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 Song of Songs (Cantique des Cantiques) by Gustave Moreau, 1893
Song of Songs (Cantique des Cantiques) by Gustave Moreau, 1893

The Song of Songs (Hebrew: שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים‎, Šīr HašŠīrīm ; Greek: ᾎσμα ᾈσμάτων, Âisma Aismátōn), also known as the Song of Solomon,[1] Canticles,[2][3] or the Canticle of Canticles,[4] is one of the "scrolls" (megillot) of the Writings (Ketuvim), the last section of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. It is also the fifth book of Wisdom in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.[5] In Sephardic Jewish tradition, the Song of Songs is read every Friday night for the divine loving union they see in it; Ashkenazim chant it on the Sabbath during Passover, marking the beginning of the grain harvest and commemorating the Exodus from Egypt.

Scripturally, the Song of Songs is unique in its celebration of sexual love.[6] It gives "the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy".[7] The "daughters of Jerusalem" form a chorus to the lovers, functioning as an audience whose participation in the lovers' erotic encounters facilitates the participation of the reader.[8] Jewish tradition reads it as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel.[9] Christian tradition, in addition to appreciating the literal meaning of a romantic song between man and woman, has read the poem as an allegory of Christ and his "bride", the Christian Church.[10]

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The Song of Songs: it's a well known but not so well understood book of the Bible It's 8 chapters of love poetry And while there is an introduction, and a conclusion, the book doesn't have any kind of rigid literary design And that's because it's a collection of poems. They're not meant to be dissected, or taken apart. They're meant to be read as a flowing whole and simply enjoyed. The first line of the book tells us that it's "the Song of Songs," which is a Hebrew idiom like, "the Holy of Holies" or "the King of Kings," it's a Hebrew way of saying, "the greatest thing"! So this is the greatest song of all songs. Then we're told in the first line that this "Song of Songs" is of Solomon – – which could mean that he's the author, his name does begin the book after all. But as you read the poems, you discover that the main voice is that of a woman, called "the Beloved." And while there is also a male voice, it does not seem to be Solomon. Solomon is mentioned a couple times in the poem, but he's never a speaker, and you do have to admit Solomon is a very odd candidate as the author of this book, given the fact that he had seven hundred wives... For the lovers in the Song of Songs, they are the only ones in the world for each other. So the "of Solomon" likely means "in the wisdom tradition of Solomon." He was known for his wisdom, his poetry, his love of learning about every part of life. And Solomon became the father of Wisdom Literature in Israel. And so his legacy is here carried on, through a collection of love poems that explore the human experience of love and sexual desire. The opening poem introduces us to the basic theme of this book: we hear the voice of the young woman, who delights in her man, a shepherd. Now she's not married to him yet, but it becomes clear that they're engaged and they cannot wait to be together. From the introduction, the poems flow back and forth from the woman's voice, to the man's, shifting from scene to scene without any kind of clear, linear sequence or storyline. The poems move in the symphonic cycles and key images and ideas get repeated and developed So, one of the basic themes uniting the poems is the intense desire this couple has for each other, expressed through their constant seeking and finding. So, after the opening poem, they're separated, but on the hunt for one another. So the woman calls out, or she'll wake up from a dream and go looking for her lover, and more than once they'll find each other, they'll embrace. And then right when things start to get a bit racy, the scene will suddenly end. And the new one will start: they're separated, looking for each other, and on it goes. Another repeated theme is the joy of the couple's physical attraction for one another. Multiple times they'll pause and describe each other with these elaborate metaphors, and here it's very helpful to know that these images and metaphors in Hebrew poetry are not primarily visual. If you try and paint a picture of these people, based on the metaphors you will end up with something that looks very, very strange. What you're supposed to do, is reflect on the meaning of these images, as they relate to the man and the woman. So you'll read through the poetic cycle, and the tension will keep building and their desire and joy and attraction, and this spiraling repetition is a poetic way of heightening and focusing on the mystery and power of sexual love. It all comes together in the conclusion, which pauses to summarize what these poems are all about. Love is as strong as death, its passions are as severe as the grave, its flashes are of fire, a divine flame. Many waters cannot extinguish love, rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of ones house for love, he would be utterly scorned. The poem highlights the power and intensity of love – how it's both beautiful, but also dangerous. Like fire, love can destroy people if it's abused, or be life-giving if it's protected. Ultimately love expresses the insatiable human longing to know and be fully known and desired by another. Love is one of the most transcendent and mysterious experiences in human life, and as part of the Bible's wisdom tradition, this book says it's a gift from God. After this, there's an odd poem about Solomon trying to do what the previous poem just said was impossible: to buy love. The woman rejects Solomon's offer and then the book concludes with the man and the woman – they're separate once more on the hunt for each other. He calls to hear her voice, she begs him to run away with her, and that's how the book ends. Just totally open-ended. But that's a lot like love! Which never truly concludes, because there's always more to discover and pursue in your beloved. And so true love has no end. And neither does this book. Now, through history, the big question raised by the Song of Songs is, "what on earth is love poetry doing in the Bible?" There have been three main interpretations of this book throughout history. In Jewish tradition, it's been read as an allegory: each character a symbol. So the woman is Israel, the man is God, and their love is the symbol of covenant between God and Israel made at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah. This view flowed into the Christian tradition, but the characters were swapped. So it's about Christ's love for His people the Church. And this interpretation was inspired by Paul's words in Ephesians 5: – that a Christian husband's love for his wife is a symbol of Christ's love for the Church. What's interesting is that in the last hundred years, archaeological discoveries among Israel's ancient neighbors and Egypt and Babylon, has turned up all kinds of ancient love poetry that's very similar in language and imagery to the Song of Songs. We see that love poetry was a meaningful part of Israel's cultural environment, which has led most scholars today to view the Song of Songs as what it presents itself to be: an arrangement of Israelite love poetry reflecting on the divine gift of love. But, that doesn't mean it's only ancient love poetry. There's a key feature of these poems that sticks out when you read them as a part of the Old Testament. And that's the overwhelming use of garden imagery. There are powerful echoes of the garden of Eden and the idyllic scene between the married couple in the early chapters of Genesis. So the image of the man and the woman naked and vulnerable, but completely unified and safe with one another – this resonates in the background of the Song of Songs. It's as if in these poems, we are witnessing the love of a couple whose relationship is untainted by selfishness and sin. And so ultimately the Song holds out hope that even though our own relationships are so often distorted by selfishness, love is a transcendent gift. And it's meant to point us to something greater, to the gift of God's love that will one day permeate and transform His beloved world. And that is what the Song of Songs is all about.



There is widespread consensus that, although the book has no plot, it does have what can be called a framework, as indicated by the links between its beginning and end.[11] Beyond this, however, there appears to be little agreement: attempts to find a chiastic structure have not been compelling, and attempts to analyse it into units have used differing methods and arrived at differing results.[12] The following schema from Kugler & al.[13] must therefore be taken as indicative rather than determinative:

  • Introduction (1:1–6)
  • Dialogue between the lovers (1:7–2:7)
  • The woman recalls a visit from her lover (2:8–17)
  • The woman addresses the daughters of Zion (3:1–5)
  • Sighting a royal wedding procession (3:6–11)
  • The man describes his lover's beauty (4:1–5:1)
  • The woman addresses the daughters of Jerusalem (5:2–6:4)
  • The man describes his lover, who visits him (6:5–12)
  • Observers describe the woman's beauty (6:13–8:4)
  • Appendix (8:5–14)


 Illustration for the first verse, a minstrel playing before Solomon (15th century Rothschild Mahzor)
Illustration for the first verse, a minstrel playing before Solomon (15th century Rothschild Mahzor)

The introduction calls the poem "the song of songs", a construction commonly used in Scriptural Hebrew to show something as the greatest and most beautiful of its class (as in Holy of Holies).[14] The poem proper begins with the woman's expression of desire for her lover and her self-description to the "daughters of Jerusalem": she insists on her blackness, likening it to the "tents of Kedar" (nomads) and the "curtains of Solomon". A dialogue between the lovers follows: the woman asks the man to meet; he replies with a lightly teasing tone. The two compete in offering flattering compliments ("my beloved is to me as a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En Gedi", "an apple tree among the trees of the wood", "a lily among brambles", while the bed they share is like a forest canopy). The section closes with the woman telling the daughters of Jerusalem not to stir up love such as hers until it is ready.[15]

The woman recalls a visit from her lover in the springtime. She uses imagery from a shepherd's life, and she says of her lover that "he pastures his flock among the lilies".[15]

The woman again addresses the daughters of Jerusalem, describing her fervent and ultimately successful search for her lover through the night-time streets of the city. When she finds him she takes him almost by force into the chamber in which her mother conceived her. She reveals that this is a dream, seen on her "bed at night" and ends by again warning the daughters of Jerusalem "not to stir up love until it is ready".[15]

The next section reports a royal wedding procession. Solomon is mentioned by name, and the daughters of Jerusalem are invited to come out and see the spectacle.[15]

The man describes his beloved: Her hair is like a flock of goats, her teeth like shorn ewes, and so on from face to breasts. Place-names feature heavily: her neck is like the Tower of David, her smell like the scent of Lebanon. He hastens to summon his beloved, saying that he is ravished by even a single glance. The section becomes a "garden poem", in which he describes her as a "locked garden" (usually taken to mean that she is chaste). The woman invites the man to enter the garden and taste the fruits. The man accepts the invitation, and a third party tells them to eat, drink, "and be drunk with love".[15]

The woman tells the daughters of Jerusalem of another dream. She was in her chamber when her lover knocked. She was slow to open, and when she did, he was gone. She searched through the streets again, but this time she failed to find him and the watchmen, who had helped her before, now beat her. She asks the daughters of Jerusalem to help her find him, and describes his physical good looks. Eventually, she admits her lover is in his garden, safe from harm, and committed to her as she is to him.[15]

The man describes his beloved; the woman describes a rendezvous they have shared. (The last part is unclear and possibly corrupted.)[15]

The people praise the beauty of the woman. The images are the same as those used elsewhere in the poem, but with an unusually dense use of place-names, e.g., pools of Hebron, gate of Bath-rabbim, tower of Damascus, etc. The man states his intention to enjoy the fruits of the woman's garden. The woman invites him to a tryst in the fields. She once more warns the daughters of Jerusalem against waking love until it is ready.

The woman compares love to death and sheol: love is as relentless and jealous as these two, and cannot be quenched by any force. She summons her lover, using the language used before: he should come "like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountain of spices".[15]


The Song offers no clue to its author or to the date, place, or circumstances of its composition.[16] The superscription states that it is "Solomon's", but even if this is meant to identify the author, it cannot be read as strictly as a similar modern statement.[17] The most reliable evidence for its date is its language: Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew after the end of the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century BCE, and the evidence of vocabulary, morphology, idiom and syntax clearly points to a late date, centuries after King Solomon to whom it is traditionally attributed.[18] It has parallels with Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry from the first half of the 1st millennium, and with the pastoral idylls of Theocritus, a Greek poet who wrote in the first half of the 3rd century;[19][20][21] as a result of these conflicting signs, speculation ranges from the 10th to the 2nd centuries BCE,[16] with the cumulative evidence supporting a later Hellenistic period date.[22][23][clarification needed]

Debate continues on the unity or disunity of the Song. Those who see it as an anthology or collection point to the abrupt shifts of scene, speaker, subject matter and mood, and the lack of obvious structure or narrative. Those who hold it to be a single poem point out that it has no internal signs of composite origins, and view the repetitions and similarities among its parts as evidence of unity. Some claim to find a conscious artistic design underlying it, but there is no agreement among them on what this might be. The question therefore remains unresolved.[24]

The setting in which the poem arose is also debated.[25] Some academics posit a ritual origin in the celebration of the sacred marriage of the god Tammuz and the goddess Ishtar.[26] Whether this is so or not, the poem seems to be rooted in some kind of festive performance.[25] External evidence supports the idea that the Song was originally recited by different singers representing the different characters, accompanied by mime.[27]

Later interpretation and influence


 A page of rashi's interpretation of the megillot, National Library of Israel
A page of rashi's interpretation of the megillot, National Library of Israel

The Song was accepted into the Jewish canon of scripture in the 2nd century CE, after a period of controversy in the 1st century. It was accepted as canonical because of its supposed authorship by Solomon and based on an allegorical reading where the subject-matter was taken to be not sexual desire but God's love for Israel.[28] For instance, the famed first and second century Rabbi Akiva forbade the use of the Song of Songs in popular celebrations. He reportedly said, "He who sings the Song of Songs in wine taverns, treating it as if it were a vulgar song, forfeits his share in the world to come".[29] However, Rabbi Akiva famously defended the canonicity of the Song of Songs, reportedly saying when the question came up of whether it should be considered a defiling work, "God forbid! [...] For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies."[30]

It is one of the overtly mystical Biblical texts for the Kabbalah, which gave esoteric interpretation on all the Hebrew Bible. Following the dissemination of the Zohar in the 13th century, Jewish mysticism took on a metaphorically anthropomorphic erotic element, and Song of Songs is an example of this. In Zoharic Kabbalah, God is represented by a system of ten sephirot emanations, each symbolizing a different attribute of God, comprising both male and female. The Shechina (indwelling Divine presence) was identified with the feminine sephira Malchut, the vessel of Kingship. This symbolizes the Jewish people, and in the body, the female form, identified with the woman in Song of Songs. Her beloved was identified with the male sephira Tiferet, the "Holy One Blessed be He", central principle in the beneficent Heavenly flow of Divine emotion. In the body, this represents the male torso, uniting through the sephira Yesod of the male sign of the covenant organ of procreation.

Through beneficent deeds and Jewish observance, the Jewish people restore cosmic harmony in the Divine realm, healing the exile of the Shechina with God's transcendence, revealing the essential Unity of God. This elevation of the World is aroused from Above on the Sabbath, a foretaste of the redeemed purpose of Creation. The text thus became a description, depending on the aspect, of the creation of the world, the passage of Shabbat, the covenant with Israel, and the coming of the Messianic age. "Lecha Dodi", a 16th-century liturgical song with strong Kabbalistic symbolism, contains many passages, including its opening two words, taken directly from Song of Songs.

In modern Judaism, certain verses from the Song are read on Shabbat eve or at Passover, which marks the beginning of the grain harvest as well as commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, to symbolize the love between the Jewish People and their God. Jewish tradition reads it as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel.[9] Solomon B. Freehof writes of the Song:

As revealed in numerous talmudic passages, in the Targum and in the midrash, this biblical book is interpreted as referring to God's love for Israel. This interpretation (evidently the one ascribed to the Keneset Hagdola in Abot d'R. Nathan, Schechter, A #1) soon became official. In fact, anyone quoting verses from the Song of Songs giving them the literal meaning was declared a heretic who had forfeited his portion in Paradise (Tos. Sanh. XII, 10). This symbolic interpretation of the book was, with some re-interpretation, carried over into Christianity and there, too, it became official.[31]


Christians admitted the canonicity of the Song of Songs from the beginning, but after Jewish exegetes began to read the Song allegorically, as having to do with God's love for his people, Christian exegetes followed suit, treating the love that it celebrates as an analogy for the love between God and the Church.[10] Over the centuries the emphasis of interpretation shifted, the 11th century adding a moral element and the 12th century understanding the Bride as the Virgin Mary, each new reading absorbing rather than simply replacing earlier ones, so that the commentary became ever more complex, with multiple layers of meaning.[32] This approach leads to conclusions not found in the more overtly theological books of the Bible, which consider the relationship between God and man as one of inequality.[33] In contrast, reading the Song of Songs as an allegory of God's love for his Church suggests that the two partners are equals, bound in a freely consented emotional relationship.[33]


In modern times, the poem has attracted the attention of feminist Biblical critics. The Feminist Companion to the Bible series, edited by Athalya Brenner, has two volumes (1993, 2001) devoted to the Song, the first of which was actually the first volume of the whole series. Phyllis Trible had earlier published "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation" in 1973, offering a reading of the Song with a positive representation of sexuality and egalitarian gender relations, which was widely discussed, notably (and favourably) in Marvin Pope's major commentary for the Anchor Bible.

Musical settings

Excerpts from the book have inspired composers to vocal and instrumental compositions, including:

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ "Song of Solomon", The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New, London: Robert Barker, 1611 .
  2. ^ EB 1878, p. 32.
  3. ^ EB 1911, p. 213.
  4. ^ CE 1908.
  5. ^ Garrett 1993, p. 348.
  6. ^ Garrett 1993, p. 366.
  7. ^ Alter 2011, p. 232.
  8. ^ Exum 2011, p. 248.
  9. ^ a b Sweeney 2011.
  10. ^ a b Norris 2003, p. 1.
  11. ^ Assis 2009, pp. 11, 16.
  12. ^ Assis 2009, pp. 16–18.
  13. ^ Kugler & Hartin 2009, p. 220.
  14. ^ Keel 1994, p. 38.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Kugler & Hartin 2009, pp. 220–22.
  16. ^ a b Exum 2012, p. 247.
  17. ^ Keel 1994, p. 39.
  18. ^ Bloch & Bloch 1995, p. 23.
  19. ^ Bloch & Bloch 1995, p. 25.
  20. ^ Exum 2012, p. 248.
  21. ^ Keel 1994, p. 5.
  22. ^ Hunt 2008, p. 5.
  23. ^ From Plato to Moses: Genesis-Kings as a Platonic Epic, Philippe Wajdenbaum, University of Brussels, April 2016
  24. ^ Exum 2005, p. 3334.
  25. ^ a b Loprieno 2005, p. 126.
  26. ^ Price 2005, p. 251.
  27. ^ Astell 1995, p. 162.
  28. ^ Loprieno 2005, p. 107.
  29. ^ Phipps 1979, p. 85.
  30. ^ Schiffman 1998, pp. 119–20.
  31. ^ Freehof 1949, p. 397.
  32. ^ Matter 2011, p. 201.
  33. ^ a b Kugler & Hartin 2009, p. 223.
  34. ^ Herz, Gerhard (1972). Bach: Cantata No. 140. WW Norton & Co. 
  35. ^ Allan, J. (February 22, 2008), "Live – John Zorn Abron Arts Centre", Amplifier Magazine (review) 
  36. ^ Smith, S (November 27, 2008), "An Unlikely Pairing on Common Ground", The New York Times .
  37. ^ Bordwell, David (July 1992). "The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer". ISBN 978-0-520-04450-0. 
  38. ^ ben David, Solomon, "Song", KJV, The Bible, Bible gateway, 2:15 .
  39. ^ The Song of Songs: A Love Poem Illustrated, New Classic Books .
  40. ^ Accessed September 7, 2014.
  41. ^ Librivox. "LibriVox". 


External links

Jewish translations and commentary
Christian translations and commentary
Song of Songs in Hebrew
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This page was last edited on 23 November 2017, at 03:44.
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