The Song of Songs

Chapter 4

Chapter 3 Chapter 5

Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, 1917

Thoughts on the text

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair;
    Thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil;
Thy hair is as a flock of goats,
    that trail down from mount Gilead.
Thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil That she wears a veil may suggest that she is not so impoverished after all. In any case, it is likely that she was not wearing it when she was ‘touched by the sun’ in the first chapter. In Arab countries, girls only wear the veil after puberty, or after marriage. So the girl may have gotten her sun-tan before the age of eligibility, when she would doubtless be put to work by the family, even if they are doing OK financially (OK, meaning that they own the flocks and the vineyard, not that they were wealthy).
Doves tend to hide. That her eyes are compared to them suggests that she hides bashfully behind her veil.
The flock of goats, seen from a distance, seem to flow as they move. So does her hair.
2 Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes all shaped alike,
    Which are come up from the washing;
Whereof all are paired,
    and none faileth among them.
all shaped alike The NIV reads ‘just shorn’ which makes sense to me looking at the Hebrew.
Whereof all are paired, and none faileth among them. [e.g. they bear twins, and none miscarry] Her teeth look healthy and none are missing.
3 Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet,
    And thy mouth is comely;
Thy temples are like a pomegranate split open
    Behind thy veil.
Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet Egyptian women used something like lipstick to increase their attractiveness. Her lips are red, expensively so, not thin.
And thy mouth is comely This is a play on words. The word for ‘mouth’ is unusual: midbar, which in another context would mean ‘wilderness.’ ‘Lovely’ (na’weh) is also not the word he usually uses (yafah), and also means ‘oasis.’ Her ‘wilderness is an oasis’ is lying in the background of this singular non-metaphor in the poem.
4 Thy neck is like the tower of David
    Builded with turrets,
Whereon there hang a thousand shields,
    All the armour of the mighty men.
Neck like the tower Long necks were considered beautiful (also in Egypt)
Builded with turrets or ‘built in courses’ is a reference to the decorated necklaces that were popular (these necklaces have been found in Mesopotamia and Cyprus, too, so this wasn’t just Egyptian style. The thousand shields are the beads.
5 Thy two breasts are like two fawns
    That are twins of a gazelle,
    Which feed among the lilies.
Gazelles are the image of beauty and grace in Prv. 5.19 as well (that also includes breasts in the context).
6 Until the day breathe,
    And the shadows flee away,
I will get me to the mountain of myrrh,
    And to the hill of frankincense.
Until the day breathe In 2.17, she told him to be gone by morning. Here he uses the same language to describe his intentions by morning. There, the primary meaning of the mountains may have been literal, here, not a chance. The spices (myrrh and frankincense) do not grow in Israel at all; he is clearly talking about her spices and her mountains that he intends to explore. In vs. 7, he tells her what he found there.
For obvious reasons, not everyone agrees on the question of whether the couple is sexually active yet or not. If not, he is describing what he longs to do, or rather, perhaps, what he is planning to end up doing.
7 Thou art all fair, my love;
    And there is no spot in thee.
Thou art fair…no spot in thee. The Christian interpretation is clear enough. This is how God sees us, but we don't see ourselves that way. Our awareness of our shortcomings is, at one level, useful because it keeps us from pride and complacency. But God’s real goal for us is that we can see ourselves, and others, as he does.
4.8-5.1 As the boy’s description continues, he moves from the physical to the intangible, and in particular to her distance from him, even though they are together.
8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride,
    With me from Lebanon;
Look from the top of Amana,
    From the top of Senir and Hermon,
From the lions’ dens,
    From the mountains of the leopards.
Lebanon, various mountains, lions’ dens. She is not in those distant or dangerous places but he feels that way.
9 Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my bride;
    Thou hast ravished my heart
       with one of thine eyes,
       with one bead of thy necklace.
Thou hast ravished my heart ‘Captured my heart’ rather than ravished or sexually excited, although she has certainly done those things as well.
My sister, my bride This does not mean anything like ‘Christian sister.’ I have read that his calling her ‘sister’ means that they are the same social class. You might be able to argue this from Mesopotamian hieros gamos literature, which describe, specifically the romance between the gods (usually Dumuzi and Inanna, or their functional equivalents in parallel cultures) where they actually are siblings.
In some political literature, fellow officials might refer to each other as siblings where they are emphasizing similar political positions. But I think the better parallel is with the Egyptian love poetry where the lovers call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ as a term of romantic endearment. In Prv 7.4 it means something like ‘an intimate companion.’
Eyes…bead. ‘Strand’ rather than ‘bead.’ But in Akkadian, ‘eye’ (also cognate) is used as a term for a precious stone. It may be doing double duty here, both for her eyes and for the necklace.
10 How fair is thy love, my sister, my bride!
    How much better is thy love than wine!
And the smell of thine ointments
    than all manner of spices!
Bride is also an expression of endearment, or hopeful longing, as in v. 1 (not a description of current marital status).
In the same way Christians understand themselves as the ‘ Bride of Christ,’ but it is a union that awaits consumation until his return in glory.
11 Thy lips, O my bride, drop honey—
    Honey and milk are under thy tongue;
And the smell of thy garments
    is like the smell of Lebanon.
As I noted in ch. 2, ‘taste’ is often used as a reference to lovers’ activities with each other. The smell of Lebanon refers to the cedars.
12 A garden shut up is my sister, my bride;
    A spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
A garden shut up (locked). As I read this, she is protecting her virtue, although those who think they are already sexually active read this as meaning that she is faithful to him. If the former, he is clearly anxious to unlock the garden.
fountain sealed . Same as ‘locked garden.’ In Prv 5.15ff, this clearly refers to a woman’s sexuality; vss. 16f is suggesting that if the man can’t keep his zipper zipped, his wife won’t be true to him either.
13 Thy shoots are a park of pomegranates,
    With precious fruits;
    Henna with spikenard plants,
Thy shoots are a park Fox: “Your watered fields.” Some commentators (e.g. Pope, not surprisingly) prefer ‘channel’ and want to see in it a reference to her vagina. The New Living translation follows this line: “Your thighs shelter a paradise.” However, the young man has moved beyond her physical features at this point; of course, like the fountain in the last verse, it still has to do with her sexuality.
14    Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
    With all trees of frankincense;
    Myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices.
or him
Thou art a fountain of gardens,
    A well of living waters,
    And flowing streams from Lebanon.
Thou art. JPS and most translation assume that this is still him speaking. But the Hebrew does not specify a person, so the NIV footnotes that it could be her speaking here (“I am a fountain…”). The last verse that clearly defined the gender of the speaker was v. 13, and it was him. But it is her in the next verse, which could allow this to be the transition point. I am inclined to like that—it nicely sets up her comments in the next verse (spices may flow out). The NIV committee apparently went with him, though, since they only footnoted the possibility rather than putting that in the primary text.
Fountain Back with the fountain analogy to her sexuality.
Awake, O north wind;
    And come, thou south;
Blow upon my garden,
    That the spices thereof may flow out.
Let my beloved come into his garden,
    And eat his precious fruits.
Blow upon my garden,
   That the spices thereof may flow out
. The erotic imagery here is hard to miss.
Let my beloved come into his garden. Her garden has become his garden.

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