Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Song of Songs 4:1-5:1: Seductive Compliment

How beautiful you are, my love,
   how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
   behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
   moving down the slopes of Gilead.
2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
   that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
   and not one among them is bereaved.
3 Your lips are like a crimson thread,
   and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
   behind your veil.
4 Your neck is like the tower of David,
   built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
   all of them shields of warriors.
5 Your two breasts are like two fawns,
   twins of a gazelle,
   that feed among the lilies.
6 Until the day breathes
   and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
   and the hill of frankincense.
7 You are altogether beautiful, my love;
   there is no flaw in you.
8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride;
   come with me from Lebanon.
Depart from the peak of Amana,
   from the peak of Senir and Hermon,
from the dens of lions,
   from the mountains of leopards.
9 You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
   you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
   with one jewel of your necklace.
10 How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
   how much better is your love than wine,
   and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
11 Your lips distil nectar, my bride;
   honey and milk are under your tongue;
   the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.
12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
   a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
13 Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
   with all choicest fruits,
   henna with nard,
14 nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
   with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
   with all chief spices—
15 a garden fountain, a well of living water,
   and flowing streams from Lebanon.
16 Awake, O north wind,
   and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden
   that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
   and eat its choicest fruits.
1I come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
   I gather my myrrh with my spice,
   I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
   I drink my wine with my milk.
Eat, friends, drink,
   and be drunk with love. (NRSV)

This is the first long section spoken largely from the voice of the man. The key is to remember to whom this poem is uttered. It is to the woman, not to the audience. It's a poem of praise to her, not a description of what she looks like.[1] While sexually charged it is also not pornographic. Its goal is to seduce.

The man praises her eyes, hair, teeth, lips, neck, cheek, and breasts. She is a goddess in his eyes, but rather than say that, he describes her in goddess-esque terms. One could just use an adjective to describe each part. Her hair is thick and wild, her eyes pure, her teeth white, her lips red, her neck well ornamented, her cheeks vibrant and seductive, and her breasts young and lively. Wasn't that boring? Instead the man engages in the hard work of making metaphors. Rather than capturing all of these desirable traits descriptively, he unleashes the beauty of the woman more profoundly than if he had described her.

The second half of the poem mirrors the first, turning his attention to the joy of indulging in all she has to offer. It's a sensual treat, as always in the Song, engaging sight, smell, touch, and taste. A strong sense of longing emerges. The second half of the poem reveals his desire. His desire is to see, smell, touch, and taste again. Yet the woman is removed from him. She has removed herself.[1] Yet she proves willing to let him in. His poem has done the trick. He has obtained what he desires. His words have put her at his mercy. They will consume until intoxicated.

There is a sense of beauty in the way that the relationship between the man and the woman is portrayed. The man isn't demanding his woman do what he wants. He's trying to get her to volunteer. There is no manipulation and while erotic, his compliments are tasteful. We know that the woman desires the man, too. So she gives in pretty easily. At the level of the relationship between the man and woman, this poem exemplifies one form that a healthy relationship can take.

As I've mentioned in several posts, I'm not convinced that this is all there is to the poem. I must wonder if the woman isn't intended as a negative example to other young, unmarried girls. She gives in easily to her love's compliments and requests. It may represent the parental desire to control their daughters' sexuality. 'No matter what they say, don't be like this woman and give in.' Stay in control of yourself. Don't be intoxicated. As Longman points out (though he doesn't really do anything with it), two pieces of the description of the woman are paralleled in Proverbs as descriptions of the immoral woman (oil + honey mouth, plus the reference to cinnamon). This could be a case of intertextuality supporting the case for an ironic reading of the Song.

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[1] Exum makes this point forcefully.

[2] While not persuaded by Garrett's overall thesis, I do believe he does justice to the overall tone of the poem and rightly sees it as the man's attempt to get the woman to give up that which she is at the moment withholding.