Natural Interpretation—Romance and Marital Sexuality in Dramatic Song
To discern any sort of storyline in the Song of Songs, it is necessary to begin with the natural reading of the text—that is, with what it appears to say on the surface. This is also termed a literal reading, but that might be misleading here because even a natural, straightforward approach recognizes that the Song is full of metaphors and figurative allusions. For instance, a “garden” is not always a garden. Yet a natural understanding does not venture into the far-flung realms of allegory, where the whole of what is read would figuratively illustrate an entirely different matter. It should be acknowledged that the allegorical approach was the primary interpretive method for this book among Jews and Christians for most of the past two millennia. Yet even allegorical interpretation requires first comprehending to some degree the surface story on which the allegory is constructed.
Thus we begin with the natural interpretation. Within the scope of this approach, there are a number of ways to understand the text, as we will see in following sections. Yet all have at their core the fact that we are dealing with romantic and erotic love between a man and a woman. And as sexual love is promoted in the Song, we must understand it in the context of marriage. However, because this is not explicitly spelled out throughout the Song, a few interpreters argue that the Song speaks approvingly of sex outside of marriage. As was mentioned earlier, though, the relationship in the Song is described as an exclusive one (Song of Songs 2:16; Song of Songs 6:3; Song of Songs 7:10) and the woman in the Song is six times referred to as spouse or bride in 4:8–5:1. The same interpreters, without foundation, counter that spouse is merely a term of endearment or point to seemingly sexual encounters before this point in the Song when the lovers might not yet have been married. Suffice it to say that marriage was an absolute requirement for sexual love in Israelite society as laid out in the law God gave. We must not read the Song in isolation from everything else we know about the Hebrew cultural setting and divine instruction. Indeed, the Bible does not contradict itself. God would not proscribe premarital sex elsewhere and then turn around and include a book that condones such behavior. As Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
As to how this affects the reading of the book, it is true that there are elements that could be viewed as erotic in every section of the Song—from beginning to end. Some view nearly every chapter as ending in a sexual encounter. That may be, in which case all these constitute different episodes in married life. But what of the chiastic structure revolving around the central sexual encounter in 4:16–5:1? Why is this event special? It seems to follow a wedding (see 3:6-11, NIV) and so could be the wedding night. Others, it should be noted however, holding to what is called the shepherd hypothesis (which we will examine shortly), have a completely different take on this passage, seeing this either as Solomon’s wedding but not to the woman of the Song or as Solomon’s abduction of the woman of the Song.
In any case, there appears to be at least the rudiments of a story here. There is no underlying narration. Rather, the story is told through the expressive statements of the characters, which sometimes contain narrative elements, as they describe things that have happened or are happening. Thus the Song seems to bear similarities to a drama. Some commentators in classifying the Song as a drama imagine a play or opera, although there are no stage directions—and there is no evidence for dramatic theatrical performances in ancient Israel. Consider, moreover, that this would require an actor in some scenes of the Song to approach an actress intimately or at least verbally direct the attention of an audience to private areas of her body—both cases seeming rather inappropriate. Of course, the same criticism of the latter circumstance could perhaps be leveled at the mere vocal singing performance of a man and woman—but the difficulty seems diminished in voices emerging from a choral ensemble.
A number of commentators today object to the dramatic interpretation because of a perceived lack of clear act-scene progression. Carr maintains that the Song reveals no progressive storyline: “There are various episodes that set up a situation and then resolve it (e.g. Song of Songs 3:1-5), but the overall impression in the poem is one of the ebb and flow of the relationship and a kind of cyclic repetition of themes and ideas” (p. 23). Yet even in this view each poetic segment is a sort of mini-drama unto itself, though moving along in flashes of imagery within the dialogue. Furthermore, cyclic repetition is to be expected in a work of poetry—especially one arranged as a song—even if an overall story is being told.
On that note, we must keep in mind while reading the composition that it is a song. The natural assumption is that the Song was to be sung—evidently antiphonally between the different parts in order for it to make any sense. In The New American Commentary, Dr. Duane Garrett says of his treatment of the text: “I have designated the male part ‘tenor,’ the female part ‘soprano,’ and the chorus simply as ‘chorus.’ The designations ‘tenor’ and ‘soprano’ are obviously arbitrary, but they serve a purpose. They convey the sense that these are parts of a song and not characters in a play or story. One cannot understand the Song if one does not recognize that it is lyric poetry and not drama” (note on 1:1).
Garrett’s point about these being parts of a song is well taken. However, that does not preclude them from also representing characters in a story, as they seem to in the Song. Garrett, though, objects to drama here because of its constraints of chronological order and transitional story flow. Of lyric poetry, on the other hand, he remarks, “It does not strictly tell a story or follow chronological sequence but uses a series of images, some of them almost surreal, in order to create verbal pictures and convey emotional responses” (footnote on verse 1). Yet a “looser” drama, as it were, could fit with such poetry—as appears to be the case in the Song of Songs.
There is dramatic sense in the unity and apparent progression of the Song in conveying a story. Yet the lyrical poetry of the Song must be borne in mind throughout. For even if we accept a historical interpretation, this does not mean that every element of the Song is strictly historical. For instance, the refrains in the work may not have been actual statements made at particular intervals in the historical account. It is possible that they are here only to convey something to the audience. Furthermore, the words of the characters, since they are set in poetry, should not be taken as quotations of what was actually said. And even within a generally historical framework, some segments may represent mental flights of fancy or dreaming rather than actual events (e.g., Song of Solomon 3:1-5; Song of Solomon 5:2-8).
Let us now proceed to the various natural interpretations.
Two-Character Progression—Historical Royal Love Story
We begin with the idea that Song 3:6–5:1 does represent the wedding of the lovers and their wedding night. This version of the natural interpretation—understanding there to be two lovers throughout the Song (in addition to a chorus)—is often referred to as the two-character drama. This is the easiest way to read the Song given the lack of notations in the Hebrew text as to who is speaking. Besides the few appearances of the chorus, we mainly go back and forth between a male and female singer based on gender indications in the grammar and the words used to refer to each other. The woman calls the man dodi, “my beloved” or “my lover,” while the man calls the woman ra‘yati, “my friend” or “my companion” (perhaps in the sense of girlfriend, written as “my love” in some versions and possibly meaning “my dear” or “my darling”).
So for the moment let’s assume two lovers throughout the book and that Song 3:6–5:1 refers to their wedding and consummation. How is this to be understood in context? There are several possibilities. One way is to look at the book as following a chronological sequence—wherein the lovers are unmarried prior to this center section and married following it. On the other hand, the lovers might be married all the way through the Song, yet be reflecting in the center on the commencement of their marriage. Expanding on this, there may be other flashbacks to their courtship or engagement in Song of Solomon 2:8-17 and perhaps Song of Solomon 3:1-5. We will comment on various possibilities as we proceed through the book.
Dr. Glickman follows a generally chronological approach—and, as mentioned earlier, sees Solomon as the lover in the story. He has proposed a coherent outline of the Song based on chiastic analysis, though it is subject to dispute in a number of particulars (see chart on the next page).
Those who accept the version of the two-character story in which Solomon is the lover in the Song generally understand the Song to be a historical account of Solomon and one of his brides—a royal love song. This is a common view among conservative interpreters today.
The New Open Bible, in its introduction to the Song of Solomon, lays out the story as it is typically understood this way (with some alternatives added in brackets): “The Beginning of Love (1:1–5:1): King Solomon has a vineyard in the country of the Shulamite (Song of Solomon 6:13; Song of Solomon 8:11). The Shulamite must work in the vineyard with her brothers (Song of Solomon 1:6; Song of Solomon 8:11-12); and when Solomon visits the area, he wins her heart and eventually takes her to the palace in Jerusalem as his bride. She is tanned from hours of work outside in the vineyard, but she is ‘fairest among women’ (Song of Solomon 1:6, Song of Solomon 1:8)…. Chapters 1–3 give a series of recollections of the courtship: (1) the bride’s longing for affection at the palace before the wedding (Song of Solomon 1:2-8), (2) expressions of mutual love in the banquet hall (1:9–2:7), (3) a springtime visit of the king to the bride’s home in the country (Song of Solomon 2:8-17), (4) the Shulamite’s dream of separation from her beloved (Song of Solomon 3:1-5) [though some see this as an actual experience], and (5) the ornate wedding procession from the bride’s home to Jerusalem (Song of Solomon 3:6-11). In 4:1–5:1, Solomon praises his bride from head to foot with a superb chain of similes and metaphors. Her virginity is compared to ‘a garden enclosed’ (Song of Solomon 4:12), and the garden is entered when the marriage is consummated (4:16–5:1). The union is commended, possibly by God, in Song of Solomon 5:1.
“The Broadening of Love (5:2–8:14): Some time after the wedding, the Shulamite has a troubled dream (Song of Solomon 5:2) in the palace while Solomon is away [though, again, some see this too as an actual experience]. In her dream [or experience] Solomon comes to her door, but she answers too late—he is gone. She panics and searches for him late at night in Jerusalem. Upon his return, Solomon assures her of his love and praises her beauty (6:4–7:10). The Shulamite begins to think of her country home and tries to persuade her beloved to return there with her (7:11–8:4). The journey takes place in Song of Solomon 8:5-7 [though some see this as their return to Jerusalem from the country after the implied visit] and their relationship continues to deepen. Their love will not be overthrown by jealousy or circumstances. At her homecoming [or following it] (Song of Solomon 8:8-14) the Shulamite reflects on her brothers’ care for her when she was young (Song of Solomon 8:8-9) [though some see this as referring to care for another sister in the present]. She remains virtuous (‘I am a wall,’ Song of Solomon 8:10) and is now in a position to look out for her brothers’ welfare (Song of Solomon 8:11-12). The song concludes with a dual invitation of the lover and beloved (Song of Solomon 8:13-14)” (1990).
Solomon, it should be observed, is not specifically and unambiguously identified as the lover in the Song, but he does appear to be identified as a groom at his wedding (Song of Solomon 3:11). Nevertheless, it is perhaps simplest, from the standpoint of a straightforward reading of the text, to take both Solomon and “king” (Song of Solomon 1:4; 12; Song of Solomon 7:5) as literal references to the lover.
Of course, this raises the not insignificant problem of Solomon’s polygamy. As was mentioned earlier, if Song of Solomon 6:8-9 is a reference to Solomon’s harem having already grown to 140 women, then the notion that he is the model husband pictured in the Song seems far-fetched indeed. Yet if those verses denote the wives of visiting foreign kings, then it is possible to imagine that the bride of the Song could be Solomon’s first wife prior to his later corruption. His earliest marriage that we know of was to the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh to seal an alliance (see 1 Kings 3:1; 1 Kings 11:1). Yet he could have had an earlier marriage.
Who could the mysterious Shulamite be if she were married to Solomon? She has sometimes been equated with Pharaoh’s daughter, given that the Egyptian princess is the only early wife of Solomon attested to historically coupled with references to the Shulamite’s dark skin and hair (see Song of Solomon 1:5-6; Song of Solomon 7:5). However, it seems clear that the woman in the Song is dark from working in the sun (Song of Solomon 1:6)—not because of her race. In fact, her neck is later compared to an ivory tower (Song of Solomon 7:4). Moreover, reference is made in the Song to the woman’s mother and brothers—under whose care and direction she has been. There is no mention of her father’s involvement, thus making it appear that he is dead and out of the picture—which was definitely not the case with the Egyptian pharaoh.
Again on the basis of dark skin, some have also argued for the Queen of Sheba (see 1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12)—Sheba being in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula and perhaps overlapping into nearby Ethiopia. Yet, as stated above, the Shulamite’s dark skin was evidently not a racial characteristic. Also, it is evident that the Queen visited Solomon at the height of his reign (when he had a growing harem)—and not in his early years. In point of fact, Scripture makes no mention of Solomon marrying the Queen of Sheba—just that she returned home after her visit. Ethiopian tradition, however, insists that they married and founded the Ethiopian royal dynasty. Even if this is true, the Queen of Sheba bears little resemblance to the woman in the Song, whose upbringing was not one of royal privilege but of toil in vineyards (Song of Solomon 1:6). The Shulamite is referred to as a “prince’s daughter” (Song of Solomon 7:1), but this is probably a figurative term of endearment or honor (i.e., “princess”). Furthermore, the metaphors of Israelite geography used by the woman and by her lover to woo her would be out of place if she were from a distant southern land. “I am a rose of Sharon” (Song of Solomon 2:1, NIV) hardly sounds like the words of a foreigner (see also Song of Solomon 1:14; Song of Solomon 4:1, Song of Solomon 4:8, Song of Solomon 4:11, Song of Solomon 4:15; Song of Solomon 5:15; Song of Solomon 6:4-5; Song of Solomon 7:4-5). Some, given the several references to Lebanon at the northern end of Israel, believe the woman is from there (in East Manassite territory).
Another candidate put forward for the Shulamite, based on linguistic similarity and association with Solomon’s early years, is Abishag the Shunammite (especially as the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament renders Shulamite as Shunammite). The term Shunammite denoted a person from the town of Shunem in the land of Issachar (see 2 Kings 4:8, 2 Kings 4:12; Joshua 19:17-18). Abishag was the lovely young woman brought in to sleep next to David to keep him warm when he was old and to serve as his nursemaid—apparently considered to be David’s concubine though it is explicitly stated that he did not have sexual relations with her. Solomon’s brother Adonijah sought to marry her after David’s death in what Solomon perceived to be an attempt to steal the throne—as successor kings in the ancient world typically laid claim to the harems of their predecessors—and Solomon had him executed (see 1 Kings 1:1-4, 1 Kings 1:15; 1 Kings 2:13-25). It is possible that Solomon himself married Abishag after this, though we are left wondering why the biblical chroniclers would have left out this detail. Perhaps it was because she would automatically have been considered one of Solomon’s concubines upon his accession to sole rule. His marriage to her would thus have merely constituted a change in her status from concubine to royal wife—and this may have appeared a trivial detail to chroniclers.
Another question is why Abishag would still be dark from the sun, as the Song attests of the Shulamite, after serving in the palace as David’s nursemaid for some time—unless it be argued that the first chapter of the Song concerns Abishag’s initial arrival at the court, which would mean the supposed romance with Solomon began prior to David’s death. This would have posed obvious difficulties for their relationship, though some speculate that this factor contributed to Solomon’s violent reaction against Adonijah. The argument could perhaps be made that “king” in Song of Solomon 1:4 and verse 12 are references to David and not to the man the woman loved. Solomon is plainly referred to as king in 3:9 and verse 11, though these verses are within the context of the apparent wedding procession, which, if Abishag was the bride, would have been after David’s death, when Solomon was sole ruler. Of course, the references in Song of Solomon 1:4 and verse 12 could be to Solomon even prior to David’s death since Solomon was crowned king while David was still alive. (The same goes for Song of Solomon 3:9 and verse 11, though if David were alive the bride could not be Abishag.)
In any event, we should certainly consider the possible relationship between the words Shunammite and Shulamite. Some take the Hebrew word Shulamit to be a proper name, typically rendered Shulamith, but it is clearly preceded by the definite article in Hebrew, i.e., ha-Shulamit or “the Shulamite” (Song of Solomon 6:13b). The word Shunammite refers to being from Shunem, a town of the Jezreel Valley in the north of Israel (see Joshua 19:18). In Hebrew there is only one letter difference between “the Shunammite” (ha-Shunamit) and “the Shulamite” (ha-Shulamit). “It is altogether possible that the forms Shunem and Shulem are equivalent variants, since interchanges of l, n, and r take place in various Semitic dialects, early and late, as in other languages. There is, however, no evidence that the change took place in the name of this particular town prior to the composition of the Canticle” (Pope, Anchor Bible, pp. 597-598). The fourth-century church historian Eusebius identified a village on the northeast edge of the Jezreel Valley named Shulem as the biblical Shunem. However, if this truly is Shunem, as it seems to be, there is no way to know when the consonantal shift in the name occurred—or if such a shift was acceptable when the Song was composed.
Others take Shulamite to be a play on the name Solomon. In Hebrew his name is Shelomoh, sometimes spelled Shlomo in English transliteration (meaning “Peaceable One,” from Hebrew shalom, “peace”). The word “Shulamit” could be a feminine form of his name, bearing the same meaning, just as Judith is the feminine form of Judah. Some counter that the feminine form of the name Shelomoh appears in Leviticus 24:11 and 1 Chronicles 3:19 as Shelomit. (The Greek derivative is Salome.) Of course, there can be more than one feminine form of the same name—just as in English the feminine form of Paul is Paula or Pauline or Paulina. Moreover, in the Hebrew Scriptures we sometimes find variant spellings for the same name—for example, Joash and Jehoash. Yet, as we’ve seen, Shulamit is not used in the Song as a name but as a title. Perhaps the sense, as many suggest, is “the Solomoness”—as designating a feminine counterpart to Solomon (a Mrs. Solomon, as it were).
There could even be a combination of factors here. We should consider that biblical writers or editors sometimes slightly altered the names of people to make a point. If Solomon married a woman known as “the Shunammite,” it is no stretch of the imagination to think that he would, for a pet name for her or for the poetry of his song, have changed one letter so that the name became “the Shulamite” (meaning the Solomoness). However, we must realize that a connection to Shunem is not required, as the pet name could have derived solely from Solomon’s own name, and therefore the identification of Abishag as the Shulamite is tenuous. (There are also other suggestions for the meaning of Shulamite, such as “Complete One,” “Perfect One” or “Consummated One”—based on the sense of shalom denoting not just peace but wholeness and contentment.)
It is possible that the Shulamite does not appear in Scripture outside the Song—in which case we have no idea who she was. In any case, if she was a real person married to Solomon, she was evidently a country maiden from within the land of Israel—who likely married Solomon early in his reign. It has even been suggested that Solomon wed the Shulamite prior to David’s death. Recall that Solomon was crowned king when David was still alive.
A variant on the understanding of the Song as a historical account of Solomon’s marriage is the idea that he may have romanticized the account of a marriage that did not actually live up to the Song’s portrayal—or even that he placed himself into a fictional account that expressed his wish or desire for, and not genuine experience of, true love. As Glickman writes: “It’s an interesting question, whether Solomon ever experienced love or only glimpsed the ideals he expressed in his Song. I would like to believe he found it. I hate to think of him like Beethoven, who, deaf at the end of his life, wrote symphonies he would never hear” (p. 13).
On the other hand, it is in some ways sadder to think that Solomon did experience true marital happiness early in his reign and then threw it all away—horrible not just for him, but for the poor, humiliated and crushed bride of his youth. It is such a tragic picture to contemplate. However, it has been conjectured that the reason we hear nothing about the Shulamite in the historical record of Solomon’s life is that she may have died early and gave him no heir to the throne—thus meaning that she would have been spared from witnessing the vile spectacle into which his life eventually degenerated. It has even been further speculated that part of what drove Solomon to his insatiable polygamy was pining over the loss of this his first and only real love—trying in wretched desperation to recapture it with one woman after another after another after another, all in vain. There may be something to this, but of course there’s no way to really know. After all, we don’t even know if the Shulamite’s lover in the Song was Solomon.
The next section of introductory comments will cover the shepherd hypothesis and the structure of the Song of Solomon as a whole.