The Song of Solomon

Michael D. Coogan

in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version

Published in print February 2007 | ISBN: 9780195288803
Published online April 2009 |
The Song of Solomon

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The Song of Solomon, also known as “Song of Songs” and “Canticles,” is a sequence of lyric poems celebrating human love. The poetry is graceful, sensuous, and replete with erotic imagery and allusions. It is unclear whether the composition should be read as a single, unified poem or as a collection of several shorter pieces written in a common style and idiom. Nevertheless, the sequence is coherent and exhibits a lyrical structure that derives its unity from repetitions and juxtapositions rather than from narrative devices such as plot or character development. The poem features the voices of two lovers, one male and one female, and their professions of love for one another. At times the two voices join in dialogue (e.g., 1.9–2.7; 4.1–5.1 ), but at others they speak separately, addressing each other or the woman's companions, the “daughters of Jerusalem” ( 3.1–5,6–11; 7.1–9 ).

Given its style and theme, it is not surprising that there are no specific allusions that would tie it to a specific historical setting. Although the superscription in 1.1 associates the poem with Solomon, king of Israel (968–928 bce), he is not the author. The nature of the Hebrew used in the songs, with its Aramaisms and possibly even Persian and Greek loan words, suggests a postexilic date (perhaps sometime in the fourth or third centuries bce). The connection with Solomon may stem from his reputation as a composer of songs (1 Kings 4.32 ), and also perhaps from the account of his large harem (1 Kings 11.1–3 ).

Despite its relatively late date, the Song of Songs is part of an ancient tradition of Near Eastern love poetry. Some of the images and motifs echo those of Mesopotamian sacred marriage poems from the late third and early second millennia bce. A closer parallel, however, is Egyptian love songs from the thirteenth and twelfth centuries bce. These highly erotic compositions use many of the same genres found in the Song of Solomon: poems describing the lover's physical attractions, poems of yearning, poems of admiration and boasting. Also common to both is the use of sensuous imagery involving sight, touch, hearing, and the smell of aromatic fragrances. The Egyptian poems were likely sung at banquets by professional male and female entertainers, and it is possible that the same holds true for the Song of Songs. Although he disapproved of the practice, Rabbi Akiba (d. 135 ce) attests that the Song of Songs was sung in banquet halls (Tos. Sanh. 12.10 ). By Akiba's time the Song had already come to be interpreted as a sacred text; hence its continuing profane use was disturbing. At roughly the same time Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel associated the Song of Songs with harvest festivals in which the young women of Jerusalem would go out to dance and sing in the vineyards, appealing to the young men to notice them as potential brides (m. Ta‘anit 4.8 ).

Perhaps before the turn of the Common Era, the Song of Songs began to be interpreted symbolically as an account of the love between God and Israel. This interpretation is reflected both in the Targum (Aramaic translation) and in Midrash Rabbah, an early commentary. In the Jewish liturgy Song of Songs is read during the celebration of Passover. The traditional symbolic understanding remained dominant in Jewish interpretation until the modern period; a return to a literal understanding is perhaps first reflected in the translation of the Song by Moses Mendelssohn in 1788. Christian tradition also developed a symbolic or allegorical interpretation, reading the Song as an account of Christ's love for the church and later as an expression of the soul's spiritual union with God. Over the centuries many commentators and homilists, such as Origen (third century ce), Bernard of Clairvaux (twelfth century), and John of the Cross (sixteenth century), developed this allegorical interpretation. Even among the Protestant reformers some form of allegorical interpretation remained dominant until the rise of historical criticism in the eighteenth century.

Chapter.  3227 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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