Monday, August 13, 2012

Song of Songs 3:6-11: Hope or Delusion?

6 What is that coming up from the wilderness,   like a column of smoke,perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,   with all the fragrant powders of the merchant? 7 Look, it is the litter of Solomon!Around it are sixty mighty men   of the mighty men of Israel, 8 all equipped with swords   and expert in war,each with his sword at his thigh   because of alarms by night. 9 King Solomon made himself a palanquin   from the wood of Lebanon. 10 He made its posts of silver,   its back of gold, its seat of purple;its interior was inlaid with love.   Daughters of Jerusalem, 11   come out.Look, O daughters of Zion,   at King Solomon,at the crown with which his mother crowned him   on the day of his wedding,   on the day of the gladness of his heart. (NRSV)

This is one of the tougher passages to fit into the overall flow of the Song. It's much too early in the Song to be the wedding of the couple.[1] Additionally, it's quite difficult to determine the reference of verse 6. Part of the reason for the difficulty is the presence of a strong shift in the Song. The reference to the wilderness forms a hard break from the prior fecund settings. It also signifies anticipation and hope. The wilderness is where the people of Israel wandered waiting for the day that God would give them the land they had yearned for. His presence led them as a pillar of cloud. The woman is overcome with desire to be married to the man.[2] So she dreams.

The man is just a poor shepherd but in the eyes of the woman he is beyond comparison. He travels in a litter guarded by 60 men, double the number of men David had. He is unsurpassed in power, especially in power over her. The guard is to serve as their protection, ensuring their ability to overcome all obstacles to get married.[3] The palanquin races up on them like a Bentley. No expense was spared in its construction and only the greatest could ever possess it. And it has come for her. The woman is overjoyed at its site and begs her friends to come see the spectacle and partaker in her happiness. She is so in love that she is in another world. 

There are two ways one could understand the poem depending on how one understands the song as a whole. It could be a song of hope. The woman badly desires to marry the man and its an expression of her hope and fancy. It could be the superlative of a lover.

There is another way to look at it. Ibn Ezra took the comparison to Solomon to be mocking the splendor of Solomon and contrasting it with the beautiful simplicity earlier described in the Song. I think he's partially on the right path here. There is a clear contrast with the beautiful pastoral scenes from the beginning of the Song, but it's might be intended to show the woman in a bad light. The charm of the earlier poems is lost here. Rather than being an expression of hope it may represent the dreams of a woman a little out of touch with reality. Just as in the last section, it could be the tale of her excesses. Then are the daughters of Jerusalem called upon again to witness just how far she is from having a firm grasp on reality?

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[1] Chapter 5 becomes impossible to integrate if the Song is telling some sort of sequential story.

[2] As Garrett notes, the speaker must be the same throughout the entire section, however, it's obvious in verses 7-11 that the woman is the speaker, so she must be speaking in verse 6. I find his insistence on the chorus being the speaker curious.

[3] I think this may be be related to the story of Tobias' marriage and protection by the angel Raphael in Tobit. It may be stressing God's favorable view of the man. 

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