Song of Songs, Chapter Two

A warning to those who read this post. The language that follows is somewhat explicit. If discussions of sex offend you, then you might want to skip this blog post. Of course, you might also want to make a point of avoiding ever reading the Song of Songs in your Bible.

Chapter Two:

I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys.

Like a lily among thorns
is my darling among the maidens.

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade,
and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
He has taken me to the banquet hall,
and his banner over me is love. (2:1-4)

The passage begins with the woman speaking. Oddly the first two lines have been used in a Christian hymn which applied them to Jesus. Why would a song do that? It comes from the popular, though obviously mistaken, view that the Song of Songs is the story of Jesus’ love for the church. Even so, it remains very peculiar that the popular hymn would misapply the words, since it rather obvious that it is the woman who is describing herself here.

Unsurprisingly, I do not like that song at all. It annoys me. The woman is a rose, and a lily, here. The man then reacts agreeably, telling her that she is very special, more wonderful than any of the other women in his life. Remember, again, that the content of this poem is taking place in a polygamous setting.

Notice how this whole section transitions very nicely from what we looked at in chapter one:the two lovers are on the grass, beneath the cedar and fir (or alternatively, the woman is the grass and the man is the cedar covering her with his shade). After he responds to her self-description as a rose or lily, she speaks up again in the last six lines of this section. Notice that just as he recognizes her as special among all the women in his life, she too, is not inexperienced or naive: she finds him to be special compared to all the other men she knows.

And then she returns to double entendres: she delights to sit in his shade, his fruit is sweet to her taste, he has “taken me to his banquet table.” It is possible, I think, that she is talking about oral sex.

The passage also maintains the theme of the covering of the cedar and fir, of course, which has heavy sexual overtones. And then this segment ends with “his banner over me is love.” Of course that phrase shows up in another Christian song. I don’t think it really fits with the song so well, since it seems to be in the context of this woman giving her lover a blow job. I doubt that’s the picture the old Christian song was going for.

It should be obvious by this point that the Hebrew word translated “love” has an enormous range of meanings, essentially identical to the range of use for the word “love” in English. Consider: Jacob “loved” his his tasty food (Gen. 27:14 — the NIV translates it “liked” but its the same word as Song of Songs uses throughout). It is unlikely that these two people are loving each other in quite the same way as Jacob loved his food, or vice-versa.

At least I don’t think so…

Strengthen me with raisins,
refresh me with apples,
for I am faint with love.
His left arm is under my head,
and his right arm embraces me.
Daughters of Jerusalem,
I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field:
Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires. (2:5-7)

Given the context with with the previous section, which I suggested might have to do with oral sex, it is also possible that this is what is going on in this bit, too, and is thus just continuing with that theme. On the other hand, both the previous images and these, may instead reference genital to genital sex. Either seems possible. What we know for certain that is unlikely is that she’s talking about eating actual apples and raisins. The phrasing about how he is embracing her does not really exclude either oral or genital sex in my opinion. Culturally, I’m not certain which is more probable in this context, either.

This segment ends with a charge to the other women: that love should not be aroused or awakened too quickly. I take that to mean, especially in light of the fact that she charges them by the gazelles and does, that she is pointing out the importance of sloooow, when it comes to love making. Love making is not something to be rushed through. Of course, this might also be enjoining patience for the relationship in general: that the issue between them need not be forced; that if she is merely patient, she will receive that which she most desires. Given what will follow, my bet is on the idea that she wants slowness, in contrast to the male tendency to move too fast when it comes to sex, both in wanting it and in performing it.

Listen!
My lover!
Look!
Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look!
There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice. (2:8-9)

She is very excited to see him, of course; that is obvious from the wording. The image of mountains and hills, behind the wall, gazing through the window, and the lattice of course all deal with barriers of one sort or another–barriers that she knows her lover will be able to overcome. She may be excited, she may be looking forward to what he will do, but she is not yet, perhaps, entirely up to the task. It will take a little time, a little effort, a little patience and tenderness. He of course wants it now, but she must be roused and made ready. His prowess is compared to the gazelle and stag, which were noted for their sexual abilities, as well as their speed–at least in running. If gazelles and stags are anything like a pair of kangaroos that I saw going at it at the LA Zoo, they make up for any speed with their stamina. The kangaroos went at it for at least an hour, nonstop.

My lover spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one,
and come with me.
See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.
My dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.”

Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.
My lover is mine and I am his;
he browses among the lilies.
Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn, my lover, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the rugged hills. (2:10-17)

And of course the point of this final section from chapter two of the Song of Songs is relatively clear: the man praises her beauty. She is described in terms of vines, flowers, a dove hiding in the clefts of the rocks, and the mountains. Her response is to announce that he needs to rescue her from anything that might spoil the vineyard. Obviously, she is that vineyard, a vineyard that is in bloom.

The man is described as browsing among the lilies all night long — obviously her body. She plays off him being a gazelle or stag again, on the “rugged hills”, which is self-referential.

Really, it doesn’t take much paying attention to realize that these two people are completely enamored of each other. They compete to find metaphorical ways to describe one another and their pleasures in exploring intimate details of their bodies. The point of the poem is to excite, to incite, to stir longing and desire, and to celebrate the wonder of the sexual experience between a man and woman who are in love. It’s too bad, really, that so many commentators during so much of church history didn’t pick up on the obvious. Had they, we today might have a much more relaxed, much healthier attitude toward sex and ourselves.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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