Andrea has been an online writer for over five years. She's a dating consultant who gives advice on relationships and couples' issues.
Exploring Ancient Texts
Song of Songs is some of the most mysterious and romantic literature in all of the Jewish and Christian texts. In an 8 part series, I will cover each chapter of the ancient poetry.
I do not have a background in the original text's language nor do I have the original text before me. I want to look at these passages to get a better understanding of love and why people across time have been drawn to it. I have a background in literature and poetry, so I may be able to help you see and understand the piece a little more.
And if you like: below is a video of a rabbi reading Song of Songs in Hebrew.
Notes on the Text and Its Origins
- It is unclear who wrote the poetry. There is some debate as to whether it was one author or if it was written by multiple people.
- Verse 1 appears to ascribe authorship to Solomon. He is referred to seven times and several verses are about a king.
- Solomon's reign was in the 10th century BCE.
- Scholars find the linguistic data of the text ambiguous.
- There is strong debate among scholars whether Song of Songs is a unified poem or separate poems.
- Scholars have argued back and forth as to whether it should be considered among holy texts, some finding it too risque others declaring it the holiest of texts.
- It has parallels to Mesopotamia and Egyptian love poetry.
- It has pastoral imagery similar to Greek poetry.
- Historians argue the poetry dates to about the 10th to the 2nd centuries BCE. The language indicates it may be from the 3rd century BCE.
- It has been compared to the story of Ishtar and Tammuz. Ishtar was the goddess of love, beauty, justice, and war. Tammuz was an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with shepherds.
- Song of Songs has several different names including: Song of Solomon, Canticle of Canticles, or Solomon's Song of Songs.
- Some scholars suggest the title "Song of Songs" is meant to be taken as "the greatest of songs."
- The poetry is one of the Five Megillot which also includes: Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes.
- It is traditionally read on the Sabbath of Passover. The text is used to remember the Exodus from Egypt.
- The book is unique in that it makes no reference to law, covenant, or the God of Israel.
- The book is about two lovers.
Themes, Connections, and Origins
To better understand the mysteries of the text, scholars have compared Song of Songs to prophetic, wisdom, and apocalyptic passages of the Bible. It has also been compared to ancient Egyptian and Babylonian love poetry, traditional Semitic wedding songs, and practices of ancient Mesopotamians.
Many interpret it as both wisdom and love literature. The book is about love as a gift from God. Love is complicated and doesn't always go the way we expect.
In Jewish traditions, Song of Songs is an allegory about the love between God and Israel. In Christianity, it's often seen as an allegory between Jesus and the church. However, the New Testament doesn't have direct references or quotes from Song of Songs.
Many see the text as a narrative about a woman's spontaneous love for a shepherd taking precedence over the courtly luxury of Solomon, who sought to win her. In many ways, the story focuses more on her rather than the one she loves. This book can also be seen as a conversation on free-will, desire, and purpose. Her senses are awakened through the experience of love, and she is given choices on how to proceed.
The poetry depicts love in several different ways. It shows how when we are in love we may do spontaneous and crazy things. We may be overwhelmed by beauty. Beauty can be hypnotizing. We also feel more power and confidence in love. Love is exclusive and targeted. Romantically love is private. And in the absence of love there is anguish.
The text is seen as highly monogamous and supports the idea and institution of marriage.
Poetry is actually one of the hardest forms to translate. When translating poetry you also have to keep other elements of style in mind for instance: line breaks, rhyming, alliteration, metaphors, syllable counts, and more. It's not as simple as translating a plot and its mechanics in another language. Poetry is about language itself, so sometimes a word fits better in translation not because of its meaning but because of the way it sounds.
Due to the imagery of this poetry, it makes it a little easier to translate, but we lose a little bit of the artistry from the original text but gain a little bit from the translation. That doesn't mean the piece isn't valid nor that the work of the translator should go unnoticed. It's a gift to translate items into other languages so that ideas can be shared to a wider group of people. It's also fairly easy to follow the tale of lovers.
The first 6 verses of Song of Songs serve as an introduction. Verses 1:9-2:7 are a dialogue between the two lovers.
Imagery, Symbols, and Familiar Scents
The text starts in quite an intimate way. The beloved is calling out to be kissed. She compares his love to wine. Wine is one of the most popular substances in the Bible and is used in several different kinds of metaphors. Wine is seen as more ideal than water, it is a kind of life force, and it connect backs to the Garden of Eden.
We can't forget that at a wedding -- and what is considered Jesus' first miracle -- was to change water into wine. Wine is often seen as romantic, a gift, as a symbol of Christ's blood. It's a promise and often tied to unions.
Wine has a long history as a romantic drink. It is still used in contemporary times for romantic, starlit evenings. Many of the metaphors and symbols we use today for love were also used in ancient texts. Many of our expressions as humans for love and our desires for it are essentially the same.
The woman also comments on the fragrance of the man's perfumes. In the Mesopotamia region spices and scents are in abundance. Aromatic spices and gums are blended to make cosmetic oils. The beloved says the very mention of her lover's name fills the air with a pleasant scent. Also, the Hebrew words for "name" and "perfume" sound alike.
The beloved opens up the song by alluding to the five senses. She mentions touch, taste, and smell. It's wise in poetry to follow items that are grounded in reality, easy to imagine, and that people experience. Her words are appealing to a wide audience.
Her friends comment back to her: "We rejoice and delight in you, we will praise your love more than a wine." Her friends acknowledge the uniqueness and joy the woman is experiencing in love. In a way, their acknowledgement is a blessing.
The Woman Continues to Call out for Love
As the woman continues her speech and cries out for her lover, she paints a beautiful pastoral scene rich with images. She has been darkened by the sun for her time outside. She has worked hard on the fields and vineyards to produce wine. She in turn has worked so hard that she has neglected time on herself. She has taken a great amount of discipline to fall in love with someone worthy of her time.
She now wonders where the shepherd, her lover, goes with his flock. She wants to be seen as unique and worthy of his affections. She doesn't want to be like the other women he has met. She doesn't want to appear to him like a veiled woman -- like a courtesan.
The woman mentions the tents of Kedar. Kedar was a nomadic, Arab tribal group. The peak of Kedar's power was in the 6th century BCE. They controlled a vast region of Arabia. They were likely absorbed into the Nabataean state around the 2nd century CE.
The friends reply to the beloved: "If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds."
The friends give the woman direction and the way to find her lover. She meets him and a dialogue begins.
Promises of Jewelry, Comparisons to Beauty in Nature
When the male dialogue starts, he focuses on physical beauty. He uses a lot of metaphors that today might seem odd or cheesy. I don't recommend telling someone "you're like a mare harnessed to a chariot."
He does compare her to a fine horse belonging to a pharaoh, but still I don't think most women would find being compared to a horse flattering. Granted, I'm of the opinion he could also be trying to be funny. Sarcasm isn't a new thing. He then tries to allure her with promises of jewelry made of gold and silver. "My darling" is only used to refer to the beloved in the text.
The woman replies and continues to comment on charming smells. She mentions myrrh, which comes from the bark of a balsam tree that grows in Arabia, Ethiopia, and India. In ancient times, it was used in perfumes for royal nuptial robes and as an ingredient for holy anointing oil for sacred rituals.
She also compares the shepherd to a cluster of henna blossoms. These blossoms are also fragrant. They've been used in perfumes since 1500 BCE. It is a tropical variety of the loosestrife family. It is native to Africa, Asia, and parts of Australia. Reddish-brown dye can be made from the shrub. The plant has small white and red fragrant flowers. It is clear in this first chapter that the beloved is obsessed with scent in relation to her experience with love. She puts a lot of value on scent by mentioning perfumes, fragrances, and even wine.
She also mentions En Gedi which is an oasis watered by a spring. It's located on the west side of the Dead Sea. It is one of the most popular nature reserves in Israel in modern day. En Gedi was an important source of Balsam for the Greek Roman world. There are two waterfalls there today. The area is a sanctuary and home to a range of bird, animal, and plant species.
To compare the shepherd to a gorgeous landscape rich with life and fragrant blossoms is a way for the beloved to express flattery. The two are flirting with each other with their poetic choice of words. Their compliments are mostly on beauty and the five senses.