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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56954517

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.

1 thought on “Song of Songs 6 The Fairest Among Women

  1. Pingback: Song of Songs 7 Mutual Love in the Garden | Sign of the Rose

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