Song of Songs

Ought love poetry which does not mention God to be in the Bible?

The title of the book reflects the Hebrew superlative in Song 1:1, which can also be rendered as the ‘most sublime song.’ The eight chapters are attributed to King Solomon (1:1) – possibly because of the 1005 songs he wrote according to 1 Kgs 5:12 as well as the references to him in the Song itself. Within the Hebrew canon the book is part of the Five Scrolls (Megilloth) and is liturgically used as reading for Passover. The Septuagint, the Vulgate, and modern Christian Bibles group the Song with the wisdom books because of its connection with the reputedly wise Solomon.

The subject of the Song of Songs is love between the sexes (but see the section on Interpretation and reception history). Some scholars, such as J. Cheryl Exum, take it as a single poem dealing with the love between a single pair of lovers. Others regard it as a collection of independent love poems, since to isolate a plot in the Song is notoriously difficult. The eight chapters are bound together by the unifying theme of human love and the mutual admiration that the two lovers express. This love is hardly ever disturbed by outsiders or jealousy. Overall the Song is quite a worldly text and its eroticism is neither sanctioned nor censured by God. This may suggest a setting other than the often postulated celebration of marriage. Maybe Song of Songs can be located in the context of banquets (e.g., 2:4; 5:1b; 7:1).

The Song employs various literary genres to convey its celebration of human erotic love. The most commonly used form is the description of the beloved, which finds voice in both the male subject (2:3, 8-9; 5:10-16) and the female (2:2; 4:1-7, 12-15; 6:4a, 5b-7). This is sometimes referred to by the Arabic term wasf. These descriptions often communicate the beauty of the beloved by metaphors or comparisons with the animal world. Here the subject makes a dynamic comparison between an aspect of the beloved (eyes, breasts, hair) and an animal. This and other literary devices create an ‘illusion of immediacy’ (J. Cheryl Exum 2005: 3-6), a sense that the action takes place right before the reader’s eyes. There may also be allusions to myth. These are sometimes read as suggesting a setting in the (pagan) rite of ‘sacred marriage,’ but they are more likely to represent simply a literary technique. As an anthology of love songs, the book has its closest parallels in early Egyptian love poetry and Greek pastoral poetry. With the latter it shares its view of an idealized rural life.

Though some of the poems (e.g., Song 1:9-11) might reflect a pre-exilic date, the language is that of the (probably early) Hellenistic period (3rd century BCE), and this is likely to be when the book was completed. An early northern origin of the Song is highly unlikely – especially in the light of Persian and Greek loanwords, a grammar that is closer to the Hebrew of the Mishnah (about 200 CE) than classical Hebrew and the manifold vocabulary for luxury items.

Interpretation and reception history

Song of Songs was transformed by later Jewish and Christian traditions into a sublime document of religious belief. This transformation apparently became necessary as God is not mentioned in the Song of Songs. This lack of reference to the divine originally prompted discussion about the book’s inclusion in the canon. In the Jewish tradition the Rabbis silenced this discussion by affirming that ‘Song of Songs is holy because it was said [under the influence] of the Holy Spirit’ (Tosefta Yadayim 2:14). The affirmation of the book’s holiness, in turn, allowed for interpretation of the book as a deeply theological document. As a result, much of the interpretation of Song of Songs renders it as an allegory. Jewish interpretation makes the male and female characters symbols of God and Israel, while Christian interpretation decodes them as Christ and either the Church or the individual believer. Despite the prevalence of the allegorical interpretation up to the 19th century, there were dissenting voices. Theodore of Mospuestia (ca. 350-428 CE) anticipates later secular interpretations and interprets Song of Songs as a wedding song, while Martin Luther (1483-1546) favoured a decidedly political interpretation. According to Luther, Solomon gives thanks to God ‘for his divinely established and confirmed kingdom and government’ (Luther’s Works, 15:91). The advent of the historical-critical study of the Bible and J. G. Herder’s forceful argument for Song of Songs as a collection of love songs led to the rediscovery of the likely original secular character of the text and to widespread acceptance of its literal interpretation as poems about human sexual love.

Further reading

Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
Hagedorn, Anselm C., ed. Perspectives on the Song of Songs. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005.
Hess, Richard S. Song of Songs. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.
Keel, Othmar. Song of Songs. Translated by Frederick J. Gaiser. CC. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.