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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Contents and Set of Characters.


In attempting to divide the Song into individual songs, let us remember that boundaries between individual pieces are fluid and also blurred; and that many passages have been artfully organized, so that they run into each other and form larger sequences. The following, therefore, is a feasible division only: other divisions are conceivable. The songs will be labelled ‘female’ or ‘male’ if the speaker is clearly one or the other. ‘Dialogue’ is between female and male lovers unless otherwise indicated.

( 1:1 )


( 1:2–6 )

Two female songs (see above).

( 1:7–8 )

Dialogue: female searches for male, he teases.

( 1:9–17 )

Male praises female; dialogue; seem to be meeting in the open air.

( 2:1–3 )

Dialogue, in the open air.

( 2:4–17 )

Several female poems, ‘reciting’ embedded male voices. Main imagery is again of flora and fauna. Includes the first appeal for help to the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’, for the speaker is lovesick.

( 3:1–5 )

A tightly constructed female song: she looks for her lover in the city streets, at night (or in a dream), is not helped by the city guards but manages to find him and bring him to her ‘mother's house’. Second appeal to the ‘daughters’.

( 3:6–11 )

One or two poems describing King Solomon's train, and bed or palanquin, coming out of the desert surrounded by his mighty men; and his wedding, at which his mother is present but not his father. The speaker's gender is unclear.

( 4:1–7 )

(cf. 6:3b–7 ); a male's wasf (see SONG E.I) describing his female lover from head to breasts. Imagery mainly of flora and fauna, also of fortifications and military weapons.

( 4:8–5:1 )

A dialogue, the ‘seduction and consummation’ scene (see SONG C.3). Male seduces female, with extravagant images of food and aromatic herbs and flowers; she consents; the male closure ( 5:1 ) and the call to eat and drink imply consummation.

( 5:2–9 )

(cf. 3:1–5 ); female refuses to welcome male into her room at night (in reality or a dream); when she changes her mind he disappears. She looks for him in the city and the guards beat her up. She appeals to the daughters of Jerusalem to help her lovesick condition.

( 5:9–6:2 )

The daughters want to know what the male lover looks like. A female lover describes him in a wasf, from head to toe. The imagery is of fauna and flora for the head; minerals, metals and precious stones for the rest of his body. The daughters agree to look for him but, meanwhile, he is found and seems to be enjoying his ‘garden’ again (see SONG E.3). If 6:3 belongs here, it contains a female affirmation of her love.

( 6:4–9 )

A male song of praise for a female lover, partly parallel (vv. 5b–7 ) to the wasf of ch. 4 .

( 6:10–12 )

Either a male monologue—male praises female in a garden—or a dialogue, with a questionable voice attribution for v. 11 and the difficult v. 12 .

( 7:1–10 )

Wasf, probably in a male voice, calling to a female (the Shulamite) to dance and then describing her body from toe to head (vv. 2–7 ). A response indicating male desire (vv. 8–9 ), perhaps followed by a female retort (v. 10 ) rounds off this passage.

( 7:11–14 )

One song, or several songs in a female voice, seductively inviting a male lover to go outdoors where she will give herself to him (cf. 4:9–14 ).

( 8:1–7 )

A female passage, again probably or possibly more than a single song: a woman would like her lover to be her brother, so that they can be together in her ‘mother's house’ (vv. 1–2; cf. 3:4 ); they embrace (v. 3; cf. 2:6 ); another appeal to the daughters of Jerusalem (v. 4 ); two fragments (v. 5; cf. 3:6a , 2:3 ). vv. 6–7 are, once again, in a female voice:

Set me as a seal upon your heart, ǀ as a seal upon your arm; ǀ for love is strong as death, ǀ passion fierce as the grave. ǀ Its flashes are flashes of fire, ǀ a raging flame. ǀ Many waters cannot quench love; ǀ neither can floods drown it. ǀ If one offered for love ǀ all the wealth of one's house, ǀ it would be utterly scorned.

This declaration, surely, might have constituted a suitable end for the whole book. Nevertheless,

( 8:8–14 )

(see SONG C.3); maternal brothers decide how to keep their sister's virginity, when necessary (vv. 8–9 ). She answers mockingly (v. 10 or 10–12; cf. 1:5–6 ). An unclear verse is followed by the very last verse: a female voice calls to her male lover to run away, like a gazelle or deer, to the distant never-never land of the perfume hills. Thus, love's game can begin afresh, suspended in timelessness and moving cyclically.


This survey shows that the Song can be understood as a collection of love lyrics, performed by one couple and two choruses (‘daughters’ and ‘maternal brothers’). However, variety and the repetitions point in the direction of multiplicity of settings, backgrounds, moods—and cast of characters. That is, if we agree that a structural ‘plot’ only is in evidence, then there is no reason to assign all female lines to a single female textual speaker, or all male lines to a single textual male speaker. This has been done in some older translations, dividing the lines between ‘bride’ and ‘bridegroom’, or some similar arrangement. However, notwithstanding a description ( 3:9–11 ) of Solomon's wedding (which might be a satire or parody, see Whedbee 1993 ), nothing in the Song points to a marital setting or conclusion for lovers, as we have seen. Furthermore, there is no compelling reason to assume that one couple only is reflected in the Song, or even a love triangle (as in some older scholarship, where a triangle of Solomon–Shulamite–shepherd lover is found). Rather, a multiplicity of voices is heard in the Song, as befits such an anthology on a universal topic. Looking for a comprehensive, all-embracing interpretation for the book may form a link with allegorical renderings of it (since those depend on a comprehensive reading, with a single, well-defined pair of lovers), but seems unwarranted by the text itself.


Clearly, though, the female voices far outstrip the male voices in the Song. Female voices search; male voices tease and escape. Females become lovesick; males allow themselves to be found and led to the ‘mother's house’ (fathers are as absent from the Song as the figure of a God.) Females are articulate (they have almost two-thirds of the text!), unconventional, risk-takers. Males are loving but less adventurous. Therefore, whereas Trible (1978 ) maintains gender equality in the Song, perhaps we should do better to recognize female superiority in it. Whether this signifies female authorship, or an original background of female performance, remains uncertain (see Goitein 1988 for female authorship and performance). At any rate, also from this perspective of gender affairs, the Song is an exception in the HB. Although traces of a patriarchal framework are apparent in it (the brothers' role as custodians of female sexual modesty; the guards' beating up of a woman searching at night), nowhere else in the HB do women roam and make love so freely, outside the framework of marriage, in the open, without chaperones. Nowhere are ‘they’ allowed such outspoken voices on erotic love and desire (as is the case in other ancient cultures too; and see SONG C). It is perhaps worthwhile, therefore, to read the Song as if it contained traces of female voices (Brenner and van Dijk-Hemmes 1993 ), not just as if it contained male voices (which is the biblical norm).


What, then, can we say about the kinds of love described and celebrated in the Song? Erotic yearnings are complementary, never in contrast, to emotions and feelings. In a sense, love in the Song is unproblematic: although pre- or non-marital, no complications of unwanted pregnancies result from sexual relations. Joy and exaltation indeed interface with heart-sickness and despondency: much depends on lovers' availability for each other. High seriousness interchanges with humour ( 3:7–11; 7:1–10 ). Passion can be painful as well as uplifting. Socio-moral norms prohibiting non-marital sexual unions are ignored or disregarded. Lovers exist in a world of their own creation, as they would. One spectrum of emotion and behaviour is conspicuous by its absence, however. Jealousy, betrayal, violence borne out of frustration, infidelity—the negative facets of love are simply not in evidence. Idealization? Perhaps, although not fully, when the suffering and difficulties recounted (especially for female lovers) are noticed.

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