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Song of Solomon
SONG OF SOLOMON (שִׁ֥יר הַשִּׁירִ֖ים). This book is the first of the five Megilloth or Rolls which were read at Jewish feasts. It is generally known as the “ ” from the superlative form sîr hassîrîm in 1:1, which denotes the best or most excellent of songs. In Jewish religious tradition the Song was read at the feast of the Passover. In the Vul. the work was entitled Canticum Canticorum, hence the alternative title of Canticles.
Those who have followed the traditional attribution of the book to Solomon have seen the early monarchy as the background against which the work was composed. The pastoral qualities of the poetic imagery suggest a lengthy interlude of peace in the land during which the sedentary ideals of the Israelites were being realized, and this situation would accord with the “golden age” of David and Solomon very well. The Song contains numerous references to animals and exotic plants, and in view of the tradition which associated botanical lore with Solomon it has been thought that if the work is a genuine Solomonic product it would again point to the early monarchy as the period from which it emerged. The various geographical allusions in the book seem to indicate a phase of Heb. history in which the kingdom had not yet been divided. Canticles speaks of such northern locations as Lebanon (Song of Solomon;
Those critics who have assigned one or two of the poems in Canticles to Solomon have accordingly placed certain sections of the book within his reign (970-930 b.c.). As far as the other sections are concerned, some have been assigned to a northern Israelite origin prior to the fall of Samaria in 722 b.c., while others are thought to have originated in the 5th cent. b.c. As has been shown above, there is no single demonstrable element in Canticles which demands a date after the Solomonic period. The mention of Tirzah (
The extant work seems to have formed, or to have been based upon, a collection of rustic love poems of somewhat uncertain provenance. Although this is the most probable explanation of the general origin of Canticles, the book bears recognizable indications of a unity of style and general theme. The repetitions in the work would seem to point to the activities of a single compiler, since they serve to bring about a more marked sense of unity of theme than might be expected from an anthology of lyrics issuing from diverse authors over a fairly lengthy period of time. In view of what appears to be a genuine overall unity of emphasis, namely that of the richness of human love in its variant modes, it would seem that the attempts of those scholars who have fragmentized the book into something like thirty poems are hardly consonant with the emphasis and character of the finished product.
Place of origin.
If the work is to be assigned to the general period of Solomon, as those who support the traditional view have maintained, the book was prob. compiled in Jerusalem at the royal court. The prowess of Solomon as a lyricist is made plain in
Any estimate concerning the situation or persons for whom Canticles was written will depend largely on the way in which the material is to be interpreted. In overall terms the work does not seem to have been meant for any people other than the Israelites. If the poems were the work of Solomon they would certainly have been intended for a local audience, and the same would be true if the lyrics originated in connection with Israelite wedding ceremonies. If the poems are compositions which simply extol human love in its various facets, it seems unlikely that they were intended for use outside Israel. In later Arab. times erotic poems known as wasfs were recited in the presence of the bride and groom just before the wedding ceremonies, and it has been supposed that at least some portions of Canticles fulfilled this function in Israel. While a local destination may have been intended in the composition of Canticles, the fact remains that many of the poems in the book do not lend themselves readily to recitation at wedding ceremonies. Although some might correspond to the type of wasfs used by the modern Arabs during the period of courtship, it is unwise to rely too heavily upon late Arab. practices as a means of arriving at conclusions concerning the literary genre or destination of the book.
Precisely what stimulated the composition of Canticles is unknown. If it is merely an anthology of love lyrics of general Solomonic provenance, it could well have arisen in connection with one or more of that monarch’s numerous marriages. If the book represented a less purposeful collection of nuptial songs current in various parts of the kingdom, the occasion need only comprise the stimulus experienced by an unknown ed. to preserve such love lyrics for posterity. The general unity of the theme and form which Canticles exhibits makes it appear probable that some specific occasion underlay the compilation of the work. Estimates as to the nature of this will naturally vary with the date assigned to the extant book, while those scholars who deny the basic unity of authorship of Canticles will be compelled increasingly to look for separate occasions for which the component parts might have been compiled. The very subjectivity of such a process will inevitably leave much to be desired in the conclusions.
Many expositors have found some difficulty in justifying the inclusion of Canticles in the corpus of Heb. Scripture, partly because of its general eroticism. However, the book is actually an extended mashal or proverb which illustrates the richness and beauty of human love, and as such it stands firmly within the gnomic tradition of the Heb. Wisdom lit. Although some of the language and imagery may be unacceptable to western tastes, it must be remembered that the material originated in the Orient, where very different attitudes frequently obtain. The theme of the book is firmly rooted in the beauties of nature, from which it passes into a symbolic representation of the object of desire. The traditions of love to which appeal is made are those of the upper classes, who alone would be able to afford the exotic, expensive substances mentioned in the poems. The outlook of author and reader alike was not inhibited by an attitude toward sexual relationships which regarded them as at best embarrassing, and at worst thoroughly evil, so that there was no difficulty in describing the various aspects of human love in a way which would meet with a sympathetic understanding. The book steers a course between sexual perversion or excess, on the one hand, and a rigid, ascetic denial of normal bodily and emotional needs on the other. It also provides an object lesson in close personal relationships which is badly needed in the western world by showing that spirituality is not inconsistent with spontaneity and a lack of selfconsciousness during moments of greatest physical intimacy. Not merely does the Song of Solomon speak of the purity which can characterize human love, but by its very inclusion in the Heb. Scriptures reminds one, as E. J. Young pointed out, of a love which is purer than our own.
From rabbinic sources it is evident that Canticles did not gain either an immediate or a ready acceptance into the Heb. canon of Scripture. The Talmudic authorities (Bab. Bath. 15a) went so far as to assign its composition to Hezekiah and his company of scribes, an opinion which may have been based on the activities of this group in connection with the editing of other apparently Solomonic material (cf.
Content and outline.
a. The bride expresses her longing for the bridegroom and sings his praises (
b. As their affection for one another deepens, the bride heaps further praise on her beloved, using exquisite figures from nature (
c. This passage contains the praises of King Solomon, the praise of the bride, and the espousal (
d. The bridegroom is absent for a time, during which the bride longs for his return and continues to praise him (
e. A series of descriptive passages narrating the beauty of the bride (
f. A concluding section dealing with the durability of true love (
The cultic interpretation has been favored by some scholars in the light of those Near Eastern liturgies which commemorated the death and resurrection of a god. According to this view, the lover of Canticles was the dying and rising god, while the beloved was either his sister or his mother, who lamented his decease and went about searching frantically for his remains. Such Near Eastern mythical pairs familiar to the Israelites were the Canaanite Baal and Anat, the Babylonian Tammuz and Ishtar, and the Egyp. Isis and Osiris. According to this interpretation the pagan liturgy was accommodated by the Israelites to the spring and autumn festivals as part of the New Year cultic observances. Adherents of this view adduced as external evidence the fact that Canticles was read liturgically at the Passover festival in the medieval period, and pointed to a reference in the Mishnah (Ta’anith iv, 8) which spoke of the maidens of Jerusalem dancing and singing at a festival in the vineyards on the 15th day of Ab and following the. Internal evidence for the theory was seen in the male and female figures which dominated the narrative, the vanishing lover and the bride searching in anguish, the exotic imagery, and the references to rare plants and spices, all of which were held to characterize the Tammuz liturgies. Attractive as this theory may appear, it raises great difficulties in the way of acceptance. Four other canonical compositions, none of which has the slightest claim to a purely cultic origin, were also read at festive occasions. Furthermore, Canticles contains no specifically liturgical terms, and there can be no doubt that had it constituted a modified form of pagan mythology it would never have been admitted into the Heb. canon. In addition, while there may well have been harvest festivals in Israel, as elsewhere in the ancient Near E, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that rituals connected with the death and resurrection of a god were ever a part of such celebrations. It can only be concluded that the cultic approach to the meaning of Canticles places a forced interpretation upon the narratives as a whole.
The dramatic understanding of the Song of Solomon arose when interest in the allegorical approach began to decline at the beginning of the 19th cent. In its earliest form, however, it went back to Origen, and it also found expression in the thought of Milton. As developed from 1800, it assumed two principal forms. One of these, expounded by F. Delitzsch, saw in Canticles two main characters: Solomon and a country maiden described as the Shulammite (
The fourth principal approach to the understanding of Canticles, the lyrical, was one which tended to take the narratives at something like face value and assign the simplest form of interpretation to them. Accordingly, those who hold to this view recognize in Canticles the presence of a collection of love lyrics or songs which had no necessary connection either with wedding festivities or other specific occasions. Nor were they to be regarded either as celebrating in terms of the malefemale relationship the higher values of divine love, or as having emerged from a pagan cultic background in which the death and resurrection of some deity was being commemorated. Some adherents of this school of thought have associated the love poems in a rather general manner with the Solomonic tradition (cf.
There is another approach to the interpretation of the Song of Songs which is closely related to the allegorical method, and one which has been favored by certain conservative scholars. This is known as the typical interpretation, and possesses the undoubted advantage of preserving the obvious sense of the poems while at the same time discerning a more elevated and spiritual meaning in contrast to the purely sensuous or erotic. The typical method manages to avoid the excesses which have so often arisen in the more detailed examples of interpretation as provided by the allegorical school, and in stressing the themes of love and devotion which are so evident in Canticles it expounds the story in terms of the relationship of love existing between Christ and His faithful followers. This approach has been justified on the ground that many of the Arab. love poems have esoteric meanings, and also by an appeal to the Biblical analogies of human marriage (
Canticles stands virtually alone in the Heb. Canon in that it contains no explicit theology. Those who argue for the origin of the material in terms of a number of folk lyrics see this as being entirely consistent with the absence of a settled situation in life. The theological position of the composition must therefore be ascertained inferentially, and on such a basis there can be no doubt that Canticles firmly enshrines the Heb. religious tradition of monotheism. In this celebration of the joys of human love there are no traces whatever of the magical influences or the polytheistic beliefs which are to be found in parallel material from ancient Egypt. Although Canticles supplies very little actual information about Heb. marriage institutions, it seems to be grounded in a basic ethos of monogamy, a situation which has not gone unnoticed by those who have argued against Solomonic authorship. Although the poetic images are almost completely alien to modern tastes, the composition is never lewd or obscene, even by the standards of western civilization. In fact, Canticles reflects the traditional canons of sexual morality contained in the Mosaic law, and never countenances anything which could be described on such a basis as immorality. It reflects the traditions of
C. D. Ginsburg, The Song of Songs (1857); W. H. Schoff (ed.), The Song of Songs: A Symposium (1924); L. Waterman, The Song of Songs (1948); W. Pouget and J. Guitton, Canticle of Canticles (1948); D. Buzy, Le Cantique des Cantiques (1949); H. H. Rowley, Theand Other Essays (1952), 189-234; R. Gordis, The Song of Songs (1954); T. J. Meek, IB, V (1956), 91-148; H. Ringgren, Das Hohe Lied (1958); R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the (1969), 1049-1058.