Song of Songs: Conclusion – Part 3

Having looked at the question of authorship and date of the Song in Part 1, as well as certain issues related to its composition and structure (Part 2), we shall now survey, however briefly, some of the main lines of interpretation that have been applied to the Song. These interpretative approaches have largely been developed because of the need (felt by many) to navigate around the frank sexuality (and sexual imagery) of the Song.

As I discussed briefly in the introduction to the exegetical notes, the sexual nature of the Song has created a longstanding problem for devout Jews and Christians (many of whom are celibate or would affirm celibacy in some measure). The nature of this problem was stated quite clearly (and bluntly) by the 14th century Jewish scholar Shemariah ben Elijah of Crete:

“If [the words of the Song] had their literal meaning, there would be nothing in the world so thoroughly profane as they, and there would have been nothing more damaging to Israel than the day the Song of Songs was given to them, for its literal meaning stirs up desire, above all sexual desire, than which nothing is more blameworthy.” (Fox, p. 238, quoting the citation by S. Z. Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence [1976], p. 201)

Many Christians, throughout the centuries (and even today), would doubtless concur with the general sentiment. The erotic poetry of the Song, apparently unrestrained by any religious or moral dictates (and where the two lovers are apparently unmarried [to be discussed in Part 4]), would seem to be, in the minds of many, incompatible with the status of the book as Sacred Scripture.

Indeed, once the Song came to be accepted as divinely-inspired Scripture (cf. the brief discussion on this point in Part 2), it was felt necessary to justify this status. And there have been many ways Jews and Christians have sought to explain the inclusion of such poetry as sacred Scripture, and to accommodate the eroticism of the Song within more acceptable religious parameters. In the notes, I intentionally (and studiously) avoided referring to these interpretive approaches, so as to avoid prejudicing the exegesis, allowing the text to speak for itself. I did, however, include samples of Jewish and early Christian interpretation at the end of each note.

3. Interpretations of the Song

Three main interpretive approaches can be noted:

    • The Allegorical-Symbolic Approach—this interprets the love poetry of the Song as an allegory between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church, or between God/Christ and the soul of the believer, etc.
    • The Mystical-Spiritual Approach—here, the sexual desire and longing in the Song represents the desire/longing of the believer for spiritual union with God, and the entire Song is interpreted, more or less, through this lens.
    • The Religious-Cultural Approach—the sexuality of the Song is generally accepted and taken at face value, but only as qualified, in religious and cultural terms. There are three such approaches to be considered:
      • The association of the Song with ancient Near Eastern myth and ritual—most notably, the so-called “Sacred Marriage Rite”
      • The use of the Song in the context of wedding celebrations, including the view that such celebrations provide the background for the work.
      • The modern view that the sexuality of the Song can only be understood properly within the religious and culturally regulated institution of marriage.
A. The Allegorical-Symbolic Approach

This is certainly the oldest interpretive approach to the Song, and probably dates back to at least the time of the earliest Qumran Song scrolls (mid-1st century B.C.). Between the original composition of the Song, and these Qumran copies, over a period of at least several centuries, Jewish readers and hearers had begun to treat the Song as a work of authoritative Scripture, to the point where rabbi Akiba could make the declaration (as attributed to him in the Mishnah [Yadayim 3:5]): “…all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy.” In all likelihood, Akiba read the Song as a religious allegory, indicating that such a mode of interpretation had become commonplace (at least among Jewish scholars and religious leaders) by the 1st century A.D.

The earliest Jewish commentaries on the Song all date to the (early) medieval period (c. 600-900 A.D.), but may contain numerous examples of yet earlier material and traditions. The works of note are:

    • The Aramaic Targum to the Song of Songs—even more so than the other Targums, that of the Song is an interpretation, rather a translation per se. It is a work of haggadah, or expository narrative, explaining the Song as a kind of summary of Israel’s history, from the Exodus to the Messianic Age. For a good survey, cf. Pope, pp. 93-102. I have cited the Targum regularly, as part of the examples of Jewish and early Christian interpretation, given at the end of each exegetical note.
    • The Talmud—which contains numerous exegetical and interpretative comments on the Song
    • Song of Songs Rabbah—part of a great midrashic compilation (Midrash Rabbah, the Great Midrash), drawing upon Rabbinic traditions, going back to the Mekilta and the Talmud, as well as early midrashim such as the Sifra, the Sifre, and the Seder Olam Rabbah. I also cite the Midrash frequently in the examples of Jewish interpretation in the notes.

Early Christian commentary on the Song was greatly influenced by the Jewish interpretative approach, which tended to read the Song as an allegorical narrative of the love between God (the husband/bridegroom) and His people Israel (the wife/bride).

Origen’s Commentary on the Song (c. 240 A.D.), of which only the first three books (and the preface) survives, in Latin translation (by Rufinus, in the early 5th century), is the earliest extant work (only fragments survive of the earlier Commentary by Hippolytus). The Commentary spans Song 1:1-2:15, and we also have two homilies by Origen, covering nearly the same portion of the Song. A fine English translation is available in volume 26 of the Ancient Christian Writers series (Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, translated and annotated by R. P. Lawson [Paulist/Newman Press: 1956]). Origen demonstrates considerable awareness of contemporary Jewish interpretation, and he refers to it at a number of points in his Commentary.

The early Christian approach follows the Jewish mode of allegorical interpretation, but with believers (Christians) taking the place of Israel as the people of God. The Song is thus an allegory of the love (and relationship) between God and believers in Christ. This was sharpened, under the influence of the marital imagery in the New Testament—viz., of believers as the Bride and Christ as the Bridegroom (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25-27ff; Rev 19:7-8; 21:2, 9; cf. also Mark 2:19-20 par; John 3:29; Matt 25:1ff). A distinctly Christian interpretation thus developed, understanding the Song as an expression of the love between Christ (the Bridegroom) and believers (the Bride). A parallel line of interpretation, closer to the Mystical-Spiritual approach (cf. below), explained the Song as an allegory of the love between the soul of the individual believer and God (or Christ). Origen utilizes both lines of interpretation in his Commentary, and I have cited them frequently (in the examples of early Christian interpretation) in the notes.

Other sources for early Christian exegesis on the Song, from the 4th and 5th centuries, are works by Ambrose of Milan (primarily his treatise On Isaac), and the Commentaries of Theodoret, Apponius, and Nilus of Ancyra. Pride of place, however, goes to the splendid cycle of sermons on the Song by Gregory of Nyssa, given toward the end of his life (c. 390). His sermon-cycle covers the song up through 6:9, and extensive excerpts in English translation are available in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, selected by Jean Danielou, S.J., translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001), pp. 152-288. Gregory generally follows the allegorical approach established by Origen, but tends toward a more distinctive mystical approach. I reference Gregory’s sermons quite often in the notes.

In spite of the rich heritage of allegorical interpretation, from both early Christian and Jewish commentators, it must be said that there is very little, in the Song itself, that supports it. Admittedly, there is Scriptural precedent, in the Old Testament, for using the motif of sexual love (and the idiom of love poetry) as a religious allegory. We have, for example, the Isaian “Song of the Vineyard” (Isa 5:1ff), as well as similar Prophetic illustrations in Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 2-3. In these instances, however, the prophetic author clearly indicates the love relationship is intended as an allegory (of the relationship between God and Israel). Moreover, the purpose of those allegories is to point to the failure of the relationship—i.e., of Israel as the unfaithful bride/wife.

The situation in the Song is very different. The sexual relationship throughout is positive, and it is a relationship between equals. There is not the slightest sense that the young woman of the Song is in any way inferior or subordinate to the young man. Moreover, I find no indication, whatever, in the text of the Song that the author intends it as a religious or spiritual allegory. It is only the apparent contradiction, between the erotic love poetry and the status of the book as Sacred Scripture, that caused Jewish and early Christian commentators so readily to adopt the allegorical approach.

B. The Mystical-Spiritual Approach

Related to the allegorical approach is what we may call the mystical or spiritual approach. This mode of interpretation has the advantage of taking the erotic imagery of the Song more seriously. The sense of desire is real, but sublimated to the spiritual plane. In other words, the sexual desire and longing in the Song represents the desire/longing of the believer for spiritual union with God. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa set the stage for this approach to the Song among Christians. The sermon-cycle of Gregory, in particular, tends to focus more on the spiritual growth and enlightenment of the soul of the individual believer. In this way, Gregory’s work foreshadows the more famous sermon-cycle by Bernard of Clairvaux (mid-12th century). It was, indeed, within the monastic milieu, with its strong emphasis on asceticism and celibacy, that the mystical-spiritual approach to the Song—and to love poetry in general—flourished.

Many extraordinary works of Christian love poetry were produced within the setting of medieval Monasticism. One may mention, in particular, the Rhineland mystics—including the writings of notable female mystics such as Mechtild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch. This monastic love poetry was inspired, in part, by the tradition of European (Troubadour) Courtly Love poetry, along with hymns and liturgy venerating the Virgin Mary. The Marian traditions especially are relevant to the expressions of female spirituality, and to the figure of the young woman in the Song, who came to be identified with the figure of Mary in certain lines of interpretation. Other examples of medieval Christian love poetry can be found in the lauds of Jacopone da Todi, and (somewhat later) in the great poetic works of Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross.

The mystic-spiritual approach to love poetry is hardly unique to Christian mysticism, as it is perhaps even more prominent among Islamic (Sufi) mystics. Sufi authors and poets drew upon the rich heritage of Arabic love poetry—part of the same broad tradition of Near Eastern love poetry that encompasses the Song itself. In Part 2, I discussed how many themes, motifs, and stylistic forms in the Song can still be found in much later Palestinian love-poetry folk songs, as collected and recorded in the 19th and early 20th century. The genre of the praise-song, in which one of the lovers lauds the physical beauty of the other, one body part at a time, occurs frequently in the Song, and conforms to the waƒf genre in the Arabic love poetry tradition.

The Sufi mystics drew, in particular, on the classical Arabic Ode (Qasida), the first part of which (the nas£b) begins with a remembrance of the poet’s lost love—of his beloved who has gone away. This results in an imaginative kind of ‘search’ for the lost beloved, similar in certain respects to the episodes in the Song where the young woman searches for her ‘lost’ beloved. In a somewhat later development of the Ode-tradition, Sufis made heavy use of the ghazal and ±udhri styles of love poetry. Especially influential was the legendary love of Majnun (the poet Qays ibn al-Mulawwiµ) for Layla. The Islamic mystics used this love poetry to express their own desire for union with God, just as the Christian mystics did. For a good introduction to the topic, see the work of Michael A. Sells in Early Islamic Mysticism (part of the Classics of Western Spirituality series, Paulist Press [1996]), especially the discussion in pages 56-74, and Desert Tracings: Six Classical Arabic Odes (Wesleyan University Press: 1993).

Love poetry and sexual imagery played a role in Jewish mysticism as well, such as in the line of tradition referred to as the Qabbalah (Kabbalah), best epitomized, in a developed form, by the massive work known as the Zohar. An important aspect of Kabbalah mysticism involved a symbolic expression of the inner dynamics of the Deity (and the Divine realm), represented by the ten “Sefiroth”, the last of which is the Shekinah (depicted as female). In fact, a male-female dynamic runs through the entire Sefirotic “tree” of relationships, and the use of sexual symbolism is rather pervasive. However, it does not apply so much to the union of the believer (or righteous person) with God, but, rather, is applied in a more gnostic sense, to the revelatory awareness and vision of the Divine realm.

A very distinct kind of mystical interpretation of the Song is found in the work known as Shiur Qomah (“Measure of the Body”), in which the “body” of the Creator is described according to the praise-song in 5:10-16. Vast (cosmic) measures are give to this body, as well as esoteric (secret) names for the body-parts. This unusual work, difficult to explain or understand by readers today, seems to be related to the a broader visionary tradition called Merkabah mysticism (and the Hekhalot literature), in which the mystic ascends in a ‘chariot’ (merkabah) and—if he is sufficiently worthy and adept—is allowed to pass through the heavenly palaces (hekhalot) and obtain a vision of God’s throne. For an early example of this sort of visionary text, cf. my article on the so-called “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” from Qumran. For an introductory survey of the Merkabah mysticism, cf. the now-classic writings by Gershom Scholem, e.g., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken Books: 1954/1974), pp. 40-79.

C. The Religious-Cultural Approach

In order to give this line of interpretation the proper attention, I will wait to discuss it in the final section (Part 4) of this Conclusion, in which I will also summarize my own interpretation of 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 “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

Song of Songs: Conclusion – Part 2

Having looked at the question of authorship and date of the Song in Part 1, we now turn to examine the composition and structure of the Song, including a consideration of how the Song came to be accepted as sacred Scripture.

2. Composition and Structure of the Song

In terms of the composition of the Song, there are two contrasting views which encompass the range of scholarly opinion. On the one hand, we have the view that the Song is a essentially an anthology, a collection of (pre-existing) poems that have been combined and arranged; according to this view, the author is more an editor than an original poet. On the other extreme, is the view that Song is an entirely original poetic work, composed by a single individual (the author), and possessing a definite dramatic structure.

A view somewhere midway between the two extreme positions, delineated above, would seem to be appropriate. The author, indeed, appears to have worked with a wide range of traditional material, and likely adapted a number of pre-existing poems. At the same time, the intertextuality of the Song—echoes and allusions to motifs and phrases, etc, between the poems—is evidence for a strong authorial hand at work. This author composed much of the connective tissue of the Song, and may have been the primary author of the individual poems as well.

The problem with establishing the nature and extent of the author’s role in composing the Song is intrinsic to the nature of Near Eastern love poetry. There is an extensive and wide-ranging tradition of Near Eastern love poetry, extending from the Sumerian love songs in the late-3rd millennium B.C. to the Arabic love poetry (Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, etc) of the present day. Similar images, motifs, idioms, even specific phrases, can be found in love poems spanning a long period of time. It may fairly be assumed that any ancient poet would have made use of a wide range of traditional material. As always, the line between traditional literature and individual authorship (in the modern sense) is fine indeed.

When considering sources of influence for the Song, we can isolate two main sources: (1) Egyptian love poetry (of the New Kingdom period), and (2) Israelite folk songs.

1. Egyptian Love Poetry. We are fortunate to possess a number of ancient Egyptian love poems that have survived the ravages of time. Of special significance are several papyri collections of poems from the New Kingdom period (20th-19th dynasties, c. 1300-1150 B.C.). These include: P. Harris 500, P. Chester Beatty I, and P. Turin 1966. Also to be noted are the Cairo Love Songs, written on the surface of a large vase. A fine edition of these poems is available in The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, by Michael V. Fox (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985), including a transcription of the hieroglyphics, English translation and commentary (referred to below as “Fox”).

The papyrus collections, on the whole, are anthologies of individual songs that are only loosely related to each other. There are also, however, several longer and more complex poems, such as in P. Chester Beatty I Group A (nos. 31-37 in Fox, pp. 52-64, or the Cairo Love Songs, with a narrative framework, and which may have been built up out of shorter poems and traditional material. As such, these works give us a general parallel to the Song of Songs. The latter, however, is considerably longer and more complex than the Egyptian songs.

Egyptian cultural influence in Syria and Palestine was quite strong, having been established during the period when Egypt had political control over these regions, during the 18th-20th dynasties (early 15th century through to the late 12th century B.C.), which just happens to coincide with the date of the love song sources mentioned above. It is fair to assume that Egyptian music and poetry would have been widespread, both within the imperial administrative sites, and also in the local royal and princely courts. Contacts with Egypt were strong, and a number of Canaanite rulers and nobles were educated in Egypt. For centuries, Egypt was seen as the pre-eminent source for craftsmanship and artistic skill. The Megiddo ivories (14th-12th centuries) include a hieroglyphic inscription by an Egyptian singer (Kerker, the “singer of Ptah”), and the “Report of Wenamun” (early 11th century) mentions an Egyptian singer-poet working in the royal court of Byblos. Cf. Fox, pp. 191-2.

Egyptian influence in Palestine remained strong, even after there ceased to be an imperial political presence. Cultural ties were particularly prominent in royal court of Israel during the reign of Solomon (c. 960-922), due to his marriage (part of a political alliance) to the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1). We can assume that Egyptian songs were sung in the royal and princely courts, and that local singer-poets would have composed works in the Egyptian style. This cultural-artistic influence likely lasted for centuries (probably into the 7th century, at least). A work like the Song of Songs certainly could have been composed in the kingdom-period, even as early as the reign of Solomon. Arguments for a later (exilic or post-exilic) date are based more on concrete linguistic factors, rather on historical plausibility.

I have discussed parallels between the Song and the Egyptian love poems at numerous points in the notes, and you can also find them well-documented throughout Fox’s valuable study.

2. Palestinian Folk Songs. The second line of influence is to be found in the folk songs that would have been sung throughout Palestine, which certainly would have included a variety of love songs. Virtually nothing of this survives, at least not in any discernible written form (apart from the Song of Songs itself). However, the many noted parallels between the Song and modern folk songs is striking, and is testament to the fixity and duration of traditional Near Eastern poetry, lasting over many centuries.

In the 19th and early-20th centuries, a number of pioneering studies documenting modern love songs from Syria and Palestine appeared. Following two studies by J. G. Wetzstein (1868, 1873), Gustav Dalman in 1901 published a collection of Palestinian folk-songs, Palästinischer Diwan (M. Jastrow, Jr. cited a number of examples, in English translation, in his 1921 commentary on the Song; cf. Pope, p. 56-7). Building on this work, S. H. Stephan, adding to Dalman’s collection of folk-songs, presented an extensive anthology entitled “Modern Palestinian Parallels to the Song of Songs” (Journal of the Palestinian Oriental Society, 2:1-80 // 198-278 [1922]). As the title indicates, the modern songs evince many striking parallels—in theme, subject matter, imagery, and even specific phrasing and idiom—with the ancient Song, despite a time-span of more than 2,000 years. Pope (pp. 59-65) offers a convenient summary of samples, including indications of parallels with the Song (citation of relevant verses). As one simple example that illustrates the long tradition of associating female sexuality with garden and pasture (grazing) imagery, so prevalent in the Song, note song 51 (p. 277; Pope, p. 65) of Stephan’s collection, of which a variant version of lines 3-4 is:

“My eyes are springs for you, if you come to drink,
And my breast is a garden, with herbs sprouting for you.”

Another variant of line 4 is:

“And your breast is a garden, a grazing place for youth.”

It is not hard to imagine that the popular love songs circulating in Palestine and Syria in the mid-1st millennium B.C. were similar, in many respects, to these much later folk-songs. Such songs may have been sung as part of wedding celebrations, but doubtless in a variety of other settings as well. A number of well-established poetic forms and genres—such as the waƒf praise-song (to use the Arabic term)—can be detected and isolated in the Song. I believe that the author likely made heavy use of contemporary love songs in his work—both by incorporating and adapting existing lyrics, and also drawing upon established traditional material (and language) to craft his own poetry.

An original composition

Fox (pp. 209ff) astutely isolates four attributes or features of the Song which are indications of literary unity and authorship:

    • Repetitions of key phrases and sentences, which recur (sometimes in varied form) at different points in the Song; for a good survey of examples, cf. Fox, pp. 209-215.
    • Associative sequences—groups of words, sentences, or motifs that recur in the same order; Fox, pp. 215-7.
    • Consistency of character portrayal, specifically in terms of the two main characters (the young woman and young man); Fox, p. 217.
    • The existence of a loose narrative framework ; Fox, p. 217-8.

The last two points, in particular, will be discussed in more detail in Part 4 of this article.

The author, it seems, has built up his narrative organically, and inductively, by including and arranging various kinds of traditional poetic material (on his main sources, cf. above). These poems and lyrics were adapted and developed, emphasizing particular motifs and bringing out a number of key words and phrases. The various poems are ‘sexed’, in the sense that either the young man or the young woman is the implied speaker, with enough alteration to create a kind of dramatic dialogue between the two lovers, which also allows for the shaping of specific scenarios—both encounter-scenarios and conflict-scenarios—that serve as building blocks for the overall narrative of the Song. Beyond this, the author provides a certain amount of connective material which furthers this narrative cohesion.

Perhaps the best example of how this is done can be seen in the section spanning 5:2-6:3, the most extensive coherent narrative section of the Song. This section is constructed out of two love-poems which, taken on their own, are entirely unrelated, and could easily have circulated as independent songs. The two poems are 5:3-7 and 5:10-16a. The first of these is an encounter-poem (blending into a search/lament for the departed lover), which greatly resembles the earlier scene in 3:1-4; the second is a waƒf praise-song, which easily could have existed as a popular love-song that the author included (and adapted).

These two poems themselves have almost nothing in common, but notice how skillfully (and cleverly) the author has combined them as part of a narrative framework. This is accomplished by introducing the chorus of the “Daughters of Jerusalem”, as a refrain and transitional element following each poem (5:9; 6:1), and then adding a verse or couplet at the end of each poem (5:8, 16b), leading into the refrain, as connective tissue that reinforces the sense of a continuing narrative.

At the end of the first poem, the girl has been wandering the city (in a rather impulsive and scandalous manner) in search of her beloved. The “Daughters of Jerusalem” are introduced as a character to help further her search. Then, however, the question posed by the “Daughters”, in the refrain, provides a mechanism that justifies (at the narrative level) the inclusion of an otherwise unrelated waƒf praise-song. Then, at the end of the praise-song, the “Daughters” appear again, and their exchange with the girl again provides the impetus for the poem that follows. After hearing the praise-song, the “Daughters” are so enamored with the girl’s beloved that, though they do not know where he is, they are eager to help her find him. At that moment, suddenly, the girl realizes where her young man must be, and the stage is set for an encounter between the two lovers.

The two central poems are bracketed by a pair of shorter love-songs. Thus the section is comprised of four poems, each of which could have existed as a separate (independent) poem, but which, combined together, create a compelling narrative arc:

    • Introductory poem (5:2)—a night-time encounter between the two lovers (sexual setting of the girl’s bedroom), but the clandestine rendezvous is unrealized
    • First main poem (5:3-7)—the girl’s search for her beloved (building upon the similar scene from the First Part of the Song, 3:1-4)
      —Transitional encounter between the girl and the “Daughters of Jerusalem” (vv. 8-9)
    • Second main poem (5:10-16a)—song in praise of her beloved’s beauty; in the narrative context, this serves as a description to help the “Daughters” find the beloved for her
      —Transitional dialogue between the girl and the “Daughters of Jerusalem” (5:16b-6:1)
    • Concluding poem (6:2-3)—a short poem anticipating an encounter between the lovers (sexual setting of the garden), in which their love finally will be realized; in the narrative context, the “Daughters” are unable to help her find the young, and the girl suddenly realizes (on her own) where her beloved must be.
Overall Structure of the Song

In my view, the Song overall has only a loose narrative structure. I have discussed this at various points in the notes, and will consider the matter in more detail in Part 4 of this article. Here I will simply offer my view on the Song’s basic structure.

I believe that the Song contains a two-part narrative structure, that may be likened to musical movements in a symphony or tone-poem, etc. The movements are parallel, and the second movement develops the themes and motifs of the first. In each movement, the two lovers desire to be together, united (in a romantic and sexual way), and several attempts are made, leading to one or more encounters in which their love is (at least partially) fulfilled. Along the way, there are a number of obstacles and barriers which create the narrative conflict, making it difficult for the lovers to be together; these barriers involve both socio-economic and logistic/practical impediments. At the end of each movement, the girl expresses the desire for social acceptance of their relationship (through marriage), making permanent their bond of love, and a wedding is anticipated.

The broad outline of the Song is thus quite simple:

The second movement is longer and more complex than the first, developing extensively a number of themes and motifs presented (in a more cursory fashion) in the first movement; cf. above on 5:2-6:3.

The Song as Scripture

How did this collection of love poetry come to be regarded as sacred Scripture? There is scarcely a trace of religious expression in the Song. Taken at face value, it is secular love poetry, pure and simple. In this regard, the Song is quite different from the Sumerian Dumuzi/Inanna ‘cycle’ of love poems, in which the forms of secular love poetry are used for a mythological purpose—to express cosmological myth and religious ritual in terms of a human love story. While some scholars do claim a similar mythic-ritual background for the Song (influenced, indeed, by the setting of the Mesopotamian poems), I find those arguments quite unconvincing (they will be touched on briefly in Part 3).

It is interesting that the earliest attestation for the Song is found in the few (highly fragmentary) scrolls of the Song from Qumran (4Canta-c, 6Cant). Since no other purely secular poetry (let alone love poetry) seems to have been preserved among the Qumran texts, it is likely that, already at this early period (by the mid-1st century B.C.), the Song was being treated as Scripture, and (presumably) being read as a religious allegory, at least within the Qumran Community. However, a strong argument can be made that the allegorical interpretation was secondary, coming into vogue only after the Song had begun to be regarded as sacred Scripture. This only begs the question: how did the Song come to be regarded as Scripture?

The closest parallels elsewhere in the Old Testament are found in the Prophets. The “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5:1ff, for example, seems to draw upon secular love poetry (such as one finds in the Song), but for a very specific purpose—as the setting for an allegory regarding the ethical-religious faithlessness of Israel. Indeed, the theme of sexual love (and relations) in the Prophets is typically applied in a decidedly negative sense, depicting the Israelite/Judean people as a faithless bride or wife, who has been unfaithful (in a moral or religious sense) to YHWH (as the husband)—e.g., Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2-3. Thus, there is precedent for reading sexual love (and love poetry) in allegorical terms, as a religious allegory or parable. Yet, the tone and emphasis in the Song is altogether different from these Prophetic examples, nor is there any indication in the Song itself that it is to be understood as a religious allegory. The allegorical interpretations of the Song (to be discussed in Part 3) almost certainly developed as a way of explaining (and justifying) how the Song could be considered sacred Scripture.

A traditional-conservative explanation might simply appeal to the intrinsic inspiration of the Song, and that, despite formally being a collection of (secular) love poetry, it nonetheless possessed a divinely-inspired character that readers and hearers, from an early time, recognized. This explanation is perhaps as good as any. Certainly, even apart from any doctrinal considerations (regarding the inspiration of Scripture), people throughout the centuries have been quick to recognize the special character of the Song, and would doubtless affirm the special inspiration (at least in an artistic sense) of the Song’s poetry.

But it may also be possible to point to a practical mechanism, to explain how the love poetry of the Song came to be regarded as Scripture. Fox (pp. 250-2) builds upon an earlier suggestion by Aage Bentzen (1953), that the “sacralization” of the Song came about as the result of an incidental association with its being sung (as entertainment) during religious festivals. This seems to be altogether plausible. Such festivals were not simply solemn religious occasions, but times for relaxation, feasting and celebration, including the performance of music and song. There are even indications that these festivals could become occasions for sexual expression and licentious behavior. On this point, see already in the early Old Testament tradition, the description in Judges 21:19-23. The Mishnah (Taanit 4:8) records similar behavior, even during the solemn festivals of the Day of Atonement and the 15th of Ab, when girls would dress up, and dance in the vineyards, flirting (sexually) with the young men in attendance.

In the earliest stages, the Song was regarded, naturally enough, as being just what it appears—a memorable, vivid, and utterly appealing collection of secular love poetry—with people singing and performing it on festive occasions. This use and treatment of the Song still seems to have been common in the 1st century A.D., as testified by Akiba (critically, against it) in the Tosephta (Sanhedrin 12:10). The regular performance of the Song in the context of the religious festivals, however, may well have prompted people, over time, to begin interpreting and understanding the Song in a religious sense. In any case, the religious association would, almost certainly, have given the Song something of a sacred, canonical status.

By the 1st century B.C./A.D., this view of the Song seems to have been relatively widespread, to the point where it became necessary for scholars and religious leaders to explain (and expound) its sacred character. The Old Testament Prophetic tradition (cf. above) offered one line of explanation—viz., of love poetry as an allegory of the relationship between God (the bridegroom/husband) and the people Israel (the bride/wife). This became the basis of the most common line of Jewish allegorical interpretation of the Song, which we will examine briefly in Part 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 “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

Song of Songs: Conclusion – Part 1

Having completed our detailed critical-exegetical notes on the Song of Songs, it now remains to give serious consideration to questions surrounding the nature and purpose of the Song, including the ever-controversial issue regarding how best to understand love poetry of the Song as Scripture. This concluding discussion will be divided into several parts:

    1. Authorship and Dating of the Song
    2. Composition and Structure
    3. The Song as Scripture, with an evaluation of the three main interpretive approaches:
      1. The Allegorical-Symbolic approach
      2. The Mystical-Spiritual approach
      3. The Religious-Cultural approach
    4. Conclusion: A fresh approach to the Song

1. Authorship and Dating of the Song

Let us begin with the question of when the Song was composed.

The heading of the Song suggests that it was written by Solomon (“The Song of Songs, which [belongs] to Solomon”), and would thus date from his reign (c. 960-922 B.C.). The exact expression is hm)ýv=l! (lišlœmœh), with the prefixed preposition l= (“to, for”) denoting “belonging to”. This certainly could indicate authorship, as in the superscriptions to the Psalms, many of which are indicated as being musical compositions “belonging to David” (dw]d*l= l®¼¹wi¼). At the same time, it is possible to read hm)ýv=l! in the sense of “relating to Solomon,” in the manner, for example, of the titles of the Canaanite epic poems—lkrt, laqht, and lb±l. Since b±l refers to the deity Baal Haddu, clearly lb±l does not mean “written by Baal”, but that the composition is about Baal—that is, he is the subject and main character.

There are strong reasons to doubt that the Song was composed by Solomon. The attribution of so many Psalms to David reflects his legendary (traditional) status as a famous musician and singer-poet. In a similar way, it was natural for a wide range of writings to be attributed to the figure of Solomon, whose famous wisdom and prodigious literary output (1 Kings 4:32) were well-established in tradition and legend. Not only were the canonical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs ascribed to Solomon, but also such works as the Jewish Psalms of Solomon, the Christian Odes of Solomon, and doubtless many others that no longer survive. Moreover, the royal harem of Solomon with his many wives was also part of the historical tradition, and one can easily see how this grandest of love songs, specifically, might be attributed to him.

Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone reading the lines in 8:11-12 (cf. the recent note) could still be convinced that Solomon was the author of the Song. In my view, he is neither the author nor even a significant character in the Song. It is, rather, the milieu of his reign—the Solomonic Age—that serves as the literary setting of the Song. In a modern novel or motion picture, we might subtitle the Song, “A Love Story from the Time of Solomon”.

Even so, we must admit the possibility that the heading of the Song was intended to express the belief (or tradition) that Solomon was the author. By all accounts, the heading was a secondary addition, written by a separate hand, indicated by the use of the classical relative particle rv#a& rather than the prefixed –v# used everywhere else in the Song (cf. below).

As far as historical or cultural references that might give some indication of when the Song was composed, there is very little at hand. The reference to Tirzah as a prominent northern city (6:4) has been used by some commentators to date the Song to the brief period when Tirzah served as the capital of the Northern Kingdom (prior to the building of Samaria, 1 Kings 16:24ff). Such a conclusion, however, reads too much into this single reference, since Tirzah doubtless would have remained as a legendary northern city in the minds of many people for generations to come. All that the reference proves with certainty is that the composition of the Song post-dates the division of the Monarchy (cf. 1 Kings 14:17; 15:21ff; 16:6-9ff).

Most commentators rely on the language and style of the Hebrew to determine the relative dating for the Song’s composition. The most distinct linguistic feature is the consistent use of the prefixed relative particle –v# (še), rather than the particle rv#a& that is used throughout most of the Old Testament (writings from the Kingdom and Exilic Periods). It is the regular relative particle in later (Mishnaic) Hebrew, and occurs primarily (100 of 139 occurrences) in two Old Testament texts that are often regarded as of later (post-Exilic) date—Ecclesiastes (68) and the Song of Songs (32). This picture, however, is complicated by the fact that –v# also occurs, albeit rarely, in earlier Hebrew texts, including the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:7), one of the oldest portions of the Old Testament. Other pre-exilic occurrences are: Gen 6:3; Judg 6:17; 7:12; 8:26; 2 Kings 6:11; it also occurs 17 times in ten Psalms if uncertain date (122-124, 129, 133, 135-136, 144, 146), while the age of Jonah 1:7, 12; 4:10 is also debated; cf. Fox, p. 188. How is this evidence to be explained?

The particle v# indeed has very ancient roots, used in many Semitic languages/dialects over many generations and throughout a wide geographic range. Hebrew v# (še) is equivalent to Akkadian ša, and also cognate with Aramaic (cf. Dan 2:11, 23, et al) and Arabic ¼¥, etc. All of these variant forms go back to the use of the Proto-Semitic interdental ¼—which variously came to be spelled/pronounced as š/´, d, ¼, z, in the different languages and dialects, over the course of time. The best explanation thus would seem to be that v# was the regular relative particle in early Hebrew, to be replaced (for unknown reasons) by rv#a& in the Classical (Kingdom and Exilic) Period, only to return as the regular particle in later (post-Exilic) Hebrew, probably under the influence of Aramaic. Its occurrence in the Song of Deborah (and other pre-exilic passages) apparently represents an archaic vestige of the earlier usage. Cf. Pope, p. 33. The consistent use of v# in the Song can thus be explained two ways:

    • It is a sign of very early poetry (probably older than the Song of Deborah), or
    • It means that the poetry is quite late (i.e., post-Exilic)

Overall, the evidence strongly favors the latter. As noted above, the pairing of Tirzah/Jerusalem in 6:4 argues for a time after the division of the Kingdom (i.e., post-922 B.C.). The usage in Ecclesiates suggests a much later date, as do the signs of Aramaic influence and the linguistic/stylistic parallels with Mishnaic Hebrew. There are, indeed, many rare and usual words and phrases—including numerous hapax legomena (words that occur in the OT only in the Song)—and a number of these are attested in Aramaic and later Hebrew. Most critical commentaries provide convenient summaries of this evidence—cf. for example, Fox, pp. 187-9. There are instances where linguistic parallels (or possible cognates) for the hapax legomena can be cited from earlier examples in Akkadian or Ugaritic, so the evidence for a post-exilic dating is not absolutely decisive.

What of the content of the love poetry itself? Unfortunately, the nature of love poetry is such that it practically defies dating. Many of the same (or similar) motifs, images, idioms, and phrases can be found in Near Eastern poetry across thousands of years, from the early Sumerian love songs to modern Arabic (Egyptian, Palestinian, etc) poems today. I have cited a number of such relevant and representative examples throughout the notes. In terms of ancient Near Eastern love poetry, probably the closest parallels to the Song—in terms of both style and content—are found in the Egyptian love songs from the New Kingdom (19th-20th dynasties, c. 1300-1150 B.C.), though the Song as we have it is likely nowhere near so old. However, it is certainly possible that the author of the Song drew upon more ancient and traditional material—incorporating motifs, phrases, verses, and even individual poems—that are considerably older than the Song itself. Some of these possible sources (and sources of influence) will be discussed in the next section (Part 2).

If a post-exilic dating is correct, which would make the Song one of the latest of the Old Testament Scriptures (probably later than Ecclesiastes), then a time-frame c. 500-200 B.C. would be a plausible rough estimate for the time of composition. The earliest external, objective evidence for the existence of the Song are the four Qumran manuscripts (4QCanta-c, 6QCanta)—all quite fragmentary, but together covering the bulk of the Song. These Dead Sea MSS show that the Song was in existence (and being widely copied) by the 1st century B.C. There is an earlier reference in Sirach (47:15, 17) to a song by Solomon, but it is by no means clear that this refers to the Song of Songs (it may simply allude to 1 Kings 4:32). Cf. Fox, p. 189.

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).

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 12: Song of Songs 8:11-12

Conclusion to the Song (8:11-14)

Song 8:11-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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).


September 8: Song of Songs 8:6-7 (continued)

Song 8:6-7, continued

This note continues the study of the ‘hymn to love’ in 8:6-7 (cf. the previous note), examining the final two couplets in verse 7:

“many waters are not able to quench th(is) love,
and (all the) streams cannot engulf her;
if a man should give all (the) wealth of his house for th(is) love,
there would be rejection, utter rejection of it”

The first couplet here (fourth of the hymn) relates to the earlier motifs of death and fire—both being connected, in different ways, with the motif of water. The expression <yB!r^ <y]m^ is translated above quite literally as “many waters”; however, this does not in any way capture the cosmic aspect of the expression—cf. Psalm 18:16 par; 29:3; 93:4; 144:7; Isa 17:12-13; Jer 51:55; Ezek 1:24; 43:2; Rev 1:15; 14:2; 19:6. The strength of the waters is emphasized as much as its expanse; thus many commentators prefer to translate the expression as “mighty waters”, which is accurate enough in its own way.

This couplet indeed builds upon the imagery in the previous two, emphasizing again how love is more powerful than death. Its fire—the fire of sexual love and desire (with its fiery emotions, etc)—cannot be extinguished or quenched (vb hb*K*) even by the greatest mass of water. These “many waters” are clearly related to the idea of death, as one can readily see from numerous examples in Old Testament poetry (e.g., Psalm 18:4-5, 16 par; Jonah 2:3-6). The waters are depicted in terms of the great expanse of the deep, rising up like a tidal wave, but also (in the second line) as powerful rushing streams (torh*n+). Even the mightiest such waters can neither extinguish the fire of love, not engulf it (vb [f^v*) so as to make it drown.

The imagery here can perhaps be better understood in light of ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Before the ordered universe came into being, the world existed as a great and dark mass of water (Gen 1:2, etc). Even after the establishment of the ordered universe, the world continued to be surrounded entirely by the waters—both above the upper hemisphere (of the heavens) and deep below the surface of the earth. The dark and chaotic primeval waters thus marked the boundary of the life-sustaining universe, as well as the threshold between existence and non-existence. The connection between the primeval watery expanse and death is thus natural and obvious. Moreover, the watery depths below the earth’s surface were generally proximate to the ‘underworld’, the realm of death and the dead. The references cited above clearly illustrate the cosmic aspect of this imagery. For more on this topic, along with the specific idea of the primeval waters being defeated or subdued by the Creator-Deity (during the process of the creation/establishment of the ordered universe), cf. my earlier article in the Ancient Parallels series.

Note that I have translated the pronouns in vv. 6-7a quite literally as “she/her”; I have done this since the word hb*h&a^ (“love”) is grammatically feminine, but also because it is presumably the girl who is speaking here, and in light of the traditional Near Eastern association of the twin aspects of sexual love and war/death with a female goddess figure (cf. the discussion in the previous note).

The theme of the strength of love is given a different emphasis in the final couplet—in the sense that it far surpasses the wealth and power possessed by any person. The noun used is /oh, a bit difficult to translate, but which generally means “wealth, goods”, perhaps according to the basic denotation of the root /wh, as that which is sufficient (enough) for a person to live and prosper, and to make life easy and enjoyable. Even if the richest man offered all the wealth of his house (and property, etc) in exchange for love, it would be mocked and rejected as far too little (double usage of the verb zWB, cf. the earlier usage in verse 1).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 6-7)

Generally the Targum and Midrash give a religious-historical interpretation to these lines, focusing on Israel’s status as beloved of God over all the other nations. The Targum curiously explained the “jealousy” as belonging, not to YHWH, but to the nations, who were jealous of Israel (and her relationship to God). Their jealousy and enmity is compared to the “fire” of Gehinnom, created by God to burn up all those who worship other deities. The Midrash Rabbah typically focused on Israel’s receipt and acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, referring the seal on the heart and arm, naturally enough, to the covenant and Israel’s observance of the Torah—especially through the application of the phylacteries (tefillin) to the forehead and arm.

The Targum’s explanation of the “many waters” as referring to the nations (and their rage/hostility to Israel) was fitting in light of the use of the expression in Isa 17:12-13; Jer 51:55; Rev 17:1, etc. The comparison of a man giving all his wealth for the love of God (and wisdom) comes quite close in sense to Jesus’ famous parable of the ‘pearl of great price’ (Matt 13:45-46). The Midrash Rabbah generally follows the same line of interpretation: the unquenchable love is YHWH’s love for Israel, the flood-waters are the other nations, and the treasure for which one would give all his wealth is the Torah (= Wisdom, and a sign of God’s covenant-love for Israel). Cf. Pope, pp. 671, 676-7.

Bede brings out the same connection, between v. 7b and Matt 13:45-46, and also makes insightful mention of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 13:3, noting a number of motifs shared here with vv. 6-7: “If I give away all that I have…and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing”. Of course, early Christians such as Bede understood this, not in terms of sexual love, but in the higher sense of love for God (and Christ) and the truth.

Augustine, in his commentary on the Psalms (48:12-13 [47:13-14]), mentions verse 6 (“Love is strong as death”) in passing, referring to Christian love in terms of the example of the martyrs, who were “on fire with this love” and so were willing to endure the fire and suffering of persecution. The raging waters are thus understood as the rage and hostility of the nations (cf. above), but also the temptations and opposition that comes generally from all worldly forces in this present Age:

“Love is the virtue that none can overcome. No deluge of this age, no torrents of temptation (will ever) extinguish the fire of love.”
Cf. Norris, pp. 286-8.

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 7: Song of Songs 8:6-7

Song 8:6-7

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for strong as Death (is) love,
hard as She°ôl (is) jealousy;
her shafts (are) shafts of fire,
(pointed with) flaming tip(s);
many waters are not able to quench th(is) love,
and (all the) streams cannot engulf her;
if a man should give all (the) wealth of his house for th(is) love,
there would be rejection, utter rejection of it.”

According to one possible line of interpretation for v. 5b (cf. the previous note), the girl has roused her beloved awake, interrupting his sleep because she has something important to tell him. This message is presented here in vv. 6-7. Presumably she is still the speaker, even though these lines stand on their own as an individual poem, a hymn in praise of love. They are surely the most famous and treasured lines of the entire Song, being especially appealing for readers looking at the Song from a religious vantage point. Verses 6-7 give us a portrait, a declaration, of virtuous love that is unencumbered by the moral ambiguities surrounding the sexual relationship between the lovers elsewhere in the Song.

At the same time, it is vital to preserve the immediate context of v. 5b (along with the wider setting of 7:8-8:5) which strongly indicates that the young couple has made love. Having thus spent the night together (cf. 7:12 and the wording here in v. 5b), the lovers now wish to express their love in a deeper and more permanent way. The young woman may technically be the speaker in vv. 6-7, but the declaration certainly applies to both lovers—it is a declaration of mutual belonging, akin to that expressed in 2:16 and 6:3 (echoed again in 7:11). A bond of love that is even ‘stronger than death’ surely anticipates a binding agreement of marriage between the two. As previously mentioned, in each of these three units in vv. 1-10, marking the climax/conclusion of the second movement of the Song, we find an anticipatory allusion to marriage.

The hymn to love in vv. 6-7 is comprised of five couplets, each of which expresses a different aspect of the power and value of love. Let us examine these briefly, in turn.

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm”

Ancient Near Eastern seals typically took the form of impressions, made by a carved signet, in clay or wax. The verb <t^j* denotes the sealing (affixing a seal), while the related noun <t*oj (used here) refers to the signet that makes the impression. The seal is a sign of ownership, and the signet (usually kept around the neck or on a finger-ring) was among a person’s most valuable possessions. The verb was used in 4:12, to indicate the young man’s ownership of the garden (i.e., the young woman’s sexuality) with its central spring/fountain; in other words, the girl’s sexuality belongs to her beloved, being reserved for him alone (and no other young man). Now here in v. 6, the girl is making much the same claim in reverse—i.e., that the boy belongs to her alone. Only, in this instance, the idea of mutual belonging (cf. 2:16; 6:3; 7:10) represented by the seal is expressed in more intimate terms. The girl herself is to be the young man’s signet, kept either over his heart (i.e., hanging down from his neck), or kept on his arm/hand (like a ring). The language used could also imply that the signet is to be stamped (forming the seal impression) on his heart and arm. In either case, it indicates that the young man belongs to his beloved.

“for strong as Death (is) love,
hard as She°ôl (is) jealousy”

The girl clearly expresses her wish that their bond of love would be affirmed in a deeper and more permanent way; this sense of permanence is indicated here by the association with death. One is naturally reminded of the traditional modern/Western marriage vows with the phrase “until death us do part” (or something equivalent), implying that only death can separate the two lovers (and their love). The same idea is certainly implied here, but also the added notion that love is just as powerful (and all-consuming) as death.

There is, in fact, a natural association between love and death, and this is expressed in a distinct way in ancient Near Eastern tradition—a tradition that likely informs (at least in part) these lines in the Song. The linchpin is the tendency toward violence—violent emotions, in particular—that is shared by both sexual love and warfare. Indeed, sexual love and warfare are key (dual) aspects of goddess figures in the Near East—most notably, Canaanite Anat and Mesopotamian Ishtar (Sumerian Inanna). Anat, in particular, was a personification/embodiment of battle, much like the Indian goddess Kali and the Scandinavian hilds. The juxtaposition of passionate love and violent warfare is famously expressed, in connection with the goddess Anat, in the Baal Epic (Tablet III [CAT 1.3] cols. 2-3, cf. especially III.3.14-15, part of a refrain than runs through the Epic).

The first line of the couplet declares how strong and mighty (zu^) sexual love is. Its power is exhibited by the force with which it attracts one person to another; it can overwhelm the senses and impair rational judgment; it can lead a person to risk almost anything—disgrace, danger, even death itself. The only other force in nature that can compare is death.

The flip side of this attractive force is the violent emotion of jealousy (ha*n]q!), a natural extension and byproduct of passionate love. The adjective used here is hv*q*, “hard” (i.e., harsh, severe), connoting a fiercer and sharper aspect of love’s strength. Such jealousy is also a natural byproduct of the idea that the lovers belong to each another, also expressed by the seal-motif marking ownership (cf. above); it is thus quite natural that one might become jealously possessive. If sexual love itself is compared to death, the violent and passionate emotions are compared to Sheol, the realm of the dead (underworld, the grave). The parallelism is obvious.

“her shafts (are) shafts of fire,
(pointed with) flaming tip(s)”

From the motif of Death/Sheol, we shift slightly in the third couplet to the image of love as a warrior (archer) with fiery arrows. On the fundamental connection between (sexual) love and warfare, cf. above. The derivation and meaning of the word [v#r# (reše¸) is uncertain. The fundamental denotation of [vr would seem to be something fiery, burning. In Deut 32:24 and Hab 3:5 the word refers to burning effects (fever, etc) of pestilence/disease; indeed, the name Rešep is used in the Semitic world for the personification of such disease (and its cause), as a deity. In Job 5:7 and Psalm 78:48, the word is used in a more concrete and colorful sense, for fiery shafts or arrows that occur in nature (lightning bolts, etc) but are sent by God. Most likely, the poetic use in Psalm 78:48 corresponds to the use of the word here—referring to fiery shafts (bolts, darts, arrows) shot out by love as a warrior/archer (comparable to the traditional image of Cupid shooting arrows of love).

The complex noun tb#h#l=v^ (from the root bhl) also would seem to denote something fiery/flaming; since the related word hb*h*l# can refer to the point/tip of a weapon, tb#h#l=v^ likely has a comparable meaning here (cp. Job 15:30; Ezek 21:3). Metrically, the second line of the couplet appears shortened, or truncated, and it is possible that something has dropped out of the text; if so, then the line may have originally contained a fuller and more precise expression.

The remainder of the hymn (v. 7) will be discussed in the next daily note.


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).


September 2: Song of Songs 8:3-5a

Song 8:3-4

“His left (hand is) beneath my head,
and his right (hand) embraces me.
I call you to (bind yourselves) seven-fold,
daughters of Yerushalaim:
(do nothing) whatever (to) stir or stir up love until she desires (it)!”

These lines are essentially identical with 2:6-7 (cf. the earlier note), with two differences:

    • The description of the binding force of the oath (“by the gazelles and by the deer of the field”) is omitted; certainly, anyone paying attention to the earlier portions of the Song would automatically ‘fill in’ the shortened version of the oath here with the phrase.
    • Instead of the conditional particle <a!, the interrogative (exclamatory) pronoun hm* is used. Normally, the particle <a! is rendered “if”, but, in the oath formula of 2:7, it refers to the apodosis of the conditional clause framed as a negative statement (or prohibition)—i.e., “do not…”. A similar negative use of hm* (“what”) is rare in the Old Testament (cf. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar [GKC] §137b); here the sense presumably is, “(do nothing) whatever to stir or stir up love…!”.

If the meaning of the refrain (in the earlier passages) is that sexual love should not be stirred (to consummation) until the time is right, then the sense here surely is that the time is now right for the two lovers. This point would seem to be confirmed by the context of 7:10b-14 (cf. the discussion in the prior note), and the position of these verses (along with chapter 8) to form the climax of the second movement of the Song.

Verse 3 here (as in 2:6) certainly refers to love-making, of the two lovers laying down together in each other’s embrace (vb qb^j*). Whether or not sexual intercourse (coitus) was indicated specifically in the earlier episodes, it is certainly in view here (in light of 7:8-14, cf. the notes on 7:8-10a and 12-14). But, again, we must also bear in mind the more immediate context of vv. 1-2 (cf. the previous note), in which the thematic emphasis is on social recognition and acceptance of the couple’s love—both by their families, and by the wider society. This, naturally enough, anticipates a marriage agreement and a wedding, which helps to explain the presence of v. 5a:

Verse 5a

“Who (is) this coming up from the outback,
supporting herself upon her love?”

The first line of this couplet echoes 3:6, which describes—in colorful symbolic language—the girl arriving at her wedding. It is a grandiose royal wedding that is depicted in 3:6-11 (cf. the earlier notes), however obliquely, by the references to Solomon, etc. In the Song, such royal motifs reflect the nature of the love between the young man and young woman—they are ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to each other, and, any place where they can be together, expressing their love, is like a majestic royal chamber or pavilion. Thus, though it may seem cryptic in the immediate context of chapter 8, we have here, I believe, at the close of this first unit, an allusion to the couple’s marriage and wedding.

The second line here, which does not occur in 3:6, provides an interesting (and telling) addition. Instead of coming alone to the wedding-scene, she approaches together with her beloved. The girl is leaning (or reclining) upon him—literally, the reflexive verb form (of the root qpr) means “supporting herself”. Almost certainly, this alludes back to verse 3 here, and to the lovemaking by the couple, where the young man’s two hands embrace (lit. enfold, vb qb^j*) her. It is intriguing to consider how these references to lovemaking (and sexual intercourse) in 7:8-8:3 relate to this climactic theme of marriage. The question touches on a range of interpretive concerns—including ethical, moral, and religious—regarding the relationship between sexuality and marriage in the Song. It is not possible to address these here, but they will be discussed, in some detail, when we have completed the remaining exegetical notes.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 1-5a)

The Targum understands the “brother” of v. 1 as a reference to the Messiah, who will serve as brother to Israel, and the two will “suck together” the precepts of the Torah. The Midrash further applied the brother-motif to the relationship between brothers in Israelite history and tradition, with the kissing specifically recalling the kissing of Moses by Aaron (Exod 4:27). The Targum continued its Messianic interpretation in verse 2, with the drinking of mixed/spiced wine as a reference to the ‘Messianic Banquet’ that ushers in the New Age, where the righteous will feast on the old wine preserved (in the Garden of Eden) since the day the world was created. The Midrash Rabbah explained the house/room of the mother in connection with the historical location of mount Sinai, since it was there that “Israel became like a newborn child”, when the covenant was established and the Torah given. The odd/stray MT reading “she will teach me”, which is probably a corrupt vestige of a lost second line (cf. the discussion in the previous note), is taken at face value by the Midrash, read as “you will teach me” —i.e., YHWH will instruct Israel through the Torah.

Verse 3, repeated from 2:6 (cf. the earlier note), was explained by the Targum as a reference to the tefillin—bound on the left hand and on the head. The Targum and Midrash treated the adjuration in v. 4 (echoing 2:7 and 3:5, cf. above) in a similar manner, adapting it only slightly (cf. the interpretation given in the note on 2:7). Verse 5a also echoes an earlier passage of the Song, which the Targum and Midrash explain here in several different ways. The motif of coming up from the desert suggested, for example, death and the resurrection from the dead—an eschatological reference to the time when the dead of Israel will rise up, appearing as they did, like newborn children, at Sinai to receive the Law. Indeed, the desert-motif naturally brought to mind the tradition of the Exodus and Israel’s arrival at mount Sinai. Cf. Pope, pp. 658-661, 664f.

Theodoret’s interpretation of vv. 1ff resembles the Messianic approach taken by the Targum, only adapted to an early Christian (Christological) context. Christ as the “brother” of the Bride, suckling at the same mother’s breast, was explained in terms of his incarnation and humanity. It was Christ’s willingness to humble himself and take on our human nature that causes us, especially, to love him. And it is because the soul (and the Church) follows the example of Christ, that she is made pure and able to embrace him and kiss him, even in public, without any shame. At a second level of meaning, the “house of the mother” refers to the house of the Spirit, where the Holy Spirit ‘gives birth’ to believers, a house patterned after the heavenly “Jerusalem that is above” (Gal 4:26).

In v. 5a, Theodoret contrasts the shining white appearance of the woman with her earlier black/darkened color (1:6). She is white now because she has “taken on the whiteness” of her Beloved, the pure and holy Bridegroom (Christ). This holiness and union with the Bridegroom makes her worthy of “going up” out of the desert, explained as a reference to the resurrection, much as Jewish commentators explained it (cf. above).

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