By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The book known variously as the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs, and Solomon’s Song is something of an oddity in the Bible, in that it is an unabashed description of romantic and erotic love between a man and a woman. Despite its common title, however, Solomon didn’t write it, and many scholars now believe that parts of the Song of Songs were actually written by a female author.
Let’s take a closer look at the Song of Solomon, as it’s widely known, and explore some of the stranger and more surprising aspects of this unusual Old Testament book. Before we come to the analysis, though, here’s a brief summary of the Song of Songs.
Song of Solomon: summary
Quotations below are from the King James Version.
1:1 The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.
As we’ve already mentioned, the ‘Song of Solomon’ is ‘Solomon’s’ by convention only, and was composed long after Solomon’s death. However, given the wisdom of Solomon (the Proverbs are also attributed to him) and his prodigious harem of wives (some 700!) and concubines (at least 300), he probably knew a thing or two about lovemaking.
1:2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.
Thus we get the first comparison in the Song of Songs, which is dominated by metaphors and comparisons drawn from the author’s (or authors’?) surroundings. So we get plenty of references to wine, good food, scents and ointments, and the geographical features of that part of the Middle East.
1:5 I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
‘Black’ here is sometimes interpreted literally, but it actually means simply that the bride is tanned by the sun, as the next verse makes clear:
1:6 Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.
The fact that the bride was made ‘keeper of the vineyards’ also makes it unlikely that she is some high-profile bride, such as the Queen of Sheba or an Egyptian princess who married Solomon. Indeed, if we grant that the Song of Songs actually has nothing to do with Solomon besides bearing his name, it’s far more likely that the bride was an ordinary peasant girl, and this makes the Song of Songs even more relatable.
1:7 Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions? 1:8 If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds’ tents.
Part of the difficulty of reading the Song of Solomon is knowing who is speaking at a given point. It’s clear there are at least two speakers (see the analysis below for the various theories concerning this), but when the male voice leaves off and the female voice speaks is difficult to say for sure.
Here, 1:7 seems to be spoken by the bride (asking the bridegroom where he makes his ‘flock’, suggesting he is a shepherd), while 1:8 is the bridegroom responding to her (‘O thou fairest among women’).
We have moved from the introductory verses and to a dialogue between the two lovers. The woman wants to meet with the man while he tends his flocks at night, but he responds in a coy, treat-them-mean-to-keep-them-keen sort of way.
1:14 My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi.
1:15 Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes.
There follow numerous such comparisons, as the bride and bridegroom try to describe their beloved using suitable similes (‘My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire’) and metaphors (‘thou hast doves’ eyes’).
2:11 For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; 2:12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; 2:13 The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
This is one of the more puzzling sections of the Song of Songs, because ‘voice of the turtle’ sounds odd, until we realise that ‘turtle’ refers not to the shell-covered reptiles but to the turtledove, a bird known for its (romantic) cooing sound. The turtledove has longstanding associations with romantic love, as Shakespeare’s poem ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (where ‘turtle’ means ‘turtledove’) demonstrates.
3:1 By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.
3:2 I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.
There’s an injection of some drama and incident into the poem at this point, as the bride wakes one night to find the bed empty next to her, so she goes into the streets of the city to search for her beloved:
3:3 The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth? 3:4 It was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
She finds him, takes him to her mother’s house, and (presumably) makes love to him in the very bed in which she herself was conceived.
3:5 I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.
This sentence acts as a sort of refrain in the Song of Songs, recurring several times. It’s a paean to the power of erotic love and desire and also to wifely devotion, wishing the whole city of Jerusalem to let her beloved husband sleep until he wakes naturally. In this respect, the poem is not too different from John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’, in which the poet chides the sun for waking him and his lover as they lie together in bed in a state of romantic bliss.
3:6 Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant? 3:7 Behold his bed, which is Solomon’s; threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel.
The king, Solomon, appears, and the poet describes the royal procession. The interpretation of the Song of Songs which sees the poem as a dramatisation of an eternal love triangle between a shepherd, his peasant wife, and the king who wishes to take the wife into his harem, stems from this section. Certainly the women of the city are encouraged to come out and see the royal wedding procession:
3:11 Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold king Solomon with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.
The fourth chapter, however, then reverts to descriptions of the woman’s beauty. It is hard to exaggerate the originality and vividness of some of the imagery:
4:2 Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them.
4:4 Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.
The language is full of passionate intensity, too, with the male speaker talking of his bride as ravishing (i.e., taking by force) his heart. Note how the bride had earlier taken her beloved from the streets and into her mother’s bedchamber. One of the striking details of the Song of Songs is that the woman’s sexual love is as intensely felt and as powerful as the man’s, and that her actions are powerful to match:
4:9 Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.
There follows a section in which the woman is likened to a garden with everything ‘sealed’ and ‘shut up’, suggesting that she is chaste:
4:12 A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
But the man is encouraged to enter this garden and taste its fruits:
4:16 Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
5:1 I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.
The woman dreams (sleeping, but her ‘heart waketh’, she tells us), and – as before when she awoke to find her man had gone from beside her – in the dream she loses her beloved:
5:6 I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
This time, however, when she asks the watchmen whether they have seen her beloved, they beat her, and she doesn’t find him. Is this dream the earliest description in literature of the unconscious terror of losing somebody we love?
She finds him, in the end, safe and well in his garden. There follow more descriptions of the physical features and powerful qualities of the beloved:
6:4 Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.
Once again, the idea of enjoying the sensual pleasures of the beloved’s body is likened to enjoying the fruits of a garden:
7:8 I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples; 7:9 And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.
The woman invites her beloved into the field so they may make love there:
7:11 Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages.
7:12 Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.
7:13 The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.
Mandrake plants are associated with fertility, and this is obviously appropriate, as is the talk of various fruits, suggesting fruitfulness and bringing forth children.
Song of Solomon: analysis
What is a work of erotic poetry – for that is perhaps the best way to categorise and analyse the Song of Songs – doing in the canonical Bible? Even those books of the Old Testament which have only passing references to God and worship, such as Ecclesiastes, at least contain some mention of God and religious faith.
It appears that the Song of Solomon was included in the canon of the Old Testament partly because there’s a long-standing tendency to analyse the book allegorically, where Yahweh or God is the bridegroom and Israel is the bride. In Christianity, Yahweh becomes Jesus Christ and the bride becomes either the Church as a collective whole or the individual Christian believer.
Although this interpretation of the book’s meaning was important in getting it included into the biblical canon, it is not one that finds a huge amount of favour with modern scholars and critics.
No: we should take the Song of Solomon at face value as what it purports to be: a love song between a bridegroom and his bride, with both parties addressing each other and paying erotic homage to each other’s body.
And yet even the ‘romantic’ interpretation of the Song of Solomon invites diverse readings. For example, it’s been suggested that the song is really a dramatic composition detailing a love triangle between a woman, her shepherd lover, and Solomon, who takes the woman to be one of his concubines and tries to make her fall in love with him, while the woman remains loyal to her shepherd.
But we have to ask whether the early Christian theologians would have made canonical a book which portrayed Solomon as a wife-stealing thug who then fails to win the heart of the woman he takes.
A more compelling interpretation is that the Song of Songs was composed as an occasional poem for a wedding, or perhaps for use at all weddings, where the peasant bridegroom and his bride are made ‘king’ and ‘queen’ for a day (or, in more extended celebrations, up to a week).
Although there is scant evidence that such a custom existed at the time in that part of the world, it’s possible to see the references to jewels and gold chains as allusions to such borrowed trinkets and ornaments which the happy couple might have the privilege to wear for a few days, in honour of their marriage.
An alternative theory, which is similarly lacking in historical evidence but nevertheless highly suggestive on the strength of the internal textual corroboration, sees the Song of Solomon as a love poem which has its roots in fertility cults (as is so often the case with religious literature and ritual), where the Sun God (the bridegroom) is ‘married’ with the Mother Goddess (the bride). We will probably never know whether any, some, or none of these theories are correct.
But we have the beautiful and original erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, so perhaps that’s all we need.