Song of Solomon 3: The Maiden’s Search & Weddings in Ancient Israel

1 By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

2 I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

3 The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?

4 It was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

King Solomon’s stables at Megiddo
Megiddo was situated at a strategic location overlooking the Plain of Esdraelon (the Valley of Jezreel) near to where it joined the coastal plain (the Plain of Sharon). As the Via Maris – the ‘Way of the Sea’ – passed nearby, it was a vital stronghold on the main route from Egypt to Mesopotamia, and was fought over numerous times.

One of the earliest historical confrontations to be recorded in detail took place during the 15th century BC when the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III defeated a Canaanite coalition under the kings of Kadesh and Megiddo at the Battle of Megiddo.

Solomon recognized the importance of Megiddo by building one of his ‘chariot cities’ on the site of the earlier Canaanite stronghold.

Today, visitors can see the site of King Solomon’s Stables (see 1 Kings 10:26-29), as well as the remains of an earlier Canaanite altar dating from c.1500BC. The city was approached along a cobbled roadway and was entered by an impressive triple-entry gateway with three defensive butresses and inner recesses (now partially re-constructed), dating from the Late Bronze Age (c.950BC) – the time of King Solomon.

5 I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.

6 Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?

7 Behold his bed, which is Solomon’s; threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel.

8 They all hold swords, being expert in war: every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night.

9 King Solomon made himself a chariot of the wood of Lebanon.

10 He made the pillars thereof of silver, the bottom thereof of gold, the covering of it of purple, the midst thereof being paved with love, for the daughters of Jerusalem.

11 Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold king Solomon with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.

Weddings in Ancient Israel

A wedding, as the public solemnization of an agreement made at the time of an engagement, was an occasion for great joy.  The ceremony itself most likely consisted of one recitation of a simple formula, such as the one alluded to at the time of the first union between a husband and a wife (Gen 2:23).

The Elephantine Papyri
The Elephantine Papyri consist of 175 documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine and Syene (Aswan), which yielded hundreds of papyri in Hieratic and Demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Coptic, spanning a period of 2000 years.

The documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives, and are thus an invaluable source of knowledge for scholars of varied disciplines such as epistolography, law, society, religion, language and onomastics. They are a collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts dating from the 5th century BCE. They come from a Jewish community at Elephantine, then called ꜣbw. The dry soil of Upper Egypt preserved documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine and Syene (Aswan).

Hundreds of these Elephantine papyri, written in Hieratic and Demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Coptic, span a period of 1000 years. Legal documents and a cache of letters survived, turned up on the local ‘gray market’ of antiquities starting in the late 19th century, and were scattered into several Western collections.

Though some fragments on papyrus are much older, the largest number of papyri are written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and document the Jewish community among soldiers stationed at Elephantine under Persian rule, 495–399 BCE. The Elephantine documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives: divorce documents, the manumission of slaves, and other business, and are a valuable source of knowledge about law, society, religion, language and onomastics, the sometimes surprisingly revealing study of names.

The ‘Passover letter’ of 419 BCE (discovered in 1907), which gives detailed instructions for properly keeping the passover is in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.

Further Elephantine papyri are at the Brooklyn Museum. The discovery of the Brooklyn papyri is a remarkable story itself. The documents were first acquired in 1893 by New York journalist Charles Edwin Wilbour. After lying in a warehouse for more than 50 years, the papyri were shipped to the Egyptian Department of the Brooklyn Museum. It was at this time that scholars finally realized that “Wilbour had acquired the first Elephantine papyri”.

Marriage contracts from the Jewish community of Elephantine of the 5th century B.C. record a vow common to the ancient world: The groom would declare that the woman was his wife and that he was her husband for eternity.

The wedding ceremony also may have involved the symbolic act of the man covering his bride with the corner of his garment to indicate that she was now under his protection and that it was his responsibility to provide for her (Ruth 3:9; Eze 16:8).  Blessings of fruitfulness were bestowed upon the couple by family and friends (Gen 24:60; Ruth 4:11-12).

A passage from the Babylonian Talmud tells us that at a Jewish wedding in the early Christian era a groom would wear a ceremonial crown and receive his bride, who would make her entrance at the wedding party in a sedan chair.  This event may explain the description in Song of Songs 3:6-11; it would appear that the bride was riding in such a sedan chair, accompanied by an honor guard (In the phrase “Who is this?” in v. 6 the word “this” is feminine, referring to a woman.) 

The bride’s entourage also included a musical procession (Ps 45:14).  The groom was attired in festive headdress (Sol 3:11; Is 61:10), and the bride was adorned in embroidered garments and jewelry (Ps 45:13-14; Is 49:18, 61:10).  A veil completed the virgin bride’s costume, which may partly explain the success of Laban’s ruse of substituting Leah for Rachel on Jacob’s wedding night (Gen 29:23; Sol 4:1).

Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13) describes the arrival of the groom during the night prior to a wedding.  He was attended by male companions, one of whom would serve as his best man (Jdg14:20; Jn 3:29).

Upon his arrival the groom’s family would host a feast (Matt 22:2, Jn 2:9).  Putting the evidence together, it appears that the groom with his companions would traditionally arrive at the ceremonial house first, during the night, to be received by a group of young women.  Early the next day the friends of the groom would go out to bring back the bride, who would arrive in a sedan chair with the groom’s friends as her symbolic honor guard.

The marriage would be consummated on the first night of a banquet celebration typically lasting for seven days (Gen 29:27; Jdg 14:12).  The bridal couple would seal their union in a bridal chamber (Ps 19:5; Joel 2:16), and the blood-stained nupital sheet would be saved by the bride’s parents as proof of her prior virginity (Deut 22:17).

A wedding celebration in any time or culture typically brims with emotion, including the culmination of joy and the realization of an anticipated promise, thereby aptly expressing believer’s union with Christ at the end of time:

Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come and his wife hath made herself ready.

And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints (Rev 19:7-8).