THE QUESTION: Why did ancient Jewish leaders approve the sensuous Song of Songs (a.k.a. Song of Solomon or Canticles) as a book in the Bible?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The biblical Song, a remarkable poetic celebration of sexual and emotional love between a man and a woman, won recent praise in The Wall Street Journal’s “Masterpiece” column, which analyzes history’s major works of art. Writer Aliora Katz commented on its cultural value: “In the time of Tinder and casual hookups, [the Song] reminds us that physical attraction and love ultimately point upward to that which only the poets can imagine or describe.”
Admittedly, some of its metaphors fall oddly on the modern ear, for instance “your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead” (4:1, repeated in 6:5, Jewish Publication Society translation). Readers should realize that the Bible is filled with feelings of protection and warmth toward nature and its creatures, reflecting a pastoral culture. Yet this long-ago poetry is fully contemporary as it floats among desire, yearning, admiration, reminiscence, boastfulness, teasing, and self-reflection — for the woman character in the drama as well as the man.
Considered as Scripture, the Song contrasts with warnings elsewhere in the Bible about sexual sin. Yet the Jewish sages some 19 centuries ago agreed it was among the writings in the “canon” to be recognized as holy writ. Christianity then carried the Jewish books over into its “Old Testament.”
An evangelical expert, Tremper Longman III of Westmont College, wrote that we have no evidence to tell how the Song’s original readers understood it, and Roland E. Murphy said we cannot be sure why or when Jewish authorities made it part of the biblical canon. But historians generally think the Song was accepted because ancient Jews thought King Solomon himself wrote it, and because they believed its true message was not glorification of sexuality but the spiritual love between God and his people. That’s called “allegorical” interpretation, though the poem itself is not an allegory.
Most early Christian authors said the same, in particular the 3rd Century theologian Origen, so that the poetry depicted the love between Jesus Christ and his church, or the individual believer. The one major church Father who took the book’s love language literally said as a result the Song was too salacious to be part of Scripture.
By the 19th Century, almost all Jewish and Christian scholars had switched to a literal view of the Song as obvious poetry concerning human sexual love and found nothing in the text to support the allegorical approach. This was the most radical shift over to occur in the understanding of a biblical book.
Did Solomon really write the Song? That involves translation of a tiny Hebrew preposition in verse 1:1. The J.P.S. version reads “The Song of Songs, by Solomon” but a footnote provides the alternate “concerning Solomon.” The New Revised Standard Version and New American Bible say “which is Solomon’s” but a Catholic footnote says this may mean “about Solomon,” not his authorship. Others say the idea is “in the mode of Solomon,” since he famously wrote 1,005 songs (see 1 Kings 4:32).
Longman’s commentary (published by Eerdmans) insists Solomon couldn’t be the author because he never speaks, is cited in the third person rather than as the poet, and is only named twice (3:6-11 and 8:11-12). Also, chapter 8 seems hostile toward Solomon, particularly if the “thousand pieces of silver” is a sly jest against the 1,000 wives and concubines who “turned away his heart” (as in 1 Kings 11:3). Longman thinks Solomon’s “catastrophic” polygamy conflicts with the Song’s exultation of one husband exclusively loving one wife.
If Solomon was not the author, then who was? There’s a titillating claim that a woman may have been the artist who created all or some of the poetry. Whatever the likelihood of that (most women of those times were illiterate), the Song is unusual for ancient literature in giving many more lines to the woman than the man, and in affirming women’s sexual desire.
Scholars also debate whether the Song originated as one unified poem, or a talented editor knitted together collected poems that number from six to 25 in various theories. In either case, the phrasing fits the time and place, having parallels with Mesopotamia’s poems about the love between gods and goddesses and Egypt’s secular love lyrics about human love.
Back to that big historical dispute between literal and allegorical interpretations of the book. The Religion Guy himself has always wondered, Why not both? The Journal’s Katz agrees: “The Song of Songs is a paean to the sensual and the sacred. Understanding the spiritual through the sensual, and the sensual through the spiritual, each dimension is elevated.” Just so.