Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Song of Songs

Authorship

Scholars are agreed upon the fact that biblical literature was composed, scripted, copied, transmitted, and interpreted by males for males, leading to the assumption that the Song of Songs was also written by a man. In the case of the Song of Songs, the prominence of the female voice in the book has raised doubt about male authorship. It has therefore been suggested that the author is perhaps female, a woman perhaps related to Solomon. Studies on the ancient Near East have alluded to the presence of female poets and writers. The woman’s voice dominates the book with 56 verses ascribed to her and only 30 to the man. Because it is her voice that begins and closes the book, there has been some speculation as to whether the author/composer is a woman who is responsible for the entire book or for a major part of the book. The emphasis on female experience, emotions, mother-daughter relationship, references to the mother’s house and the conversation between the woman and the daughters of Jerusalem and the critique of patriarchal norms, have led some scholars to entertain the idea of female authorship. Male authorship has been vigorously defended on the grounds that explicit description of the female body is more appealing to men and hence the author must be male. This is a difficult case to solve since the author’s gender may not have any bearing on the characters. Without undermining the prominence of female experience and female emotion, it has been suggested that it is best to go beyond the gendering of the author to the gendering of the voices in the book.    

The Private Nature of the Book 

The song draws the reader into the domestic and private world of a woman’s life, giving access to her thoughts, emotions, experiences, and feelings. As Renita Weems (“The Song of Songs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. V, ed. Leander E. Keck [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997], 363) suggests, the relationships are private, intimate, and close, and so also the conversation between the characters. The book therefore showcases and invites us into this interior world of the woman and man, away from the historical, political, and social systems that governed, organized, and shadowed the lives of biblical characters that we are more familiar with, and this is rare. The speeches are mostly between lovers, tender, interspersed with cries of consummation and silences. This invitation into the interior world enables the reader to vicariously experience the eroticism, the sensuality, and the emotion of the lovers. 

Genre and the Poetic Form of the Text

In terms of genre, the book is classified as an extended love poem. The poetic form employed is called the wasf in Arabic, a literary composition rich with affection and desire, a celebration of the joy of physical attraction and love. It is a love poem in which lovers describe one another’s bodies using images from nature and architecture, for example, 4:4-5; 5:14-15. Whether it is a single continuous poem, or a collection of poems and hence an edited collection or a unified composition is a matter of discussion, but strong arguments have been put forth to suggest that there is an integral unity to the Song. The poetry is in parallel line and some of the beauty of this poetry in terms of sound, rhythm, and varied poetic forms such as assonance, alliteration, metaphor, and simile are lost in translation. The metaphoric and imaginative language takes one by surprise, sometimes evoking laughter. 

Relation to Solomon

The mention of Solomon in the book’s title (and, in a literary inclusion, also at the end) has frequently been taken to mean Solomonic authorship. It is probably better, however, to see the traditional relation between the Wisdom literature (including the Song) and Solomon as similar to the relation between the Psalms and David. Just as David was the paradigmatic singer of Israel, so Solomon was the paradigmatic wisdom teacher. David was seen as the patron of the psalms, Solomon as the patron of the wisdom tradition. Solomon’s glory is invoked also in the depiction of the royal wedding in 3:6-11. The issue here, as often in biblical royal language, is not monarchic rule and hierarchy, but rather the pomp and grandeur of the royal court that serves as a small reminder of the glorious kingship of God.

Wisdom tradition

The Song of Songs has been seen throughout history as part of the Bible’s Wisdom literature. Wisdom’s chief concern is the conduct of human life in the created order under God, rather than the direct theological exploration of God’s redemptive work in history. Despite the Song’s lack of any direct mention of God, its association with Solomon shows that it understands itself to be a part of Israel’s life and history, marking even its explicit portrayal of human love and sexuality as part of God’s good creation to be used wisely, respected, and enjoyed.

Imagery

Varied imagery, architectural, geographical, and natural, is used to describe the human body, especially that of the woman. “Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon” Few modern young women would be flattered by this comparison (7:4), but such imagery with military nuances, probably associated with King David, seem to be used to represent strength and protection.  The observation that “your hair is like a flock of goats” (4:1) and “your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes” (4:2) are metaphors. If taken literally they describe a very ugly woman. The intention is to paint a picture of a beautiful and sensuous woman/man. These and other such poetic images in the Song are, of course, specific to a particular time and culture and do not always translate well into another era. The point is to compare the beloved to objects of beauty, value, and desire in the world of the text. These verses show clearly the necessary cross-cultural considerations in an attempted translation and application of biblical texts, especially of biblical poetry.