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Citation for The Song of Songs: About the Book

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Bergant, Dianne . "The Song of Songs." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Oct 25, 2021. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-68>.


Bergant, Dianne . "The Song of Songs." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-68 (accessed Oct 25, 2021).

About the Book

Scholars vary in their explanation of the book, but they agree that it did not originate as a single composition. They concur that it is a collection of poems of various lengths, but they propose different ways of grouping these poems. Some have suggested a movement from longing to union and then to separation. This pattern is repeated through the eight short chapters. Others maintain that, while the lyrics do express such sentiments, the arrangement of the poems lacks any definite pattern. The book may have no clearly defined structure, but it is marked by frequent repetitions (for example, 2, 7; 3, 5; 8, 4 ). Since there is no narrative plot and the speakers are neither identified nor introduced, one can only speculate about the compiler's original intention.

This relatively short book has an unusually large number of uncommon words. Its 117 verses contain forty‐nine words that appear nowhere else in the Old Testament. This adds to the difficulty of comprehension, for we are prevented from comparing the meaning of the word found in one context with its meaning in another. This obscure vocabulary also opens the poem to a multiplicity of interpretations, thus making it somewhat cryptic but also allowing for a rich diversity of meanings.

Like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the Song is associated with Solomon. This ascription to the famous king is found only in the editorial introduction ( 1, 1 ) and is preceded by a preposition that can be translated in various ways: “by” Solomon; “to” Solomon; “for” Solomon; “of” Solomon; “concerning” Solomon. The attribution need not imply authorship. Still, ascribing the book to Solomon probably gave it credibility, linked it with the other wisdom traditions, and contributed to one of its best‐known allegorical interpretations. The book does include other references to Solomon ( 3, 7.9.11; 8, 11f ), and this has convinced some interpreters of the Solomonic identity of the amorous shepherd. However, in none of these passages does Solomon speak, and the references could actually be merely figurative allusions to fabulous wealth.

The geographic references within the Song are quite wide reaching. Northern locations are mentioned ( 2, 1; 3, 9; 4, 8; 6, 4; 7, 5–6 ), as are places in Transjordan ( 4, 1 ) and Judah ( 1, 14; 3, 5 ). This variety may reflect the early northern Israelite source of some of the original poems and a later southern, perhaps Jerusalem, setting for the final edition. The appearance of the Persian word for orchard or park ( 4, 13 ) suggests a postexilic date (after 539 BC).

The Song of Songs is also found in the Megilloth scroll (see Reading Guide to Ecclesiastes, RG 262 ). It is read on the last day of the celebration of Passover. Perhaps the announcement of the end of winter ( 2, 11 ) made the poem suitable for use during a spring festival. Many consider the reference to the horses and chariots of Pharaoh ( 1, 9 ) a clear allusion to the Exodus, the event commemorated at Passover.

Voices in the Song

There are letters in the left‐hand margins of the NAB that identify the speaker of the verses. These letters are in fact an interpretation. The references to the “Daughters of Jerusalem” (see 1, 5; 2, 7; 3, 5; 5, 8.16 ) do not present any problem, but the meaning of “bride” (see 4, 8–12; 5, 1 ) is not clear. The Hebrew text clearly refers to the young woman in this way, but the word itself designates a woman who is betrothed but not yet married to a man. While the text does allude to the sexual union of the lovers, it never describes a marriage and so the male partner is not necessarily a “groom.” (The reference in 3, 11 is to the splendor of Solomon, not to the marriage of the lovers in the Song.) Furthermore, there seem to be two distinct portraits of this elusive lover. One of them is a royal figure from Jerusalem (see 1, 12–17; 3, 6–11 ), and the other is a rustic youth from the north (see 1, 7f; 2, 8–17 ). Nowhere in the book do we find an explicit combination of the two.

Who are these mysterious lovers? The way one understands the meaning and function of the book will influence the way one identifies the characters within it. If these are ancient wedding songs, then, of course, the lovers are a bride and a groom. If this is love poetry of the type we know existed in ancient Egypt, then “bride” can be understood in the figurative sense of a lover, and her partner is the man with whom she is intimately involved. He is called “lover” or “beloved” (see 1, 13; 2, 16; 5, 8; etc.), not husband. It is only as the result of some interpretive approach that one might identify the young man as Solomon and thus understand the Song as a poem composed on the occasion of one of his marriages to some foreign princess.

Form and Meaning

For more than two thousand years, the Song of Songs has been not only a fascination but also something of a riddle. It is its very uniqueness that has made it a challenge to understand. There are basically four ways of interpreting it: allegorical, cultic, dramatic, and literal. Each of these interpretive approaches reveals different facets of the literary quality of the book and opens up possibilities for our religious enrichment. All of them have gained acceptance within Roman Catholic tradition. The book itself contains characteristics that support each of these methods, thus lending it to any one of the approaches. It is interesting to note that while currently the first and preferred method of interpretation of most of the Bible has been the literal approach, the opposite has been true with this book. Perhaps much of the sexual imagery has been so explicit or suggestive as to offend the sensitivities of many of the faithful. Thus, commentators have presumed that the poems were not meant to be understood literally, and therefore they must have some concealed religious meaning.

When we talk about interpretation, it is important to distinguish between what the book meant in the past and what it might mean for the present. Those interpreters who employ a strict historical‐critical approach (cf. Harrington) insist that the original sense must be the focus of our explanation. For them, discovering the earliest form and meaning of the book is crucial. They believe that it is this original meaning that continues to be revelatory for us today. Other commentators believe that the book can be interpreted in various ways. These latter interpreters do not categorize approaches as right or wrong but as helpful or not helpful. They would be more open than the former group to various interpretations of the Song of Songs.

Allegorical Interpretation

An allegory is an analogy or a comparison of two areas of human experience, usually a more concrete or everyday area and one that is more abstract or farther removed from ordinary experience. Our understanding of the more abstract area is helped by the analogy with our everyday experience. For example, in our courts Justice is often represented as a beautiful woman wearing a blindfold and holding balancing scales. The woman's beauty symbolizes the attractions of Justice: as we are drawn to beauty, so should we be drawn to Justice. Her blindfold symbolizes the impartiality of Justice: no matter how important or unimportant the person who appears before her, she is concerned only with the merits of the case presented. The balancing scales symbolize the objective nature of Justice: decisions are made according to public standards, and anyone can observe how they are made. Thus by using concrete images, the allegorical figure helps us understand our ideals of Justice.

An allegorical method of interpretation presumes that the real significance of the material under consideration is more than just its factual or historical content. In this view, the surface meaning is a figure of speech that signifies some deeper spiritual truth. This interpretive approach was quite prevalent in ancient Jewish circles (Philo, 20 BC–AD 54) as well as among early Christian writers (Origen, AD 185–254). Jewish commentators who allegorized the Song interpreted it as symbolizing God's dealings with Israel. They claimed that the book narrates this relationship, tracing it from the time of the Exodus to the coming of the messiah. They believed that it extols the steadfast love that God bestowed on Israel and describes the fickleness that characterized Israel's attitude toward its divine lover.

As the Christians began to read the Hebrew traditions in light of their faith in Christ, this allegorical method produced new meanings. One of their interpretations identified the lovers in the Song as Christ and the Church. Another read it as a description of the mystical union of God and the individual soul. Some of the most profound theology in the Christian mystical tradition is grounded in this kind of allegorical interpretation of the Song. The works of saints Bernard of Clairvaux and John of the Cross are the chief examples of this kind of writing. The bride has even been identified as the Virgin Mary. Although this interpretation is not easily accommodated to the poems, it has become quite prominent within Roman Catholic tradition. One reason for this is the belief that Mary is the exemplar of the individual soul in union with God. A second and probably stronger reason for the acceptance of this representation is the fact that sections from the Song are read during the liturgy on several Marian feasts. Thus by association this particular allegorical interpretation has been introduced into popular devotion.

Cultic Interpretation

A second way of understanding the Song of Songs assumes that it was originally a liturgical reenactment of a drama that takes place in nature each spring. This drama is reflected in a well‐known fertility myth of the ancient Near Eastern world. The great god (the Canaanite Baal or the Babylonian Tammuz) dies after the harvest and is mourned by the fertility goddess (Anath or Ishtar respectively). She frantically searches for him during the barren winter. Her efforts are finally successful, and they are eventually united. Nature is revived with the coming of spring, and the cycle of life is repeated. The fact that this book was read during the spring festival of Passover seems to support the theory that Israel was indeed influenced by the agricultural celebrations of the time.

There is ample evidence in the Bible of Israel's appropriation and subsequent reinterpretation of Canaanite cultic practices. Passover itself is probably a combination of two festivals: an early nomadic celebration meant to ensure the fertility of the flock, and an agricultural one, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, meant to ensure the growth of the crop. The nomadic festival took on historical significance as it was used to commemorate God's deliverance of the people from Egyptian bondage, and it was associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread after the people had settled in Canaan and had moved from a nomadic to an agricultural form of life. These two very different festivals merged into one celebration, and elements of both became details of the standard story of the first Passover celebration (see Ex 12 ).

The Song itself includes several features that are characteristic of fertility liturgies. Women always play a prominent role in these cultic reenactments. There is frequently a chorus of women, and the chief character is a goddess who is separated from her lover. The speakers are seldom named, and their speeches are more monologues than dialogues. The goddess is sometimes a bride, sometimes a sister, sometimes a mother; the beloved is depicted as a king, but more frequently as a shepherd. It is quite possible that, while this ritual drama was never incorporated into the official liturgy of Israel, it enjoyed widespread acceptance in the isolated rural communities (see Ez 8, 14 ). Those who endorse this theory of interpretation contend that the book was included in the canon precisely because of this popular use. Commentators who reject the cultic theory do so because there is no explicit evidence that Israel included the rite of the dying/rising god in its own ritual. They do not deny the possibility of popular acceptance, but they insist that any association with fertility religion would work against the book's inclusion in the canon. They regard the cultic interpretation as merely a sophisticated form of the allegorical approach.

Dramatic Interpretation

The third approach has a long history in the church's tradition. As early as the second century of the Christian era, Origen claimed that the Song was a wedding poem written in dramatic form by Solomon himself. Some interpreters today divide the book into a drama of five movements: the anticipation and tryst ( 1, 1–2, 17 ); the separation ( 3, 1–11 ); reunion ( 4, 1–5, 1 ) a second separation ( 5, 2–6, 3 ); and final union ( 6, 4–8, 14 ). Such a division attempts to show how the Song includes the dramatic elements of conflict and resolution. The fact that there are only speeches and no narrative sections lends support to this theory of interpretation. However, it is the commentators not the author(s) who assign the speeches to the characters, as is done in the left‐hand margins of the NAB, and who identify the various scenes by means of subtitles within the text.

The two major characters of the drama are the royal shepherd and the Shulammite maiden. A two‐character interpretation has serious deficiencies, however. There is no dramatic development, and the book lacks ethical purpose. A three‐character approach was developed to address these weaknesses. It distinguishes two male individuals, the king and the shepherd. The former tries to win the love of the beautiful maiden, but she remains faithful to her shepherd lover. The difference between these two interpretations is obvious. In the first one, the royal shepherd is noble and worthy of the faithful love of the Shulammite. This royal personage might well represent Solomon. In the second interpretation, the king is a villain who tries to seduce the maiden with the promise of luxury and comfort. One wonders how such a disapproving portrait of Solomon could survive as part of the wisdom tradition, a tradition ascribed to the wisdom of the very king who is maligned by this depiction. The weaknesses of this approach are obvious. Since the biblical text does not supply speech designations, the decisions about their identification are influenced by the biases of the interpreter. Stage directions are also imposed from without rather than discovered within the poems themselves. Finally, there is neither story line nor character development, essential traits of good drama.

Literal Interpretation

It may be that the original meaning of the Song is found in its literal interpretation. Most likely, the Song of Songs is simply a collection of love poems that neither symbolized divine love nor developed from fertility rites. The poems teach no lessons, tell no story. They simply celebrate the passion of human love. Some believe that these are secular poems. Others doubt that purely secular love songs would ever have been admitted into the canon. These latter commentators believe that the poems are examples of Judean wedding songs. They also discover in them traces of a poetic form called the wasf, an Arabic word meaning description. These are poems that use images from nature to describe parts of the male or female body. This literary form might explain some of the strange imagery found in the Song (see 4, 1–5; 7, 2–6 ).

If this literary reading is really the meaning of the Song of Songs, a fundamental question surfaces: Why was the book considered inspired and thus included in the Bible? One can only offer a hypothetical answer. Israel may have followed the same wedding customs, as did its Syrian neighbor, celebrating the event for seven days. During the festivities the bride was characterized as “maiden” and the groom as “king.” On the eve of the wedding itself the girl would dance for her lover and recite wasf for his enjoyment. The representation of the man as “king” and the extravagance of the celebration could blend quite easily with the tradition about Solomon's erotic exploits (see 1 Kgs 11, 1 ). Some believe that one of the poems was actually composed on the occasion of one of his marriages ( 3, 6–11 ). Thus, what was initially a collection of wedding songs was now regarded as a description of the king's sexual adventures and was joined with two other writings that claim divine inspiration and Solomonic authorship, namely, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Each of these three books explicitly attributed to Solomon addresses some of the central issues of life, issues that are basic to the wisdom thinking of the ancient Near East, Israel included. Proverbs provides directions on how to achieve peace and prosperity. Qoheleth addresses the search for meaning in life. The Song of Songs celebrates a fundamental human emotion, namely, erotic love. None of these books fits into the category of salvation history, but each one is an example of the way of wisdom.

Once writings were associated with Solomon and the wisdom attributed to him, it was not long before they possessed their own authoritative significance. This seems to have been enough to ensure inclusion in the canon. These three books may be quite distinct from each other, but they have come to represent different moments in the life of the same man. The Song of Songs reveals a young, passionate, unguarded Solomon; Proverbs shows a moderate but optimistic man who has learned from his experience of life; the musings of Qoheleth come from someone who approaches the end of life challenging the enduring value of human accomplishment. The quality of these anthropological, but nonetheless theological, concerns is evidence of their religious value. Solomonic ascription provided the books with canonical status.

Wisdom Teaching

Each of the interpretive approaches described above leads us to the central question: What is the book's theological value? Since it belongs to the wisdom tradition, we might also ask: What does it teach us? We have considered four different methods of interpretation, and we should not be surprised if we discover four quite distinct answers to these questions.

The allegorical approach provides us with a figurative way of understanding the nature of our relationship with God. It portrays the relationship as dynamic, energizing, mutually loving, and intensely intimate. This depiction of God runs counter to the images of an impassive creator or an avenging judge, characterizations that may be the prominent images of God held by many people. We may be familiar with the notion of God as a loving parent or of Jesus as a faithful friend, but the Song of Songs offers us a portrait of a passionate lover, one who desires union with us. Some might find this notion scandalous, but the wisdom tradition (specifically Job and Ecclesiastes) repeatedly teaches something about God or human nature that is unconventional.

At the heart of the dying/rising ritual is the conviction that death does not have the final victory. The love of the grieving goddess is strong enough to bring her lover back to her and to revitalize the lifeless earth. To the proverb: “For love is strong as death” ( 8, 6 ; Revised Standard Version translation), one might add: “In Spring a young woman's fancy turns to thoughts of love.”

The dramatic interpretation depicts an example of faithful love. Whether one favors the two‐ or the three‐character account, the fidelity of the bride is held up for all to admire and imitate. She is unrelenting in her search and steadfast in her commitment. This image of a faithful woman conforms to the one found in other places of the wisdom tradition (see Prv 31, 10–31 ).

The literal understanding of the Song skirts all symbolic interpretation and makes no apology for its erotic imagery. It affirms that sexuality is one of the gifts that God gave for our enjoyment (see Prv 5, 15–21; Eccl 9, 9 ). Still, sexual pleasure is not sought promiscuously. It is pursued only within the context of faithful and exclusive commitment.

Finally, the portrait of the maiden in the Song of Songs is exceptional for literature that originated in a patriarchal culture. The woman is not portrayed as naïve or passive, solely dependent upon a man for protection and sustenance. She takes the initiative in the romantic exchange of the poem, uttering twice as much of the erotic poetry as does the man. The maiden is portrayed as an independent and mature person in her own right. She has her own vineyard ( 1, 6 ) and is encouraged to pasture her flocks ( 1, 8 ), occupations normally assigned to men. Through its use of the metaphor of human love, the Song of Songs proclaims a biblical conviction that will also be amplified in sound Christian tradition: human sexuality—male and female—is a creation of God and, expressed in accord with God's law, is both noble and enobling.

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