Song of Songs: Conclusion – Part 1

Having completed our detailed critical-exegetical notes on the Song of Songs, it now remains to give serious consideration to questions surrounding the nature and purpose of the Song, including the ever-controversial issue regarding how best to understand love poetry of the Song as Scripture. This concluding discussion will be divided into several parts:

    1. Authorship and Dating of the Song
    2. Composition and Structure
    3. The Song as Scripture, with an evaluation of the three main interpretive approaches:
      1. The Allegorical-Symbolic approach
      2. The Mystical-Spiritual approach
      3. The Religious-Cultural approach
    4. Conclusion: A fresh approach to the Song

1. Authorship and Dating of the Song

Let us begin with the question of when the Song was composed.

The heading of the Song suggests that it was written by Solomon (“The Song of Songs, which [belongs] to Solomon”), and would thus date from his reign (c. 960-922 B.C.). The exact expression is hm)ýv=l! (lišlœmœh), with the prefixed preposition l= (“to, for”) denoting “belonging to”. This certainly could indicate authorship, as in the superscriptions to the Psalms, many of which are indicated as being musical compositions “belonging to David” (dw]d*l= l®¼¹wi¼). 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.

There are strong reasons to doubt that the Song was composed by Solomon. 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. Moreover, the royal harem of Solomon with his many wives was also part of the historical tradition, and one can easily see how this grandest of love songs, specifically, might be attributed to him.

Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone reading the lines in 8:11-12 (cf. the recent note) could still be convinced that Solomon was the author of the Song. In my view, he is neither the author nor even a significant character in the Song. It is, rather, the milieu of his reign—the Solomonic Age—that serves as the literary setting of the Song. In a modern novel or motion picture, we might subtitle the Song, “A Love Story from the Time of Solomon”.

Even so, we must admit the possibility that the heading of the Song was intended to express the belief (or tradition) that Solomon was the author. By all accounts, the heading was a secondary addition, written by a separate hand, indicated by the use of the classical relative particle rv#a& rather than the prefixed –v# used everywhere else in the Song (cf. below).

As far as historical or cultural references that might give some indication of when the Song was composed, there is very little at hand. The reference to Tirzah as a prominent northern city (6:4) has been used by some commentators to date the Song to the brief period when Tirzah served as the capital of the Northern Kingdom (prior to the building of Samaria, 1 Kings 16:24ff). Such a conclusion, however, reads too much into this single reference, since Tirzah doubtless would have remained as a legendary northern city in the minds of many people for generations to come. All that the reference proves with certainty is that the composition of the Song post-dates the division of the Monarchy (cf. 1 Kings 14:17; 15:21ff; 16:6-9ff).

Most commentators rely on the language and style of the Hebrew to determine the relative dating for the Song’s composition. The most distinct linguistic feature is the consistent use of the prefixed relative particle –v# (še), rather than the particle rv#a& that is used throughout most of the Old Testament (writings from the Kingdom and Exilic Periods). It is the regular relative particle in later (Mishnaic) Hebrew, and occurs primarily (100 of 139 occurrences) in two Old Testament texts that are often regarded as of later (post-Exilic) date—Ecclesiastes (68) and the Song of Songs (32). This picture, however, is complicated by the fact that –v# also occurs, albeit rarely, in earlier Hebrew texts, including the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:7), one of the oldest portions of the Old Testament. Other pre-exilic occurrences are: Gen 6:3; Judg 6:17; 7:12; 8:26; 2 Kings 6:11; it also occurs 17 times in ten Psalms if uncertain date (122-124, 129, 133, 135-136, 144, 146), while the age of Jonah 1:7, 12; 4:10 is also debated; cf. Fox, p. 188. How is this evidence to be explained?

The particle v# indeed has very ancient roots, used in many Semitic languages/dialects over many generations and throughout a wide geographic range. Hebrew v# (še) is equivalent to Akkadian ša, and also cognate with Aramaic (cf. Dan 2:11, 23, et al) and Arabic ¼¥, etc. All of these variant forms go back to the use of the Proto-Semitic interdental ¼—which variously came to be spelled/pronounced as š/´, d, ¼, z, in the different languages and dialects, over the course of time. The best explanation thus would seem to be that v# was the regular relative particle in early Hebrew, to be replaced (for unknown reasons) by rv#a& in the Classical (Kingdom and Exilic) Period, only to return as the regular particle in later (post-Exilic) Hebrew, probably under the influence of Aramaic. Its occurrence in the Song of Deborah (and other pre-exilic passages) apparently represents an archaic vestige of the earlier usage. Cf. Pope, p. 33. The consistent use of v# in the Song can thus be explained two ways:

    • It is a sign of very early poetry (probably older than the Song of Deborah), or
    • It means that the poetry is quite late (i.e., post-Exilic)

Overall, the evidence strongly favors the latter. As noted above, the pairing of Tirzah/Jerusalem in 6:4 argues for a time after the division of the Kingdom (i.e., post-922 B.C.). The usage in Ecclesiates suggests a much later date, as do the signs of Aramaic influence and the linguistic/stylistic parallels with Mishnaic Hebrew. There are, indeed, many rare and usual words and phrases—including numerous hapax legomena (words that occur in the OT only in the Song)—and a number of these are attested in Aramaic and later Hebrew. Most critical commentaries provide convenient summaries of this evidence—cf. for example, Fox, pp. 187-9. There are instances where linguistic parallels (or possible cognates) for the hapax legomena can be cited from earlier examples in Akkadian or Ugaritic, so the evidence for a post-exilic dating is not absolutely decisive.

What of the content of the love poetry itself? Unfortunately, the nature of love poetry is such that it practically defies dating. Many of the same (or similar) motifs, images, idioms, and phrases can be found in Near Eastern poetry across thousands of years, from the early Sumerian love songs to modern Arabic (Egyptian, Palestinian, etc) poems today. I have cited a number of such relevant and representative examples throughout the notes. In terms of ancient Near Eastern love poetry, probably the closest parallels to the Song—in terms of both style and content—are found in the Egyptian love songs from the New Kingdom (19th-20th dynasties, c. 1300-1150 B.C.), though the Song as we have it is likely nowhere near so old. However, it is certainly possible that the author of the Song drew upon more ancient and traditional material—incorporating motifs, phrases, verses, and even individual poems—that are considerably older than the Song itself. Some of these possible sources (and sources of influence) will be discussed in the next section (Part 2).

If a post-exilic dating is correct, which would make the Song one of the latest of the Old Testament Scriptures (probably later than Ecclesiastes), then a time-frame c. 500-200 B.C. would be a plausible rough estimate for the time of composition. The earliest external, objective evidence for the existence of the Song are the four Qumran manuscripts (4QCanta-c, 6QCanta)—all quite fragmentary, but together covering the bulk of the Song. These Dead Sea MSS show that the Song was in existence (and being widely copied) by the 1st century B.C. There is an earlier reference in Sirach (47:15, 17) to a song by Solomon, but it is by no means clear that this refers to the Song of Songs (it may simply allude to 1 Kings 4:32). Cf. Fox, p. 189.

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).