repenting of their evil ways. If they do not repent, then God will “tear them off” (vb [r^f*); possibly the allusion is to being “torn apart” by a wild animal, etc, but I think the primary motif is being ripped out, like a flower or plant plucked out of the ground. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay involved here with the verb lx^n`, which has a similar denotation (“pull out, snatch [away]”), but here (as often) in the sense of “rescue”. If YHWH “tears out” the wicked soul, there will be no one who can then “pull out” the condemned person from His hand. The judgment (and punishment) is irrevocable, and results in the ultimate death/destruction of the soul of the wicked.

Verse 23

“(The one) slaughtering (with) a declaration will be honored by me,
and (the one) <complete> (in the) path I will make him drink
from (the) salvation of (the) Mightiest!”

These concluding lines of the Psalm return to the theme from the first part (discussed in the previous study)—how the performance of the sacrificial offerings is of no value if the ritual is not accompanied by a pure and upright heart. This is a relatively common theme in the Prophets, the most noteworthy example being in Isa 1:12-15, but even more striking as a message of judgment is the harsh polemic in Jeremiah 7 (v. 11 is alluded to by Jesus in the Synoptic version of the Temple ‘cleansing’ scene, Mk 11:17 par).

Here in Part 2 of the oracle the focus was on the Torah regulations in general, but we can fairly assume that observance of the ritual offerings is primarily in view. This is also the emphasis in Jeremiah: the sacrificial offerings will not be accepted by YHWH while the land is full of wickedness and injustice. Even though the wicked will face their own (individual) judgment, their behavior also corrupts (and brings judgment upon) the community as a whole.

In verse 14, YHWH made clear that the kind of sacrifice (lit. “[ritual] slaughter”, vb jb^z`) He truly wants is not the slaughtering of animals in blind observance of the ritual, but rather a declaration (hd*oT) of faith and devotion that comes from the heart. The same wording is repeated here. Only the person who fulfills the Torah obligations with a pure heart (and right intention) has truly been faithful to the covenant and will be accepted by God. I follow Dahood (p. 310) in reading ynndbky as a passive (Pual) verb form: “…will be honored by me”. The faithful and loyal vassal is honored by his Sovereign.

This show of honor includes the traditional imagery of feasting at the Lord’s table. I tentatively follow Dahood also in pointing wnara as a (Hiphil) imperfect from the rare root ary II (= hry), “pour, water” —i.e., WNa#r=a), “I will give (to) drink” (cf. Prov 11:25). The idea of drinking from God’s salvation is quite appropriate given the idiom of the “cup of salvation” in Ps 116:13 (cp. Isa 12:3). The feasting-motif also plays on the concept of the sacrificial offerings as something that God would consume.

There is a two-fold significance to the honor shown by YHWH to his faithful/loyal servants. On the one hand, the covenant blessings apply to this life (cf. Deut 28:1-14, etc), and include fruitfulness and plenty (food and drink, etc); at the same time, feasting at YHWH’s table certainly alludes to the blessed afterlife. The later tradition of the eschatological (and Messianic) banquet simply shifts the focus of the blessed feasting from the afterlife (in heaven) to the end of the current Age.

One final textual note: the first two words in the MT (confirmed by 4QPsc) read Er#D# <c*w+, apparently to be understood as “and (he who) sets (his) path (in order?)”. The wording is rather awkward, and it has been suggested that the text should be emended to Er#D# <t*w+, “and (the one) complete (in the) path” (cf. Kraus, p. 488). This seems preferable, given the Wisdom parallels in Job 4:6; Prov 13:6, etc, with the expression as characteristic of the righteous and denoting those who are faithful to the covenant with YHWH. The term <T* also connotes purity, integrity, and blamelessness, and is used (along with the related verb <m^T*) rather frequently in the Psalms.

By all accounts, the last two words of v. 23 do not fit the metrical pattern. It has been suggested that the final <yh!l)a$ is secondary and should be omitted (cf. Kraus, p. 488). To be sure, the excessive length of the final line would be alleviated if a reading “…my salvation” were adopted in place of “…(the) salvation of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God]”. However, this would still leave an irregular and cumbersome 3+4 couplet. It is perhaps best to treat the final two words as a short (2-beat) supplemental line (to the 3+3 couplet), which, while it disrupts the rhythm of the couplet, serves to punctuate the Psalm, bringing it to a close, with the recognition that all salvation and blessing comes from God (YHWH).

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

July 29: Song of Songs 4:13-14

Song 4:13-14

“Your branches (water the) pardes,
(giving) pomegranates with precious fruit,
(flower)ing henna and (spike)nard—
(yes,) nard and saffron,
cane and cinnamon,
with all trees of white,
myrrh and aloes,
with all heads of spices!”

Verses 13-14, describe the garden enclosure of v. 12 in more detail (cf. the previous note). In particular, the flowing water (from the spring) within the enclosure is the source of all the trees and plants. That, at least, is how I understand the difficult opening word Ey]j^l*v=. The noun jl^v# fundamentally means something that is sent out; it can be used to refer to the branches or roots of trees, etc, and that is often how it is interpreted here. The luscious plants and fruit that are listed in the rest of vv. 13-14 represent what the garden “sends forth”. Another possibility, however, is that it refers to branches of water, i.e. irrigation channels, which water the garden and allow the various trees and plants to grow and bear fruit. In Mishnaic Hebrew, /yjlv has this meaning (cf. the references in Fox, p. 137). There are two reasons why this explanation is to be preferred: (1) the immediate reference to the spring of water at the close of v. 12, and (2) the basic symbolism of the garden (and the spring of water) in relation to female sexuality (and fertility). The spring of flowing water, likely seen as located at a central location in the garden, represents the source of the woman’s vitality and sexual appeal—it ‘waters’ the garden and causes its plants/fruits to grow.
On the possible sexual allusion to the body of the young woman (her genitalia), with the use of Arabic šal— in that sense, cf. Pope, p. 491.

The term sD@r=P^ (pard¢s) is a Persian loanword, and so I have transliterated it above; it is essentially parallel to (and synonymous with) Hebrew /G~ from v. 12, in referring to an enclosed garden or park. It use, however, gives an exotic touch to the scene; it might just as well have been translated with our own related loanword in English, “paradise”.

The second line emphasizes the fruit produced by the garden, which is both beautiful to look at and sweet to taste (cf. the prior note on vv. 10-11). The lush red pomegranate, with its sexual associations (v. 3), is mentioned specifically, along with other “precious” (dg#m#) fruits.

The remainder of vv. 13-14 is devoted to fragrant spices, of the kind especially used for aromatic oils and perfumes. The motif of spices in the Song is of special significance, in that it represents both (a) female beauty and sexual appeal, and also (b) the sexual union between the lovers. The latter aspect explains why the spices are given such prominence in the description of the garden. Two terms, in particular, summarize all the many fragrant spices that are present in the garden:

    • hn`obl=, “white (stuff)”, specifically the white resin used to produce frankincense; the similarity in form and meaning with /onb*l= (the “white [peaks]” of Lebanon, source of fragrant cedar wood), allows for rich wordplay within the Song, as both words are used repeatedly.
    • <ym!c*B=, the regular term for “spices”, and a keyword in the second part of the Song, occurring earlier in v. 10, and again in v. 16; 5:1, 13; 6:2, and in the closing words of the Song (8:14)

The idiom “heads of…” (yv@ar*) here means “finest, best”; we might also keep to a literal translation and say “all the top spices”. It emphasizes the superlative character of the girl’s beauty and charms for the young man, and also the complete attraction she holds for him.

(Our discussion continues in the next note, on v. 15.)

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).