Once again, take warning all 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.
How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!
Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
not one of them is alone.
Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is lovely.
Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built with elegance;
on it hang a thousand shields,
all of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies. (4:1-5)
The man is speaking, and does what all men do with their beloved: he praises her beauty. Nicely, this is poetry, and so he is very descriptive, and does a much better job of it than the average male trying to say nice things without a script. He is very detailed, focusing on various aspects of her body. What appeals to a woman, I suspect, is not the words alone, or perhaps only tangentially; what appeals to her is who it is that is telling her this, and the pleasure for her comes in knowing, thanks to his words, that he finds her desirable, and that he loves her. I’m curious; do women actually enjoy hearing the man they love praising the beauty of specific body parts? In any case, that’s what the man in this poem does, and it’s what many men do.
Obviously, some of the descriptions and comparisons might not be as well recieved today as they were in the agrarian culture in which the author of this poem lived. I’m unsure if comparing breasts to fawns and eyes to doves would still work well or not. The imagery is important, though, and needs to be noted, since these pictures will be played off on for the remainder of the poem. As we go along, it is important to remember which parts of their bodies get compared to which objects.
Until the day breaks and the shadows flee,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense.
All beautiful you are, my darling;
there is no flaw in you.
Come with me from Lebanon, my bride,
come with me from Lebanon.
Descend from the crest of Amana,
from the top of Senir,
the summit of Hermon,
from the lions’ dens
and the mountain haunts of the leopards.
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. (4:6-9)
The man continues praising her, encouraging her to give in to him; he moves now to more active seduction, asking her to leave her place of repose, to let her garden come free, to open herself to him. The use of the word “sister” in love poetry is something the Egyptians did regularly–though sometimes with the ancient Egyptian royal family, it was literal on top of being the normal convention for love poetry. But in the Song of Songs, it is merely standard convention. It speaks to the intimacy of the relationship, and does not at all reference that she is actually a sister, any more than the term commonly translated “beloved” in the Song of Songs, means “aunt” or “uncle”. The taboos about having sex with close relatives is pretty universal in human societies, largely a consequence of biological necessity.
An interesting thing here is the use of the word “heart”; as westerners, we read that and a particular image comes to mind: the heart as the emotions, that his emotions have been taken by her; we read that as the English idiom; and that is not really quite what is in view here. The word “heart” here means his mind; she has captivated his mind; he is obsessed with her; his every thought now is in terms of her. He cannot think without her being in his mind, in his thoughts; he closes his eyes, and there she is, a picture in his mind; what he means is the English idiom, that he can’t get her out of his head. And here, it is her beauty, her physical form, which has taken over his mind, his every waking thought. She has become to him like a song, a tune that is stuck in his head, that he just can’t drive out. And frankly, he doesn’t mind at all. So it’s not Disney’s Small World that he’d be comparing her to.
How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume than any spice!
Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue.
The fragrance of your garments is like that of Lebanon.
You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain.
Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices.
You are a garden fountain,
a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon.
Awake, north wind,
and come, south wind!
Blow on my garden,
that its fragrance may spread abroad.
Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.
This one is not too tough to figure out; the man continues his praise of her, describing her as a hidden or locked-up garden, a garden that delights all the senses: taste, touch, smell, sound and sight. She is compared favorably to things that were expensive and desirable.
Her reaction is in essence: “so why don’t you come up and see me some time?” She invites him to sample the delights of which he has been merely describing from a distance, as an outsider. She tells him that he is welcome in this marvelous garden, and that he can enjoy it fully, as much as he wants.
Some of the images are not unique to this poem. For instance, take a look at the phrases and images used in Proverbs 5:15-19:
Drink water from your own cistern,
running water from your own well.
Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares?
Let them be yours alone,
never to be shared with strangers.
May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer–
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be captivated by her love.
The similarity in images is not too surprising, given that both Proverbs and Song of Songs have traditionally been ascribed to the same author: Solomon. As you’ve no doubt noticed in reading through the stuff I churn out, there are certain, perhaps annoying, turns of phrase, ideas and images that I keep reusing. Writers are like that. Solomon was no different.