Song of Songs
Course: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Related Courses: The Bible as Literature, literature courses that include biblical poetry
Intended Audience: undergraduates
Syllabus Section: Introduction to Biblical Poetry, Song of Solomon
After completing this lesson, students should:
- 1. understand what biblical Hebrew poetry is and how it works;
- 2. recognize and analyze specific features of Hebrew poetry, including parallelism, metaphor, imagery, and chiasmus;
- 3. apply these practices of reading and interpreting biblical poetry to other biblical poetic texts; and
- 4. understand key historical and interpretive issues in the Song of Solomon.
Outline of Lesson Plan
I. Background Information
II. Pre-class Preparation
III. In-class Lecture, Activities, and Discussion Questions
- 1. The Song of Solomon: Some Background
- 2. Introductory Discussion: What is Poetry? What is Biblical Poetry?
- 3. Lecture: Biblical Poetry
- 4. Group Activity: Reading and Analyzing the Poetry of the Song of Solomon
- 5. Additional Discussion Questions
- 6. Synthesis/Wrap-up
I. Background Information
1. On the Song of Solomon
- A. NOAB, Introduction to the Song of Solomon
- B. Oxford Companion to the Bible, Song of Solomon
- C. Oxford Commentary on the Bible, Song of Solomon: Poetics, Forms, Imagery
- D. Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible, Song of Solomon
2. On Biblical Poetry
- A. NOAB, The Characteristics of Biblical Poetry
- B. NOAB, Contemporary Methods in Biblical Study: Literary Approaches. See in particular the first several paragraphs
- C. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, "Poetry"
- D. The Jewish Study Bible: Reading Biblical Poetry
3. Convenient Overview of the Song of Solomon
- A. Oxford Commentary on the Bible, Song of Solomon: Contents and Set of Characters
4. Specific Literary Devices
- A. Parallelism (OBSO) (Synonymous Parallelism; Antithetic Parallelism)
- B. Metaphor (OBSO), Simile (OBSO)
- C. Chiasmus (OBSO)
- D. Inclusio (OBSO)
II. Pre-class Preparation
Students should read the following:
- 1. NOAB, Introduction to the Song of Solomon
- 2. NOAB, The Characteristics of Biblical Poetry
- 3. Song of Solomon
- Optional: Oxford Commentary on the Bible, Song of Solomon: Contents and Set of Characters
Optional pre-class questions (for short written responses, online blog posts by students, etc):
- 1. Pick 4–6 verses from the Song of Solomon. What is your reaction? What specific details about the language of the passage stand out to you?
- 2. Based on your reading of the Song of Solomon, what images are most common? Why do you think these images are used?
- 3. Pick one metaphor from the Song of Solomon and analyze it.
III. In Class
1. The Song of Solomon: some background
The Song of Solomon is known in Hebrew as the "Song of Songs" (meaning "the greatest song;" the word for "song" is also "poem.") The text is included in the "Writings" in the Jewish division of texts, where it follows Ruth, and the "Poetical and Wisdom Books" in the Christian schema, which places it after Ecclesiastes. The text is difficult to date. The Song is an anthology of love poems, alternating between a male and female speaker (often referred to, respectively, as "the lover" and "the Shulammite" or "the beloved.") The poetry of the Song displays parallels with other near Eastern love and sex poetry, especially Egyptian love poetry and a genre of Arabian poetry known as the wasf, which involves an elaborate description of the body of the beloved.
The Song of Solomon has a long history of interpretation and has been read in many ways. The Song was extremely popular with premodern readers; it continues to draw significant scholarly and general interest. The text has been taken as love poetry, as erotic poetry, as a guide for marriage, and as pornography. Many other readers have treated the text as allegory, taking the lovers as representing God and Israel, or Christ and the church (see also here). Contemporary readers have taken up feminist and queer readings, as well as a renewed appreciation for the Song's aesthetic beauty.
2. Introductory discussion: What is poetry? What is biblical poetry?
The question of "What is poetry?" or "What is a poem?" is a question that resounds far beyond the limits of the Hebrew Bible or of biblical studies as a discipline. Yet even when we turn to literary studies, to literature, or to poets themselves, there are no straightforward answers. In The Apology, Socrates famously complains that the poets are no better at explaining their poetry than anyone else; in The Republic, Plato banishes poets from the city. Still, poetry is recognized as a specific genre or set of genres across history and cultures alike. The English word "poetry" has its origins in the Greek word ποίησισ (poïesis), from the verb ποιέω (poieō), to make; The Hebrew ריש (shîr) means song as well as poem.
Warm-up activity: In a small or medium sized class, a simple warm-up activity is to present students with short (1–2 stanzas/5–15 lines) poetic excerpts from a range of poems (non-biblical). Students should read the selections with a partner or in a small group and then discuss what makes the given passage "poetry." In a class of 20 students, I would prepare 4 poetic selections (say from William Carlos Williams, Sappho, Bob Dylan, and Anne Carson), then give each pair of students one of the selections to briefly discuss together before convening as a group to discuss the question of "What makes poetry poetry?" This can also be a good place to introduce Plato's eviction of the poets. In a large lecture class, the same effect can be achieved with a Power Point or other presentation of several varied poetic excerpts.
3. Lecture: Biblical Poetry
On a basic level, poetry is a form of marked language that is distinguished from prose (some scholars argue that intermediate textual forms, between poetry and prose, also exist). Many of the oldest texts in the Hebrew Bible are poems, including the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5) and the Song of the Sea (Exod. 15:1–18). The Song of Songs is part of this poetic tradition; it also shows continuities with Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Arabian poetry. Some key features of biblical Hebrew poetry found in the Song of Solomon include parallelism, metaphor, imagery, and chiasmus. (For further helpful discussion, see the OSBO resources listed above in section I).
The preeminent feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Bishop Robert Lowth is often credited with "discovering" parallelismus membrorum, the parallelism of the members (i.e. portions of the poetic line) in the eighteenth century in his Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. Parallelism is also key for modern literaray readers. Subsequent scholarly work has identified a number of forms of parallelism, including antithetic, synonymous, and intensifying parallelism; these terms describe with greater specificity the relationship between the versets (the "halves" or "thirds" of the poetic verse; sometimes also called "cola," singular "colon.")
Here are a few examples of parallelism:
Song 4:12 is a simple example of synonymous parallelism:
A garden locked is my sister my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
Song 1:15–16a is another straightforward example:
Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
ah you are beautiful;
your eyes are doves.
Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
Song 4:9 displays intensifying parallelism:
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
Metaphor and Simile
A metaphor is a literary device of comparison between two unalike things. A simile is a specific subset of metaphor that uses "like" or "as" to make the comparison. A metaphor has two parts, the tenor (that which is being described) and the vehicle (that which is used to make the comparison). In Song 2:1,
I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys,
the rose of Sharon is the vehicle; it is used to describe the female speaker, who is the tenor. In the following verse, Song 2:2,
As a lily among brambles,
so is my love among maidens
the vehicle here is "a lily among brambles," while the tenor is "my love among maidens." Note as well that this metaphor is really two metaphors; just as "my love" is "as a lily," so too are the "maidens" with whom the Shulammite (see 6:13 [Heb 7:1]) surrounds herself like "brambles."
The overarching or "ruling" metaphor in the Song of Solomon is the metaphor of the (female) body as land; this is found in many places in the Bible, including Hosea 2. The text also includes many more specific metaphors describing the Shulammite, the lover, desire, sexual pleasure, and love. Chapters 2 and 4, the wasf passages, are especially rich places to look for metaphors. Many of the metaphors are quite sexual, such as Song 5:4–5.
Note: the tenor is also called the "target domain," while the vehicle is also the "source domain." Either set of terms is fine, but mixing the two can easily lead to confusion.
The metaphors of the Song of Solomon are matched only by the vivid and evocative imagery of the text. The Song draws many of its images from the natural world. These natural images are both agricultural, as in the orchards and vineyards, and uncultivated, as in the mountains and wells of the wilderness. The Song also makes reference to specific geographical features, such as the peaks of Lebanon and the vineyards of En-gedi. The luxurious and fertile land of the Song is thus associated with a familiar topography—this is not (simply) a garden of fantasy, but also a fantasy for Israel's land. At the same time, this garden imagery also evokes the garden of Eden, as well as the fantasy of erotic reunion in the wilderness in the prophets (Hos. 2).
Other images include the city wall with its sentinels, King Solomon's palanquin and the trappings of royalty, and edible substances such as wine, honey, milk, and raisin cakes. Spices, incense, and other luxury goods also play a significant role, especially in describing the body in the wasf.
O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
The chiasm here is face : voice :: voice : face.
The Song often uses larger chiastic structures that extend beyond a single verse. Consider Song 4:12–15, which opens and closes with the trope of the garden (4:12,15), with an assortment of luxurious spices (4:13,14) described in between. This structure is also called an inclusio.
4. Group activity: reading the poetry of the Song of Songs
For a small or medium sized class:
Divide students into groups of 4–5 students. Assign each group a passage from the Song (suggested passages: Song 2:10–15, 3:1–5, 4:1–8, 5:2–7, 5:10–16, 7:1–5 [Heb 7:2–6], 7:10–8:3 [Heb 7:11–8:3]). The group should read the passage aloud and then discuss the following questions:
- 1. What is the "feel" of this passage? What specific details in the passage trigger this response?
- 2. Who is the speaker? Who is the object of address?
- 3. What metaphors occur in the passage? Identify the tenor and vehicle for each metaphor. Then discuss the literary effect.
- 4. What images does the poem use? Why do you think these images are used? Does this imagery have parallels in other biblical texts we have read?
- 5. Pick 2–3 examples of parallelism and analyze them in detail. What sort of parallelism occurs here?
- 6. What is the most effective poetic feature of this passage? Why?
After discussing, students can "report back" in one of the following ways:
- A. Informal oral presentation of their small group discussion to the class as a whole.
- B. The "jigsaw." While this requires some instructor preparation, it can be a good way to ensure all students participate. Students divide into discussion teams of equal numbers (say groups A, B, C, D) ; while students are discussing, give each student within the group a number (say 1–5). To present, the groups recombine by number; each resulting group will contain one member from each discussion team. Students then present to their small group only. In a class of 20, 5 groups of 4 recombine as 4 groups of 5.
- C. Online presentation. One or more student from each group is appointed the secretary and writes up a summary of the group's discussion, which is then posted on a class blog or website or circulated by email.
For a larger class:
In a larger class, students can do a version of this discussion exercise with a partner; the instructor then follows by lecturing or leading discussion on the specific passage. In this case, it is easier if all students discuss the same passage (for example, Song 4:1–8) at the same time. Depending on the length of the class, it may be possible to cover 2–3 passages in this matter.
5. Additional discussion questions
- 1. What literary effect does the shifting between speakers in the text produce?
- 2. Look at Song 5:10–16. This text is one of the few descriptions of the male body in the Hebrew Bible. How is it described here? How does the description progress from verse to verse? What effect does the pileup of images have?
- 3. Look at Song 7:1–5 (Heb 7:2–6). How does this description of the female body compare to the description of the male body in Song 5:10–16 (question 2, above).
- 4. The Song of Solomon is one of the only biblical texts in which a female character speaks for an extended period of time. Is her speech distinguished in any way from the speech of the male lover? Does the gender of the speaker influence your interpretation of the poem? In what way?
- 5. Should the Song of Solomon be read as one poem, or as a series of separate poems? Why?
- 6. Why do you think the allegorical understanding of the lovers as God and Israel, or Christ and the church, has been so popular in the history of interpretation? What literary features in the text help ground this interpretation?
- 7. Is the Song of Songs a poem about love, a poem about sex, or a poem about desire? Defend your answer with reference to specific metaphors and imagery in the text.
- 8. Compare the NRSV translation of the Song of Solomon with one or more other translations (such as the King James Bible). What different choices does each translation make? What effect does this have on the poetic whole?
If this is the beginning of a larger unit on biblical poetry, it can be helpful to end by reviewing the key features of biblical poetry and highlighting specifics to look for in the next poetic reading. Whether the next reading is poetry or prose, a productive way to wrap up the Song of Solomon unit is to emphasize that learning to read and understand biblical poetry helps build valuable close reading skills and an attention to detail and structure that are illuminating in reading any biblical text, whether narrative, poetic, prophetic, or legal.
A. Short journaling or blog post activities
- 1. Pick a passage (approximately 4–8 verses) from the Song of Solomon. Write a one page response to the passage. What literary features are particularly significant? What is the effect of the passage overall? How do you respond as a reader?
- 1A. Optional supplemental activity: After you have finished your one page response, find 2–3 commentaries on the passage on the OBSO website. Read them, and then revisit your one page response. How do the commentaries compare to your reading? How do they differ? What does consulting the commentaries add to your reading experience? With this in mind, revise and expand your one page response. Note to instructors: this can be a good way to practice using the online resources, or to "scaffold" research techniques into regular writing assignments.
- 2. Choose one literary device from our class discussion of biblical poetry. Identify 5–8 examples from the Song of Solomon. For each example, provide a brief analysis of (1) the literary device, (2) its relationship to the larger poetic unit, and (3) its literary effect.
- 3. Choose a contemporary love poem or love song and rewrite it in the style of the Song of Solomon. You may wish to include 1–2 paragraphs of commentary explaining your "translation" of the modern work, which literary devices you have included, etc. Top 40 Songs are especially fun for this.
B. Possible Paper Topics
For each of these paper topics, you may find it helpful to consult one or more commentaries on the OBSO website. Faculty may consider requiring the use of one or more commentaries.
- 1. Pick any poem from the Song of Songs to perform a close reading. Identify and analyze the poetic and literary devices the text uses.
- 2. Translators Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch call the Song of Solomon "the world's first great love poem." But is the Song of Solomon a great love poem? Make your argument with specific reference to the text of the Song.
- 3. Compare a passage from the Song of Solomon with another biblical text, such as the Song of Moses (Deut. 32), the Song of the Vineyard (Isa. 5), or the opening of Ecclesiastes (Eccl. 1). What poetic strategies do the texts share? How do they contrast?
- 4. Select a passage from the Song of Songs and compare it to a contemporary love poem (Suggestions: e.e. cummings, "I Carry Your Heart with Me;" Sylvia Plath, "Mad Girl's Love Song;" Pablo Neruda, "I Do Not Love You;" Maya Angelou, "Remembrance;" Lord Byron, "She Walks in Beauty.")
Note: The discussion questions in III.5 above may also be used as paper topics.
- Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
- Berlin, Adele. The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism. 2nd ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
- Kugel, James. The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.