Honey and Thickets – Song of Songs 5:1

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 thicket in the woods

Song of Songs 5:1c

  • KJV: I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey;
  • NIV: I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey;
  • NASB: I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey;

A fair amount of consistency is seen in translations for this colon. Most of the distinctions are little more than cosmetic. Yet it might not be as certain as it seems, according to Carr. He makes a potent observation that can be checked using any exhaustive concordance, and I don’t see any reason to dispute his findings.

First, he notes that debaš, the word translated as “honey”, is an easy one. This word is used frequently in the Old Testament, famously paired with hālāb as the “milk and honey” descriptions of the Promised Land. This pairing even appears earlier in 4:11, and it occurs twenty other times (almost half the times hālāb is even mentioned) in the Bible. Indeed, debaš is a solid, obvious, common translation; it’s most certainly “honey”.

The other key word, ya’ar, is far less certain, despite the apparent consistency seen in translations.

The word ya’ar appears 59 times in the Old Testament.

One case is here, in Song of Songs 5:1.

In another case, it appears to be a proper name. “We find it in the field of Jaar” (Psalm 132:6b, NASB). The Amplified Bible treats it as a common noun but offers both just in case: “we find it in the fields of the wood [at Kiriath-Jearim].” And this hints at the far more common translation.

In all other cases, the word ya’ar clearly refers to some sort of thicket of vegetation

In all other cases, all 57 of them, the word ya’ar clearly refers to some sort of thicket of vegetation. The NIV uses forest(s), thicket(s), woods, forested, and groves for these other instances. That is pretty consistent, and there is very little doubt about any of these translations. Isaiah 21:13 refers to caravans “who camp in the thickets of Arabia” (NIV); it’s kinda hard for caravans to fit in a honeycomb, wouldn’t you say? No, this word very clearly means a thicket.

So, where does “honeycomb” come from? Why pick this translation just this once? Well, it comes from an inference made regarding 1 Samuel 14:26, when Jonathan sticks his staff in ya’ar and retrieves some honey to eat. Logically, a staff stuck into a honeycomb would yield honey, and the idea of this parallel might have something to do with the dense structure of a honeycomb being similar to the density of a thicket, and so a honeycomb could have been depicted in this passage in 1 Samuel.

However, Carr notes “it is equally likely that ‘thicket’ is still the most appropriate translation, as Jonathan’s staff penetrated the thicket where the hive and comb were hidden.” It certainly makes sense, given the extreme consistency in every other instance of ya’ar.

Now, if this example, too, is a thicket, then there’s not even a vague reason to translate ya’ar as anything else in Song of Songs 5:1.

But wouldn’t this verse lose its cohesion, then? After all, honey and honeycomb fit together quite well. How could honey and thicket work together? Well…

“The ancient Near Eastern love poetry frequently uses both the image of honey and of the ‘thicket’ as euphemisms for the female genitalia,” explains Carr. He offers a few relevant literary examples including the rather succinct “In your vulva is honey” as cited by W.G. Lambert. And from my experience, it’s a reasonable metaphor.

And it doesn’t take colossal imaginative acumen to understand the symbolism of the thicket, now does it?

So while a pairing of honey and thickets might seem to make no sense at all to modern English readers, ancient Hebrews might be equally confused to hear us reference cats, tacos, and tuna together. Both ancient Hebrews and modern English readers might be confused to read a Spanish translation that refers to bread and corncobs (el bizcocho and la panocha, both of which are slang for the female genitalia).

With this in mind, it certainly makes sense how a man could “eat” a thicket — a rather intimidating or silly (or both) proposition for a more literal reader. But at least there’s some honey to wash it down. Fiber’s good for you!

Originally posted 2015-07-10 08:00:46.

Photo credit: fswerk / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
About Phil (250 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.