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

“(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

“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 6: Song of Songs 8:5b

Song 8:5b-7
Verse 5b

“Under the apple-tree I stirred you—
there your mother came to be writhing (with) you,
there she was writhing and gave birth to you.”

The precise meaning of verse 5b remains enigmatic, as does its position within the section (vv. 1-10). As there is a general parallel with verses 1-2—with the motifs of mother and child-bearing—it is best to view these lines as the beginning of a new poetic unit (the second of three in the section). The main parallel involves the motif of the mother conceiving and giving birth to a child. In vv. 1-2 the reference is to the girl’s mother, while here it is to the boy’s mother—however, the basic image is the same. There are two primary thematic aspects to this image:

    • The sexual implication—of a boy and girl (father and mother as youths) making love, which eventually leads to pregnancy and childbirth
    • The two young lovers are following in the pattern of their own parents—who once were young lovers like themselves; this implicitly places the boy and girl within an established (and accepted) social setting, i.e., their love will find completion in marriage and child-bearing

The parallel with vv. 1-2 is even more precise (cf. the prior note), in the sense that, in several of the earlier episodes, there was a clear juxtaposition between a bedroom in the girl’s family house (in the city) and the outdoor garden/vineyard setting (cf. especially the framing of 5:2-6:3). Both locales symbolize the sexuality of the young woman, but the house/city setting also entails the social barriers that separate the lovers—and that require conformity of sexual love to social law and custom. It is only within the outdoor garden setting that the lovers can be together with perfect freedom.

The apple-tree represents an abbreviated form of the garden/field/vineyard motif—a specific location (where love-making can occur) within the garden (orchard) setting. On apples as a specific sexual symbol in Near Eastern poetry, cf. the earlier note on 2:3; the image also occurs in 2:5 (cf. note) and 7:8. Some commentators would hold that j^WPT^ properly refers to the apricot, rather than the apple, but this scarcely changes the meaning of the image or its use as a sexual symbol.

The verb rWu (I) is the same as occurs in the double prohibition in the recurring refrain of 2:7; 3:5, and 8:4. The basic meaning is to stir—either in the specific context of waking from sleep, or in the more general sense of being stirred to action. Here the form is from the Polel stem (related to the Piel), used in a causative sense much like the Hiphil stem—i.e., to stir someone (awake), to rouse them from sleep; the second occurrence of the verb in the refrain also is a Polel form. The meaning of the verb here is informed by its use in the refrain, where it can be understood in two different ways: (1) stirring awake sexual love, or (2) disturbing/interrupting the love-making. Here, however, it is specifically the young man (the girl’s lover) whom she “stirs”. There are three ways this can be explained:

    • The simple, natural meaning of rousing the young man from sleep, in the general context of the two lovers waking (after having spent the night together)
    • She is disturbing/interrupting his sleep, perhaps because there is something important she has to say to him (vv. 6-7)
    • It is a reference to the ‘awakening’ of sexual love and experience—i.e., the couple makes love (or has just made love)

The echo of the recurring refrain suggests that the latter aspect is primarily in view, though all three aspects would seem to apply quite well to the episode in context.

There can be no doubt that lovemaking (and sexual intercourse) is being referenced here. This is clear from the overall context of 7:8-8:5, but is further confirmed by the associated image of the mother becoming pregnant—in the exact same setting (under the ‘apple tree’) where the two lovers are now sleeping together. The verb lb^j* can refer to both conceiving a child (becoming pregnant) and giving birth. The fundamental meaning of the verb, “twist”, apparently is meant, in such a context, to describe the twisting and writhing of a woman in labor. The double use of the verb in the second and third lines is probably intended to distinguish between the two stages of conception and labor in the process of childbirth.

The implication that the couple has spent the night together (and has made love) can be troubling to many readers, since there is no real indication anywhere in the passage (or the wider context of 7:8ff) that the two are married. The moral and ethical implications of this aspect of the Song will be dealt with in a separate article once we have reached the end of the notes. However, even though the lovers may not be married in this scene, the passage does anticipate a marriage, though indirectly, much as we saw in the previous unit. This will be discussed in the next daily note on vv. 6-7.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash continue their line of interpretation for v. 5a (cf. the previous note). Upon their resurrection from the dead (i.e., coming up ‘out of the desert’), the righteous people of Israel will awaken, like newborn children, resembling their appearance when they first arrived at Sinai to meet YHWH and receive the Torah. “At that hour Zion, mother of Israel, shall bear her children and Jerusalem shall receive her captive children”. Likewise, the Midrash Rabbah continues the historical interpretation of the desert motif, as referring to the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai. The “apple tree” was specifically related to mount Sinai, with the Torah being given in the month of Sivan, when the apple-tree produces its fruit. Cf. Pope, p. 665.

Theodoret explains v. 5b in light of the earlier reference to the apple-tree in 2:3. The scene in that earlier passage (“in his shadow I rejoiced”) was only a “shadow of the good things to come”, things that are now described in the present verse—i.e., conferred on believers at the present time. He draws upon Paul’s famous statement in 1 Cor 13:12, contrasting our obscured/shadowed vision with the clarity with which we will see, looking at Christ our Beloved “face to face”. The awakening under the apple-tree is understood not of the young man (Christ) but of the girl (believers), referring to our ‘new birth’ from our ‘mother’ (the Spirit) once we came up from the ‘dead’ (i.e., out of the desert), as symbolized for us by our baptism. Cf. Norris, p. 281f.

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 31: Song of Songs 7:12-14

Song 7:12-14 [11-13]

As mentioned in the previous note, the young woman completes the sentence of the young man in v. 10, joining her song to his (as in an operatic love-duet). However, the girl’s song properly begins here with verse 12, framed by the two references to her beloved as “my love” (yd!oD).

“Come, my love, we will go out (into) the field,
spend the night among the henna-bushes;
we will go early to the vineyards—
we will see if the vine has sprouted,
(if) the blossom has opened,
(if) the pomegranates sparkle—
there I will give (all) my love to you.
The love-fruits give (out their) breath,
and at our openings (are) all precious (fruit)s—
newly (awake) and also sleeping,
my love, I have hidden (them here) for you.”

Translation note: The imperfect verb forms in vv. 12-13 (“we will…”) can be understood as having jussive or cohortative force (“let us…”); the latter rendering can be substituted into the translation above, with no loss of meaning, being largely a matter of translation style and preference.

This song echoes the earlier declaration by the girl in 6:11, where she states that she has “gone down” to the garden, exploring the newly blossoming fields and vineyards of spring-time. A quite similar idea is present in 2:10-14, where it is the young man who calls on the girl to go away with him into the fields, etc. Both of these earlier episodes inform the scene here. As noted on numerous occasions, the garden and vineyard serve primarily in the Song as symbols of the girl’s sexuality—as well as, secondarily, referring to the enjoyment of sexual pleasure by the two lovers. In 2:8-17, we are dealing with a romantic/sexual liaison between the two, and here there is a similar scene, only more explicit and suggestive of sexual intercourse. The latter aspect was already highlighted in the young man’s song (vv. 8-10a), as well as by the union of the two voices in v. 10 (cf. above).

The girl calls on her beloved (“my love”, yd!oD), to “go out” (vb ax*y`) with her into the field—meaning out into the open country at spring-time. The second line could be translated “we will lodge in the villages”, but this is inappropriately mundane for the context. The noun rp*K* can mean “village”, but there is an identical word that refers to a fragrant plant, usually identified with the cypress or henna-bush (cf. 4:13); the latter is clearly intended here. The verb /Wl (or /y!l) denotes spending the night in a place, and does not have any sexual connotation per se. However, the context clearly suggests that the two lovers are to spend the night together—i.e., sleeping together (in a sexual sense). Probably there is a bit of wordplay here, playfully indicating that the two will spend the night out in the fields just like one might lodge in a village house.

The sprouting/blossoming of the grape-vine and the pomegranate are essentially repeated from 6:11. In my prior note on that verse, I interpreted the scene as an expression of the girl’s blossoming sexuality—her journey being one of exploration as she becomes more and more aware of her sexual maturity. Here, she invites the young man to explore this with her. They both together will see whether the the vine and other plants have sprouted, whether the blossoms have bloomed, etc. Together, they will thus be exploring each other’s sexuality. The idea of “going early” (vb <k^v*) to the vineyard likely has a double meaning: (1) it indicates a time early in the season of growth (early spring), and (2) it suggests an eagerness to reach the garden/vineyard locale as soon as possible. The root <kv often denotes rising early in the morning and doing work or making preparations, etc; however, here, almost certainly the significance is more abstract and figurative, as I have indicated.

Their checking to see if the fruit-plants have blossomed, etc, could possibly include the further symbolic meaning of determining whether the ‘time is right’ for a consummation of their love (through sexual intercourse). Cf. further on this, briefly, below.

When they reach the garden locale, and if the time is ripe/right, then the girl declares that there (<v*, in emphatic position) she will give all her love to the young man. The plural form yd^D) essentially means “my expressions/gestures of love”, or, collectively, “my love-making”. In order to maintain the wordplay precisely, I have translated the plural here exactly as the singular yd!D), “my love”.

Another bit of similar wordplay is involved with the plural <ya!d*WD, which is presumably derived from the same root dwd denoting “love, beloved”. I have thus translated it here as “love-fruits”, i.e., fruits or plants which serve as an aphrodisiac. It is generally assumed by most commentators that the mandrake (or mandragora) plant is being referenced; however, to translate flatly as “mandrakes” would be inappropriate, instantly losing the important wordplay. The other main occurrence of the word is in Genesis 30:14-16 (cf. also Jer 24:1), where the context also indicates that it refers to a plant serving as an aphrodisiac. Yet, in the Song, the sense is not that the lovers will use this plant to aid in their love-making; rather, it simply makes explicit what is otherwise implied in the other garden-passages of the Song—namely, that the flowers and fruit, etc, are symbols of sexual love and enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The pleasure of these ‘garden-fruits’ is first encountered through their fragrant scent (lit. something blown, “breath,” j^yr@ [par. j^Wr]). It was through the fragrance of the garden, wafted by the wind, that the girl invites the boy into the garden of her sexuality in 4:16; much the same idea occurs here.

All of these fruits are most precious, meaning prized and delectable, etc; the same idiom, using the substantive dg#m#, occurred earlier in 4:13, 16 (cf. the earlier note). These fruits lie at the “openings” (plur. of jt^P#) of the two lovers. While I have translated this noun quite literally (primarily to capture the wordplay with the blossoms “opening” [vb jt^P*] in v. 13), it primarily refers to a door or other entrance. This could imply that the two lovers are together in the room of a house (cf. on the possible meaning of <yr!p*K= as “villages” in v. 12 above); however, the context clearly indicates that the place where they are to spend the night (sleeping together) is out in the open country—right there among the blossoming fields and vineyards. Most likely, the implied image is of a sheltered and secluded spot, surrounded by the fragrant and delectable plants; these fruits are thus right upon the door. There may also be a euphemistic sexual allusion with the idea of an “opening” —i.e., referring to a bodily orifice. The young man’s “hand” going through the ‘opening’ of the door to the girl’s room (in 5:4, cf. the earlier note) likely entailed a similar sort of sexual entendre (cf. also in 2:9).

In describing the ‘fruits’ of her sexuality, the young woman further characterizes them as <yn]v*y+-<G~ <yv!d*j&, which would be translated rather flatly as “new (thing)s (and) also old (thing)s”. If all that is meant is “new and old”, then it would simply serve as a summary expression (merism) referring to all kinds of sexual pleasure and lovemaking. However, the root /vy fundamentally refers, not to something being old, but to someone sleeping. Indeed, the plural adjective <yn]v*y+ here is virtually identical to the earlier <yn]v@y+ in v. 11 (according to the MT); and, if the MT is correct there (cf. the discussion in the prior note), then it is likely that <ynvy here is meant as a bit of wordplay echoing the earlier reference. For this reason, I have translated the expression as “newly (awake) and also sleeping”, which would fit the context of the lovers spending the night together, experiencing each others delight, both asleep and awake (cf. the upcoming discussion on 8:5).

In any case, the girl concludes her song by declaring that all of this love, all of the sexual delights to be experienced, she has hidden away (like a treasure, vb /p^x*) for her beloved. The implication is that she has hidden them away in the ‘garden locale’ where the two are to be united. The statement further implies that these are things which the two lovers have not yet experienced together, but it would be reading far too much into the verse to conclude that there had been no sexual intercourse between them in the previous episodes of the Song. The moral/ethical aspect of the relationship between marriage and sexuality, as understood and expressed within the Song, will be discussed in some detail once we have completed the notes on the text.

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 15: Song of Songs 6:2-3

Song 6:2-3

This is the final song, and portion, of the section covering 5:2-6:3. It is parallel with the initial scene in 5:2, providing a direct contrast between the enclosed house/room in the city and the enclosed garden (cf. below). This song is comprised of two verses.

Verse 2

“My love has gone down to his enclosure,
to the garden-beds of spice(s),
to pasture in the enclosed (space)s,
and to pluck up (the) lilies.”

In verse 2, the young woman provides the answer to the question posed by the “daughters of Jerusalem” in v. 1 (cf. the previous note): “where has your love gone…?” The answer is that he has gone down to his garden (/G~). Fundamentally, the noun /G~ refers to an enclosed and protected place—that is, specifically, an enclosed garden.

As we saw in 4:12-5:1, the garden, representing the young woman’s sexuality as well as the place of sexual union for the couple, was depicted as an enclosed space with a latched entrance. In this regard, the garden enclosure forms a precise parallel with the city house (and room), with its latched door, in 5:2 (cf. the earlier note on that verse). Let us consider how these two locales—house/room and garden—frame the thematic structure of 5:2-6:3:

    • Enclosed room in the city (5:2)—separation between the lovers [union is not possible]
      • Song 1 (5:3-9): The girl is unable to see the boy (his disappearance)
        Exchange with the other girls (vv. 8-9)
      • Song 2 (5:10-6:1): The girl describes the boy’s appearance, seeing him through the poetic vision of her love
        Exchange with the other girls (5:16-6:1)
    • Enclosed Garden (6:2-3)—the possibility and promise of union between the lovers

In order to emphasize this parallelism between two enclosed spaces, I have translated /G~ here as “enclosure, enclosed (space)”. There can be no doubt, however, that here in vv. 2-3 we are dealing with a garden. The motif of ‘garden-beds’ (togWru&), with growing plants and flowers, is picked up from the previous praise-song (5:13). This helps us understand the use of the plural <yN]G~, i.e., “gardens”, rendered here as “enclosed (space)s”, referring to all the luxurious spaces within the enclosure of the garden. The wording also alludes to the prior waƒf praise-songs, with their description of individual body parts (i.e., ‘places’ in the garden).

As in 4:16, it is referred to as “his garden” (cp. 5:1, “my garden”), in the sense that it belongs to him—i.e., the girls sexuality is reserved for him alone (and for no other young man)—and his seal of ownership is stamped upon it (spec. on the spring of water at the center of the enclosure, 4:12). As with the city-room, the garden enclosure has a latched entrance, which serves, at least temporarily, to separate the two lovers. However, this is not a barrier imposed by society, and once the girl invites the young man in, the two can be together in the garden of their sexual union.

This entrance of the young man was described (and/or anticipated) in 5:1, and the same imagery is essentially repeated here by the girl. He comes into the garden to graze, like the very sheep/goats that the young man (as a herdsman in the Song) pastures (vb hu*r*). There is wordplay between the verb hu*r* (“[give] pasture, graze, feed”) and the suffixed noun yu!r@ (“my companion,” 5:16) from a separate root hur (“associate with, be a friend”). In this context a “companion” means a lover, and the whole line of grazing/pasturing imagery in the Song is erotically charged (cf. 1:7-8).

Indeed, the motif of “plucking” (vb fq^l*) flowers here in the Song clearly alludes to the enjoyment of sexual pleasure and is suggestive of sexual intercourse. On the erotic symbolism of the blossoming “lilies” (<yn]v*ov), cf. the earlier note on 2:1-2. The entire imagery here, of course, is predicated upon the symbolism of the garden throughout of the Song (cf. above), much like the parallel vineyard motif (1:6, 14; 2:13, 15, etc).

The flower-beds are also one with the beds of spices (sing. <c#B#) in the garden. As I have mentioned repeatedly in these notes, spices (particularly, frankincense and myrrh) serve as a fundamental symbol of sexuality (and sexual union) throughout the Song—most recently in 5:13, cf. the prior note.

Verse 3

“I (belong) to my love,
and my love (belongs) to me—
(he is) the (one) pasturing in the lilies.”

These final lines emphasize again that the garden—that is, the sexuality of the young woman—belongs to this young man, and is reserved for him alone. This could be taken to imply that the boy and girl are betrothed to one another (that is, engaged to be married), but it is not necessary to read the verse in that light. In any case, the nearly identical wording in 2:16, where a clandestine night-time rendezvous is apparently being depicted, effectively undercuts any sense that marriage (even the expectation of marriage) is being emphasized here.

The two lovers belong to each other in a more rudimentary sense, quite apart from any regulation within the ordered world of society. It is love itself that establishes the bond, a love that certainly entails an overpowering sexual attraction. The societal order is symbolized by the city locale in 5:2-7, with the latched house-room, the city walls and streets, and the patrol going through the city as guardians (of order). By contrast, the garden represents an ideal world where the two lovers can be together, removed from the strictures and barriers imposed by society.

Whether or not the couple is engaged to be married is rather beside the point, at least in terms of the love poetry of the Song. The expectation and anticipation of marriage does play a role in the Song, but only (as I see it) in the concluding sections of each movement (3:4-11; chap. 8). On the whole, neither marriage nor the marital status of the two lovers is particularly emphasized in the earlier sections, nor is there any real evidence that it is in view here in 5:2-6:3.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explains the young man’s gathering of the flowers in terms of YHWH bringing His people back from exile (in Babylon); the spices refer to the re-establishment of sacrificial offerings (incense, etc) in the Temple. The Midrash similarly identifies the spice-beds with Israel, located within the garden of the world. The plucking of lilies in this context refers to God bringing about the blessed death of the righteous.

For verse 3, the Targum continues the same line of interpretation from v. 2, explaining the young woman’s declaration as a restoration of the covenant-bond between God and Israel, along with the indication that Israel is now worshiping YHWH with faithfulness:

“And in that day I worshiped the Lord of the World, my Beloved, and my Beloved made His holy Presence dwell with me and He fed me with delicacies.” (Pope, pp. 556, 558)

For Gregory of Nyssa, the declaration of mutual belonging in v. 3 establishes the fundamental point that “the purified soul must possess nothing but God alone, and must look to nothing outside of Him”. According to this line of mystical interpretation, which tends to run all through the sermons, the soul must purify itself “from every material thought and deed” so that “it may become completely transformed into something spiritual”. The soul that is cleansed is able to gaze upon the Beloved (Christ, the Word), and, as looking into a mirror (a favorite motif among mystics), is transformed according to the pure image of the Divine Beauty. Such a soul belongs to Christ, and lives for him alone (citing Gal 5:19-20 and Phil 1:21). Following the Beloved’s example, the Bride (the soul) feeds on the lilies, which symbolizes the possession of goodness and virtue, to the point that the virtues fill and embue the soul completely, making it radiant with the character of God.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Quotation 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. 281-4.

August 13: Song of Songs 6:1

Song 6:1

“Where has he gone to, your love,
O beautiful (one) among the women?
Where has he turned to, your love,
so we might seek him with you?”

Both of the songs in 5:2-6:3 conclude with an address by the young woman to the “daughters of Jerusalem”, followed by their question in response. In each case the question by the chorus of Jerusalem girls is also transitional, leading the way into the next song.

The narrative situation created by the juxtaposition of these songs is curious, in that the young woman initially, at the end of the first song, asked the help of the other girls in locating her beloved (5:8-9), but now those girls are the very ones asking the young woman where her beloved has gone. Suddenly, without any real explanation, the young woman knows where her beloved is (vv. 2-3), and does not require any help finding him.

Here, however, verse 1 must first be understood in the immediate context of the praise song (waƒf) in 5:10-16 (discussed in the previous two notes). In that song, the young woman praises the beauty (and sexual appeal) of her beloved. The purpose, within the narrative context of the section, is to describe the young man’s appearance to the other girls, so that they will be able to locate him. In describing him, however, it becomes evident to the young woman where he must be. By contrast, it is the other girls, the “daughters of Jerusalem,” who are confused following the praise-song, asking “where is he…? you must help us find him, this young man who is so beautiful and attractive as you describe!”

The poetic logic developed within the praise-song helps to explain what is going on here. As she describes her beloved, praising each body part, she applied a range of garden-imagery to his physical beauty. This was applied specifically to the description of his mouth (v. 13), alluding to (and anticipating) their lovemaking through kisses. As the song comes to a close (vv. 15b-16), the garden-imagery comes more clearly into view, representing, as it does throughout the Song, the sexuality of the lovers and the experience of sexual pleasure the two find with each other. In particular, it is the motif of the fragrant “spices” (including myrrh), which symbolize sexual attractiveness and sexual union; mention of the aromatic cedars of Lebanon add to this association (on the wordplay involved, cf. the discussion in the previous note).

The world of the love poetry itself represents the ideal location where the two lovers can be together—it is in the garden of their love, far away from the confines of the city where the elements and forces within society stand as barriers to their union. The girl understands that they can only be together in the garden, and that is where her beloved must have gone. This point, in relation to the thematic structure of 5:2-6:3, will be discussed further in the next note.

The specific question asked by the “daughters of Jerusalem” uses the fundamental interrogative pronoun hn`a* (or /a*), derived from the interrogative particle ya^ (“where…?”). The question is: where has the young man gone? The verb El^h* is the basic verb indicating movement—specifically “to walk,” or, more generally, “to go.” Parallel to it here in these lines is the verb hn`P* (“turn”), referring to the direction of the young man’s movement.

While the praise-song, in its narrative context, may have had the purpose of providing an objective description of the young man, its result (as a love poem) was to stimulate desire. After hearing the song, the other girls are now just as eager to find the beautiful and handsome young man whose sexual appeal was so vividly described to them. Now it is they who ask the young woman for help in finding this young man, so that “…we might seek him with you” (cp. 1:3-4). The w-conjunction that begins the final line indicates what the girls wish might come about once the young woman tells them where they can find the young man; in context, it is best translated as “so (that)”, i.e., “so (that) we might seek him with you”. Literally, it could be rendered: “and (then) [i.e. when you have told us] we can seek him with you”.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum regularly identifies the “daughters of Jerusalem” with the Prophets of Israel, as they function as intended intermediaries communicating between the young woman (Israel) and the young man (YHWH). Here, their question to the girl is related to the historical sin(s) by Israel which caused YHWH to go away from her:

“When the prophets heard the praise of YHWH from the mouth of the Assembly of Israel, they said: ‘For what sin was the Presence of YHWH withdrawn from thee, thou whose conduct was more beautiful than that of all nations; and whither has thy Beloved turned (away) at the time He left thy sanctuary?’ The Assembly of Israel replied: ‘For the sins of rebellion and insurrection which were found in me.’ The prophets said: ‘Now return in penitence and let us rise, and let us pray before Him and let us beg mercy together’.” (Pope, p. 554)

The Midrash Rabbah offers a different interpretation to the exchange(s) between the woman (Israel) and the “daughters of Jerusalem,” that is, the other girls, understood as representing the other nations. For the nations, who have no share in YHWH, they do not understand where He (the true God) has gone, and ask Israel’s help in finding Him.

In Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Song, the “daughters of Jerusalem” symbolize those other souls who follow the example of the Bride—the soul who has been brought to perfection—as their guide. Here they ask the Bride to help them find the beauty and truth of the Beloved (Christ, the Divine Word) who has been announced to them, just as the first disciples were introduced to the person of Jesus by others to whom he had been revealed (cf. John 1:29-45ff). Such souls, once they find the place to which the Beloved has ‘turned’, may go there as well, to stand where they can look upon Him and behold His glory (“Come and see…”, Jn 1:46).

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

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.

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).

July 28: Song of Songs 4:12

Song 4:12-15

This is the last of a series of three songs by the young man, praising his beloved and expressing his love (and desire) for her. It is related thematically to the prior song (4:8-11), particularly in terms of the broad themes of separation and union between the lovers—the former was emphasized in vv. 8-11, the latter here in vv. 12ff.

Song 4:12

“(You are) a garden latched (shut), my sister (and) bride—
a garden latched, (with) a spring (of water) sealed.”

The primary motif in this song is of the young girl as a garden enclosure (/G~), the root implying a fenced-off or otherwise protected area. Given some of the imagery we have seen earlier in the Song, it may be a royal garden that is in view here. In discussing the scene in 3:7-10, I mentioned the strong possibility that a (royal) gardened pavilion was intended, along the lines of the description in Esther 1:5-6. However, the fundamental intent of the imagery here is of the garden as a symbol of female sexuality, very similar to the use of the vineyard motif earlier in the Song (1:6, 14; 2:13-15). In addition to symbolizing the sexuality of the young woman, it also represents the love shared between the two.

The Masoretic text in the second line reads lG~ instead of /G~. This is translated as “spring” or “pool”, but the word would more appropriately refer to the rolling or mounting waves (of the ocean). The LXX, Syriac (Peshitta) and Vulgate all assume that the reading is /G~, just as in the first line, an example of the kind of repetition we see frequently in the Song; I follow the versional evidence in my translation above, even though the lone surviving Qumran manuscript (4QCantb) supports the MT. If lG~ is original, it may perhaps refer to a rolling stone that serves as the door/entrance to the garden, or to the gate/wall of the enclosure itself being made of a “heap” of stones.

The verb lu^n` properly indicates something that is latched (tight or shut); in the case of a door or gate (i.e. to a garden enclosure) perhaps the idea of it being “bolted” shut would be more appropriate. In any case, the emphasis is on the garden area being closed off, and thus inaccessible. This plays upon the theme of separation from vv. 8-11, only it is not a separation based on the idea of distance; rather, the girl is now close at hand, but there is still something that separates the two lovers.

There is a fountain or spring of water within the garden enclosure—the common noun /y`u=m^ essentially refers to a place of flowing water. Based on the nature-imagery used throughout the Song, we should understand a mountain spring of fresh and clear water, more than some kind of artificial fountain structure. Thus the mountain-motif from vv. 8-11 is suitably blended with the garden-imagery of vv. 12ff; this is all the more likely if the “Amana” of v. 8b alludes to the mountain-source of the Amana river (cf. also the motif of water flowing down a mountain slope in v. 1).

Here it is said that the spring of water is sealed (vb <t^j*). This can be misleading in context, implying that the spring has been sealed-off so that no one can drink from it, etc. While that idea may also be present, the primary significance of the seal is to indicate ownership of something. Thus, there are two lines of imagery at work in this scene:

    • A garden enclosure, the entrance to which has been latched shut, and
    • A spring of water inside which has a seal indicating to whom the spring belongs.

This seal can further be understood two ways: (a) it indicates that the water belongs to the young woman (she being the garden), or (b) it shows that the water in the garden (i.e., the sexuality of the woman) belongs to the young man, and only he can have access to it. Both aspects, I think, are present, but the latter is the primary point of reference. The beauty, youth, vitality, and sexuality of the young woman belongs to the one who is her beloved—and to him alone. No other man can, or should, have access to the ‘garden’ and its ‘spring’. That is certainly the sense of the comparable imagery in Prov 5:15-17.

The basic idea here is that the young man alone has access into the garden enclosure (of the girl’s sexuality), and there to enjoy its delights. However, even for him, the beloved, the entrance is latched shut; it is the girl herself who must ‘open up’ to him, and only then will the last barrier to union be removed.

The imagery of this scene will be discussed further in the next note, along with a brief consideration of the sensitive social, ethical, and religious issue surrounding the marital status of the lovers (in the note on v. 15), limiting the discussion to the immediate context of the songs in chapter 4.

(Examples of Jewish and early Christian interpretation, on vv. 12-15, will also be included in the note on v. 15.)