Whether read literally or metaphorically, the Song of Songs evokes love in a way few texts can equal.
‘My beloved is mine and I am his…”
With such soulful beauty does that single line, from the Song of Songs, capture the essence of enduring love that one can almost think of it as an anthem for engagements and weddings. It can be found as border decoration or embellishment in countless ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts) and has provided the text for numerous songs in honor of the bride and groom.
The joy depicted in Song of Songs, the only book of lyric love poetry contained in the Bible, is undeniable. But like love itself, Song of Songs also contains immense depths and unanswerable questions.
As beautiful as the language is, and as simply understood as some verses may seem, many aspects of the poem still remain elusive. Certainly, the subject is love; the poem abounds with allusions to brides and weddings, and the shared intimacies that couples celebrate are described in words that conjure taste, smell and touch. But is the book best understood as a spirited love story about a man and a woman joyously gamboling through the lush fields and fragrant vineyards of Israel, or a symbolic narrative about the spiritual relationship between God and the Jewish people? According to Rashi, the book is a parable of Jews in exile, with the woman symbolizing Israel and its yearning to return to its beloved God, says David Berger, dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. However, Rashi also “pays a great deal of attention to the straightforward meaning,” Berger continues. “He doesn’t say it in so many words, but presumably this gives insight into the relationship between men and women, which in turn provides a deeper understanding of the relationship between God and Israel.”
Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, approaches the book somewhat differently, as the title of his recent translation and commentary, “The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love,” suggests. Certainly the book can be understood theologically, Segal says, especially since the “metaphor of love is used many times throughout the Bible to describe or depict the relationship between God and man, and God and his people,” including in the Shema, as well as Hoseah,
Jeremiah and elsewhere. And because the story of the man and woman depicted in the Song is concrete, not abstract, it can serve as an entryway into thinking about God and theology. But the poem contains many dimensions. So make no mistake: “If you read it as it is written, it’s a love story” between a man and a woman, he says—and a very contemporary one at that.
Contemporary in that the love depicted is completely egalitarian, says Alison Joseph, who has taught adult education classes on Song of Songs and is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s a reciprocity,” she says, with both partners in the couple shown as being tender, playful and attentive to each other, and each seen as chasing the other. And because “this is probably more reflective of what we as moderns think of” in terms of love and relationships, she continues, “It’s a narrative of love for our day.”
Segal agrees. “It’s astonishing,” he says, “to find this concept of an egalitarian relationship more than 2,000 years ago.” From verse to verse, the woman is as eager as the man to pursue romance. One lush metaphor follows another, with the woman and man echoing each other as they articulate their mutual yearning and sense of fulfillment in each other’s embrace. The words are never explicit—part of the poem’s beauty resides in its restraint—but anyone who wishes may read between the lines. Although the couple is not married, Segal contends that the specific language used to describe their courtship—the word “mother,” for instance, is repeated seven times, mention is made of King Solomon’s wedding crown and the man refers to his beloved several times as his “bride”—clearly indicates that marriage and childbearing are in the offing.
Additional obstacles to fully understanding the poem’s intent have to do with the obscurity of some of the words in the Hebrew text. The extremely high proportion of rare locutions contained in Song of Songs can make some verses particularly problematic to decipher, Chana and Ariel Bloch write in their translation and commentary of Song of Songs. (Passages quoted here are from their translation, published by University of California Press in 1998.)
And there’s the question of authorship. Solomon as author (the poem’s alternative title is, of course, “Song of Solomon”) would make the work close to 3,000 years old, from approximately the 10th century BCE.
He’s also a character within the poem, his wedding procession described with pomp and splendor, and the geographical places named within the poem (including Jerusalem, Ein Gedi and Lebanon’s mountains) set the poem in the era of King Solomon’s reign. However, modern scholars point to the poem’s mixture of late biblical and early Mishnaic period Hebrew vocabulary, along with the presence of phrases from or influenced by Aramaic, and even a sprinkling of Persian and Greek words, to date the book’s origins to as recently as the Hellenistic period of around the third or fourth century BCE.
Some scholars have detected in the Song influences from the love-and-marriage poetry of Egypt and other nearby cultures. But the Song is distinctive, with its own poetic voice.
While some hypothesize that it’s a unified poem composed by a single author, others see it as a collection at some point stitched together of separate lyrics. Segal favors a single author—and probably female. At the very least, he believes, the poem’s sensibility reveals “a male seeking to capture the female voice.” He bases this assertion on the fact that the poem’s dominant voice is female: “Nearly two-thirds of the verses are spoken by the woman, and even some of the male lover’s words appear as quoted by her. Appropriately, her words open and close the Song.” His may still be a minority view, he says, but “In our time, when we’re looking for feminine voices in Judaism, this is an incredible find.”
As with every work of literature, it is for readers to discover the meanings themselves. But it’s hard to think of another poem more redolent with springtime and love, as well as the promise of loyalty and commitment:
Bind me as a seal upon your heart,
A sign upon your arm,
For love is as fierce as death,
Its jealousy bitter as the grave.
Even its sparks are a raging fire,
A devouring flame.
Great seas cannot extinguish love,
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir, “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges,” a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report and the book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker.
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