September 13: Song of Songs 8:13-14

Song 8:13-14

The final two verses of the Song comprise a short dialogue, or exchange, between the two lovers. Throughout the Song, the young man and young woman have alternated as the effective speakers in the various poems, and now they alternate one last time—with a pair of brief poems that, in their own way, summarize many of the key themes of the Song.

Verse 13

Boy:
“(You) the (one) sitting in the enclosed (garden)s—
(with) my companions attending (me)—
make me to hear from your voice!”

These lines, spoken by the young man, echo the earlier scene in 4:12-5:1 (cf. the earlier notes on 4:12, 13-14, 15, and 4:16-5:1). As throughout the Song, the garden motif symbolizes the young woman’s sexuality, but also the enjoyment of sexual pleasure by the two lovers (when they are together). As in 4:12ff, the girl is understood as being present within the garden enclosure(s) (here, plural <yN]G~, as in 6:2). She is dwelling (literally “sitting,” vb bv^y`) there in her garden, and, from there, the young man awaits her call (to invite him in). The same basic scenario was depicted in 4:16-5:1 (cf. note). Here he is, apparently, waiting with a group of his companions—people (young men) to whom he is closely joined (participle from the root rbj, “be joined, united, bound [together]”). They are “attending” him (vb bv^q*), and it is conceivable—given the climactic place of these lines in the overall structure of the Song—that a wedding scene is implied. In 5:1, a group of friends/companions is also addressed, calling on them to join (with the two lovers) in feasting on the pleasures of love.

Verse 14

Girl:
“Slip through, my love—
and be yourself like to a gazelle,
or to a young stag leading (the flock)—
upon (the) mountains of spices!”

The girl responds, as she does in 4:16, by inviting the young man, her beloved (“my love”), to come into her garden. However, this is done with different imagery, drawing upon separate scenes from even earlier in the Song—using phrases from 2:9, 17, and 4:6. The parallel with 2:8-17 is especially important. The general scenario in that earlier episode, as I understand it, is of a clandestine night-time meeting between the two lovers. In verses 8-9, the young woman describes her beloved as a swift and strong gazelle, or young stag, ‘leaping’ over the mountains and hills to come to her. Then, after they have been together, throughout most of the night it seems (v. 16), she warns him to turn back and ‘fly away’ before the light of day comes (v. 17); the wording in verse 17 is particularly close to what we find here:

“Until (the time) when the day breathes,
and the shadows fly (away),
turn round—you, my love, (and) be like
a gazelle (going) over (the) mountains of rt#b#!”

The wording may be similar, but the situation here at the close of the Song is very different. In the earlier episode, the young man is told to go (back) upon “the mountains of rt#b#,” which, as I discussed in the note on 2:17, is best understood as representing separation between the lovers. Now, by contrast, he is calls to be upon “the mountains of spices [<ym!c*b=],” which refers to union between the lovers. Throughout the Song, “spices” function as a key sexual symbol, representing sexuality and the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. These ‘spice-mountains’ (understood in 4:6 as referring to the young woman’s two breasts) share in the same basic symbolism as the garden with its fragrant spices, and the motifs are thus interchangeable—and there is no problem at all with the mixed imagery here.

Interesting is the use of the verb jr^B*, which occurs only here in the Song. The fundamental meaning of this root is something like “pass through, slip through”. It can refer to escaping out of danger (connoting flight), but it also is used in the more concrete sense of bolting a door, by passing through a bar or beam. Quite possibly, there is a double-meaning here, encompassing both of these semantic domains; we might paraphrase the girl’s invitation as: “Slip away, my love, into the garden…and bolt the entrance behind you!”. That the aspect of bolting a door is intended becomes more likely when we consider that, in the earlier episode of 4:12ff, the garden enclosure had a latched entrance. The latch/lock bars all other young men from entering the garden (of the girl’s sexuality), except for her beloved, to whom the garden belongs—i.e., her sexuality is reserved for him alone.

If marriage (and a wedding) is alluded to here at the close of the Song (cf. above, and in the prior note on vv. 11-12), then conceivably these final lines could contain an implied reference to the lovers’ wedding night (cp. 3:7-10). This is not to say that the two have not spent the night together before—since that is rather clearly implied (or at least suggested) in earlier episodes in each movement of the Song. Still, the context of a wedding would be most appropriate for the conclusion to the Song. It must be admitted, however, that if the motif of a marriage/wedding is intended here in vv. 13-14, it is presented in a most vague and allusive manner.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum interpreted these final verses of the Song as an eschatological prophecy regarding the future and ultimate destiny of Israel. Verse 13 was understood as spoken by Solomon himself on behalf of the people, while verse 14 represented a prayer by the elders of Israel for the redemption of Israel:

“In that hour shall the Elders of the Assembly of Israel say: ‘Flee, my Beloved, Lord of the universe, from this polluted earth, and let your Presence dwell in the high heavens. But in time of trouble, when we pray to you, be like a gazelle which sleeps with one eye closed and one eye open, or like a young antelope which as it runs away looks behind. So look on us and regard our pains and afflictions from the high heavens, until the time when you will be pleased with us and redeem us and bring us up to the mountain of Jerusalem and there the priests will offer up before you incense of spices.”

Cf. Pope, pp. 696, 700

Ambrose understands that it is the young woman who is speaking in verse 13, calling to her beloved (Christ) as the one sitting in the gardens, with his companions being the Angels—and their garden-dwelling is to be identified with the heavenly Paradise. The woman (the Church) wishes to hear her beloved’s voice (the voice of Christ)—but she is only able to receive this voice, the heavenly conversation, once she has been fully purified and matured, bringing forth the “flowers of virtue, the sweetness of grace”. She further calls on him to “flee away” to her, indicating the help and mercy that Christ should provide to believers in their time of distress and persecution. The “mountains of spices” are the saints, and Christ takes refuge with them (cf. Psalm 87:1, cited together with 2 Cor 2:15), the prayers of the saints being like fragrant incense that ascends to heaven. Cf. Norris, pp. 295-6.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

 

September 9: Song of Songs 8:8-10

Song 8:8-10

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

Verse 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 9

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

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

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

Verse 10

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

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

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

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

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

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

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

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

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

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

 

August 29: Song of Songs 7:8-10a

Song 7:8-14

Verses 8-10a [7-9a]

“This, your stature, was likened to a palm-tree,
and your two breasts to its clusters (of fruit).
(Well,) I said ‘Let me go up on (that) palm-tree
and grab hold on its (high) branches!’—
and, oh, may your two breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and (the) breath of your nostrils (be) like apples,
and (the) taste of your (mouth) like the good wine…”

The opening lines of this section build playfully on the prior waƒf praise-song (vv. 2-7), focusing on the girl’s body—from toe to head. Now the young man speaks of his beloved’s stature (hm*oq), that is, her appearance as she is standing. The idea of height is particularly being emphasized by the term hm*oq. Here she is compared to a tall palm-tree (rm*T*), whereas in prior poems a mountain-motif (spec. the white peaks of the Lebanon range) was utilized to express this aspect of height with its associations of majesty and grandeur. Particularly in 4:8, the mountain image was used to express the idea of separation between the two lovers. Verse 8 here alludes to the same idea (i.e., separation and difficulty of access), but the sense of any separating barrier (or distance) is quickly dissolving.

Indeed, the young man expresses his desire and intention to climb (lit. “go up on”) that tall palm-tree (the girl’s body). The fruit of that tree is identified primarily with the girls “two breasts”. Normally, the word loKv=a# refers to a cluster of grapes, but here it is used in a more general sense for any fruit-cluster (spec. the date-clusters on the palm-tree). The noun /s!n+s^ occurs only here in the Old Testament, but its meaning can be determined from the cognate Akkadian word sinsinnu, referring to the topmost branches (of the date-palm); this basic meaning is confirmed by the Syriac and Greek versions (cf. Pope, p. 636). The imagery in v. 9 combines the idea of the young man “climbing” onto his beloved, and then “grabbing hold” (vb zj^a*) of her breasts. This is perhaps the most graphic sexual imagery of the Song, and it unquestionably refers to sexual intercourse (the beginnings of it, at least).

The date-palm in the ancient Near East had strong connections with sexuality and fertility, and was a tree sacred to the goddess. In Mesopotamia, the palm-tree was closely associated with the goddess Inanna (later Ishtar), and the fruit of the date-palm plays an important role in the Sumerian love songs between Dumuzi and Inanna. In addition to the basic sexual motif, there were two key aspects to the symbol of the date-palm in these  songs. First, there was the seasonal mythic-ritual context of the date-harvest, in which the growing fruit of the date-palm, represented by Dumuzi in his aspect as worshiped by the orchard growers, was ritually placed in the communal storehouse (represented by the person of Inanna). Second, in the love songs, this ritual aspect is depicted in terms of the girl’s lover (Dumuzi) presenting the fruit (dates) to her (Inanna), like jewels, as a wedding gift.

As he climbs (or anticipates climbing) the ‘tree’, he expresses his deep wish (note the particle an`) that the ‘cluster’ of the girl’s breasts would be like a cluster of grapes (the regular sense of loKv=a#) on the vine. By this is presumably meant breasts that are soft and plump, juicy and succulent, like grapes; moreover, the motif of grapes immediately brings into view the image of wine (as a symbol of sexual delight).

The expression “breath of your nose/nostrils” (EP@a^ j^yr@) seems rather peculiar, prompting some commentators to deviate from the normal meaning of the word [a^. Pope notes, for example, that the cognate words in Akkadian (appu) and Ugaritic (ap) can refer to the tip of other parts of the body, including the breasts and the genitals (cf. p. 636f). To be sure, the nipple of the breasts would certainly fit the sexuality and eroticism of the scene, and the fragrance of the girl’s breasts was emphasized in 1:13 (cf. also 4:5-6). However, in my view, this misunderstands the poetry, where, as is often the case, an attempt is made to combine a number of different motifs and associations within just a few syllables. In this case, the following four aspects, or strands, can be noted:

    • The parallelism between sweet scent (j^yr@) and taste (Ej@)
    • The sweet fragrance of the girl’s breath
    • The fact that the scent is enjoyed through the nose/nostrils
    • The interlocking of nose and mouth, together, combine to depict passionate kissing

If the nose (and nostrils) are associated with a sweet smell, it is the mouth (spec. the tongue and palate, literally the “[place for] tasting”) that represents a sweet taste. Thus, the overall imagery of this scene reflects the young man’s desire to embrace his beloved, holding her close, the two pressing against each other face-to-face. He presses himself up against her breasts, and his nose and mouth joins with hers (in passionate kissing). This image of sexual union (and intercourse) is enhanced and further expressed, in poetic terms, by the way that the girl’s words take up from the boy’s words here in v. 10a, and she finishes the sentence (v. 10b). In terms of the poetic structure of the section, the portion sung by the young man (vv. 8-10a) is joined to the portion sung by the young woman (vv. 10b-14). This will be discussed further in the next daily note, but it is worth introducing here verse 10 in its entirety:

Boy:
“and (the) taste of your (mouth) like the good wine…”
Girl:
“…going to my love with smoothness, flowing (from the) lips <…>”

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum applied the imagery in verse 8 to the moment when the priests spread their hands in prayer to bless the people of Israel, his stature and outstretched hands resembling the palm-tree. The Midrash Rabbah preserves more of the genuine sexual context of the verse, though considered from a negative standpoint, according to the customary ethical-religious line of interpretation. The eroticism refers to the evil inclinations in the world (among human beings), toward idolatry and unchastity respectively; the tendency toward unchastity (sexual immorality) is the more difficult to withstand and uproot. Similarly, in verse 9, the Midrash interprets the sexuality according to the historical example of Daniel and his companions in resisting idolatry. The Targum mentions the same example, but without the pointed context of resistance to temptation; instead, the merit of the Fathers is emphasized, according to their endurance of various trials (in a more general sense). The same basic lines of interpretation, for both the Targum and Midrash (Rabbah) extend into verse 10. In particular, the ‘lips’ of the righteous ancestors are to be honored (‘kissed’) for their faithfulness to the Torah and endurance of persecution, etc. Cf. Pope, pp. 634, 637, 642.

Christian commentators tended to follow a similar line of ethical-religious interpretation when dealing with the eroticism of these verses. For example, Bede explains the ‘height’ of the young woman in terms of the moral uprightness and good works of believers (the Church). The Bride “is likened to the palm-tree because she stands upright in her love of things heavenly”. The grape-clusters of the girl’s breasts refers to the work of the Church’s teachers, especially when they move beyond giving basic instruction (‘milk’) to teach the more mature believers on deeper matters of the faith. The scent of the mouth likewise represents the sound speech of Christians, and the work of speech (teaching and preaching, etc) that is dedicated to God. The apples are fresh and new, but the wine is aged, reflecting two aspects—and levels of maturity—within the Church. Cf. Norris, pp. 261-3.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

 

August 26: Song of Songs 7:2-7 (continued)

Song 7:2-7, continued

(For verses 2-5a [1-4a], cf. the previous daily note.)

Verse 5b [4b]—Eyes and Nose

“Your two eyes (are like the) pools in Hešbôn
upon (the) gate of ‘Daughter of Rabbîm;’
your nose (is) like a great (peak) of the White (mountains),
looking down (on the) face of Dammešek.”

Describing eyes as ‘limpid pools’ is quite natural and common, emphasizing both the clear whiteness and wetness of them (cf. the earlier imagery in 5:12). Moreover, the word for “eye” (/y]u^) is identical with the (presumably related) word for “spring, fountain” (the two words may derived from separate, but cognate, roots); so there is a bit of wordplay involved. The mention of Heshbon—usually identified with the site of Tell „esbân in the highlands of Transjordan—adds a bit of geographic color, as does the reference to Damascus in the second couplet. If the ‘pools of Heshbon’ were especially famous or noteworthy, that particular detail has been lost to us; however, excavation of the 10th century B.C. site did reveal a significant (20+ foot-deep) water reservoir.

There is unquestionably some wordplay involved in the expression <yB!r^-tB^, and it is impossible to choose between flatly transliterating it as a  place-name (as most translations) do, and thus losing its meaning, or to translate it and preserve its meaning (but then lose the geographic detail). I have chosen to combine the two approaches, rendering it above as “Daughter of Rabbîm.” Apparently, this was the name of a gate in Heshbon, the literal meaning of which would presumably be something like “daughter of the great (one)s” —at any rate, that is the sense that the Song is playing on here, alluding to the epithet of the girl as “daughter of a noble” in v. 2.

Comparing the girl’s nose to a mountain prominence may seem inappropriate, but it is really no different that describing her neck as a “great (tower)”. The same locative word lD*g+m!, “place of great (height)”, is used here, presumably in reference to a “great peak” of the Lebanon range. Throughout the Song, the Lebanon mountains recur as an important image, because it combines together a number of key motifs: majesty and height, the whiteness of its snowy-peaks, and its famous cedar-wood notable both as a luxury item and for its fragrance. The latter detail is particularly significant, since the association with fragrant spices is also established via the word-play between the Lebanon (/onb*l=, l®»¹nôn) and the word for “frankincense” (hn*obl=, l®»ônâ)—both deriving from a root denoting “whiteness”. Probably the straightness of the girl’s nose is being particularly emphasized, but also how it gives a proud and distinguished (i.e., noble, majestic) appearance to her face as a whole. The geographic span from the Transjordan to Syria may also allude to the sense of majesty the young man ascribes to his beloved’s beauty—according it a kind of transcendent, cosmic royalty.

Verse 6 [5]

“(Indeed) your head upon you (is) like the fruitful (mountain),
and (the) dangling hair of your head like the (royal) purple—
a king is held fast in the (flow)ing locks!”

The mountain imagery from v.5b continues here, comparing the girl’s very head with the “fruitful (mountain)” (lm#r=K^). As with the Lebanon range, there is a play on the literal meaning of the Karmel (Carmel) mountain; and it is best to translate the term, rather than transliterating it in English as a proper name (where the meaning is lost). The name lm#r=K^ literally refers to a fruitful and fertile place. Such a fertile mountain peak is fitting for a description of the top of the girl’s head. The ‘fertile growth’ alluded to, apart from its general sexual connotation, refers here specifically to the girl’s rich locks of lush, flowing hair. The hair is hanging or dangling (hL*D^) down from her head, dark and luxuriant as though it had been dyed with the royal purple. Playing on this imagery, the young man adds a third short line to the couplet, exclaiming how a ‘king’ (i.e., he himself) has been captured (“held [fast],” vb rs^a*) by the girl’s flowing locks.

Some commentators would include the noun El#m# as part of the second line—i.e., “…like the purple of (the) king”. However, this does not fit metrically; it is better to keep El#m# as the subject of the short concluding line, pivoting conceptually on the idea of the royal purple. In the world of their love, the boy and girl are ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other, with their love-making having a kind of majestic, royal quality. The reference to the girl as a “noble daughter” in v. 2 [1] (cf. the previous note) follows this same line of creative, playful expression. Note also the wordplay in the expression <yB!r^-tB^ above.

Verse 7 [6]

“How beautiful you are and how pleasant you are,
(my) love, (you) daughter of delights!”

The praise song ends as it began (in v. 2 [1]), with an exclamation with the particle hm*—an interrogative pronoun (“what”), rendered here in an exclamatory sense (“how…!”). In verse 2, the exclamation referred specifically to the beauty of the girl’s feet, but now the young man makes his (dual) exclamation in a comprehensive sense, referring to the entire beauty and attractiveness of his beloved. This double-reference has two layers of meaning. On the one hand, it relates to the narrative context of the praise-song, explaining how the girl’s beauty is truly perfect, far beyond the attractiveness of a mere dancing girl (cf. the prior note on v. 1b). On the other hand, it deftly combines the two aspects of the praise song—namely, the girl’s physical beauty, and her sexual appeal. The first aspect is indicated by the verb hp*y` (“be beautiful, fair”), the second by <u^n` (“be pleasant, sweet, delightful”).

In conclusion, he calls her hb*h&a^ (“love”), which is essentially synonymous with the more frequent doD—both terms, in the context of the Song, mean “beloved, loved one”, i.e., the one whom I love. Perhaps the regular verbal aspect of the root bha here alludes specifically to the act of love-making between the two—something which takes on greater prominence in the next unit of the Song (7:8-14).

MT <yg]Wnu&T^B^ (“with the delights” [?]) should instead be divided into the construct expression <yg]Wmu&T^ tB^ (“daughter of delights”), as many commentators recognize (supported by the Peshitta Syriac and Greek Aquila versions). It essentially means something like “(you) delightful girl”, but the formal expression carries important echoes of the earlier “daughter of the great ones” (v. 5) and “daughter of a noble” (v. 2). Again these references to nobility/royalty are part of the symbolic make-believe world of love-play and love-making, and this comes very much into focus here at the close of the praise-song (and the section [6:4-7:7] as a whole). Calling her “daughter of delights” anticipates the more explicit imagery and references to love-making in the following section (7:8-14), which we will begin discussing in the next note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The imagery of the praise-song in vv. 2-7 was interpreted, e.g. by the Targum and Midrash, in a manner quite similar to the approach taken with the earlier waƒf songs. For example, the feet and legs in v. 2 were explained by the Targum as representing the feet of Israel when her people faithfully appear before YHWH in observance of the holy festivals, while the loins (thighs) symbolize the devout children who are born from them. The Midrash similarly understood the “feet” in relation to Passover and the festival of Sukkot, with the sandal-latches referring to the completion of the people’s festival duties (which will lead to blessing and prosperity during the year). The thighs also suggested the specific association with the rite of circumcision, and the blessings of health, etc, which follow from it for Israel.

The Targum and Midrash each interpret the ‘navel’ in v. 3 as representing the head of the Sanhedrin, which also stands as the religious center for Israel in its study and observance of the Torah; the stomach/belly extends the motif to include all those sages who surround him in the Sanhedrin. The two breasts of the girl follow the interpretation of 4:5, while the Targum here specifically emphasizes the breasts as symbolic of the two Messiahs (son of David, and son of Ephraim) who will come to redeem Israel.

The mention of Mt. Carmel in v. 6 naturally brought to mind the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), while the purple color represents the exaltation (restoration) of the lowly but pious ones in Israel. The Midrash interestingly explains the ‘captive king’ of the verse as referring to YHWH (the King), in that He has bound Himself (by oath and the covenant) to make His presence manifest in the midst of Israel. Cf. Pope, pp. 616ff.

Theodoret typically interprets the girl’s body parts in an ethical-religious sense—the feet are praised because they “walk the straight path along the royal way”, the thighs signify practical virtue and the moral awareness of believers as they walk along the way; the navel (in terms of the umbilical cord) represents the sin and idolatry that is ‘cut off’, while the belly, depicted as a heap of grain, symbolizes the “storehouses of the soul full of hidden mysteries”. Christians such as Theodoret had to work hard to fit the various geographic details (“pools of Heshbon,” et al) into such an allegorical and ethical framework, giving explanations that sometimes verge on the preposterous. However, occasionally commentators might be aided by a peculiarity of translation in the Greek, such as when Aquila took /obv=j# (µešbôn) as a common noun (cf. Eccl 7:25, 27; 9:10) and translated it e)n e)pilogismw| (i.e., “in thought, contemplation”, cp. Sirach 27:5; 42:3); this allowed Theodoret to interpret the idiom of the pools as “reservoirs of an abundance of godly thoughts”. Cf. Norris, pp. 256ff.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

August 25: Song of Songs 7:2-7

Song 7:2-7

The poem in 7:2-7 [1-6] is another waƒf praise-song, the third such unit overall in the Song. In it, the speaker praises the beauty (and sexual appeal) of the beloved, focusing on one body part at a time. The first such waƒf song (using the term from Arabic love poetry tradition) was in 4:1-7 (by the young man), with the lines from vv. 1b-3 repeated in 6:5b-7; the second (by the young woman) was in 5:10-16. That praise-song by the young woman was set within the dramatic context of 5:2-6:3, essentially occurring as a response to the question by the “daughters of Jerusalem” in 5:9. Similarly, this current praise-song must be understood within the narrative of the section (6:4-7:7), in response to the call by the male youths (parallels to the “daughters of Jerusalem”) in 7:1a. As discussed in the previous note, while the protagonist agrees with their assessment of the girl’s physical beauty, their inclination to look at her as they might an attractive dancing-girl (v. 1b) is unworthy of his beloved. The transcendent perfection of her beauty is the focus of his praise-song.

In this particular waƒf, the praise of the beloved’s body parts proceeds in the opposite direction—beginning down at the feet and ending up at the head.

Verse 2 [1]—Feet and Legs

“How beautiful are your feet with (their) latch-straps,
O daughter of a noble!
The turns of your thighs (are) like (precious) ornaments,
(the) work of a steady (design)er’s hands.”

The initial line, with its opening interrogative pronoun, could perhaps be translated as, “What is the beauty (of) your feet…?”, i.e., “how should I compare them?” This question (rendered as an exclamation above) establishes the subsequent comparisons of the praise-song. The latch-straps (<yl!u*n=) of the girl’s sandals only add to the visual appeal and sensuousness of her small feet.

Her thighs are literally turning (noun qWMj^, from a root meaning “turn”)—either in the sense of how they move, or the sensuous curve of their shape. Probably the latter is meant, but in any case it continues the conceptual word-play of this section, utilizing the motif or theme of turning (cf. the previous note on v. 1 [6:13]). The curvature of her thighs is smooth and perfect, like the work of a skilled craftsman of jewelry, etc. The closing phrase literally reads “(the) work of (the) hands of a steady (crafts)man [/M*a*]”.

The expression “daughter of a noble” is part of a recurring theme throughout the Song—that the love between the young man and young woman has a royal quality to it. In the world of their love, the two are like great nobles, even ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other. Here the epithet emphasizes the majesty of the girl’s beauty (cf. earlier in 6:8-10), beyond that of any mere ‘dancing-girl’ (7:1b). It also plays on the reference (however enigmatic) to the noble young men in 6:12. Perhaps the sense here is that the girl, his beloved, is just as noble (if not far more so) than they.

Verse 3 [2]—Stomach/Belly/Pelvis

“(Below) your navel (there is) a rounded bowl—
may it not (ever) lack the (spic)ed wine!
Your belly (is like) a heap of (fine) wheat,
fenced around with lilies.”

The noun rr#v* occurs only here, but the equivalent form (> rv)) elsewhere in the Old Testament properly refers to the (place of the) umbilical cord—i.e., the navel (cf. Ezek 16:4, and note also Prov 3:8). However, it is unlikely that here it is simply a reference to the navel per se; rather, the navel serves as a point of reference for the two distinct areas of the body being described: (3a) the area below the navel down between the thighs, and (3b) the area above the navel (i.e., the “belly”, /f#B#) up to the breasts. Pope (p. 617) notes the cognate Arabic term surr, but also the similar word sirr (“secret”), which can serve as a euphemism for the female sexual organs (as well as for sexual intercourse). This is on the right track in terms of the meaning here, but Pope’s translation of rr#v) as “vulva” is inappropriately precise. In my view, v. 3a refers to the entire area, the surface from below the navel down to the sexual organs. This area is describes as a “rounded bowl”, that is, with convex or slightly hollowed shape. The noun /G`a^ refers to a small bowl used for mixing, etc (Exod 24:6; Isa 22:24), with cognate terms occurring throughout the ancient Near East (Akkadian agannu, Egyptian °ikn, Greek aggo$, cf. Pope, p. 618).

As in v. 2 [1], the first couplet here should be read as an exclamation, particularly the negative exclamation of the second line, “may it not (ever) lack the (spic)ed) wine!”, governed by the negative particle la^. The noun gz#m# occurs only here in the Old Testament, but the variant form Es#m# occurs in Psalm 75:9[8], along with the verb Es^m* in Isa 5:22; 19:14; Psalm 102:10[9]; Prov 9:2, 5. It refers to the mixing of wine—sometimes understood in the sense of wine being mixed with water, but here, most certainly, the reference is to wine that is mixed with spices (“spiced wine”). The “bowl” of this region of the girl’s body thus is a mixing bowl, where the spiced wine (to be drunk) can be found. This is important in terms of the overall imagery of the Song, and explains the force of the exclamation. Throughout the Song, “spices” serve as a fundamental symbol of (female) sexuality, and of sexual pleasure.

The comparison of the “belly”—that is, the area above the navel—with a heap of wheat may seem strange, but the principal idea would seem to be of a curved surface that is soft to the touch. Perhaps the tawny hue of the wheat may also be meant to describe the color of the girl’s skin. This ‘wheat’ is fenced (or hedged) around (vb gWs II) by lilies (<yn]v^ov). The blossoming lily-flower is another basic sexual image in the Song, occurring rather frequently (2:1-2, 16; 4:5; 5:13; 6:2-3). The grazing/eating of the flowers (or of ‘plucking’ them) symbolizes the enjoyment of sexual pleasure—spec. of the young man enjoying the beauty and sexual charms of his beloved. For the specific identity of the flower /v*ov, and the background/meaning of the motif, cf. the earlier note on 2:1-2.

Verse 4 [3]—Breasts

“(Your) two breasts (are) like two young stags,
twins of a gazelle… .”

This couplet is identical with 4:5, with the final phrase omitted (“…grazing among (the) lilies”). It may have been omitted because of the reference to lilies in the previous line. At the same time, the shortened couplet could help to explain the following truncated couplet in v. 5[4]a, which may have been shortened to give poetic balance. For a discussion of this verse, cf. the earlier note on 4:5. That prior praise-song ends, in rather tantalizing fashion, at the breasts of the girl; here, the breasts are set at the mid-point of the song—yet in both songs they are central to the sexuality of the imagery.

Verse 5a [4a]—Neck

“Your neck (is) like a great (tower) of ivory-tooth.”

It seems like a second line has dropped out here, and that may indeed be the case. On the other hand, as noted above, it may have been truncated to balance the shortened couplet in v. 4[3]. If so, then rhythmically vv. 4-5a belong together:

“(Your) two breasts (are) like two young stags,
twins of a gazelle;
Your neck like a great (tower) of ivory-tooth.”

The comparison of the girl’s neck with a tower echoes the earlier praise-song (4:4, cf. the earlier note), emphasizing its long and elegant shape. The additional detail here of “the tooth” (i.e., elephant tusk, ivory), brings out the smoothness of its surface as much as its bright/white gleam.

(The remainder of the praise-song will be discussed in the next daily note, along with a brief summary of some Jewish and Early Christian interpretation of the imagery involved.)

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).

August 24: Song of Songs 7:1 (continued)

Song 7:1, continued

The previous note dealt with the specific meaning of the term tyM!l^WVh^ here in 7:1 [6:13].

“Return, return, (you) the complete (one)!
Return, return, and let us gaze on you!
(For) what [i.e. why] would you gaze on the complete (one),
like (one who is) twirling (in) the tent-circles?”

Many commentators, following the traditional verse numbering, regard v. 1 as the start of a new poetic unit, centered on the image of the young woman as a dancing-girl. In my view, this misunderstands the poetic and narrative structure of the Song at this point. In some ways the English verse numbering (counting the verse as 6:13) is more accurate; however, properly speaking, 6:11-7:1 is best regarded as an intermediate (and transitional) unit, centered between the two praise songs by the young man (6:4-10 and 7:2-7). The verses also establish the dramatic nexus for the section, but it is at just this point that the difficulties of interpretation arise. What, precisely, is the dramatic scenario being described in these verses? In this regard, the meaning of 7:1 depends on how one understands 6:11-12. Let me summarize my thoughts on those first two verses (cf. the prior notes on v. 11 and 12).

In verse 11, the young woman is the speaker, and she describes how she went out to explore the blossoming fields and vineyards of springtime (following the winter rains, cp. 2:10-14). Figuratively, this refers to the blossoming sexuality of the young woman, and thus the imagery symbolizes her own sexual self-discovery (and awareness).

On this journey, depicted with a brief and allusive dream-like quality (v. 12), the girl suddenly finds herself in the company of a group(?) of noble young men (with their chariots). This happened while she was unaware (“I did not know my soul”), and, as I discussed in the earlier note, the scene likely has, as its fundamental point of reference, the girl’s attractiveness (and attraction) to the young men. The noble aspect alludes to the idea, frequent in the Song, that the two lovers, in their beauty, have something of a royal status (for each other, at least, the boy and girl are ‘king’ and ‘queen’). The possibility of being taken up into the chariot of a young noble (a ‘Prince Charming’) is a suitable fairy-tale scenario for the girl. Also, the parallel with vv. 8-10 should be noted. There, the young women (including young noblewomen) look at the girl with wonder; here, it is the young men (and nobles) who find themselves looking at the girl—only with desire.

This, in my view, provides the narrative context for 7:1, which has two parts: (1) a reaction by the young men (v. 1a), and (2) a response by the young man who is the girl’s beloved (v. 1b). Let us look at each of these parts in turn.

Couplet 1 (7:1a)

“Return, return, (you) the complete (one)!
Return, return, and let us gaze on you!”

Each line begins with the double-imperative yb!Wv yb!Wv, “Return, return…!” Some commentators, under the assumption that v. 1 begins a new section, would understand the verb bWv (“turn [back]”) in the sense of “turn around” (i.e., spin, as in a dance); some would even emend the text to read imperatives of the verb bb^s*, in order to bring this out more clearly. However, the verb should be understood here in the customary sense of “turn back, return”, the voice calling on the young woman to return, so that they will be able to gaze (hz`j*) upon her. The call for her to return suggests that the girl has gone away somewhere; this can be explained two ways, based on the immediate context of vv. 11-12:

    • She is being called back from her journey off into the blossoming valleys, etc.
    • She has specifically gone away from the amorous young nobles whom she encountered, unexpectedly, on her journey.

The latter is to be preferred, even though the presumed scenario is far from explicit in the text. As discussed in the previous note, the term tyM!l^WVh^ is best understood as a descriptive title meaning “complete (one)” or “perfect (one)”, referring to the incomparable beauty (and purity) of the girl, something which the young men certainly would have noticed. They call her to come back, so that they can continue to look at her beauty, being attracted to her sexually (v. 1b makes this point quite clear). Why has she gone away from the young men? It may indicate that she is not ready for a romantic/sexual encounter; however, it would be more in keeping with the overall narrative of the Song, that she avoids these other amorous youths because she belongs to the young man who is her beloved (and her beauty is reserved for him alone).

Couplet 2 (7:1b)

“(For) what [i.e. why] would you gaze on the complete (one),
like (one who is) twirling (in) the tent-circles?”

I take the girl’s beloved (the young man of the Song) to be the speaker here. He is responding with a rebuke to the other young men, who, drawn by the girl’s beauty, are indeed attracted to her, but only with the most basic kind of sexual attraction. As he puts it, they gaze on her like they would look on an attractive young dancing-girl. The noun hl*ojm= has verbal force, referring to the action of one (a female) who “twirls” or “spins”, according to the basic meaning of the root lWj (I)—i.e., twisting/turning in a circular movement. The qualifying noun that follows indicates the context (or location) of such dancing: it takes place in the encampments (i.e., places where [young] men are gathered). This could refer to the encampments of soldiers (which would fit the motif of chariots in 6:12), or of herdsmen (cp. 1:7-8), or may have a more general significance. Fundamentally, the word <ynjm, best understood as a plural form (rather than the MT dual), refers to a place where tents, etc, are set up in a curved (i.e. protective) formation. There is thus a good deal of conceptual wordplay at work here in this verse, utilizing the basic idea of turning: (a) the verb bWv (turn around, i.e. return), (b) the root lWj (twist/turn in a circular motion), and (c) the curved shape of the encampment(s).

All of this is expressed through a single construct expression which is rather difficult to render literally into English. It might be translated “twirling (one) of the tent-circles”, which works better in English as I have given it above: “(one who is) twirling [i.e. dancing] (in) the tent-circles”. The reference is to a (paid) dancing girl, beautiful and provocatively (and scantily) dressed, performing before a group of young men who are gathered round to watch (rather lustfully, we may assume).

The young man of the Song shares this attraction to the girl’s physical beauty; but for him she represents something much more than an attractive young woman. He alludes to this by repeating the epithet the other young men used of her, “(you) the complete [i.e. perfect] one”, but means it in a rather deeper sense. For him, she is indeed perfect and complete, in every way. The praise song that follows in vv. 2-7 makes this quite clear, as will be discussed further in the next daily note.

It is possible to maintain this line of interpretation, which I have presented above, even if the term tyM!l^WVh^  be understood differently—e.g., as a gentilic referring to the city of Jerusalem. The young men, realizing she was a girl from Jerusalem, could have called to her:

“Return, return, O (lovely) Shulaim girl!”

Conceivably, the author could be utilizing the wordplay associated with the term, by having the girl’s beloved play on a dual-meaning of the base word <lv (šlm); the point of the contrast would be something like: “she is more than just a pretty Jerusalem [šlm] girl, for me she is the perfect [šlm] one!”

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum understood the call for the girl to return as a prophetic call (from God) for Israel to return—both to the city of Jerusalem (echoing the exilic prophetic theme of Israel’s restoration) and to the covenant with YHWH, faithfully studying the Torah and observing all of its precepts. This call is contrasted with the voices of the ‘false prophets’ which lead Israel astray. The Midrash Rabbah explained the four-fold call to return as corresponding to the ‘four powers’ which had subjugated Israel; the people had come under their dominance, but now have the opportunity to return unharmed. The various details in the verse were typically associated with Old Testament tradition and events from Israel’s history. The motif of the dancing girl, for example—the “dance of the two armies” (following a literal reading of the MT)—was related to Jacob’s famous encounter with the angels (i.e., the heavenly armies); the same motif was applied to the idea of the dancing of the righteous in the Age to come. Cf. Pope, p. 612.

Theodoret, following a Greek rendering of the Hebrew term tyM!l^WVh^ in something like a literal sense, explained the name as meaning “peace bringer”. The holy Bride of Christ, when she appears, is like a group of soldiers engaged in singing as a chorus (an unusual juxtaposition of images). These reflect the combination of attributes in the holy ones—faithfulness and courage in their resolve (like soldiers), but also having the praise of God in their mouths. The ‘weapons’ of these soldiers are those described in 2 Cor 10:4-5 and Eph 6:10-18. Theodoret’s interpretation is predicated upon the LXX rendering of the Hebrew <y]n`j&M^h^ tl^j)m= as xoroi\ tw=n paremblw=n = “chorus of the troop-arrays”.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).

August 22: Song of Songs 6:12

Song 6:12

Verse 12 is generally regarded as the most obscure and difficult of the entire Song. The Masoretic text as it stands is puzzling and seems barely intelligible. The early versions (Greek, Syriac) appear to have found the verse as difficult to understand as commentators today. Unfortunately, little help is at hand from the only relevant Dead Sea MS (4QCanta), since verse 12 is scarcely preserved in the fragmentary manuscript.

There are six syllables to the verse as it has come down to us, but it is not clear whether this should be divided into a 3-beat (3+3) couplet or a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The problem is that, by whichever division is used, each component makes sense individually but are problematic when combined.

Following a 2-beat division, the first line would be:

yT!u=d^y` al)
“I did not know”

If a 3-beat division is followed, the first line then reads:

yv!p=n~ yT!u=d^y` al)
“I did not know my soul”

This latter phrase finds an exact match in Job 9:21; it corresponds generally, in English idiom, to “I was beside myself,” —more literally, “I don’t know myself [i.e. what I am doing]”. We might also say “I was out of my mind”.

Going back to a 2-beat division of the verse, the second line would read: “my soul set me” (yn]t=m^v* yv!p=n~). Combining the first two lines together, we have:

“I did not know
my soul set me”

The sense of these lines could be glossed as follows—

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had set me”

perhaps in the sense of:

“Before I knew it,
my soul had put me”

This sense is rather different if one follows a 3-beat division:

“I did not know my soul,
she set/put me…”

This can be understood two ways, depending on who the speaker is. If the young woman is speaking, then the “she” refers to the soul (grammatically feminine), i.e. “my soul put me”. If it is the young man speaking, then it is possible that his beloved (the girl) is the subject of the phrase in the second line.

The final two words, or beats, of the verse are the most problematic. In the MT as it stands, the reading is: “chariots of my people of nobility”. The expression “my people of nobility”, quite awkward in English, is byd!n`-yM!u^ (±ammî-n¹¼î»). Earlier commentators labored under the influence of the LXX and Vulgate which transliterated the Hebrew expression as a proper name (Amminadab, cf. Exod 6:23; Num 1:7; 2:3, etc). However, it is most unlikely that a proper name is meant here, and the expression should be taken in its basic, literal meaning. In some ways, the expression would make more sense if the word order of the construct expression were reversed, i.e., “noble(s) of my people” (comp. Num 21:18; Psalm 47:10; 113:8). The awkwardness of the MT would also be alleviated somewhat if the suffix y– were read as a paragogic marker of the construct state: “(the) people of nobility”, i.e., noblemen; or, perhaps, “people [i.e. companions] of the noble (man)”.

It is also possible to vocalize ymu differently than the MT reading: yM!u! (“with me”) rather than yM!u^ (“my people”). Assuming the young woman is the speaker, and following a 2-beat division, the verse could then be translated:

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had put me
(in) a chariot, the noble (one) with me.”

Let us briefly consider the context of verse 12. As I understand verse 11, the young woman is speaking, and the imagery refers to the blossoming of the girl’s sexuality, as well as to an awareness of her own sexual development. When we turn to what follows in 7:1f (to be discussed), we find the idea of young men gazing at the girl’s beauty. It would thus be natural if, in the intervening verse 12, there would be some reference to the girl’s attractiveness to young men. Now let us see if this poetic narrative allows us to make sense of verse 12. I approach the verse here following a 3-beat (2-line) division.

Line 1:
“I did not know my soul”
(i.e., I did not realize what I was doing)

The girl had been wandering through the blossoming valleys—orchards, fields and vineyards, etc—that is to say, exploring her own sexuality. Lost in her thoughts and exploration, experiencing new feelings of love and desire, “her soul” takes her to an unexpected place.

Line 2:
“she put me (among the) rides of (the) noble people”
(i.e., I found myself among the chariots of young noblemen)

The implication is that the young men find her attractive, and, perhaps more to the point, she imagines that handsome young nobles are attracted to her. Being taken up into the chariot of a handsome young prince (a ‘Prince Charming’, if you will) is a suitable fairy-tale scenario for the girl. It also reflects the dream-like quality of many scenes in the Song. The girl being seen by the young noble men provides a precise parallel with vv. 8-10, where the noble women likewise look upon her. The difference is that while the other women look upon the girl with wonder (cf. the earlier note), the men look at her with desire; this becomes clear enough in 7:1ff, as we shall discuss in the next note.

Thus, it would seem that the basic scenario intended by the verse is more readily comprehended than the precise wording used to express it—at least as this wording is preserved in the Masoretic text. In conclusion, let me present two tentative translations, following a 2-beat and 3-beat division respectively:

“I did not know (it),
(but) my soul had set me
(among the) rides of noblemen.”

“I did not know my (own) soul,
she set me (among the) rides of noblemen.”

Finally, I would make mention of the emendation suggested by Fox (p. 156). He reads tbkrm (without the mater lectionis w) as the singular tb#k#r=m!, “[chariot-]ride of…”. Along with this, he would emend ymu to <u (omitting the y– suffix), read as the preposition <u! (“with”). The purpose of these changes is to bring the verse in accordance with the overall theme of the Song—viz., of the two lovers coming together in a luxurious garden-setting:

“I do not know my (own) soul—
she set me (in) a chariot with a nobleman!”

The nobleman’s chariot bed functions like the royal couch/bed (in an outdoor/garden setting) in 1:12ff, 16; 3:7ff. It is a place where the two lovers can be together embracing each other. Pope (p. 590) cites a Sumerian text in which, apparently, the god Enlil takes his wife/consort Ninlil into his chariot where the two of them embrace.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash clearly understand byd!n`-yM!u^ in its fundamental meaning, and not as a personal name (cf. above). The girl (Israel) is taken up into a nobleman’s chariot, understood in terms of YHWH as a king. The verse is thus explained in reference to the Exodus and other times when Israel’s fortunes were suddenly improved through God’s intervention. She is raised to an exalted, royal status, with a position of honor far above that of the other nations. Cf. Pope, p. 591.

Early Christian commentators, following the LXX and Vulgate (cf. above), took byd!n`-yM!u^ to be a proper name (Amminadab), which forced them to adopt some rather creative and elaborate interpretations. Ambrose explained the first line of v. 12 (“my soul did not know”) as referring to the temptation to sin that the soul experiences while in the body. The use of chariot (or horse-and-rider) imagery was popular in ethical philosophy, and learned Greco-Roman Christians would have been quite familiar with it. The good (= tamed, obedient) horses are the virtues cultivated by the soul, while bad/unruly horses represent the bodily passions which, if left unchecked, can bring the soul to ruin. Ambrose explains the name Aminadab as meaning “father of the people”, understood as representing the “soul whom God the Father protects” and whom Christ drives (as a chariot).

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 19: Song of Songs 6:11

Song 6:11-7:1

I regard 6:11-7:1 as intermediary, set between the two songs by the young man (6:4-10 and 7:2-7). Their central position also speaks to the guiding role of these three verses in defining the dramatic narrative (such as it can be discerned) in this section. Unfortunately, the verses are fraught with ambiguities which make any definite or coherent interpretation difficult to achieve. Verse 12, in particular, is almost impenetrably obscure, and it will be necessary to devote an entire note to an examination of it. The text of verse 11 is clear enough, but there remain difficulties for interpretation.

Verse 11

“To (the) enclosed nut(-garden) I went down,
among the green (growth)s of the river-bed,
to see if the vine had burst forth,
(if) the pomegranates had taken flight.”

The first question is: who is the speaker in these lines? Since, in the Song, the garden and vineyard both tend to be used to symbolize female sexuality, it might seem natural that it is the young man who is going to the garden/vineyard—i.e., to be together with his beloved—as in 4:12-5:1 and 6:2-3. However, the context here suggests rather that it is the young woman who is speaking. To begin with, she is clearly the one who is being called back in 7:1, suggesting that she has gone away somewhere. Moreover, this passage seems to allude to the earlier episode in chapter 2, where the young man calls on the girl to go away with him into the blossoming fields and vineyards (vv. 10-14). I have noted how numerous themes and motifs from the first movement of the Song (chaps. 1-3) are developed in the second movement (chaps. 4-8). Here in 6:11, the girl is, in a sense, responding to that (earlier) invitation by her beloved (note the similarity of wording in 2:13).

The garden theme occurs throughout the Song (and frequently in chaps. 4-6), and, in the notes on those earlier references, I explained the significance of the garden imagery in some detail; however, the specific motif of the “nut-garden” here requires some comment. The feminine term hN`G] (= hN`G~) is closely related to (and essentially synonymous with) the more common noun /G~, referring to an enclosed (and protected) space where plants grow and are cultivated (i.e., a garden or grove). The noun zoga$ occurs only here in the Old Testament, but is common in later Hebrew where it means “nut(s)”. A similar term (±rgz) is attested at Ugarit, where the precise meaning is not entirely certain, but it may also refer to nuts—e.g., in a price list for various commodities (including oil and vegetable products), as well in texts where it is used as an ingredient in medicines (nut-oil being thought to have medicinal properties); cf. Pope, p. 575f.

The (wal)nut tree seems to have had quasi-magical attributes for people in the ancient Near East. Nuts were a symbol of fertility, which could be associated with deities and/or used in religious rituals and celebrations. For further detail, cf. the discussion by Pope (pp. 577-8), who cites the Canaanite Nikkal hymn (praising the marriage of the deities Yarikh and Nikkal); there is an interesting line toward the end of this text (CAT 1.24):

“Let me sing of the Katharat-goddesses,
the radiant daughters of the new moon,
the lord of the sickle,
who descend with ±rgz-plants,
…”
(translation by David Marcus in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, edited by Simon B. Parker, Society of Biblical Literature: Writings from the Ancient World Series [Scholars Press: 1997])

The phrases “descend with ±rgz plants” is strikingly similar to the wording here in the Song, “went down to the °§rgôz garden”.

Pope notes that the expression “nut garden” in v. 11 may refer specifically to the Qidrôn (Kidron) valley, east of Jerusalem. The noun lj^n~ refers properly to a wadi—that is, a river-bed valley which only has water running through it during times of heavy rain. This would certainly apply to the Kidron, which also happens to be called, in Arab tradition, W¹di al-Jôz (“Nut Valley”), cf. Pope, p. 579. Following the early rains, such valleys would be among the first locales to show signs of fertility, and that is almost certainly the significance here in the Song. The parallel section in 2:10-14 refers clearly to the spring-time blossoming of the fields and vineyards following the rainy season of winter, and that is the same basic setting here. By going to the “nut-garden” and to the wadi (after the rains), the young woman is looking for signs of the blossoming flowers and fruits: “to see if the vine had ‘burst forth’ [vb jr^P*] and if the pomegranates had ‘taken flight’ [vb JWn]”.

Both the vine-fruit and the pomegranate serve as sexual symbols in the Song (on the latter, cf. 4:3, 13; 6:7; 7:13; 8:2), and there is no question that the nut (walnut) has the same symbolic role. Nuts were traditionally used in wedding ceremonies (cf. b. Berakot 50b), and were also thought to aid in pregnancy (cf. the references in Pope, p. 578). Indeed, I would maintain that the principal significance of the nut here is not so much sexuality per se, but fertility.

If the young woman is indeed the speaker in v. 11, then her journey to the “nut garden” likely symbolizes the blossoming of her sexuality; the visit to the river-bed, with its first green growths of spring, has essentially the same symbolism. The journey itself (“I went down…”) may represent the girl’s growing awareness of her new-found sexual maturity. This will be discussed further in the next note (on v. 12).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash drew upon the traditional Old Testament use of the vine as a representation for Israel—and a fruitful vine thus represents the faithful/righteous ones who fulfill the Torah and are full of good works. The Midrash Rabbah likewise compared Israel to a nut-tree; among the points of comparison, the two shells of the nut symbolized the two main stages of the act of circumcision. The shell of the nut also served a protective role, and, for the one faithful in study of the Torah, though he may sin , yet he is protected and his understanding of God’s Law is not lost or condemned (b. Hagigah 15b). Cf. Pope, p. 583-4.

Ambrose explains how, after being praised by her Beloved, the young woman modestly flees from him, but then is brought back by the Bridegroom’s love to go “down into the nut orchard”. This place of fertility and growth is where the Church is flowering, having passed through the rain-torrents of hardship and temptation. Drawing upon the nut-image, the flowering vine and pomegranate-fruit of the Church’s faithfulness and virtue is kept safe (by faith and love) “through a hard skin that covers the body” (Norris, p. 247). This is typical of the early Christian line of ethical interpretation for 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).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

August 18: Song of Songs 6:8-10

Song 6:8-10

“Sixty (are) they, (the) queens,
and eighty (the) young wives,
and (of) maidens there is no numbering;
(yet) one she (is), my dove, my complete (one),
(as) one she (is) to her mother,
pure she (is) to the (one) having born her.
(The) daughters saw her and called her blessed,
(the) queens and young wives, and praised her:
Who (is) this, the (one) looking down like (the) dawn,
beautiful like the moon, pure like the sun,
(and) terrible like the (one)s seen (on high)?”

The young man’s song in vv. 4-10 is only a partial waƒf praise-song (cf. the previous note on vv. 5-7); the second portion of it shifts in focus to a mini-drama, in which the young man effectively compares his beloved with other women. The overall thrust of these lines clearly affirms the superiority of the beloved’s beauty to that of all other women, whether noble or common.

This comprehensive comparison (in vv. 8-10) involves three categories of women: queens, the second wives of wealthy/noble men, and the young beautiful maidens all throughout society. The noun vg#l#yP! properly refers to a concubine (i.e., secondary wives of royalty and wealthy men), but the word itself seems to be a Greek (or Indo-European [Hittite, etc]) loanword, denoting a young woman. The noun hm*l=u^ is even more general, referring to any young girl who has become sexually mature (for more on the word, cf. my study on the famous use of it in Isa 7:14). While there are many such attractive young maidens (lit. “there is no numbering” of them), there are obviously fewer queens and concubines. The sequence of sixty–eighty may be an extension of the three–four formula (e.g., Amos 1:3ff; 2:1, etc); a similar seventy + eighty formula is attested in Canaanite (Ugaritic) poetry (cf. Pope, p. 568).

There are thus many beautiful women, but only one (fem. tj^a^) who is like the young man’s beloved. This indicates both uniqueness and superiority—i.e., her beauty and attractiveness far surpasses that of all other women. These aspects are described in terms of a mother’s feelings for her precious young daughter (v. 9a); in the mother’s eyes, her daughter is both unique (tj^a^) and perfect (hr*B*, “clear, pure”) in beauty. This subjective view of a mother is shared, objectively, by all others who see the young man’s beloved—they, too, recognize that the girl is unique and perfect in her beauty.

Indeed, even the other young women are compelled to admit her beauty (v. 9b). The innumerable maidens (“daughters”) see her and ‘bless’ (vb rv^a*) her incomparable beauty; the term “daughters” (tonB*) alludes to the recurring chorus of the “daughters of Jerusalem”, i.e., all the other young women in Jerusalem. The queens and concubines also praise the girl when they see her; the verb ll^h* literally means “give a shout [i.e. of praise]”. Even the most glamorous royal (and upper-class) women are forced to exclaim how beautiful the girl is. This is also another example of the use of royal imagery (and the idea of royalty) in the Song to express the love the boy and girl have for one other; in the world of their love, they are ‘king’ and ‘queen’ for each other, and their bond of love like that of a royal marriage.

Verse 10 summarizes this declaration of praise, drawing upon the same formulaic language used by the young man in v. 4, thus framing the entire praise-song. The declaration here is phrased as a question: “Who (is) this…?” (twz)-ym!), repeating the reaction by the maidens in 3:6, likewise describing the young woman—in her beauty, purity, and majesty—as she approaches (cf. the discussion in the earlier note). In that passage, the image was of towering columns of fragrant incense; here, there is also an emphasis on height, focusing on heavenly bodies above. The girl’s seemingly transcendent beauty is like the dawn (rj^v^), and it is so great that she appears to be “looking down” (vb [q^v*) from on high—she above, and all other women down below, so prominent is the difference in beauty between them.

The remainder of the comparison matches the formula in verse 4 (cf. the earlier note). The sun and moon are the prominent (ruling) entities in the heavens (Gen 1:16), just as Jerusalem and Tirzah are the great (capital) cities on earth. The same verbal noun (Niphal/passive participle), tolG`d=n!, is used here in both verses, indicating that it has a more general meaning, and is not tied specifically to either the city or sun/moon motif. As discussed in the earlier note on v. 4, I render the expression quite literally, in terms of the fundamental meaning of the root lgd (“to see”); the reference is to something prominent, and positioned up high, to that people all around can see it clearly. The term also connotes the idea of greatness and majesty. Here the heavenly aspect—i.e., things visible up high in the heavens, in their brightness and splendor—is certainly being emphasized.

Fox (pp. 51-2ff) cites an Egyptian love song (from the Chester Beatty I Papyrus, 20th Dynasty) that has a number of similarities with our song; it has the following features in common with 6:4-10: (1) emphasis on the uniqueness and superiority of the girl’s beauty, (2) comparison with the heavenly bodies, and (3) it includes a partial waƒf praising the beauty of the young woman’s body parts. Here is the translation by Fox (ellipses and gloss mine):

“One alone is (my) sister, having no peer:
more gracious than all other women.
Behold her like Sothis [i.e. the star Sirius] rising
at the beginning of a good year:
shining, precious, white of skin,
lovely of eyes when gazing.
Sweet her lips <when> speaking:
she has no excess of words.
Long of neck, white of breast,
her hair true lapis lazuli.
Her arms surpass gold,
her fingers are like lotuses.
…..
She makes the heads of all (the) men
turn about when seeing her.

Her coming forth appears
like (that of) her (yonder)—the (Unique) One.”

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash interpreted the queens, concubines and maidens in terms of all the other nations, whose beauty does not compare with that of the Beloved (Israel). Sixty + eighty = 140, which is double the traditional number (70) of the nations. The Midrash Rabbah also explains this imagery in a different way, as representing the Torah—the sixty queens being the tractates of Halakot, and the eighty concubines the sections of the Levitical law; alternately, they could represent the companies of righteous Israelites who study the Torah.

When the assembly of Israel served YHWH faithfully, with a single mind and holding to the Law, she resembled a perfect and undefiled dove, following the example of the Patriarchs. Cf. Pope, pp. 568, 571, 573.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his sermon on v. 9, explains the uniqueness (oneness) of the young woman (called a dove), in terms of Christian unity through the Spirit, citing Jesus’ famous prayer in John 17:21-23 (cf. also Eph 4:3, etc). Though born a slave and a bond-woman, the girl (the soul, the Church) “was honored with the royal dignity” —this occurred when the soul received the Spirit (cf. Jn 20:22), having first become purified and detached from all imperfection. The reference to the “one who gave birth” to the girl (i.e., her mother) naturally brings to mind the Johannine idiom of believers being ‘born of the Spirit,’ so as to become true children/offspring of God. For Gregory, throughout the Song, the “daughters (of Jerusalem)” represent those souls that have yet to achieve the Bride’s level of purity and perfection, and who are urged to follow her example. Thus, here the “daughters” bless the Dove, and “they too would desire above all to become doves”. This desire of all other women (i.e. all souls) to become like the Bride (the Dove) speaks to the ultimate realization of the ideal and promise of unity, when “God will become all in all and all evil will be destroyed, and all men will be united in harmony by their participation in the Good”.

[Note: Sadly, Gregory of Nyssa’s splendid cycle of sermons on the Song does not extend past 6:9; thus, for the remainder of the Song, we will be forced to rely on other sources—often later in time and lesser in inspiration—for examples of early Christian interpretation.]

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).
Quotations of Gregory of Nyssa above are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J. (translator and editor) in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2003), here pp. 286-8.

August 17: Song of Songs 6:5-7

Song 6:5-7

Verses 5-7 represent a specific kind of praise-song in love poetry, known in the Arabic tradition as a waƒf. The poet sings the praise of the beloved, focusing on one body part at a time. Earlier waƒf-songs occurred in 4:1-7 (by the young man) and 5:10-16 (by the young woman). This current song repeats lines from the earlier song by the young man; vv. 5b-7 are nearly identical with 4:1b-3 (cf. the earlier note on those verses). This repetition can be explained several ways:

    • On the theory that the author of the Song is primarily an editor/arranger of traditional material, it may be that two different (pre-existing) poems were included that contained similar traditional material.
    • The previous praise-song by the young woman focused on the mouth (5:13, 16), and on kissing as the principal expression of love (and love-making); in order to create a sense of continuity, this aspect was emphasized again, by repeating the initial lines from 4:1-7 (describing the head/face/mouth).
    • There is a dramatic purpose to the repetition. Overcome and disturbed by the young woman’s striking beauty (vv. 4-5a), the young man is unable to find the words to praise her properly, and resorts instead to repeating what he had said earlier.

Verse 5a

“Turn your eyes from in front of me,
for they—they disturb me.”

The song in 4:1-7 also begins with the eyes of the young woman, but here the wording and thrust is quite different. Far from the pure and gentle dove-like beauty described in 4:1a, now the fierce and penetrating beauty of her eyes causes him great disturbance. In looking at her, the girl’s eyes are directed back at him, being right “in front of” him (preposition dg#n#). This is overwhelming for the young man, and so he asks his beloved to “turn around” (vb bb^s*) so that her eyes no longer face him. He further declares that her eyes disturb him; the verb used for this is bh^r*, in the Hiphil (causative) stem. The root bhr has a relatively wide semantic range, but it generally denotes wild or boisterous action, sometimes applied specifically to a raging storm. A guide to its meaning here can be gleaned from the usage in Aramaic/Syriac and by the cognate verb in Arabic— “tremble, be alarmed/frightened”. A good translation, that generally corresponds to this range of meaning is “cause disturbance”, i.e. “disturb”. A more concrete poetic rendering of the phrase would be “they make me tremble”.

Verses 5b-7

“Your hair (is) like a flock of goats
streaming (down) from the Gil’ad.
Your teeth (are) like a flock of sheep
that have come up from the washing,
all of them twin, bearing a double
and none is childless among them.
<Like a thread of crimson (are) your lips,
indeed, your place of speech (is) beautiful,>
(and) like a slice of pomegranate (is) your cheek
from behind your veil.”

As noted above, these lines are virtually identical with those in 4:1b-3. The only real difference is the use of the plural noun <yl!j@r=, i.e., (female) sheep, instead of the (passive) participle tobWxq= in 4:2, referring to sheep that have been shaved. Another small difference is the reading “from the Gilead” instead of “from mount Gilead”. Also the first part of 4:3 is missing here (highlighted in gray text above) in v. 7. It is quite possible—I would say probable—that this portion was originally present, but has dropped out of the MT; it is present in the Greek and Syriac versions, but unfortunately the verse was not preserved in the surviving Dead Sea fragments of the Song, so those manuscripts can provide no help in confirming the original Hebrew here.

For the commentary on these verses, see the discussion in the earlier note on 4:1b-3.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Midrash Rabbah on v. 5a used an illustrative parable to explain its meaning, likening YHWH to a king who was angry with his queen and had her banished from his sight, suggesting that it relates to the sins of Israel. On the other hand, the verb bh^r* in the Hiphil stem (cf. above), understood in the sense of “overcome”, was applied to the religious devotion of Israel that was able to overcome the Divine anger. Cf. Pope, p. 565.

Gregory of Nyssa follows the LXX of v. 5a: “Turn away your eyes from me, for they have raised my wings [a)nepte/rwsan me, i.e., excited me, set me ‘flying’]”, and reads the phrase specifically as “they have given me wings.” Based on this reading, Gregory looks at Scriptural imagery that describes God with wings like a bird, and applies the imagery to the soul who would follow the Divine example. Under the loving shelter of His wings (cf. Psalm 16:8; Matt 23:37), we are stripped of our natural wings and grow new wings “through holiness and righteousness”. The eyes of God (and Christ), gazing upon the faithful and purified soul, transforms it ever further in accordance with the Divine image.

For Jewish and early Christian interpretation of the remainder of the imagery in vv. 5-7, cf. the earlier note on 4:1-3.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).