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Introduction to Song of Songs

I. THE NAME OF THE BOOK

 

A. This book, like all the books of the OT, was originally named after the first few words of the  book. In Hebrew the first words are "song of songs which is Solomon's," which is a superlative. This would imply that it is the best of the royal love songs.

 

B. This book is also known as "Canticles" in the Vulgate (canticum canticorum).

 

II. CANONIZATION

 

A. Because of the unusual content of this book, it experienced difficulty in achieving canonical status

1. The rabbinical school of Shammai (conservative school) opposed the book.

2. The rabbinical school of Hillel (liberal school) affirmed the book.

3. At the rabbinical councils of Jamnia (a.d. 90) the book was still being discussed and questioned as canonical.

4. Under the leadership of Rabbi Akiba (at one of the councils of Jamnia, a.d. 90), it was  finally accepted as canonical. He said of this book, "For all the world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but  Song of Songs is the holy of holies" (Mish. Ya daim, III, 5).

 

B. It is the first of a specialized list of books from the Writings section of the Hebrew canon called the Megilloth (five scrolls). Each one was read at an annual feast day. Song of Songs was read at the Feast of Passover (on the eighth day).

1. Song of Songs - Passover

2. Ruth - Pentecost

3. Ecclesiastes - Booths or Tabernacles

4. Esther - Purim

5. Lamentations - fall of Jerusalem

 

III. GENRE

 

A. This is the main issue of the interpretation of the book. Genre is crucial in identifying the intent of the original author's purpose. The book is written entirely in poetry.

 

B. The theories are

1. Jewish allegory - The Mishnah (Ta'anith, IV, 8), Talmud, and Targum all affirm that this book describes Jewish history in terms of YHWH's love for Israel (see Jerusalem Bible  footnotes). Israel is the bride of YHWH (cf. Exod. 34:15-16; Lev. 17:7; 20:5-6, Num.  14:33, and Hosea).

2. Christian allegory - Origen, Hippolytus, Jerome, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther all affirm that this book describes the church in terms of Christ's love. Often Eph. 5:21-31 is given as a parallel.

3. Traditional Marriage Songs - There is considerable similarity between this book and the  Arab love poems from Syria from about 600 b.c., known as "wasfs," and also Egyptian  love poetry. The bride and groom exchange compliments, calling each other "king" and  "queen." There are also some parallels to Egyptian love poems in which the lover is called "sister" (4:9-10,12; 5:1-2). This type of literature praising faithful, timely, human  love was well known in the ancient Near East.

4. Drama (Origen, Ibn Ezra)

a. The book is a drama to be acted out among several actors (Ewald, Driver)

(1) the King

(2) a northern country girl

(3) a northern local lover

(4) the chorus (NJB) or harem ("daughters of Jerusalem," NKJV)

b. An example of this staging can be illustrated from chapter 1:

(1) vv. 2-4b, the bride

(2) v. 4c-e, the chorus, (cf 2:7; 3:6-11; 5:9; 6:1,13; 8:5,8)

(3) vv. 5-7, bride

(4) v. 8, chorus

(5) vv. 9-10, bridegroom

(6) v. 11, chorus

(7) vv. 12-14, bride

(8) v. 15, bridegroom

(9) vv. 16-17, bride

c. The theory of a northern boy friend is based on

(1) the lover being called a shepherd, who follows the sheep

(2) the book ending in the north, not Jerusalem

(3) the harem being criticized, 6:8-9

d. The Greek manuscript Sinaiticus was the first known manuscript to have headings for each section that relate to the bride and groom.

e. However, there is no evidence of the genre of drama in ancient Israel or the ancient Near East.

5. Parable - This theory attempts to combine the literal and the allegorical. It takes seriously the joy of human sexuality and the implication of monogamy. Yet it sees a typological purpose relating to Israel (Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pp. 261-263).

6. The literal - A series of love poems; this theory affirms the God-given aspects of human sexuality. It takes the book at face value. This view was espoused by some rabbis and Theodore of Mosuestia, one of the bright lights of the Antiochan school of interpretation (R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 1049-1058).

 

C. This book is not typical wisdom literature, yet it may have functioned in the same way, to train young men. It seems to have a moral aspect related to monogamy and the purity and beauty of human sexuality at the appropriate time.

 

IV. AUTHORSHIP

 

A. Baba Bathra 15a says Hezekiah and his men wrote the book. Obviously "wrote" means collected or edited, not authored, cf. Pro. 25:1.

 

B. Jewish tradition has always affirmed that Solomon wrote this book:

1. his name occurs in Sol 1:1,5; 3:7,9,11; 8:11,12

2. the term "the king" occurs in Sol 1:4,12; 7:5

3. Egyptian horses are mentioned in Sol 1:9, which fits Solomon's reign, cf. 1 Kgs. 10:28

4. the author mentions geographical locations throughout Palestine, Syria, and the transJordan area even down to the Arabah. This reflects the geographical limits of Solomon's kingdom.

5. the rabbis say that when Solomon was young he wrote love songs (Song of Songs), when he was an adult he wrote proverbs (Proverbs), and when he was old he wrote of the vanity of all things (Ecclesiastes).

 

C. Some reasons against Solomon's authorship:

1. the title in Hebrew, "Solomon's Song of Songs," can mean

a. by Solomon

b. for Solomon (i.e., dedicated to)

c. about Solomon

d. in the day of Solomon

e. in the manner of Solomon

2. the term "King" may be a term of endearment (Syrian wasfs)

3. the book ends in northern Israel (7:10-13), not in the harem in Jerusalem.

4. the book seems to affirm the goodness, wholesomeness, and joy of monogamous sex. (i.e., 2:16; 6:3; 7:10). This does not fit Solomon's life.

5. Solomon may be the literary foil to Song of Songs, as he is to Ecclesiastes 1-2 (E. J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 268).

6. The Jewish Study Bible says, "Internal evidence suggests that this v. 1 is secondary and  does not represent an ancient tradition of authorship " (p. 1566).

7. The NET Bible has "the superscription appears to be a late addition " (p. 1148).

 

D. It has been suggested that this book is a compilation of different love songs/poems which were read at weddings. They have parallels in other ancient Near Eastern countries. It is possible that Solomon wrote some of these or that they were written for Solomon's many weddings. Yet other people also wrote some of them. In a sense this is the same situation as

1. David writing many, but not all, of the Psalms.

2. Solomon writing some, but not all, of the Proverbs.

 

E. Authorship remains uncertain:

1. It could be Solomon.

2. Part of it could be Solomon.

3. Solomon was used as a literary foil.

 

V. DATE

 

A. Like many of the wisdom books of the OT there are two aspects to date:

1. the original historical setting

2. the date and form of the book as it appears in the canon

 

B. The historical setting:

1. Solomon's day:

a. power of the king to take numerous wives

b. the presence of a harem as chorus

c. knowledge of widely divergent geographical sites (as well as animals and plants)

d. Jerusalem parallelled to Tirzah, which was the capital of Israel before Samaria (Omri), 6:4

2. final form of the book:

a. the form of the feminine relative particle is late, cf 1:12; 2:7

b. the use of Aramaic and Greek loan words

(1) paradise

(2) orchard

(3) bed

(4) couch

 

C. Modern scholarship disagrees:

1. E. J. Young — Solomon's day

2. W. F. Albright — fifth-fourth century b.c.

3. R. K. Harrison — final form immediately before the exile

 

VI. LITERARY UNITS

 

A. There are several difficult aspects to the book. One wonders if there is a unified theme or purpose or just a series of love poems.

 

B. The following verses are difficult to interpret in light of a unified theme:

1. 2:15

2. 5:7

3. 8:5b-e

4. 8:8-9

 

C. One way to interpret the book with a unified theme is to postulate a dramatic scenario of three persons and a chorus:

1. the king

2. a northern country girl

3. a northern country lover

4. the harem as chorus

 

D. Notice how TEV and NJB outline the book:

 

  TEV NJB
1:1 
1:2-2:7 
2:8-3:5 
3:6-5:1 
5:2-6:3 
6:4-8:4 
8:5-14 
8:8-12 
8:13, 14 
title 
the first song 
the second song 
the third song 
the fourth song 
the fifth song 
the sixth song 
two epigrams
final additions
title and prologue
the first poem
the second poem
the third poem
the fourth poem
the fifth poem
8:5-7 epilogue
 

E. This book, like Esther, does not contain any name of God (even 8:6 is translated "a blazing flame" in the JPSOA translation).

 

VII.MAIN TRUTHS

 

A. This is obviously an affirmation of the purity and beauty of human sexuality, 8:6-7 (see Special Topic at Sol 2:13). This may seem to be an obvious affirmation, but in light of (1) David's sexual sin and its consequences and (2) Solomon's idolatry in his old age because of his foreign wives and their pagan religions, this was a needed statement.

In light of Greek religious dualism this truth is surely needed today. Spirituality is not conditioned on asceticism! The physical is not evil in essence.

 

B. Many have seen this book in light of the OT analogy of God as husband and Israel as wife.

 

C. The difficulty in identifying both the genre and the central purpose causes one to be cautious of dogmatic interpretations.

 

D. The book has no hints of a religious or national theme. This is so unusual for a canonical book.