Song of Songs 5
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 I 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.
2 I 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.”
3 I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?
4 My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.
5 I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.
6 I 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.
7 Making 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.
8 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.
9 What is your beloved more than another beloved, O fairest among women? What is your beloved more than another beloved, that you thus adjure us?
10 My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand.
11 His head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven.
12 His eyes are like doves beside springs of water, bathed in milk, fitly set.
13 His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh.
14 His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires.
15 His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars.
16 His speech is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
Doctors John and Julie Gottman, who have done incredible work in understanding how relationships work and what causes them to fail, often use the term ‘bids for connection.’ One partner extends an invitation to connect: it could be an invitation to conversation, affection, or acknowledgement and the other partner has a choice of how to react. The partner can ‘turn towards’ their partner’s bid for connection by engaging in the conversation, returning the affection, or acknowledging their partner’s presence and needs, or they can ‘turn away’ where the bid for connection is missed or ignored, or they can be responded to with hostility where the partner making the bid for connection is rejected in a belligerent or aggressive manner. No relationship is perfect and even loving partners sometimes turn away when their partner reaches out to them.
The woman throughout the poem has been wanting her beloved to come to her in the house and the expected moment arrives when the beloved arrives, and she doesn’t get out of bed to open the door and let him inside in a timely manner. This is the crisis of the poem. We have been awaiting this moment where the lovers can be together, and the moment comes, and it is missed. The man comes and his intention is love, he is ready to be present with the woman. He knocks on the door, he asks for her to open the door for him, he attempts to reach inside to unlock the door so that he may enter. Perhaps he has been long in coming, perhaps it is late in the night, perhaps the woman is perturbed by his delay but in the moment he comes she makes excuses for why she doesn’t open the door: she has taken off the clothing she wore during the day, she has cleaned her feet. She delays. He departs. She desperately regrets the absence of her lover’s presence when her desire awakens, and she opens the door.
The poem does not measure time in minutes or hours but in the intensely personal and sometimes painful time of anticipation and the monumental moments when a missed opportunity has our lovers pass like ships in the night. The moment takes on monumental importance to both the man and the woman. The woman’s delay in rising from the bed to come to the door causes the man to walk away. The beloved’s departure at this moment causes the life to go out of her. Now she returns to being the seeker looking for him and calling out for him. This is the second time she has turned him away and now for the second time she attempts to seek him out again, to respond to him and bring him back. It may only be a moment too late, but that missed moment has monumental importance in the world of the Song.
The last time the woman sought her beloved (chapter 3) the sentinels guarding the city did not obstruct her search for her beloved. The city after dark was a place where the woman could go in search of her beloved, but now those charged with ensuring the city is a safe place prove to be a danger. Many women, minorities, and individuals who are LGBTQIA+ have experienced times when those in authority who are supposed to provide a safe environment are those who actively harm their bodies and their psyche. The language here is stark and may allude to an experience that is starker still: the authorities not only beat and wound the woman, but in taking away her mantle (cloak) the poem may want us to understand that these sentinels also may have raped her. This black and beautiful woman has experienced violence in her desperate search for her lover and she calls upon the daughters of Jerusalem to join her in the search. Perhaps it is only in the company of other women that she can be safe in her search for her beloved.
The daughters of Jerusalem ask why they should get involved. They wonder why this ‘fairest of all women’ is so completely enthralled to this beloved one of hers. There may also be the element of fear to become engaged in these affairs because of the threat of violence. They have their own lives, their own households, and their own relationships to tend to and yet she calls them to join her in solidarity to search for this man who she let depart without expressing that she is faint with love for him. If the daughters of Jerusalem join her search, they presumably know who the beloved one, but they see him through different eyes.
The woman’s response is our only look at the male body through the eyes of a woman in the Bible. (NIB V:415) Her pattern of describing her beloved is similar to his description of her in chapter four in it’s beginning with elements from nature and then switching to descriptions from the world of builders and artists. Her initial response is similar in his earlier order, beginning with the face, hair, eyes, lips. He is ‘ruddy’, a term used to describe King David when he was called from the fields and probably refers to the healthy tan of people who work outdoors under the sun’s rays. The description points to a man with wavy black hair, attractive eyes, lips that taste good, and cheeks that smell good. The description of his physique is statuesque: his arms are rounded and strong, his body (or loins) are firm and precious, and his strong legs and tall height are like pillars and tall trees. Yet, she ends not with a description of his physicality but of his speech. To the woman, the beloved is as attractive as nature, as physically imposing as a statue, and as speaks as sweetly as a poet and every part of him is desirable to her and so her pursuit of him continues amidst the danger and the missed opportunities.
Pulling back from our lovers and reading the Song as a dialogue between the people of God and their God, Isaiah 55:6 immediately comes to mind, “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Yet, many faithful ones can look back and think of many instances where they were not receptive to God’s calling or they ignored God’s invitations. Many faithful ones can also talk about the experience of searching for God and being unable to hear God’s voice or understand where God is active, particularly when the people and groups that should be providing them shelter become a danger. Rabbi Akiba viewed the conversation between the woman and the daughters of Israel representing all the world coming to Israel and asking ‘what is so special about your beloved’ as they attempt to seduce the people away from their devotion to the LORD God. The woman’s response in the poem is an invitation to these nations to come to know what their God is like. (Davis 2000, 283) One of the gifts of the Song in both relationships between lovers and the relationship of faith is the honesty that there are times where one partner turns away from the other’s invitation to connect and the impassioned pursuit of the other to let them know that they are still the object of their affection, despite previous missed opportunities, and that they are still faint with love for the other even in the midst of a hostile and dangerous world.
 In Hebrew thought the nephesh (soul) is one’s life and a literal translation here would be “my life went out” (NIB V:411)