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).

September 1: Song of Songs 8:1-2

Song 8:1-10

Chapter 8 (specifically verses 1-10) represents the conclusion to the second movement of the Song, and is thus parallel to the close of the first movement (3:4-11), sharing many of the same themes and points of emphasis. In particular, we find the idea expressed that the love between the young man and young woman would find social recognition and acceptance (especially by their families), resulting in marriage (and a wedding). This is a fitting emphasis for the conclusion of each movement of the Song, but is presented more succinctly in 3:4-11, with the wedding-scene indicated in vv. 6-11. Here, in the second movement, the concluding section (8:1-10) is more complex. My outline of this section matches the division used by Fox (pp. 165-73), recognizing three distinct poetic units: vv. 1-5a, 5b-7, and 8-10. Unlike the earlier sections of this movement, there is less continuity between these units, and it is much more difficult to isolate a definite dramatic-narrative thread running through each unit. There are, however, several common features that can be mentioned.

First, each unit contains a reference or allusion to family members of the two lovers. This refers, primarily, to the social recognition/acceptance of their love, as noted above. There is also a playful positioning of the sexual relationship between the boy and girl, so that it implicitly follows the pattern of their parents. After all, their parents were once young lovers just like they are; as the parents’ youthful love led to acceptance and marriage (and bearing of children), within the construct of social order and custom, so also it can be for the two lovers of the Song. Second, along these lines, there is a sense in these units of the bond of love between the boy and girl deepening and becoming something more permanent (cf. especially the central declaration in vv. 6-7).

Song 8:1-5a

This first unit more precisely echoes the conclusion of the First Movement, with verses 2 and 5a closely resembling 3:4b and 6a.

Verses 1-2

“Who will give (that) you (would be) like a brother to me,
(one) having sucked the breasts of my mother!
I would find you in the (street) outside (and) would kiss you,
and even (so) there would be no indignity for me.
I would lead you and bring you into (the) house of my mother,
<into the inner room (where) she became pregnant with me>
(There) I would make you drink from the mixed wine,
from (the) pressed juice of my pomegranate.”

Verse 2 appears to be missing a line, the first line of the MT representing, it would seem, only a partial couplet. The final word yn]d@M=l^T= in the MT (“she will teach me”) doesn’t make much sense in context, and may be an indication of textual corruption. The LXX and Peshitta contain, instead, a second line matching that of the parallel in 3:4: “into the inner room (where) she became pregnant with me”. It is difficult to know whether the versions reflect a harmonizing expansion to match the earlier reference, or whether a line has dropped out of the MT. No help is available from the Dead Sea manuscripts, since nothing of chapter 8 has been preserved. I have chosen to emend (or restore) the text, adding a balancing second line (in angle brackets above) to match the LXX, etc.

The idiom “who will give (that)…?” (/ty ym!) is a way of expressing the wish that something would come to pass. A flat conventional translation in English might be: “If only you were like a brother to me!” At numerous points in the Song, the two lovers refer to each other as “brother” and “sister”, even though they are not actually related as brother-sister (as v. 1 here makes quite clear). These epithets elsewhere in the Song are terms of endearment and intimacy, following the conventions of Near Eastern love poetry (cf. the earlier note on 4:8-11). Here, the author plays on this motif, shifting the meaning of “brother” to its regular, familial sense.

Why does she express the wish that her lover could be like her brother? The reason is clear and expressed directly enough. It is so that they could kiss and express intimacy with other in public, without causing any scandal. In earlier episodes of the Song, the city locale and the girl’s family house represented barriers that effectively separate the two lovers. In such a setting, they are forced to meet secretly, at night, in order to be together (cf. 2:8-17; 5:2-6ff). As in 3:4, the girl now expresses the wish that they could be together, as lovers, in public. The image of bringing her lover into her mother’s house essentially means acceptance of their love by the family. Ultimately, this would entail a formal proposal by the young man, a marriage agreement, and (eventually) a wedding. But public recognition extends beyond family and friends to the wider society as well. This is implied by the reference to the “street outside” (JWj). As brother and sister, even out in the street, they could embrace and there would be no indignity for them as a result. The verb zWB in this context is a bit difficult to translate; it basically means “despise, belittle”, sometimes rendered more forcefully as “condemn, reject”. Here the verb connotes the social disapproval (and even rejection) that would come from the two young lovers expressing their love (by embracing, kissing, etc) out in public.

There is also a sexual double-meaning to the family relationships referenced here. First, the motif of a child sucking the breasts of his mother alludes to the idea of the girl giving her breast to her beloved (v. 2). Similarly, the ‘mother’s house’ (with its bedroom, cf. the textual note above) where the mother conceived her child contains an obvious sexual allusion. Overall, in thematic and dramatic terms, social acceptance of their love means that the young man and young woman can be together, as lovers, even in the girl’s family home. This context gives to verse 2 a dual meaning, assuming that it is the mother’s house/room that is the ‘location’ of the love-making—i.e., “(there) I would make you drink”.

First, it means that they would be able to exist and act as lovers even in the girl’s family house, at least in a limited way (embracing, kissing). Second, in a more figurative sense, the girl would be following the pattern of her own mother, who similarly had sexual relations with her beloved (the girl’s father). The bedroom in the mother’s house represents the socially accepted location (i.e., a marriage bed) where the lovemaking takes place. It is the second, figurative meaning, that is primarily in view. Once their love has been recognized and accepted by the family, etc, they will no longer have to rely on a clandestine meeting for their lovemaking—it can be done within the social bounds of a family bedroom.

A brief note on the sexual imagery in verse 2, which highlights at least three key motifs used throughout the Song: (1) wine, (2) spices (the “mixed” [jq^r#] wine clearly refers to being mixed with spices), and (3) the specific fruit of the pomegranate. All three symbolize sexuality and the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The primary reference, it would seem, is to lovemaking in terms of kissing. The association between wine and the mouth is certainly emphasized in 1:2 and 7:9; similarly, the pomegranate is used specifically to describe the lips and the region around the mouth (4:3; 6:7). As sexual symbols, wine and pomegranate-fruit are not limited to the idea of kissing (the pomegranate likely alludes here also to the girl’s breast), but that is primary point of reference, especially in the context of the two lovers expressing their love in public.

The desire for social recognition (by the families) of the couple’s love is similarly expressed in an ancient Egyptian love song (from the Papyrus Chester Beatty I, poem no. 36 in the collection by Fox). The girl describes how she was passing by the boy’s house, and saw him with his mother and relatives, and she longs to be able to have everyone see her love for him:

“If only mother knew my heart—
Then I could hurry to (my) brother
and kiss him before his company,
and not be ashamed because of anyone.
I would be happy to have them see
that you know me…”
(Fox, p. 55 [ellipses mine])

I find these parallels to be quite close to the situation here in the Song, even to conventional reference to the girl’s lover as her ‘brother’.

(In the next daily note, I will present examples of Jewish and Early Christian interpretation for vv. 1-5a as a whole.)

References marked “Fox” above are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

August 31: Song of Songs 7:12-14

Song 7:12-14 [11-13]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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