swear, vow

The Hebrew and Greek that is translated as “swear (an oath)” or “vow” is translated as “God sees me, I tell the truth to you” (Tzeltal), “loading yourself down” (Huichol), “to speak-stay” (implying permanence of the utterance) (Sayula Popoluca), “to say what he could not take away” (San Blas Kuna), “because of the tight (i.e. “binding”) word which he had said to her face” (Guerrero Amuzgo), “strong promise” (North Alaskan Inupiatun) (source for all above: Bratcher / Nida), or “eat an oath” (Nyamwezi (source: Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext).

In Bauzi “swear” can be translated in various ways. In Hebrews 6:13, for instance, it is translated with “bones break apart and decisively speak.” (“No bones are literally broken but by saying ‘break bones’ it is like people swear by someone else in this case it is in relation to a rotting corpse’ bones falling apart. If you ‘break bones’ so to speak when you make an utterance, it is a true utterance.”) In other passages, such as in Matthew 26:72, it’s translated with an expression that implies taking ashes (“if a person wants everyone to know that he is telling the truth about a matter, he reaches down into the fireplace, scoops up some ashes and throws them while saying ‘I was not the one who did that.'”). So in Matthew 26:72 the Bauzi text is: “. . . Peter took ashes and defended himself saying, ‘I don’t know that Nazareth person.'” (Source: David Briley)

See also swear (promise) and Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’, or ‘No, No’.

Translation commentary on Song of Songs 2:7

This verse rounds off the first poem. It functions as a concluding device in 3.5; 5.8; and 8.4 also, separating one poem from another. The intention of the refrain seems to be that the lovers do not want to be disturbed in their lovemaking.

Interpreters differ as to who is calling on the daughters of Jerusalem to make this promise. Good News Translation and New International Version are among the few that see this as an appeal made by the young woman. Jerusalem Bible, New English Bible, Bible en français courant, and Nouvelle version révisée see it as spoken by the young man. Many questions of interpretation will depend on our decision about who is speaking. Here we adopt the view that the speech of the young woman flows from verse 3 onward through verse 7 and into verse 8. Given the widely differing opinions, however, it may be wise to include a footnote explaining that some understand these words as spoken by the man.

It is important to remember the role of the daughters at this point. It is highly unlikely that they are really present with the lovers, in the place described with striking images in 1.16b-17 and 2.4. Here as elsewhere they are figures created by the poet and to whom the lovers can speak about their deepest feelings.

I adjure you translates the Hebrew verb normally associated with making an oath. In its present form it calls upon people to make a solemn promise. A modern way to express this in English is, as Good News Translation puts it, “Promise me….” We can also take another approach: “I’m begging you…,” “I’m asking you to promise me…,” or perhaps best, “Please, swear to me….”

In the Old Testament the person swearing an oath does so by calling on a divine being or power, or even some part of the body. The thought is that, by affirming the oath in this fashion, the oath-takers indicate how serious they are about fulfilling what has been promised. Examples of this practice can be found in Amos 8.14; Matt 5.36. In this case the young woman mentions a pair of animals by which the daughters should swear.

By the gazelles or the hinds of the field: the word by renders the Hebrew preposition that is typically used in such oaths. Languages will differ as to how they will render this. We can say “by the name of,” or “by the power of,” or any other appropriate oath formula. We note that the Hebrew parallelism is quite strict here:
by gazelles or
by hinds of the field

The “gazelle” is a member of the antelope family well-known for its grace and beauty; the “hind” similarly represents wild beauty (Pro 5.19). The phrase of the field simply means these are wild animals. In some languages names for two kinds of antelopes may not exist, in which case a general word including both can serve.

As to why these two animals are chosen for the oath, we cannot be certain. In some cultures in the Middle East, these animals were used as symbols of love. Some think they refer to divine beings. Revised English Bible says “… by the spirits and goddesses of the field….” Contemporary English Version adds in a footnote “Deer and gazelles were sacred animals in some religions of Old Testament times, and they were thought to have special powers.” Others think that there is a play on words here, or that the use of these terms is euphemistic. There is a very striking similarity between these words and certain names for God: tsebi “gazelle” sounds like tsevaʾ “host,” as in “Lord of Hosts,” and ʿaylot hassadeh “hind of the field” sounds like the divine name “El Shaddai.” It is impossible in most languages to duplicate this kind of wordplay. Some translations do, however, note this possibility in a footnote (Jerusalem Bible, Bible en français courant).

When translating the pledge, there are two possible ways to do it. One way is to follow the Hebrew rather literally. Translators can use two representatives from the deer family to represent wild beauty, or use two general terms for such animals. We note that Good News Translation adds the adjective “swift,” but this assumes that the purpose of the metaphor is to show the animals’ speed. In fact it is most likely the animals’ grace and beauty that makes them appropriate to the oath. In any event “wild” is the better adjective to use here.

The other possible approach to translation is to use a strongly-worded wish, “I desperately hope that….” However, this removes something crucial from the literary makeup of this passage, namely the reference to gazelles and hinds of the field. Since this expression using the two deer is a crucial part of the Song, concluding several of the poems, we recommend following the original as closely as possible rather than trying to reduce it to some functional equivalent. A footnote can adequately explain the problem that is in the text.

It is the content of the promise that now concerns us. The meaning of Revised Standard Version that you stir not up nor awaken love is not clear. However, it does reflect the Hebrew text literally. This consists of two negative verb phrases that both include forms of the same verb root. Both refer to arousing or awakening someone. Arousing passion seems a logical meaning here, but there are no other clear cases in the Old Testament where this verb is used for sexual arousal. Furthermore, if the young woman is the one being referred to, she hardly needs further arousal! She herself has already indicated how deep her longing is. The more logical thing for her to do is to hope that others will not disturb her.

The translation of love raises serious difficulties. It probably refers to the act of lovemaking rather than the abstract notion of love. Thus the lovers do not want their lovemaking to be disturbed. This meaning is reflected (quite discreetly) in Good News Translation: “Promise … that you will not interrupt our love.”

There are those who think this speech should be attributed to the man. But such a view does not make the translation any easier. Nouvelle version révisée suggests in a footnote that the word love probably refers to the young woman. La Bible de Jérusalem suggests that as the man talks he charges the women “not to stir my love, or rouse it…,” understanding the love to be that of the man toward the young woman. In still other versions the expression “my love” appears but is totally ambiguous, referring either to the young woman herself or to the love of the man for her. Still others translate “Love” with a capital “L,” referring to some abstract notion. Given these many options the translator must first decide who is speaking, and then express the meaning that best fits the context, if necessary noting alternatives in a footnote.

Uncovering the meaning of until it please is also far from simple. Until speaks of duration of time from the present to some future moment. “While” is also possible. The subject of the verb please is it, and we understand this to refer back to love, since it also is feminine singular. However, another possibility is that the reference is to the woman, “until she pleases” or “until it pleases her.” The verb please has a noun form, “will,” “purpose,” and thus “pleasure” in the sense of what someone wishes done. In Gen 34.19 the verb has sexual connotations as Shechem “delights in” Jacob’s daughter. This leads to the conclusion that the young woman is saying she does not want to be disturbed while she enjoys her lover. Thus until it please means “until our love is satisfied.” Good News Translation suggests that they “not interrupt our love.”

New Revised Standard Version and Revised English Bible have “until it is ready.” However, the meaning of that phrase is unclear, and also the two lovers are already making love, so it seems inappropriate as a translation.

For translation we can say:
• Women of Jerusalem, swear to me by the wild deer, that you will not interfere with our love-making.
• Make a solemn promise, everyone, that you will not disturb us while we make love.
• O Women of Jerusalem, we beg you,
In the name of the gazelle and the wild deer*
Don’t disturb [or, interrupt] our love
Until we are fully satisfied!

The footnote can say:
* This oath formula may be a play on words. The word “gazelle” in Hebrew sounds like “[Lord of] hosts,” and “wild deer” sounds like “El Shaddai.”

Of course, where social custom does not permit such explicit references to intimate conduct, it may be necessary to use a euphemism in translation. However, the words should be rendered in such a way that their real sexual meaning is not lost on readers. In this case possibilities for translation are:
• Please, don’t let anyone disturb us while we are lying here together.
• I wish everyone would make a solemn promise never to interrupt us while we enjoy each other.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Song of Songs. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1998. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .