Song of Songs

Resources for Song of Songs:

Bergant, Dianne.  The Song of Songs.  Part of the Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry series, David Cotter Editor.  (Liturgical Pres, Collegeville, 2001)

Exum, J. Cheryl.  Song of Songs.  Part of the Old Testament Library series, editorial advisors May, Newsom, Petersen.  (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2005)

Keel, Othmar.  The Song of Songs.  Part of the Continental Commentary series.  Translated by Frederick J. Gaiser.  (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1994).

Pope, Marvin H..  Song of Songs.  Part of the Anchor Bible commentary series, W.F. Allbright and David Noel Freedman general editors.  (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1977).

Zlotowitz, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nosson Scherman.  Song of Songs: An allegorical translation based upon Rashi with a commentary anthologized from Talmudic, Midreashic, and Rabbinic Sources.  (Mesorah Publications, New York, 1977).

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Cheryl Exum p.1 “The Song of Songs is a long lyric poem about erotic love and sexual desire- a poem in which the body is both object of desire and source of delight, and lovers engage in a continual game of seeking and finding in anticipation, enjoyment, and assurance of sensual gratification.  A love poem.  … It looks at what it is like to be in love from both a woman’s and a man’s point of view…”

Keel p. 32: “Nowhere in the OT is the equality of the sexes – a precondition for overcoming loneliness and the basis for mutual solidarity – as real as in the Song.  Nowhere is the value of the single human being (the proverbial “individual”) so convincingly celebrated.”

The rabbis strongly defended the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the Bible.  But they also strongly defend an allegorical interpretation as primary.  Rabbinic commentary p lx:
“Song o Songs is surely a song of love, but not of one human’s love for another.  Our Sages and the commentators did not doubt for an instant that the only simple meaning is the allegorical one.  The renderings and explanations of the so-called ‘simple’ meaning, the references to feet, thighs, watchman, daughter, sheep and so on are intended to do no more than to clarify the vehicle of the allegory.”Portions of it may have come from or just been used at harvest festivals which brought young men and women together in the fields and in towns at night.  It may have gotten a dramatic telling with 3 characters or been used liturgically at such a time.

The Song of Songs is read in synagogues today on the eighth day of Passover.

Bergant commentary p. ix: “We can collude from the above that the poems that constitute the Song of Songs may have been secular in origin, but they have clear links with both the cultic and sapiential (wisdom) traditions of Israel, thus conferring religious significance on their erotic content.”   Keel and many others find strong parallels with Egyptian love poetry.

How has it been interpreted?:

  • Literally – sung or recited as love poetry in all sorts of contexts
  • Allegorically – both by Jewish and Christian traditions
    • The LORD and Israel
    • The LORD and the church
    • Devotionally – The LORD and the reader.  In Catholic tradition “Mystical Theology”

Exum p. 76: “The problem with allegorical interpretation, as well as its typological and parabolic variants, is apparent.  It is not verifiable, and it is arbitrary.  No agreement exists among allegorical interpreters.

‘If two allegorizers ever agree on the interpretation of a verse it is only because one has copied from the other’ (Keel)”.   Keel example:  Song 1:13 “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.”  Rabbis – the presence of God between the two cherubim on the ark.  Christians – Jesus between the OT and NT.    Christianity’s movement into the Greek world, with its emphasis on spirit over body, led us down that path.   Pope p. 181 provides a second example during an exhaustive review of the history of interpretation of the Song: the foxes of 2:15 represent the enemies of Israel with Israel being the vineyard.

Today the allegorical approach has diminished and the literal approach is in favor.

Not an allegory, BUT – some of its features make allegorizing easy to try.

Exum p. 77: “Because the lovers represent any and all lovers, their roles could be easily assigned to figures that suited the allegorist’s predilections and goals.”

Bergant:  p. xi  Three things set the Song of Songs apart from other bible books:

  1. The sexuality within it is explicit and erotic and it makes no excuses for that.
  2. There is no mention of God in any of the poems.
  3. It does not pass judgment on the behavior or moralize.

The Song of Songs is a collection of poems, perhaps connected and perhaps not.

Prose is based on the structure of sentences, poetry on “cola”.  Pretty hard to divide it up even in Hebrew, much less in translation.  Features present in the Hebrew text such as assonance (repeated sounds) and word play with different words that look or sound the same are impossible to reproduce in English.

What the images are meant to convey is not always obvious, poetry is intentionally full of multiple meanings, evoking multiple feelings and memories.  Hence, it will not be possible to say ‘this means xxx’.  There are many words in the text in Hebrew which do not occur elsewhere in the Bible – 9.2% of the words in the text!

Sometimes a second line repeats the idea of the first in different words, other times it is adding something to it.  There are many similes (a comparison with ‘as’ or ‘like’ and metaphors (something is similar but also quite different).  Metaphor – your eyes are doves (4:1).  Gentle?  Eyelids flutter like wings?

Exum p. 19 “Like everything else in the Song, metaphor is employed in the service of the poet’s vision of love as mutual desire and gratification, as strong as death, as transforming the world.”

The reference to Solomon should be understood as a sort of dedication to him.  The majority of the songs / poems seem to be from a woman’s point of view.  Tradition had it that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

Most of the place names (with exception of Jerusalem 8 times, En-Gedi 1 time) are from the northern kingdom of Israel.  The northern kingdom fell in 727 BCE to the Assyrians.

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First poem – elicits sense of taste and smell.  Moves to some consideration of sight – her darkness.  Due to being in the sun caring for vineyards.    Bergant p. 16: “On the one hand, she is enraptured by her lover and fantasizes about making love with him.  On the other hand she encounters criticism from both family members and citizens of the city.”  Tension here is universal and gives the poem energy and relevance.

Tents of Kedar are nomads’ tents made of black goat hair.  Exotic reference.

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second poem the words between the two who are in love, not meant for the world to know.  I long to meet you in the fields during the day – if only I knew where you would be.  You are beautiful.   Strong, resilient.  Delicate …

En-Gedi had a well known and carefully attended royal garden and vineyard.

Banner / emblem refers perhaps to a sign posted for others to see – he clearly loves her and others can tell.

Doves were / are symbols of love and devotion, going and staying in pairs.  “Your glances reveal your love” may be the meaning.

Very interesting – the Hebrew words for gazelles, hinds of the field  are nearly identical in sound to ancient names for God –  and it is God who would normally be involved in such an oath.  (God of Sabaoth / hosts; God Almighty El Shaddai)

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Third poem opens and draws toward a close with mountains, stag, gazelles.

Springtime – season of renewal, birth / rebirth, work in the fields.  The perennial season of love.

Bergant p. 33: “The imagery employed in this first part is both delicate and bursting with life.  Through the employment of various features of the blossoming of spring, the love that is experienced and shared by this couple is characterized as fresh, innocent, and productive as well as sensuously appealing.”

In its second half comes again the tension of being apart, being together.  Anxiety, loss, hope …

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Who and what is being described at the beginning here is hard to say.  A wedding procession?  Of the groom, of the bride?   A caravan of merchants with spices etc.?

Bergant p. 39: “If the various references to Solomon are merely poetic allusions, as is the position advanced here, then the entire poetic segment can be seen as a metaphoric characterization rather than a description of an actual event.”

Remember the 30 men in the story of Samson and his wedding?  That was the standard practice back then.  Here – 60, to emphasize his honor and uniqueness.

Each city would have had watchmen who patrolled at night.  Women caught out were presumed to be prostitutes.

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Tirzah was the capital city of the Northern Kingdom, Jerusalem the capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

The references to nuts (probably walnuts), vines / wine / grapes, and to pomegranates evoke an erotic atmosphere.  All were widely believed to have some aphrodisiacal properties.

Reference to Shulamite.  Same root for Solomon, for Jerusalem, for shalom.  The female counterpart to Solomon in the fiction of the poetry.

Hair dyed purple?  The royal color, connoting richness and fullness of her hair, not its color.

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Verse 6 – set me as a seal on your heart …       They emerged from the wilderness together, their relationship consummated.  Now comes the commitment.

brothers were often involved in helping to arrange marriages back in those times.

 

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