Pomegranates, et. al. – Song of Songs 4:14-15

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 pomegranate

Song of Songs 4:14-15

  • KJV: Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; / Camphire, with spikenard, / Spokenard and saffron; / Calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; / Myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:
  • NIV: Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes, and all the finest spices.
  • This was no happenstance selection. Each was deliberately chosen as a perfume, a symbol of beauty, an aphrodisiac, or another directly sexual inference.

    NASB: Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates / with choice fruits, henna with nard plants, / Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, / with all the trees of frankincense, / Myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices.

Judging from this list, she’s got quite the, um, garden. Naturally, this is all figurative language, expanding on the flagrant metaphors from the previous verse, but the list is still fairly verbose. At first glance, the items seem rather arbitrarily selected, but each one offers a bit of perspective on how he felt about her — ahem — garden.

We start with the pomegranate (rimmôn), a tree treasured by its owner on many levels. Obviously, as a fruit-bearing tree, it offers provision and nourishment as well as shade, but these fruits were valued beyond mere nutrition. When pressed into syrup, the juices produced grenadine, a rich flavor additive that’s still popular today. Additionally, ancient literature from the peoples of this region testifies they believed pomegranates to have aphrodisiac qualities, making it a popular ingredient for love potions. And on top of all that, the tree’s blossoms afforded the owners a convenient medicine for the highly common and never pleasant dysentery. Such trees were invaluable, and the speaker even qualifies these figurative trees as having choice (meged) fruits (perî), using similar erotic language to what’s seen in Song of Songs 7:13.

Camphire or henna (kōper) was the lawsonia inermis plant commonly used to produce a cosmetic dye that remains popular and symbolic of beauty in much of the world today. In the biblical days, henna flowers were used as luxurious ingredients for soothing baths (much like some salts are used today), effecting a pleasurable soak and beautiful skin. Plus, henna’s strong fragrance was esteemed by people of the region according to Insights from the Scriptures, and “often a sprig of henna is put in bouquets, and women wear it in their hair and in their bosom.” This plant spoke of beauty in a very desirable way.

We’ve seen how nard (_nērd) was used in love potions in the ancient Near East, like pomegranates, and again this is pure nard, an expensive Indian import usually transported in also-expensive sealed alabaster jars. Valuable and highly suggestive.

Saffron (karkōm) was extremely expensive because it was so labor intensive to produce. A worker has to collect a purple crocus flower just as it starts to open, remove the tiny, aromatic pistils and dry them in a kiln. If only a pound of saffron is desired, this must be done for about 75,000 separate flowers. Even today, pure saffron is the world’s most expensive spice (most of what we see in grocery stores is extremely diluted), and at many times in history the spice has been worth more than gold. In those days, the treasured deep orange powder was used to season cakes and curries and even dye fabrics yellow, making it symbolic of beauty, flavor, and unparalleled value.

We don’t know for certain which aromatic reed or cane is referred to as calamus (qāneh), but it’s possibly the same as seen in Isaiah 43 and Ezekiel 27. Jeremiah 6:20 speaks of an imported calamus, likely indicating the Indian wild grass used to produce ginger oil (much like its cousins which produce lemongrass and citronella oils), indicating a highly valuable ingredient that’s worth traveling for.

The presence of cinnamon (qinnāmôn) should come as no surprise given that it was used as an aphrodisiac and perfume by the ancient Hebrews. This aromatic imported spice is referred to as one of the “finest of spices” in Exodus 30:23, revealing the cultural taste for it.

Frankincense (lebōnâ) also made that list in Exodus as well as this list in the Song. This Arabian import was not only used in exotic perfumes but it also was used in many sacred rituals in the temple per Exodus 30, Leviticus 2, and Jeremiah 17. The fragrant resin was valued both physically and spiritually.

Myrrh (mōr), like frankincense, is known to western Christians in part because of its presence in the Nativity story. Yet it’s not all incense and virgins and sweet Newborns. We see its pivotal role in the months-long beautification treatments for women desired by King Xerxes in Esther 2:12, and we note its use on the seductive scene arranged at the prostitute’s bed in Proverbs 7:17. While both of these references indicate ungodly uses, they do reveal how deeply sensual the perfume was in that culture. The Song redeems this ungodlysensuality with the proper marital context.

The aloes (hālôt) are likely imported sandalwood or eaglewood, both of which were used as an enticing perfume. Sandalwood was even an insect repellant, which might be handy given the lovers’ frequent jaunts into nature for love play.

Last, we have a broad catch-all: the finest (rō’s, literally “head”) spices (bōśem, often used for perfumes), just to show that her allure includes it all, in case he left something out.

Carr writes, “All these exotic spices have erotic connotations in [Near Eastern] love poetry generally, and are not out of place here. Even if the lovers did not actually possess quantities of these expensive items, they serve well as symbols of the rarity and beauty of the beloved.” This was no happenstance selection. Each was deliberately chosen as a perfume, a symbol of beauty, an aphrodisiac, or another directly sexual inference. These items were typical of erotic writing of the time, and they each intended to reaffirm the desirability of this particular garden to this soon-to-be gardener.

Originally posted 2016-12-02 08:00:49.

Photo credit: fturmog / 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.