Song of Songs 2:7 in English (NPJS) reads:

I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem,
By gazelles or by hinds of the field:
Do not wake or rouse
Love until it please!

As the NET Bible points out, "Love" in this passage almost certainly was meant as a personification of the abstract concept of romantic or (more to the point) sexual desire. Like Hebrew, we only have one term that would work here: "Love".

The Septuagint frequently translates 'ahabah <0160> to agape <26>, as in this case. But wouldn't a better word in Greek be eros for this particular verse? Sure, in other passages where sex isn't meant (or strongly implied) it would make sense to avoid introducing an "erotic" connotation, but here Love is practically a character in the poem. Why not use a Greek word that means the sort of sexual love that is clearly present in the original Hebrew?

  • This might not be answerable, since we can't really know the mind of "the seventy". My question is closely related to Has the meaning of "Love" changed enough to warrant substitutions in Bible translations?
    – Jon Ericson
    Feb 16 '12 at 22:45
  • There are actually multiple words for "love" in Hebrew: christinyou.net/Outlines/love.pdf. But I cannot answer this question beyond speculation (but I will speculate if that is acceptable).
    – Dan
    Feb 17 '12 at 20:44
  • See also theologyweb.com/campus/…
    – Dan
    Feb 17 '12 at 20:48
  • 1
    @Dan: I think informed speculation is allowed. I've been known to do it!
    – Jon Ericson
    Feb 17 '12 at 21:23
  • The Vulgate has: "I adjure you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and the harts of the fields, that you stir not up, nor make the beloved [diléctam] to awake, till she please." That is, it doesn't take this to be sexual love, but as referring to the spouse 'beloved.' 'Agape' love neither rules out nor explicitly entails sexual desire. I'm no expert on Hebrew, however. Mar 6 '18 at 17:39

Different ancient translators had different translation philosophies. Some were very rigid and always used Greek word X for Hebrew word Y. Others were more dynamic. We can actually use these philosophies to determine when different translators are responsible for different books. For example, the Greek of Numbers is very literal (except the name of the book. The Hebrew is Bmidbar -In the Wilderness -, but the Greek is Arithmoi, which is where we get the name Numbers). The LXX of Numbers is Greek vocabulary with Hebrew syntax. This also works very nicely for text criticism. When that pattern holds, we can be more certain that the Hebrew source was the same as in the BHS today. When the pattern breaks, either there was a different Hebrew vorlage or the LXX Numbers was miscopied at some point.

IIRC, Exodus is not that way. Exodus has less one-to-one and more what-word-best-translates-this-Hebrew-word-in-this-context attitude. Genesis in the LXX shows both attitudes. Gen 1-11 are very much in the word-for-word attitude, even so far as the waw conjunction always being translated with kai. Gen 12-50, however, uses both de and kai for the waw conjunction. Some books even achieve paraphrase status.

The question comes down to what is the translation philosophy of the Greek translators of Song of Songs? Was the translator one of those who always uses the same Greek word for this Hebrew word? Or was he more contextual? Or even was he reading it allegorically?

As I do a word search on 'ahab I see it is used 11 times in Song of Songs. In the Septuagint of Songs, 'agape also appears 11 times. There is a one-to-one correspondence. agape is the only word used in Song of Songs to translate 'ahab.

Though I can't be sure of the whole philosophy without a more extensive analysis of the LXX of Songs, it appears that with 'ahab at least, the translator had a one-to-one correspondence in mind.

  • This is very useful information. Once a translator had decided that agape was the correct translation of 'ahab, it makes some sense that they stuck to it. I suppose if a translator had started with a different text, eros would have been a poor choice because of sexual connotations and when they got to the Song of Songs they decided to be consistent. Does that seems plausible?
    – Jon Ericson
    Feb 19 '12 at 6:52
  • That does seem plausible.
    – Frank Luke
    Feb 19 '12 at 21:03
  • On the side point about the name of the book, the Greek Arithmoi is actually a translation of ספר הפקודים (book of counting); the Hebrew name "In the desert" comes from far into the Middle Ages
    – b a
    Aug 22 '18 at 15:15

I appreciate the question. I think it stems from some wrong presuppositions, though - namely, that sexual "love" is strictly within the domain of eros rather than agape. I agree that sexual love can be eros, but it is not the exclusive owner of it. In fact, all pure, other-centered love is agape. This applies just as much to the sexual arena as anything else.

Eros, on the other hand, is the enemy of agape and, in fact, has no hint of other-centeredness. This is why the LXX translates ahab as agape, I do believe, because they understood that the Song of Solomon describes an other-centered love - even within the context of sex - which eros has nothing to do with.

I would highly recommend reading the book Agape and Eros by Carsten Johnsen, for a very good treatment of this important topic. Among other things he writes: "I am not saying one single disparaging word about the natural beauty in a woman’s body. It certainly is not Eros who has had anything to do with creating that. The Creator’s name is Jesus Christ, and He is Agape. It is not Eros who has made sex a pleasant experience, any more than he has made strawberries taste delicious. It is God, and God only, who has prepared all things that are good – really good. It is He who has invented feminine beauty (Agape and Eros, p. 40).

  • 1
    Welcome to our Biblical Hermeneutics Q&A site! Thank you for challenging the question. Thinking about it, I can see that the Greek concepts don't really map perfectly to the Hebrew ones. Depending on how you understand eros, there's every reason to avoid that word and it's connotations. Also, I really appreciate the book recommendation, though it may be a while before I get to it. Does Johnsen deal with Lewis' The Four Loves, by the way? That's the primary reason I know enough of the Greek to even have a question. ;-)
    – Jon Ericson
    Sep 4 '12 at 20:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.