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(This question was inspired by a comment on a Worldbuilding question.)

In Song of Songs 7:4, we have the description "Your neck is like an ivory tower." (NIV) Does the word for "ivory" here refer to being ivory-colored, or specifically to being made out of actual ivory material? Or is there some other meaning of the word here which would be more apparent to one reading this sentence at the time but doesn't really translate well even given that the sentence is a metaphor?

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  • Ivory is living material. It is not a precious stone made of mineral. And it is from horn, which in scripture is significant of powerful force. And the neck supports the head. So headship/living connection/power are all in view.The Bride of the Song has a living connection to the Bridegroom'Head which is a conduit of power from Him to her.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 15 '18 at 14:08
  • Ivory is white (5:14, 7:4), ebony is black (1:5-6, 5:11). See also Ezekiel 27:15.
    – Lucian
    Mar 28 '18 at 8:45
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Gesenius' 18th ed. (the leading dictionary of Biblical Hebrew) lists for the word שֵׁן three meanings: (1) tooth, either concrete or metaphorical (e.g. Ps 124:6); (2) ivory; (3) something geographical, often in combination with סלע to yield "rook tooth", i.e. "cliff" (German: "Felszahn", lit. "rock tooth"). As for (2), several examples are given (here all KJV):

  • Ezek 27:15, "horns of ivory and ebony"
  • 1 Kgs 10:18 | 2 Chr 9:17, "a great throne of ivory"
  • 1 Kgs 22:39 / Am 3:15, "the ivory house" of Ahab in Samaria
  • Ps 45:9, "the ivory palaces"
  • Song 5:14, "his belly is as bright ivory"
  • Am 6:4, "beds of ivory"

All these examples, with the exception of Song 5:14, seem to refer to the material, just like meaning (1) — for (3) both the material and the colour can be meant.

However, in Song 5:14 it is very clear that the colour is meant ("bright"). This is not strange; apart from Am 6:4 these are the only instances of metaphorical language. Based on the case in 5:14 I would also argue for understanding 7:4 as referring to the colour. This also provides for a nice contrast with "fishpools" in the remainder of 7:4 if we understand it to mean "dark".

Although nowadays it is fashionable in the western world to have a tanned skin, some centuries ago it was European fashion to have a white skin. In that time, workers would work outside a lot and get tanned, whereas the aristocracy had the privilege of staying inside, leading to the beauty ideal of a white skin — conversely, nowadays, people work a lot inside, and you show your wealth by showing you can get outside. This can perhaps help to understand the metaphor, although I do not know if there was a beauty ideal of a white skin in biblical times.

As for the "tower" metaphor, perhaps having a long neck was also part of the beauty ideal as for the Kayan people in Myanmar, but again this is conjecture.

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  • Isn't the subject of Song of Songs rather dark-skinned? "Dark am I, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon. Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun." It seems a little odd that ivory would refer to their skin tone, then. I'd bet more on texture, perhaps: the subject of the song has smooth skin. Or perhaps reflectivity?
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 31 '18 at 3:35

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