Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Song of Songs, 7 [on spousal love]
[To see all of the earlier posts and this one gathered together in this my sporadic running commentary on the Song of Songs, look to the sidebar on the right under, "Labels," and click on Song of Songs.]
Chapter 1, v 13-14
The maiden is still speaking. These two verses go with verse 12.
As an aside, I would like to note that ancient cultures made extensive use of tangible, concrete things from the natural world as symbols and metaphors for higher things (with some exception for Greek culture, whose abstract philosophical language was remarkable for its being outside the norm). The Song of Songs uses metaphorical language abundantly. (Our language does this as well, but to a lesser extent. We make more use of abstract, theoretical, philosophical terms.)
In verse 13 she speaks of myrrh--an ancient and valuable ingredient in perfumes and incense. In ancient cultures, myrrh was both very valuable in itself, and, valued for its scent (cf. Gen 43:11, Ps 45:8).
And so the maiden uses metaphorical language to speak of her bridegroom as myrrh--myrrh lying between her breasts. [Please note: this is Sacred Scripture, so any temptations a contemporary reader might have to perceive this kind of language in an objectifying, reductionistic, shallow, pornographic sense, ought not allow himself to go down such a path. Any erotic language in the Song of Songs must be seen as fully in harmony with the dignity of the human person and the nobility and beauty of romantic love--a love in kinship with all that upbuilds and supports a mutually reverent and respectful relationship between man and woman--a love that would never abuse another in any way.]
So, notice that she is using something to symbolize her bridegroom that provides a pleasing physical reaction (from the scent) and is highly prized. Its location provides an obvious connotation of sexual attraction. However, notice also that there is no hint of the sort of physical attraction that might be dominating. The myrrh lays in place. She is aware of it and may be reminded of her bridegroom at any time; however, while its effects may be strong it will not overpower her. A further symbolic consequence, no less important, of the myrrh's location is that it is near her heart. Her bridegroom is always near her heart. The heart is the figurative center of the person; it is where the deepest wellsprings of the self are found.
The next verse, 14, nicely confirms this chaste, pure yet passionate vision of love. Here a metaphor for her bridegroom is used that doesn't seem to have such a direct sexual connotation--henna blossoms among the vines (vineyards) of En-Gedi. Henna flowers (photo here) are clustered like lilacs and are very fragrant. They grow in dryer climates. And according to this source, henna plants were used as a protective hedge around ancient vineyards. So, there is a suggestion of protection and safety (enabling grapes to grow and later be turned into wine), as well as the powerfully pleasing factor of its strong scent. Also, there is an idea suggested by the term En-Gedi of something fruitful and rich amidst a surrounding area of barrenness, for the En-Gedi is an ancient oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Here there is a spring of fresh water making possible the growth of palms and other plants amidst surroundings otherwise too dry for such greenery. This, too, suggests protection as well as providing something vital for the full flourishing of life. This kind of protection does not constrict her in the least; rather, it enables her to blossom.
And so the bridegroom is pleasing to the maiden, like a strong perfume in her nostrils. He arouses desire in her and she values him greatly. She keeps him near her heart. She sees him as a protector whose protection will help her to bring forth the rich wine she is meant to produce in her life. To her he is like the most powerfully noticeable and "fragrant" thing in the center of a great oasis. As one emerges from the dessert and approaches this oasis, when the henna is in blossom, perhaps the first thing to catch one's notice is the scent its flowers.
Such is merely a partial portrayal of the character of the maiden's love for her bridegroom.
[Photo of EinGedi garden by Ester Inbar, available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ST]