February 14: Song of Songs 1:1

The Song of Songs

This begins a series of detailed exegetical notes on the Song of Songs, one of the more fascinating and provocative books of Scripture for Jews and Christians. A study of the Song will be the focus of the daily notes throughout the months of February and March. I have chosen Feb 14 (Valentine’s Day) as an appropriate moment to begin this series.


I will leave a thorough introduction and summary of the book until this series of notes has been completed. However, several points are worth making at the outset.

To begin with, there is the rather obvious issue of the sexual nature of the Song of Songs, and the longstanding problem this has caused devout Jews and Christians (many of whom are celibate or would affirm celibacy in some measure). The poetry of the Song is love poetry, erotic in character, and dealing quite frankly with the idea of sexual desire. There have been many ways Jews and Christians have sought to explain the inclusion of such poetry as sacred Scripture, and to accommodate the eroticism of the Song within more acceptable religious parameters. Three main interpretive approaches can be noted:

    • The Allegorical-Symbolic Approach—this interprets the love poetry of the Song as an allegory between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church, or between God/Christ and the soul of the believer, etc.
    • The Mystical-Spiritual Approach—here, the sexual desire and longing in the Song represents the desire/longing of the believer for spiritual union with God, and the entire Song is interpreted, more or less, through this lens.
    • The Religious-Cultural Approach—the sexuality of the Song is generally accepted and taken at face value, but only as regulated, in religious and cultural terms, through the institution of marriage; in other words, the Song exclusively refers to marital love (or of courtship that leads to marriage).

I will not comment here any further on these (or other) approaches, except to state that they all, in various ways, distort the meaning of the Song. They say far more about the concerns of the interpreter than they do the original background/setting of the Song itself, and often do not seem to be rooted in a sound exegesis of the text. In these notes, I will be studiously avoiding any preconceived interpretive approach, with the hopes of allowing the text to speak for itself (as far as possible).

However, it should also be noted that the Song of Songs poses many technical difficulties for the commentator (and translator). In addition to the nature of the poetry itself (for which there very few contemporary parallels, and almost none elsewhere in the Old Testament), the Song contains many rare or obscure words and phrases, including a good number of hapax legomena—i.e., words that occur just once in the entire Old Testament. In such instances, the lines and verses involved can be extremely difficult to translate and interpret. The commentator may indeed be torn, unsure of which direction to go for help. Should one look to later Hebrew, Aramaic/Syriac, and Arabic sources, or to earlier Semitic texts and inscriptions from Mesopotamia and Canaan (esp. the Ugaritic poetic texts)?

Much depends on the dating of the Song, but here too the evidence (and scholarly opinion) is divided. There is vocabulary and there are stylistic features that argue for a relatively late time of composition (mid/late-1st century B.C.), and other elements that suggest an early Kingdom date (10th/9th century) or even earlier (late Bronze Age). In exploring comparable language and imagery from other Near Eastern love poems, there are parallels to be found from the earliest examples (e.g., Sumerian, Egyptian) all the way down to modern times. The lines of tradition are long indeed, and it can be most difficult to determine what elements from a particular time or place are truly relevant to the background and setting of the Song.

For my part, I have chosen to focus on the milieu which provides the most likely background for the earliest layers and traditions in the Song. This means, primarily, the surviving Bronze Age (2nd millennium) poetry from Mesopotamia (Sumer), Egypt, and Canaan. Fortunately, there are wealth of examples from Sumer and Egypt, and I will be citing a number of these at different points in the notes.

Song of Songs 1:1

“The Song of Songs, which (belongs) to Solomon”

The conventional title, “Song of Solomon”, derives from the heading in verse 1. Clearly, however, “Song of Songs” is more accurate, being essentially a literal translation of the Hebrew expression <yr!yV!h^ ryv!. The syntactical idiom in Hebrew indicates a superlative— “song of (all) songs,” i.e., the greatest of songs. One finds a number of comparable expressions in the Old Testament: e.g., “king of kings” (Dan 2:37; Ezra 7:12), “holy of holies” (Exod 26:33, et al), “heaven of heavens” (1 Kings 8:27), “beauty of beauties” (Jer 3:19), etc. (cf. Pope, p. 294). The Song could certainly be regarded as the ‘greatest of love songs’ —representing as it does, by any standard, one of the finest love poems (or cycle/collection of poems) ever composed. The seemingly paradoxical statement attributed to rabbi Akiba in the Mishnah (Yadayim 3:5) regarding the Song, and reflecting the controversy around its acceptance as sacred Scripture, is worth mentioning:

“…all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy.”

The significance of the designation “which (is) to Solomon” remains uncertain. Most commentators today, and traditionally, have understood it in terms of authorship of the Song. That is to say, it was composed by Solomon and thus “belongs to Solomon” (hm)ýv=l! lišlœmœh), with the prefixed preposition l= (“to, for”) denoting “belonging to”. This would tend to be confirmed by comparison with the superscriptions of the Psalms, many of which are indicated as being musical compositions “belonging to David” (dw]d*l= l®¼¹wi¼). If so, then verse 1 almost certainly, like the Psalm headings, belongs to a secondary stage of editing. The use of the relative particle rv#a& suggests this, since the Song itself uses a different particle, the prefixed particle –v, throughout.

The attribution of so many Psalms to David reflects his legendary (traditional) status as a famous musician and singer-poet. In a similar way, it was natural for a wide range of writings to be attributed to the figure of Solomon, whose famous wisdom and prodigious literary output (1 Kings 4:32) were well-established in tradition and legend. Not only were the canonical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs ascribed to Solomon, but also such works as the Jewish Psalms of Solomon, the Christian Odes of Solomon, and doubtless many others that no longer survive.

At the same time, it is possible to read hm)ýv=l! in the sense of “relating to Solomon,” in the manner, for example, of the titles of the Canaanite epic poems—lkrt, laqht, and lb±l. Since b±l refers to the deity Baal Haddu, clearly lb±l does not mean “written by Baal”, but that the composition is about Baal—that is, he is the subject and main character. Some have interpreted Solomon as the main character of the Song, but there is little evidence for this in the text itself. Instead, along this line, the expression would more properly refer to the period of Solomon’s reign. In other words, the age and kingdom of Solomon is the dramatic setting for the Song, and this would seem to be confirmed by the other references and allusions to Solomon in the Song (to be discussed at the appropriate points in the notes).

Even so, it may still be that the title in verse 1, as it was introduced/applied by a (later) editor, was meant as confirmation of the traditional ascription of the Song to Solomon (as author).

References marked “Pope” above, and throughout these notes, are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).

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