The Song of Songs

Chapter 8

Chapter 7 Back to main page

Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, 1917

Thoughts on the text

Oh that thou wert as my brother,
    That sucked the breasts of my mother!
When I should find thee without,
       I would kiss thee;
    Yea, and none would despise me.
Ok, if my plot reading has been anything like right, it seems like we are now in ‘another place and another time.’ It is hard to think of any way or reading this last chapter without going there, but there are a few possibilities:
1. I have been completely off base; this couple has never gotten married—they just jumped the gun. But then we get to vs. 8 and she hasn’t even hit puberty yet, or maybe she just had her first menses. In any case, her brothers are unaware of any such development (but we’ll get there).
2. They have secretly married, but they don’t want anyone to know. This also doesn’t cut it since marriage was not a legal entity like it is now. You couldn’t sneak around to the justice of the peace and secretly hook up; it was a big family affair without which there was no marriage. The social aspects, not the religious ones or the legal ones (neither existed), defined the wedding.
3. Another possibility is that we just have a group of appended related poems, but the plot section is over. In this case, the players are still the same (it seems to me), but it is left to us to plug them in where we want. As a song writer, this happens to me all the time. I will finish a song, but have two pages of ideas that didn’t make it—longer than the finished song. Some of those ideas are pretty good; I stick them aside and hope they will find a different song, and sometimes they do. Sometimes not.
In any case, the plot in this little section is clear enough. She wants to have some ‘public show of affection’ with her guy. If she really were his sister (remember he calls her that all the time) she could get away with it. She could take him home, even kiss him (Juice of my pomegranate). But alas.
2 I would lead thee,
       and bring thee into my mother’s house,
    That thou mightest instruct me;
I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine,
    Of the juice of my pomegranate.
3 His left hand should be under my head,
    And his right hand should embrace me.
4 ‘I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem:
    Why should ye awaken, or stir up love,
    Until it please?’
At this point, it looks like I was mostly on track. She has been holding him off, but now she has decided to sleep with him even though they are not married. I suspect this happened more than evangelical preachers want to tell you. Not just because people were just as human two and a half millennia ago as today (they were), but because marriage was controlled by the parents—the father in particular. If lover-boy was lower class, they might not have given their permission (upward mobility was fine with parents, downward mobility was usually only acceptable for damaged children or children way down on the sibling priority list).
There was a probably not-so-rarely-used loophole, though (Ex. 22.16-17). If the couple had already had sex, there was a shotgun wedding unless the father vehemently objected. This was probably rare, though, since his non-virginal daughter has now become unmarketable. The boy is compelled to submit to the father’s bride-price demands, and the couple may never divorce (which also means the dowry does not need to be that big, (or nonexistant) since it was usually just insurance against divorce—another plus for Dad). Finally, fathers did love their daughters even then. When couples desperately wanted to marry, this was a way to force the family’s hand. Obviously, it would need to be a ‘for love’ marriage—they are going to be poorer and stuck with each other. That this couple qualifies is, I think, clear enough.
Vs. 3-4 are largely references back to earlier moments ( 2.6-7; 3.4-5).
Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness,
    Leaning upon her beloved?
This is clearly reminiscent of 3.6 (and clarifies that passage).
Under the apple-tree I awakened thee;
    There thy mother was in travail with thee;
    There was she in travail and brought thee forth.
Here we find that she herself does what she asked the Girl-chorus not to do: she wakes up her boyfriend.
The reference to his conception harkens back to the reference to the place of her conception in 3.4. That had referred basically to her taking him home to meet the folks. Odd that his conception would be out under the trees, um, unless he were a love-child of the sort described earlier. The plot thickens.
By the way, this seems to be how Jerome interpreted it, although given his attitude about sex [he wondered whether women who had been raped could even be saved] he saw it negatively: “There your mother was corrupted; there she who bore you was violated.” Ibn Ezra says that she concludes this must have happened because his “scent is like the apricot among the trees of the woods.” The story of Jacob and the sheep reflects the same attitude—the circumstances of sex determine the quality of the offspring.
6 Set me as a seal upon thy heart,
    As a seal upon thine arm;
For love is strong as death,
    Jealousy is cruel as the grave;
The flashes thereof are flashes of fire,
    A very flame of the LORD.
For love is strong as death. ‘Love’ should be translated ‘envy,’ or something to that effect, and is parallel with the next line. She is not jealous of a competing lover; she is completely confident in him. This may refer to anger at her parents for trying to thwart their romance, or the chorus, or her brothers…anyone who gets in their way.
A very flame. Fox: ‘A raging flame’ The flame of Yah! Again, a possible reference to the divine, although it could simply be a superlative. Elohim is used this way in Jonah, and usually translated ‘great’ (“Nineveh, that great city”=literally Nineveh, the city of god(s)).
7 Many waters cannot quench love,
    Neither can the floods drown it;
If a man would give
       all the substance of his house for love,
    He would utterly be contemned.
Now vss. 6-7 are making more sense. “I gave you my cherry; we are bound together forever.” M.V. Fox calls these verses, “the highpoint of the poem.” She has discovered the meaning of love, and it is the key to freedom. She can no longer fall victim to the mocking of her peers (the girl-chorus), or the abuse of her brothers. “She knows love, and knows that no one can stand up to the fierce power it bestows on its possessors.”
Reenter the brothers. As I alluded to earlier (1.5) it may not be Dad that objects to the marriage. He has never been mentioned as a character; I am thinking he is dead. That significantly elevates the role of the brothers; they are now in loco parentis, even if Mom is still around. It would explain their apparent authority over her in the first chapter, and their apparent concern regarding her betrothal here.
We have a little sister,
    And she hath no breasts;
What shall we do for our sister
    In the day when she shall be spoken for?
But they still can’t see her as an adult. Lover-boy has been gushing all over the place about her breasts, but the brothers can’t see them. They wonder what they will do if someone is interested in her. I am inclined to think that they are not even aware that she has started her periods, and so is now eligible for marriage, but they are certainly aware that the time is coming (like the priests in the Proto-gospel of James who want to get Mary out of the temple before she defiles it).
9 If she be a wall,
    We will build upon her a turret of silver;
And if she be a door,
    We will enclose her with boards of cedar.
A number of scholars want to read wall and door (the word refers to the actual door, not to the entry way) as references to chastity, which they are promising to protect. We the readers suspect that bird has flown.
Another possible reading is that they simply don’t see in her what her lover does. They are planning her wedding and their goal is to gussy her up so no one notices how uninteresting she is (flat as a wall, plain as a door). This reading, at least, indicates that they have assented to the marriage and are now on her side.
I am a wall,
    And my breasts like the towers thereof;
Then was I in his eyes
    As one that found peace.
She may have swallowed their view of her at one point, but her beau has convinced her otherwise (she likes her breasts just fine). [Side note: I used to teach a class called "Women in the Biblical world." Needless to say the vast majority of the students were women (on this occasion, one guy) so they got reasonably comfortable and asked me one day why men like big breasts. I told them that while they provide an advertising advantage (visibility), most men just like breasts—big, little, medium—we just like them. The one male student concurred.] The second part of this verse either means, “He (her lover) sees me as someone who brings good stuff,” or “But now you see me as one who has found serenity.” The difference lies in the reading of one letter which can easily be mistaken. So she could be saying, “I know you don’t think much of me, but he does (and that gives me self-confidence).” Alternatively, she could mean, “You can easily see how he has made me feel.” Shalom (peace, good stuff, serenity) can have a wide range of meanings.
As I aluded to earlier, our self-image needs to be defined by God's view of us.
Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon;
    He gave over the vineyard unto keepers;
Every one for the fruit thereof
    Brought in a thousand pieces of silver.
Most interpreters assign this and the next verse to the girl. For Fox, the references to the vineyard are the girl’s own imagery for her own womanhood, as noted back in 1.6. I do not dispute the imagery, but in this passage, I think the comparison is the boy vs. Solomon (the girl vs. doesn’t work as well for me). If I am right he is picking up the simile and applying it to himself as the one to whom her womanhood has been granted.
Read this way, this is what I see. The boy makes another analogy at Solomon’s expense. Solomon has a vineyard at a place named “Really rich guy,” or “Husband of a multitude” (depending on how you read it). He has to hire people to take care of it (after all, he is busy being king). He makes about 83%, but his laborers take home about 17%. In contrast, lover-boy tends his vineyard all by himself. He gets 100%.
One commentator (Marcia Falk) points out that the other difference has to do with relationships. For Solomon, wives are property which he uses. For the lover, his beloved is his life.
12 My vineyard, which is mine, is before me;
    Thou, O Solomon, shalt have the thousand,
    And those that keep the fruit thereof two hundred.
13ndash;14 This ending is odd enough that some commentators assume that there is a missing ending (comparable to the end of Mark). Others point out that this directs us back to the beginning, creating a loop, “for love is an ongoing experience, and marriage not the end of the story.” (Fox).
13 Thou that dwellest in the gardens,
    The companions hearken for thy voice:
    ‘Cause me to hear it.’
He seems to be starting to hang out with his buddies from the bowling league (Thou that dwellest in the gardens may refer to young men who are still looking for their ‘one and only’s)—his friends from his single days. Now he wants bragging rights for his ‘conquest.’
Make haste, my beloved,
    And be thou like to a gazelle
or to a young hart
    Upon the mountains of spices.
Make haste. Brħ (using ħ for het) usually means something like ‘flee.’ She clearly doesn’t mean ‘run off to some other place.’ She means, “Break away from your buds, and come here.” We already know about these ‘mountains of spices’ she wants him to explore (like one of those horny animals). But ‘make haste’ could well be a double-entendre. Another form of brħ is used in Ex 36.33 for a bar passing through its sockets, and it is also used for bolting a lock, as she is asking him to do with his ‘locked garden.’
Of course, the Christian sees in this a parallel with the penultimate verse of Revelation:
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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