The book's Hebrew name, “Song of Songs,” or “The Greatest Song,” is a superlative like “king of kings” (Ezek 26:7) meaning the king above all other kings or “holy of holies” (Exod 26:33) meaning the most holy place. In English it is known as the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon, and Canticles.

Canonical Status and Location in Canon.

The Song appears in the Megilloth, or “five scrolls” (Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther), in the third part of the Jewish canon, the Writings. In the Christian canon it is found among the Poetical and Wisdom books.

Authorship, Date of Composition, and Historical Context.

The Song of Songs, the Bible's only love poem, offers no clues about its authorship, nor about when, where, and under what circumstances it was composed. The traditional association of the book with Solomon probably derives from references to Solomon in the poem (1:5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11, 12) and his reputation as the composer of songs (1 Kgs 4:32) and owner of a large harem (1 Kgs 11:3). The title, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's” (v. 1), lends antiquity as well as authority to the poem (compare the use of David's name in the editorial superscriptions to some of the psalms). Not only is Solomon not the author, he is neither the male lover of the poem nor one of the speakers. In chapter 3 Solomon—or perhaps the male lover as a regal figure in Solomonic guise—is celebrated on his wedding day, but in 8:11–12 Solomon appears in a dismissive vein, in connection with his vineyard.

Unlike other biblical texts, the Song contains no narrative description, only speech. The speakers are a man, a woman, and, occasionally, the women of Jerusalem, a kind of woman's chorus who function as an audience within the poem. Although it is not clear in most English translations, it is usually easy to determine whether the man or the woman is speaking, because Hebrew uses different forms for masculine and feminine nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, and pronominal suffixes. By providing access only to the lovers' voices, to what they say not who they are, the poet encourages readers to identify with the lovers. By presenting them in the act of addressing each other, thus making it seem as if we are overhearing them and observing their love unfold, the poet seeks to make love timeless. Many place names are mentioned in the Song, but none of the geographical references has anything to do with specific historical events. “Shulammite,” used of the woman in 6:13, is not a personal name (it is used with the definite article, “the Shulammite,” in the second half of the verse). It is identified by some with the town of Shunem, but may mean simply “the perfect one,” and is probably used to evoke the name “Solomon.”

The poet's success in creating lovers who are universal figures and in depicting love as not bound by time or place is precisely what makes identifying the historical context of the Song so difficult. Speculation about the date of composition ranges from the time of Solomon (tenth century B.C.E.) to the Hellenistic period (fourth to second centuries B.C.E.). Some scholars view the Song as a collection, in which case the various love poems would come from different authors and different times.

Similarities to Mesopotamian (3000–1000 B.C.E.) and, in particular, Egyptian love poetry (thirteenth to eleventh centuries B.C.E.), indicate that the poet drew upon a rich cultural tradition of love poetry. Shared features include wishing, desiring, praising the beloved, metaphoric descriptions of the body, double entendre, nature imagery, and the appeal to the senses. Sometimes the Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poems use a dialogue format, and the lovers address each other as “sister” and “brother.” Many of the Mesopotamian love poems deal with the marriage of the goddess and her consort and were used in ritual contexts. In contrast, the Song, like the Egyptian love poems, is not about gods nor does it appear to have had anything to do with worship.

Structure and Contents.

Among scholars who view the Song as an anthology, there is no agreement about the number and extent of the individual poems that comprise it. Among those who see it as a unified work there is no agreement on its internal divisions, though, in the case of unity, where one subdivision ends and another begins is not so important, since the lovers speak antiphonally throughout the Song. If we read a character's speech as continuing until there is good evidence to see it as coming to a close and something new beginning, the following organization suggests itself.

  • 1:2—2:7: Short, alternating speeches express the lovers' desire for, delight in, and praise of each other.
  • 2:8—3:5: The woman speaks at length. First she tells a story in which her lover comes to woo her, and then she recounts her experience of seeking and finding him.
  • 3:6–11: Commentators differ in their assignment of these verses. If the woman is the speaker, she tells another story about their courtship in which she envisages her lover in the role of Solomon on his wedding day, approaching her in a magnificent litter, or palanquin, that draws nearer and nearer until its occupant comes into view.
  • 4:1—5:1: The man speaks at length. He describes his lover's body, first using a striking simile or metaphor for each body part described, and then by means of an intimate extended metaphor of her body as a pleasure garden of exotic plants and abundant waters. The woman interrupts him with an invitation to lovemaking (4:16), which he enthusiastically accepts (5:1).
  • 5:2—6:3: The woman speaks at length a second time, again telling a story in which her lover comes to woo her, followed by her seeking and finding him. This time she suffers a setback when the city watchmen, whom she also encountered on her first search, mistreat her. Undeterred, she engages in a dialogue with the women of Jerusalem by means of which she “finds” her lover by praising his charms until she has successfully conjured him up (5:10–16). Thus it transpires that she knows where he is (6:2).
  • 6:4—7:9: The man speaks at length a second time. He praises his lover's physical charms in detail, again using a simile or metaphor for each body part, not once but twice (6:4–10 and 7:1–9). His praise is interrupted by a short, rather cryptic first-person narrative about a visit to the nut garden (6:11–12), perhaps spoken by the woman, since in the next verse she is asked to “come back.” Part, or all, of verse 13 also belongs to a voice other than the man's. After this brief interlude, the man resumes his praise of the woman.
  • 7:10–13: The woman invites the man to lovemaking, just as she did in response to his first long speech (4:16).
  • 8:1–14: Short, alternating speeches express the lovers' desire for and commitment to each other.

Interpretation.

Allegory was the dominant mode of interpretation from the early centuries of the Common Era until the rise of critical biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century. Jewish interpreters typically read the Song as an account of the relationship between God and Israel, while Christians saw it as about the love between Christ and the church, or Christ (or the divine logos) and the individual believer. Whether the Song was included in the canon because it had been allegorized or was allegorized because it had been included in the canon has long been debated. Allegorization alone cannot have been the reason the Song was included, since the text must have already achieved a certain status—perhaps as national religious literature—for anyone to have taken the trouble to develop an allegorical interpretation of it. There is no mention of God in the Song, unless one sees an allusion to the divine name Yahweh in the word šalhebetyâ (“almighty flame,” 8:6, author's translation). With the rise of critical biblical scholarship, scholars began to recognize the Song's subject as human love. Some read the book as a drama with two characters (Solomon and a rustic maiden with whom he fell in love) or three (Solomon, a rustic maiden, and her shepherd lover to whom she remained faithful in spite of Solomon's attempts to win her affection). Others saw it as a collection of wedding songs. In the twentieth century some have argued that the Song originated as a liturgical text whose speakers were a god and goddess.

Most scholars now view the Song as secular love poetry. It explores what it is like to be in love from both a woman's and a man's point of view, and it presents love not in the abstract but in the concrete, by showing us what lovers do, or, more precisely, telling us what they say. They delight in each other and in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibility of the world around them, making the Song a feast for the senses. The only time we hear anything about the nature of love in general is in 8:6, when the woman speaks to her lover not, as she has up to this point in the poem, about their love, but about love itself. “Love is strong as death,” she declares, and this affirmation, in the view of many scholars, offers the key to the Song of Songs. One could say that the poem itself is the proof that the poet's vision of love is strong as death. Although real lovers die, the love that is celebrated in the Song lives on, preserved on the page for us to actualize whenever we read the Song. It still seems fresh and alive centuries after it was written down, because it is love in progress, not a story about famous lovers of the past. Playing an ongoing game of seeking and finding, the lovers anticipate, enjoy, and express their assurance of sensual gratification. The dialogue format, in which the lovers (and sometimes the women of Jerusalem) are represented as speaking to each other, makes it appear as though the action is taking place in the present, unfolding before us, and this impression is strengthened by the way that double entendre and sexual innuendo create the illusion that gratification is taking place even as it is longed for (e.g., the language and imagery of 5:2–6 suggest sexual union, even while the woman seems to be describing a missed encounter). There is no real ending to the poem, for resisting closure is the poet's way of trying to keep love always in progress on the page before us. By beginning with a love affair already in progress and ending without closure, the poet has, in effect, created a poem without beginning or end—a poem that, like the love it celebrates, strives to be ongoing, never-ending.

Scholars disagree whether the Song is a collection of love lyrics or a unified work, but, while there are some who think the editing is haphazard or extremely loose (e.g., simply connecting poems on the basis of catchwords), most perceive some principle of organization, progression, or development in the Song. There is, moreover, some agreement on its general contours. Commentators, whether they think the Song is a unity or collection, typically treat the Song 5:2—6:3 as a unit, and the coherence of 2:8–17, 3:1–5, and 3:6–11 is widely recognized. The latter part of the Song poses the most difficulties, with the result that the arrangement of material after 6:4 is the subject of the greatest disagreement.

Whether we think of the poet as an author or editor, we are dealing in the Song with lyric poetry. Unlike a dramatic poem, where one might expect events to unfold progressively to produce a plot, in the Song speakers, settings, and topics sometimes change suddenly or unexpectedly. The Song meanders, repeating themes, images, phrases, and sometimes whole sections. It begins in medias res (“Let him kiss me”) and ends without closure, with the woman seemingly sending the man away (“take flight, my love,” author's translation; NRSV translates “make haste” in this verse, which is misleading, since the word used refers to movement away from the speaker) and calling him to her in the same breath (“the mountains of spices,” a double entendre for the woman herself). The lovers repeatedly conjure each other up through the poetic power of language, only to let the loved one disappear so that they can be conjured up again. The only genuine narrative development in the poem takes place within the speeches of the woman, because telling stories in which she and her lover are characters is her way of talking about love. The man, in contrast, does not tell stories. He looks at his lover, tells her what he sees (using stunning imagery to describe her body) and how it affects him. On one occasion, the woman adopts the man's characteristic mode of speaking about love and describes his body metaphorically (5:10–16). It is important for the Song's picture of the relationship between the sexes that not only the woman's body but also the man's is the object of the look, for only when both lovers describe the body of their beloved does looking become mutual, not one-sided.

Although each is clearly overwhelmed by the other, the lovers describe themselves as differently affected by love. The woman speaks about what love does to her (“I am faint with love” or “I am lovesick,” 2:5; 5:8). The man speaks about the way he feels in terms of conquest, as something she has done to him: “you have captured my heart” (4:9, author's translation); “Turn your eyes away from me, for they overwhelm me,” 6:5). She is lovesick, he is awestruck. Whereas both lovers are desirous and actively seek out the other, love is pictured as something the woman offers, or gives, and the man receives or claims (4:16–5:1; 7:8–13; 8:2).

The balance of speech between the woman and the man—each speaks at length twice—affirms their mutuality. Occasionally the women of Jerusalem speak (5:1, 9; 6:1; 8:5; and perhaps 1:8; 6:13), making us aware of their presence. These women are sometimes addressed directly (1:5; 2:7; 3:5, 10–11; 5:8, 16; 8:4) while at other times their presence is simply assumed, as, for example, when the woman says, “Listen! My lover! Look! He's coming!” (2:8, author's translation) or “What is this coming up from the wilderness?” (3:6). Readers are reminded of their presence when the lovers seem to be enjoying the most intimate pleasures (2:4–7; 3:4–5; 5:1; 6:1–3; 8:3–4). The presence of the women of Jerusalem as an audience of whom the lovers are aware, and whose active participation is sometimes invited, facilitates the reader's entry into the lovers' seemingly private world of erotic intimacy. It is always a reminder that what seems to be a closed dialogue between lovers is addressed to the poem's readers.

Reception History.

Over the centuries the Song has inspired numerous writers, artists, and composers. In English literature, Chaucer borrowed from it in The Canterbury Tales; Spenser drew on its imagery in The Faerie Queene and other poems; and Milton turned to it for Adam's description of the beauty of Eve in Paradise Lost and appealed to 8:6–7, on the power of love, to support his argument in favor of conjugal love in his treatise The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Aemilia Lanyer, the first woman writing in English as a professional poet, used language from the Song to describe the body of the risen Christ (Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 1611). Some modern examples include James Joyce's poem, “My Dove, My Beautiful One,” and Edith Sitwell's, “A Man from a Far Country,” set to music by William Walton. Toni Morrison's novels Song of Solomon and Beloved draw on the Song's language of desire, and the narrator of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose uses its lyricism to describe his sexual initiation by a young peasant woman. For an overview of the Song's use by writers over the centuries, see Doelman (1992).

In fifteenth-century European art, Mary the mother of Jesus often appears in an enclosed garden (4:12), symbolizing her purity and alluding to the garden of Eden and the garden of the Song of Songs (e.g., Fra Angelico's Annunciation; see, further, Bucher 2009). In the twentieth century, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, and Judy Chicago have all produced series of striking paintings based on the Song, celebrating its erotic lyricism, and Eric Gill made a series of erotic wood engravings. The Song is also the subject of important Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Rosetti's The Beloved (1865–66), Burne-Jones's Sponsa de Libano (1891) and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope's The Shulamite (c. 1882). Burne-Jones also produced a stained-glass window with twelve panels showing scenes from the Song of Songs. An unsettling image from the Song, the woman's mistreatment at the hands of the city watchmen (5:7), is the subject of Gustave Moreau's Scene from the Song of Songs (1853), and his The Shulamite Maiden resembles many of his other femmes fatales.

The Song has long been an inspiration for composers, some of whom understood it allegorically, others as expressions of human love. From the Middle Ages in particular there are many anonymous settings. Palestrina composed twenty-nine motets from the Song of Songs (1584) and Monteverdi used verses from the Song alternating with psalms in his Vespers (1610). Bach's Cantatas numbers 49 (Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen [“I go and search with longing”] and 140 (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme [“Sleepers wake, loud sounds the warning”]) make extensive use of the Song's imagery. Other musical settings include Buxtehude (1637–1707), Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron; Purcell, “My beloved spake” (composed in the early 1680s); Mussorgsky, “Hebrew Song” (1867); Rimsky-Korsakov, “Hebrew Song” (also in 1867 and dedicated to Mussorgsky); Bruckner, Tota pulchra es (1878); Vaughan Williams, Flos Campi (1925); Britten, “My beloved is mine” (1947); and William Walton, “Set me as a seal upon thine heart” (1938). Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum (1955) uses 4:16—5:1, among other biblical texts.

Honegger composed a ballet-oratorio, Le Cantique des Cantiques, in 1937. In Eduard Tubin's opera, The Parson of Reigi (1971, first performed in 1988, six years after the composer's death), Catharina, the parson's wife, and Kempe, the new deacon, sing of their love for each other, quoting at length from the Song of Songs. Lempelius, the parson, overhears them and says this is a dialogue between Christ and his congregation. There follows a debate over the literal versus the allegorical meaning of the Song, not exactly something one would expect to hear in an opera. German composer Hans Zender reflects the formal structure and symmetry that he perceived in the Song in his Shir Hashirim for soloists, choir, large orchestra, and live electronic music (1993–96).

Because it does not have a plot (except in the woman's “stories”) or any recognizable characters from the past, considerable liberty would have to be taken with the Song to turn it into a movie. But it is quoted in biblical films such as King Vidor's 1959 Solomon and Sheba, where Solomon (Yul Brenner) recites to Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) love lyrics she has inspired; and John Huston's 1966 The Bible, where Abraham and Sarah (George C. Scott and Ava Gardner) recite verses from the Song to each other. A vampire (Jude Law) finds inspiration from the Song in The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1988, dir. Po-Chih Leong), and in Once upon a Time in America (1984, dir. Sergio Leone) verses are recited to the protagonist “Noodles” by his childhood sweetheart.

[See also CANON, subentries HEBREW BIBLE and OLD TESTAMENT and 1 AND 2 KINGS.]

Bibliography

  • Bergant, Dianne. The Song of Songs. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2001.
  • Black, Fiona C. The Artifice of Love: Grotesque Bodies in the Song of Songs. London: T & T Clark, 2009.
  • Bucher, Christina. “The Song of Songs and the Enclosed Garden in Fifteenth-Century Paintings and Engravings of the Virgin Mary and the Christ-Child.” In Between the Text and the Canvas: The Bible and Art in Dialogue, edited by J. Cheryl Exum and Ela Nutu, 95–116. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009.
  • Doelman, James. “Song of Songs.” In A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, edited by David Lyle Jeffrey, 727–730. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. “Seeing the Song of Songs: Some Artistic Visions of the Bible's Love Lyrics.” In Das Alte Testament und die Kunst, edited by John Barton, J. Cheryl Exum, and Manfried Oeming, 91–127. Münster, Germany: Lit Verlag, 2005.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs, A Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
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  • Landy, Francis. Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song of Songs. 2d ed. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2010.
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  • Walsh, Carey Ellen. Exquisite Desire: Religion, the Erotic, and the Song of Songs. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

J. Cheryl Exum