Song of Songs 2 Desire and Distance

Tulipa Agenensis, Israel. One of the possible botanical references for the Rose of Sharon photo by Zachi Evenor shared under Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 4.0

Song of Songs 2 

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
2 As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens.
3 As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.
5 Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.
6 O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!
7 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
8 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
14 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
15 Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards — for our vineyards are in blossom.”
16 My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.
17 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.

The distance between the two lovers in the poem makes the woman yearn for her beloved’s presence. Many of the botanical references in this passage are not certain, even if their poetic use in English has achieved wide recognition. The rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys are wildflowers that are native to the region, the ‘rose’ may be the tulipa agenesis (pictured above) or the tulipa montana a red flower native to the hills of the Middle East and the lily may be a crocus or the Madonna lily. (lilium candidum) Beyond the precise botanical designation is the poetic function of the self-declaration of the woman of her beauty and flattering response of the man. Her usage points to its ordinariness, she is a wildflower-something pretty but common. Her beloved counters that she is exceptional. She is set apart from the other maidens who may attempt to attract his attention. She is something special. She responds by describing her beloved, using botanical imagery again, this time as a fruit tree. Though apple trees are well known in our context there is the objection that they may not be native to Israel. As Ellen Davis can also insightfully state,

At any rate, wild apples are acid, not sweet. The apricot has been suggested as a substitute. The scientific issue remains uncertain, but the suggestion makes good poetic sense. A sun-ripened apricot is a sensual delight, being rich in color, scent, taste and even touch, as it almost literally melts in the mouth (“his fruit was sweet to my palate,” v. 3). (Davis 2000, 251)

The woman and man use natural imagery to describe one another. She is beautiful and stands out as extraordinary among all the other maidens like a beautiful flower among the prickly vines. Her beloved stands out among other men as a sweet fruit tree among all the other trees, yet only he produces the sweet fruit this ‘rose of Sharon’ desires.

The poem abruptly shifts from botanical references to a scene of a ‘banqueting house’ (literally ‘wine house’) where the man invites the woman. This is supposed to be a place where their love can be fully sated. Yet, even within this time of invitation we are aware that the desire of the woman has not been satisfied. Previously she wanted to taste the fruit that came from his tree upon her palate, now she asks for the fruit of the vine and the fruit of the tree to sustain her because she is faint with love. Her love and her desire are awakened, and these emotions are powerful and threatens to overwhelm her in her waiting. Yet, even in this invitation to a place where passions can be embraced we as the readers have to wait with the woman. She wants to be wrapped up in the embrace with her beloved with his left hand under her head and his right hand around her, but we are still waiting for that embrace to occur. She is present in the banqueting house at the invitation of the beloved, but he is not yet there.

We dwell in the anticipation of the two lovers. The beloved man may not be there yet, but he is close enough that his voice is heard, and his movements can be observed. The man is pictured as a gazelle or stag quickly bounding over mountains and hills to close the distance between himself and the woman. He is near to the house, but not inside it. Instead, we wait as he looks longingly in through the windows and peeks through the lattice for a glimpse of the woman. Something keeps him from crossing the threshold of the banquet house where she is and embracing her, perhaps someone is obstructing the consummation of their love for one another. Perhaps someone in his or her family is keeping them apart, or perhaps there is some societal expectation that make their love unable to occur in a public place. We are caught with the two lovers on opposite sides of the wall until the man’s voice beckons the woman to leave the house behind and come away.

In the man’s voice we hear an invitation once again into nature. The man may have brought the woman to the banqueting house, but the nourishment they both seek seems to occur away from the confines of the wall or city. This beloved man speaks in imagery of the natural world. The time of winter and of the rains has past and now is the time to be out in the world. In the earth’s awakening for spring and songs of the migrating birds, and in the fragrant flowers and figs comes the invitation to embrace among the beauty of the creation. There is an invitation to a secret, hidden place: a small cave in the rocks or a thicket among the cliffs. A place where the lovers can be away from all others and be with one another without the interference of others.

Verse fifteen with the invitation to catch the foxes which ruin the vineyard has received a wide variety of interpretations and can be heard from either the woman or the man. Some options for understanding this verse include: 1) It is another invitation from the man for the woman to come outside and join him in a joyous chase after these quick animals. 2) Cheryl Exum suggests that this is the woman’s response to the man and the meaning is that she wants to capture him so that she can have her as her own. 3) Ariel and Chana Bloch interpret the foxes as the woman’s brothers who are preventing the two lovers from being together. (Davis 2000, 216) My personal interpretation follows the direction of the third option, but without indicating those interfering with the two lovers. I feel that the woman, frustrated by the boundaries separating them is calling out to the man to capture and remove those who are obstructing and attempting to ruin their love. I agree that the woman wants her beloved for herself and is not satisfied with attempting to steal these moments where they can be together. Her love is in blossom and is ready to bear fruit, and now it is his responsibility to move beyond the walls that keep them apart.

The chapter closes with the woman’s famous words, “my beloved is mine and I am his,” and yet she beckons him to flee. Her beloved approached her like a stag or a gazelle and now he is told to flee in the same manner to the mountains. Their meeting continues to be delayed and shadows continue to lurk over their relationship. They belong to one another, but his inability to come into the house where she lies fainting for love needs to change. She doesn’t merely want to hear his voice or see him peeking in through the windows, she wants his arms to embrace her and to allow their love to grow. Her love is awake, and it causes her to ache, yet there is something the man must do to make their love possible. Perhaps this one who is ‘black and beautiful’ is unwilling to remain in the shadows any longer. If she is truly a lily among the brambles then she wants to be more than just one more pretty flower. She wants all of her beloved and so we are caught with her, waiting on his action to remove the barriers that obstruct their love.

Moving into the mystical and allegorical tradition of reading this portion of Song of Songs has traditionally viewed the believer in terms of the feminine character and God in terms of the masculine character. In this reading God is able to say to the believer that they are beautiful and exceptional and not merely ordinary. I find the almost playful and lovestruck image of God leaping like a gazelle or peeking in through the windows and looking through the lattice as an attractive image and far different from the classical portrayals of God. Perhaps just as critical in the poetry is the distance that needs to be bridged between the beloved one and the woman, and that bridging needs to occur by the action of the masculine character in the poem. Only this beloved one has the power to overcome the obstacles which separate them so that they can share in the intimate relationship they were created for. Within the Christian idea of grace (which emerges from the Hebrew idea of hesed– steadfast or covenant love) is the understanding that the distance in the relationship is something that God must overcome because the believer is unable to do that on their own. One of the powerful things about poetry is the way it can embrace multiple perspectives, and since Song of Songs is primarily written in a feminine voice, perhaps the roles traditionally assigned in the poem can also be reversed with God now occupying the feminine voice unwilling to be settle for pretty words, wanting to be desired above all other options and sending the beloved one out until they are willing to leave behind all else and cross the threshold of the banqueting house of God. God in this role would be unwilling for merely an admirer who watches through the lattice but wants God’s beloved to be fully God’s as God fully shows God’s covenant love to the beloved one. Poetry is language that reaches for metaphors to express meaning and it is a different way of expressing things than doctrine or story. Perhaps the gift that this poem can grant us is an expansive set of images that can help our imaginations see both the way our relationship with our human lovers should be and to give us words to point to the desire and distance within our relationship with God.

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