Song of Songs has been causing embarrassment to Christians for nearly 2000 years! But what’s it really about?
On the face of it, the biblical book Song of Songs is an R16 erotic novel. The book appears to be about sexual love. It seems to have no religious content. So what on earth is it doing it the Bible? And what are Christians supposed to do with it?
Scholars agree that it was included in the Old Testament on the basis of the Songs’ connection to King Solomon. The book opens with, ‘Solomon’s Song of Songs’ (1: 1) and has six references to Solomon within it. We don’t know if Solomon actually wrote the book—it could have been written by Solomon, dedicated to Solomon, concerning Solomon or in the wisdom tradition of Solomon.
So we can’t tie down the author, but we are able to tie down the approximate period it was written. There are similarities between Song of Songs and Egyptian love poetry from around 1300–1100BC (a little before Solomon’s time, but pretty close).
Just look at this section from an Egyptian love poem:
My Love is one alone, without equal,
beautiful above all women …
Straight neck and white her breast,
her tresses gleam like lapis lazuli,
Her arms are more precious than gold,
her fingers like lotus blossoms …
And then look at Song of Songs 5: 10–14:
My beloved is radiant and ruddy,
outstanding among ten thousand …
His arms are rods of gold
set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory
decorated with lapis lazuli.
The two passages describe their lover in the same style. Daniel J. Estes, in his book Song of Songs, notes that Egyptian love poetry ‘vividly portrays … intoxication with the beauty and charms of one’s beloved, yearning for the lovers presence, love sickness, the overcoming of natural and social obstacles to be together; the joys of physical intimacy … the environments of love they depict similarly abound with perfumes, spices, fruits and flowers, trees and gardens’.
It is quite reasonable to presume that the writer of Song of Songs was influenced by Egyptian love poetry. We know there was contact between the two nations. So, then, we need to find out what the purpose of Egyptian love poetry was in order to get a clue as to what the purpose of Song of Songs was.
And the purpose of the Egyptian collections was … entertainment. They have no obvious connections with anything religious. The Egyptian poems simply are what they appear to be. So, what if Song of Songs simply was what it appeared to be? A love poem.
This thought makes a lot of Christians uncomfortable. But not only Christians. Early Jewish rabbis spoke very strongly against just seeing it as a love song. Rabi Aqiba said, ‘treating it like an ordinary song, has no share in the world to come’, and the Babylonian Talmud says, ‘He who recites a verse of Song of Songs and turns it into a love song … brings evil into the world!’
Early Christian interpreters acknowledged that the literal side of the poem was a problem. Origen (185–254CE), for example, ‘warned that it only be read by those who were deaf to the enticements of physical love’—and were over 30! Early Christian interpreters favoured an allegorical approach, which found a spiritual meaning in the Songs. By taking the book as an allegory, the Songs could be seen as communicating the passionate, intimate love of God for his people. Scriptures such as Ephesians 5: 22–23 and Rev 19: 9, where Christ is the groom and the church the bride, support this idea.
Origen wrote 10 volumes on Song of Songs—which were incredibly influential and formed the foundation for how it was interpreted for the next 1500 years. It’s important to note that Origen was highly influenced by ascetic and gnostic ideas about the separation of the body and soul. He believed Christians should be free from fleshly concerns, particularly sexuality. He believed this to the point that he had himself castrated!
Another influential early interpreter who held similar views was Jerome (331–420CE). Jerome is known to have tried to quell sexual desire by throwing himself into thorn bushes or studying Hebrew! Such was the desire to be free from sexual drives.
For those with such strong anti-sex feelings, Song of Songs simply could not be just literal. For them, the allegorical approach which found a deeper spiritual meaning solved this problem.
But, the allegorical interpretation has many problems. Usually when the Bible does use allegory, this is made clear to the reader. But nowhere does Song of Songs indicate that it is really about God and his people. Also, allegory means interpretation is left to the individual to interpret. This means it will mean different things to different people. For example, the woman’s breasts (4: 5, 7: 8), have been interpreted as really meaning: Moses and Aaron, Moses and Phineas, Joshua and Eleazar, the Church from which we feed, the Old and New Testaments, the precepts ‘love God and love neighbour’, blood and water, or outer man and inner person! Which one is right? And how would we know which one was right?!
So, is it wrong to take it as an allegory? Not necessarily. If an allegory helps us have a greater realisation of God’s love for us, then that is a good thing. But this was probably not the original author’s intent.
Despite its problems, allegorical interpretations of the Songs dominated until the enlightenment arrived and brought a desire to question. Around this time, new information was being discovered about ancient cultures and there was a new appreciation of the human body. So, new approaches to the book surfaced.
Their intent was to celebrate love. According to Barry G. Webb in Five Festal Garments, the Songs ‘is neither a philosophical treatise about love, nor a sex manual. It is a rhapsody of love, an outpouring of the feelings of people who are in love and are experiencing it in the flesh, with all its attendant pains and pleasures’.
In a world which often cheapens sex and where the church has often made sex taboo, the Songs encourages a balanced view. The Songs isn’t about excess or asceticism, rather it joyfully celebrates physical love. The Songs celebrate sex as a good gift of God that is to be enjoyed, and that is something believers can take from it for today.
So why is the Songs in the Bible? The inclusion of the Songs reminds us that God is interested in the whole person. Indeed, if the Songs had not been included, the Bible would have a very important area of human experience missing. Sexuality and love are vital parts of what it is to be human, and so it is right that the Bible makes comment on it.
(c) by Carla Lindsey - 'War Cry' magazine, 23 March 2019 p20-21. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army chur h or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.