Browsing and Pasturing

The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s, is one of the most debated, profound, and poetic books of the Bible. Its meaning isn't always obvious, even to students like me who believe it to be a frank and straightforward look at healthy marital love. Gleaning from commentators like G. Lloyd Carr, Marvin H. Pope, Dennis F. Kinlaw, and others, I have learned that the Song contains more eroticism, suggestion, and romance than even my substantial assumptions. This is an example.
a lotus flower

Song of Songs 2:16b

  • KJV: He feedeth among the lilies.
  • NIV: he browses among the lilies.
  • NASB: He pastures his flock among the lilies.

The first colon of this verse (“My beloved is mine and I am his,” NIV) and its companion in 6:3 may very well be the most quoted verses from the book. In both cases, however, the following colon leaves you wondering, “He what?”

Let’s see if we can unmuddy the waters a bit, starting with what’s certain.

The Hebrew word šûšan means some sort of flower. We see it used in 1 Kings 7 as the master craftsman worked on Solomon’s temple, shaping certain objects in the form of šûšan blossoms (perah). There is some doubt as to the accuracy of lily — some prefer the lotus flower or water lily — but it is most certainly a flowering plant of some sort, else it would have no blossoms.

Likewise, “among” is an apt translation for the prefix be-, as it generally indicates more than mere proximity but rather contact or even intermingling. An aged Joshua uses it in Joshua 23:12 to warn the Israelites against intermarrying and associating with heathen peoples. We see breath enter the bones in Ezekiel 37:10 in the prophet’s famous vision. Jeremiah tells of how the city will be handed over to the Babylonian invaders in chapter 32. In each of these, we see be- indicating something akin to “among”, even if it’s not translated with that word specifically.

Clearly, this šûšan has become a bit of an inside joke to the lovers, suggesting a multipurpose word of sensual intimacy.

The NASB injection of “his flock” is an interpretive license (hence their italics), trying to make sense out of their translation of the preceding verb. So let’s take that out of consideration altogether.

Which leaves us with the only uncertainty: rā’â, the feeding, browsing, or pasturing going on among the lilies (of other flowers). Throughout the Old Testament, we see rā’â used to depict the agricultural tending of animals. The word basically means to tend sheep or other animals, ensuring they are properly nourished, protecting them from predators, keeping them from injury, and otherwise caring for and governing them. Something can easily be said of a husband’s duty to shepherd his wife in this sense, but this interpretation doesn’t fit the context at all.

Rather, as Kinlaw writes, “there seems clearly to be a double entendre character that pulls a cloak over the details of the lovers’ lovemaking — a metaphor in the service of the mystery and sanctity of sex!”

Pope suggests the woman desires her lover to graze on her lips as he might lead sheep to graze in a field — supported by her likening his lips to lilies (šûšan, in Song of Songs 5:13) suggesting kisses or even nibbles. Back in chapter two, we see the lovers banter back and forth using šûšan to describe her body and its strong appeal to him (a flower among thorns). In 6:2, a parallel erotic metaphor arises when she describes him as gathering up the lilies, a verb used only there in the Song.

Clearly, this šûšan has become a bit of an inside joke to the lovers, suggesting a multipurpose word of sensual intimacy. And though it’s somewhat of a mystery to us, it appears the couple’s close friends were in on the joke, likening a part of her body (the context indicates her breasts) to šûšan in their praise of her beautiful features (called a wasf) in 7:2.

Whatever it means exactly, it’s clearly sensual. As Carr writes, “the ‘feeding in the lilies’ may be a circumlocution for sharing kisses or more intimate behavior.” Kinlaw suggests we could “look for more than one level of meaning” in this verse, which would make sense if the couple uses šûšan as variably as they seem to. Kinlaw even suggests it might be related to her opening request in 1:2, which Carr depicts as meaning something like, Smother me with your kisses; how much our lovemaking is better than wine!

Perhaps it’s a sweet kiss, maybe a playful caress of the breast, or even a sexual kiss to the breast, or more. We don’t exactly know which lilies are being grazed on, or exactly what manner of grazing is going on, but it’s safe to say this wasn’t an occupational reference.


Originally posted 2017-04-17 08:00:03.

About Phil (245 Articles)
Philip Osgood is a Christian husband, father, and writer who considers himself a passable video game player, fiction reader, camping and hiking enthusiast, welder, computer guy, and fitness aficionado, though real experts in each field might just die of laughter to hear him claim it. He has been called snarky, cynical, intelligent, eccentric, creative, logical, and Steve for some reason. Phil and his beautiful wife Clara live in Texas with their children in a house with a dog but no white picket fence. He does own a titanium spork from ThinkGeek, though, so he must be alright.

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