Brief Exegesis: Song of Solomon 2-3.4

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There is so much more to be said about this wonderful book, but I only have 1500 words.

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The Song of Solomon is a work which has often been purposely clouded in allegorical mystery; however as this exegesis will show, the work fits well into the subtle, but sexually passionate, protest songs as often song by women in the Ancient Near East, with this passage in particular showing the work of the more a humanistic Deuteronomist[1] mindset. We cannot interpret the Song either hyper-literally, or hyper-erotically, but must rely upon social context to drive our understanding of this deeply beautiful text. We should de-euphemize the text, setting the whole work within the frame of the ANE love poem as often performed (and ‘written’ in some cases) by women who were challenging the patriarchal worldview at the moment.

Contextual Analysis

The passage in question is 2.1-3.4 which is a song sung by the Beloved (female), first to her Lover (male), then to the Maidens (audience), which includes an oath, an interaction between the two, and finally a story of longing. 2.1-3 contains a sort of emblematic parallel which has the Beloved speaking (v1), the Lover (v2) and the Beloved again (v3), with each line containing nearly the same thought. The flower mentioned in verse 1 is often translated as ‘rose’, which would have made it nearly impossible to fit within the author’s timeframe, as the introduction of the rose is late to Palestine. Instead, it is better translated as meadow-saffron (NET, 2.1 note). The saffron plant was used in a variety of ways, and more notably in Egypt as an aphrodisiac[2]. It would have been a desert flower and was used as a symbol of God’s pleasure with Israel (Isa 35.1). This agricultural imagery is not reserved only for the Beloved, as the apple tree is used to represent the Lover. The apple was often times a symbol of romantic as well as sexual love (S.N Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite, 100-101) and is used in the Song to represent sexual desire (2.5, 7, 9) and in other parts of the Hebrew bible to represent fertility (Joel 1.12). Verse 3 is important in our later discussion because it shows that the Beloved is taking pleasure in (delight) in the kisses (fruit) of her Lover. The shade mentioned in this verse should be seen as a sort of protection afforded the Beloved by the Lover (cf John 4.6) especially given the fact that her skin has been darkened due to her own management of her vineyards. The temptation to interpret this passion in a hyper-erotic manner leaves us without the proper context. Vineyards are used as a symbol of sexuality (2.15), but the Beloved has been left on her own to ‘manage’ this field, which informs us that she was an independent person who wasn’t merely being passed around as property, but could in fact engage in courtship herself and select her own mate.

In 2.4-6, we may see signs of a fertility ritual, but what we more easily see is the expression of the sexual passion which the Beloved has for her Lover. The LXX, later mimicked by medieval Hebrew MSS (NET, note on 2.4), casts this verse in the imperative, so that this entire passage is seen as the Beloved demanding to be brought into the banquet hall and to be refreshed due to her lovesickness. The commands are in plural imperatives which give us the notion that the speech is meant to be given passionately.  The foods mentioned in v5 are foods often associated with ANE virility rites (cf 2 Sam 6.19; 1 Chron 16.3) and are cures for what is only best described as a near death state caused by the lack of sexual passion. These demands are met by the Lover who takes her into his arms for an embrace which may in fact be sexual union. Regardless of the actual outcome of the demands, it is noticeable that it is the woman who initiates the actions, not through beguiling or seduction, but by demanding the embrace of her Lover.

2.7-9 is the oath of the Beloved in which there is almost a step back from the demands presented in 2.4-6. Note that the oath is made ‘by the gazelles and the young does’, replacing the ancient witnesses of the heavens and the earth (Deut 32.1). These were symbols of romantic love (Pro 5.19), with other ANE literature associating them with sexual fertility. It was not uncommon to use the animals in this passage as an incantation for fertility, as we find in Mesopotamia, “With the love-[making of the mountain goat] six times, with the lovemaking of a stag seven times, with the lovemaking of a partridge twelve times, make love to me! Make love to me because I am young! And the lovemaking of a stag…Make love to me!” (R. D. Biggs, Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations [TCS], 26, lines 4-8).”

2.10-17 is an interaction between the two lovers. The turtledove in v12 (and dove in v14) was a symbol of romantic love and is used here by both speakers. In 2.10-17 we return to the notion of security for the Beloved, as we note that she is in the clefts of the rocks (cf Jer 48.28) where her Lover must find her. No doubt, managing her own vineyards, she would need to have a secure place from which to commune with her Lover. In 2.15, we counter the temptation to see her as a defenseless woman with more imperative demands of her Beloved as well as a return to the euphemism of the Vineyards. In 2.17, we find another temptation to interpret this passage too aggressively, but here it may be one in which we yield too. Verse 17 is clearly an invitation, or demand, for a night long furlough into sexual passion. HALOT notes that the phrase “to turn” means to sit at the table and is heavily nuanced. If so, then the invite is for the Lover to turn into the Beloved, which is accompanied again with the symbols of sexual virility.

3.1-4 is set immediately after the invite in 2.17, leaving us with a Beloved longing for her Lover who has disappeared. She searches for him in the city streets and being found by the night watchmen finds her lover. She takes him to her mother’s house, which can stand for several things such as the place of marriage proposal, or that the mother’s house is the place where consummation may happen. The latter is probable, given that in 8.5, consummation occurs under the apple tree where the Lover was conceived. Regardless, the mother’s chamber was a private place where men weren’t allowed.

Synthesis

The woman presented in the Song of Songs is not the usual woman as seen in the wide range of biblical literature. While Ruth is often praised for her initiative, women are generally used as a symbol of what makes a man fall; however, in the Song, we have a woman who is equal in the chase, so to speak, and perhaps even more aggressive, than that of her Lover. It is not condemned in anyway (neither are other excesses), but has long been considered as something holy. Following Foucault, Laqueur and others, Carr supposes that this Song may have helped, or been intended to help, shape sexuality in Ancient Israel. It would have had social predecessors, such as Deuteronomy, which sought to shape the community. What is seen is that this work, which is similar to those performed (and in some cases ‘written) by women in other ANE societies, serves as a patriarchal protest and sets the female on par with that of the male. Carr notes (p240) that the Israelite male had certain rights over that of the female, and yet here, it is the female demanding and exercising her rites. The Beloved is not the archetypical woman, but serves in the same way that Deuteronomy does, to counter established norms and perhaps to try to caress Israelite society to a certain point, and this point is made clear by the (social) obstacles they must continuously overcome (i.e, the night watchmen).

Reflection

I am reminded of the early Christian sermon found in 2nd Clement (ch 12) which supposes that the Kingdom of God will come, “When the two shall be one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.” The Song of all Songs provides for us today a better understanding of the development of Israelite sexuality, which may serve to help modern believers address such topics with a more canonical focus. The female is aggressive for her lover, and is neither ashamed of it nor shamed by others (Tradition) for it.


[1] I note the influence of the Deuteronomistic way of thinking, especially in assigning humanity to God (see Carr 244-245). Song reflects the attitude of social change as found in Deuteronomy.

[2] Willard, P. (2001), Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice, Beacon Press, ISBN 0-8070-5008-3, retrieved 2009-11-23

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Post By Joel L. Watts (10,172 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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5 thoughts on “Brief Exegesis: Song of Solomon 2-3.4”

  1. It’s an essay that informs me a little about scholarly perspective. For this I am grateful since it is not always that I pay attention to such a perspective. I don’t think the Song is ‘meant with intention’ to be utilitarian such as might be read in your comment “this Song may have helped, or been intended to help, shape sexuality in Ancient Israel”. I don’t read the Scripture this way – though it seems many do impute redactional motives as having an explicit social purpose.

    I understand that it is Jewish practice to read the Song at Pentecost and that the male reader is instructed to identify with the Bride. This is how I was taught to read it, but I can’t tell you when or where this authority came from – no footnote. It was about 35 or 40 years ago. I do not regret the instruction.

    What was intended to shape sexual behaviour in Israel? That is a good question. Does circumcision for instance? Certainly the holiness code. Equally, it seems likely if not obvious that some cult practices indicate that sexuality needed shaping – as it does in every age.

    Perhaps though the approach is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope as if scholarship makes everything seem farther away. We cannot separate ourselves from our sexual being – as Paul notes ‘they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh and its desires’. But I can’t reason about the Anointing in the TNK from this point of view. What I can do is observe what God says about David and Bathsheba in a story where sex and power are abused. (2 Sam 12:8).

    In other words, I don’t think the allegorization of the Song is an escape from or an avoidance of its true nature as an erotic poem. ‘purposely clouded in allegorical mystery’ should drop the purposely – who purposed that it should be cloudy? Perhaps it is a cloud of glory that prevents one from entering the reality that – my beloved is mine and I am his.

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding.

      I agree and would yield to many of your points. This is something for later, of course, but I think that works such as these should be regularly examined, and see how it shapes us.

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