Song of Solomon

Ancient Love Poetry

SONG OF SONGS 1 The ancient Near East produced many examples of what can broadly be called "love poetry." Some of it is overtly religious in nature, describing the love affairs of gods and goddesses. Other songs provide examples of "secular" love poems that explore both the excitement and the heartbreak so prevalent among young lovers. Examples of ancient love poetry are as follows:

  • Mesopotamia' has produced primarily "religious" love poetry:

Nebo and Tashmetu: an Akkadian poem about the love between Nebo, the god of scribes,and his consort (partner),Tashmetu.

The Bridal Sheets: a Sumerian song featuring a playful dialogue between the god Utu and his sister lnanna, in which he gradually divulges that he has arranged for her to marry Ama-ushumgal-anna.

Songs of Ishtar and Tammuz: a compilation of songs dealing with the love affair between the goddess Ishtar and the god Tammuz.

    • Egypt has produced a number of love songs that are more "secular" in outlook in that they concern people rather than gods (c. 1300-1150 B.c.). They do, however, sometimes have fantastic or mythological motifs. These poems astutely but sometimes comically portray the emotional turmoil of young love, with striking similarities to Song of Songs.

Papyrus Harris 500: A young man and woman sing of their passionate love for each other. The dialogue-like parts for the male

    • The beloved is called"brother"or"sister" as a term of endearment (SS 4:9).

    • In the Egyptian texts the woman asserts that her man's love is better than beer (the favorite Egyptian beverage). In the Song, his love is preferable to wine (1:2).

    • In the Egyptian poems the woman calls for her lover to come like a horse dashing to a battlefield; in the Song she summons him to hasten to her like a young stag (e.g.,8:14).

    • In both cases the woman is said to be a flower (2:1). + In each instance either the man or the woman is likened to a tree (2:3).

    • The door image is important to both (5:2-7)

At the same time, Egyptian poetry and the Song have significant differences:

  • Egyptian lovers often invoke Hathor, the goddess of love, in their quest to win over their beloved. The Biblical texts never suggest that God can be persuaded by a love-struck youth to manipulate someone to fall in love with him or her.

  • The Egyptian songs, but not the Song of Songs, often focus on youthful infatuation and thus include some frivolous elements.

  • The Egyptian poems are generally light-hearted, intended as humorous entertain-ment.Song of Songs takes a much more serious look at the significance of sexual love.

It is impossible and unnecessary to deny that the Egyptian texts influenced the poetry of Song of Songs. In fact, this poetry gives us a strong reason to date Song of Songs to the age of Solomon, who not only lived near the time the Egyptian songs were being written but also maintained good relations with Egypt. Even so, the content, complexity and theological significance of Song of Songs require us to regard it not as an imitation but as an original, canonical text.

The Flowers of Ancient Israel

SONG OF SONGS 2 Floral imagery was widely used in ancient Israel, in the decoration of the temple and the lampstands (Ex 25;37; 1 Ki 6; 7) as well as in the prophetic and poetic writings.' The identification of various flowers in ancient Israel has been complicated by the following factors:

    • Many newer plant species have been introduced into the region during the last few centuries.

    • From the time of the church fathers,the practice of naming plants after Biblical names has served as a way of keeping Scripture alive in everyday life. Thus, flowers that did not exist in ancient Israel might still bear Biblical names. For example, Hibiscus syriacus has been called "the rose of Sharon," even though it is native to eastern Asia and was more recently introduced into the region now known as Palestine.

    • Information is scanty. Frequently a plant's only identification might be its Biblical name, with no accompanying description. Oral tradition might provide the only clue in identifying a particular flower.

The rose of Sharon (SS 2:1) has been variously identified as narcissus, anemone or even red tulip.The lily of the valley (v.1) has been equated to chamomile, crowfoot, various species of lily, narcissus, sea daffodil and lotus. Flowers in ancient Israel served mainly ornamental purposes, and it is likely that their beauty was the primary focus of the Song's writer. Although precise identification of the various flowers would be helpful, it is not essential for interpreting the text.

Weddings in Ancient Israel

SONG OF SONGS 3 A wedding,as the public solemnization of an agreement made at the time of an engagement, was an occasion for great joy.' The ceremony itself most likely consisted of the recitation of a simple formula, such as the one alluded to at the time of the first union between a husband and a wife (Ge 2:23). Marriage contracts from the Jewish community of Elephantine of the fifth century B.C. record a vow common to the ancient world:The groom would declare that the woman was his wife and that he was her husband for eternity.The wedding ceremony also may have involved the symbolic act of the man covering his bride with the corner of his garment to indicate that she was now under his protection and that it was his responsibility to provide for her (Ru 3:9; Eze 16:8). Blessings of fruitfulness were bestowed upon the couple by family and friends (Ge 24:60; Ru 4:11-12).

A passage from the Babylonian Talmud tells us that at a Jewish wedding in the early Christian era a groom would wear a ceremonial crown and receive his bride, who would make her entrance at the wedding party in a sedan chair.This event may explain the description in Song of Songs 3:6-11; it would appear that the bride was riding in such a sedan chair (ro, "carriage"), accompanied by an honor guard. (In the phrase "Who is this?" in v.6 the word "this" is feminine, referring to a woman.) The bride's entourage also included a musical procession (Ps 45:14; 1 Mc 9:37-39). The groom was attired in festive headdress (SS 3:11; Isa 61:10), and the bride was adorned in embroidered garments and jewelry (Ps 45:13-14; Isa 49:18; 61:10). A veil completed the virgin bride's costume, which may partly explain the success of Laban's ruse of substituting Leah for Rachel on Jacob's wedding night (Ge 29:23; SS 4:1).

Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1-13) describes the arrival of the groom during the night prior to a wedding. He was attended by male companions, one of whom would serve as his best man (Jdg 14:20; Jri 3:29). Upon his arrival the groom's family would host a feast (Mt 22:2; in 2:9). Putting the evidence together, it appears that the groom with his companions would traditionally arrive at the ceremonial house first, during the night, to be received by a group of young women. Early the next day the friends of the groom would go out to bring back the bride,who would arrive in a sedan chair with the groom's friends as her symbolic honor guard.

The marriage would be consummated on the first night of a banquet celebration typically lasting for seven days (Ge 29:27; Jdg 14:12). The bridal couple would seal their union in a bridal chamber (Ps 19:5;Joel 2:16), and the blood-stained nuptial sheet would be saved by the bride's parents as proof of her prior virginity (Dt 22:17).

A wedding celebration in any time or culture typically brims with emotion, including the culmination of joy and the realization of an anticipated promise, thereby aptly expressing a believer's union with Christ at the end of time: "Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear" (Rev 19:7-8).

Cedars of Lebanon

SONG OF SONGS 5 A tall (averaging 120 ft [37 m} in its maturity) and majestic evergreen tree, the cedar of Lebanon was highly valued in antiquity) Its durability and dimensions provided building materials for palaces, temples, ships and furnishings, and Egyptians prized its resin for mummification. Nebuchadnezzar wrote of hauling felled cedars to Babylon from Mount Lebanon, an abundant source of timber in the ancient Near East (cf. lsa 37:24).The temple and palace complex in Jerusalem were lavishly adorned with cedar (1Ki 7:2;1 Ch 22:4), and cedar wood was used for purification rituals (Lev 14:4).2 Attesting to the use of cedar in monumental architecture, remnants of charred cedar beams were found in a Middle Bronze Age palace (sixteenth century B.c.), as well as in a Late Bronze Age temple (thirteenth century B.c.) at Lachish.

The height and commanding presence of the species yields vivid Biblical images. Yahweh's majesty stands above all cedars (Ps 148:9,13), and his voice is so powerful that it shatters them (Ps 29:5).The development of a righteous person is compared to the cedar's steady maturing process (Ps 92:12). In the Song of Songs the lover's appearance evokes the tree's exquisite worth (SS 5:15). Yet the cedar's height can also be a visual picture of human pride and arrogance (Isa 2:12-13; Eze 31:3,10-12).

Imagery and Metaphor in Ancient Love Poetry

SONG OF SONGS 7 The modern reader of Song of Songs is struck by the poem's powerful and yet eccentric images and metaphors. Why, for example, would a man tell the woman he adores that her nose is like a tower (7:4)? Unless the Israelites believed that an enormous nose was attractive, wouldn't she be insulted? Some have dealt with this problem by simply assuming that the ancients had a different way of expressing themselves and that metaphors that sound ridiculous to us were not only acceptable but pleasing to them. It turns out, however, that while many of the more easily understood metaphors of the Song do have parallels in other ancient Near Eastern texts, some of the more bizarre similes have no known correlations in other ancient love poetry.

For example, when the woman is said to be a flower (2:1) or the man exhorted to come running like a gazelle (8:14),the former obviously refers to her youthful beauty and the latter to his strength and speed—images that have fairly clear parallels in Egyptian poetry.' On the other hand, it is hard to find a parallel in ancient literature to a text like 4:1 — 5, where the woman's eyes are doves, her hair a flock of goats coming down a hill, her neck a tower covered in shields and her breasts twin fawns. Although we might find some visual correspondence between the feature represented and the chosen image, the Ianguage is shocking and at times difficult to understand. There are various ways interpreters have tried to deal with this aspect of the Song:

    • Some posit that the words suggest how the singer felt about the woman, not how she looked. Thus, a tower-like nose or neck might suggest that he was in awe of her and not imply anything about the appearance of these physical features.

    • Another possibility is that the metaphors really do suggest how this woman looked, but not in a crudely literal way. Her hair might in some sense have resembled a flock of goats on a hillside, with the slope of the hill and the hair of the goats somewhat similar to the appearance of her tresses cascading down over her shoulders.

    • A third possibility is that the poetry is deliberately comic or ironic.This seems highly unlikely, in that the Song never suggests a humorous purpose.

The first and second suggestions no doubt have some validity, but it is difficult to avoid the fact that the Song consistently uses extravagant and unlikely metaphorical language. Actually, some of the closest parallels to what we see in the Song may be found in prophetic and apocalyptic Bible texts. The vision of God's glory in Ezekiel 1, with wheels within wheels and wheels covered with eyes, is also startling. The book of Revelation is replete with this kind of language, as when the risen Christ is described as having a sword protruding from his mouth (see Rev 1:13 — 16).Thus the language of Song of Songs may be deliberately extravagant, suggesting that the man and woman are larger-than-life, representing not just two individual people but the profound mystery and power of love.

Archeology and the date of Song of Songs

SONG OF SONGS 8 Today many scholars consider the Song of Songs to have been written during the postexilic era, in spite of the fact that the"official" title of the book,"Solomon's Song of Songs" (1:1),' associates it with the time of Solomon.Archaeology, however, has provided several good reasons for believing that the Song was indeed written early, in or around the tenth century B.C.

    • Archaeological data from this period indicates that this was a time during which Israel was under strong central authority, as the Bible suggests. Many scholars deny that there ever was a great kingdom of David and Solomon; indeed, some go so far as to theorize that these men were legendary rather than historical. Obviously, if there were no Solomonic kingdom,we could not posit that the Song was written during the Solomonic period. However, archaeology does support the Biblical portrait of Solomon's times. According to 1 Kings 9:15 Solomon did indeed build the temple, his own palace,a structure called the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem, as well as the cities of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer.

The temple and palace of Solomon are lost, and the location of his Millo is subject to debate, but archaeology confirms that every aspect of Solomon's temple, as described in the Bible, conforms to what we know of other temples from this time and region.

The cities of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer have been excavated and found to have similar systems of fortification and gateways that date from the time of Solomon, suggesting that they were constructed by royal engineers who worked from a common blueprint.5

    • Oftentimes great literature flourishes during a period of national power and prosperity (e.g.,Virgil wrote the Aeneid at one of the high points of Roman history,the Augustan Age).Thus the association of the Song of Songs with Solomon's era makes sense.

    • During the latter part of the second millennium B.C. a distinctive style of love poetry flourished in Egypt, in some ways strikingly similar to the Song of Songs. Although the message of the Song is different from that of the Egyptian material, it is clear that the Hebrew poetry uses some of the same literary conventions as that of the Egyptian poetry. First Kings 9:16 indicates that Solomon, having married an Egyptian princess, had good relations with Egypt. It is reasonable to assume that this was a time t of close communication and commerce between the two nations. Thus the Solomonic era is the very time at which we could most plausibly suggest that Egyptian love poetry came to be read and appreciated in the royal court of Israel.

    • Song of Songs 6:4 indicates that at the time this poem was written Jerusalem and Tirzah were the two most magnificent cities in Israel. Tirzah (located in the north at Tell el-Farah), was a great city in the northern part of Israel during Solomon's day. After the kingdom split in two it became the capital of the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I and remained so until Omri (r. c. 885-874 B.c.) built Samaria. Thereafter it declined, and by the postexilic period it had ceased to is unreasonable to argue that a poet of the postexilic world would have paired Jerusalem with Tirzah,which at that time was nothing more than an abandoned mound. However, it is entirely reasonable that a poet from the tenth century B.C. would have treated Tirzah as Jerusalem's counterpart and equal.