February 15: Song of Songs 1:2-3

Song of Songs 1:2-4

The first poetic unit of the Song is 1:2-4, and may itself represent a short love poem. In it a young woman expresses her love for a certain young man.

The grammatical changes in speech, between 2nd and 3rd person, or from singular to plural, have been troublesome for commentators. Modern scholars have been inclined to emend the text to make the wording consistent. These shifts have also been used in support of different dramatic interpretations of the Song, involving a wider set of characters. However, these sorts of explanations are not necessary, since shifts in person and number (and even gender) are typical of Near Eastern poetry, and of love poetry in particular. Even so, the use of the plural at the end of verses 3 and 4 requires special comment.

Verses 2-3

“May he kiss me from (the) kisses of his mouth!
For your loving (caresse)s (are) more good than wine,
good (also with regard) to (the) breath of your oils;
(as fine) turaq oil (is) your (very) name—
upon this (do the) maidens love you!”

The initial verb is an imperfect jussive form from the root qv^n`, “kiss”, derived from the rudimentary idea of pressing lips together. The jussive usually indicates volition—i.e., what someone wishes, desires, requests, etc, should happen. It is a 3rd person form (“may he kiss me…”), in spite of the shift to the second person address in the next line. As noted above, this sort of thing is quite common in Near Eastern love poetry; the use of the third person is typically a feature that suggests the more formal aspects of courtship and romance (with honorific elements). There may be a bit of wordplay due to the similarity between yn]q@V*y] (yišš¹q¢nî, “…kiss me”) and yn]q@v=y~ (yašq¢nî, “…make me drink”, from the root hqv). This certainly would be appropriate for the connection between kisses and wine here in the poem.

There is actually a chain of poetic associations at work. From touching the lips (“kisses”) we move to the more general image of “loving (caresse)s” (i.e., acts and gestures [touches] of love-making). These are characterized as “good” (adj. bof), in the sense of being precious, desirable, and ‘sweet’. This ‘sweetness’ applies both to taste (the metaphor of wine) and scent (lit. “breath”, j^Wr)—in this case, the wafting fragrance of perfumed oil. Then there is another pivot on the general image of fragrant oil to (apparently) a very specific kind of aromatic oil, indicated by the obscure word qr^WT (tûraq). This word has been derived from the root qWr (“empty, pour out”), in which case the idea would be of fragrant oil that has been emptied out of its container so that the aroma fills the room (cf. John 12:3). However, Pope (p. 300) notes evidence from the Ugaritic texts (cf. Gordon, UT 145, 19.371) that mentions trqm along with oil and wine, etc, in a list of luxury items. The Qumran manuscript 6QCant at this point is fragmentary, but the word begins –rm, and has been reconstructed as tjqrm, referring to a (perfumed) ointment mixed with spices (cf. 1 Chron 9:30, 39).

The consonantal text iydd, vocalized ;yd#D) by the Masoretes, could alternately be read as ;yD#D^. The MT has the noun doD (“love”), while, in the latter case, the word would be dD^ (“breast”), and the LXX translation (followed by the Vulgate) does have “your breasts” (mastoi sou) here in verse 2. Since it is a female personage who is speaking of her male lover (rather than the other way around), almost certainly doD is correct. The plural form (<yd!oD) here could refer to acts/gestures of (sexual) love, or, perhaps more likely, as an instance of an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “your great/precious love”. Since the idea of touching is very much in view (in light of the “kisses” in line 1), I have rendered the word in the sense of her lover’s caresses.

The reference to the lover’s name (<v@) must be understood in terms of ancient Near Eastern views regarding names. In something of a quasi-magical sense, a person’s name embodied the essence and character of the person. Thus, it is not simply the mention of the young man’s name that delights the woman; rather, she is referring to the young man himself. By “your name” we should understand something like “all that you are”. For more on the subject of names and naming in the ancient world, cf. my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”. There is a bit of wordplay here based on the similarity between <v@ (š¢m, “name”) and /m#v# (šemen, “oil”).

The reference to “maidens” (plur. of hm*l=u^) in the final line has caused commentators some difficulty. Is the speaker actually addressing other young women, or is it meant as a poetic device? On the one hand, in the setting of the poem, the female protagonist does group herself with the other young women of her community. This simply reflects the cultural milieu of the time. On the other hand, the “we” implicit in the plural collection of “maidens” may simply be a way for the character to position herself in relation to the young man, and as a way of emphasizing his excellence and beauty. This will be discussed further in the next note (on verse 4).

The root <lu (here in the feminine noun hm*l=u^) typically is used in reference to young, vital, vigorous person—often implying a youth (male or female) who is coming into his/her sexual maturity and awareness. Thus the term is quite fitting for the love poetry of the Song. On the famous use of hm*l=u^ in the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, consult my earlier study.

Jewish and Christian Interpretation

An example of allegorical interpretation of the Song can be seen in the Aramaic Targum on these verses. A paraphrastic, and often highly interpretive, translation, the Targum understands the “kisses” of v. 2 in terms of God giving the Law (Torah) to Israel. Through the Law, and the intermediary of Moses, YHWH “…spoke to us face to face as a man kisses his companion, from the abundance of the love with which he loved us, more than the seventy nations” (Pope, p. 299). The Great Midrash (Midrash Rabbah) on the Song of Songs similarly interprets the kisses, etc, in terms of the Torah, the Tabernacle and sacrificial offerings, Moses and the Patriarchs, and other aspects of Israel’s history and religion. Again, it is God’s love for Israel that is primarily in view, and the “oil” allows Israel to become a light for the other nations of the world (I.21).

Origen composed what would seem to be the earliest (surviving) Christian commentary on the Song, and, in his introductory comments, he makes quite clear that his interpretation represents a combination of the allegorical and mystical-spiritual approaches. In his words, “…the Bride and Bridegroom [i.e., the young lovers] denote either the Church in her relation to Christ, or the soul in her union with the Word of God”. Though he gives a cursory exposition of the ‘literal’ sense for each passage, Origen focuses primarily on the ‘inner meaning’ (that is, the allegorical or mystical sense). The “kiss” thus represents the enlightening of the purified soul by the Word of God, and similarly for the “breasts” ([cf. above] = the heart), and the “ointment”, and so forth.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his beautiful cycle of sermons on the Song, follows a comparable mode of interpretation, though he tends to give greater emphasis to the mystical side:

“…the smell of the divine perfumes does not proceed from the smell of our nostrils but from a spiritual faculty which draws in the sweet odor of Christ by an inhalation of the Spirit” (Daniélou, p. 156)

As an example from his sermon on verses 2-3, we may note how he compares the ‘milk’ that comes from the Divine breast (i.e., the Word/Wisdom of God), and how far superior it is to the ‘wine’ of human wisdom. “Hence it is that the divine breasts are better than human wine, and the smell of the divine ointments is sweeter than all other perfumes” Daniélou, p. 157). The ‘ointments’ in particular are interpreted as the virtues, those attributes which represent the finest (highest) part of the human soul—and yet, even they pale in comparison with “the perfect virtue that dwells in heaven”, which is “essential wisdom, essential justice, essential truth, and… offers an incomparable happiness in contrast with the ointments of this world which we know”.

References above marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).
Quotations of Origen’s Commentary are taken from Origen: The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, translated and annotated by R. P. Lawson, Ancient Christian Writers vol. 26 (Newman [Paulist] Press: 1956)
Quotations of Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon cycle (here) come from Jean Daniélou, S. J., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S. J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).