|Books of the|
The Song of Solomon (Hebrew title שיר השירים, Shir ha-Shirim), also known as the Song of Songs, is a book of the Tanakh (and Christian Old Testament), which celebrates and interprets human sexuality within a religious framework. The book consists of a cycle of poems about erotic love, largely in the form of a dialogue between a man and a woman (often labeled a "bride" and a "bridegroom" by conservative translators).
Given the text's frank discussion of the pleasures of sensual intimacy and the fact that it lacks any overt references to the Divine, its presence within the canon has often been debated. This tendency became especially common among Christian commentators (many of whom viewed sexuality as inherently sinful). Among them, it became common practice to interpret the text allegorically, as a representation of the relationship between Christ and the church or between Christ and the heart of individual believers.
The role of sexuality in human experience is undeniably powerful, yet this subject has often been taboo in religious conversation. Despite this fact, the issue of human sexuality is frequently integrated into the narrative corpus of the world religions. Several religions speak paradoxically of sexuality as a both a redemptive and dangerous force in human relationships. For example, sexuality has been described as leading to the fall of humanity by some but is seen by others as a vehicle of enlightenment. The Song of Solomon provides a positive assessment and expression of human sexuality in the context of the Judeao-Christian traditions.
The name of the book is derived from the first verse of the text, "Solomon's Song of Songs" (1:1, NIV) or "The song of songs, which is Solomon's" (1:1, KJV) ("אשִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים, אֲשֶׁר לִשְׁלֹמֹה" in the original Hebrew). For a book that has been at the center of so much controversy (as will be discussed), it is perhaps somewhat fitting that even the title has been subject to multiple, conflicting interpretations.
On one hand, the title can be understood by approaching it linguistically. Since biblical Hebrew, as a language, lacks superlatives, the same function is performed using a repetitive phrasing (i.e. the "x" of "x")—a pattern that is evidenced in phrases such as "king of kings (cf. Ez. 26:7, Dan. 2:37, Ezra 7:12) and "lord of lords" (cf. Deut. 10:17, Ps. 136:3). As such, the title can be seen as a testament to the ultimacy of the text as a poetic document. This is the understanding conveyed by the title "Song of Songs" (or, more archaically, "Canticle of Canticles").
On the other, some sources proceed on the assumption that this initial phrase ascribes the authorship of the text to the King Solomon described in the biblical record (an assumption that is discussed below). In those editions of the Christian bible that accept this interpretation, the text is known as the "Song of Solomon."
The Song of Songs is one of the Five Scrolls (Hebrew: megillot) of the Hebrew Bible (/ Christian Old Testament), the others being the Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. This compendium, likely following the format of the five books of Torah and the Psalter, is often thought to be the repository of much of the Bible's wisdom literature. This genre, concerned with the exigencies of daily life, consists of meditations upon the existential issues brought up by practical philosophy. In this way, just as the author of Ecclesiastes struggles with the possibility of existential meaninglessness, so too does the author of the Song contemplate the possibility of love as an avenue to Ultimate meaning (though he/she does so with some ambivalence).
Of course, the five books are also grouped together due to a similarity in their application, as all five texts are utilized throughout the Jewish ecclesiastical year as part of various worship services. In this context, the Song is often read from at one of the Passover services.
Given the text's contents, its inclusion in the canon of scripture has often been disputed. See below for a discussion of the text's canonicity.
Just as the the Song's place in scripture has been a tendentious issue, so too is the (seemingly) simpler discussion of its overall structure and organization. At an even more basic level, scholars are divided on whether the text even has an overarching "plot" or narrative underlying its composition.
In the millennia since the text's inclusion in the biblical canon, interpretations have run the gamut from the assumption that the entire text follows a single, coherent narrative to the suggestion that the book is merely a collection of utterly discrete, unconnected (romantic/erotic) poems that were edited together at a later date. The textual-critical scholarship underlying the latter assertion generally divides the book into various sections based upon literary devices, supposed inconsistencies or changes of authorial voice. While it is undeniable that the text changes tones and narrative voice, and that it often makes self-referential allusions to previous sections, it is unknowable whether this results from a single, virtuosic poetic composition or later redaction.
Despite the unresolvable enigma of textual history and authorship, it is possible to enumerate several discrete episodes within the text (without drawing any untenable conclusions from the existence of such "plot" elements): One possible division of the text is as follows: 
In addition to the topical divisions introduced above, the text also seems to possess (at least) two other organizing principles. First, it displays an overarching concentric structure built around the ubiquitous image of the garden (which represents both the female body and the shared (physical/emotional) space created by the lovers), which culminates in the passionate encounter described in 5:1 (and quoted above). Second, the text, which very rarely allows its characters to achieve fulfillment, does come to a "climax" of sorts near its conclusion, "in which the poem's narrative pressure—its work of comparison, its alternation of promise and postponement—is released."
However, these final conclusions are nothing if not ambiguous. Love is not a tame nor a rational force, as it is seen as more powerful than implacable death and the "many waters" (a Biblical trope referring to the waters of primordial chaos). Further, it is not simply a force of good, as the reference to jealousy attests. For these reasons, Weems notes that "this is not knowledge that one acquires through hearsay. This kind of knowledge, acquired through experience and careful observation of life's rhythms, is savored by the wise."
These episodes take place between two primary characters (a female lover and her male counterpart), and a chorus of female auditors (the "daughters of Jerusalem"), who seem to represent the friends of the couple. Though many translations of the text describe the two figures as the "bride" and the "bridegroom," this attribution seems to have more to do with the puritanical perspectives of later commentators and translators than anything inherent in the text. As noted by Fox,
The lovers in Canticles are not married or getting married as yet. The Shulammite [one of the epithets describing the female lover] is still under her brothers' control (1:6), or at least they would have it so. The lovers' behavior in general is not that of newlyweds. No bridegroom would have to sneak up to his beloved's house at night, peeking in the windows, and asking to be let it. Neither (one hopes) would a new bride have to leave her bed at night to chase about the city looking for her husband. Nor would the lovers behave in this fashion if they were formally betrothed and her family recognized the youth as her future husband. No betrothed woman—let alone a new bride—would wish that her beloved were like a brother to her so that she could kiss him openly and bring him home to mother (8:1). In 8:8 her betrothal is spoken of as an event in the future: "when she is spoken for." The lovers go off to the countryside to make love, not to a bed of matrimony.
In addition to this rather scandalous characterization of youthful (and evidently unapproved of) passion, the text is also notable for consistently favoring the female perspective. The vast majority of verses are spoken by the female lover, who is characterized not as a submissive chattel but as a spontaneous, self-assured, and sexually confident woman: "in Song of Songs, where more than 56 verses are ascribed to a female speaker (compared to the man's 36), the experiences, thoughts, imagination, emotions and words of this anonymous black-skinned woman are central to the book's unfolding. Moreover, the protagonist is not merely verbal; unlike many of the women in the Bible, she is assertive, uninhibited, and unabashed about her sexual desires."
Furthermore, this passionate characterization is mutual and non-stereotyped, a humanistic and decidedly realistic assaying of human sexuality that is notable for its prescience (as it resounds a rebuttal to misconceptions about sexual impulses and roles that continue to be perpetrated to this day):
In the Song, the behavior of the sexes in love is fundamentally similar. Each lover invites the other to come away; each goes out at night to find the other; each knows moments of hesitation; each desires sexual fulfillment. The two lovers say similar things to each other, express the same desires and delights, and praise each other in the same ways. Most important, neither feels an asymmetry in the quality or intensity of their emotions, a feeling that would be revealed if, for example, one lover tried to wheedle the reluctant other into love or worried about the steadfastness of the other's affections.
While the nature and function of the Song as a religious document remain controversial, it is undeniable that it is, first and foremost, an inspiring and moving example of poetic art. Through its use of various poetic and literary devices, it manages to create a vivid and compelling world, one that is inhabited by two (unnamed) characters that readers are invited to project themselves onto. An intriguing element of this text as poetry is that, in spite of the efforts of various scholars and commentators over the centuries, it simply does not require a single discrete interpretation. As such, any ambiguities, double meanings or circular references could have been intentional elements of the poet's overall purpose in composing the text. Some of the devices used to great effect include symbolism, sensory imagery, and other line- and strophe-level devices (including alliteration and paronomasia).
In attempting to determine the text's provenance, some scholars and exegetes translate the second clause of the title (1:1) as "which is of Solomon," an interpretation that designates the semi-mythic king as the text's author. More specifically, Jewish tradition suggests that Solomon wrote three Biblical books, corresponding to three states in a man's life: Song of Songs, which expresses the lustful vigor of youth; Proverbs, which expresses the wisdom of maturity; and Ecclesiastes, which expresses the cynicism of old age. Others translate the second clause as "which is for Solomon," meaning that the book is dedicated to Solomon. It was common practice in ancient times for an anonymous writer seeking recognition for his work to eponymously credit it to a more renowned figure.
As discussed above, it is not possible to determine the textual history of the document—much less to determine the character of its author(s) and editor(s).
The authorship question is only complicated by the fact that the text shares some similarities with ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry, though it is distinct enough in tone and style to be acknowledged as a definitively Hebrew document.
It is one of the pranks of history that a poem so obviously about hungry passion has caused so much perplexity and has provoked such a plethora of bizarre interpretations. Even some contemporary scholars appear baffled by the Song of Songs. For example, T. J. Meek begins his commentary on the Song with this amazing and forbidding note: "Of all the books of the Old Testament none is so difficult to interpret."
These difficulties were only exacerbated by the fact that the text itself never mentions God by name: an omission that would seem to further demonstrate its worldliness.
As such, the text's presence within the biblical canon seems to be a testament to the acceptance of human sexuality (at least within the confines of marriage) by the early rabbinic community. Defending the document, the storied Rabbi Akiba is said to have declared, "Heaven forbid that any man in Israel ever disputed that the Song of Songs is holy. For the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy and the Song of Songs is holy of holies" (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5). Indeed, as the sacrament of marriage was holy, and physical passion was a vital component of marriage, a text depicting such passion was not inherently problematic.
There is no evidence that the ancient Jews rejected the literal sense of a writing either before or after accepting it as authoritative Scripture. The unadorned meaning remained prominent after canonization, even though speculations about additional theological and moral meanings were given. It was contrary to the respect which Jews gave to the plain meaning of their literature to accept only the allegorical meaning. Even Philo of Alexandria, who was the most allegorically prone of all Jews, did not discard its literal meaning. As regards Palestinian Judaism, R. P. C. Hanson has rightly observed: "Rabbinic allegory is characterized by the fact that it never for a moment impugns the validity of the literal sense."
Despite the text's acceptance by the Jewish community (albeit with allegorical expansions), the early Christians found such a frank discussion of love and sexuality to be both appalling and morally repugnant. As such, they found themselves relying upon allegorical interpretations alone as the means of penetrating the text's meaning. Thus, in a Christian tradition that first reached wide-spread popularity in the writings of Origen, the text was seen as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. In some sources, it was also thought to represent the idealized relationship between Christ and the individual believer (as in the writings of Saint Jerome, Bernard of Clairvaux, and many other early and medieval Christian theologians). Likewise, though the Protestants generally abhorred what they saw as the excesses of allegorical theology, they generally turned to it as a means of explaining away the unconscionable lewdness of the text. Though some Christians, including Theodore of Mopsuestia, Jovinian, John Calvin, Edmund Spenser, have defended the text (and its affirmation of human sensuality), they are certainly in notable minority, though their interpretations have received increasing attention in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
As one example of the continued ambivalence of the Christian churches to the text, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest denomination in the Latter Day Saint movement, does not recognize the Song of Solomon as authoritative, although it is included in the Church's canon and printed in Church-published copies of the Bible.
It appears likely that the Song of Songs was once a popular piece of literature, "a song to be enjoyed on any occasion—including religious holidays—when song, dance or other ordinary diversions were in order." In this context, it would have been part of various Jewish feasts, including family gatherings and wedding celebrations. It is likely due to such popular use that Rabbi Akiba (c. 100 C.E.) cautioned: "He who sings the Song of Songs in wine taverns, treating it as if it were a vulgar song, forfeits his share in the world to come."
In a modern context, the text continues to be read by Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews on Sabbath eve, to symbolize the love between the Jewish People and God (a love that is also represented by the shared bond of the Sabbath). Also, most traditional Jews read the book on the Sabbath of Chol HaMoed at Passover, or on the seventh day of the holiday, when the Song of the Sea is also read.
This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.
Jewish translations and commentary:
Christian translations and commentary:
Music for the Song of Solomon:
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