The Song of Songs, and its place in the Bible

Sex and the Single Girl

This article began with the editor asking why is a sexually explicit, blatantly erotic poem included in Jewish and Christian scripture, and asking me to make a written response (for the Books of the Bible series). No-one really knows how it came to be there; but although its place has sometimes been contentious it has never been seriously challenged. Its popularity is reinforced by being one of the Five Scrolls - shorter Biblical books - read in association with Jewish holy days: Passover in this case. At this point you should probably read the Song of Songs - often called Song of Solomon in the English Bible - if you are not familiar with it.

Title and Date

It is clear from 1:1 that the name of the work is the Song of Songs (the superlative song, the song to end all songs), the attribution, if that is what it is, to Solomon and mention of him in other places in the book probably helped its acceptance as scripture; more on this later. However, although some parts of the song may go back to Solomon’s time the final composition dates on linguistic grounds to some time in the post exilic period - fifth or fourth century BC.

Content and Style

This is announced in chapter 1, verse 2; frankly and openly erotic, secular, heterosexual love lyrics celebrating passionate, physical sexual relationships, delivered in the first person by young unmarried lovers - it is probably mistaken to see these as wedding songs - with occasional choruses. The dominant voice is a woman’s; the Song is the only Biblical work for which a really strong case for female authorship can be put. Throughout the Song, nothing is said about religious or moral values; and God, with the marginal exception of 8:6 does not appear.

All in all the style is lyric rather than epic, light hearted rather than high minded, but serious in purpose without being solemn in tone. If the imagery in chapter 7 for example strikes us as gross, we need to interpret the rather concise translations of the Hebrew more expansively. So in 4:1 we should probably understand ‘your eyes send glances like messages of love, y our hair ripples like the flocks moving down Mount Gilead’. More explicitly her breasts tremble like fawns but also are scented like myrrh and frankincense (4:5,6) which is probably the sense implied in 8:14. More explicit still is the connotation of the woman’s sexual parts under the images of the garden (4:12,15,16; 6:2,3)and the door latch (5:4 ). I do not want to press this too far, the inexact nature of the writing flowing between dream and waking, fantasizing and reflection is what provides the sensuousness which makes the Song so attractive. In the same way the interplay of voices keeps the lyrical writing from being pressed into a narrative straightjacket.

What we seem to have in the Song is a collection, or anthology, of Hebrew love poetry worked together by one, most probably female, mind into a sensuous, timeless cycle. The thread of girl yearns for boy; girl finds boy; loses and finds again apparently more than once, is frustrated by the guardians of convention, and probably consummates the relationship, is only sketched in between extravagant praise songs of the beauty of the beloved. The natural ending seems to be a song in praise of love (8:6-7) but, by continuing, the author leaves things open ended and the cycle can continue endlessly.

How should we receive the Song?

Our first response is probably gratitude that by whatever means, the explicitly erotic has found an accepted place in scripture, in a similar way to the worldly scepticism of Ecclesiastes. But this does not fully respond to our editor’s initial question.

One of the reasons for acceptance of the Song in scripture is that from earliest times it was interpreted in an allegorical manner. The literal meaning was known and understood but presumed to hide a more profound reflection on divine love. This kind of interpretation, with the lovers becoming the types of God and his people, began with the Aramaic version and continued with the great mediaeval Jewish commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra. In the Christian tradition, such as the twelve volumes of commentary by Origen (3rd century) much of which survives, the Song was interpreted as about the relations of God with the Church, or the individual soul. In the Middle Ages it was more commented upon than any other book. St. Bernard (1090-1153) took fifteen years and over 86 sermons on the Song, and reached only chapter 2. The climax of the allegorical method comes in the Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross (1542-91), a reflective poem using the imagery of the Song. These works have a value as works of spirituality independent of their modern limitations as commentary.

A fruitful approach to the Song is suggested by its position in the English Bibles, and by the references to Solomon noted above. In Proverbs 30:18-19 the ways of love are considered an appropriate, if difficult, study for the wise. So the song may be an example of the Bible’s wisdom literature. As Ecclesiastes seeks to comprehend how life is, in a puzzling and often hostile world, so the author of the Song seeks to plumb the heights and depths of love using the love lyric as a guide. Like Ecclesiastes, the Song is subversive. The predominance of feminine voices and viewpoints is not what one expects in the Bible, and extends to the social order; mother’s house (3:4 & 8:2) rather than the (usual) father’s house. Armed with and impelled by love the woman can defy social authority, represented by the watchmen, family values (the brothers) peer group scepticism (the daughters of Jerusalem), and the prejudices of fashion (1:5-6). In a renewed pastoral landscape the consequences of human desire in the garden of Eden can be reversed through the lovers’ mutual satisfaction of erotic desire.

There is a place here for the older allegorical understanding. In 8:6 the ‘vehement flame’ (RSV) of jealousy could be translated as ‘the flame of God’ or ‘divine flame’. Thus the story teaches that as human jealousy is as fierce as divine jealousy, so human love is as passionately consuming and empowering as the divine.

Clarence Rickards
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 9th March 2003