Song of Songs III continued again

Whoa! Did I doze off? Did I doze off!!! 😴 It’s been a doozie of a winter out there, so I must have been hibernating like a bear 🧸 deep under the covers 🛌 in the dark. Ah, you caught that, old perky-eared one, didn’t you? 🧛 I did mention “going dark” 🕶 and “undercover” 🥸. Sorry, but actually, since our last meeting, this gnarly sleuth was brought in from the concrete jungle to the ivory tower and the halls of power to crack a timeless, perplexing case — some might say, THE timeless, perplexing case — the case of family secrets poisoning generations of descendants ☠️. Who did what, where does it trickle down, and how can you stop the rot? 💉 From King David to Dallas and Dynasty, the problem has gripped millions. Now, solving that case is not the kind of thing that makes headlines 📰 and gets reported on 📻. Because where would the papers be 🗞 and what would be on TV 📺, if we pull the curtains back on that and end it, if you know what I mean? But now that I filed my report, the “forces that be,” you see, they know what they need to know, and you can rest in peace. Trust me 😉.

OK, enough about me. Let’s get back to the Song and you. We need to bring Case 5 to a close — that’s Song 5:2–7:11 — because you’ve been waiting, and I have another set of cases waiting in the wings for you 🗂, from Proverbs. Now where exactly were we? As far as I can tell, and I don’t tell much, we covered 5:2–6:3 and what we have left is 6:4–7:11.

6:1–3, we said, makes for a brilliant transition. The friends ask the lover which way her beloved went, so they can join the search for him — and feast their eyes on him 🤩. She answers that he went down to his garden to graze among the lilies 🌼🌼🐐, and that answer transports her to another setting, where his garden is her body and he feasts on her 🍑🍒🥝🍋🍓🍇🍐🫐🍏🍅🫒🥑🥕🌶. So she exclaims, “he is mine and I am his” 🤗, which does two things at once: it express her rapture but it also excludes her friends from the picture.

What comes next, 6:4–7:11, is what the beloved says to the lover and about her 💖. For part of it, he matches in style and imagery how she just described him to her friends. He draws from many aspects of life, in the sky and on the ground, in cities and on the farm, in closed areas and out in open ones, from political places to natural spaces. The images excite a range of feelings from awe to intimacy. Now his speech is long and there’s a lot to work out, so I’m going to break it up into a few parts and talk about them one at a time. This time, we’ll work out 6:4–10. Next time, I’ll give you how this case closes.

Song 6:4–7

You are beautiful, my love, like Tirzah

   desirable like Jerusalem,

   awesome like the auroras.

Avert your eyes from me

   for they arrest me.

Your hair is like a herd of goats

   that bound down the Gilead.

Your teeth are like a herd of rams

   that arise from the rinse

   that are all twinned

   and none is bereft among them.

Like a wedge pomegranate is your cheek

   beneath your veil.

יָפָה אַתְּ רַעְיָתִי כְּתִרְצָה 

   נָאוָה כִּירוּשָׁלָםִ

   אֲיֻּמָּה כַּנִּדְגָּלוֹת

הָסֵבִּי עֵינַיִךְ מִנֶּגְדִּי –    שֶׁהֵם הִרְהִיבֻנִי 

שַׂעְרֵךְ כְּעֵדֶר הָעִזִּים –  שֶׁגָלְשׁוּ מִן־הַגִּלְעָד 

שִׁנַּיִךְ כְּעֵדֶר הָרְחֵלִים – שֶׁעָלוּ מִן־הָרַחְצָה 

שֶׁכֻּלָּם מַתְאִימוֹת –      וְשַׁכֻּלָּה אֵין בָּהֶם 

כְּפֶלַח הָרִמּוֹן רַקָּתֵךְ –  מִבָּעַד לְצַמָּתֵךְ

Notice how this works. First, the beloved compares the lover to a few awesome sights:

☝️Tirzah = a capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel long gone…Huh!? Now mentioning a capital city has the effect of calling to mind something legendary. Capital cities were images of power and beauty because of how utterly different they were than the general landscape. They were proof of the human ability to completely control and change the environment and build something visually striking. On mountaintops, they are seen from afar and capture one’s gaze. But Tirzah?? This one’s a head-scratcher for lots of sleuths 🤷🏽. If you believe 1 Kings 14–16 (not your most reliable informant, but no source ever is), Tirzah was capital for just a few years, out of over 200; and there’s nothing but the slightest scraps about it to go on. Why would the poet have the beloved invoke Tirzah??

So I did some digging ♠ and got to thinking 🤔💭, and here is what I came up with. Let’s take it as a given that the poet wanted to mention a northern capital.

    • Now Samaria was capital over 100 years and was home to some very powerful kings, but — again, this is Kings talking — it’s those kings who were judged bad and blamed for the kingdom being chopped, gutted, and made someone else’s province. Samaria comes in for a vicious beating in other poetic works like Hosea and Ezekiel, which portray it as a woman putting her beauty to vile use. (Feminist sleuths have done first-rate work tracking the past and present dangers of these portrayals.) Invoking Samaria, then, to compare the lover’s beauty would get the beloved worse than a public shoe-removing🥾, face-spitting😤 denouncement 📣. (By the way, in case you missed it, that’s right out of Deut 25:5–10.)
    • The first capitals, Shechem and Penuel (and Bethel and Dan too), were considered the breakaway from David and Solomon’s kingdom (Kings again!), so mentioning those wouldn’t be a good look either. The lover called her beloved “Prince Solomon,” and in return he calls her “Shechem”? I don’t think so. That’d be like, “You’re my Superman!” “and you’re my Lex Luthor!” 😬
    • That leaves Tirzah, which is such a blip it can basically mean however you want to figure it. In fact, the name itself connotes desire (the root is r-ṣ-y = “want, will, desire”), which fits right into the Song, especially right after the beloved says, “You are beautiful, my love.”

See how I operate? Classic. Let’s get to the next item.

✌️Jerusalem = the capital of the southern kingdom of Judea. In late-Persian, early-Hellenistic times when the Song was written (4th cent. BCE), the city wasn’t anything special, if you get my drift. But after Tirzah is mentioned and the gauzy glory of the past is evoked, what comes to mind is Jerusalem of old, the one that is legendarily spectacular, nothing less than divine.

🤟 Auroras. OK, OK, a sleuth’s artistic license. But hear me out, and if by the end you don’t come around to my way of thinking, I’ll buy you the drinks 🍺🍺. The word at this point is Hebrew nidgalot; the root is d-g-l “see”; and the form of the word gives it the meaning “things seen, spectacle.” Ask yourself: What is it that is seen and only ever seen and never experienced any other way, and it is so spectacular it takes your breath away? A city rat like me couldn’t even begin to piece this one together. Now I’d heard some pretty far out rumors about the night sky outside the city, which always sounded ridiculous to me. The sky is the same the world over! So I shifted in my desk chair and went to check it out…online, and what do you know? Answer: the stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ with their starlight 💫💫💫💫💫. You don’t believe me? See for yourself here. Now ancient sleuths used to look to the stars and see all kinds of things, like divine signs, divine stories, and divinities. Most common in the Hebrew Bible, the stars are divine soldiers, “Legions” (ṣebaᵓot צְבָאוֹת). And if you’ve never seen the Northern or Southern Lights, auroras borealis and australis if you will, shift in your easy-chair and get the complete experience here. You see what I’m saying about nigdalot = auroras, RIGHT??

Now add all these up, Tirzah, Jerusalem, and the auroras, and you get overpowering sights that you can’t turn your eyes from. (Go ahead, get the preposition police 🚓, why don’t you, and have me written up ✍️.) You see why the beloved is overwhelmed and captivated, and why he says next that the lover should turn her eyes from him.

OK, so this is clever, you see, because what the beloved’s done is he’s moved his lover’s awesome beauty and captivating radiance from the whole of her, “You are beautiful,” to her eyes specifically, “Avert your eyes from me, for they arrest me.” And this allows him to start describing other specific parts of her face: her wavy hair (see here), her bright perfect, ungapped smile (see here), and her shapely cheek (I got zilch).

So now we can get into the details of this second aspect of the beloved’s descriptions, which are puzzling in a whole new way. Goats 🐐, rams 🐏, and pomegranates 🍅, that’s how he thinks of his lover⁉️ Put them all together and you get something ridiculous🤪. Look, do not try this at home. At best, you’ll get a sideways glance askance; at worst, well, use your own imagination for that. Anyway, so, it’s like we said last time. The idea here is to take the images one a time, separately, not together, and to unpack them carefully for what exactly is the point of comparison.

Goats 🐐 from the Gilead. The idea here is not the goats. It’s looking at the bunch of them from afar, with all their hair moving and bouncing in a herd down a mountainside. All that downward, bouncing motion is like cascading, and that’s a pretty decent image for hair. It’s not just a lot, it’s alive, animated — like the stars were thought to be. Life and vitality, vibrant, that’s the love ticket right there.

Rams 🐏 from the rinse. Here too, it’s not the rams. It’s their being in pairs and none flying solo; teeth are better in twos, see? It’s also their moist, glistening quality. And it’s the rams’ motion, not a fixed frozen mouth, but an actively inviting one; which is also like the motion of the goats and makes for its own nice pairing: like goats like rams.

Cheek like a pomegranate wedge. *Sleuth’s notes: let’s see – darker Middle Eastern skin tones…cheek redness a medical condition…ancients thought pomegranates an aphrodisiac… OK, so about that cheek like a pomegranate wedge? The idea of red cheeks being beautiful is…a red herring . Maybe you saw that in a commentary? Forget about it. It’s a modern idea among people with light skin-tones. The wedge is mentioned for the shape of the cheek, an idea of beauty you can find in ancient Egyptian art, and the pomegranate is mentioned because of its association with being alluring, not to connect its color with the cheek. The poet put them together as a wedge of a pomegranate, but we have to take the associations separately: wedge = aesthetic shape; pomegranate = physical impact.

So all of that is about the images. There’s a lot about the sounds of the poetry here too. You can see a lot of patterning in the English, lots of repeating phrases, words, and consonants. In the Hebrew it’s even more pervasive, with lots of rhyming going on too.

Set 1

You are beautiful, my love, like Tirzah

   desirable like Jerusalem,

   awesome like the auroras (n-d-g-l-t).

Avert (h-s-b-y) your eyes from me (m-n-g-d-y)

   for they (š-h-m) arrest me (h-r-h-b-n-y).

Now I mentioned that “your eyes” links to “the auroras” through the shared idea of “radiance,” which makes a transition from “You” to the different specific parts of the face. Well the word for the spectacle of the auroras sounds like the phrase “from me” (n-d-g-l-t // m-n-g-d-y), which helps solidify that link and strengthen the transition. Now don’t get your undies in a twist over the difference between n-d-g and n-g-d. That’s how alliteration works.

The complete line about averting her look has internal alliteration between the beginning of its two halves and rhyme between the endings. “Avert” sounds like “for they” (h-s-b-y // š-h-m), especially because both have -h- in an emphasized spot, and all sleuths count -s- and -š- as alliterative. As in English so in Hebrew “from me” and “arrest me” (m-n-g-d-y // h-r-h-b-n-y) rhyme. 

Set 2

Your hair (sa-) is like a herd of goats

   that (šɛ-) bound down the Gilead.

Your teeth (ši-) are like a herd of rams

   that (šɛ-arise from the rinse

   that (šɛ-are all (kulɔm) twinned

   and none is bereft (šakulɔ) among them.

The sentence about the beloved’s hair has two parts, and each part has internal alliteration. The first part has three words, each of which has the consonant -‘- in the second position: s--r-k k--d-r h--z-m. Other elements strengthen the sense of alliteration: (1) the repetition of -k- at the end of first word and the beginning of the second; (2) the -d- after -‘- in the second word and -z- after -‘- in the third. In the second part of the sentence, there are other repetitions that stand out: šg-lš m-n h-g-l-‘-d, an alternating sequence of š g-l š g-lThe sentence about her teeth rhymes the sentence about her hair and repeats a few elements of it. After an opening -s-, all the sentences have š- at stress points where their repetition stands out, and the series ends with a really close repetition (šɛkulɔm // šakulɔ)

Set 3

Like a wedge pomegranate (rimmon) is your cheek (rɔqatek)

   beneath your veil (ṣɔmatek).

The first half of the sentence, which is three words, features -r- prominently at the beginning of words 2 (rimmon) and 3 (rɔqatek). The words “your cheek” and your veil” ending the two halves have a strong rhyme: rɔqatek // ṣɔmatek.

At this point the beloved switches gears ⚙️. He stops describing his lover’s face and compares her to others. Also, he talks about her, not to her. She’s still next to him, they have not separated, but he’s not addressing her.

Song 6:8–10

Sixty queens there are

   and eighty concubines

   and countless young women

Unique she is, my dove, my perfect

   Unique she is to her mother

   Purist she is to who bore her

Women see her and praise her

   Queens and concubines and they hymn her:

“Who is that, spectacular like dawn

   Beautiful as the moon

   Radiant as the sun

   Awesome as the auroras?”

שִׁשִּׁים הֵמָּה מְּלָכוֹת

   וּשְׁמֹנִים פִּילַגְשִׁים

   וַעֲלָמוֹת אֵין מִסְפָּר

אַחַת הִיא יוֹנָתִי תַמָּתִי

   אַחַת הִיא לְאִמָּהּ

   בָּרָה הִיא לְיוֹלַדְתָּהּ

רָאוּהָ בָנוֹת וַיְאַשְּׁרוּהָ

   מְלָכוֹת וּפִילַגְשִׁים וַיְהַלְלוּהָ

מִי־זֹאת הַנִּשְׁקָפָה כְּמוֹ־שָׁחַר

   יָפָה כַלְּבָנָה

   בָּרָה כַּחַמָּה

   אֲיֻמָּה כַּנִּדְגָּלוֹת

You see a lot of men in love in my line of work, trying to sputter out some compliment. This guy’s ideas and technique really stand out. He started his speech with capital cities and beauty; he interrupted with images from farm life. Here he goes back to royal and urban imagery but takes it up a notch, by comparing his lover to royal harems and urban throngs and declaring that she surpasses them all. Before he said, she’s as beautiful as a city; now he says, she’s more beautiful than anyone in it. In fact, he says, they acknowledge it and praise her.

Get this, when he quotes what they say, it turns out to be his original terms. They declare her spectacular in celestial terms: she is visually captivating, like the dawn, the moon, the sun, and the complete set of stars. Actually, the women echo him in ✌️ ways: They conclude their praise with his very own words, “awesome as the auroras.” But they also begin their praise by asking who is so spectacular, where the Hebrew word is extremely close to the word I explained as the stars and translated by “auroras”:

nišqɔp = N + š-q-p “see”

nidgɔl = N + d-g-l “see”

The women envelope their thoughts with the beloved’s words, ideas, and sound patterns.

What I don’t see a lot of is what the beloved says in the middle, that the lover is unique to her mother and purist in her eyes (that’s pure in terms of beauty), as if even her own mother, who presumably has other children, recognizes how utterly unique she is. Now, parents have been accused of having favorites since the dawn of families. Heck, in one tale I’ve never been asked or tasked to look into, the very first family had divine favoritism and it led to fratricide! (See what I did there?) But how do you make it a lover’s compliment 🤔 A suitor stoking family jealousies is dooming his love to lifelong enemies. (See what I did there too?) Anyway, I reason it out this way. If you remember what I told you earlier, the beloved’s speech is actually the lover’s daydream, which means it’s really her sentiment, her fantasy you could say, to be thought utterly unique, and how truer could uniqueness be if one’s own mother recognizes it? If you’ve been paying attention and taking notes, you’ll remember from Case 3 (3:1–5), we already saw that the lover has an intriguing relationship with her mother (3:4). Hey, it’s getting late, so here’s a challenge for you, your very own case: put 2 and 2 together and see what formula you can come up with to explain what this relationship is doing in love poetry.

Look, that’s about as much telling as I can do in one sitting 🪑. My back feels like it’s got a cattle prod in it and my legs don’t feel anything AT ALL, while a pile of files 🗄 heavier than a cement corpse in a body bag 🦦 at the bottom of the river 🌊 is weighing on me ⚓️. Next time: 6:11–7:11, the end of Case 5.

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