Reclining at table

Reclining at table June 14, 2012

The scene in the first stich of Song of Songs 1:12 pictures the king “at his table.” Some translations say that the king is at his couch. The Hebrew word here is from a verb that means to “surround” ( sabab ). It might be translated as “While the king was compassing about.” But the word instead refers to a “low couch or divan on which participants in a banquet reclined” (Pope, 347). So the different translations pick up different aspects of the scene. Is the king at the table? Yes. Is he also at the couch? Yes. He’s reclining at the table to eat.

The word mesab is used only a handful of times elsewhere in the Old Testament, though the verb on which it is based is very common. Song of Song 1:12 is the only place where it is typically translated as “couch” or “table.” Pope ( Song of Songs (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) , p. 347) suggests that in some of the other passages the word might be better rendered as “banquet couch.”

1 Kings 6:29, for instance, states that Solomon “carved all the walls of the house mesab with carved engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, without and without.” Here the word is translated like the similar adverbial phrase sabib , “round about” (used twice in 1 Kings 6:5). But it’s not the same word as in verse 5, and it could be translated as “couch” or “table” in a construct phrase with “house.” Thus, “he carved all the walls of the house of the couch/table with carved engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.” Perhaps we can stretch it and translate the phrase as “banqueting hall.”

It’s not entirely clear what the “house” is in the verse. Verses 23-28 are about the debir , the inner sanctuary or the Most Holy Place, and so are verses 31-35. That suggests that the “house” in verses 29-30 is the inner house. That would make sense: The inner sanctuary is the place of God’s ark-throne, but the temple might also be construed as a banquet hall, with the ark as Yahweh’s banquet couch. But the word house ( bayit ) is used throughout the chapter to refer to the temple as a whole, and the debir is specifically said to be “in” the house (v. 19). So bayit means the temple, and verse 29 indicates that the temple is a house of couches, banqueting, a house for rest, and wine-drinking, and symposia.

Pope suggests that mesab in 2 Kings 23:5 should be interpreted similarly. There we read that Josiah rid Judah of the high places in the cities and “in the surrounding area ( mesab ) of Jerusalem.” Some have read mesab as parallel to bamot (high places) in the earlier line, and translated the word as “sanctuaries of Jerusalem.” Pope notes that “a few lines later (vs. 11), there is a reference to the lishkah , a chamber for banqueting” (he cites 1 Samuel 9:22 and Jeremiah 35:2-5, and some uses of the Greek lesche ). Verse 11 reads, Josiah “did away with the horses which the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of Yahweh, by the lishkah of Natan-melek.” Josiah, in short, removes the idolatrous altars and the idolatrous banquet halls where people feasted before their false gods. Again we see the association of temple, worship, and banquet, as we saw with Solomon’s temple as well.

Psalm 140:9 contains one of the few other uses of mesab : “The head of my mesab , may the mischief of their lips cover them.” The NASB and other translations render mesab as “surround” or “compass.” Again, though, it makes sense to render it as “banquet-couch.” David elsewhere complains against those who share his bread and then turn against him (cf. Psalm 41:9). In Psalm 140 he again pleads with Yahweh to rescue him from the wicked, violent serpents and vipers who are trying to trap him (vv. 1-5). The one who presides at the banquet (the head of my banquet-couch) is opposed to David, and he prays that the Lord would confound them and make burning coals fall on him. This fits perfectly with David’s situation in the house of Saul.

Heading back to the Song of Songs, it’s hard to read the description of the king at his table and reclining on his couch without thinking of Jesus in the upper room with His disciples. Jesus is the king on the banquet couch, and that means that His the upper room is a new temple, a new banqueting hall, where the Lover Yahweh shares a meal with his bride. “Couch” might also have sexual connotations, and that seems to be the case as the scene unfolds in Song of Songs 1:13. Food and sex are both bodily, incorporative acts. To share a meal together is to share flesh; to break bread together is to be bound together in a single loaf.


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