Poem One: The Woman’s Pursuit (1:2–4)
The Song proper begins with an explosion of words. Bernard of Clairvaux noted that the woman’s speech presupposes a conversation and relationship that has already begun, and he calls this line a “beginning without a beginning.” 1 It sets a dynamic tone that never ends throughout the book. Indeed, the last poem, as we will see, does not impart a distinct sense of closure.
The first of the songs begins with an expression of the woman’s desire for the man. As is frequently the case throughout the Song, the woman takes the initiative. Indeed, A. LaCocque and S. D. Goitein 2 point out that the woman speaks 53 percent of the time in the Song, while the man speaks 39 percent of the time. Perhaps the text was subversive in its ancient context; 3 it certainly is in the present in Christian contexts where females are expected to keep their proper place in life and romance. The characters of the Song may not be identified with historical figures or any actually existing human beings; neither do the poems carry a narrative. They express universal emotions. As is the case in the Psalms, the voice of the poet is intended to be our voice at the proper time and in the proper place.
This poem was not always taken as a reference to physical lovemaking (cf. Introduction). Perhaps the most notable allegorical interpretation of this poem is that which takes it as a reference to the Exodus. The woman, Israel, beckons her man, God, to take her into his bedroom, Palestine.
The form of these three verses is a poem of yearning (see Introduction: Genre for other examples). The name, of course, derives from the woman’s expressed desire for union with the man.
2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
3 How wonderful 6 is the scent of your oils;
Therefore, the young women love you.
4 Draw me after you; let’s run!
The king has brought me into his bedroom. 9
The Women of Jerusalem
We will rejoice and feel happy for you!
We will praise 10 your love more than wine!
2 The first poem is a passionate exclamation on the part of the woman who desires union with the man. The woman takes the initiative here and in many of the poems of the Song. The aggressiveness of the woman in the Song undermines our stereotypes of ancient gender roles and also instructs those today who look to the Bible for guidance in matters of relationships. This book will not support a dominance of the male over the female. Nonetheless, her initiative does not go so far as to say “I will kiss him,” but rather her exclamation wants to prod him to action (let him kiss me).
The characters of the Song are not specific. That is, the woman is not a particular woman but stands for all women. The same may be said for the man. These characters are developed intentionally in a nonspecific way since they are not reporting about a particular couple. These poems invite later readers to place themselves in the position of the woman and the man. In this way, the Song is similar to the book of Psalms, where the reader is implicitly encouraged to put him or herself in the place of the first-person speaker. 13
The motif is the invitation for intimacy expressed in the form of a wish. 14 The Song expresses the couple’s yearning for complete union and thus appeals to every sense. The woman begins with the erotic touch of a kiss. The expression let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, though it sounds awkward and even ponderous to us, expresses her exuberance. F. Delitzsch certainly stretches the phrase when he makes the preposterous comment that the expression means that she only got a few of Solomon’s rather promiscuous kisses. 15 The specification of kisses on the mouth may suggest that there were other intimate gestures, perhaps, for instance, nose kisses, 16 but then the specification may also be a function of poetic rhythm.
In what a prosaic person would call a “motive clause,” she likens his love to the taste of wine, a rich and sensuous liquid. The bouquet of the wine as well as its taste creates an enticing metaphor for the physical aspects of love, especially the kiss. Drinking wine intoxicates, and kissing the woman arouses the man, making him lightheaded. Indeed, she insists not only that the man’s love is like wine, but that it is better than wine. 17
3 After praising his taste, the woman celebrates his scent. Men apparently wore aromatic oils, what we today would call cologne. All of her senses are aroused by his presence. The man’s physical smell leads to a comment on his reputation as well, signified by his name. His reputation goes before him positively like his scent. He is loved not only by the woman, but also by all the young women. These women are unspecified, but their function here is to confirm the good taste of the female speaker. She is not deluded by love; others love her man as well, thus confirming her choice. Pope points out that this particular word for young woman (ʿălāmôt) indicates “sexual ripeness without presumption one way or the other as to virginity or sexual experience.” 18
We should note that 2b and 3a form a chiasm, beginning and ending with the Hebrew ṭôbîm, taken as a comparative better in 2b and as wonderful in 3a. To preserve the chiasm we would render the line:
For good is your love more than wine;
As for the scent, your oils are good.
4 The allegorical approach understands the reference to the king as indicating God or, in Christian tradition, Jesus. For those taking the poem as historical, the reference to the king has been taken to refer to Solomon, but since the work of J. G. Wetzstein and his comparison with nineteenth-century wedding celebrations in Syria, some have taken the title as pointing to a wedding ritual. 19 The weddings he observed included a ritual where the bride and groom crowned each other queen and king. Yet even this interpretation is unnecessary. It is best to take the reference neither historically nor ritually, but rather as a poetic device. It is love language. She refers to him as king, but this must not be taken literally. In her eyes, he is a king, the best and most powerful male in her life, worthy of the highest honor. Elsewhere, she calls him a shepherd (1:7), but again that is not literal either. These are terms of endearment. The Song is best understood as creating a poetic world, not as describing actual events.
The woman invites the man to get away with her (draw me after you). She is the initiator of the relationship in this poem, a theme that we will encounter many times in the Song. She expresses her urgency with the verb run (from rûṣ). She is in haste to be intimate with her lover.
She wants him to take her into his bedroom (ḥeder). 20 The bedroom is obviously a private place where the couple can be alone. We will see the theme of flight to privacy take on many permutations in the Song, but this verse is the first occurrence. We have not been told where they are—that is unimportant, but what is important is that she urges him to bring her into his bedroom. Thus, she desires (and I believe we are to assume that she gets) intimate sexual union with the man. It is verses like these that render attempts to build a narrative out of the Song, climaxing (poetically and sexually) at the end of the fourth chapter, so wrong-minded.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament where a man and a woman are alone in a bedroom (ḥeder)—for example, Samson and Delilah (Judg. 15:1) and David and Abishag (1 Kings 15:1)—it is a place of an intimate, often sexual, relationship. Its connection with marriage may be most strongly seen in Joel 2:16, where it occurs in parallel with “bridal chamber” (ḥuppâ):
Gather the people,
consecrate the assembly;
bring together the elders,
gather the children,
those nursing at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room (ḥeder)
and the bride her chamber (ḥuppâ).
Stephen Horine has made a strong case that this reference in verse 4b, along with that in 8:13–14, with which it forms an inclusio, indicates that the Song as a whole finds its setting within a marriage relationship. 21
Celebration breaks out upon their entry into the bedchamber (We will rejoice …). The shift here to the first person plural has caused some discussion. Pope describes how this shift from second person (“draw me after you”) to third person (“the king has brought me”) to first person plural (we will rejoice …) led some, such as C. D. Ginsburg, 22 to adopt the three-character dramatic approach to the Song (see Introduction). 23 The king has taken her to his bedroom, but she is in love with another whom she addresses in the second person. A simpler explanation for the shift in grammatical reference is enallage, noted above in verse 2. M. V. Fox cites Egyptian parallels and offers the following explanation: “The girl moves back and forth between the first person plural, where she includes the other girls in her appreciation of her lover’s beauties, and the third person plural, where she dances verbally out of the group in order to add a certain objectivity to her statement about the public estimation of his loveworthiness.” 24 Upon their entry into the bedchamber, the chorus of women chimes in with their happy approval of this union. In essence, they provide their blessing for the relationship. They confirm their love and also echo the woman’s sentiment that their love is better than wine. The other two places where a benediction accompanies the relationship between a man and a woman are marriage contexts (Psalm 45; Prov. 5:18), and Horine argues on this basis that the opening poem of the Song also implies a marriage relationship. 25
There is some debate over the identity of the chorus. Even over R. E. Murphy’s objections, 26 it seems most natural to take the speakers as the “young women” or maidens (ʿălāmôt) of 1:3. There is further debate over whether the young woman includes herself with the maidens, but this seems stretched and unnecessary. 27 A third issue is whether we should associate the “young woman” here with the “daughters of Jerusalem” mentioned later in the poem (2:7; 3:5, 10, 11; 5:8, 16; 8:4). O. Keel differentiates the two. The “young women” are the speaker’s intimates, while the “daughters of Jerusalem” are the “stereotypical public,” a group of “spoiled, idle, and curious women of the capital city” who were “especially versed in matters of beauty and love.” However, Keel’s description of the latter comes more from prophetic diatribes against the “daughters of Jerusalem” than from the Song, and we should be cautious in making this transference. 28 The simplest theory is that the “young women” (ʿălāmôt), the “the daughters of Jerusalem” (bənôt yərûšālayim), and the “daughters of Zion” (bənôt ṣîyyôn) are variant references to the same chorus. 29 The poem ends with the woman again affirming that other women are right to love the man. She is not the only one; she is not deluded. He is indeed a worthy recipient of her adoration. The chorus often serves as a mirror of the woman’s emotions, a sounding board as it were, throughout the book. As she addresses the chorus (see below), we learn more about the woman’s values and feelings. 30
V. Sasson 31 argues that the phrase the king has brought me and particularly the verb həbîʾanî is an echo of 1 Kings 3:1, where Solomon “brought [his Egyptian bride] to the City of David.” He argues on the basis of this and other echoes that the Song is about Solomon’s marriage to the Egyptian princess, but this is an extremely weak argument.
2 See reference in A. LaCocque, Romance She Wrote: A Hermeutical Essay on Song of Songs (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1998), p. 41. A. Brenner (“Women Poets and Authors,” in The Feminine Companion to the Song of Songs, ed. A. Brenner [Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993], p. 88) breaks it down by verse: 61½ are by the woman, 40 by the man, 11 by various choruses, and 9 she considers to be ambiguous.
3 D. Bergant, looking at the Song from a social anthropological perspective, comes to this conclusion in “ ‘My Beloved Is Mine and I Am His’ (Song 2:16): The Song of Songs and Honor and Shame,” Semeia 68 (1996): 23–41.
4 Here the woman shifts from third person to second person in reference to the man. It strikes us as odd, but it has analogies in Egyptian love poetry. Pope (Song of Songs, p. 297), indeed, points out that the device, called enallage, is not uncommon in poetry in general.
5 Note that the Septuagint has mastoi sou “your breasts,” reflecting Hebrew daddêkā, which does not make a lot of sense in the context of the woman speaking about the man. D. Garrett (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, NAC [Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1993], p. 385) represents a view that dwd means the act of lovemaking rather than the abstract quality. The passages he quotes (particularly Ezek. 16:8; 23:17) demonstrate that it can have the more concrete meaning, but not in every context.
6 The preposition lə could be marking a casus pendens (“as for your scent”) or an emphatic (as taken in our translation). See J. G. Snaith, Song of Songs, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 3.
7 Taking tûraq as a hophal of the verb ryq “to empty.” It is true that the feminine form of the verb appears to conflict with the masculine “oil” (šemen), but it is not all that unusual to lack gender concord in Hebrew. M. V. Fox takes it as a reference to a geographical area attested in an Ugaritic text, “oil of Turaq.” M. Gorg (“Eine Salbenbezeichnung in HL 1, 3,” BN 38/39 : 36–38) understands tûraq to be an Egyptian loanword and translates “strong scented oil” (“stark duftendes Salbol”).
11 T. H. Gaster (“Canticles i.4,” ExpT 72 : 195) suggests unnecessarily to take this as mimeyras ahabeka “your caresses more than new wine” (where Ugaritic meyras̆ would be equivalent to Hebrew tîrôš, cf. Song 7:10 [English 7:9]). With R. E. Murphy (The Song of Songs, Hermeneia [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990], p. 126), we take the word as a “abstract adverbial accusative.”
12 The Qumran text of the Song (6QCant) has “rightly are they loved” (’āhûbîm). The Septuagint translates euthutjs jgapjsen se, which R. Beckwith (The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church [London: SPCK, 1985], p. 314) argues should be taken as “righteousness loved you” and understood as a hint of an allegorical approach, but the Greek word could be taken as “they honestly [or sincerely] loved you.”
17 For a history of early Christian interpretation of this book, see G. Chappuzeau, “Die Exegesie von Hohelied 1, 2a.b und 7 bei den Kirchenvätern von Hippolyt bis Bernhard,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 18 (1975): 91–113.
20 It is not always clear that ḥeder is a bedroom (and in Prov. 24:4 it seems to be a storeroom), although it is clearly an interior room, a private enclosure. For instance, the ḥeder is the room where Joseph goes to weep (Gen. 43:30)—even there, though, bedroom may be intended. Certainly in many instances a bedroom is explicitly meant (e.g., 2 Sam. 4:7), and in an erotic context like Song 1:4, bedroom is surely intended.
24 M. V. Fox, “Scholia to Canticles (I 4b, ii 4, I 4ba, iv 3, v 8, vi 12),” VT 33 (1983): 200.
31 V. Sasson, “King Solomon and the Dark Lady in the Song of Songs,” VT 39 (1989): 407–14.