Monday, October 15, 2012

Song of Songs 5:2-6:3: Crazed Desire

2I slept, but my heart was awake. Listen! my beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.” 3I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? 4My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. 5I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. 6I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. 7Making their rounds in the city the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls. 8I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.
9What is your beloved more than another beloved, O fairest among women? What is your beloved more than another beloved, that you thus adjure us? 10My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand. 11His head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven. 12His eyes are like doves beside springs of water, bathed in milk, fitly set. 13His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh. 14His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires. 15His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars. 16His speech is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
Where has your beloved gone, O fairest among women? Which way has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you? 2My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies. 3I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he pastures his flock among the lilies. (NRSV)

This section of the Song has long challenged interpreters. How much double entendre is there? What is the function of the beating at the hands of the guards? I believe, the first is the harder of the two questions. As my interpretation will show, I come down somewhere in the middle. Like the rest of the Song, it is erotic, but not explicit.[1]

The woman begins in a dreamlike state, yearning for he beloved. And in her dream he comes, knocking at the door. She's laying in bed naked, fantasizing, trying to conjure up his presence. She must continue, it feels so good, so real. He must be here! She jumps out of bed to seek him but he is not there. She hastily throws on a little clothing and goes out in search of him.

At this point we should pause the narrative to make a couple of points. There are a couple of interesting parallels to other Old Testament passages. First, the mention of myrrh lies in common with the immoral woman of Proverbs 7 (a passage paralleled elsewhere by the Song). Second, the mantle mentioned in verse 7 is mentioned only one other time, in a very negative description of the flirty women in Jerusalem in Isaiah 3. Could these be subtle clues that the woman is a negative example to avoid?

When you consider what happens to her at the hands of the guard, I might suggest, 'yes.' Her unchecked passion for her beloved leads her to receive punishment and embarrassment at the hands of the guards, the precise nature of which is left to the imagination of the audience.

Verse 9 poses a translation problem. Most render it as the NRSV, but Fox argues that she's actually adjuring the daughters of Jerusalem to not tell her beloved of her shameful behavior. If this is the case, it further strengthens my argument, though it is not strictly necessary.

The second section is another attempt at conjuring up the man. She describes him part by part just as he did to her. She enjoys every inch of him. Most of the imagery focuses on his strength and sensuality. His body is something that she takes pleasure in with all of her senses. And this time she does successfully bring him to her. The daughters of Jerusalem (perhaps sarcastically) are ready to go seek for him, but there is no need. He's pasturing his sheep and they are enjoying the pleasure that they find in one another.

This passage is fascinating as we see a woman who is every bit as lustful as men are typically portrayed. That may offend those of us with Victorian sensibilities, but it strikes me as a very realistic and possible picture of one teenage girl. The big question is why does the Bible portray this girl negatively (at least by my interpretation)? I'm going to leave that question hanging out there for further thought until I finish the Song (hopefully before the new year). I'll tackle it in a wrap up post when we can look at the Song as a whole.

[1] While I think Fox underestimates the erotic nature of the poem, Garrett and Pope definitely go too far.