“I am the rose of Sharon, And the lily of the valleys” (Song of Solomon 2, 1)
In a previous post we brought the problem of identifying species that appear in the Bible. In this post I’d like to discuss the rose and the lily from Song of Solomon. From taking several English translations, we can see that we have a problem…
“I am the rose of Sharon, [And] the lily of the valleys” (KJV/NASB/NIV)
“I am a narcissus of Sharon, A lily of the valleys” (DARBY)
“I’m a flower from Sharon, a lily of the valleys“ (ISV)
“I am the lily of the field and the rose of the valleys” (JUB)
“I am a meadow flower from Sharon, a lily from the valleys” (NET Bible)
Two flowers or one?
Most translations point to two flowers, most of them suggest rose and lily. But there are some more suggestions.
Can we tell for sure what are really the flowers?
In the Hebrew, the first flower is called Havatzelet of the Sharon. The second is called Shoshana of the valleys. In Biblical poetry, this is called Parallelism as a rhetorical device. The sentence is built of two parts where both parts emphasize each other. There are several types of parallelism styles in the Bible. The most common is what we call “Synonymous parallelism” in which the same or similar thoughts are repeated. In our case we have Synonymous parallelism. It means that the word “Sharon” is the same as “Valleys” and the two flowers are in fact one, or two that have similar attributes.
Havatzelet (a rose?)
The first flower – Havatzelet in Hebrew – was translated by many to “rose”. It appears only once more in the Bible in Isaiah:
“The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them,
And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose“ (Isaiah 35, 1)
There are good reasons to believe that Solomon and Isaiah did not mean rose…
We are looking for a magnificent flower that grows in the Sharon. Roses do not grow in the Sharon. In fact, wild roses are quite rare in Israel. They are found only in the mountains in the north and they are not impressive.
So if we cannot tell what is Havatzelet, we can check what is the second flower, and assume that those are the same flower of similar ones.
Shoshana (a Lily?)
Shoshana or Shoshan (Lily?) appears many times in the Bible and in different contexts. Its Hebrew root is the number Six (Shesh). So it makes sense that this is a flower with six petals – like the lily!
In Song of Solomon it appears many times as a flower that was growing in the gardens:
“My beloved has gone to his garden, To the beds of spices, To feed his flock in the gardens,
And to gather lilies“ (Song of Solomon 6, 2)
In Psalms it appears in a context that is not quite clear and can be interpreted in many ways:
“To the Chief Musician. Set to The Lilies. A Psalm of David“ (Psalms 69, 1)
But when Solomon built the temple, the “Shoshan” appeared as a geometric shape that is used on top of the pillars:
“The capitals which were on top of the pillars in the hall were in the shape of lilies, four cubits” (1 Kings 7, 19)
“The tops of the pillars were in the shape of lilies“ (1 Kings 7, 22)
“It was a handbreadth thick; and its brim was shaped like the brim of a cup, like a lily blossom. It contained two thousand baths” (1 Kings 7, 26)
So the “Shoshan” is first of all a beautiful flower with six petals that grows in the valleys of the Sharon and in the gardens of Solomon. It has some special meaning that is used in music in Psalms. And it is also a shape that is used as a geometric decoration in the temple.
Archaeology comes to our aid
A coin that was discovered in Israel and is dated to the Persian period (Ezra and Nehemiah) shed some more light on this topic.
The Ancient coin has a flower on it that is a symbol of the province of Judea in the Persian period. This coin was used when stamping the coin of the New Israeli Shekel.
This symbol resembles very much the Royal French symbol “Fleur-de-lis” or the symbol of the scouts!
Royal Flower symbols
So the French Fleur-de-lis may be originated from a Jewish symbol in the Persian period. And back to our question – What is this flower.
We have Three suggestions.
- Lily – The Lily is a white flower with six petals that grows wild in Israel in very rare places at the cliffs of the mountains. Not very probable for a flower that grows in the valleys of the Sharon and in the gardens of Solomon.
- Narcissus – A white flower with six petals and good blossom that is common in the mountains and the valleys of the Sharon. It can be the “Shoshan” that we are looking for!
Iris – A colored flower that grows in Israel in many places, including the Sharon. The Iris resembles most then the others the Fleur-de-lis and the symbol on the Jewish coin!
The “rose” and “lily” that appear in most translations of Song of Solomon are probably not rose and lily. It makes more sense that those are the same flower or two similar flowers that their shape was used as a decoration in the first temple, and later on coins. The flowers in the Bible could be narcissus but more probably an Iris. Certainly not a rose.
7 thoughts on “Rose or Lily?”
I came across a post in your blog this evening while researching the shushan flower of the Hebrew Bible.
Your post is from January of this year.
Your post helped me in identifying what I believe is most likely the rose of Sharon.
This was not the purpose of my search but it segued into a related matter.
[I was actually looking for information on tulips as part of the lily family.
However I have been pondering for some time the manner in which the lily fits in with the description of the pillars Boaz and Jachin.
An immediate adjunct to this is the manner in which the lily fits in the description of the Brazen Sea.
Both are enumerated at 1 Kings 7.]
I believe you are correct when you say that the rose of Sharon and lily of the valleys are likely the same flower.
The sentence does look like a typical example of synonymous parallelism.
However I do not think that the iris or narcissus fit the bill.
[Actually I must admit that Narcissus tazetta is also a good candidate.
It is an attractive flower with great radial symmetry.
In appearance it clearly suggests the root of shushan, which means ‘six’.
It has a cup or bowl-shaped corona at its centre.
This could conceivably match the descriptions at 1 Kings 7:19, 22 with that at verse 41.
The first description at 7:19,22 has the capitals atop the pillars shaped like lilies.
Then at 7:41 it talks of a bowl atop the pillars instead of a lily.
If this bowl is on top of the earlier lily, then it matches the corona of Narcissus tazetta.
This corona sits at the centre of the six tepals.
It houses the reproductive organs of the flower.
It also gives the flower the appearance of a seventh section at its centre.
Seven sebakim – whatever they might be – are part of the description of each lily flower capital.
Narcissus tazetta clearly and unequivocally suggests both six and seven in its form.
But I do not think the iris has anything to commend it.
It lacks geometric precision compared to other candidates and looks particularly shabby.
Moreover it appears to be riding on the coattails of a Persian period coin.
We cannot over-interpret the presence of an iris on a Persian period coin.
The people had been in exile from the land for two generations and had lost a great deal in their connection to their homeland.
The descriptions from 1 Kings 7 of a lily as design element were already around 500 years old at this stage.]
There is a much better candidate.
[Perhaps an equally likely candidate.
I had to backtrack on the narcissus after studying it more.]
I think the flower we are looking for at Song 2:1 is Tulipa sharonensis.
[In spite of my new appreciation of Narcissus tazetta, I still believe Tulipa sharonensis is the more likely,]
The flower grows in the Sharon.
It is a member of the lily family.
As a geometric design element it would form a hexagram.
[And/or a hexagon, as the hexagon sits at the centre of the hexagram.]
Hence it may have been a prototype of the Star of David.
[I am well aware that unequivocal Jewish use of the hexagram as a symbol only goes as far back as medieval times.
But could that not possibly be due to a repressed symbol resurfacing?
Could the trauma that caused the symbol to become repressed not have been the dissolution of the United Kingdom following the passing away of King Solomon?
This is only a very tentative suggestion.
I doubt that Jewry took up this symbol in the first instance out of thin air.]
This point is very important in ruling out the iris and narcissus.
[Actually it’s not that important.
I may have grossly overstated this point due to tiredness when writing my initial email.]
I cannot go into that discussion right now but it can be canvassed at a later date.
Your blog post among much other reading gave me some tentative ideas for some First Temple elements.
The two pillars Boaz and Jachin have capitals in the shape of a shushan or lily.
I suspect that this is the flower of a lily.
I do not believe they were decorated with lilies.
The capitals were, in fact, lily flowers.
This is how I think 1 Kings 7:19,22 is supposed to be understood.
This appears to be your understanding as well.
[I entertained the idea for quite some time that the capitals may simply have been a geometric form suggested by the number six at the root of the word shushan.
However I rejected that view eventually.
While the geometry is important, and does play some part in the description, what we are in fact looking at is the likeness of a lily flower, not just the number six represented geometrically.]
At 1 Kings 7:41 this same shushan structure is called a gullah or bowl.
In fact it was the gullah that first took me down this path.
Allow me to make a very brief detour.
The gullah features at Zechariah 4:2.
[My real research passion is in the combined Haggai – Zechariah 1-8 corpus.
It is structured exactly like a lily flower in a nested 7-7-7-7 pattern.]
It [the gullah at Zech 4:2] fits atop the menorah.
I think Zechariah’s gullah was shaped like a lily.
[I am aware that the gullah is something round in shape.
I had doubted for some time that it is a bowl because of its use at 1 Kings 7.
However that occurrence now fits with the idea of gullah being a bowl.]
This is why I first looked at the text of 1 Kings 7 in more detail.
Returning to our main thought, why is the shushan at 1 Kings 7:19,22 later called a gullah at verse 41?
Why is the lily then described as a bowl?
I think I figured that out recently.
[I still think my initial thought, set out below, stands.
Narcissus tazetta does, however, make for a strong alternative.]
What I think the writer is describing is a bowl-shaped lily flower.
[As stated, if it is both a shushan and a gullah, then Narcissus tazetta fits best as its corolla is a gullah at its centre.
But if the shushan itself is modified by the word gullah, then we are looking instead at a bowl-shaped lily.]
This would make Lilium candidum an excellent candidate for the capitals of the two pillars.
Lilium candidum is, indeed, a bowl-shaped shushan or lily.
It is native to Israel.
Bowl-shaped flower of Lilium candidum.
Then later at 1 Kings 7:26 the writer describes the Brazen Sea.
This is also liliform.
However I think we are seeing a very different lily here.
Cup-shaped flowers of Tulipa sharonensis – the rose of the Sharon.
What I think the verse is saying is that the Brazen Sea was fashioned as a cup-shaped lily.
This makes Tulipa sharonensis an excellent candidate.
It is a cup-shaped lily as can be seen above.
When it opens it looks spectacular.
What I think the writer of 1 Kings 7 is describing under the term shushan is not one but two types of lily.
[And there are possibly several other types from the lily family used elsewhere under the term shushan.]
The capitals are bowl-shaped lilies.
These are possibly Lilium candidum.
The Brazen Sea is a cup-shaped lily.
This is possibly Tulipa sharonensis.
Tulipa sharonensis is my pick for the rose of the Sharon and lily of the valleys.
[Because the description at Song 2:1 is one of synonymous parallelism, the Sharon equates to the valleys.
You noted this contention in your blog.
Therefore Tulipa sharonensis, which is named such because it grows in the Sharon, also qualifies as the lily of the valleys.
The Sharon is the valleys if synonymous parallelism is present, so Tulipa sharonensis immediately has dual qualification.
This is in spite of the flower being uncommon in other valley regions.]
It fits both topologically and conforms to the toponym.
Most important of all it is a lily.
[Although Narcissus tazetta is not nowadays a member of the lily family, its floral formula is very similar.
For me, floral formula is extremely important because of the design implications.]
King Solomon had expertise in everything to do with plants and flowers.
[Were he alive today he would undoubtedly be the world’s leading authority in this sphere.]
He would have known that the two very different looking flowers are yet from the same family.
[Here I am referring specifically to Tulipa sharonensis and Lilium candidum.]
They are both lilies.
[Narcissi were once grouped under flowers of the lily family, but they no longer are.]
I think the havatzeleth flower is the same as Tulipa sharonensis.
[I also think its only other appearance at Isaiah 35:1,2 supports this proposition.
The desert blossoming as the havatzeleth flower at verse 1 sits in parallelism with the further description at verse 2.
There it is described as ‘the ornamental majesty of the Carmel and the Sharon’.
Havatzeleth therefore is the crowning glory of both the mountainous area of the Carmel and the coastal plains of the Sharon.
This then fits perfectly with the habitats at which Tulipa sharonensis is found.
It does indeed qualify to fit the bill as the crowning glory of the Carmel and the Sharon.]
I hope this makes sense as I’m really quite tired as I write.
I did, however, want to get something off to you by way of introduction.
This subject goes far deeper than I can go into right now.
I do hope to hear your thoughts on this some time.
Nice to make your acquaintance.
With all good wishes,
[Thank you for your reply, Ran.
It caused me to look deeper at the narcissus family, particularly Narcissus tazetta.
I learned quite a lot in a very short space of time that altered my views to a certain extent.
This flower certainly remains in the game.
But for me the iris has nothing to commend it at this stage.
It just looks too ugly and imperfect alongside the three other candidates.
It would be an ugly design element, and its relation in form to the number six is not that obvious.]
Thank you very much for your email.
It is quite possible that the Shoshan / Havazelet in Song of Solomon is Tulip.
I personally do not think so, because the red tulip is very common in Israel in the mountains but quite rare in the valleys.
Therefore it does not make sense to me that the flower will be mentioned as the flower of the valleys and the Sharon.
Not that it is not possible, this is my opinion.
The problem is that we cannot know for sure as the track of the identification of most flowers in the Bible was lost when the people of Israel were exiled from the land.
Regarding the Shushan that appears in 1 Kings 7, it is quite likely that this is a geometric shape of six angles.
But the word Gullah is probably ball or something round, as derived from the Hebrew meaning.
One small comment: the Star of David is probably very late Jewish symbol that is referred to Jews starting in the 12th century AD.
Hello once again, Ran.
A thought swam into view while contemplating the capitals Boaz and Jachin in the ulam and the Brazen Sea in the courtyard.
This came as I proofread the first post.
Boaz and Jachin each have a shushan lily capital atop them.
These two pillars were both exceptionally tall.
This brought to my mind’s eye a picture of two mountain lilies.
In this thought, the two pillars serve as two mountains because of their height.
The Brazen Sea is also shaped like a lily.
This then brought to my mind’s eye a coastal lily.
In this thought, the Brazen Sea serves as the Mediterranean Sea.
These two impressions fit nicely with the havatzeleth flower at Isaiah 35:1,2.
It is the crowning glory of the Carmel and the Sharon according to verse 2.
The Carmel points to the mountains.
The Sharon points to the coast and the sea.
The mountains and the sea are themselves wonderful symbols of the land of ancient Israel.
Could the pillars Boaz and Jachin and the Brazen Sea, at least at one level of signification, have served as signs for the land of Israel?
The mountains and the sea?
It’s something to perhaps consider.
A second thought that is not wholly my own.
If the Brazen Sea is shaped like a lily, which it is according to my understanding of the text, how does this relate to its dimensions?
It is described as circular, being ten units in diameter, but only thirty units in circumference.
This cannot be correct as it confounds math and conventions pertaining to pi.
The circumference should be, using 10th century BCE measures, 31 and one seventh units.
How can this be reconciled?
An engineer pointed out, correctly in my view, at least in part, that the shape of the Brazen Sea was a hexagon.
This both fits the root of the word shushan, which is a design specification, and makes for a perfect mathematical fit.
If the diameter of a regular hexagon is ten units, its circumference will indeed be exactly thirty units.
I would qualify the engineer’s suggestion by contending that only the inner rim was hexagonal.
The outer rim would still have been circular.
This is because the Brazen Sea was, I believe, liliform, as the text implies.
Not just any liliform type, but a cup-shaped lily.
This lily shape would therefore result in the Brazen Sea having an outer perimeter shaped like a circle, just as any cup is circular.
But the six tepals – formed from two whorls of three sepals and three petals – would make the inner rim hexagonal rather than circular.
At all events, the description of the thickness of the bronze would also allow for the discrepancy from actual pi.
Some parting thoughts for the day.
Narcissus tazetta is a daffodil type in English.
Originally from the Greek asphodel, lexicography is unsure how the prefixed letter ‘d’ became part of the word.
Does the word daffodil come in part as a reference to King David?
Is this where the prefixed ‘d’ comes from?
Daffodils are the national flower of Wales and are worn on Saint David’s Day.
Saint David is the patron saint of Wales.
This strengthens the evolution of asphodel to daffodil through David, in Welsh Dafydd.
Tazetta means cup due to the shape of the corona [I earlier misapplied the term corolla for the corona].
Cup shape and bowl shape are similar, but not quite the same thing.
The connection to David is tenuous yet suggestive.
The cup shape of the corona is also suggestive.