The Song of Solomon follows the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible and Ecclesiastes in the Septuagint. Also called the Song of Songs (i.e., the most excellent song) and the Canticle (of Canticles), it was divided in the Middle Ages arbitrarily into eight chapters, which do not correspond to significant units of content. This brief composition of fewer than two hundred poetic verses has always been an enigma, and little agreement exists concerning such questions as origin, date of composition, structure, and unity.

Authorship and Date.

The attribution “to Solomon” affixed to the Song is an editorial superscription that links this poetry to Israel's famous poet and sage rather than a declaration of authorship. No hint of actual author or authors appears in the text. The intense style of poetry belongs to the genre of love lyrics found in ancient Egyptian collections. Lush, extravagant imagery appealing to the senses of smell, taste, and touch, detailed descriptions of the human body, male and female, and highly stylized terms of endearment like dove, sister, and king link the Song to other ancient Near Eastern cultures.

The Song of Solomon displays striking metaphors from a variety of flora and fauna, some twenty‐five species of plants and ten of animals, mentioned not as a display of learning but for the images they invoke. It also exploits the evocative power of place names like Lebanon, home of fragrant cedars (3.9), Gilead, famous for its balm (4.1), snow‐covered Amana (4.8), and Tirzah, ancient capital of the northern kingdom of Israel (6.4).

Nothing in the Song itself proves its date of composition. It seems to be made up of lyrics that came down in oral tradition long before they were gathered into their canonical form. The appealing subject matter and vivid imagery, like the woman being compared to a mare that throws the war stallions of the pharaoh's chariots into disorder (1.9), explain why these lyrics were preserved in the schools of the Temple of Jerusalem. They proved to be a useful teaching tool. Boldness of imagery, repetitions, and variations on erotic themes point to frequent recital before they were edited in the final form, possibly between 450–400 BCE. This date is plausible because of widespread scribal activity at that time, because the syntax exhibits Aramaic constructions, and because the Persian loan word for paradise is found in 4.13.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Song of Solomon was incorporated into the Jewish canon over the objections of some rabbis, who found its subject matter unsuitable for Israel's sacred literature. Once it became part of the official scriptures, commentators both Jewish and Christian attempted to interpret it in religious terms. Eventually it was recited as part of the services for the final day of the Passover celebration.

Structure and Nature.

Commentators are divided concerning the structure of the Song of Solomon. Three approaches persist: that it is a literary unity; that it is a systematic organization of love poems; and that it is a random collection of lyrics. Some find as many as eighty distinct units. The literal sense of the verses describes movements of passion and affection between a man and a woman, who is called “my darling” (Hebr. raʿyātî; NRSV: “my love”) nine times, a term never found elsewhere in the Bible. Poetic features like chiasm, inclusion, historical allusions, refrains, and thematic repetition provide a basis for the variety of theories about the Song's structure. Both Jewish and Christian exegetes have found deeper meaning in its verses. Medieval qabbalists proposed a sacred code as key to its interpretation.

The theories about the nature of the Song can be divided into five headings.

Allegorical.

The Aramaic translations called Targums preserve traditions that read the Song as an allegory of the Lord's love for Israel. On this basis allusions to events in Israel's history are found throughout. Christian mystical tradition as early as Origen took a similar approach. His commentary, part of which is extant in Latin translation, interprets the Song as celebrating Christ's love for his church or for the believing soul. The most famous medieval example of the allegorical method of reading the Song is the eighty‐six homilies of Bernard of Clairvaux, covering only the first two chapters.

Dramatic.

A few ancient Greek manuscripts assign sections of the lyrics to specific speakers. Following that tradition, some exegetes read the Song as describing a shepherd's courtship of the Shulammite maid (6.13). They often introduce Solomon as rival suitor. They disagree about how to assign the dramatis personae and where to place the climaxes. They usually find from five to eight scenes. The dramatic theory was especially popular in the nineteenth century.

Literal‐historical.

By far the most common interpretation of the Song of Solomon is that it is a collection of lyrics celebrating human love. This approach, based on affinities with ancient Near Eastern love poetry, seeks to do justice to the plastic language and sensuous imagery that reveal vivid imagination and artistic skill. As lyric poetry the Song employs language that functions simultaneously on a literal and a symbolic level. The garden and vineyard are places of nurture, whether for plants or for sexual capacity. The pasture is a place for feeding the shepherd's flock and for nourishing human intimacy. Eating applies to both physical and sexual satisfaction. Such flexibility of language is the stuff of masterpieces that attract readers of every generation.

Some scholars suggest that the Song was a collection of songs assembled as a repertoire for wedding celebrations. The vivid portrayal of the body of the woman (4.1–7; 6.4–7; 7.1–6) and of the man (5.10–16) resemble Arabic wa⊡fs sung at weddings. This genre includes vivid metaphors: hair falling like descending flocks of mountain goats; teeth sparkling like newly shorn goats; cheeks glistening like the inside of a pomegranate covered by a thin veil. Stylized royal imagery explains the designation of the lover as king.

Other scholars search for the origin of these lyrics in dream fantasy, because the woman speaks of having a dream in 5.2, and possibly in 3.1–4. Such an origin could account for the stream‐ofconsciousness succession of events from city streets to wine cellars to country landscapes to remote deserts and mountain tops inhabited by hostile animals.

Other students of the Song of Solomon feel that the nature of these lyrics does not point to a specific point of origin. Rather, they share the universal language of love poetry with such commonplace themes as the excitement of seeking and finding or the terror of seeking and not finding the loved one. Their appeals to such a wide range of smells and shapes and colors are ways of portraying the universal presence of love. The scribe who finally brought these lyrics together proclaims love to be “strong as death” (8.6), so powerful that even floods cannot drown it. That comment encouraged efforts to find deeper meaning in the Song.

Cultic or ritualistic.

The mention of death as well as unusual situations pictured have led some commentators to see the Song as originating in an ancient ritual, possibly a sacred marriage or fertility rite or in ceremonies to ward off death. They find cultic origins for the elaborate procession of 3.6–11 and the phrase “house of my mother” (3.4; 8.2).

Parabolic or typological.

Some commentators have made ingenious efforts to tie these lyrics, which never mention God, closer to his saving plan. They read the Song of Solomon in terms of certain topics of Israelite theology, like the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel, which was compared to marriage in the prophetic tradition. This interpretation finds a variety of second‐level meanings in the imagery: for example, the man signifies the Lord and the woman Israel; their coming together portrays the restoration of intimacy lost in the garden of Eden; the woman's spontaneity recalls original innocence.

Significance.

The Song of Solomon embodies a surplus of meaning in its artistic unfolding of lyrics that portray a poetic genius and emotional warmth of universal impact and appeal. Its unusual vocabulary (almost fifty words appear nowhere else in the Bible) adds excitement to the swift pace and evocative scenes. A minority of critics read it as containing some kind of narrative or thematic unity reflected in repetitions like “caresses sweeter than wine” (1.2 and 4.10) and the refrain in 2.7; 3.5; 5.8; 8.4. But most modern editors present it as a collection of related lyrics loosely united, composed not to teach but to touch, to please, and to delight. The power of its beauty is its celebration of and appeal to love.

No apparent order governs the flow of its verse, except perhaps the final verses that point to the reflective bent of the sage inviting readers to resonate to the power of love. The New Testament contains no reference to the Song.

James M. Reese, O.S.F.S.