Song of Solomon 7: The Maiden Desires Her Beloved & Imagery and Metaphor in Ancient Love Poetry

Recent excavations of Heshbon (now in Jordan) have uncovered the remains of large reservoirs near the city. The word for “fishpools” is the Hebrew berekot, which does not refer to springs or fountains, “but the deep reservoirs which the springs supply. The sense here is one of still, deep calmness rather than the sparkle and shimmer of flowing springs”

 1 How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! The joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.

2 Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies.

3 Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.

4 Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fish pools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.

Heshbon
Heshbon was an ancient town located east of the Jordan River in what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, historically within the territories of ancient Ammon. Today, it is a ruin, bearing its old Arabic namesake, Tell Ḥesbān, located ca. 9 kilometers (5.6 mi) north of Madaba.

It is mentioned thirty-seven times in Scripture and was a powerful city in ancient Palestine. In Numbers 21:25-30 we learn that Heshbon was originally a Moabite city but was conquered by Sihon, the king of the Amorites, who made it his capital.

Later (Numbers 32:37) it became part of the inheritance of the tribe of Rueben, and although it eventually reverted back to Moabite rule (and both Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesied of coming judgment because of its evil), during the reign of King Solomon it was part of the inheritance given to the Levites as a city of peaceful refuge for the families of the priests. It was a beautiful city, a powerful city, and a city of peace.

Heshbon (also Hesebon, Esebon, Esbous, Esebus; Arabic: حشبون‎, Latin: Esebus, Hebrew: חשבון‎;) was an ancient town located east of the Jordan River in what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, historically within the territories of ancient Ammon. Today, it is a ruin, bearing its old Arabic namesake, Tell Ḥesbān, located ca. 9 kilometers (5.6 mi) north of Madaba.

In 1968, archaeological excavations were undertaken at the site of Tell Hesban (alternatively spelled Tall Hisban).
Two churches have been discovered from the Byzantine era, and both churches produced impressive remains of mosaic floors. Particularly interesting is the nilotic (using motifs originating in the environs of the river Nile) mosaic of the presbytery of the North Church where the mosaicists have created a motif of a turtledove set on a nest made of an imaginary flower.

5 Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.

6 How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

7 This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.

8 I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples;

9 And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.

10 I am my beloveds, and his desire is toward me.

11 Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages.

12 Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.

13 The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.

Imagery and Metaphor in Ancient Love Poetry

The modern reader of Song of Solomon is struck by the poem’s powerful and yet eccentric images and metaphors.  Why, for example, would a man tell the woman he adores that her nose is like a tower (Sol 7:4)?  Unless the Israelites believed that an enormous nose was attractive, wouldn’t she be insulted?

Some have dealt with this problem by simply assuming that the ancients had a different way of expressing themselves and that metaphors that sound ridiculous to us weren’t only acceptable, but pleasing to them.

It turns out that while many of the more easily understood metaphors or the Song do have parallels in other ancient Near Eastern texts, some of the more bizarre similes have no known correlations in other ancient love poetry.

For example, when the woman is said to be a flower (Sol 2:1) or the man exhorted to come running like a gazelle (Sol 8:14), the former obviously refers to her youthful beauty and the latter to his strength and speed – images that have fairly clear parallels in Egyptian poetry.

On the other hand, it’s hard to find a parallel in ancient literature to a text like Sol 4:1-5, where the woman’s eyes are doves, her hair a flock of goats coming down a hill, her neck a tower covered in shields and her breasts twin fawns.

Song of Songs
From translators Ariel and Chana Bloch about a poem that has inspired everyone from Kate Bush to Toni Morrison:

“The Song of Songs is a poem about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover. In a series of subtly articulated scenes, the two meet in an idealized landscape of fertility and abundance — a kind of Eden — where they discover the pleasures of love. The passage from innocence to experience is a subject of the Eden story, too, but there the loss of innocence is fraught with consequences. The Song looks at the same border-crossing and sees only the joy of discovery.”

Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses!
Your sweet loving is better than wine.
You are fragrant,  you are myrrh and aloes.
All the young women want you.
Take me by the hand, let us run together!
My lover, my king, has brought me into his chambers.
We will laugh, you and I, and count each kiss,
better than wine.
Every one of them wants you.

Although we might find some visual correspondence between the feature represented and the chosen image, the language is shocking and at times difficult to understand.

There are various ways interpreters have tried to deal with this aspect of the Song of Solomon:

Some posit that the words suggest how the singer felt about the woman, not how she looked.  Thus, a tower-like nose or neck might suggest that he was in awe of her and not imply anything about the appearance of these physical features.

Another possibility is that the metaphors really do suggest how this woman looked, but not in a crudely literally way.  Her hair might in some sense have resembled a flock of goats on a hillside, with the slope of the hill and the hair of the goats somewhat similar to the appearance of her tresses cascading down over her shoulders.

A third possibility is that the poetry is deliberately comic or ironic.  This seems highly unlikely, in that the Song never suggests a humorous purpose.

The first and second suggests no doubt have some validity, but it’s difficult to avoid the fact that the Song consistently uses extravagant and unlikely metaphorical language.

Actually, some of the closest parallels to what we see in the Song may be found in prophetic and apocalyptic Bible texts.  The vision of God’s glory in Ezekiel 1, with wheels within wheels and wheels covered with eyes, is also starling.

The book of Revelation is replete with this kind of language, as when the risen Christ is described as having a sword protruding from his mouth (see Rev 1:13-16).

Thus, the language of Song of Solomon may be deliberately extravagant, suggesting that the man and woman are larger-than-life, representing not just two individual people but the profound mystery and power of love.