Bible Commentary: Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 5

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Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 5

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Alternative Two-Character Love Song—Anonymous-Character or Fictional 

The problems of the three-character drama give greater appeal to the two-character storyline wherein the lover is Solomon. Yet again we are still left with the difficulties of his life. While it is possible that the Song concerns a proposed initial marriage prior to his marrying the Egyptian princess, as was put forward previously, this is only supposition—and would be wrong if the queens and concubines of Song of Solomon 6:8-9 refer to his harem (though this is by no means clear). In any event, there are other versions of the natural interpretation that render Solomon’s polygamy irrelevant to the Song. These involve understanding Solomon and the Shulamite (Solomon and the Solomoness), or king and queen, as generic distinctions for a bride and groom—so that the lovers in the Song are anonymous or representative persons, as characters in love songs usually are.

One variant of this is the concept of the wedding song. Commentator Roland Murphy (Hermeneia Commentaries) notes that the literary theory relating the Song to ancient Hebrew marriage rites “gained surprising new affirmation during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Primary impetus for further development of this view came from J.G. Wetzstein’s study of modern Syrian wedding customs. Among the village nuptial practices that Wetzstein [who was German consul to Syria] suggested had pertinent parallels in the Song were a seven-day cycle of festivities [as in ancient biblical weddings], in which the espoused couple was honored as royalty [king and queen]; extravagant praising of the physical charms of bride and groom (the Arabic wasf); and even performance by the bride of a curiously war-like ‘sword dance’” (p. 39).

The wasf is compared to praise discourses in the Song. As Harper’s Bible Commentary explains: “The wasf, a specific kind of passage describing the human body, appears several times in the Song within different types of lyrics. Although not found anywhere in the Bible outside the Song, the wasf is common in Arabic literature and takes its name from an Arabic word meaning ‘description.’ Wasfs, or fragments of wasfs, appear in the following places in the Song: Song of Solomon 4:1-7; Song of Solomon 5:9-16; Song of Solomon 6:4-7; and 6:13–7:5. Fairly rigid in form, the wasf is essentially a catalogue that proceeds in sequence—from top to bottom or bottom to top—to depict parts of the male or female physique in metaphors drawn from the realms of nature and artifice” (Marcia Falk, introduction to the Song of Songs). It is noteworthy that such occurred in Syrian Arab wedding custom. And the wedding sword dance mentioned above is thought to possibly parallel the “dance of the two camps” in Song of Solomon 6:13. Of course, village customs of the 1800s are not a reliable indicator of biblical-period traditions, yet it is at least plausible that Syrian Arab wedding traditions are of ancient provenance—especially given their continuance of the biblical custom of a seven-day wedding feast (see Genesis 29:27; Judges 14:12).

It has been proposed, on the above basis, that the Song of Songs is composed of seven different sections or groupings of poems that were sung over the course of the seven days of a wedding celebration. Yet there is no real proof of that. Indeed, the majority of the Song does not appear to concern the wedding of its couple, especially given the separation episodes. And there are praise segments apparently unrelated to the wedding. As Dr. Fox states in The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs: “We should…observe that the wasfs among the Egyptian love songs…are in no way set in the context of weddings…. The Arabic wasfs themselves are sung on various occasions, not just at weddings, nor are the numerous wasfs in the Arabian Nights set in weddings. There is therefore no reason to assume that the wasfs in Canticles must be wedding songs” (p. 232). Yet Fox makes an unwarranted leap in concluding on this basis that the couple in the Song is unmarried throughout—for we must consider the repeated mentions of “spouse” and the biblical context of proper sexuality. Moreover, a wedding procession does appear to be part of the Song (see Song of Solomon 3:6-11). The New American Commentary more fairly assesses: “While the song does appear to focus on the wedding of the man and woman, that does not mean that it was sung at weddings or describes in any detail the ancient Israelite wedding ceremony” (p. 364). Furthermore, even if the Song or parts of it did come to be sung at weddings, that does not mean it was composed for this purpose.

The same commentary embraces the view of the Song as a more general love song—though, in parallel to the idea above, one in which the bride and groom are represented as king and queen, as Solomon and the Solomoness. The commentary maintains: “The song is love poetry and should not be interpreted as a historical event. The ‘Solomon’ of the poetry is likely a ‘poetic symbol.’ It may seem strange that Solomon, as author, would make himself a poetic symbol for the glory of the bridegroom. That difficulty is acknowledged here, but one must recall that Solomon appears to have taken on the role of the quintessential Eastern monarch, with all the glory and splendor that implies, as a deliberate and self-conscious act (1 Kings 7:1-12; 1 Kings 9:10–11:3). Therefore Solomon could have set himself in the song as a ‘poetic symbol’ for the splendor of the bridegroom. At the same time, one cannot exclude the possibility that the song was written by a court poet in Solomon’s palace; in that case, the use of Solomon as a ‘poetic symbol’ is not only possible but likely. Even if it were penned by a court-poet, however, it would have been ‘published’ with the knowledge and probably direct involvement of the king himself. The text is not a record of historical events in Solomon’s life. In love every groom is King Solomon, a shepherd, and even a gazelle; and every bride is a princess and country maiden. This special status conferred on the man and woman is easier to understand by recognizing them as bride and groom” (p. 365).

In essence, the idea here is that “the two lovers are Everyman and Everywoman and have nothing to do with Solomon” (Gledhill, p. 23). Consider the parallel of love songs that are sung today. The characters in these, even the songs with stories, are not usually meant to be viewed as particular individuals—but are more universally applicable for a wide audience. Often listeners can imagine themselves and those they love in the lyrics of the songs. Such songs are essentially realistic fiction—not necessarily true, but true to life. Such a song may even be based on real circumstances the songwriter has been through or is aware of—though the characters often remain anonymous and he is free to alter or embellish the story to stress whatever aspects he desires.

More cogent parallels can be drawn with ancient Egyptian love songs composed close in time to the reign of Solomon, as mentioned earlier. The NIV Archaeological Study Bible comments: “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 and female singers are similar to what we see in the Song. In some of these texts the female sings a soliloquy about her love; this too has parallels in the Song. Cairo Love Songs: Recorded on a vase, they include the songs of a young woman who declares her devotion to her lover, and those of a young man, who yearns to be with her…. Chester Beatty Papyrus I Love Songs: again include parts for male and female singers, in which they describe the intensity of their passion and their frustration at being kept apart….

“The Egyptian poetry displays several parallels to the Song of Songs. Structurally they are similar in that both have parts for male and female singers. They also share similar metaphors and imagery. A few examples of common elements include: • The beloved is called ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ as a term of endearment (Song of Solomon 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 (Song of Solomon 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., Song of Solomon 8:14). • In both cases the woman is said to be a flower (Song of Solomon 2:1). • In each instance either the man or the woman is likened to a tree (Song of Solomon 2:3). • The door image is important to both (Song of Solomon 5:2-7). [We will note various parallels in going through the book.]

“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 [rejecting idolatry and idolatrous parity between false gods and the true God] 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 lighthearted, intended as humorous entertainment. 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” (“Ancient Love Poetry,” p. 1035).

In comparing the Egyptian love songs with the Song of Songs, Fox sees a parallel with the man and woman as king and queen, but not because they are bride and groom as in the wedding interpretation. Rather, as he explains, this is language of mutual exaltation in love generally. “In a similar vein,” as he notes regarding songs of the Papyrus Harris 500 group, “the Egyptian girl in no. 13 calls her lover ‘my prince’ and the girl in no. 17 calls hers ‘prince of my heart.’ Similarly the girl in no. 8 [in perhaps the closest parallel] says, ‘I am the Mistress of the Two Lands {i.e., the queen of Egypt} when I am with you.’ The lovers are called kings, princes, and queens because of the way love makes them feel about each other and about themselves” (p. 98). Of course, both factors, bride and groom epithets as well as mutual exaltation, could be at play in the terminology of king and royal bride, or Solomon and Solomoness, in the Song of Songs—though with a higher purpose in mind than the Egyptian songs.

At first blush, we might dismiss even the possibility of fiction as out of place in God’s holy Word of truth. Yet the Bible contains some examples of fiction. Consider Jesus’ parables. The story of the Good Samaritan is one we may be familiar with. Despite its details, the story is not to be taken as one that really happened. It appears to be fictional—but the story was crafted to illustrate a truthful point. The same goes for a number of other stories Jesus told: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the pearl of great price, Lazarus and the rich man, the laborers in the vineyard, etc. These stories were not all true in a historical sense but were true to life. This is not to imply that the Song of Songs is a lengthy, elaborate parable—though some think it is—but rather to show that it could likewise be a fictional or fictionalized story, albeit one true to life, designed to teach something important.

There may be evidence, however, of an underlying true story in the Song based on the fact that the girl is under the care of her brothers and mother, her father apparently having died—a picture which is not ideal and perhaps not typical. On the other hand, this may have been more common than might be supposed, as David’s reign was marked by wars and a number of fathers may have been missing in Israelite society of that day. So this story element alone is not necessarily evidence of a truly historical plotline. And even if it is historical, the characters would be unidentified if Solomon and the Shulamite are representative depictions. However, another factor that argues for historicity rather than fiction is the woman telling the daughters of Jerusalem to not look down on her because of her darkened skin from working outside. Such a confrontation would not seem applicable to brides generally. Yet it is possible that Solomon and bride are intended literally, in the sense of identity and certain story points, but that elements of their story are fictional to apply more broadly. In such case, Solomon in the Song could be a more idealized version of the real person.

Interpretation of the Song of Songs as a fictional or anonymous-character love story immediately resolves the problem of trying to accommodate Solomon’s polygamy. Furthermore, it removes the problem, not often considered, of the Song’s readers or listeners intruding on the privacy of an actual married couple. Can you imagine your private bedroom dialogue with your spouse becoming a song to perform for the nation or a book of the Bible for the world to read? Are our actual private sexual experiences in marriage something we ought to sing to our neighbors about? A fictional or anonymous love song at least seems a more appropriate public teaching platform for appreciating and expressing marital love.

Of course, somewhat alleviating that problem even in the case of a strictly historical drama is that the speech of the man and woman in the Song would still be in a sense fictionalized. That is because, as mentioned at the outset of examining the natural interpretation of the Song, the lyrics of the Song are poetry. They should not, even in a historical interpretation, be considered as literal quotations of the man and woman—for people do not naturally speak to one another in poetry.

Other Characters or Parts in the Song

On a related point, we should understand the chorus—as represented at least by the “daughters of Jerusalem”—in a poetic context as well. Those who take the Song as a historical account of Solomon and his bride typically view the other women in the story in one of these ways: as other wives of Solomon’s harem (which introduces the problem of his polygamy); as the woman’s bridesmaids, friends or court ladies in waiting; or as women of Jerusalem generally (and in the refrains as representing all Israelite girls who would hear the Song). The followers of the three-character drama typically see the women as other harem wives. Those who accept a fictional or anonymous-character interpretation see the women in similar terms (minus the harem view), depending on the context. In all these perspectives, including the historical ones, it is not necessary that dialogue with the women at every turn be understood as a literal occurrence.

The New International Commentary on the Old Testament says: “Throughout the Song we hear from a group of women who are variously identified as ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ (e.g., Song of Solomon 1:5), ‘daughters of Zion’ (e.g., Song of Solomon 3:11), or simply ‘young women’ (e.g., Song of Solomon 1:3). Indeed, in some contexts, they are assumed to be the audience for the woman’s addresses without being explicitly mentioned (Song of Solomon 1:5-6). It is intriguing to suggest that these references apply to the same group of women. While we state this, however, we must be careful also to safeguard against the idea that these are real women. Like the woman and the man of the Song, the women are a literary device, and the question is not so much who are they as what is their function within the poems [of the Song]. However, it is possible to suggest that they have a distinct character, which is signaled in Song of Solomon 1:5 by their association with Jerusalem. In a word, they are city girls, young and naïve, inexperienced in matters of love. It is here that they find their functions as a sounding board, a contrast, and students of the woman.

“(1) Sounding board: In some poems the women serve as a backdrop to the speeches of the woman, asking her questions that stir longer speeches or reacting to her comments. A good example of this function is found in Song of Solomon 5:9, where the young women ask the woman to describe her man, inspiring her moving description of him in Song of Solomon 5:10-16. At times the women go beyond mere sounding board in their reaction to the woman and her actions. In Song of Solomon 1:4, e.g., they confirm the woman’s choice of the man, and in Song of Solomon 5:1b they provide an outside witness to the joy of the union between the two [though there is a question as to who is speaking in this case]. (2) Contrast: The women are associated with Jerusalem, the leading city of Israel. As such, they stand in contrast with the woman, who is identified with country settings—vineyard, orchard, nut grove. It seems that her defensive response to the fact that she has been darkened by the sun in Song of Solomon 1:5-6 may be in reaction to the softness of city girls. (3) Sometimes, however, the woman, experienced in love, instructs the young women to be careful not to easily enter into this potentially dangerous relationship [or to avoid intimate relations until the proper time] (…Song of Solomon 2:7; Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 8:4)” (Longman, pp. 16-17).

We should also remember that the Song is just that—a song—and that the women constitute a chorus, as noted above. The New American Commentary contends: “In the Song…only three singing parts are evident: a male, a female, and a female chorus. While one could hypothesize that there are more than these three parts (e.g., a male chorus), such a hypothesis is supported by little if any information in the text itself. Some theorize, for example, that Song of Solomon 8:8-9 is sung by a male chorus of ‘brothers,’ but evidence is lacking. In the absence of any compelling reason to suppose otherwise, it is best to assume that there are only three basic parts” (note on 1:1). It may well be, however, that Song of Solomon 8:8-9 is sung by a male chorus, a point we will consider when we come to these verses in our reading. Another place where a male chorus may be indicated is in Song of Solomon 3:11. The same commentary assigns verses 6-11, apparently concerning the wedding procession, to the female chorus. Yet verse 11 instructs the daughters of Zion to go forth—which seems inconsistent with the designation of the chorus itself elsewhere as the daughters of Jerusalem.

The next section of introductory comments will cover symbolic interpretation as well as the basis of Jewish and traditional Christian allegorical interpretation of this book.