This passage from the fifth-century midrash Leviticus Rabbah is located within a chapter (Parashah 23) that expounds on Leviticus 18:3: “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes” (NRSV). In relation to this verse, the editor of the midrash opens our chapter with seven units that expand on Song of Songs 2:2: “Like a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters” (NKJV). Only a brief selection is presented here, for this material alone discusses Israel under the Roman Empire, called Esau. The association between Esau and Rome appears in various tannaitic midrashim (see, for example, Sifre Deuteronomy 343 [part one and part two]) and is common in amoraic midrashim (see the commentary on Genesis Rabbah 6:3). Since the Roman empire became Christian during that latter period, in Leviticus Rabbah, the name Esau may refer to this biblical figure, the Roman empire, or specifically to Christian Rome or Christianity (for a survey on mentions of Esau in this midrashic composition, see Visotzky, Golden Bells, p. 154-157).
This midrash compares the condition of a lily during the day, exposed to the heat of the sun, to Israel living in Esau’s shadow. Just as the lily becomes withered (kmushah) when the sun is at its height, so too is Israel’s situation under Rome: Israel cannot flourish under this rule. However, when night approaches and dew falls, the lily begins to thrive. The inevitable arrival of night will replace the heat of the sun, accompanied by the dew that revives the lily. Analogously, Israel will be restored when the authority of Rome disappears. Much as night follows day, the fall of Rome will eventually occur. The association of Esau (namely Rome), with the sun also appears in Genesis Rabbah 6:3 (cf. Genesis Rabbah 2:3 [Theodor-Albeck edition, p. 16], where Esau represents night and Jacob daytime). Both texts show an awareness of the current dominance of Rome and the subordination of Israel.
The image of Israel as a lily already appears in tannaitic texts that cite Song of Songs 2:2, such as Sifre Deuteronomy 355 (Finkelstein edition, p. 422). In our text, the lily that suffers from the intensity of the sun, and whose beauty is impaired by its impact, brings courage and comfort to Israel with promises of a better future. Consolation is further reinforced by a quotation from Hosea: “I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily,” (14:6, verse 5 in NRSV). Despite the present hierarchy, Israel’s deliverance and the fall of Rome that will enable it, are entirely dependent on God.