Monthly Archives: October 2021

Song of Songs or Song of Solomon

Aharon April, The Song of Songs-Last 2005 Shared under Creative Commons-SA 4.0

Transitioning into Song of Solomon

Song of Songs 1 An Embodied Desire

Song of Songs 2 Desire and Distance

Song of Songs 3 Seeking the King of Her Heart

Song of Songs 4 A Dance of Desire

Song of Songs 5 Love Isn’t Always on Time

Song of Songs 6 The Fairest Among Women

Song of Songs 7 Mutual Love in the Garden

Song of Songs 8 A Love that Endures Amid Struggle

Song of Songs 8 A Love that Endures Amid Struggle

Song of Solomon a Cycle of Paintings, Study G. By Egon Tschirch, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Song of Solomon 8

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded, the daughters of Jerusalem are underlined, and the brothers are capitalized in the poem (my interpretation)

1 O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother’s breast! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.
2 I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of the one who bore me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates.
3 O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!
4 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
5 Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in labor with you; there she who bore you was in labor.
6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
10 I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who brings peace.
11 Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he entrusted the vineyard to keepers; each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
12 My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; you, O Solomon, may have the thousand, and the keepers of the fruit two hundred!
13 O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice; let me hear it.
14 Make haste,[1] my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!

Many of the classic love stories are tales of loves that transgress the established boundaries of their society. Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Pride and Prejudice and countless others tell the story of people falling in love across the social boundaries of their society. The boundaries may be about family, race, social standing, wealth, education, or some other reason, but we rarely remember the love stories where everyone approves of the relationship between the members of the couple. We remember the stories where the love has to struggle against the opposition of those in the society who oppose it. Throughout the Song of Songs, we have seen evidence of this struggle which attempts to keep our lovers separate and here at the end it voices itself again.

The words of the woman wishing that her beloved was like a brother to her seems strange in our context where the ideal match is someone from a completely different family, but in the ancient world the ideal match was typically a cousin or other close relative. Someone who was still a part of the family line but not close enough to be considered incestuous. Just as the earlier appeal to the woman as, “my sister, my bride” indicated endearment, so the familial imagery here of desiring the beloved to be a brother desires a proximity to family that does not require hiding the relationship. The woman wants to be able to have the relationship be out in the open, she wishes she could go up and kiss her beloved without worrying about the disapproving stares of others. She desires to be able to bring him into her house without others thinking she is acting inappropriately. She wants to be able to celebrate their love in both the daylight and the public spaces as well as at night. She no longer wants their love to be a secret. Earlier she has sent the man away to deal with the barriers that separate them, but she desires for their love to be able to be enjoyed all the time.

The woman once again tells the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken love until it is ready, and now the daughters of Jerusalem see her and her beloved together. She and the man are seen together as they make their way into the city together. The words that follow could come from the woman or the man, but with the change to a more contemplative tone I have chosen to read this as the man speaking again to the woman. He has come to her, and he has made the offer of a public relationship sealed in the eyes of the community where his mark is placed not only on her heart but upon her arm for the world to see. Let them wear their hearts on their sleeves, to let their love which is stronger than death and passion which is as fierce of the grave be seen by the world. He has found something priceless in her and nothing can quench his burning desire for her.

Yet, as the love comes out into the public square the family of the woman reacts. The brothers of the woman for the first time speak. Earlier these sons of her mother made her keep their vineyards[2], and now they speak condescendingly to their little sister. These brothers still view it as their role to provide a barrier between her and any suitor. They want to close her away, to keep her behind armed walls and boarded up doors. The beloved one does not meet their criteria for an appropriate relationship for this little sister who is still, in their eyes, not sexually mature (has no breasts) and unable to manage her own vineyard.

The woman now speaks up to these brothers who would deny her the relationship she desires. Earlier her beloved described her being “as comely as Jerusalem[3] and now she picks up this language to throw back at her condescending brothers. She is a walled city of peace (shalom).[4]Extending the imagery her breasts, which her brothers said were non-existent, are like towers in her beloved’s eyes. She has been made to be the keeper of her brother’s vineyards, with no time for her own. Using the imagery of Solomon and his vineyard at Baal-hamon, she accuses her brothers of failing to mange their affairs but now she is ready to tend to her own vineyard and her own affairs. The family issues remain unresolved at the end of the poem. Once more the man calls out to hear her but in this instance she once again has to tell the man to flee.

There is no modern fairy tale ending where the man and the woman live happily ever after. The two lovers will have to continue to steal opportunities for love until the familial and social barriers can be overcome. Yet, if their love is stronger than death and fiercer than the grave it will overcome the barriers that family and society place upon them. Many people have had to make a choice between their beloved one and the family who raised them or the community or church that formed them. Many multi-racial, LGBTQ, and international or interreligious relationships suffer challenges well beyond what two socially accepted individuals endure and the world where love grows often doesn’t allow for fairy tale endings. Yet, love endures along with faith and hope, and a poem about love rests in the heart of the scriptures. The language and forms of scripture are often strange to us but the struggles of the people in the scriptures, once we understand, them are often familiar.

Song of Songs throughout the history of the church and even longer history with our Jewish ancestors has been read as an analogy for the relationship between the people of God and their God. It is a story of longing and desire for both God and God’s people and the barriers that the world around has placed to interfere with that relationship. Yet, the love that unites the lover and the beloved one transcends even death and the grave, it is an unending flame. It is a relationship of desire and distance, of drawing close and fleeing away. The surrounding world may see the consuming passion and be drawn to the object of that passion as well, or they may remain blind to the desirability of the beloved one. The lover may be viewed as unworthy of acceptance and yet they experience the gracious and steadfast love of the God who seeks and desires them. There is wisdom in the church and synagogues seeing in the boundary breaking love between a man and woman a metaphor for the love that nothing can separate God’s people from. But there is also wisdom in learning to accept and honor the enduring power of love between two people that endures the struggles that their families and society place upon them.

[1] The Hebrew berach means flee. Make haste can indicate making haste in the woman’s direction but this verse in Hebrew indicates making haste away from the brothers.

[2] Song of Songs 1:6

[3] Song of Songs 6:4

[4] Jerusalem is the ‘city of shalom-peace’

Song of Songs 7 Mutual Love in the Garden

By Egon Tschirch, a cycle of paintings on Song of Solomon, number 2, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Song of Songs 7

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

1 How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.
2 Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies.
3 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
4 Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are pools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim. Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus.
5 Your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses.
6 How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!
7 You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.
8 I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples,
9 and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.
10 I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.
11 Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages;
12 let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love.
 13 The mandrakes give forth fragrance, and over our doors are all choice fruits, new as well as old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.

The lovers in the poem see what the others cannot and should not. They see one another longingly and they desire to know every part of their loved one. The poetic description of the woman by the man indicates a view that requires a level of intimacy unavailable to the common observer and this may also be behind his rebuke at the end of the previous chapter to the daughters of Jerusalem calling the woman back that they may gaze upon her as ‘upon a dance between two armies.’ Her movements and her dance are to delight the greedy eyes of her lover and to overwhelm him with desire for her.

The two previous compliments of the man[1] have focused on the face and upper body of the woman, but now the man begins with her feet, proceeds through her midsection and ends with her neck and facial features. Thighs, navel, belly, and breasts would be obscured by clothing but here the man describes that which is hidden from all others to the woman he loves. His descriptions are not those of a man keeping distant, but a man who has closed the distance to where even clothing no longer obscures the woman’s beautiful body from his eyes. Others may have overlooked her, but to the man she is overwhelming. She has the feet of a queen, her thighs are a masterwork, her navel and belly are both fertile and desirable. She may not fit the cultural ideal of womanhood, but in his eyes she is the queen of his desire and from head to toe his desire is to drink in every part of her.

His amorous incantation is daring in its open expression of desire. He has come to her and his desire overcomes reserve or decency. His intention is the physical expression of his desire for her, that the long delayed time of union may finally arrive. That they may both delight in the touches and kisses that they share together and celebrate their mutual love and passion. She is a combination of the majesty of royalty, the beauty of the natural world, and the strength and beauty of the great cities. She is the queen of his heart, the nourishment he needs, the kingdom he serves, and a master work to be lifted up. The banquet of love has been delayed, but he too is drunk with love and ready to celebrate this feast.

Previously she has been beckoning to come into the house, while he has invited her outside. Now she invites him to join her in nature. He belongs to her, and she belongs to him. They desire one another and they are surrounded by the awakening of nature: vines have budded, grape blossoms have opened, pomegranates are in bloom, and mandrake puts forth its seductive fragrance. Mandrakes appear in Genesis 30: 14-17 where Rachael grants Leah a night with Jacob in exchange for mandrakes that Leah picks, but here there is no competition for the beloved’s attention: he is hers and she is his. It appears that the night of missed opportunities has been left behind and with the dawning morning the time is finally right for love.

Many readers have read within this section of the poem an allusion to the Garden of Eden and a return to the way relations were meant to be. This is heightened when one realizes that the rare Hebrew word used for desire (teshuqah) here is only used two other places: Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. The first usage in Genesis finds its reversal in Song of Songs: “yet your desire (teshuqah) shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16 now becomes “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” The distortion of desire that occurs at the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is now overcome as this man and woman are wrapped up in mutual desire as they enter this new garden anticipating love. The other use of teshuqah is in the story of Cain and Abel, where God warns Cain, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:7 In that story jealousy and anger overwhelm the brotherly love of Cain and Abel and Cain is instead mastered by sin. Perhaps this love poetry helps us imagine a world where love can overcome anger and jealousy and desire rightly becomes a mutual invitation to enjoy the presence of one’s partner in the garden. Often Christian theologies have dismissed the passions and desires of the body as a part of the sinful nature of humanity, but Song of Songs (and I would argue the Bible in general) points to a fully embodied experience of love and passion and joy which is both mutual and strong. This man and woman have saved all of themselves for one another as they enter this new Eden of sweet and mutual love.


[1] Song of Songs 4:1-5 and 6:4-10

Review of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 40: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

A Handful of Dust takes its title from the ominous words of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Evelyn Waugh writes dialogue in a way that is easy to read, and the story’s pace and tone is light as it mocks the collapsing of the world of Tony Dust, and by extension many others who saw their way of life under threat by the changing cultural winds that occurred between the two World Wars in England. Tony Last loves his home, his wife, and his son and is very satisfied with their life on the gothic designed estate of Hetton. It is a world of attending church, watching his son ride horses, participating in social clubs, and managing the affairs of the estate. Yet, after seven years of marriage his wife, Brenda, becomes bored with this life and embarks on a path which brings unravels everything. She decides to begin an affair with a London man of limited ambition and interest named John Beaver. John, who still lives with his mother and has no regular responsibilities, is viewed by many in society as a bore with little prospects but Brenda’s presence invites him into many new places in London society.  Brenda conspires with John’s mother to purchase a flat in London, so that she may stay there for extended periods under the guise of studying economics while she engages in an open affair in London while her husband stays generally supportive of her and unaware in Hetton. Everything unravels when Tony and Brenda’s son is killed in an accident while he is out on a hunt with his father. Brenda asks for a divorce and Tony, humiliated but still the honorable English man attempts to grant her that. When Brenda and her lawyers make increasingly large demands, demands that would require the sale of the Hetton estate, Tony departs on an expedition to the unexplored regions of South America and never returns.

Evelyn Waugh writes well, and I can understand why this book is on the top 100 list. Like Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, this is set in a time period and world that I don’t find greatly appealing and even though both works are dealing with the unraveling of that world they are not things I would seek out to read. With A Handful of Dust, I identified strongly with Tony Last and for personal reasons I really disliked Brenda’s shallow and careless actions which destroyed not only her marriage but the entire world of her husband. In my own story, I have been the husband whose wife embarked on an affair with a person who others looked upon as awkward and boorish. I was the last to know what was going on, and had several people come to me after the revelation and disclose that they had known but were afraid to say anything. Even though I may not have chosen to live in Tony Last’s world, I could empathize with the trauma he must have endured as it quickly is taken away from him and he finds himself in unfamiliar territory still attempting to be the person he once was. All reviews of any work of fiction are subjective, and although the work unearthed some painful memories for me, and it is not a genre or a time period that I find compelling it is well written and I can understand why many people enjoy its mocking of the collapse of this stilted and formal world. These brief reflections are, for me, a way of consolidating my thoughts after engaging with each work.

Song of Songs 6 The Fairest Among Women

By Egon Tschirch, A Cycle of Paintings “Song of Solomon” Study E, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Song of Songs 6

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded, and the daughters of Jerusalem are underlined in the poem (my interpretation)

1 Where has your beloved gone, O fairest among women? Which way has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?
2 My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies.
3 I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he pastures his flock among the lilies.
4 You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.
5 Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me! Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.
6 Your teeth are like a flock of ewes, that have come up from the washing; all of them bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.
7 Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.
8 There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number.
9 My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the darling of her mother, flawless to her that bore her. The maidens saw her and called her happy; the queens and concubines also, and they praised her.
10 “Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?”
11 I went down to the nut orchard, to look at the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom.
12 Before I was aware, my fancy set me in a chariot beside my prince.[1]
13 Return, return, O Shulammite! Return, return, that we may look upon you. Why should you look upon the Shulammite, as upon a dance before two armies?

The woman in her seeking has appealed to the daughters of Jerusalem to assist her in locating her beloved. Previously we have encountered violent resistance from the sentinels of Jerusalem, those entrusted with making the city a safe place. Most interpreters now interpret the response from the daughters of Jerusalem in a positive manner: the woman has appealed to them for aid and their interest, now piqued, causes them to ask where they might find the beloved. Yet, there is something in the tone of the two responses by the daughters of Jerusalem in this chapter which have made me wonder if they also may be resisting the desired union of the woman and her beloved.

From the very beginning of the poem, we have seen that the woman is outside the cultural expectations of beauty for a woman. She is black and beautiful to herself and her beloved but she remains outside conventional norms. What if the title granted to the woman by the daughters of Jerusalem, ‘O fairest among women’ is spoken ironically? What if their offer to help find the beloved one are not genuine? That would explain the woman’s answer which does not include the daughters of Jerusalem in her search as well as provide a way to understand the interaction between the man, the woman, and the daughters of Jerusalem at the end of the chapter.

The woman’s response to the daughters of Jerusalem rebuffs their offer to seek her beloved with her. It could be that she doesn’t want to share her beloved’s attention with any of the daughters of Jerusalem, but it may also indicate that their offer was not genuine or helpful. The woman’s response that her beloved has gone to his garden and is pasturing his flock there echoes the imagery of the first four chapters and while it may indicate a literal garden it may also indicate that the man is coming to her.[2] The woman and her beloved are solely for one another and not to be shared with the daughters of Jerusalem.

Even though her seeking has met resistance, we hear the voice of her beloved speaking to her and complimenting her again. The initial comparisons are to the cities of Tirzah (the original capital of Northern Israel) and Jerusalem.  Normally in the bible a capital city is referred to in feminine terms and feminine metaphors are used to describe Jerusalem or Bethel, but here the imagery is reversed where the beauty of a capital city is used to describe the woman. Many would expect Bethel to be paired with Jerusalem, but there are many possible explanations why the poet may choose Tirzah instead.[3] The woman is viewed as impressive and even overwhelming. She is like an army approaching in all its might and even her look upon the man is overwhelming. The man then returns to the language of nature, echoing his descriptions of the woman in 4:1-3. To the man she is more impressive than all the queens and concubines of royalty or any maiden among the daughters of Jerusalem. To the man she truly stands out as terrifyingly beautiful and desirable beyond all others. He is overwhelmed in her presence and yet he comes once again to her.

Verses eleven and twelve have puzzled interpreters, and the NRSV’s translation is merely one guess at what is occurring in these two verses. My best guess is that the man goes to the ‘nut orchard’ to look at the vines and the pomegranates. The imagery from throughout the poem would lead me to believe he has come seeking the woman to see if the time is ripe for love, or whether he is still too early. He has come to her, and she has been swept up together with him. Yet, as she has been swept up together with her beloved and they ride off into the sunset, the daughters of Jerusalem call her back. They call her to return so they may look at her. I read the response coming from the man, defending the woman, from the intrusion of the daughters of Jerusalem. His response essentially says, “why should you have the privilege of looking upon her as something to be exhibited.” It could also be the woman defending herself, but what follows in chapter seven is also coming from the man praising her beauty. In the man’s eyes she is the fairest of all women even if she might not be in the eyes of the daughters of Jerusalem.

One of the ways this passage has been read is where the woman has invited the nations of the world (represented by the daughters of Jerusalem) to come and know what her beloved (God) is like.[4] If this is the interpretive path chosen the woman clings to her faith and hope in her beloved even when she encounters resistance. Yet, once again the woman is described in terms that are almost godlike-being beautiful and formidable, awe inspiring and powerful. One of the gifts of poetry is the multiple ways it can be heard and bring meaning. Perhaps the man is defending his woman or metaphorically his God. Regardless, our two seekers are finding themselves again in proximity to one another despite the resistance of the sentinels of Israel and perhaps even the daughters of Jerusalem. They cling to one another even as others may attempt to make a spectacle out of them.

[1] Verse 12 is the most difficult verse to translate in the Song and interpreters disagree about what is actually said or who is speaking. The NRSV’s translation assumes that it is the woman speaking. As Stephanie Paulsell can say about this verse, “No one really has any idea what it means.” (Cox 2012, 251)

[2] See for example 4:12-14

[3] A couple plausible explanations include: 1) following the lead of the Septuagint, translators have read Tirzah as a nominal form of the Hebrew raza (pleasing) 2) The destruction of Northern Israel (Samaria) and the aversion between the people of Judea and Samaritans may have made the mentioning of Bethel problematic, while Tirzah has fewer negative associations. (NIB V:419)

[4] See comments on previous chapter.