Song of Songs

views updated May 23 2018


SONG OF SONGS (Heb. שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים), the book of the Hebrew Bible which normally follows Job in the Hagiographa and precedes the Book of Ruth. It thus stands first among the Five Scrolls. In Protestant and Roman Catholic Bibles, the book follows Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, in accord with Jewish (then later Christian) tradition that Solomon was the author of all three, for the arrangement of the books in the Septuagint has continued to exert its influence on the Christian canon into modern times (see *Bible, Canon). The title is derived from the superscription, shir ha-shirim asher li-shelomo, usually understood as "the best of Solomon's songs," although Hebrew normally does not form superlatives this way. (Comparisons with "king of kings," or "slave of slaves," are irrelevant because these are superlative by function: a king who rules other kings (= emperor); a slave owned by another slave; see Tur-Sinai, 354–55.) The book is also called the Song of Solomon or Canticles, the latter name being derived from the Latin translation of the Hebrew title. Fragments of the Song were found at Qumran.

The Character of the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is composed entirely of a series of lyric (Septuagint: asma) love songs which vary in length, often consisting of brief stanzas, in which two lovers express to one another, and occasionally to others, the delights and anguish of their mutual love. Bold imagery and striking hyperbole characterize the songs, producing extravagant expressions and incongruous comparisons:

I have compared thee, O my love,
To a mare in Pharaoh's chariots.
Thy cheeks are comely with circlets,
Thy neck with beads (1:9–10; on the mare see M.H. Pope, in BASOR, 200 (1970), 56–61).
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of henna
In the vineyards of En-Gedi (1:14).
I am a rose of Sharon,
A lily of the valleys (2:1).

Several songs in chapters 4–7 exhibit qualities that distinguish them somewhat from the other poems in the book, for they lavishly praise the physical features of the two young lovers:

The roundings of thy thighs are like the links of a chain,
The work of the hands of a skilled workman.
Thy navel is like a round goblet,
Wherein no mingled wine is wanting;
Thy belly is like a heap of wheat
Set about with lilies.
Thy two breasts are like two fawns
That are twins of a gazelle (7:2b–4).

Because such poems belong to the same literary genre as a similar type of Arabic love poetry, they are called waṣfs, after the Arabic technical term meaning "description." Such lyrical imagery and forthright expression are admittedly sensual and suggestive, but the poems are never coarse or vulgar. (Similar seductive language is employed by the married seductress of Prov. 7:16–17, but there it leads to a bitter end.) The composer has employed vivid imagery to set a mood and create an aura of emotion, which invites the hearers to participate and share his joy and delight. Such poetic finesse in part accounts for the timeless appeal and lasting popularity of these songs. The flickering flames of love that rise and fall throughout the book leap to a final crescendo in 8:6–7:

Set me as the seal upon thy heart,
As the seal upon thine arm;
For love is strong as death,
Jealousy is cruel as the grave;
The flashes thereof are flashes of fire;
A very flame of the Lord [or "mighty flame"],
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can the floods drown it.

The Bible, because of its primary concern with religious themes, contains poetry which deals principally with sacred topics in hymns, laments, songs of praise and thanksgiving, etc. There are also a number of songs with a secular flavor and dealing with the more mundane affairs of life scattered through its pages, but the Song of Songs is unique in the Bible, for nowhere else within it can be found such a sustained paean to the warmth of love between man and woman. It is completely occupied with that one theme. No morals are drawn; no prophetic preachments are made. Perhaps more than any other biblical book, the Song presents a picture of "gender mutuality" (Meyers). The female lover is given more lines to speak than the male, and the presence of the "daughters of Jerusalem" is most prominent. It is likely that several of the poems originated among women bards.

A remarkable feature of the book is that God receives no mention, and theological concerns are never discussed. While the Book of Esther also fails to mention God, an unmistakable spirit of nationalism permeates its pages; but the Song lacks even this theme. Another unique feature of the book is the extended description of the woman's dreams (3:1–5; 5:1–6:3). These are the only biblical examples of dreams not followed by interpretation.

While the Song of Songs appears unique in the Bible, it is quite at home in the literature of the Ancient Near East. Numerous texts recovered from both Egypt and Mesopotamia have brought to light the long history of love poetry in the ancient world. Even the earliest civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, that of Sumer, produced passionate love songs that reflect a remarkable similarity of expressions, implications, situations, and allusions to parts of the Song of Songs, even though the latter are "far superior to their stilted, repetitive, and relatively unemotional Sumerian forerunners" (S.N. Kramer, in Expedition, 5 (1962), 31; Cooper, 1970). Fox has demonstrated close parallels in Egyptian love songs, and Held has called attention to a dialogue between lovers in an Akkadian work of the Old Babylonian period. Still others have compared Greek love lyrics. Upon reflection it is only natural to expect that such songs existed in the culture of ancient Israel. Song, music, and dance, both sacred and secular, have been vehicles for expressing the deepest human emotions from time immemorial, and it is doubtful that the line dividing the one from the other was as clear to the ancients as it appears to moderns.

The Song of Songs consists of only eight chapters numbering 117 verses, yet in it occur 49 words peculiar to itself and an additional number of unusual words. The syntax of the Song is also marked by oddities. The vav consecutive of biblical Hebrew is completely lacking; frequent incongruities exist, with masculine forms of verbs, pronouns and suffixes often appearing rather than the expected feminine forms; the personal pronoun is used pleonastically with finite verbs with no apparent emphatic connotations; the infinite absolute is never used and the infinitive construct only rarely; and what appears to be an Aramaic construction occurs at 3:7 (miṭṭato she-li-Shelomo, literally, "his bed, Solomon's").

The Song exhibits characteristic features of Hebrew *poetry – parallelism, meter based on stress, repetitive patterns of structure, the use of chiasmus and ballast variants, assonance, and occasionally paranomasia. A variety of repetitive patterns may be found including a number with archaic features.

The diverse features of the Song, which support the view that the work is a collection, are somewhat muted by the uniformity of language, representing a late stage of biblical Hebrew along with features that are regular in Aramaic and in later Mishnaic Hebrew. This uniformity is apparently the result of linguistic leveling which was arrested by the final redaction of the book, leaving it essentially as it now exists in the Masoretic Text.

The Interpretation of the Song of Songs

Despite its brevity, the Song of Songs has been the inspiration for more literature about itself than any other book of its size in the Bible. It holds a magnetic attraction for those who feel compelled to explain its inclusion in the Bible, its meaning, and the linguistic peculiarities in it. Near the close of the first century c.e., when the book had long been a part of the Jewish national literature, arguments against its inclusion among the books that were to be considered canonical were suppressed by no less an eminent and vociferous advocate than R. Akiva. The rabbis and the early Church Fathers quoted, paraphrased, and sermonized from it. In medieval Europe, Bernard of Clairvaux produced 86 sermons extracted from its imagery. Still, despite the voluminous writings of Jewish and Christian exegetes, in the 17th century the Westminster Assembly's annotations on the Song of Songs state, "It is not unknown to the learned, what the obscurity and darknesse of this Book hath ever been accounted, and what great variety of Interpreters, and Interpretations have indeavoured to clear it, but with so ill successe many times, that they have rather increased, then removed the cloud" (Annotations upon all the Books of the Old and New Testament (19512)). Advances in biblical scholarship have been made since then, but scholars are still divided on such important matters as the unity of the book, its origin, its divisions, its purpose, the number and identity of its characters, and its date.

The Song as an Allegory

The history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs necessarily begins with its interpretation as an allegory in which the love of God for His people was expressed. By this means a mystical message of comfort and hope could be derived from the text. The lover in the songs, operating under the guise of Solomon and the shepherd youth, was now recognized as the Lord God of Israel, and His beloved was the people Israel. Thus a literary product which seemed devoid of any apparent religious connotations was transformed into a vehicle for expressing the very deepest kind of spiritual relationship existing between God and His people. (The development of Jewish allegorization is generally traced to Greek influence. Though the term allegory is Greek in origin, the assumption of borrowing the method is gratuitous, however, for the germinal concepts and interpretative tendencies possessing the potential for allegorization existed in Jewish schools of thought and in the Bible. Noteworthy in this respect are for example the marital images found in Hos. 2; Jer. 2:2; and Isa. 50:4–7.) The allegorical view of the book had gained widespread currency among the rabbis by the first century c.e., and it was doubtless the predominant view of the populace as well; there is evidence in the Mishnah, however, that the allegorical interpretation was not universally accepted. The Tosefta (Sanh. 12:10) records the famous admonition of R. Akiva: "He who trills his voice in the chanting of the Song of Songs in the banquet-halls and makes it a secular song has no share in the world to come."

It is difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy when the allegorization of the Song of Songs began, but the disturbing conditions imposed by Rome upon Jewish life in the first century c.e. were advantageous to its expansion. In light of this and of the unusual features of the work, there can be little wonder that arguments arose among the rabbis over the retention of the Song among the books that "defile the hands," that is, that were considered canonical. At the Council of Jabneh, c. 90 c.e., the matter was discussed, but we know little of the details. In any event, current scholarly opinion does not attribute authoritative canonization of biblical books to the Jabneh council. It is clear that the songs had an innate popular appeal, and they had been ascribed to King Solomon because of the several occurrences of his name in the text and the association of the references to a king with him. A generation after Jabneh, R. Akiva denied that there had ever been any controversy about the sacred character of the Song: "God forbid that it should be otherwise! No one in Israel ever disputed that the Song of Songs defiles the hands. For all the world is not worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies" (Yad 3:5; cf. Eduy. 5:3; Tosef., Yad 2:14). R. Akiva's defense of the work was most certainly based on the mystical allegorical interpretation, and it is significant that he had attained a certain fame as a mystic (Tosef., Hag. (ed. Lieberman), 2:3–4). According to another tradition the Song along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the other "Solomonic" works, though holy, had at first been kept out of the public curriculum (genuzim) but were made accessible to the public thanks to the exegesis of the men of the Great Assembly (adrn (ed. Schechter), 2; Zakovitch, 31).

The mystical emphasis was in time displaced by historical and eschatological allegories. The Targum interpreted the Song as an allegory of the history of Israel from the Exodus to the age of the Messiah and the building of the Third Temple. Allegory was an extension of a general interpretative tendency which sought to discover the supposed deeper meaning of the sacred texts with a consequent de-emphasis of the literal meaning. This permitted every generation to find consolation, solace, and hope appropriate to its own time and circumstances. Later Jewish exegetes such as Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Samuel b. Meir, and Abraham ibn Ezra found in the symbolism of the Song words of consolation and strength for their contemporaries. A particularly interesting interpretation advocated by a few medieval and later commentators was the view that the bride represented wisdom.

When the Christian Church included the Hebrew Bible as a part of its canon, the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs was taken over with it, but the allegory was modified so that it conformed to the doctrinal needs of the Church. The Song was now understood as a portrayal of the love of Christ for his church and as speaking of his dealings with it. Modern scholarship has largely abandoned the allegorical interpretation.

The Song as a Drama

The popularity in scholarly circles of the allegorical interpretation began to decline during the late 18th century, thereby giving rise to other interpretative views. An early contender was the view that the Song of Songs was best explained as a drama, complete with characters, a plot, and a moral to be drawn. The two-character version identified Solomon and the Shulammite of 7:1 as the leading dramatis personae. The king is attracted to the beautiful country girl, and he takes her from her rustic surroundings to his capital for his bride. Through a series of romantic interludes, however, she enables him to rise above mere sensual infatuation and attain a higher and nobler form of love. This version lacked drama and any convincing moral purpose; the three-character version, however, finds Solomon vying with a youthful shepherd for the love of the maiden. Despite the concerted efforts of the king to win her affections (which included carrying her off to his harem in Jerusalem), she adamantly rejects his amorous endeavors. Her constant longing for her shepherd lover ultimately dampens the king's ardor. In the end he graciously allows her to return to her home and a happy reunion with her true love. The obvious moral of virtue triumphant, unfortunately, de-means Solomon.

The conception of the Song as a drama was not a new invention of 18th-century scholars. As early as the third century c.e. the Christian scholar, Origen, had described the book as a nuptial poem in dramatic form, and two important manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, indicate in their margins the identity and order of speakers. The popularity of the theory could not be sustained, because of its inherent weaknesses. When approached without bias, the Song of Songs obviously lacks the elements of a drama. The identification of the speakers, stage directions, appropriate divisions into acts or scenes, a plot – all these must be imposed upon the text to sustain the dramatic theory. A further drawback to the theory is the figure of Solomon, for while he is made central in the drama he does not appear so in the text itself, and he is actually absent in the supposed climax (8:11ff.).

The Song as a Cultic Liturgy

Early in the 20th century a new theory was suggested in which the Song of Songs was understood as a Jewish liturgy which was derived ultimately from the pagan rituals of the Tammuz (Adonis) cult. This cult, mentioned specifically in the Bible only in Ezekiel 8:14 and alluded to elsewhere (some compare Isa. 17:10–11), reenacted annually the myth of Tammuz, the god of fertility. The lover of the Song is seen as the dying-rising god, and the maiden is the goddess who laments him until his return, whereupon a sacred marriage (see Klein) ensues. It is suggested that much of the poetic material in the Bible came from cultic backgrounds, and that the liturgy that underlies the Song of Songs came into Israelite traditions through the celebration of a ritual marriage at the annual New Year's festival. The old Tammuz liturgy was revised in order to make it acceptable to the monotheistic ideas of Israel, or the liturgy may simply have been reduced to folk poetry. Proponents of the theory call attention to the reading of the Song of Songs during Passover to bolster their case, but the practice was not regularly followed until the medieval period.

As intriguing as the theory appears at first glance, it cannot explain the wholly secular character of the existing Song. The Song may very well contain mythological allusions, but it is unlikely that these would have been known outside of a small circle of bookish savants.

The Literal Interpretations

Two interpretations of the Song of Songs existed in the first century c.e. – the allegorical and the literal. The rabbis suppressed the latter while the allegorical view in its manifold variations dominated the interpretation of the Song for centuries. The literal view was never completely suppressed, however, for the discussions on canonization were retained and transmitted through the Mishnah, and the natural view of the Song subtly surfaced in a later rabbinic discussion on the order in which Solomon wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. R. Jonathan argued on the basis of human behavior: "When a man is young, he sings songs. When he becomes an adult, he utters practical proverbs. When he becomes old, he speaks of the vanity of things" (Song R. 1:1, no. 10). The literal interpretation, however, was advocated only rarely until the late 18th century when J.G. Herder interpreted the book on the basis of the plain meaning of the words, understanding it as a collection of love songs.

A variation of the literal view was initiated when in 1873 J.G. Wetzstein drew attention to the wedding customs of the peasants of Syria. The bride and groom are treated as king and queen during a seven-day round of festivities which include songs sung by the guests, praising the physical beauty of both bride and groom, and a "sword dance" performed by the bride before the groom. In 1893 the proposal was advanced by K. Budde that the book is actually a collection of Palestinian wedding songs. This fascinating theory held the attention of scholars for a generation thereafter, but it left disturbing problems unresolved. Not all the songs could so easily be identified with nuptial ceremonies, nor even with marital love. The division of the Song into seven sections for the seven feast days proved unconvincing. It was also illusory to assume that marriage customs of modern Syrian peasants who are composed of mixed ethnic origins could be realistically projected back over two millennia and imposed on a Jewish milieu, particularly when it was uncertain that the Syrian wedding customs described in the theory actually obtained even in modern Palestine.

The predominant trend of modern scholarship is to take the Song of Songs literally, as a collection of lyric love songs. The anthology includes songs appropriate for use at wedding feasts and others that simply celebrate the joys of youthful love. The redeeming value of this view, if one is needed, is that love in all its manifestations is the work of the Creator who made all things and pronounced them good.

Authorship, Date, and Origin

Tradition ascribed the Song of Songs to Solomon, but Solomonic authorship has been rejected for the most part by modern scholars. The diverse poems and variety of poetic elements preclude, too, the unity which the traditional view assumes. The language of the book indicates a relatively late date. The shape of the verb, naṭar (Song 1:6, 8:11, 12) replacing earlier nāẓar, "guard," for example, shows that it was borrowed from Aramaic after the internal Aramaic sound shift from the phoneme preserved in Arabic as [ظ], to [ṭ] sometime in the seventh century b.c.e. The Persian loanword pardes, "orchard" (4:13) is well post-Solomonic as is the hapaxlegomenon egoz, "walnut" (6:11). The aperion, "palanquin," in 3:9 may be of Greek origin. There are sufficient archaic elements in the book (Albright), however, to suggest that some of the songs are pre-Exilic.

The mention of Tirzah in 6:4 has been used to support a date for 6:4–7 before Omri moved the capital of the Northern Kingdom to Samaria (c. 800 b.c.e.). The geographical horizons of the Song include North Israel, Syria, Transjordan, and Judah, with northern places predominant so that several of the songs may have originated in that area. The destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in 722 b.c.e. did not necessarily mean the loss of that literary heritage. Ample opportunity existed for the preservation in Judah of the literary and oral traditions of the north when the Kingdom of Judah stood alone. It may be assumed that older songs, carried into Exile with the people, were brought together with later compositions and were edited, probably during the fifth century b.c.e. Older parts of the Song may have undergone minor changes in vocabulary through the replacement of older words with those more familiar before a final editing.

The discovery since 1929 of the Ugaritic texts has provided an important new research tool for biblical scholars. Through comparative linguistic studies several grammatical and syntactical problems in the Song of Songs have been partially clarified, and a number of archaic features have been identified in its text (Avishur). The direct value of the Ugaritic texts for the study of the Song of Songs is limited, however, because no work of a comparable theme has yet been discovered at Ugarit.

[Keith N. Schoville /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

In the Liturgy

The Song of Songs is included in the liturgy of Passover. It is read on the Intermediate Sabbath where there is one; when the first day of Passover falls on Sabbath it is read in Israel on the first day and in the Diaspora on the eighth. Under kabbalistic influence it was instituted as a voluntary reading before the Friday evening service, being observed by Sephardi Jews, particularly during the Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuot.

In the Arts

Like the Book of Psalms, the Song of Songs has been a major influence in literature, art, and music – largely as a result of its mystical interpretation in Jewish and, even more, in Christian tradition. In early medieval times there were notable translations by Notker Labeo and Williram in Old High German; others appeared during the Renaissance era in various languages, including one in Spanish (c. 1561) by the New Christian humanist Luis de *León which may have been based on the original Hebrew; and, in more recent times, there were translations by Moses *Mendelssohn, *Goethe, and *Herder (in German), and by *Bossuet and *Renan (in French). In poetry, drama, and fiction the Song of Songs figures mainly in works of the 19th and 20th centuries. The French poet Victor Hugo, who first skirted the theme in his "Salomon" (La légende des siècles, 1877), developed it more fully in his "Cantique de Bethphagé," a poem contained in his posthumous collection, La Fin de Satan (1886). Treatments of the theme by Jewish writers include Heinrich *Heine's poem "Salomo" (in Roman-zero, 1851), inspired by Song 3:7ff.; Abraham *Goldfaden's Yiddish operetta, Shulamit (1880); Julius *Zeyer's Czech drama, Sulamit (1883); and Die Weisheit Salomos, a German drama by Paul *Heyse, which S.L. *Gordon published in Hebrew as Shulamit; o Ḥokhmat Shelomo (1896).

The Song of Songs has continued to appeal to many writers of the 20th century, as well. In Russia, for example, Alexander Ivanovich Kuprin published the romance, Sulamif (1908; Eng. trans. 1923); in Argentina, Arturo Capdevila was the author of La Sulamita (1916), a play about the Song of Songs; and the French dramatist Jean Giraudoux wrote Cantique des cantiques (1938). A number of modern Jewish authors have also turned to the subject, including the Russian Samuel *Marshak, whose poem on the theme dates from his early, pre-Soviet, "Jewish" period, and the Romanian poet Marcel Breslaşu (Cîntarea Cîntarilor, 1938).

In art the subject was chiefly popular in the Middle Ages, when it was given a symbolic interpretation. Thus, in Byzantine miniatures, illustrations to "Behold, it is the litter of Solomon; Threescore mighty men are about it, Of the Mighty men of Israel" (3:7) sometimes show Jesus in place of Solomon, the "mighty men" being depicted as angels with lances. The subject appears in 12th-century Byzantine miniatures such as the Homilies of the Monk James (Vatican Library, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) and in the 12th-century Hortus Deliciarum. The Shulamite or Beloved symbolized the Church (i.e., the bride of Jesus), and hence the virgin Mary (the Church is representative). In the Hortus Deliciarum the Beloved is shown as the virgin flanked by monks and laity with the daughters of Zion at her feet, and the Beloved is also shown as Mary in the 16th century Story of the Virgin tapestry in Rheims Cathedral. Figures of the madonna from medieval France and Spain sometimes have blackened heads. These "black madonnas" have been thought to derive from the description of the Beloved who is "black, but comely" (1:5). The metaphors for the Beloved, such as the "rose of Sharon" (2:1), the "garden shut up" (4:12) and the "fountain of gardens" (4:15) became attributes of the virgin.

Two representations of the 19th century are "The Shulamite," by the English painter Albert Joseph Moore (1841–1893; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), and "The Song of Solomon" (1868), a drawing by the English pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon *Solomon (1840–1905; Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin). Modern Jewish works include a series of paintings by Marc *Chagall, illuminations (1923) by Ze'ev Rabban (1890–1970), illustrations by the Israel artist Shraga Weill (1918), and engravings by the Canadian David Silverberg (1961).

In the music of the 15th, and more frequently of the 16th, century settings of the (Vulgate text of the) Song of Songs were generally composed for liturgical purposes, since the verses and sections form part of many Marian celebrations. Early examples are Quam pulchra es by John Dunstable and by King Henry viii of England. Sixteenth-century composers of motets and motet-cycles on the text include most of the great "Netherlanders" and their Italian successors. In the 17th century, the functions and forms of the settings became more diverse. Monteverdi's choral Nigra sum and Pulchra es were still in use as Marian praises, while his Ego flos campi and Ego dormio had already been composed as songs for alto voice and continuo. Among Schuetz's many settings in both Latin and German, Ich beschwoere euch (1641) is a dialogo approaching the dramatic form. The German Protestant settings were mostly intended as wedding songs; with the rise of Pietism they once more assumed a religio-allegorical function. Meine Freundin du bist schoen by Johann Christoph Bach, another wedding piece, practically concludes a period in the musical history of the Song of Songs. The 18th century did not favor the text, although one rare exception was William Boyce's Solomon, a Sereneta… taken from the Canticles (1743), with dialogues between "He" and "She," and choirs. In the 19th and 20th centuries the dramatic, or at least dialogic potential of the text again appealed to composers. The 19th-century works include Tota pulchra es by Bruckner; Chabrier's cantata, La Sulamite; Leopold *Damrosch's oratorio, Sulamith; and the oratorios titled Canticum canticorum by Enrico Bossi and Italo Montemezzi. Twentieth-century composers include Ralph Vaughan Williams (Flos campi, for viola solo, wordless voices, and small orchestra); Virgil Thompson (Five phrases from the Song of Solomon, for soprano and percussion); Jacobo Ficher (Sulamita, symphonic poem); Rudolf Wagner-Régeny (Schir haschirim, for choir; German text by Manfred Sturmann); Lukas *Foss (Song of Songs, for soprano and orchestra); Jean Martinon (Le Lis de Saron, oratorio); Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Cantique des cantiques, for soprano and 23 instruments); Arthur Honegger (Le Cantique des Cantiques, ballet); Natanaël Berg (Das Hohelied, for choir); and Mario *Castelnuovo-Tedesco (The Songs of Songs, scenic oratorio; also settings of "Set me as a seal upon thine heart," etc., for Reform Jewish wedding ceremonies).

Among settings by Israel composers the best known are the oratorio Shir ha-Shirim by Marc *Lavry, and the solo song Hinakh Yafah by Alexander Uriah *Boscovich (the latter based on the traditional Ashkenazi intonation of the text). Several choral settings have also been composed for the introductory parts of the Kibbutz *seder remonies, which traditionally open with the celebration of Spring. The folk-style settings of single verses and combinations of verses (often out of their original sequence) are especially numerous. Their role was particularly important in the formative years of the Israel folk-dance movement (during the late 1940s). The need for lyrical couple-dances – as against prevailing communal dances such as the *Horah and those derived from it and the "jolly" coupledances taken over from Europe – led to an ideological conflict which was resolved by basing the new, more tender dances on the "historical" precedent of the Song of Songs.

The Song scarcely appears in traditional Jewish folk music outside its liturgical function – no doubt because of the rabbinic prohibition against singing it "like a folksong" (Sanh. 101a; see The Five *Scrolls, musical rendition).

[Bathja Bayer]


R. Gordis, The Song of Songs (1954); M.H. Segal, in: vt, 9 (1959), 470–90; W.F. Albright, in: Festschrift… G.R. Driver (1963), 1–7; H.H. Rowley, in: The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament (1965), 197–245; E.M. Yamauchi, in: jbl, 84 (1965), 283–90; G.D. Cohen, in: The Samuel Friedland Lectures 196066 (1966), 1–21; R. Soulen, in: jbl, 86 (1967), 183–90; G. Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament (1968); K.N. Schoville, The Impact of the Ras Shamra Texts on the Study of the Song of Songs (Ph.D. dissertation, University Microfilms, 1970); C.D. Ginsburg, The Song of Songs (1857; 19702 with introd. by S.H. Blank). add. bibliography: N.H. Tur-Sinai, in: Ha-Lashon ve-ha-Sefer, vol. 2 (1959), 351–88; M. Held, in: jcs, 15 (1961), 1–26; J. Cooper, in: jbl, 90 (1970), 157–62; idem, in: I. Finkel and M.Geller (eds.), Sumerian Gods and their Representations (1997), 85–97; Y. Avishur, in: Beth Mikra, 19 (1974), 508–25; M. Pope, Song of Songs (ab; 1977); P. Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978); W. Hallo, in: L. Gorelick and E. Williams-Forte (1983), 7–17; idem, in: Bible Review, 1 (1985), 20–27; idem, in, janes, 22 (1993), 45–50; M.V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (1985); D. Pardee, in: J. Marks and M. Good (eds.), Love andDeath in the Ancient Near East Essays…Pope (1987), 65–69; C. Meyers, Discovering Eve (1991); Y. Zakovitch, Song of Songs (1992); J. Snaith, Song of Songs (1993); R. Weems, in: nib 5 (1997), 361–434; J. Klein, in: abd, 5:866–70; R. Murphy, in: abd, 6:15–55 (with bibliography); E. Matter, in: dbi, 2:492–96; D. Carr, in: jbl, 119 (2000), 233–48; T. Longman, Song of Songs (nicot; 2001); P. Dirksen, in: Biblia Hebraica Quinta, vol. 18 (critical edition; 2004).

Song of Songs

views updated May 21 2018


The Song of Songs, or Canticle of Canticles, is a canonical book of the OT. The title means "the greatest song," and the book is the first of the m e gillôt or "scrolls" used in the liturgy of the Synagogue. This article treats of its author, date, and canonicity; its literary structure; its content; and its interpretation.

Authorship. The authorship is unknown; the mention of Solomon in 3.7; 8.11 probably is a reason why this postexilic work was ascribed to him. Although some of the songs are doubtless pre-exilic (as suggested by the reference to Thersa, the early capital of the Northern Kingdom, in 6.4), the form of the language, as a whole, suggests a late date. Early Jewish tradition indicates that there was some opposition before the first Christian century to its inclusion in the canon [see W. Rudolph, Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 18 (194243) 189199]. Among Christians, Theodore of Mopsuestia is alleged to have opposed the work; but the condemnation of Theodore at Chalcedon V in 553 is aimed at his views concerning the inspired character of the book, not at the so-called naturalistic interpretation attributed to him [see R. E. Murphy, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 15 (1953) 502503; A. Brunet, Études et Recherches 9 (Ottawa 1955) 155170]

Literary Structure. Although there are refrains in the work (2.7; 3.5; 8.4; etc.), there has been no general agreement on the division into poetic units. A. Bea finds seven; the CCD has 24 subheadings. As the book now stands, several songs have been combined into a loose unity. Some scholars (e.g., F. Delitzsch) have interpreted it as a drama, with two leading characters, Solomon and the Sulamite girl (cf. Ct. 7.1). Others (e.g, H. Ewald; W. Pouget-J. Guitton) have recognized three characters: the girl, her rustic lover, and Solomon, whose blandishments the girl resists. But the dramatic interpretation has not been able to overcome its own subjective and arbitrary explanations. There is no example of any drama in all of ancient Semitic literature, and in this book any conflict between the alleged suitors necessary for true drama seems to be absent. The truth in this view is that the Song is in a certain sense dramatic, since it is a dialogue, as the ancients recognized and as the Hebrew text itself makes clear; hence, modern translations (e.g., CCD) supply marginal rubrics to indicate the speakers.

Contents. As a collection of love lyrics, this book is not easy to summarize. The poems follow no logical sequence; rather, they express the various moods of love: the joy of union, the pain of separation. There are protestations of love and fidelity, reminiscences of courtship, descriptions of each other's beauty. The mood of mutual love is sustained throughout, but a high-point is reached in 8.67, "Set me as a seal on your heart ." The imagery is spontaneous and varied: gazelles and hinds, pomegranates and mandrakes, myrrh and spices, vineyards and wine. The rich use of geographical references suggests the disparate origins of the lyrics: Cedar, Engaddi, Lebanon, etc.

Interpretation. If identifying the literary structure is difficult, the interpretation of the meaning is more so. Both Christian and Jewish interpretations have agreed on a religious meaning: this book describes the love of Yahweh and Israel (or Christ and the Church) in terms of human marriage, thus continuing the theme inaugurated by Hosea (ch. 13) and echoed in many later prophets (Is1.2122; 62.5; Jer 3.110; Ez ch. 16, 23).

As Parable or Allegory. In detail, this interpretation is worked out as a parable, or as an allegory. The parabolic view is presented by D. Buzy, who claims that the work as a whole deals with the covenant relationship under the guise of human marriage. One should not press the details here; they serve to create the marriage atmosphere and to carry on the theme. Others argue that the Song is an allegory; the details have each a transferred meaning, referring to various aspects of Yahweh's dealings with Israel. This approach was first given a strong philological and exegetical basis by P. Joüon, and it has been supported by the method of style anthologique, applied by A. Robert. The "anthological style" refers to the Biblical practice (e.g., in Prv ch. 19, Sir, Wis) of composing a work in phrases and diction borrowed from earlier Biblical works; presumably the allusions to the previous books betray the intention of the writer of this book.

As Cultic Songs. Another interpretation, by such scholars as T. Meek, M. Haller, H. Ringgren, H. Schmökel, finds in this book cultic songs of the pagan myth of Tammuz and Ishtar. Presumably these could have been sung in the temple (e.g., during the reign of Manasseh) and might later have entered the Passover liturgy. But the contacts that are pointed out between the Song and the myth are not sufficient to establish this interpretation. Nor can one easily imagine that Israel would have glossed over such origins in eventually accepting the poems into the canon. Any similarity is more easily explained by the influence that popular beliefs might have had on the love poetry and the wedding imagery of the Israelites themselves.

As Extolling Human Love. In recent times several Catholic scholars have criticized both the allegorical and parabolic approach. The principal reason for this criticism is that the obvious meaning of the Song is human love. When human love is used in the prophetical writing as referring to Yahweh and Israel, the explanation of the symbolism is always given. Hence we may not presume that the intent of this book goes beyond the obvious and direct meaning. The use made by the prophets is usually in terms of Israel as the adulterous spouse (Hos 2.1822; Is 62.5; etc. are clear exceptions), but the Song presents a picture of idyllic love. The elaborate use of anthological style by A. Robert and A. Feuillet has not convinced many, especially for the reason that there is no indication in the Song of alleged mercy toward an unfaithful spouse.

There is a strong trend among recent Catholic scholars to agree with many of their Protestant colleagues (H.H. Rowley, W. Rudolph, etc.) that the literal sense of this book is the extolling of love and fidelity between man and woman; so say J. P. Audet, A. Dubarle (at the Louvain journées bibliques of 1963), M. van den Oudenrijn, and others. Comparison of this book with the love poems of the ancient Near East, especially Egypt, shows a common atmosphere and similarity of theme. The Song would be the "voice of the bridegroom" and the "voice of the bride" mentioned in Jer 7.34 (Audet). Such praise of love is entirely consonant with inspiration, since God himself is the author of that love (Gn 1.27).

In line with this deeper understanding of love, these scholars also allow that a higher sense, fuller or typical, can be found here. Human love is a participation in divine love, to which it is oriented; the family reflects the people of God. Here exegesis would join the age-old interpretation that sees in the Song the description of the love between God and his People. Christian tradition has developed this theme, already found in the NT (Eph5.2325, marriage compared to the relationship between Christ and his Church). The famous medieval writers, such as St. Bernard, and the mystical writers, such as St. John of the Cross, have exploited the richness of this interpretation.

Bibliography: For surveys, see r. e. murphy, "Recent Literature on the Canticle," The Catholic Biblica Quarterly 16 (1954) 111. h. h. rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament (London 1952). A complete and up-to-date bibliography is to be found in the two recent commentaries: a. robert et al., eds. and trs., Le Cantique des cantiques (Études bibliques; Paris 1963) 2939 and g. gerleman, Ruth, Das Hohelied (Biblischer Kommentar: Altes Testament 18.2; Neukirchen 1963) 8592. d. buzy, ed. and tr., Le Cantique des Cantiques (Paris 1950). t. meek, The Song of Songs, The Interpreters' Bible, ed. g. a. buttrick et al. (New York 195157) 5:91148. w. rudolph, Das Buch Ruth, Das Hohe Lied, Die Klagelieder (Kommentar zum Alten Testament 17:13; Gütersloh 1962). For comparisons with ancient Near Eastern literatures, cf. the excursus in the volume by Robert, et al. 339421. A history of interpretation is to be found in f. ohly, Hohelied-Studien (Wiesbaden 1958). Two important articles are: a.m. dubarle, "L'Amour humain dans le Cantique des cantiques," Revue biblique 61 (1954) 6786. j. p. audet, "Le Sens du Cantique des cantiques," Revue biblique 62 (1955) 197221.

[r. e. murphy]

Song of Songs

views updated May 23 2018

Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is one of the books of the Hebrew Bible of the third class, denominated hagiography, or kathūbhím. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, and in the Latin Vulgate, it is titled Canticum Canticorum. The title of this erotic composition means literally Canticle of Canticles, a superlative form (in Hebrew Šír haš-Širím), traditionally attributed to King Solomon in the tenth century bce, although early twenty-first-century scholarship considers it the composition of an unknown poet (circa sixth to fourth centuries bce) writing in a style used at the time of Solomon.


The controversy centers on whether or not this poetic dialogue of love between a man and a woman, with the presence of a chorus, is to be read strictly allegorically without regard for its literal meaning, or also literally. Traditionally the Hebrew Talmudic and Catholic exegeses have read it as a sacred text allegorically celebrating the union or marriage of love between God and Israel, the bridegroom and the bride, respectively. Hebrew Prophets such as Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah have expressed God's love toward Israel as a binding love or a marriage. Consequently the Christian tradition transformed it into a union between Christ and the Church, or the union of Christ and the soul, or the Virgin Mary and the human soul. The metaphor was used by Christian authors such as Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), who employs it in La Divina Commedia (1307–1321) and extends it to the union of Saint Francis and Lady Poverty as lovers in the final part of that work, the Paradiso. The Songs of Songs is an erotically charged lyric composition that, though rather brief, has elicited an extraordinary amount of commentary throughout the centuries.

Jewish sage and rabbi Akiba ben Joseph (c. 50–c. 132) defined it "as the most holy of the Kethubhim": "The entire world is unworthy of the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the scripture is Holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies" (quoted in Bloom 1988, p. 1). Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) found in it the loftiest of mystical elevations. Since the twentieth century, and especially in contemporary feminist scholarship, the literal erotic and naturalistic interpretation has been widely accepted. Song of Songs, in this view, is in fact an erotic poem manifesting sensuous love between two lovers in which the woman's voice is strong, sensual, independent, and assertive. It is the voice of the Shulamite woman that resounds in the expression of lust and sensuous desire whose fulfillment she shares with her companion. The woman is not unlike the Queen of Sheba (1075–955 bce), who was united in love with King Solomon.

The feminist scholar Phyllis Trible, in her essay "Love Lyrics Redeemed," sees the lyrics as uttered from "lover to lover with whispers of intimacy, shouts of ecstasy and silences of consummation" (Bloom 1988). She connects the exchange between the lovers to the creation of sexuality in the biblical Book of Genesis, a sexuality that was denied in the traditional exegesis and turned into sin and transgression. As Ariel and Chana Bloch observe, "Never is this woman called a wife, nor is she required to bear children. In fact to the issues of marriage and procreation the Song of Songs does not speak. Love for the sake of Love is the message and the portrayal of the female delineates this message best" (Hirschfield 1995, p. 66).

This orientation is reflected in translations informed by feminist scholarship, as in this passage translated by Chana and Ariel Bloch:

  Come, my beloved,
  Let us go into the fields
  And sleep all night among the flowering henna….
  There I will give you my love.
  The air is filled with the scent of mandrakes
  And at our doors
  Rich gifts of every kind, New and old, my love,
  I have hidden away for you.
                      (Song 7:12-14, Hirshfield 1995)


For Marcia Falks, Song of Songs has in it elements of the Arabic Wasfs, which are "poetic fragments that describe through a series of images the parts of the male and female body" (Bloom 1988, p. 67). Indeed this technique is enhanced by the dialogue format which led some to believe that it is a dramatic representation. Jesuit priest Andres Pinto Ramirez (1595–1650), writing in 1642, believed that the text was represented in dramatic form at the time of Solomon. Protestant theorists (e.g., Fredrick Heinrich Jacobi [1743–1819]) also believed that the text was a drama. Others maintain that there are two characters involved, the Shulamite shepherdess who enters the harem of Solomon and the shepherd who is Solomon himself, or that there are three protagonists: the Shulamite, the shepherd who is in love with her, and Solomon who wants to conquer the woman. As the religion scholar W. E. Phipps states, the simplest explanation is that the poem represents "lyrics principally used for wedding celebrations in lovely outdoors settings," part of the Hebrew religious traditions allowing "sensuousness in male female relationships"(Bloom 1988, p. 7).

Rabbi Akiba had in fact affirmed that this is not a vulgar song but a nuptial song meant to sanctify marriage, the tradition of the kiddushim ("sanctification"). In rabbinic tradition, therefore, it was most natural to allegorize the Song of Songs as the union or marriage of Yahveh and the nation of Israel, the groom and the bride. One can understand how Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) wrote eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs in order to obliterate any literal interpretation, due in part to his contempt for sexuality and women. Christian commentators, such as Abelard (1079–c. 1144), who may have read the Song of Songs as an expression of natural sexual urges, which were sanctified when man and woman were put together in the Garden of Eden, were declared heretics. The Catholic interpretation remained faithful to the exegesis of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), who called it "the bridal union of the Church with Christ her spouse." The Protestant interpretation, starting with the German Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483–1546), adhered to the allegorical reading as suggested by the King James version of the Bible. The Swiss theologian and reformer John Calvin, however, believed in a literal interpretation. The New English Bible (1976), sanctioned by the Catholic Churches of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, does recognize primarily its literal lyrical meaning:

Unique in the Bible, this collection of songs sensitively touches several major chords in the love life of a young man and a maiden. It is an anthology which plays on a wide range of themes: love's awakening, the description of the beloved, the enticement, the surrender of the embrace, the pain of separation, the joy of coming together again, the wedding ceremony…. In its own way, the book extols the virtues of deep rather than transient love…. [T]he positioning of the various songs creates a definite dramatic effect.

                      (Sandmel 1976, p. 717)

Indeed many poets have been influenced by these love lyrics, from the English Edmund Spenser in the sixteenth century to the German Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the Senegalese Léopold Senghor in the twentieth century. Feminist scholars have raised the consciousness of contemporary readers by reclaiming the poem's original meaning and the strong active voice of the woman addressing her beloved, eliminating the millenarian male religious attempt to frame the poem as an expression of evil and sin and to suppress its tender and naturally sensuous expression of deep human love.

see also Bible, Old Testament or Tanakh; Gender, Theories of; Literature: I. Overview; Love Poetry; Love, Devotional and Erotic.


Bloom, Harold, ed. 1988. The Song of Songs. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Dove, Mary, trans. 2004. The Glossa Ordinaria on the Song of Songs. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

Hirshfield, Jane, ed. 1995. Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women. New York: Harper Perennial. Song of Songs, trans. Ariel and Chana Bloch, pp. 22-27.

Sandmel, Samuel, ed. 1976. The New English Bible, with the Apocrypha. Oxford Study edition. New York: Oxford University Press. The Song of Songs, pp. 717-723.

                                            Giuseppe Di Scipio

Song of Songs

views updated Jun 08 2018

Song of Songs. One of the five scrolls of the Hebrew scriptures. In the hagiographa (Writings), it follows Job and precedes Ruth. Song of Songs consists of a series of love songs of an entirely secular nature. It has, however, been interpreted as an allegory of the love of God for his people, either the Israelites or the Christian soul.