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Song of Songs 6:9b-10 presents the women of the royal court catching sight of the new bride before the wedding, and being so impressed that they declare her praise and blessedness with the following words (verse 10):

מִי זֹאת הַנִּשְׁקָפָה כְּמוֹ שָׁחַר יָפָה כַלְּבָנָה בָּרָה כַּחַמָּה אֲיֻמָּה כַּנִּדְגָּלוֹת

A word-by-word translation would be something like

Who now [or this (fem.)] the-gazing-down [fem. partic.] like the-morning, beautiful as-the-moon, pure as-the-Sun, awesome as-the-bannered-ones?

So they express their admiration in the form of a question that starts with "מִי זֹאת", which I guess carries the force of something like

Now look where I'm looking so that I can ask you about the identity of ... (not necessarily as a literal request for you to tell me the person's name, but more rhetorically as a way of expressing my curious wonder at this person).

My question is: Should the rest of the sentence (starting from "... הַנִּשְׁקָפָה") be grammatically understood more in the sense of a "nonrestrictive clause" or more in the sense of a "restrictive clause"? (Note the definite article here, which does not occur at similar places elsewhere, e.g. 3:6.)

To clarify, let me describe what I picture as being the approximate sense of this verse under the two interpretations of the grammar. [I use double parallel lines || ... || just to help separate out grammatical components of the complex sentences below, hopefully to slightly smoothen the ease of reading.]

Under the "nonrestrictive clause" interpretation, the sense of the words is something like

Look where I'm looking, so that I can express to you my curious wonder ||at the person who will be within your field of focus when you look where I'm looking|| arising from the wonderfulness of this person's morning-like downward gaze, moon-like beauty, Sun-like purity, and starry-host-like awesomeness.

(A crude translation might be "Lo who is this, who gazes down...")

Under the "restrictive clause" interpretation, the sense of the words is something like

Look where I'm looking, so that I can express to you my curious wonder at the person who can be identified ||from within what your field of focus will be when you look where I'm looking|| by the characteristic of her having a morning-like downward gaze, moon-like beauty, Sun-like purity, and starry-host-like awesomeness.

(A crude translation might be "Lo, who's the woman gazing down...")

I ask because, to me, the latter feels more poetic. (But I'm a modern Western reader, so perhaps that does not mean much.)

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2 Answers 2

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As the question indicates, there is a relative clause near the beginning of verse 10 which contains a Hebrew participle. We can examine carefully the grammar of this text with the help of an interlinear which includes the grammatical notations (shown below). Song of Solomon 6:10, Interlinear Hebrew/English

Looking at the Grammar

The initial (independent) clause begins with an interrogative and an implied verb of being. The third numbered word (H8259) is the participle. We know it is a participle because it is a verb but has the definite article attached to it. This addresses the action of the verb as a noun, in similar fashion to how English sometimes uses verb-style -ing words as gerund nouns.

Considering the participle, then, to be used as a noun, we can see that even though the Hebrew relative pronoun (dependent clause marker) is absent (it is optional), it rightfully belongs to the grammar of this expression--which means we indeed have a dependent clause with this participle. That clause marker (asher/אֲשֶׁר) is one of the most common words in the Hebrew Bible, even though it can be omitted sometimes, or just shortened to (שֶׁ). In Song of Solomon 6:10, the word is omitted.

Relative Pronouns

For the sake of readers who may be confused by this, compare the following English sentences, one with the relative pronoun and one without it.

  • There is the book they have read.
  • There is the book that they have read.

The relative pronoun "that" is not required, grammatically. It is optional, and the meaning and the grammar of the sentence is the same either way. Hebrew is like English in this sense.

In the interlinear grammatical notes for this verse, there is no reference to a relative pronoun with respect to the participle; but the gloss (in green text) renders "who" as part of the literal translation. This is because the relative pronoun, though omitted, is implied.

More about the Dependent Clause

With the participle, then, we have "who looks forth...." This "who" in Hebrew, from the implied "asher," begins the dependent clause.

Unfortunately, Hebrew seems less precise in terms of kinds of relative clauses, leaving much open to interpretation. Hebrew does not, for example, have a clear distinction between restrictive/essential and nonrestrictive/nonessential clauses as does English. English uses commas to do this, and Biblical Hebrew lacked such punctuation. The existence of these forms in Biblical Hebrew is a matter of debate among scholars.

However, the particular usage here paints a descriptive picture.

The sentence begins with the interrogative "who"; which is not defining, but rather querying.

An Example for Comparison

A similar text which uses this poetic style is found in Psalm 1.

אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי־הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד וּבְמֹושַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב׃ (Psalm 1:1)

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. (Psalm 1:1, KJV)

In this psalm, the dependent clause is descriptive in nature, describing the kind of man who will be blessed and happy. If it were defining, one might presume to find happiness merely by going through the motions of the habits described.

Application

Due to the interrogative, the verse is styled as a question.

Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners? (Song of Solomon 6:10, KJV)

This most closely matches the descriptive usage for the clause because the person thus described is the answer to the question, as opposed to being the definition of a particular person or class of persons. If we were to think of it in terms of a definition, with its application being to "she," would it then apply to every woman?

Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, I would submit that it is more reasonable to perceive this clause and passage as "describing."

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  • Thank you for your great effort. But there's quite a lot of confusion in your answer regarding points of linguistics. Sep 24, 2021 at 22:24
  • Firstly, a participle does not address the action of a verb as a noun [and adding the relative pronoun אֲשֶׁר would lead to an incoherent sentence]. A participle is an adjective communicating agency of a verb; but in languages like Hebrew and Greek, if the noun modified by an adjective is equivalent to the English word "one" (e.g. "O my beautiful one") then it is left implied. So הַנִּשְׁקָפָה can be translated literally as "the down-looking [one]" - there is no implied אֲשֶׁר! This construction of definite article + participle functions the same way as a relative clause in English. Sep 24, 2021 at 22:26
  • I think you have also significantly misunderstood the distinction between describing and defining relative clauses - the example you gave from Psalm is defining, not describing. The following webpage contains quite a nice explanation of the difference [it uses the term "non-defining" instead of "describing"]: perfect-english-grammar.com/… Sep 24, 2021 at 22:26
  • The example I gave from Psalm 1 is also given here, said to be a description: hebrew4christians.com/Grammar/Unit_Six/The%20Relative_Pronoun/…. But after looking at the website you gave, I think I misunderstood your question. If you are asking if the clause is defining in that sense, then you are asking if it is essential/restrictive. It's too bad there are so many terms for the same thing, it makes it rather confusing.
    – Polyhat
    Sep 24, 2021 at 23:12
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    What you are asking appears difficult to ascertain based on the guidance of the average Hebrew grammar book. If you are willing to read, you may find the answers you are looking for in this doctoral dissertation written on the subject of these clauses in Hebrew: individual.utoronto.ca/holmstedt/HolmstedtDissertation.pdf
    – Polyhat
    Sep 24, 2021 at 23:59
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I think the 'הַ' is causing confusion here, it does not mean 'the' since 'הַנִּשְׁקָפָה' is not a noun, but a verb. The world, albeit masculine, appears in Numbers 23:28 (KJV)

And Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon.

1 Samuel 13:18

And another company turned the way to Bethhoron: and another company turned to the way of the border that looketh to the valley of Zeboim toward the wilderness.

The 'הַ' does not function to turn the word into a noun, but it that which turns it into a relative clause as an implicit 'who' or 'that'. (This has essentially replaced אֲשֶׁ֤ר in modern Hebrew, but it existed back in Biblical times)

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I think your adding of "Look where I'm looking, so that I can express to you my curious wonder" also leads to confusion. 6:9 makes it clear that they are not querying, but praising her. The "who" is wholly rhetorical, when coupled with the "that" it points strongly to her uniqueness. (Think of "Who is this king of glory" in Psalm 24:10)

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Is this therefore a descriptive clause or a defining clause? Well, it is part of the praise ("overlooking like the moon" is rhetorical praise, not a pointer) and all the women already recognize her (she could hardly be described as being as pure as the sun or as awesome as an army if they had needed to point her out). A key question is, if we removed the clause does it still make practical (not just grammatical sense) in which case it is descriptive:

Who is this beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?

If I read that as 6:10, I would no have been confused in the slightest. It is poorer poetry (which really impresses how good the original line is - I actually got in a muddle where I deleted the dawn, and then looked back saw that the line was so beautiful that I deleted the moon thinking that I must have forgotten to delete it fully. Thus we can say that the line is descriptive.

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  • Thank you for your detailed thoughts. I think it would be wrong to regard the usage of הַ to introduce a relative clause as being simply equivalent to אֲשֶׁ֤ר: as far as I am aware, relative clauses introduced by הַ always use the participle. (For example, here, "נִּשְׁקָפָה" is a participle.) Participles are sometimes used like indicative-mood verbs [I guess because the implicit "am/are/is/was/were" is omitted], but a participle is a kind of verbal adjective, and so it makes conceptual sense that a construction for a relative clause is "the + participle". Mar 28 at 10:32
  • Also, the "beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun, awesome as an army with banners" is surely part of the relative clause, namely as an adjectival phrase modifying the subject of the verb "overlook". So in your removing-the-relative-clause test to determine descriptive vs. defining, you need to remove the entire rest of the sentence after "who is this". Mar 28 at 10:40
  • Of course, simply saying "Who is this?" [if that is really a correct translation of מִי זֹאת] makes perfect sense if you're looking at one person; but I'm not so comfortable with your removing-the-relative-clause test. It seems perfectly reasonable that, for poetic effect, the women could speak as if they are using this flowery description as a means of pointing her out - i.e. as a rhetorical question they say, "Lo who is the woman that doth look down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, pure as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?" Mar 28 at 10:46
  • In short, I believe that my question is not one that can simply be answered from consideration of the context and the meaning of the verbs, adjectives and nouns contained inside the relative clause. I think that a valid answer will inescapably need to make reference to more detailed aspects of the subtleties of Hebrew grammatical constructions themselves. Mar 28 at 11:01
  • My dropping the text test came from your WordPerfect link. I think looking for subtleties is just the wrong way to look at grammar. Poetry where a woman is simultaneously being compared to a large army and the sun and having to be pointed out by her spatial location of overlooking them would be bad poetry. And - just like in English - it is that consideration and not 'detailed aspects of the subtleties of Hebrew grammatical constructions' that ought to guide us. Mar 28 at 15:43

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