Song of Songs

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A fragment of Song of Songs, c. 30 BCE - 30 CE.

Song of Songs, also referred to as Song of Solomon or Canticle of Canticles, is an ancient Jewish writing canonized into the Five Scrolls section of the Ketuvim. Christians later appropriated it into their old testaments. The book is a song or songs written about sexual intimacy between a man and woman. It was written by an anonymous author or authors, around 300-200 BCE. The book is unique in the Torah as it has nothing to do with matters of theology and doesn't even mention Yahweh or Elohim.

Title

The book doesn't have a title, but has been referred to as "Song of Songs" for thousands of years. Later Christians began referring to it as "Song of Solomon," but most modern translators reverted to the Jewish name.

Source Title Transliteration Translation
Hebrew שיר השירים‎ Šîr Hašîrîm Song of Songs
Greek Septuagint ᾎσμα ᾀσμάτων Âsma asmátōn Song of Songs
Latin Vulgate Canticum Canticorum Canticum Canticorum Song of Songs
Early Modern English The Song of Solomon
Modern English Song of Songs

Authorship and Dating

Traditionally, the book was attributed to King Solomon because the first verse reads, "Solomon's Song of Songs", and Solomon is mentioned multiple times in the work. However, few historians now accept Solomon as the author and attribute the book to an anonymous source, or multiple anonymous sources. The primary reason for this is based on the dating of the work. If he existed, King Solomon would have lived in the 10th century BCE, but most scholars date the work to around 3rd century BCE. The book is also quite disjointed and, at times, incomprehensible, suggesting multiple sources being merged together, corrupted, or edited. It's common with ancient books to attribute an anonymous work to a specific person to lend credibility, and the attribution to Solomon at the beginning of the song could easily be an addition from a later author, though there isn't any evidence for this. However, even if the header were penned by the original author, while it implies attribution to Solomon, it doesn't demand it, as "Solomon's Song of Songs" could just be a reference to his name appearing so frequently in the work.

Since the book doesn't have any useful historical passages, it must be dated based on its writing style. Most historians date it to around the third century BCE, but arguments are made for as early as 1000 BCE to as recent as 100 BCE. Those scholars who argue for Solomon authorship have no choice but to ascribe it to the 10th century BCE in order to match up to when he supposedly lived. In the first century CE, Jews debated over whether it should be canonized into the Tanakh due to its overt sexual nature, however, it was decided that all the passages about grabbing breasts was really meant to be interpreted as Yahweh's love of Israel, and it was canonized in the second century CE. Christians later evolved the allegory further to refer to Christ's love for humanity, or God's love for Mary.

There are no surviving original manuscripts. The oldest known scrap is dated to around 50 BCE.

Content

The book is a song or series of songs about a man and woman describing each other's bodies as being beautiful, fragrant, and sexy, discussing their physical passion for each other, and describing a sexual tryst. Unlike most books of the Tanakh, there is no mention of Yahweh or Elohim, and nothing to do with theology. Early rabbis suggested that the song was actually an allegory for Yahweh's love for the nation of his chosen people, but there is no evidence to suggest the author(s) intended it to be interpreted in this manner, and some evidence to suggest early Jews sung the song in drinking establishments.

Although the writing is a song, no surviving sheet music exists for how it would have been sung or played on instruments, and music notation doesn't exist until the 1500s, and all the early music is Christian rather than Jewish.

Status

This book is in the public domain. I have several translations of this book from various bibles and have read the NIV translation.

Review

Good

  • There are some pretty juicy quotes that I'm sure cause no end of headache for people trying to claim this song is about God loving mankind. I'm sure the more conservative readers clutch their pearls:
    • "Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers." (1:4)
    • "Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste." (2:3)
    • "Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies." (4:5)
    • "Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue." (4:11)
    • "Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits." (4:16)
    • "Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, "I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit." (7:7-8)
  • The pastoral descriptions which exist even in a love poem, really hammer home just how dependent on shepherding the ancient Jews were. Numerous similes and comparisons are made to horses and sheep. For example, "Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone." (4:2) Similarly, the similes about weapons and armor make it clear they were a warring tribal people. For example, "Your neck is like the tower of David, built with courses of stone; on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors." (4:4)

Bad

  • The song frequently jumps between a male lover, female lover, and third party, without using clear distinctions in the text. In the native Hebrew, male and female words are used which makes it less of a problem, but, even with them, it's not always clear as modern translators note.
  • I'm all for love poetry, but the authors felt the need to denigrate others as a compliment. For example, "Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens." (2:2) You can lift up person without bringing down others.
  • Like with most books in the Tanakh, there are a bunch of words whose definitions are lost to time and exist only in this book. Although I like how this works as evidence as to why nobody can ever fully understood the scripture, it also makes reading them quite difficult. Examples include charuz (1:10), chabatstseleth (2:1), and talpiyyoth (4:4).

Ugly

  • The author thought it romantic to compare his lover to other women, especially concubines and virgins. "Sixty queens there may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins beyond number; but my dove, my perfect one, is unique..." (6:8-9) Maybe it's just me, but I don't think a woman would be impressed by being told she was more alluring than a whole mess of virgins. However, when you remember that this book, like all of those in ancient scripture was written by men, for me, it becomes clear.

Links

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