SEXUAL PASSION AND PHYSICAL BEAUTY ARE TRANSFORMATIVE AND ALLURING
This is the toughest portion of the book to interpret. There are serious questions about the text. It is difficult to determine who is speaking each line. The poem is too brief to be definitive about the nature of the experience. It lends itself to much speculation and conjecture.
Duane Garrett / Paul House: The singer of vv 11–12 is evidently the woman since v 12 seems to speak of this person being taken away in a chariot, and, immediately after that, the chorus proclaims the line “Come back, O Shulammite!”
This brief section quickly moves through three singing parts, and this rapid change of singers is indicative of a transformation in the woman’s situation. It begins with calm, pastoral imagery (the woman strolls down to see how her plants are growing), but suddenly introduces a jolting shift of scene (she can hardly comprehend how she came to be among the chariots of Ammi-nadiv, “My-beloved-is-a-prince”). The Song abruptly indicates that the woman is leaving, much to the distress of her companions. Finally, the groom issues a mild rebuke to the women to the effect that they should not call on her to stay so that they can continue to look at her.
Tremper Longman: In this section, the woman recounts an experience. The setting is the cultivated countryside, a setting that we now associate with intimacy. It is springtime, a time of love. As she goes to the garden to investigate the spring growth, something unexpected happens to her. What that is, unfortunately, is not clear, since verse 12 is one of the most difficult passages in the entire book.
Tom Gledhill: The girl is wandering alone, dreamily inspecting the budding trees and vines, when she is suddenly transported in her thoughts into the presence of the lover.
I. (:11) INVESTIGATION OF INTIMATE RELATIONS (Female)
“I went down to the orchard of nut trees
To see the blossoms of the valley,
To see whether the vine had budded
Or the pomegranates had bloomed.”
Richard Hess: The symbol of the walnut as a picture of the male scrotum or the female vulva can thus exhibit erotic imagery that combines with the pictures found in the remainder of this verse.
The verb “to see” suggests a lingering and the evocation of fantasy regarding these symbols of sexuality and fruitfulness. The object of the lover’s vision are the plants of the valley. . .
The stroll around the garden is a stroll around the body of the lover. It is a description of the beauty of the lover’s body as well as suggesting the pleasures of love that await the speaker. Other than in the Song, it is unusual for Hebrew poets to portray the fruit or blossom of the pomegranate in the plural. In contrast to the vine, which is singular, the plural “pomegranates” reflects a particularly strong image of fruitfulness. The fruitful yield portrayed here, as elsewhere in the Song, is concerned less with reproduction and more with the joys of love that the two may experience in the deepening of their physical relationship.
Tremper Longman: The whole nut represents the male gland (even down to contemporary English slang), and the open nut, the woman’s vulva. In any case, the verse as a whole is a coy suggestion of intimate relations between the man and the woman. When she talks of exploring the grove, she means that she will be exploring the man’s body. Thus, whether we understand the imagery to refer to the place of lovemaking or the lover’s private parts, or perhaps both, we understand the speaker to say that intimate union is in mind.
II. (:12) TRANSFORMATION TO STATE OF POWER AND PASSION (Female)
“Before I was aware, my soul set me
Over the chariots of my noble people.”
Tom Gledhill: Here is a selection of what some English versions make of the verse:
AV Or ever I was aware, my soul made me like the chariots of Ammi-nadib.
JB Before I knew. . . My desire hurled me on the chariots of my people, as their prince.
NJPSV Before I knew it, my desire set me mid the chariots of Ammi-nadib.
NEB I did not know myself; she made me feel more than a prince reigning over the myriads of his people.
GNB I am trembling; you have made me as eager for love as a chariot driver is for battle.
RSV Before I was aware, my fancy set me In a chariot beside my prince.
Richard Hess: The translation expresses the fantasy of the female lover placed beside her princely lover in a dramatic and public display of power. The term for chariot is in the plural, suggesting a squad of chariots that go to battle. The passion of desire translates into the excitement of the most adventurous and dangerous experiences known to the author. . . The female lover’s sense of a place on board this instrument of terror is part of a fantasy of danger and excitement, which provides the climax of this experience. Away from the peaceful gardens, the chariotry of the nobles, whether in war or in procession, heightens the drama and fuels the passion of the lover.
Tremper Longman: Whatever interpretation is adopted, it should be held very lightly. . .
The most definite point we can make about this verse is that it expresses strong passion, most likely of the woman for the man. Her passion has so overwhelmed her that she is “caught up” and discovers herself transported into the man’s chariot.
Sierd Woudstra: The bride may be speaking here of the way in which she was unexpectedly and suddenly elevated to queenly dignity.
III. (:13a) DESIRE FOR A PUBLIC VIEWING OF THE BRIDE’S BEAUTY (Chorus)
“Come back, come back, O Shulammite;
Come back, come back, that we may gaze at you!”
Richard Hess: The women call her with four repeated imperative commands: šûbî. Two begin each of the first two lines and frame the only proper noun identifying the female in the entire poem: “Shulammite.” The term occurs only in this verse, in the first and third lines. Its possible derivation from the root šlm may carry the sense of “whole, complete, perfect.” In a Song that repeatedly names Solomon (1:5; 3:9, 11; 8:11, 12), it is appropriate that the female counterpart should have her name derived from the same root. Actually, hers is not a personal name. The definite article indicates that it should be understood more as a title. Perhaps it carries the sense of one who is altogether beautiful. This would agree with the second and fourth lines.
Tom Gledhill: The girl is far away, lost in her dreams, and she is being called back to reality by her friends, who want to gaze on her beauty. . .
At the very least, šelomoh and šulammit are linked by a very strong assonance; and the word-pair gives more than a hint of the mutual fulfilment of the two lovers. Each one finds šālôm in the complementarity of the other. This seems to be yet another reflection of the Garden of Eden narrative of Genesis 2, where the primal pair, man (’îsh) and woman (’îshshāh) find their mutual complementarity in the one-flesh relationship. ’îsh and ’îshshāh are linked by assonance (though most probably not by etymology); the woman was originally taken out of the flesh of the man, and they are reunited in the bodily one-flesh union of their marriage. For man in his solitariness had found no suitable helper in the rest of the created order. His joyful exuberance at his recognition that the creation of the woman has brought the possibility of the gift of peace, is shown in his triumphant cry, ‘This at last is bone of my bones. . .’
IV. (:13b) DESIRE FOR A PRIVATE VIEWING OF HIS BRIDE’S BEAUTY (Male)
“Why should you gaze at the Shulammite,
As at the dance of the two companies?”
Duane Garrett / Paul House: Rather than leave her to answer for herself, however, the groom speaks up for his bride. His words imply that the time for staring at her is over. Her great beauty was that of a bride in all her array, but now the wedding is over. The precise meaning of the “Dance of the Two Companies” is unknown, but one can presume that it was a dance familiar to the audience of the Song. If it involved two companies of dancers, it must have been quite complex and have received the rapt attention of spectators. The noun “dance” (from “to whirl”), seems to imply a particularly exuberant kind of dancing (Exod 15:20; 32:19; Judg 21:21; 1 Sam 29:5); it was perhaps something similar to the ecstatic dancing of the “whirling dervishes” of Turkey. The groom is telling them not to stare at her as though she were such a show. . .
In the psychology of the Song, the chorus wants the woman to stay in their world, but she cannot do this because she has crossed the threshold from virgin to wife.
Tom Gledhill: A dancing girl may become so engrossed with her own whirling movements that she may induce within herself a trance-like state, where she is barely conscious of her body, and is transported into another world, like the whirling dervishes of Turkish Islam. This self-intoxication may be yet another form of escapism from reality, the futile attempt to recapture the bliss of Eden.
Daniel Akin: They want her for a public viewing, but her husband wants her for a private viewing. He asks them, almost as a taunt, “Why are you looking at the Shulammite, as you look at the dance of the two camps,” the dance of the Mahanaim? The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, but her actions are not. They have praised her beauty, and she is appreciative. But there is another whose praise means even more. That person is her husband. His praise has freed her to express herself with unhindered abandonment. She will now dance, and dance nakedly and seductively. However, this dance is not for many, but only for one. It will be a private performance reserved only for her husband. He has brought her to the bedroom because he sensed he could. He was right, and he will not be disappointed with what happens.