Song of Songs I (3:1-5)

There’s one thing that has always given sleuths business, good business. One thing that gets the most cases going from time immemorial. The gods, you say? Survey says — ding! — #️⃣2️⃣. What’s the #️⃣1️⃣  thing that has led to poetry? Survey says — ding! — ROMANCE! Sleuths are in business mainly because of romance, that’s right, heartache 💘 and heartbreak 💔. One lover hires us to follow another, test the character of their love, and make sure they’re not playing false. It takes a Mesopotamian extispicy expert to read the divine heart 🐑  (the ancient bārû read sheep guts), and it takes a Judean god to read the human heart 🧐  (Yahweh examines human guts בֹּחֵן כְּלָיוֹת וָלֵב). Your everyday sleuth gumshoeing it on the hard pavement under the harsh lights in dark corners of the concrete jungle you didn’t know were here and you never want to visit has to stick to what people actually put in words — the facts, just the facts.

Actually, in the most ancient times, over 4,000 years ago give or take a few centuries, many cases combined the two — poems about gods being romantic. Those could get pretty graphic, some might say porno graphic. 🙈  In more recent times, like the past 2,000 years, Christian and Jewish literate types expressed their love for their god in erotic terms too. (“God”? Look, sleuths can’t get involved in getting personal and picking sides, not if they’re really going to solve things.) One major source of inspiration for these types is the Song of Songs. This erotic poetry about a woman and her beloved man prompted an entire monks’ tradition of allegorizing its meaning — not to obscure it, like you woulda thought, but to apply it to their god, Christ, in explicit terms. In fact, they add a whole new set of sensual and sexual details that would make you blush 😳, and they blur who has which body parts and plays what role in ways that will make you sweat. 🌶♨️  You know, I met a Talmud text once, and it told me a story, that ancient Jewish authorities told a story about ancient Jewish authorities who appealed to their god (God) to rid them of the desire for other gods (imagined) and all was well, so they appealed to their god to rid them of sexual desire too and nature itself came to a standstill, so they had to back off that. See? Romance (let’s just call it romance) is the bigger topic, and the gods are just another set of characters and addressees.

If I know you, you probably got me figured by now, but yeah, my next case is the Song of Songs. Buckle up, sparky, we’re going for a ride. 🛺 To get at this case, I’ll start you off with the scene at 3:1–5. It is short and it has many of the core elements that characterize the Song. I’ll have to do some explaining first. Now stay with me, this is going to get technical and it gets worse as we go. I can get like that, you know.

☝️ Structure. A first person, “I,” describes being apart from her beloved, finding him, and going off together. She concludes by expressing that everyone should be so lucky to enjoy this kind of loving. Most of the scenes in the Song have this structure. The last one breaks off in a way that suggests infinite repetition, just like that last shot of Flight 33 ✈️, which keeps jumping time and can’t get back to the right date, in the Twilight Zone. 

✌️ Address. The speaker switches back and forth between different addressees without saying she is doing so. She starts by speaking about herself to no one in particular, then she speaks to herself, musing, then returns to speaking about herself, then addresses the guards who roam the city, then speaks about herself again, then closes by addressing her girlfriends, “sisters in Jerusalem.” All the scenes in the Song have this lack of structuring. It feels like drama, but the Song is not the script of a play. (It’s like the unmanaged shifting between speakers in Psalm 82.) Two ancient scribes making copies of the Song were so distressed by this, that each one added words that introduce who says what to whom throughout their entire copy. (It’s still not the script of a play.) Now in the scene at 3:1–5, the speaker speaks entirely about her beloved, never to him. This keeps it clean. But in all the other scenes in the Song, she alternates between talking to him and about him, again without managing it, just switching abruptly.

🤟 Verbs. The verbs in ancient Hebrew do not, actually, mainly refer to time. (Other parts of the language do.) The verbs refer to the position of the speaker with respect to the event they are describing. Either the speaker describes the event as an observer of it from the outside, taking it in at a glance as a whole (called perfective). Or they describe the event as a participant inside it, experiencing it as something “in process” (called imperfective or progressive). In the Song of Songs the speaker shifts back and forth between positions — without necessarily changing tense or time. Because mainly what she describes is the present, what is happening to her now. In the scene at 3:1–5, she stays pretty consistent. But with English verbs, it is impossible to keep out tense, so translations end up with past and future crossing each other up, when anyway the whole thing is in the present.

To keep it clean, I go a different route. I translate in a way that makes it clear that everything occurs in the present, which is essential in all the Song‘s scenes. I am also going to ignore the verse numbers and number the lines myself. This will make it easier to talk about later.


Song 3:1–5

1 On my bed nights I seek the one I love

עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי בַּלֵּילוֹת בִּקַּשְׁתִּי אֵת שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי

2 I seek him but don’t find him

בִּקַּשְׁתִּיו וְלֹא מְצָאתִיו

3 “Let me get up and roam the city, the alleys, and the squares

אָקוּמָה נָּא וַאֲסוֹבְבָה בָעִיר בַּשְּׁוָקִים וּבָרְחֹבוֹת

4 I’ll seek the one I love”

אֲבַקְשָׁה אֵת שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי

5 I seek him but don’t find him

בִּקַּשְׁתִּיו וְלֹא מְצָאתִיו

6 They find me, the guards who roam the city

מְצָאוּנִי הַשֹּׁמְרִים הַסֹּבְבִים בָּעִיר

7 “The one I love have you seen?”

אֵת שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי רְאִיתֶם

8 No sooner do I pass them when I find the one I love

כִּמְעַט שֶׁעָבַרְתִּי מֵהֶם עַד שֶׁמָּצָאתִי אֵת שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי

9 I grasp him and do not let him go

אֲחַזְתִּיו וְלֹא אַרְפֶּנּוּ

10 Until I bring him to my mother’s home and the room of my conception

עַד־שֶׁהֲבֵיאתִיו אֶל־בֵּית אִמִּי וְאֶל־חֶדֶר הוֹרָתִי

11 Swear to me, O sisters in Jerusalem, by the gazelles and the fawns of the field,

הִשְׁבַּעְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם בִּצְבָאוֹת אוֹ בְּאַיְלוֹת הַשָּׂדֶה

12 if you dare rouse and arouse loving to the point that it desires…!

אִם־תָּעִירוּ וְאִם־תְּעוֹרְרוּ אֶת־הָאַהֲבָה עַד שֶׁתֶּחְפָּץ


Here’s what you need to know about this scene. It has two parts and a pivot.

ONE In lines 1–5, the speaker describes a nightly situation. Each night she yearns for her beloved but he’s not there; each night she thinks, I should go find him, but just lays there yearning. The precise repetition of line 2 in line 5, “I seek him but don’t find him,” suggests that they mean exactly the same thing: she yearns, gropes the bedsheets, and comes up empty-handed. 🤲

TWO In lines 6–12 she is describing one particular night, tonight, right now: she is out seeking her beloved, guards find her but she does the questioning, then she finds him, she leads him to a room of intimacy, and, skipping the intimate details, she expresses her elation by addressing her friends with a teasing statement, Do NOT try this at home, girls! (I’ll explain about that later.)

⚠️ The problem with the scene is, how did she get from a repeating situation, something nightly, to a specific one, something happening right now? She doesn’t say, “So tonight I get up.” All of a sudden, the guards are finding her. Now settle down. 🚧 No lines are missing, and these are not two fragments mashed together. Listen and learn. It’s why you bought me this drink, right? 🥃

PIVOT The way this works is clever. Lines 3–5 serve double duty. When you read them going forward, they continue the nightly picture. But once you have passed them and move to the picture of this one night and you go backwards and reread them, you realize they can be read to describe this one night too. It is on this night, right now, that she thinks, Let me get up and seek him etc., and grumbles, I seek him but don’t find him. Now this re-evaluation of the lines is not correcting a mistaken reading. The lines are meant to be read twice every time you read the scene, and their meaning changes depending on where you are reading from: from the beginning, they belong to the nightly situation; from the end, they belong to tonight. Like quantum physics, you know? Where you are affects what you’re seeing. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)

This kind of double-duty sentence is a trick some sleuths know about; we got a name for it: a pivot pun. It’s not flashy, I’ll give you that, but it lets you know plain and simple what’s happening. If that’s not good enough for you, use the Japanese term, kakekotoba. It’ll impress your uptown friends. Anyway, the key here is that the pun is not in a double-meaning of a word; it’s in a double-reading of the syntax. This is high level stuff that doesn’t just walk in off the street and land in your lap all on its own. And it’s all over the Song.

A couple other things happen in this scene that you ought to know about.☝️ It has some repeating words and concepts that hold the whole thing together: “seeking” (4x in lines 1–5 בק״ש) and “finding” (4x in lines 2–8 מצ״א), which climax with “grasping” and “not-letting-go” (in line 9 אח״ז and לא רפ״ה). The Hebrew word for “finding” does not just mean to locate something, an act of cognition; it can also mean to grasp with your hands. Which is why the crescendo with “grasp” and “not-let-go” is so effective. What also repeats in each stage — when she is musing, questioning the guards, and finding — is how she refers to her beloved, “the one I love” (4x in lines 1, 4, 7, 8 אֶת שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי).

Ahem <cough>. I should note on this, translations typically say “the one whom my soul loves.” Leaving aside the rhythm of that, which is kind of clunky, English “soul” can be pretty misleading for Hebrew nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ), which is a very embodied thing. The basic meaning of nephesh is “throat,” and it is used for appetite, the body, will, selfhood, and life (being alive). In such a sensuous and sensual case from the ancient Levant, I’d rather leave the modern Western soul out of it altogether.

✌️ There is some twisting that also holds the whole together. In lines 1–5, when describing her nightly yearnings, she muses about roaming the city (line 3 סב״ב בעיר), and laments about not finding her beloved (line 5 לא מצ״א). In line 6, when she must be talking about this night right now, there is a surprise twist: the guards roaming the city — they find her. It’s liked one obstacle is followed by another: First she’s too lazy to do more than moon and moan; now that she’s finally up and out, she’s busted. This is what makes her questioning them (line 7) another clever twist. Seizing the moment that way turns the tables on the scene, and sure enough, next she finds her beloved (line 8).

(Spoiler alert ⚠️ This sequence of lazy mooning and moaning followed by searching for her beloved and being found by guards in the night repeats in another scene, 5:2–7:11, where the heat is turned all the way up 🔥 and all those elements are dramatized strikingly.)

Anyway, so you see how the things that repeat straight-forwardly keep the thing together by being stable, even static. But the things that repeat with a twist move the action forward, giving it its dynamism. These work together to make the scene happen.

Alright, now I promised to explain that last line. First off, the line is a classic case of an unfinished threat, Swear to me… if you (dare)…! which happens all over the Hebrew Bible and has happened in all homes throughout the whole history of humans and probably hominins too. 🦍 Second, the Hebrew on what love desires (תֶּחְפָּץ) is pretty tricky. She doesn’t say, “if you dare arouse love until it desires to be woken!” (a matter of time), which is a pretty strange thing to say after enjoying sexual fulfillment. She says, “if you dare arouse love to the point that it desires!” — meaning, sexual fulfillment (a matter of degree). Last, like you’ve heard me say in case after case until your ears fall off, you have to hear the speaker in poetry, their tone, which in this case is teasing. Put it all together, and you get this: The experience is so good, that when it is all over she says teasingly, do not try this yourselves! Like, it’s too much to handle. Which is another way of saying, you should all be so lucky! Which — ☣️ Spoiler alert 2! ☣️ — is exactly what she says at the end of the next scene (3:6–5:1).

Swear to me, O sisters in Jerusalem, by the gazelles and the fawns of the field,

if you dare rouse and arouse loving to the point that it desires…!

Now once you get the teasing nature of this line, then swearing by the gazelles and the fawns of the field falls into place. Well, in Hebrew it does. It replaces what an oath would typically have used — divine names (yhwh ṣevaᵓot, ᵓel šaday) — with words that sound like it but avoid it (ṣevaᵓot, ᵓaylot hasadeh). It’s having your cake and eating it too: avoiding saying anything inappropriate outright, but saying enough to call it to mind. (But here’s an extra lead for you to chew on, a loose end, if you will, Proverbs 5:19 אַיֶּלֶת אֲהָבִים וְיַעֲלַת־חֵן דַּדֶּיהָ יְרַוֻּךָ בְכָל־עֵת בְּאַהֲבָתָהּ תִּשְׁגֶּה תָמִיד.)


A sleuth has to protect their sources. But I’m a little drunk on the topic and can’t help spilling some secrets. I’ll regret this in the morning, but I’ll scribble some sources on this crumpled napkin:

  • Nathan Wasserman, Akkadian Love Literature of the Third and Second Millennium BCE (Harrassowitz, 2016)
  • Stephen D. Moore, “The Song of Songs in the History of Sexuality,” Church History 69/2 (2000), 328–349

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