Song of Songs 1 – “Mutual Desire”

olive_oil_category_imageHebrew-English Text
I. Summary
A female lover describes the longing she has for her beloved. The male responds, and both express the desires they have for one another.

II. Photo
The female praises her lover in vv. 2-3: “Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth, For your love is more delightful than wine. Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance, Your name is like finest oil — Therefore do maidens love you.”

III. Important Verses
v. 1: The Song of Songs, by Solomon.
v. 5: I am dark, but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem — Like the tents of Kedar, Like the pavilions of Solomon.
vv. 13-14: My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh Lodged between my breasts. My beloved to me is a spray of henna blooms From the vineyards of En-gedi.

IV. Outline

1. Superscription
2-4. Female yearning
5-6. Female self-description
7-8. Dialogue
    7. Female inquiry
    8. Male Response
9-11. Male admiration
12-14. Female admiration
15-16. Dialogue
    15. Male admiration
    16-17. Female admiration

V. Comment
Today’s comment will serve as a brief introduction to the book.

The Song of Songs (Heb. shir hashirim, literally “the greatest song”) begins with a female’s song of yearning. The fact that there is no prosaic introduction leads one to ask, “Is there a narrative to the book?” Hakham writes (p. [5], translation my own): “One won’t find a narrative about the lovers in the Song of Songs, and one will definitely not find drama. However, the Song of Songs should not be viewed as a collection of paragraphs. Rather, it is a collection of songs that were written by one person in one fashion, and ordered according to his specific intentions. At times the songs are short and simple, and at other times they are long and complex, but they are usually recognizable as distinct units.” Murphy takes a similar approach (“Song of Songs, Book of” in Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. VI, pp. 150–155): “The interpretation of the Song as a drama is an attempt to provide a higher unity for these various types of poems… Perhaps the most telling argument against the theory is that none of the proponents agrees with the other. In some instances the text has to be rearranged in order to suit the theory, and in all cases the interpreter has to supply very subjective ‘stage directions’… Moreover, the conflict and plot development that are characteristic of drama are not evident in the Song. One may agree that the Song is dramatic, but it is not drama as this term is understood in our culture.”

Who are the protagonists in the Song of Songs? Murphy writes, “The basis for the dramatic interpretation lies in the indisputable fact that there are various speakers within the eight chapters of the Song. Due to the gender indications, there is wide agreement on whether a man or a woman is speaking. It is more difficult to determine if the male speaker is one and the same person, because two identifications are offered: a king (1:4.12; 7:6) and also a shepherd (1:7–8). It seems better to recognize only one man, in view of the common literary fiction which endows the beloved with more than one identity (king, shepherd, etc.). The tendency is to endow the beloved with a social class above the one to which he or she actually belongs. This is the “make-believe” language of love, feeding off imagination and exemplified in love literature across the centuries.” In this commentary we will speak of only two protagonists, one male and one female.

Before beginning the commentary, it is important to discuss the “traditional” and “modern” approaches in interpreting the Song of Songs. Murphy gives an excellent summary of these two approaches (ibid.): “The Song clearly deals with sexual love between a man and a woman. There is an almost unanimous consensus among modern scholars that the literal historical meaning of the Song has to do with sexual love. This seems to be the obvious meaning of the many expressions of both physical and spiritual affection between the lovers, and should need no further proof… The Song must be appreciated simply for what it is in itself. It needs no defense for its “naturalism.” It is in line with the basic affirmation of creation, especially of man and woman, as good (Genesis 1). It also harmonizes with the sages’ understanding of sex as portrayed in Prov 5:15–19, and in Prov 30:18–19 (“the way of a man with a maiden,” a great mystery). In the rest of the Bible marriage is usually viewed from a social point of view, the union of families and property, and the importance of descendants. In the Song sexual love is treated as a value in and of itself.”

He continues, “But the question can be asked whether this level of understanding exhausts the meaning of the Song. Is another meaning possible? Perhaps this question would not even be raised were it not for the striking history of interpretation (see below) which the work has enjoyed. For centuries readers have consistently interpreted the Song in terms of divine love. What can be said about this view? First of all, the development of modern hermeneutical theory has shown that there is no “one” meaning for a religious classic. The literal historical sense does not exhaust the meaning of a literary work… Secondly, it is clear from the history of the interpretation of the Song (see below) that it has been understood as dealing with more than human love. Can one find a basis for this in the text itself? Two aspects come to mind. First there is the powerful symbol of sexual love as this has been developed within the Bible itself. The relationship between the Lord and his people was symbolized early on in terms of sexual attraction. The Lord is a ‘jealous God’ (Exod 20:5). The covenant with Israel is not merely a legal contract. It is a covenant of love, and the prophets develop this theme to the full (Hosea 1–2; Isa 1:21; Jer 3:1; Ezekiel 16 and 23). While this theme appears more often in the context of Israel’s infidelity, there are many passages which use the symbol to express fidelity (Hos 2:14–23; Isa 62:4–5). It is true that these writings explicitly identify the lovers as God and Israel, whereas in the Song there is no such indication. Yet one cannot deny the power of the symbol of sexual experience to evoke another level of meaning. It can even be said that sexual love is mentioned in the Bible more frequently in the case of the Lord and the people than in the case of human beings. As a statement on human love, the Song remains open-ended. It can be, and actually was interpreted in terms of divine love.”

It should be pointed out that even the “traditionalists” do not reject the plain sense meaning. Hakham writes (p. [9], translation my own): “It is a mistake for one to think that the Sages interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory because they viewed the plain sense meaning as dealing with matters that aren’t appropriate for Holy Scripture. This is not so… Rather, just as the allegorical meaning is holy, so is the plain sense meaning. If we find [scripture] equating the covenant between Israel and God with that of a man and a woman, it implies that this relationship between man and woman is holy and exalted.”

Before finishing this introduction, the following two questions must be asked: “When was the Song of Songs written?” and “Who wrote it?” Scholars have dealt with these questions exhaustively, but no conclusive answers have been reached. Murphy writes (ibid.), “The first verse… has usually been interpreted as indicating Solomonic authorship… The association of the Song with Solomon is due to the mention of his name six times (1:5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11–12), as well as references to a “king” (1:4, 12; 7:6)… None of the passages demands Solomonic authorship. It must be admitted that no one has identified the author(s). By the same token the date of the work cannot be ascertained. Dates before and after the Exile have been proposed, but none has established itself. As M. Pope (Song of Songs AB, 27) has remarked, ‘The dating game as played with biblical books like Job and the Song of Songs, as well as with many of the Psalms, remains imprecise and the score is difficult to compute. There are grounds for both the oldest and the youngest estimates.’”

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Murphy, Wisdom Literature (Forms of Old Testament Literature)
Murphy, “Song of Songs, Book of” (Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. VI, pp. 150–155)
Hakham, Chameish Megillot (Daat Mikra [Hebrew])

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