Song of Solomon
|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."
Place in the Canon
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.
Structure and Contents
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: 
- 1:1 - the attribution of the text to King Solomon (often assumed to be a later addition)
- 1:2–1:6 - the woman speaks wistfully to her assembled companions about her absent lover
- 1:7–2:7 - the two lovers speak, praising each other's virtues with metaphors and similes. "The unit concludes with her description of their embrace and an adjuration to the Daughters of Jerusalem [her female companions] (which becomes a refrain; cf. 8:3-4 and also 3:5 and 5:8)."
- Strengthen me with raisins,
- refresh me with apples,
- for I am faint with love.
- Strengthen me with raisins,
- His left arm is under my head,
- and his right arm embraces me.
- His left arm is under my head,
- Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you
- by the gazelles and by the does of the field:
- Do not arouse or awaken love
- until it so desires (NIV 2:5-2:7).
- Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you
- 2:8–2:17 - the woman recalls her lover's visit, and the tender words that they shared
- 3:1–3:5 - the woman, earnestly missing the object of her affection, scours the city seeking him. This brief section concludes with their rhapsodic reunion (which may simply be a wish-fulfilling fantasy) and a repetition of the chorus quoted above.
- 3:6–3:11 - the female narrator, in another flight of fancy, describes her ideal wedding festivities, drawing upon the imagery of her lover as a king.
- Come out, you daughters of Zion,
- and look at King Solomon wearing the crown,
- the crown with which his mother crowned him
- on the day of his wedding,
- the day his heart rejoiced (NIV 3:11).
- Come out, you daughters of Zion,
- 4:1–5:1 - the lovers share mutually adulatory words, and invite each other to partake in sensual pleasures
- Awake, north wind,
- and come, south wind!
- Blow on my garden,
- that its fragrance may spread abroad.
- Let my lover come into his garden
- and taste its choice fruits.
- Awake, north wind,
- I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride;
- I have gathered my myrrh with my spice.
- I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey;
- I have drunk my wine and my milk (NIV 4:16-5:1).
- I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride;
- 5:2–6:3 - the woman yearns for her absent lover, vainly searches for him in the city streets, but realizes that he is constantly with her (in their secret garden)
- 6:4–6:13 - the man offers an extended description of his lover's beauty and wishes for her presence
- 7:1–8:5 - the man, again, offers a discourse on the beauty of his beloved, the woman reciprocates and promises herself to him (after a statement of mutual possession)
- 8:6–14 - (Coda) the woman offers some general observations on love (8:6-8:7), and many of the themes introduced above are revisited.
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."
- Place me like a seal over your heart,
- like a seal on your arm;
- for love is as strong as death,
- its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
- It burns like blazing fire,
- like a mighty flame.
- Many waters cannot quench love;
- rivers cannot wash it away.
- If one were to give
- all the wealth of his house for love,
- it would be utterly scorned (NIV 8:6-8:7).
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."
Characters and Authorial Voice
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.
Poetic and Literary Devices
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.
Canonicity and Exegetical quandries
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.
Uses of the Text
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.
- All biblical citations are from biblegateway.com, which hosts over 50 different versions of the Bible (including 20 different English-language translations). Retrieved June 17, 2007.
- Copied from the online Hebrew/English version available at Mechon-Mamre.com. Note that this line is written right-to-left, in following Hebrew typographic conventions. Retrieved June 17, 2007.
- Barry L. Bandstra. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Second Ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. ISBN 0534527272), 444.
- Renita J. Weems "The Song of Songs" in The New Interpreter's Bible (Vol. V). (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994. ISBN 068727818X), 365.
- Bandstra, 459.
- Francis Landy, "The Song of Songs" in The Literary Guide to the Bible, Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN 0674875303), 318.
- Landy, 318; See also: Roland E. Murphy. The Song of Songs: A Commentary on the Book of Canticles or the Song of Songs. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990. ISBN 0800660242), 99.
- Isidore Singer and Ludwig Blau, The Five Megillot - Late Use in Liturgy, The Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 17, 2007.; See also: Bandstra, 459.
- See, for example, the account in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which states that "there is a continually progressive action that represents the development of the warm friendship and affection of the pair, then the bridal union and the married life of the royal couple. The bride, however, is exhibited as a simple shepherdess, consequently, when the king takes her, she has to undergo a training for the position of queen; in the course of this training occur various trials and sorrows." It is notable that this approach also assumes that the Lover (the unnamed male character in the text) is, in fact, King Solomon.
- Franz Landsberger, "Poetic Units within the Song of Songs," Journal of Biblical Literature 73(4), (December 1954): 203-216. In his exposition, he notes that the appearance of textual unity "can be explained by a phenomenon which we shall have occasion to meet again and again in the course of our investigation. It is the phenomenon that, in this Song of Songs, the verses have often been joined to one another by virtue of similarity of words or motives" (204). Further, he argues that "the number of poems" compiled together to create the text is "far, far greater than 25" (215-216).
- For an outline of many of these arguments, see Murphy, 62-65.
- Landy (1987) argues for the poetic (though not narrative) unity of the text.
- Murphy notes that this debate cannot be resolves and must remain "an open question" (62).
- This division is based upon Murphy (1990) and Weems (1994).
- Entitled "Superscription" in both Murphy and Weems.
- Murphy, 65.
- Weems notes the extensive use of possessive particles, both in this section and in the text as a whole, and suggests that they may indicate an attempt to explicitly define and defend the union of the couple. From this, she opines that the couple may have been of disparate classes or races, such that the general public would have disapproved of their relationship (393).
- As Weems notes, "seeing the unit, however, as the protagonists fantasy about her wedding day, when she will finally be given license to do precisely what she can only wish to do in v. 3:4—that is, to steer her lover into her secret chambers—we can forgive the unit its abruptness" (399).
- As per Landy (1987).
- Landy, 316-317.
- Landy, 317.
- Murphy, 192.
- Weems, 430.
- Michael V. Fox. The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. ISBN 0299100901), 231.
- Weems, 364.
- Fox, 307.
- Described eloquently in Landy (1987).
- Weems, 369-370; Landy, 309-313 and passim.
- As Murphy notes, "the prosodic devices encountered&such as alliteration, paronomasia, chiasmus, and inclusio—are varied enough to constitute a virtual textbook of Hebrew prosody" (85). See also, Landy (passim).
- See, for instance, Hirsh et al., "Solomon" in the Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 17, 2007.
- Discussed at length in Fox (1985). See also: Murphy (1990).
- William E. Phipps, "The Plight of the Song of Songs." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 (1) (March 1974): 82-100. 82.
- This affirmation of the propriety of considering such sexual matters continued in latter rabbinical debates, where they openly discussed a man's legal responsibilities to provide his wife physical fulfillment (including the notion that he must wait for her to have an orgasm first). See Judith Hauptmann. Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 55 ; Cantor, 137.
- Phipps, 85.
- As Phipps notes, this reliance upon allegory is a hallmark of Hellenistic thought, as it had long been used to explain away problematic passages in the various myths and epics of the Greek tradition (86).
- See, for example, the opening line of Jerome's Against Jovinian, where he argues that the text describes an ideal ascetic's relationship with the divine: "I pass to the Song of Songs, and whereas our opponent thinks it makes altogether for marriage, I shall show that it contains the mysteries of virginity." Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved June 17, 2007.
- Bernard of Clairvaux. On the Song of Songs I. (The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Vol 1), translated by Robert Walton, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2005). ISBN 0879077042).
- See, for example, George Scheper, who notes that Protestant commentaries "are, in all essentials thoroughly traditional in allegorizing the book". George L. Scheper, "Reformation Attitudes toward Allegory and the Song of Songs." PMLA 89(3) (May 1974): 551-562. 556.
- Phipps, 95-98.
- This modified perspective is echoed in Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) which refers to the Song of Songs in both its literal and allegorical meaning, stating that erotic love (eros) and self-donating love (agape) are shown there as the two halves of true love, which is both giving and receiving.
- Bible Dictionary "Song of Solomon", 2006,  Official Scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Fox, 247.
- Quoted in Phipps, 85.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bandstra, Barry L. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Second Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. ISBN 0534527272.
- Bernard of Clairvaux. On the Song of Songs I (The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Vol 1), translated by Robert Walton. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2005. ISBN 0879077042.
- Cantor, Aviva. Jewish Women / Jewish Men. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1999. ISBN 978-0060613594
- Fox, Michael V. The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. ISBN 0299100901.
- Gietmann, G. "The Canticle of Canticles" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume III. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.
- Hauptman, Judith. Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.
- Landy, Francis. "The Song of Songs" in The Literary Guide to the Bible, Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN 0674875303.
- Landsberger, Franz. "Poetic Units within the Song of Songs." Journal of Biblical Literature 73(4) (December 1954): 203-216.
- Murphy, Roland E. The Song of Songs: A Commentary on the Book of Canticles or the Song of Songs. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990. ISBN 0800660242.
- Phipps, William E. "The Plight of the Song of Songs." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 (1) (March 1974): 82-100.
- Scheper, George L. "Reformation Attitudes toward Allegory and the Song of Songs." PMLA 89(3) (May 1974): 551-562.
- Weems, Renita J. "The Song of Songs" in The New Interpreter's Bible (Vol. V). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994. ISBN 068727818X.
This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.
All links retrieved February 3, 2023.
Jewish translations and commentary:
- Shir Hashirim - Song of Songs - Job (Judaica Press) Translation with Rashi's commentary at Chabad.org.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Song of Songs
Christian translations and commentary:
- Song of Solomon at Bible Gateway (various versions)
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