Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Rose of Sharon (Song of Solomon 2:1)

Complete: “I am the rose of ______.” Sharon (Song of Solomon 2:1)

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs or Canticle of Canticles) is a 117-verse poem primarily composed of dialogue between young lovers, a woman referred to as a Shulammite (Song of Solomon 6:13) and an unnamed man, traditionally identified as Solomon. The book’s readers eavesdrop on a burgeoning relationship as the couple meets, shares a mutual attraction and exchanges compliments.

Though most modern translations indicate which lover is conversing, the speakers are not identified in the original text. At times this has presented challenges. During one of the Shulammite’s first expressions of love there is a debate as to when the woman’s rhapsody concludes and the man’s response begins (Song of Solomon 1:16-2:1). Some have heard Solomon’s voice in the last verse of the section (Song of Solomon 2:1). Most interpreters and translations, however, have construed it as the last line of the Shulammite’s stanza.

Edmée Kingsmill (b. 1930) documents:

Jewish commentators, as far as I can discover, always read the first verse as spoken by the female. Christian commentators from Origen [184-253] onwards, though not without exception, read this verse in light of the Incarnation and therefore as spoken by the bridegroom. For the Christian reader this view is attractive but yields to the Jewish reading when the symbolism of the lily is taken into account. (Kingsmill, The Song of Songs and the Eros of God: A Study in Biblical Intertextuality, 237)
In the unit’s last lines, the Shulammite describes herself:
“I am the rose of Sharon,
The lily of the valleys.” (Song of Solomon 2:1 NASB)
This couplet is an example of what George Buchanan Gray (1865-1922) classified as incomplete parallelism as the second line is shorter than its predecessor with some (but not all) of the terms in the first line repeated in the second “without compensation”.

The woman refers to herself (literally) in flowery language which fits the book’s landscape. Paul J. Griffiths (b. 1955) observes:

The generic “flower” (flos and cognates, verbal and adjectival) occurs nine times in the Song, mostly in descriptions of the outdoors, whether wild or cultivated; it is only in Song of Solomon 2:1 that the word is used directly of the beloved. (Griffiths, Song of Songs (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 50)
Stephanie Paulsell (b. 1962) relays:
In Song of Solomon 2:1 the woman describes herself as a flower, blooming. “I am a rose of Sharon,” she sings, “a lily of the valleys.” This description places her among the pine trees and cedars, the green world she invoked in Song of Solomon 1:17 when she described the place where she meets her lover. She describes herself as a growing, changing, blossoming part of the creation that makes a home for their love. (Harvey Cox [b. 1929] and Paulsell, Lamentations and the Song of Songs (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible), 204)
The woman first describes herself with the term chăbatstseleth. This word has traditionally been rendered “rose” (ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), though some translations deviate from custom, e.g. “spring crocus” (NLT); “wildflower” (MSG). The“Rose of Sharon” has been ingrained into the Christian lexicon through mediums such as Ida A. Guirey (1874-1957)’s 1922 hymn “Jesus, Rose of Sharon” which interprets the flower typologically.

The “rose” is not its modern namesake with which most contemporary readers are familiar. J. Cheryl Exum (b. 1946) concedes:

We cannot identify the flowers to which the woman compares herself with any certainty, but we can assume that they were chosen for their beauty and fragrance, possibly also for their delicacy and sensuality. Hebrew hăbasselet is surely not a rose (which did not grow in Israel in biblical times) but perhaps a kind of crocus; the asphodel, the narcissus, the meadow saffron, and the hyacinth have all been suggested. Michael Zohary [1898-1983] thinks it is the Lilium candidum (176); Harold Norman Moldenke [1909-1996] and Alma L. Moldenke [1908-1997], a tulip (Tulipa sharonensis, 235). Septuagint and Vulgate use anthos and glos, common terms for flowers. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so I have opted for the familiar, well-turned translation “rose of Sharon.” The only other occurrence of hăbasselet in the Bible is in Isaiah 35:1-2, where it is described as blooming abundantly. It would seem, then, that the woman is comparing herself to a familiar flower, beautiful, fragrant, and in bloom. (Exum, Song of Songs (Old Testament Library), 113)
Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) research:
It is difficult to accurately identify the flowers mentioned in the text: chavatzelet (rose) and shoshanah (lily). Suffice it to say that the author is describing beautiful flowers. According to L.H. Koehler [1880-1956] and Walter Baumgartner [1887-1970], the first flower is “asphodel” (p. 287) and the second is “lily” (p. 1455). However, the Targum translates the first as narkis (white daffodil) and the second as varda (rose). According to the Targum, the verse means that whenever the Divine Presence rested upon Israel, the flowers could be compared to those that grew in the Garden of Eden. Rashi [1040-1105] does not assist in horticultural identification; however, he takes chavatzelet to mean shoshanah, explaining that shoshanat ha-amakim is the same flower, which is more beautiful when it grows in the moist soil of the valleys than when it grows in the more arid soil of the hills. Abraham Ibn Ezra [1089-1167] reflects the uncertain identification of chavatzelet in noting that some regard it as a rose and others say it is a beautiful dark flower with a marvelous aroma. (Kravitz and Olitzky, Shir Hashirim: A Modern Commentary on the Song of Songs, 18)
In spite of the indeterminate vocabulary many suggestions have been raised as to the specific identity of the flower. Ariel Bloch (b. 1933) and Chana Bloch (b. 1940) survey:
Neither the experts on Palestinian flora nor the commentators agree about the identity of these flowers. The habasselet is variously translated as “rose” (KJV, RSV), “tulip” (Harold N. Moldenke [1909-1996] and Alma L. Moldenke [1908-1997]), “lily” (Yehuda Feliks [1922-2005]), “crocus” (Marvin H. Pope [1916-1997], Michael V. Fox [b. 1940]) or “wildflower” (Marcia Falk [b. 1946]), and the sosannah as “lily” (KJV, RSV, JPS, Fox), “lotus” (Pope), “hyacinth” (Moldenke and Moldenke), or “narcissus” (Feliks, Falk). (Bloch and Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation With an Introduction and Commentary, 148)

Othmar Keel (b. 1937) speculates:

The plant (חנצלח) with which the woman equates herself is not identified. The only other appearance of this flower in the Old Testament is in the context of God’s wonderful coming age of salvation (Isaiah 35:1). Thus it is probably a noteworthy flower with some splendor, perhaps a kind of lily or iris, rather than a modest little flower like the crocus or meadow saffron. Because it is placed at Sharon, the coastal plain north of Tel-Aviv, the reference could be to the sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum Latin) In ancient times, Sharon, now heavily populated, was a region of sand dunes and marshes with few people; it was a habitat for crocodiles even into the nineteenth century. (Keel, The Song of Songs (Continental Commentary Series), 78)
In light of the linguistic uncertainty, the looser the translation, the better. Jill M. Munro argues that the female’s similarity to flowers in general renders the precise plant being referenced insignificant. (Munro, Spikenard and Saffron: The Imagery of the Song of Songs, 83).

Though the Shulammite appears to relate herself to a common plant, the addition of the geographical epithet “of Sharon” could make the description distinctive and serve to make the common unique.

Dianne Bergant (b. 1936) bounds:

Sharon is the fertile plain on the Mediterranean side of Palestine’s central mountain range. It extends north from the seaside city of Joppa toward but not quite reaching Mount Carmel. In ancient times the combination of swampy lowlands and sandy hills made this area quite productive. (Bergant, The Song of Songs (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 23)
Alicia Ostriker (b. 1937) discerns:
Place names in the Song are associated not with politics, war and conquest, as elsewhere, but with pleasure and fantasy. The rose of Sharon [Song of Solomon 2:1], the mountains of Bether [Song of Solomon 2:17], the flock of goats from Mt. Gilead [Song of Solomon 4:1, 6:5], the fishpools of Heshbon [Song of Solomon 7:4], and so on, are part and parcel of the lovers’ play. (Athalya Brenner [b. 1943] and Carole R. Fontaine [b. 1950], “A Holy of Holies: The Song of Songs as Countertext”, A Feminist Companion to Song of Songs: Second Series, 44)
The Hebrew can also be read in broader terms. Gianni Barbiero (b. 1944) records:
It is associated with the šārôn. The Hebrew term in itself signifies ‘plain’ and is so understood by the Septuagint and the Vulgate. With the article, according to the Song’s custom of identifying the lovers with localities typical of the land of Israel (cf. Song of Solomon 1:14), it probably indicates ‘the Sharon’, the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Mount Carmel. In antiquity it was a sparsely populated area, a countryside of sandy dunes and marshes in which the most striking flower is the maritime lily (pancratium maritimum). (Barbiero, Song of Songs: A Close Reading, 83)
The definite article and context lends itself to a specific locale though the more generic reading fits the verse’s parallelism.

In referring to herself as a flower of the plain, the Shulammite paints a self portrait. How the interpreter sees the flower is how she reads the tenor of the analogy. J. Cheryl Exum (b. 1946) comments:

For the second time in the Song, the woman describes herself. In Song of Solomon 1:5 she drew attention to her beauty, for which her lover then praised her (Song of Solomon 1:9-11). Here we have the reverse: her lover has praised her beauty, and she his; and now she responds to his praise by offering her view of herself. We can never be quite sure how to take her descriptions of herself. Most commentators think she is being modest here, saying she is just an ordinary flower among many in the fields—a description her lover takes up and turns into a compliment in Song of Solomon 2:2. Earlier she compared her lover to henna blossoms (Song of Solomon 1:14), a common flower, and this surely does not mean that he is ordinary. We might think of the qualities of a flower: its sweet scent; its color, whether subtle or dramatic; its shape, which can seem very erotic (as anyone who has seen Georgia O’Keeffe [1887-1986]’s paintings of flowers knows); its delicacy; its soft texture (cf. Nicholas Ayo [b. 1934] 99). Flowers coming into bloom are an exquisite wonder to behold. Perhaps the imagery points to the woman’s proud awareness of her blossoming beauty (Ariel Bloch [b. 1933] and Chana Bloch [b. 1940]). (Exum, Song of Songs (Old Testament Library), 113)
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) reads:
The woman asserts her own beauty by association with flowers...The question that determines the direction of the interpretation is the symbolic value of the specific flowers that are mentioned in the verse: the flower (habasselet) and the lily (šôšannâ). The former is found elsewhere in Isaiah 35:1, where the desert will burst into bloom with these flowers. The metaphor indicates the joy of those who are redeemed by God. Our translation understands that the woman refers to herself by a common flower that occurs by the myriad. She further indicates the she is just one flower (the force of the indefinite article) rather than a unique flower (which would have been signaled by the definite article)...Sharon is a plain just between the coast and the foothills of western Israel, north of Jaffa up to Athlit. The reference concretizes the imagery. Perhaps the reference to Sharon enriches the image of the flower since Sharon “is a fertile, lush plain where browsing flocks eat their fill and become fat” (cf. The other four references to Sharon in the Old Testament: Isaiah 33:9, 35:2, 65:10; I Chronicles 27:29). (Longman, Song of Songs (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 110-11)
The allusions to both rose and Sharon are ambiguous and as such determining what the woman is attempting to convey is difficult. Patrick Hunt (b. 1951) considers:
Song of Solomon 2:1 offers I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” While this metaphor equates the putative bride with beautiful aromatic flowers, the image is also a humble one because both of these flowers are either diminutive or lowly: Sharon was a marshy locale and the lily of the valley blooms at foot level. Both loci show the humble origins of the bride but also suggest her rising above such circumstances by contrast. (Hunt, Poetry in the Song of Songs: A Literary Analysis, 117)
Ellen F. Davis (b. 1950) deciphers:
Although “rose of Sharon” and “lily-of-the-valley” are familiar names, there is no firm agreement among scholars on the correct botanical identification of the two wildflowers named here. What is certain, however, and probably more important to our poet, is their symbolic significance within the biblical tradition. The same two flowers appear in the Prophets, and specifically in Hosea and Isaiah, the prophetic books of which the poet of the Song seems most mindful. There they appear as symbols of Zion’s beauty, restored after a time of alienation from God and devastation by enemies...Isaiah 35:2...Hosea 14:4, 5, 7. (Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Westminster Bible Companion), 250)
Most have interpreted the Shulammite’s designation as a humble self description. George R. Knight (b. 1941) portrays:
The female closes off her little speech by noting that she is “the rose of Sharon” and the “lily of the valleys” (Song of Solomon 2:1). Read through Christian eyes this could sound like she is uplifting her beauty and value. But from both the context in Song of Solomon 2:2 and from what we know about these flowers it appears that she has entered into a second round of self-depreciation (cf. Song of Solomon 1:5, 6), claiming that she is merely a common flower. Or as David A. Hubbard [1928-1996] puts it, “No rare-blossom is she, no delicate hothouse specimen, but a plain, everyday blossom, readily plucked, sniffed, and tossed aside by an idle shepherd.” (Knight, Exploring Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon: A Devotional Commentary, 184)
The context of the line lends itself to a humble reading. The Shulammite may be indicating a negative self image as demonstrated by her previous self description (Song of Solomon 1:5). Her assessment of herself as a Plane Flower could be equivalent to the modern Plain Jane.

How do you interpret the Shulammite’s characterization, as humble or confident? If she is being self deprecating, is she fishing for compliments? Who do you know who was known by a reference to a specific flower (e.g. Black Dahlia, Purple Rose of Cairo, etc.) Have you ever called yourself or a significant other by a term of endearment used only by the two of you? How would you describe yourself; if you were a flower what flower would you be? Who do you know who is unaware of their own attractiveness?

Whether or not the Shulammite is fishing for compliments, the woman’s line generates dialogue. Solomon sees the Shulammite differently than she views herself.

Elie Assis (b. 1964) appraises:

The woman succeeds in returning the man to the dialogue, and he responds to her self-praise with great adoration. The woman compared herself to a rose and the man adds to her words, saying that he sees her as a rose among the brambles [Song of Solomon 2:2]. True love is exclusive love. Lovers are not interested in any other people and they have no motivation other than to take an interest in their beloved. The man’s attitude towards his beloved is indeed exclusive. In his eyes, his beloved is indeed so beautiful that he does not consider any of the other girls beautiful. (Assis, Flashes of Fire: A Literary Analysis of the Song of Songs, 66-67)
Whether or not the Shulammite thinks she is unique, her lover does. He thinks far better of her than she does herself: She is exceptional, incomparable among her peers (Song of Solomon 2:2).

Solomon’s perspective may be influencing hers. Tommy Nelson (b. 1950) detects improved self esteem:

What a change from her view of herself earlier (Song of Solomon 1:5)! Solomon had raised her self-esteem. She felt the same about Solomon: “Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my beloved among the sons” (Song of Solomon 2:3). (Nelson, The Book of Romance: What Solomon Says About Love, Sex, and Intimacy, 30)
You may see yourself as just a generic flower on a common plain. If so, ask someone who loves you. They likely see you differently. And remember that God is among those who loves you and views you as uniquely beautiful.

Do your loved ones see more in you than you do in yourself? Who raises your self esteem? Do you elevate your loved ones’ self image? Who do you rate higher than they do of themself? Do you tell them?

“It is good to see ourselves as others see us. Try as we may, we are never able to know ourselves fully as we are, especially the evil side of us. This we can do only if we are not angry with our critics but will take in good heart whatever they might have to say.” - Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: 6 July, 1937 - 20 February, 1938, p. 426

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