Imagery and metaphor on ancient love poetry (Song of Solomon 7)

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Illustration: Ancient love poetry

The modern reader of Song of Songs 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 (Song of Solomon 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 were not only acceptable but pleasing to them. It turns out, however, that while many of the more easily understood metaphors of the Song do have parallels in other ancient Near Eastern texts, some of the more bizarre similes have no known correlation in other ancient love poetry.

For example, when the woman is said to be a flower (2:1) or the man exhorted to come running like a gazelle (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 is hard to find a parallel in ancient literature to a text like 4:1-5, where the woman’s eyes are doves, her hai a flock of goats coming down a hill, her neck a tower covered in shields and her breasts twin fawns. 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:

  • 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 literal way. Her hair might in some sense have resembled a flok 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 suggestion no doubt have some  validity, but it is 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 startling. 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 Revelation 1:13-16). Thus the language of Song of Songs 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.


 

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