Deepening Love in the Song of Songs
Song of Songs is a collection of love poems, whose connection to each other has been debated in scholarship. Although reconstructing an actual narrative may be difficult, the work as a whole seems to have consistent themes which it explores throughout. One of these themes is the tension between two perceptions of love, each expressed by one of the book’s lovers:
- The first view, which is expressed mainly by a male character referred to as the dod, presumes that the essence of love consists of proudly flaunting one’s beloved before others. I will call this approach, “flaunting love.”
- The contrasting view, generally represented by the female lover (the raaya) or by the anonymous speaker in the song, sees the essence of love as the intimacy between the two lovers. I will call this “love as intimacy.”
These views are not presented as two equal options; rather “flaunting love” is advanced only to be thwarted by the “love as intimacy” approach.
Three Songs with Contrasting Expressions of Love
Three poems from the Song of Songs contain the motif of two opposing perceptions of love:
(1) the dialogue between the raaya and the dod (SoS 1:9-14),
(2) the description of King Solomon’s wedding (3:6-11), and
(3) the dialogue in the final verses (8:13-14).
Dod Longs to Hear Raaya to Sing Publicly (SoS 8:13-14)
I begin with the final poem, the conclusion of the entire Song of Songs, in which the difference between the two perceptions of love is most apparent. The last two verses of the Song present a dialogue between the dod and the raaya, where the man speaks first and the woman responds. The dod entreats the raaya to sing for him and his companions (SoS 8:13).
חֲבֵרִים מַקְשִׁיבִים לְקוֹלֵךְ
(dod) Thou that dwellest in the gardens,
The companions hearken for thy voice!
Cause me to hear it.
The raaya, however, appears indifferent, and requests that the dod leave (SoS 8:14):
אוֹ לְעֹפֶר הָאַיָּלִים
—עַל, הָרֵי בְשָׂמִים.
(raaya) Make haste, my beloved,
And be thou like to a gazelle
Or to a young hart
Upon the mountains of spices.
How do we interpret the words of the raaya? Several scholars indicate that the mountains of spices are a metaphor for either the raaya herself or her love for the dod (cf. SoS 4:6, 13-14).In other words, it seems that the raaya is not banishing the dod, but rather asking him to quickly join her in a place where they can be alone together.
In this reading, the dod (embodying the “flaunting love” ideal) wants to flaunt the raaya’s voice before his friends, but the raaya (representing “love as intimacy”) refuses. She is still interested in him, but not under his conditions: she is not prepared to sing before his friends. Instead, she wants to have an intimate relationship with him, to flee with him to a secluded spot where no one else can see or hear, where she will sing to him (and presumably more than that) alone.
Adorning with Extravagant Jewels vs. Intimate Spices (SoS 1:9-14)
In 1:9-14, the dod begins (vv. 9-11):
לְסֻסָתִי֙ בְּרִכְבֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה
נָאו֤וּ לְחָיַ֙יִךְ֙ בַּתֹּרִ֔ים
תּוֹרֵ֤י זָהָב֙ נַעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֔ךְ
עִ֖ם נְקֻדּ֥וֹת הַכָּֽסֶף:
To a mare in Pharaoh’s chariots
I have compared thee, O my love.
Thy cheeks are comely with circlets,
thy neck with beads.
We will make thee circlets of gold
with studs of silver.
To which the raaya responds (vv. 12-14):
נִרְדִּ֖י נָתַ֥ן רֵיחֽוֹ:
צְר֨וֹר הַמֹּ֤ר׀ דּוֹדִי֙ לִ֔י
בֵּ֥ין שָׁדַ֖י יָלִֽין:
אֶשְׁכֹּ֨ל הַכֹּ֤פֶר׀ דּוֹדִי֙ לִ֔י
בְּכַרְמֵ֖י עֵ֥ין גֶּֽדִי:
While the king sat at his table,
my spikenard sent forth its fragrance.
My beloved is unto me as a bag of myrrh
that lieth betwixt my breasts.
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of henna
in the vineyards of En-gedi.
The dod here compares the raaya to a royal mare adorned with silver and gold ornaments. This singular image, while perplexing to many readers, especially to us moderns, must in any case be interpreted as praise in context.
The raaya’s comment, at first glance, does not seem to be related to the dod’s praise. However, I prefer reading it as a direct response to the dod, for two reasons. First, her use of the term “king” (v. 12) corresponds to the dod’s use of the word “Pharaoh” (v. 9). Second, both speakers hint at an ornament worn by the raaya around her neck – the dod speaks of beads (v. 10), and the raaya of “a bag of myrrh” (v. 13). This suggests that vv. 9-14 should be read as a unit.
Flashy Jewelry vs. Intimate Perfume
This correspondence also reveals the great disparity between them: while the dod speaks of gold and silver ornaments visible to all, the raaya prefers to adorn herself with spices that are fragrant, but invisible to the eye. Moreover, these spices are a metaphor for the dod himself – it is he whom she wears between her breasts, and he is the “cluster of henna in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.”
As in the book’s conclusion, the dod here embodies the ideal of “flaunting love” – he perceives his beloved as a glorious image to present to the world at large, like the royal mare that leads Pharaoh’s chariot in a procession through the streets of the royal city. The raaya, however – in accordance with the “love as intimacy” ideal – views love as a private, not a public affair. All she wants is a close personal relationship with her beloved. She does not want to adorn herself with actual jewels, but only with the dod himself, as if he were an ornament. Her intimate relationship with her beloved truly does resemble spices, for only he who comes near her will be able to smell them.
Solomon’s Bride-less Wedding (SoS 3:6-11)
This poem describes a wedding “from the outside in” – it begins with a view from afar, as the narrator slowly draws closer and closer to the actual procession, until he finally focuses on the groom sitting at the very center. This gradual description appears in four stages:
- A view of the procession from afar, without precisely identifying the figures seen (3:6):
מִי זֹאת, עֹלָה מִן-הַמִּדְבָּר,
מְקֻטֶּרֶת מֹר וּלְבוֹנָה,
מִכֹּל אַבְקַת רוֹכֵל.
Who is this that cometh up out of the wilderness
Like pillars of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
With all powders of the merchant?
- A description of the “mighty men” who surround the groom’s litter (3:7-8):
הִנֵּה, מִטָּתוֹ שֶׁלִּשְׁלֹמֹה—
שִׁשִּׁים גִּבֹּרִים, סָבִיב לָהּ:
כֻּלָּם אֲחֻזֵי חֶרֶב,
אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ עַל-יְרֵכוֹ,
Behold, it is the litter of Solomon;
Threescore mighty men are about it,
Of the mighty men of Israel.
They all handle the sword,
Expert in war;
Every man hath his sword upon his thigh,
Because of dread in the night.
- A description of the litter itself, now called “palanquin” (3:9-10):
אַפִּרְיוֹן, עָשָׂה לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה—
עַמּוּדָיו, עָשָׂה כֶסֶף,
תּוֹכוֹ רָצוּף אַהֲבָה,
King Solomon made himself a palanquin
Of the wood of Lebanon.
He made the pillars thereof of silver,
The top thereof of gold,
The seat of it of purple,
The inside thereof being inlaid with love,
From the daughters of Jerusalem.
- A description of the groom (3:11):
צְאֶנָה וּרְאֶינָה בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן,
וּבְיוֹם, שִׂמְחַת לִבּוֹ.
Go forth and gaze, O ye daughters of Zion,
upon king Solomon,
Even upon the crown
wherewith his mother hath crowned him
In the day of his espousals,
And in the day of the gladness of his heart.
The Missing Bride
The bride is absent in this poem. We would expect to see her described, since the first source opens with the question מי זאת – “Who is this (feminine) that cometh up out of the wilderness.” Psalm 45, an ancient Israelite wedding poem, includes praise of both groom and bride; There too, although the royal groom is the dominant figure, the poet praises the bride as well (in vv. 11-16); we would expect the same here.
Explaining the Bride’s Absence: Critique of “Flaunting Love”
I propose that the omission of the bride in our song is related to a number of elements that threaten the harmony in King Solomon’s palace (or harem) at his wedding:
- Many additional figures are near the litter – these are the bodyguards, the “mighty men” who surround the litter at night.
- The מטה , which usually means “bed,” is guarded here specifically at night; this may reflect negatively on the couple’s marital intimacy.
- In addition, the litter/bed is inlaid with the love of the “daughters of Jerusalem,” other women who are admirers of the king.
- The mention of bodyguards raises a negative motif: “Every man hath his sword upon his thigh, because of dread in the night.”
Thus, it appears that this poem criticizes the king’s wedding, by mentioning fear and other negative elements that threaten the intimacy of the wedded couple.
The narrator of this poem depicts a spatial description of King Solomon’s wedding from the outside in, and it is not a flattering picture of intimate love. At first, the viewer sees the wedding from afar. Then, as he gets closer he takes note of the warriors surrounding the litter. Next, he talks of the structure of the litter (the bed) itself, and only at the end does he describe the king who sits within, alone without the bride.
The male lover—in this case named as King Solomon and not the generic dod—is here alone because, as in the other two poems discussed here, he desires only to flaunt his beloved in public. He expresses his love for the bride through a lavish wedding that the public is invited to observe. The poet’s reaction is that of a bystander who describes the wedding with a critical eye, claiming that the life of King Solomon lacks intimacy, both during the actual wedding and afterwards as well.
The Song of Song’s Rejection of Flaunting Love
This rejection of King Solomon’s display is consistent with the approach of the raaya in the previously cited poems. The speaker in the song rejects both the wedding and the couple’s relationship, which may possess royal splendor and majesty, but lack true mutual intimacy and love. In the end, the poet places himself firmly on the side of the raaya and not the dod. That is to say, the author of the one biblical collection of love poems advocates for the woman’s desire for intimacy and against the man’s push for public display.
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April 21, 2016
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Dr. Baruch Alster teaches Bible at Givat Washington College in Israel. He received his Ph.D. from Bar Ilan University in 2007, writing his dissertation on the history of Jewish interpretation of the Song of Songs. He has published articles on various aspects of the Bible and the history of Jewish exegesis, and is currently working on a critical edition of a medieval French commentary on the Megillot.
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