Song of Songs 5:8
- KJV: I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem; / If ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, / That I am sick of love.
- NIV: Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you — / if you find my beloved, / what will you tell him? / Tell him I am faint with love.
- NASB: I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, / If you find my beloved, / As to what you will tell him: / For I am lovesick.
There is some confusion among scholars as to what this verse is telling us, and it’s due to uncertainty on how to interpret two of the most seemingly innocuous words in the verse: “if” & “what”.
The above translations portray an image of the bride telling her girlfriends to pass a message on to her new husband: she misses him, she’s lovesick. This is a sweet sounding story. And it can end there, knowing she loves him, and everything will work out fine.
Yet the two articles ‘im (if) and ma (what) would cause the whole verse to shift if we interpreted them in the manner they’re usually used, and this has caused some difficulty for translators, usually leading them to ignore it.
Carr points out that ‘im usually becomes “an emphatic negative” (e.g. “certainly not”) when following an adjuration as seen in the first colon. This could make the ma mean “that” instead of “what” (as seen in the KJV, though they, too, choose to ignore the negative). “The issue,” Carr writes, “is to decide whether the girl is asking the city-girls to tell her lover something, or whether she is begging them not to tell him. If there is any similarity with the 2:7 and 3:5 passages, the latter seems to be the preferred translation.”
If we translate ‘ahabâ as “lovemaking” instead of “love” as is often appropriate in the Song, this negative statement suddenly makes sense and even sounds like a realistic conversation between a fresh-from-her-wedding-night bride and her friends.
So, why don’t we see that in the above translations? Well, in trying to make sense out of the verse’s final colon as a statement, they’ve decided to opt out of the usual manner of interpreting ‘im in situations like this (as seen in the prior two times the first colon appears followed by ‘im as well as in 8:4). Their interpretations make sense this way, even if they don’t fit the original language. To place a negative in there makes the command to not tell him she’s faint with love, knowledge no new husband would want to be denied; so that interpretation, they reasoned, must be wrong because it doesn’t make sense.
But if we translate ‘ahabâ as “lovemaking” instead of “love” as is often appropriate in the Song, this negative statement suddenly makes sense and even sounds like a realistic conversation between a fresh-from-her-wedding-night bride and her friends. Consider Carr’s swing at an interpretation:
She challenges her companions: ‘What are you going to tell him? That I am worn out (Heb. halâ, ‘become weak, ill, exhausted’) with lovemaking? i.e. ‘that I don’t want any more?’ The question is almost rhetorical. ‘Don’t be foolish. How could I not want more?’
This even suits their response in the following verse (“What’s so special about him?”) and the apparent teasing they include by repeating his love-struck words from 1:8 when he called her “most beautiful of women”.
For the most part, this sounds exactly like the sort of playful, healthy dialogue we see between close girlfriends even today. (Well, I don’t see it, being a guy, but I’ve heard about it. And I’ve seen its mixed-gender variant: dialogue between close couples.) She’s bragging on her new husband and budding sex life, and they’re asking for details in much the same teasing manner we see again (6:1) after she spills the juicy details.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that this sort of intimate, positive dialogue is distinct from the gossip it could be were only the girlfriends present and the tone more negative. With the newlywed bride there, this becomes an intimate sharing within the context of friendship and expression of delight in the goodness of her marriage. That’s nothing like gossip, which is done behind the back and usually negative. That said, healthy non-gossip can still be negative, so long as the expression of negativity is positively productive. But that’s a subject for another time.
Originally posted 2016-07-18 08:00:24.