Having looked at the question of authorship and date of the Song in Part 1, we now turn to examine the composition and structure of the Song, including a consideration of how the Song came to be accepted as sacred Scripture.
2. Composition and Structure of the Song
In terms of the composition of the Song, there are two contrasting views which encompass the range of scholarly opinion. On the one hand, we have the view that the Song is a essentially an anthology, a collection of (pre-existing) poems that have been combined and arranged; according to this view, the author is more an editor than an original poet. On the other extreme, is the view that Song is an entirely original poetic work, composed by a single individual (the author), and possessing a definite dramatic structure.
A view somewhere midway between the two extreme positions, delineated above, would seem to be appropriate. The author, indeed, appears to have worked with a wide range of traditional material, and likely adapted a number of pre-existing poems. At the same time, the intertextuality of the Song—echoes and allusions to motifs and phrases, etc, between the poems—is evidence for a strong authorial hand at work. This author composed much of the connective tissue of the Song, and may have been the primary author of the individual poems as well.
The problem with establishing the nature and extent of the author’s role in composing the Song is intrinsic to the nature of Near Eastern love poetry. There is an extensive and wide-ranging tradition of Near Eastern love poetry, extending from the Sumerian love songs in the late-3rd millennium B.C. to the Arabic love poetry (Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, etc) of the present day. Similar images, motifs, idioms, even specific phrases, can be found in love poems spanning a long period of time. It may fairly be assumed that any ancient poet would have made use of a wide range of traditional material. As always, the line between traditional literature and individual authorship (in the modern sense) is fine indeed.
When considering sources of influence for the Song, we can isolate two main sources: (1) Egyptian love poetry (of the New Kingdom period), and (2) Israelite folk songs.
1. Egyptian Love Poetry. We are fortunate to possess a number of ancient Egyptian love poems that have survived the ravages of time. Of special significance are several papyri collections of poems from the New Kingdom period (20th-19th dynasties, c. 1300-1150 B.C.). These include: P. Harris 500, P. Chester Beatty I, and P. Turin 1966. Also to be noted are the Cairo Love Songs, written on the surface of a large vase. A fine edition of these poems is available in The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, by Michael V. Fox (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985), including a transcription of the hieroglyphics, English translation and commentary (referred to below as “Fox”).
The papyrus collections, on the whole, are anthologies of individual songs that are only loosely related to each other. There are also, however, several longer and more complex poems, such as in P. Chester Beatty I Group A (nos. 31-37 in Fox, pp. 52-64, or the Cairo Love Songs, with a narrative framework, and which may have been built up out of shorter poems and traditional material. As such, these works give us a general parallel to the Song of Songs. The latter, however, is considerably longer and more complex than the Egyptian songs.
Egyptian cultural influence in Syria and Palestine was quite strong, having been established during the period when Egypt had political control over these regions, during the 18th-20th dynasties (early 15th century through to the late 12th century B.C.), which just happens to coincide with the date of the love song sources mentioned above. It is fair to assume that Egyptian music and poetry would have been widespread, both within the imperial administrative sites, and also in the local royal and princely courts. Contacts with Egypt were strong, and a number of Canaanite rulers and nobles were educated in Egypt. For centuries, Egypt was seen as the pre-eminent source for craftsmanship and artistic skill. The Megiddo ivories (14th-12th centuries) include a hieroglyphic inscription by an Egyptian singer (Kerker, the “singer of Ptah”), and the “Report of Wenamun” (early 11th century) mentions an Egyptian singer-poet working in the royal court of Byblos. Cf. Fox, pp. 191-2.
Egyptian influence in Palestine remained strong, even after there ceased to be an imperial political presence. Cultural ties were particularly prominent in royal court of Israel during the reign of Solomon (c. 960-922), due to his marriage (part of a political alliance) to the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1). We can assume that Egyptian songs were sung in the royal and princely courts, and that local singer-poets would have composed works in the Egyptian style. This cultural-artistic influence likely lasted for centuries (probably into the 7th century, at least). A work like the Song of Songs certainly could have been composed in the kingdom-period, even as early as the reign of Solomon. Arguments for a later (exilic or post-exilic) date are based more on concrete linguistic factors, rather on historical plausibility.
I have discussed parallels between the Song and the Egyptian love poems at numerous points in the notes, and you can also find them well-documented throughout Fox’s valuable study.
2. Palestinian Folk Songs. The second line of influence is to be found in the folk songs that would have been sung throughout Palestine, which certainly would have included a variety of love songs. Virtually nothing of this survives, at least not in any discernible written form (apart from the Song of Songs itself). However, the many noted parallels between the Song and modern folk songs is striking, and is testament to the fixity and duration of traditional Near Eastern poetry, lasting over many centuries.
In the 19th and early-20th centuries, a number of pioneering studies documenting modern love songs from Syria and Palestine appeared. Following two studies by J. G. Wetzstein (1868, 1873), Gustav Dalman in 1901 published a collection of Palestinian folk-songs, Palästinischer Diwan (M. Jastrow, Jr. cited a number of examples, in English translation, in his 1921 commentary on the Song; cf. Pope, p. 56-7). Building on this work, S. H. Stephan, adding to Dalman’s collection of folk-songs, presented an extensive anthology entitled “Modern Palestinian Parallels to the Song of Songs” (Journal of the Palestinian Oriental Society, 2:1-80 // 198-278 ). As the title indicates, the modern songs evince many striking parallels—in theme, subject matter, imagery, and even specific phrasing and idiom—with the ancient Song, despite a time-span of more than 2,000 years. Pope (pp. 59-65) offers a convenient summary of samples, including indications of parallels with the Song (citation of relevant verses). As one simple example that illustrates the long tradition of associating female sexuality with garden and pasture (grazing) imagery, so prevalent in the Song, note song 51 (p. 277; Pope, p. 65) of Stephan’s collection, of which a variant version of lines 3-4 is:
“My eyes are springs for you, if you come to drink,
And my breast is a garden, with herbs sprouting for you.”
Another variant of line 4 is:
“And your breast is a garden, a grazing place for youth.”
It is not hard to imagine that the popular love songs circulating in Palestine and Syria in the mid-1st millennium B.C. were similar, in many respects, to these much later folk-songs. Such songs may have been sung as part of wedding celebrations, but doubtless in a variety of other settings as well. A number of well-established poetic forms and genres—such as the waƒf praise-song (to use the Arabic term)—can be detected and isolated in the Song. I believe that the author likely made heavy use of contemporary love songs in his work—both by incorporating and adapting existing lyrics, and also drawing upon established traditional material (and language) to craft his own poetry.
An original composition
Fox (pp. 209ff) astutely isolates four attributes or features of the Song which are indications of literary unity and authorship:
- Repetitions of key phrases and sentences, which recur (sometimes in varied form) at different points in the Song; for a good survey of examples, cf. Fox, pp. 209-215.
- Associative sequences—groups of words, sentences, or motifs that recur in the same order; Fox, pp. 215-7.
- Consistency of character portrayal, specifically in terms of the two main characters (the young woman and young man); Fox, p. 217.
- The existence of a loose narrative framework ; Fox, p. 217-8.
The last two points, in particular, will be discussed in more detail in Part 4 of this article.
The author, it seems, has built up his narrative organically, and inductively, by including and arranging various kinds of traditional poetic material (on his main sources, cf. above). These poems and lyrics were adapted and developed, emphasizing particular motifs and bringing out a number of key words and phrases. The various poems are ‘sexed’, in the sense that either the young man or the young woman is the implied speaker, with enough alteration to create a kind of dramatic dialogue between the two lovers, which also allows for the shaping of specific scenarios—both encounter-scenarios and conflict-scenarios—that serve as building blocks for the overall narrative of the Song. Beyond this, the author provides a certain amount of connective material which furthers this narrative cohesion.
Perhaps the best example of how this is done can be seen in the section spanning 5:2-6:3, the most extensive coherent narrative section of the Song. This section is constructed out of two love-poems which, taken on their own, are entirely unrelated, and could easily have circulated as independent songs. The two poems are 5:3-7 and 5:10-16a. The first of these is an encounter-poem (blending into a search/lament for the departed lover), which greatly resembles the earlier scene in 3:1-4; the second is a waƒf praise-song, which easily could have existed as a popular love-song that the author included (and adapted).
These two poems themselves have almost nothing in common, but notice how skillfully (and cleverly) the author has combined them as part of a narrative framework. This is accomplished by introducing the chorus of the “Daughters of Jerusalem”, as a refrain and transitional element following each poem (5:9; 6:1), and then adding a verse or couplet at the end of each poem (5:8, 16b), leading into the refrain, as connective tissue that reinforces the sense of a continuing narrative.
At the end of the first poem, the girl has been wandering the city (in a rather impulsive and scandalous manner) in search of her beloved. The “Daughters of Jerusalem” are introduced as a character to help further her search. Then, however, the question posed by the “Daughters”, in the refrain, provides a mechanism that justifies (at the narrative level) the inclusion of an otherwise unrelated waƒf praise-song. Then, at the end of the praise-song, the “Daughters” appear again, and their exchange with the girl again provides the impetus for the poem that follows. After hearing the praise-song, the “Daughters” are so enamored with the girl’s beloved that, though they do not know where he is, they are eager to help her find him. At that moment, suddenly, the girl realizes where her young man must be, and the stage is set for an encounter between the two lovers.
The two central poems are bracketed by a pair of shorter love-songs. Thus the section is comprised of four poems, each of which could have existed as a separate (independent) poem, but which, combined together, create a compelling narrative arc:
- Introductory poem (5:2)—a night-time encounter between the two lovers (sexual setting of the girl’s bedroom), but the clandestine rendezvous is unrealized
- First main poem (5:3-7)—the girl’s search for her beloved (building upon the similar scene from the First Part of the Song, 3:1-4)
—Transitional encounter between the girl and the “Daughters of Jerusalem” (vv. 8-9)
- Second main poem (5:10-16a)—song in praise of her beloved’s beauty; in the narrative context, this serves as a description to help the “Daughters” find the beloved for her
—Transitional dialogue between the girl and the “Daughters of Jerusalem” (5:16b-6:1)
- Concluding poem (6:2-3)—a short poem anticipating an encounter between the lovers (sexual setting of the garden), in which their love finally will be realized; in the narrative context, the “Daughters” are unable to help her find the young, and the girl suddenly realizes (on her own) where her beloved must be.
Overall Structure of the Song
In my view, the Song overall has only a loose narrative structure. I have discussed this at various points in the notes, and will consider the matter in more detail in Part 4 of this article. Here I will simply offer my view on the Song’s basic structure.
I believe that the Song contains a two-part narrative structure, that may be likened to musical movements in a symphony or tone-poem, etc. The movements are parallel, and the second movement develops the themes and motifs of the first. In each movement, the two lovers desire to be together, united (in a romantic and sexual way), and several attempts are made, leading to one or more encounters in which their love is (at least partially) fulfilled. Along the way, there are a number of obstacles and barriers which create the narrative conflict, making it difficult for the lovers to be together; these barriers involve both socio-economic and logistic/practical impediments. At the end of each movement, the girl expresses the desire for social acceptance of their relationship (through marriage), making permanent their bond of love, and a wedding is anticipated.
The broad outline of the Song is thus quite simple:
The second movement is longer and more complex than the first, developing extensively a number of themes and motifs presented (in a more cursory fashion) in the first movement; cf. above on 5:2-6:3.
The Song as Scripture
How did this collection of love poetry come to be regarded as sacred Scripture? There is scarcely a trace of religious expression in the Song. Taken at face value, it is secular love poetry, pure and simple. In this regard, the Song is quite different from the Sumerian Dumuzi/Inanna ‘cycle’ of love poems, in which the forms of secular love poetry are used for a mythological purpose—to express cosmological myth and religious ritual in terms of a human love story. While some scholars do claim a similar mythic-ritual background for the Song (influenced, indeed, by the setting of the Mesopotamian poems), I find those arguments quite unconvincing (they will be touched on briefly in Part 3).
It is interesting that the earliest attestation for the Song is found in the few (highly fragmentary) scrolls of the Song from Qumran (4Canta-c, 6Cant). Since no other purely secular poetry (let alone love poetry) seems to have been preserved among the Qumran texts, it is likely that, already at this early period (by the mid-1st century B.C.), the Song was being treated as Scripture, and (presumably) being read as a religious allegory, at least within the Qumran Community. However, a strong argument can be made that the allegorical interpretation was secondary, coming into vogue only after the Song had begun to be regarded as sacred Scripture. This only begs the question: how did the Song come to be regarded as Scripture?
The closest parallels elsewhere in the Old Testament are found in the Prophets. The “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5:1ff, for example, seems to draw upon secular love poetry (such as one finds in the Song), but for a very specific purpose—as the setting for an allegory regarding the ethical-religious faithlessness of Israel. Indeed, the theme of sexual love (and relations) in the Prophets is typically applied in a decidedly negative sense, depicting the Israelite/Judean people as a faithless bride or wife, who has been unfaithful (in a moral or religious sense) to YHWH (as the husband)—e.g., Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2-3. Thus, there is precedent for reading sexual love (and love poetry) in allegorical terms, as a religious allegory or parable. Yet, the tone and emphasis in the Song is altogether different from these Prophetic examples, nor is there any indication in the Song itself that it is to be understood as a religious allegory. The allegorical interpretations of the Song (to be discussed in Part 3) almost certainly developed as a way of explaining (and justifying) how the Song could be considered sacred Scripture.
A traditional-conservative explanation might simply appeal to the intrinsic inspiration of the Song, and that, despite formally being a collection of (secular) love poetry, it nonetheless possessed a divinely-inspired character that readers and hearers, from an early time, recognized. This explanation is perhaps as good as any. Certainly, even apart from any doctrinal considerations (regarding the inspiration of Scripture), people throughout the centuries have been quick to recognize the special character of the Song, and would doubtless affirm the special inspiration (at least in an artistic sense) of the Song’s poetry.
But it may also be possible to point to a practical mechanism, to explain how the love poetry of the Song came to be regarded as Scripture. Fox (pp. 250-2) builds upon an earlier suggestion by Aage Bentzen (1953), that the “sacralization” of the Song came about as the result of an incidental association with its being sung (as entertainment) during religious festivals. This seems to be altogether plausible. Such festivals were not simply solemn religious occasions, but times for relaxation, feasting and celebration, including the performance of music and song. There are even indications that these festivals could become occasions for sexual expression and licentious behavior. On this point, see already in the early Old Testament tradition, the description in Judges 21:19-23. The Mishnah (Taanit 4:8) records similar behavior, even during the solemn festivals of the Day of Atonement and the 15th of Ab, when girls would dress up, and dance in the vineyards, flirting (sexually) with the young men in attendance.
In the earliest stages, the Song was regarded, naturally enough, as being just what it appears—a memorable, vivid, and utterly appealing collection of secular love poetry—with people singing and performing it on festive occasions. This use and treatment of the Song still seems to have been common in the 1st century A.D., as testified by Akiba (critically, against it) in the Tosephta (Sanhedrin 12:10). The regular performance of the Song in the context of the religious festivals, however, may well have prompted people, over time, to begin interpreting and understanding the Song in a religious sense. In any case, the religious association would, almost certainly, have given the Song something of a sacred, canonical status.
By the 1st century B.C./A.D., this view of the Song seems to have been relatively widespread, to the point where it became necessary for scholars and religious leaders to explain (and expound) its sacred character. The Old Testament Prophetic tradition (cf. above) offered one line of explanation—viz., of love poetry as an allegory of the relationship between God (the bridegroom/husband) and the people Israel (the bride/wife). This became the basis of the most common line of Jewish allegorical interpretation of the Song, which we will examine briefly in Part 3.
References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).