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Who is the Sulamitess of Cant. 6:12 & Cant. 7:1?

Cant. 6:12: Return, return, O Sulamitess: return, return that we may behold thee.
Cant. 7:1: What shalt thou see in the Sulamitess but the companies of camps? […]

Is this a figurative reference to David's Abisag the Sunamitess (1 Kings 1:1-4), the virgin whom, after David's death, Solomon's brother Adonias desired to wife and whom Solomon seemed to equate with his kingdom itself to such an extent that he put Adonias to death (1 Kings 2:17-24)?

It would seem so, because Abisag's relationship with David was virginal (1 Kings 1:4: "the king did not know her"), and this forms the basis for the analogy in Canticle of the relationship of the Church to her Divine Spouse.

Giles of Rome, Expositio in Canticum canticorum (= St. Thomas Aquinas's commentary?) thinks that the Sunamitess is a figure of the synagogue.

Commenting on "Return, return, O Sulamitess" (Cant. 6:12), Arintero, O.P., The Song of Songs: A Mystical Exposition (the most recent complete Catholic commentary), p. 480, writes:

They call her Shulamite, the name derived from Solomon, meaning peaceful, for she is the Bride of this divine Solomon Whose qualities she shares; thus she can and does pacify, frequently establishing peace between men, and peace also between men and God.

Are there any other commentaries that explain who the Sunamitess is or what she represents? I couldn't find any mention in St. Gregory of Nyssa's or St. Bernard's.

3 Answers 3

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I have to answer with a qualified "no" to the main question on the ground of the historical background. The OP mentions that Solomon ordered the execution of his half-brother for daring even to ask for Abishag, but there is no indication that Solomon wanted her for himself.

1 Kings 2

Why do you ask that Abishag the Shunamite be given to Adonijah? Ask the kingship for him as well, for he is my older brother!... 25 Then King Solomon sent Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, who struck him dead.

The idea that Solomon would then take his own father's concubine as a lover is distasteful but not out of the question. David's son Absalom notoriously slept with David's concubines, but that was an act of treason. It is plausible - but only barely so - that Solomon would do the same. Are we to think of a version of a Levirate marriage were the son performs a duty to conceive children with his father's concubine? Or simply that Solomon fell in love with her? It is not out of the question but the biblical basis for it is not strong.

Who is she then? Several possibilities have been suggested:

  • The daughter of Pharaoh. This is based on the fact that Solomon did marry Pharaoh's daughter and the reference to the maiden as "a mare among Pharaoh’s chariotry" in 1:9

  • An unknown country maiden (Delitzsch and others)

  • A personification of the Church, Israel or the synagogue, with her lover being God. This is the allegorical interpretation of many commentators.

  • A fictional character in a poetic drama by an unknown author (a frequent interpretation of those who do not take the attribution to Solomon as factual)

  • Shulamanitu - A semitic goddess similar to the Mesopotamian Ishtar, in which case the song would be a re-working of an earlier pagan liturgy describing her courtship and marriage.

  • Not one person but an amalgam derived from a collection of love poems later combined and attributed to Solomon.

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  • "The idea that Solomon would then take his own father's concubine as a lover is distasteful" Perhaps it was the beginning of his downfall, as later he "had seven hundred wives as queens, and three hundred concubines: and the women turned away his heart." (1 Kg. 11:3).
    – Geremia
    Dec 9, 2023 at 18:16
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    If it's true that she became Solomon's lover, this could be the case if she was one of the foreign wives described as leading Solomon astray, but Abishag was apparently an Israelite. 1 Kings 1:3; 2. Shunem was also a place in Israel that Elijah visited in Kings 4.8 Dec 9, 2023 at 22:28
  • by the way, I don't claim to know the answer to the question of who she is. I tend to believe she is not a historical personage. Dec 9, 2023 at 22:44
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The interpretation used in my own book is that she is the same "bride" who is speaking or being praised by her husband in the rest of the book. This is confirmed when the husband's praise resumes in the very next verses, beginning at her feet.

As in the prophets, I identify the bride as Israel and the husband as her Lord.

The key point, for me, is that the "two armies" mentioned in the second verse can also be be the place-name Mahanaim, and I believe it should be left as a place-name. The fact that Mahanaim has an origin-story in Genesis ch32 implies that it was a cultic centre in ancient Israel, which could account for the dancing. And for two key people (Jacob and David) it was a place offering encouragement for an exile.

I am convinced (but it would take a whole book to justify the point) that the theme of Song of Solomon is the desolate state of Israel in the time of the Babylonian exile, when it seemed that her covenant relationship had been broken. In other words, she had "lost her husband", a theme which appears in ch5 and fills the rest of the book, while her husband tries to assure her that he is still there and still loves her.

Hence the reference to Mahanaim, where her friends urge her to continue dancing,to continue her worship, instead of giving it up altogether.

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  • + 1 ... an instructive example that answer expands on the category I mentioned:. She is "a personification of the Church, Israel or the synagogue, with her lover being God." Dec 9, 2023 at 22:41
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The reference to the “Shulammite” in Canticle 7:1 (the division in Ct 6:13 and 7:1 does not occur in the Hebrew text, which comprises both instances of the word שּׁוּלַמִּית in the same verse) is primarily a name fittingly attributed to the Spouse herself, the prophesied Bride of the Incarnate Word, of whom the latter says, in Canticle 4:7:

.כֻּלָּךְ יָפָה רַעְיָתִי וּמוּם אֵין בָּךְ

Entirely beautiful are you, my Beloved, and there is no stain in thee.

Such a tota pulchra Bride, like her divine Bridegroom, is literally a ShuLaMmite, indeed a perfect one (cf. Canticle 6:9), deriving such a state from the perfection that is by nature in her divine Bridegroom – the word שּׁוּלַמִּית being built upon the root שלם/ShLM, meaning “perfect,” “whole” (before meaning “peace”).

Canticle 7:1:

What shall you see in the Shulammite [בַּשּׁוּלַמִּית/in the perfect one]? Like a dance of two camps [הַמַּחֲנָיִם].

Notice: “... in the Shulammite [בַּשּׁוּלַמִּית/in the perfect one]...”

Notice also in “like the dance of two camps,” the comparative “like”/כִּ, implying a difference of two distinct things, two realities being compared, such as a type relative to an antitype. These “two camps” (הַמַּחֲנָיִם/amaḥanaïm), at the end of verse 1, refer to the two types of encampments in the desert (a figure of the pilgrimage of the Church comprising the two main orders of the spousal people upon whom are bestowed the perfect faith), see Numbers 2:

  • four formations (Judah to the East, Reuben to the South, Ephraim to the West, Dan to the North, or the types of the laity); and

  • the Levites (or the type of Catholic Holy Orders), “not counted among the children of Israel” and forming a distinct (holy) encampment “in the midst of the [other] camps” (Numbers 2:17) to serve before YHWH in the Tent of Meeting.

The image of a “dance” in “a dance of two camps,” besides the pluralization of מַחֲנֵה/maḥané, giving “two camps” (in clear reference to the abovementioned division into two main orders of the people set apart), is what confirms its inspiration taken from Numbers 2, in which the encampments are spoken of as “encircling [סָבִיב] encampments” relative to the Tent of Meeting (the prototype of the sanctuary of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar):

Numbers 2:2:

.מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ…

… at a distance [lit. from before] encircling the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.

Back to Canticle 7:1 (or 6:13 & 7:1), here is how Rashi (1040 – 1105) interprets it in his allegorical and anagogical translation:

The nations have said to me [says the Spouse/the Church]: "Turn away, turn away from God, O nation [O Church] whose faith in Him is perfect [שלם]; turn away, and we shall choose nobility from you." But I replied to them: "What can you bestow upon a nation [a Church] of perfect faith commensurate even with the desert camps encircling?"

The perfect faith of the Holy Bride of the divine Word is not commensurate with the type (the shadow) that prophesied the people professing it (the reality) in the desert. Thus, retranslating Canticle 7:1:

What shall you see in the Church [in the ShuLaMmite/בַּשּׁוּלַמִּית] that is the Holy Bride of the divine Word Incarnate? Like a dance/an encircling of the two camps [הַמַּחֲנָיִם] that prophesied in the Old Testament her double pilgriming orders [the laity and the priesthood] professing the perfect faith, that is, the Catholic faith.

Notice: “We shall see in the Church [in the ShuLaMmite/בַּשּׁוּלַמִּית/in the perfect one]... professing the perfect faith...”

As Saint Thomas Aquinas puts it in the Sequence Lauda Sion Salvatórem: “Vetustátem nóvitas, umbram fugat véritas, noctem lux elíminat.”

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