Song of Songs 8

  • Question from TV, USA

    I have been told that in Song of Songs 8:8-10, the words “wall” and “door”, literally mean, in this context, “vagina (of a virgin)” and “vagina (of a non-virgin)”. In the context of the sentences, they might be translated “virgin” and “not a virgin “(or something to that effect). In the sixteen versions of the English Bible on, fifteen use the cryptic “wall” and “door” as the translation. For many pastors I know this would come across as a “stump the band” type of question, and is not so much about theology as various theologians’ motivations. Do you have any ideas on why this passage is translated a certain way?

    Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon) is poetry and despite what the words used may mean, it is probably best to translate the words literally as they stand. The meaning of various words may be open to interpretation, but it would be very difficult to justify translating words into what the translator thinks that they mean. That goes beyond the remit of a translator and could easily lead to a ‘translation’ being the translator’s point of view as to what should be there, rather than what is there.

    It is entirely possible that ‘wall’ and ‘door’ in chapter 8 refer to virginity. Song of Songs uses many metaphors, some of them quite obvious comparisons while others are left to the imagination. For example in chapter 2 verse 3, the female narrator’s lover is “like an apple tree among the trees of the forest”, i.e. he stands out from the other young men. The analogy is quite plain and is introduced using ‘like’, but then the woman says “his fruit is sweet to my taste”, which could mean any number of things and possibly be interpreted as a sexual act.

    Within the history of Biblical study, Song of Songs’ blatant sexuality has often been played down by expositors. The poem was regarded as being a metaphor for God’s love for Israel in the Aramaic translations known as the Targums; in later Christian thought this allegorical interpretation was applied to God’s love for the Church. It is possible that because the Song features so many agricultural metaphors that it grew out of some ancient ritualistic fertility rite, although the evidence for this is dubious at best. Some early Greek translations assigned various sections of the song to characters – a trait that is followed in modern translations – but dramatising the Song of Songs in this way seems to be a later development.

    It is generally agreed that Song of Songs, rather than being a continuous narrative, is a collection of very ancient love poems, linked together, almost like a ‘best of’ collection, hence it is the Song of Songs, the loveliest of love poems, placed together. Much of that poetic feel is lost due to reading it in a secondary language. Despite many Jewish and Christian religious teachers feeling uncomfortable with its contents through the ages, Song of Songs remains a testament to the importance of physical intimacy as a gift from God to human beings.

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