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.

July 12: Song of Songs 2:15

Song 2:15

“Seize for us (the) foxes,
(all the) little foxes
ruining (the) vines—
even our blossom(ing) vines.”

This verse has proven to be one of the most enigmatic of the entire Song. On the surface, the little song in v. 15 has no obvious connection with either the prior lines (vv. 8-14) or those following (vv. 16-17). Nor is it at all clear who the speaker is supposed to be. These lines have the character of a proverbial folk-song, the sort of ditty one could imagine being sung by vineyard-workers. It may have been included to give some local color and texture to the Song. However, whatever the origins of this verse, there can be no doubt that in the context of the Song it relates to the sexuality of the young woman, and/or to the love shared by the two youths. This is very much the symbolism of the vineyard throughout the Song.

There would seem to be three primary ways of understanding this verse in context:

    • It represents the voice of a chorus, the concerns of the young woman’s family (and also the wider community) to safeguard her blossoming sexuality. The “little foxes” are those amorous young men who would “ruin” the purity of her sexuality. This line of interpretation also reflects the social barriers and opposition against the two young lovers coming together for a romantic/sexual encounter.
    • The speaker is the young man, in which case there are two possible interpretations:
      (a) It reflects his desire to keep any other young men (“little foxes”) away from his beloved, or
      (b) The “foxes” refer, more generally, to anything that might interrupt or spoil their time together
    • The speaker is the young woman, and her words follow the same line of interpretation as that above; however, if she is speaking, the verse would perhaps tend to be part of playful banter between the two lovers, akin to that in 1:7-8 (cf. the prior note on those verses).

The Hebrew noun lu*Wv, of uncertain derivation, is usually understood as referring to a fox or jackal (or similar animal). The catching of foxes would be a relatively common occurrence, in order to protect the fields and vineyards. In Judges 15:4, Samson catches a large number of ‘foxes’, though for a rather different purpose. Here they clearly refer to something which could “ruin” (vb lb^j* III) the young woman’s sexuality, and/or the sexual experience of the two lovers. The participle indicates that the ‘foxes’ are regularly ruining things, or are likely to do so. The girl’s sexuality (and/or the love shared between the two) is currently “blossoming”, according to the fundamental meaning of the noun rd^m*s= in the final line.

A strong argument can be made that these “foxes” represent amorous young men who are ‘on the prowl’ for attractive young women. This is the sense of the imagery, for example, of the a)lwpeke$ in the Odes of Theocritus (I. 48-50; V. 112). Yet, this need not be understood in an entirely negative sense, especially if the image is considered from the standpoint of the young woman. In an Egyptian love song from P. Harris 500 (a 19th dynasty papyrus manuscript), the girl speaks fondly of her lover as a little “wolf” or “jackal” (wnš); the context of this song is, my opinion, close to that of the Song here:

“My heart is not yet done with your lovemaking,
my (little) wolf cub [wnš]!
Your liquor is (your) lovemaking.
I (will not) abandon it
until blows drive me away
I will not listen to their advice
to abandon the one I desire.”
(translation Fox, p. 10)

In my view, the best explanation of this verse is as the voice of society and custom, adding a sense of tension to the lovers’ attempt to be together. I am reminded of the echo of Brangäne’s warning in the middle of the second act love-duet of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The problem with this view is that there is no clear shift to a different speaker; yet the Song is somewhat fluid in this regard, as we have already seen in 1:4, and by the regular refrain in 2:7, etc. Shifts between speakers are not always clearly indicated, and the ‘voice’ of other groups or segments of society occasionally crop up within the fabric of the Song.

There are unquestionably certain social barriers to the lovers meeting. The overall scenario depicted in vv. 8-17 is of the young woman tucked away at home (as she would have been, as a practical matter, throughout the rainy winter season). There the young man comes to her, calling her away to a rendezvous, to a secluded and private spot where the two of them can be together. This very much reflects her own desire as well, and, in v. 14 (cf. the discussion in the previous note), the two lovers would seem to be on their way to such an encounter, seeking out a secluded spot. In this context, v. 15 can well be viewed as a kind of warning against a sexual encounter.

On the other hand, if the speaker of v. 15 is identified with either the young man or the young woman, then the sense of the song would be of a concern that nothing should spoil (or interrupt) their time together. Many commentators would understand the refrain in 2:7 etc in a similar light. Lovers naturally would want their moment to be as perfect as possible, especially if it necessarily must be brief (i.e., a single night, before the coming of dawn [v. 17]). No “little foxes” must be allowed to ruin the “vineyard” of their love.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash explain the “foxes” as the enemies of Israel (Egyptians, Assyrians, Edomites, Amalekites, etc), while the righteous ones in Israel represent the blossoming of the vine. The Talmud (b. Sotah 12a) applies the verse specifically to the historical scenario of Exod 2:3ff, which interprets our song in a reverse sense—i.e., of the enemies of Israel (Egyptians) calling to “catch for us” the Israelite male children (“little foxes”); cf. Pope, p. 403.

Origen, in his Commentary, explains the “foxes” as the forces of sin and wickedness that threaten to “destroy the bloom of the virtues of the soul and ruin the fruit of faith”. Such tempting thoughts, placed in the ‘vineyard’ of the soul by demons, need to be caught; and they need to be taken away while they are still “little”, before they are allowed to grow to the point that, embedded in the soul as habitual behavior, they can no longer be driven out. This is very much an ethical (and ascetic) line of interpretation, but, for many early Christians, such ‘purification of the soul’ goes hand in hand with spiritual growth and enlightenment. In this line of interpretation, of course, the young man (Bridegroom) represents the Word of God (Christ). Within the context of the Church, and in terms of Christian doctrine, the “foxes” are those heretics and teachers of error, especially those who give false teaching regarding the person of Christ.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his sermon on this verse, gives greater emphasis to the role of angels and ministering spirits as the hunters who are directed to catch these “little foxes” —forces of sin which tend to “make their dens in men’s hearts”. The spiritual forces of evil also must be conquered (i.e., “caught”) from within, but it is not possible for the soul to do so purely by its own strength. It needs the help and assistance of the Word of God. However, if these forces are conquered, the soul will “win a grace that will be [its] own”, and the vine (of our human nature) will begin to put forth “clusters of fruit with the flower of perfection”.

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).
Translations from Origen’s Commentary on the Song are from R. P. Lawson, Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, Ancient Christian Writers [ACW], vol. 26 (Newman/Paulist Press: 1956).
The translations of Gregory of Nyssa here are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, edited by Musurillo and selected by Jean Daniélou (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).


July 8: Song of Songs 2:10-13

Song 2:10-13

“My love responded and said to me:
Rise up yourself,
my companion, my beauty,
and go (away with me)!
For see, the winter has passed,
the rain passed on, it is gone.
The sparkling (flower)s are seen in the land,
(the) time of the z¹mîr has touched (us),
and (the) voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.
The fig-tree has sweetened her unripe fruit,
and the blossoming vines give their (sweet) breath.
Rise up and go (away),
my companion, my beauty,
go away yourself (with me)!”

Verses 10-13 form a distinct song, and poetic unit, beginning and ending with a common refrain. The young man is the speaker of the song, but introduced by the young woman: “My love responded and said to me…”. The idea of answering/responding denoted by the verb hn`u* should not be understood in an overly narrow sense. It is part of the narrative (and redactive) tissue of the Song, connecting one poem with the next.

In the refrain, the young man refers to the young woman as “my companion [fem hy`u=r^]” and “my beauty [hp#y`]”, indicating that she is his girlfriend and beloved. With a dual-imperative he urges her to “rise (up)” “go (away)” with him. The use of the so-called ethical dative with the preposition l= is difficult to translate in English; essentially the prepositional expression should be understood in a reflexive sense—i.e., “rise up yourself”, “go away yourself” —but even this makes for rather awkward English. I have rendered this reflexive aspect in two of the three occurrences of El* in the translation above.

In my discussion of the previous song (cf. the note on vv. 8-9), I understood the “back-wall” where the young man stands to be the meeting-place of the two lovers. However, if one connects that poem to the one here in vv. 10-13, assuming a dramatic sequence, then there is greater weight to the idea that the young man is standing outside the girl’s house, looking in to see her, and then speaking to her through the lattice, calling her to go away with him—presumably to a secluded spot in the fields where the two can be together.

If one takes seriously the seasonal indicator in verse 11, there is an added dimension to the setting of this song. During the rainy winter season, the girl would have spent more time at home, indoors, and there would be few opportunities for the lovers to be together. Now, with the coming of spring-time (and summer), they are able to find moments and places where they can meet outdoors. But it still requires that they “go away”, perhaps in the sense of steal/sneak away, for a romantic tryst.

The spring-time motif is expressed through a sequence of three parallel couplets. The first simply describes the change in seasons:

“For see, the winter has passed,
the rain passed on, it is gone.”

The rare noun wt*s= occurs only here in the Old Testament, but is attested in Aramaic and Syriac, as well as the cognate šit¹° in Arabic (Pope, p. 394); it refers to the rainy winter season in Palestine. The verbs rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) and [l^j* (“pass on, pass away”) here have a similar meaning; however, the latter root also denotes the idea of replacement (i.e., the winter rains being replaced by the life-giving sunshine of spring and summer). The final line contains another example of the reflexive ‘ethical dative’ (cf. above); the expression ol El^h* would literally mean “it has gone (away) itself”.

The second couplet is expanded into a tricolon by the inclusion of a third (central) line:

“The sparkling (flower)s are seen in the land,
(the) time of the z¹mîr has touched (us),
and (the) voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.”

The parallelism of the basic couplet (the first and third lines) is clear enough: “seen / heard”, “sparkling (flower)s / voice of the dove”. The ambiguity lies in the central line, and the use of the noun rym!z` (z¹mîr). It has a dual-meaning based on two separate roots: (1) “song, singing” (rmz [I]), and (2) “trimming, pruning” (rmz [II]). The first line suggests the second root, but the third line would seem to require the first root. This bit of rich word-play makes a definite translation of rym!z` in context virtually impossible; for this reason I have left the noun transliterated above. In any case, the couplet (or triplet) describes the new conditions in the land with the coming of spring (and summer).

The final couplet emphasizes the fertility of spring-time, which, of course, is especially fitting for the sexual imagery of the Song:

“The fig-tree has sweetened her unripe fruit,
and the blossoming vines give their (sweet) breath.”

The fig has strong traditional associations with sexuality, as well as being a fruit that is pleasing to the gods (cf. the discussion in Pope, p. 398). As a sexual symbol it is comparable to the traditional associations with the apple tree (cf. the note on vv. 3-5) and the date-palm. All three fruit trees are mentioned in a Sumerian love poem (part of the corpus of Dumuzi/Inanna songs):

“The brother [brought  me] into his garden,
I stood with him among his standing trees,
I lay down with him among his lying trees.
He laid me down….. ,
The dates… my…. ,
The wild-bull speaks with me among the apple-trees,
my precious sweet… on my head,
The wild-bull speaks with me among the fig-trees,
My precious sweet… ”
(translation in Sefati, Love Songs, p. 321)

The noun hG`P^ occurs only here in the Old Testament, but cognate words in Aramaic and Arabic indicates that it refers to the unripe (green) fruit, especially of the fig or date-palm. Parallel as a sexual symbol is the blossoming grape-vine, which, in the Song is used specifically as a symbol of female sexuality, reflecting a traditional line of imagery in Near Eastern love poetry. Within the dramatic setting of the Song, the young woman belongs to a family of vineyard-workers (cf. the earlier note on 1:6). This allows for some fine wordplay and double entendre in the Song. In addition to the specific aspect of female sexuality (i.e., the young woman’s blossoming sexuality), the vineyard also serves as a symbol for the love between the young man and young woman. It can also allude to the place outdoors (in the spring/summer-time) where the two lovers meet. This will be discussed further in the upcoming note on verse 15. The sweet “breath” (j^Wr) of the vine refers to the scent of its blossoms.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

In the Targum and Midrashim, this song typically is thought to refer to the exodus of Israel out of Egypt, marked by the thematic refrain “Rise up, go away…”. The winter was the time of bondage in Egypt, while the rains represented the actual time Israel spent there, which had been cut short by God. The Midrash understands rmz in the sense of “pruning” (cf. above), with the idea of ‘cutting off’ the uncircumcised Egyptians and their idolatrous ways; but the other meaning for rmz (“sing”) is also recognized, alluding to the Song at the Sea which Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites sang following their deliverance by YHWH. The ripening figs of spring-time also ties into the same line of interpretation.

For Origen, in his Commentary, this scene alternately represents the voice of the Word of God speaking to the soul or Christ speaking to the Church. The time for the soul to “come away” with the Word refers both to a departure from earthly/fleshly things, and to receiving the deep wisdom of God, which is otherwise hidden in mystery. To the perfect and mature ones (like the ripened figs), the Word gives this revelation in full, while for others (the less ripe, immature fruit) it is experienced to a lesser degree. The “winter” is the time of sin and ignorance and darkness (including the time of the Law) before this illumination in the bright sun of springtime comes.

Gregory of Nyssa gives even greater emphasis to this idea of a ‘springtime of the Spirit’. The ‘rising up’ of the soul entails both a departure from sin  and an advance in virtue and goodness, forming the course by which we become perfect. Such a purified soul approaches the Light until “…it draws near to the Beautiful and becomes transformed by the image of the divine Beauty”. In this regard, the singing of the dove symbolizes, of course, the presence of the Holy Spirit. The flowers blossoming in the spring-time fields represent the virtues which blossom and bring beauty to the purified soul.

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 “Sefati, Love Songs” are to Yitschak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture (Bar-Ilan University Press: 1998).
The translations of Gregory of Nyssa here are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, edited by Musurillo and selected by Jean Daniélou (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

February 23: Song of Songs 1:12-14

Song of Songs 1:12-14

After the young man’s praise of the woman’s beautiful appearance (face and neck), in vv. 9-11 (cf. the previous note), the young woman responds in kind in vv. 12-14:

“During (the time) when the king (was) on his mesab,
my nard gave (out) its (fragrant) breath!
A package of myrrh (is) my love to me,
(who) stays (the night) between my breasts;
a cluster of cypress-flowers (is) my love to me,
(here) in (the) vineyards of Goat-Spring [En-Gedi].”

As in 1:4, the reference to “the king” has been variously explained by commentators. Those who take the reference literally would tend to apply it to Solomon. If one understands Solomon to be the poet and/or protagonist of the Song, then he (the king) is the male lover. A popular line of dramatic interpretation recognizes two romantic suitors for the girl: one, the shepherd whom she truly loves, and the other, the king (Solomon) who is attempting to woo her.

More plausible, in my view, is that the title “king” here (and in 1:4) is being used in a figurative sense. As I mentioned in the earlier note on v. 4, it is relatively common in Near Eastern love poetry for the young lovers to refer to each other as “king” and “queen”, “prince” and “princess”, etc. This is part of the playful ‘fantasy world’ that exists in the romantic sphere of the lovers, which also reflects the genuine regard which they have for each other. The young man is truly her “king”, even as the young woman is his “queen”.

The particle du^, used in a temporal sense, along with the relative particle –v#, would literally mean “until (the time) when…”, but can also be used in the sense of “during (the time) when,” i.e., “while”.

I have left the noun bs*m@ untranslated above, since it is rather difficult to render with literal precision in English. Fundamentally, the word means something like “place (positioned) round about”. Based on the context here, this is usually taken as a reference to a low couch (for reclining) that would be positioned around a central dining area (for a banquet, etc). A feminine noun (hB*s!m=) with this meaning is attested in later Hebrew (cf. Pope, p. 347). The image seems to be that of the king and his lover lying down together on a luxuriant couch, such as would be used at a royal banquet. Assuming that the title “king” refers to the girl’s young lover, then the royal couch must be understood along the same lines. The place where the young man and woman lie down together is, for them, like the royal couch at a sumptuous banquet.

The noun D=r=n@ (n¢rd) is a loanword, ultimately derived from Sanskrit (naladas), referring to the spikenard plant that grows in Northern and Eastern India. It was cultivated and processed to produce a fragrant perfume that was highly valued, and exported abroad as an expensive luxury item. Here it is used as an erotic motif representing sexual attraction. One need not imagine that the young girl is actually perfumed with expensive nard. Fragrance is an important component of sexual attraction, along with a decorated physical (visual) appearance (vv. 9-11). In verse 3, the love (and love-making) between the young man and woman is expressed in terms of fragrant perfume (oil) that is “poured out” so that it fills the room. The same basic idea is in view here: the woman’s desire, and the attraction between the lovers, fills the room as a fragrant “breath” (or “wind”, j^Wr, i.e., a wafting breeze).

The imagery of fragrant perfume, as a symbol of love and sexual attraction, continues in the lines that follow (vv. 13-14), which take the form of a fine pair of parallel couplets. The image in the first couplet is a “package of myrrh” that ‘spends the night’ (vb /Wl) between the woman’s breasts. There is a dual-sense to this image: on the one hand, it reflects the practice of women wearing a sachet of perfume, as a necklace that would literally hang down between the breasts; on the other, it is clearly intended here as a euphemism for the two lovers spending the night together.

The second couplet has the parallel image of a “cluster of cypress (flowers)”. The noun lK)v=a# usually refers to a cluster of grapes, and this (together with the mention of vineyards) led early commentators to explain the imagery here in terms of grapes/wine. However, the motif clearly is of a cluster of perfume—in this case, made from the flowers of the cypress-bush (or henna plant), rp#K) (kœ¸er) in Hebrew (cf. Pope, pp. 352-4). The same term kpr is attested in Ugaritic, for example, as applied in the Baal Epic to the goddess Anat—who is characterized both as a fierce warrior (personification of battle) and beautiful young maiden:

kpr of seven daughters,
breath [, i.e. scent] of musk and murex[?]”
(Tablet III [CAT 1.3], column 2, lines 2-3)

En-Gedi (“Goat-Spring”, yd]G# /yu@) is a luxurious oasis (in Judah), located in a ravine. It was known for its warm climate, vineyards and date-palm trees, and thus came to be stand as a symbol for richness and fertility (cf. Sirach 24:14; Ezekiel 47:10). Here it provides an outdoor location of luxury comparable to the indoor location of the king’s couch (v. 12a). It reflects the sexuality (and sexual relations) of the two lovers—especially the young woman, with its reference to “vineyards” (cf. the note on verse 6, regarding the vineyard as a symbol for female sexuality). There may also be a faint allusion to the idea of herding goats—also used as a sexual metaphor—in v. 8 (cf. the prior note).

The term doD, fundamentally refers to an intense love, often (but not always) in a sexual context. In verse 2 and 4, the plural <yd!oD is to be understood as “acts/gestures of love”, while here in vv. 13-14 the reference is to the person who is the object of love (i.e., the beloved).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish and Christian commentators struggled particularly with the frank sexual imagery in these verses. In the Targum and the Midrashim, the tendency was, rather oddly enough, to explain the fragrance (“breath”, j^Wr) in a negative sense, referring to Israel’s sin of idolatry. Some Rabbis, however, preferred to maintain a positive line of interpretation, drawing upon the imagery of Tabernacle/Temple with its offerings of incense, etc. The bundle of myrrh hanging between the woman’s breasts was even harder to explain, though as ‘the most excellent of spices’ it was possible to apply the image of myrrh to the righteous—and to Abraham as the most excellent of the righteous.

As noted above, the mention of “clusters” and the “vineyards” of En-Gedi, suggested to commentators the motif of wine rather than perfume—in particular, the sacrificial wine that is poured over the altar. The Hebrew word rp#K) (“cypress” or henna flowers) could be related to the verb rp^K* (“cover, wipe over”) in the sense of atoning for sin.

Origen explained the king “reclining at his table” in terms of the incarnation of Christ, and the soul desires to ‘rest at his table’ with him. The giving forth of the woman’s nard-perfume naturally was compared with the scene of Jesus’ anointing by the woman (Mark 1:3-4ff par, and note especially the description of the fragrant perfume in John 12:3). This was associated in the Gospel with the sacrificial death and burial of Jesus, as was the image of myrrh (John 19:39). Myrrh could also represent drops of the pure teaching by the Word of God which the purified soul receives. Origen interpreted the “breasts” of the woman in the sense of the innermost heart of the soul that holds the Word of God (i.e., the bundle of myrrh) within it.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his cycle of sermons on the Song, develops this mystical approach, explaining the fragrance of the nard-perfume as the “emanations of virtue”, reflecting the purification of the soul, enabling it to look upon the purity of the Word of God. This Christian concept of virtue is understood in the Pauline sense of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22ff), and according to the motif of believers as the “fragrance of Christ” (2 Cor 2:15). His interpretation of the “bundle of myrrh” is worth quoting:

“…what is the noble and courageous bride saying in the text? She is saying: I have a sachet which hangs down upon my breast, and with it I give my body a sweet fragrance. But it is not an ordinary perfume; the Lord Himself is the fragrant oil lying within the sachet of my conscience, dwelling within my heart…. The bride, then, receiving the sweet odor of Christ in the highest part of her soul, makes her heart a sachet, as it were, of this incense; she thus makes every single action of her life, like so many parts of the body, burn fervently with the breath that issues from her heart, so that the love of God may never be chilled in any part of her by disobedience.” (Daniélou, p. 167)

References above marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).
Quotations of Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon cycle (here) come from Jean Daniélou, S. J., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S. J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

February 17: Song of Songs 1:5-6

Song of Songs 1:5-6

“Black (am) I, and (yet) beautiful,
(you) daughters of Yerushalaim,
like (the) tents of Qedar,
like (the) hangings of Salmah.
Do not look at me (because) I (am) black,
(it is because) the sun caught sight of me.
(The) sons of my mother (also) burned on me:
they set me (at) keeping the vineyards,
and my vineyard, which (belongs) to me, I could not keep.”

The young woman is speaking in these verses, as in those previous; however, there is no clear connection between vv. 5-6 and 2-4, and these lines may well reflect (originally) a separate poem. There are two principal themes in this poem: (1) the “blackness” of the girl, and (2) the “vineyard” as an image of sexuality.

The first motif is expressed by the adjective rj)v* (“black”), and the expanded form rj)r=j^v= (in v. 6). Clearly, the adjective is used in connection with skin color. However, in this regard, the designations “black” and “white” should not be read in terms of the unfortunate racial distinction such words typically have in modern Western culture (and American society). Here it is simply a question of darker or lighter skin color—which, indeed, is all that is indicated by our modern usage as well (gradations/shades of pigment having been turned into a stark opposition: white vs black). There are many instances in ancient and traditional love poetry where it is clear that dark-skinned beauties are just as appealing (and sexually attractive) as lighter-skinned ones (cf. Theocritus’ Idylls 10.26-29, and other examples given by Pope, p. 311).

This is not to say that there is no negative connotation in our passage, for the young woman realizes that her darker skin color contrasts with certain ideals of feminine beauty. The conjunction in the first line, should, indeed, be read in a contrastive (or exceptive) sense: i.e., “I am black, and (yet) beautiful”. The reference to the “daughters of Jerusalem” here is meant to bring out the point of contrast.

Even so, her dark color has its own beauty, which she compares to the “tents of Qedar”. The term rd^q# (“Qedar”) refers to a Northern Arabian tribe (Gen 25:13; Isa 21:16, etc; in Assyrian records, qi-da-ri), which came to be applied to Arabia (and Arabs) collectively. Along with commentators such as Pope (p. 320), Würthwein, Fox, et al, I vocalize hml? as hm*l=c* (“Salmah,” the name of an ancient Arabian tribe), rather than the MT hm)l)v= (“Solomon”). “Salmah” is, clearly, a much better fit for the parallel with “Qedar”. The “hangings” (or “curtains”, touyr!yK!), which sway and flutter in the wind, refer to the same Bedouin tents of the previous line, woven out of black goat’s hair, and thus traditionally colored black. The root rdq itself denotes darkness, and so there is almost certainly an additional play on the name Qedar.

As verse 6 makes clear, the girl’s darker skin color is the result of spending time outside in the sun. She is thus a member of the working class; the context here suggests that she and her family are tenant farmers, working in the fields (specifically in vineyards). This makes her stand out in comparison with other, more privileged or well-to-do girls in Jerusalem, and she realizes that such women would be apt to look at her disparagingly. The verb is the simple ha*r* (“see, look”), but used in somewhat negative sense of “look at, stare at”.

She tells them, “do not look at me (negatively) because I am black”. The use of the relative particle –v, prefixed here to the pronoun yn]a& (“I”), is rather difficult to translate in this context. The sense is of her attribute of ‘blackness’ (i.e., unusually dark skin), which is so striking and peculiar (and contrary to certain ideals of beauty)and the reason for which is simply her prolonged exposure to the sun. The relative particle in the following line expresses this relationship. There is also a playful parallelism at work: the other young woman are not to “look at” her (vb ha*r*) with surprise, since her dark color is the result of the sun “catching sight” of her (vb [z~v*). Her exposure to the sun is thus described in terms of the sun’s eye (i.e., its rays and heat) looking at her.

By this certainly is meant that she has spent prolonged time working outdoors. As the context of verse 6 makes clear, her family works in the vineyards, presumably as tenant farmers. For this, she somewhat blames her family; in particular, her brothers are noted, referred to here as “the sons of my mother”. The use of this common expression is probably to avoid the specific term “brother”, since the appellations “brother” and “sister” tend to be reserved in the Song for the two lovers.

The word- and image-play continues here; note the following chain of parallel motifs:

    • the Jerusalem girls “look” at her =>
      • the sun similarly ‘looks’ at her, ‘burning’ her with its heat =>
        • her brothers also “burn” on her (vb rr^j*), implying that they are angry with her

The reason for her brother’s ‘anger’ is unclear. But two aspects of meaning are likely in view: (a) it relates to the family-circumstances that require her to spend time toiling outdoors, and (b) it probably implies a protective attitude toward her (regarding any sexual activity). Attempts by the girl’s family to keep her away from young men (or a particular lover) are fairly common as a motif in love poetry. One Egyptian example may be noted:

“…Though he is among the neighbors of my mother’s house,
I cannot go to him.
Mother is good in commanding me thus:
‘Avoid seeing him!’
(Yet) my heart is vexed when he comes to mind,
for love of him has captured me.”
(P. Chester Beatty I, group A poems; Fox, p. 32 [no. 32])

The girl does seem to blame her brothers primarily for making her work in the vineyards: “they set me (at) keeping the vineyards”. As a result, she is unable to “keep” her own vineyard. This involves a bit of double meaning (and double entendre) regarding the idea of the vineyard (<r#K#). The first occurrence here refers to actual vineyards, however the second is figurative, using the vineyard as a symbol of female sexuality. Such symbolism is relatively common in love poetry, with the vineyard-motif (along with that of the orchard, garden, etc) being a specific form of the wider agricultural imageryof the field as a female sexual symbol (cf. examples cited by Pope, pp. 323-6). One example, from the Nikkal hymn from Ugarit, may suffice, in which the bridegroom (a deity) says of his bride:

“I will make her field (filled with) vineyards,
the field of her love (with) orchards”

The sexual implication of the imagery of the field being plowed, cultivated, and irrigated, etc, should be obvious; certainly it was to the ancient Near Eastern poets and singers (and their audience).

The girl’s final statement, “my vineyard, which (belongs) to me, I did not keep”, has been controversial, since it could be taken as implying that she has been sexually promiscuous and has not kept her virginity. It goes without saying that, for many Jews and Christians, such an interpretation would be highly objectionable. And, while it is likely that certain poems in the Song do involve premarital sexual relations, I do not think it is correct to read it into the statement here. The girl’s lament is that she is not able to tend to her own vineyard (i.e. her sexuality). Though the verb rf^n` (like rm^v*) has the fundamental meaning of “guard, keep” (implying protection), it can also be used in the agricultural context of tending, cultivating, etc. There would seem to be two aspects to the meaning of the girl’s statement:

    • Because of her work in the vineyards, she is not able to cultivate her appearance in the way that other “daughters of Jerusalem” do
    • It also means that she does not have as much time (as she would like) to cultivate her sexualityi.e., pursuing romantic/sexual relations with the young man she loves

As noted above, it is also likely that the reference to the brothers’ anger with her may imply other social and familial obstacles to her desire to be with her lover.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish and Christian commentators had considerable difficulty with the idea of the woman’s “blackness”, associated as the term often was with evil, corruption, and immorality. The Targum and Midrashim connected it with the sin of idolatry in Israel’s history; once the people were punished (as by the heat of the sun = God’s anger) and repented, then they became ‘white’ and beautiful again.

Early Christian interpreters (like Origen) were a bit more flexible in explaining the imagery. One line of interpretation built upon the traditional conflict between Jews and Christians, with Christians considered to be “black”, and regarded in a negative light by the Synagogue (the “daughters of Jerusalem”) and contemporary Jews (the “mother’s sons”). The ‘burning’ against Christians could allude to the early persecutions by Jews, such as recorded in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters. In a more general religious sense, the “black but beautiful” concept could signify the presence of sin (and sinners) among the saints of the Church. The Church, as a whole, was still beautiful, in spite of the sin which needed to be treated properly through repentance and punishment.

The more mystical approach, evident in Origen’s Commentary, and even more so in Gregory of Nyssa’s cycle of Sermons, interpreted the imagery in terms of the need of the soul to purify itself from its passions and desires (i.e., the ‘blackness’), which allows it to find union with the Word of God (Christ) and to be transformed into that which is most beautiful.

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

Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (3): Isa 27:6

Isaiah 27:6

There is some question as to whether verse 6 more properly belongs as part of the poem in 26:7ff or with what follows in 27:7-13. The scribe of the great Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) left a space after verse 5, which indicates that he felt verse 6 started a new section. In my view is seems better to consider it as the closing refrain of the poem in 26:7-27:6. After the two “Day of YHWH” stanzas (see the prior notes on v. 1 and vv. 2-5), we have this final declaration of what will take place for Israel in the coming days.

“(In) the coming (day)s,
He will cause Ya’aqob to take root,
He will make Yisrael blossom and sprout,
and they will fill the face of the t¢»¢l (with) fruit.”

This climactic stanza is a declaration of the restoration of God’s people in the Age to Come. The restoration of Israel (and return from exile) was a frequent theme in the 7th and 6th century Prophets, and one which gradually took on an eschatological significance. That is to say, Israel’s restoration/return would mark the beginning of a New Age for God’s people, coinciding with the end of the current Age. The end of the Age is the time of the great Judgment (the “Day of YHWH”) against the nations and the wicked on earth. This eschatological orientation is found throughout most of chapters 24-27, and is one of the reasons the section is commonly referred to as the Isaian “Apocalypse”. Later Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic literature (such as the book of Revelation) was greatly influenced by these chapters.

In our discussion of the vineyard poem in vv. 2-5 (see the previous note in this set), we saw how the severe announcement of judgment in the earlier poem of 5:1-7 was softened considerably in chap. 27, expressed more in terms of a message of hope for God’s people. The sense of warning remained, but framed as an exhortation for Israel to remain faithful to God, in the face of the coming judgment on all the nations of the earth.

The horticultural imagery of the vineyard poem continues in this final stanza, predicting the future fruitfulness of Israel and Judah. In the Age to Come (“[the] coming [days]”), YHWH will act out anew his role as owner of the vineyard, planting and caring for it. Now, however, instead of it producing rotten grapes or thorn bushes (in whole or part), there will be growth so prodigious, and fruit so complete, that it will cover the surface of the earth. The noun t¢»¢l (lb@T@), left untranslated above, is a tricky word to render precisely in English. It generally signifies the surface of the earth or land, along with what is contained in it. Sometimes this refers to the people who live and move about on the land—the earth and its inhabitants, i.e. the inhabited world—other times to natural and geographic features. Implicit in the noun, with its derivation from a root meaning “bring, carry, bear”, is the idea of the fertile parts of the earth—i.e.  those which bring forth and produce fruit. These are also the parts of the land where human beings are likely to set up communities, and where populations will grow. Thus the word t¢»¢l is essential to the overall agricultural imagery of the stanza, a fact that is almost completely obscured when translating it simply as “world” or “earth”.

The fruitfulness of Israel here relates to the common 6th century prophetic theme that the restoration of God’s people will involve a complete transformation of heart and mind—i.e. a new heart and a new spirit—brought about entirely by the action of God’s own Spirit. It is no longer a question of whether or not Israel will choose to be faithful to the covenant; the presence and work of God’s Spirit will ensure that His people remain faithful, holy and pure, now and into the distant future. This important emphasis represents the development of a more general motif—of God “pouring” his Spirit upon the land (and its people) as a whole (see Isa 32:15; 44:3, and my earlier note on these verses). The connection of this agricultural imagery with our passage here in vv. 2-6 is certainly clear enough.

Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (2): Isa 27:2-5

Isaiah 27:2-5 (and 5:1-7)

Verses 2-5 of chapter 27 represent the second of the two “day of YHWH” stanzas for the poem in 26:7-27:6. The first stanza (27:1, cf. the previous note) dealt with God’s Judgment on the nations; the second stanza here focuses on God’s people Israel. It involves the illustration of a vineyard to represent Israel, a symbolism found elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Psalm 80:9-17; Jer 2:21; 12:10-11; Ezek 15:1-8). In addition, the vineyard featured as a motif earlier in the book of Isaiah (1:8; 3:14), and especially the poem in 5:1-7; indeed, the vineyard poem in 27:2-5 clearly draws upon the earlier one in 5:1-7. This is an example of intertextuality (the citing or referencing of Scriptural texts) in chaps. 24-27, based here, in particular, on the critical theory that the Isaian “Apocalypse” was composed in the 6th century B.C., and develops, in various ways, the older Isaian traditions, such as the vineyard poem of chap. 5. In any case, 5:1-7 certainly is the older poem, and a proper understanding of 27:2-5 requires that we examine it first.

IsaIAH 5:1-7

“I will sing, now, for my beloved [y®¼î¼]
a song of my love [dô¼î] for his vineyard.”

So the poem begins with this couplet in verse 1a, involving some wordplay that continues to trip up commentators. Two related roots are involved—y¹¼a¼ (dd^y`) and dô¼ (doD)—each of which has the fundamental meaning “love”, especially in the context of romantic/sexual love. It is one of many examples in support of original biconsonantal roots that were expanded or developed into triconsontal roots in Hebrew (by the inclusion/addition of weak consonants, here w/y); in this case, the fundamental root would be dd (dd). The noun dô¼ can mean either “love” in the abstract sense or the object of love (i.e. “beloved”); here it must be understood in the former sense, as the context and the expression “song of love” (i.e. love song) makes clear.

It may seem odd to sing a love song for a piece of land, like a field or vineyard, but it was a common device in ancient love poetry. In traditional farming societies, the association between sexuality and agricultural fertility was natural and obvious—i.e. the (male) sky/heaven ‘impregnating’ the (female) earth through rain. A field or vineyard thus came to be a standard symbol for the “beloved”, the (female) object of love. It is well-attested in ancient Near Eastern love poetry, for which we need look no further than the Old Testament Song of Songs (1:6, 14; 2:3, 15; 4:12-16; 7:6-13; 8:12).

The “song” itself is brief, occurring in vv. 1b-2:

“There was a vineyard (belonging) to my beloved,
on a (mountain) horn, a son of fatness;
and he dug through it and removed (the stones from) it,
and planted it (with) red-flowering (vines);
and he built a great (high) place [i.e. tower] in its midst,
and also a (wine-)trough he cut out in it;
and he waited for (the) making of (good) grapes,
and it made (only) stinking [i.e. rotten] (one)s (instead).”

Some of the idioms and vocabulary may be a bit obscure to us, but the sense of the song is clear enough. The vineyard was planted in a choice location (the expression “son of fatness” means that it is characterized by richness and fertile [soil]). Moreover, the owner took great care to manage and tend the vines, and yet they only produced foul, rotten grapes. In verses 3-4, it is the owner of the vineyard (i.e. God) who speaks, in the first person. The illustrative meaning of the song follows in vv. 5-7; in particular, verse 7 interprets the vineyard as the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (and their people), and the ‘rotten’ fruit it produces is the wickedness—the injustice, violence, and oppression—prevailing in the land.

The illustration serves to announce the coming judgment, on the northern kingdom of Israel, in particular. The poem is addressed to the people of Judah (v. 3), the southern kingdom, and this suggests that the primary announcement is of the coming Assyrian conquests in the north (c. 734-721 B.C.). The south would face invasion as well, but the fate of the north here serves as a warning for Judah, implying that there is still time for repentance. In all likelihood, this poem was composed prior to the fall of the northern kingdom (described in the oracle that follows in vv. 8-24), meaning sometime before 722/1 B.C.

Isaiah 27:2-5

In light of the earlier poem in 5:1-7, we can now consider the comparable vineyard-poem here in vv. 2-5 of chap. 27.

“On that day [bayyôm hahû°]—
a vineyard of delight, sing for her!” (v. 2)

There is a clear allusion to the earlier “song of love” for the vineyard, though the specific love-poetry context is obscured somewhat by the peculiar detail in this brief line. The expression “vineyard of delight [µeme¼]” captures the sexual/romantic metaphor of the vineyard (on which, see above). Also we have the feminine suffix (here and throughout vv. 3-4), even though the noun kerem (“vineyard”) is masculine. It has been suggested that here h– stands for the masculine suffix o-, using the older (pre-exilic) script. This is possible, and indeed such confusion is evident at many points in the transmission of Old Testament poetry. However, in my view, the use of the feminine gender, in this instance, simply preserves the love-poetry setting, with the vineyard metaphor (= the female beloved).

“I, YHWH, (am the one) guarding her,
(and) at (each) moment I give her to drink,
(so) that no (one) should visit (harm) upon her—
(yes,) night and day do I guard her.” (v. 3)

These lines correspond to the devoted care given to the vineyard by the owner in the original song (5:1b-2, see above). Only now the harsh and bitter juxtaposition of the owner’s care vs. the failure of the vineyard has largely disappeared. Instead, YHWH declares something more along the lines of an unconditional concern for the welfare of the vineyard (Israel). The fate of the vineyard still depends on the fruit it produces, but this is expressed in more hopeful terms:

“There is no hot (anger) for me (about her)—
who would give me thorn and thistle-brush,
I will rush (out) in battle on her,
I will consume her in a blaze as one.” (v. 4)

The message of the vineyard’s failure has softened considerably, represented by its producing “thorn and thistle-brush” rather than “rotten/stinking (grape)s”. There is also no mention of the wickedness in Israel and Judah that will bring about the terrible judgment of conquest and exile. The main reason for this has to do with the presumed 6th century (exilic) setting of chaps. 24-27. The message for Israel/Judah is one of hope and promise for restoration. Indeed, the focus in the Isaian “Apocalypse” is not on the immediate judgment of conquest/exile (by Assyria or Babylon), but on the Judgment that is coming for all nations, at the end of this Age. The warning for God’s people is that they must remain faithful, or risk experiencing the same judgment that faces the wicked nations.

If Israel produces “thorns and thistles” of faithlessness, then it is no human army, but God Himself, who will wage war against her, even as He will against the nations (with His great sword, v. 1). She would then be burnt up in the fire that will consume the earth at the end-time.

The curious syntax in v. 4 may be intended to express this idea that the judgment will come on the wicked/faithless ones in Israel, and not on the land or people as whole. The wording in the second line of v. 4 is: “who(ever) will give me thorn and thistle-bush” —these are the ones, thorns and weeds in the midst of the vineyard, who will be attacked and burned up, “as one” (i.e. all together). In other words, it is not the entire vineyard, but only those parts that produce thorns/weeds. This eschatological message, involving the separation of the righteous and the wicked, is comparable to Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; cf. also his vineyard parable in Luke 13:6-9, and also the vine-illustration in John 15:1-5.

The overriding message of hope, rather than judgment, in this poem (compared with that of 5:1-7) is indicated especially in the closing lines of verse 5:

“And (so) he shall [i.e. let him] take hold of my place of strength,
(and) he shall make peace to(ward) me,
(yes,) peace he shall make to(ward) me.”

The feminine gender (see above) has shifted back to the masculine, indicating that the love-poetry setting has disappeared, and that it is now a more direct reference to Israel as a people. The imperfect verb forms have jussive force, i.e. “let him take hold…”, “let him make…”. The precise meaning of the noun š¹lôm (<olv*) here is a bit difficult to express in English translation. The rendering “peace” (i.e. “make peace”) does not entirely capture the sense, which has more to do with the idea of safety and security, in light of the emphasis on YHWH’s “place of strength” (m¹±ôz zoum*) in the first line. It might perhaps be better rendered “he shall make (himself) safe with me”. By trusting in YHWH, and taking firm hold of Him as a place of refuge, the people of Israel find peace with God and are kept safe from the coming Judgment.