“Who Is She?” (3:6-11)
This section of the Song seems straightforward on the surface, but the diversity of wildly different interpretations among biblical scholars signals that this may not be the case at all. As with most of the poems in the Song, all is not as it seems.
Before we dive in, let’s take a step back and review the big picture.
The underlying theme of the whole of Song of Songs is the depth, wonder, sensation, and thrill of God’s gift of human love. Even the modern Christian culture’s understanding of love and sex often errs toward a puritan view that dampens the goodness of physical intimacy to a more utilitarian function, or avoids the subject altogether. From the pulpit, the Christian’s view of sex is often reduced to, “abstain from thinking about it or acting upon your urges before you get married”. Is this really how God intended us to view physical intimacy? The Song of Songs answers that question with a definitive “no”. The poems that comprise the Song of Songs depict romantic love and all its pleasures as a uniquely human experience to be recognized as a good gift from a God who delights in blessing his people. Notably, the Song does not speak to abstinence or “saving oneself” for marriage, but perhaps it doesn’t have to. When we recognize romantic love and sexuality as a divinely powerful experience, as the Song invites the reader to do, aren’t we more motivated to enjoy it rightly and within its boundaries? I love to cook, so I asked for a high quality chef’s knife for Christmas. These are a step above your basic kitchen knives, and not at all cheap. If my wife were to get one for me as a gift, would I use it to shave my face, trim my cat’s claws, or trim branches on our shrubs? Of course not. When we give gifts, we expect the recipient to use them for their intended purpose. If my wife were to see me abusing the gift she gave me, I imagine she would be deeply disappointed. When we view sex (and all of life’s pleasures, really) as a gift from God, our disposition toward it changes and we are better able to see it for what it is.
The Husband Approaches (?)
Song 3:6-11 depicts what appears to be a wedding celebration where the two lovers finally unite. The woman sees her beloved appear from the desert (sometimes translated “wilderness”) riding upon a ceremonial chair carried by a host of sixty men. The depiction of the man is exceedingly royal: his carriage is made of Lebanese cedar, the finest in the world; its back is made of gold; its seat is purple – a pigment rarer and more valuable than gold in the ancient world. He is wearing a crown which his mother has gifted him.
Scholars who advocate for a historical-literal interpretation of the Song take this passage at face value: it is a marriage ceremony between Solomon and the Shulamite woman. As the woman describes her husband’s arrival, there is even a hint of surprise, as if the woman had not realized she was marrying a man of such status. “What is that,” she asks, “coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke?” (3:6).
However, one of the interpretive problems in this section of the Song is the question of what exactly we are to do with verse 6. Many translations, such as the ESV, read, “what is that coming up from the wilderness?” This is a smoothed-over translation which successfully connects verse 6 with verse 7: “What is that? . . . Behold, it is the litter of Solomon!” The original text is a little more nuanced. Welcome to the wonderful world of Hebrew parsing.
The original Hebrew text reads, מִי זֹאת עֹלָה מִן־הַמִּדְבָּר (miy zo’th ‘olah min-hammidbar) The word zo’th (זֹאת) is a Hebrew pronoun – a feminine pronoun (the masculine form is zeh; זֶה). The interrogative miy (מִי) paired with the feminine pronoun zo’th could also be translated, “who is she?” Commentator Robert W. Jenson, whose work I have frequently referenced as I have been researching for this blog series, suggests that, when translated “who is she?” this section of the Song appears to be written from a third-person perspective, not from that of the woman (one of the daughters of Jerusalem, perhaps?). This outside observer is witnessing the woman arriving from the wilderness to meet her lover, who is royally adorned as if he were King Solomon himself. With this understanding, verse 7 does not answer the question posed by verse 6. Rather, the poem is from the perspective of an outside observer witnessing the events and reacting with surprise: “Who is this?” and “Behold!”
There are people arrogant enough to suggest that you can’t truly understand the Bible unless you know biblical languages. That’s nonsense. If there is one thing I learned when studying biblical languages it is that you can trust your English Bible. I mentioned the nuance in the language only to illustrate that all Bible translation involves a degree of interpretation, and each translation reflects different interpretive nuances. In this case, the ESV translators decided that the pronoun zo’th is best translated as “this”, not “she”. But, as you can see, that’s not the only possible way to render the original language. In some cases, the interpretation of a passage is affected slightly when different translating decisions are made.
There are a few further linguistic details in verses 6-11 to consider. The imagery of a woman approaching from the wilderness, columns smoke, and the scent of incense evoke strong connections to the story of post-Exodus Israel. The nation wandered in the wilderness, following God’s holy presence which manifested as a column of smoke (Exodus 13:21). The verb translated in verse 6 as “coming up” is ‘olah (עֹלָה). This word comes from the root noun ‘olah, used elsewhere in Scripture to denote a burnt offering (as it would relate to the smoke from the offering rising into the air):
Then you shall cut the ram into pieces, and wash its entrails and its legs, and put them with its pieces and its head, and burn the whole ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering (‘olah) to the Lord. It is a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the Lord.Exodus 29:17-18 (see also Genesis 8:20-22)
Scripture passages detailing the practice of burnt offerings frequently mention the offering as “a pleasing aroma” (reyach nichowach; c.f. Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29:25). God commanded the Israelites to include incense in their grain offerings as a “pleasing aroma” to accompany the offering.
Though Song 3:6-11 depicts a romantic moment of unity between two lovers (and can certainly be read and interpreted as such), the poem’s frequent allusions to the Exodus, Israel’s 40 year wilderness sojourn, and tabernacle worship cannot be ignored. A good argument can be made, given the evidence previously mentioned, that writer of Song 3:6-11 intended for the female lover to be an allegorical depiction of Israel. The woman (Israel) is returning from the wilderness, where she was able to commune with God only through ritual sacrifice; where God’s holy presence was only a cloud of smoke. Solomon (a personification of Yahweh in all of his heavenly splendor) waits for her arrival.
Even now, God awaits the arrival of the Church, “a pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved” (2 Corinthians 2:15). May the grace of Christ transform our lives into a pleasing offering so we may approach God’s holy presence with joy, as a bride prepared for her groom.