Study Guide for The Song of Songs

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All references to the Song of Songs are to Michael V. Fox's translation as published in The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 82 94.

The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon and the Canticle of Canticles, has long puzzled readers because its themes seem to have nothing to do with the religious concerns of the rest of the Bible. How it came to be classed among the sacred works called "The Writings" in the Hebrew Bible is unknown. The earliest rabbis whose opinions we have are certain that it cannot possibly mean what is says literally. If it is among the sacred books, it must have a sacred meaning. Some rabbis even argued that as the most mysterious of books, it must have the most profoundly spiritual of meanings. The consensus of first-century Jewish scholars was that the poem was an allegory of God's love for his people, Israel. Modern literary scholars generally agree that the brief references to Solomon were added after the fact to rationalize its place in the scriptural canon. Solomon was said to have three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines, and was therefore stereotyped as a great lover who might have written such a work. However, the language and style of the work indicate that it was written at least 500 years after his time. Most likely the poems were composed by different hands and different times and assembled into this "anthology" at a later date. Michael Fox has taken the liberty in this translation of trying to reconstruct what he thinks may have been the original shape of the book, which means occasionally moving verses around to make more convincing sense. Generally, however, his translation follows the Hebrew text's order.

Early Christian scholars followed the rabbinical lead by agreeing that these verses could not possibly depict worldly love. Since they routinely interpreted almost all of the Hebrew Bible (which they called "The Old Testament") in allegorical terms, this was only natural. Some thought that the Song of Songs voiced Christ's love for his Church; but the eventual Christian consensus was that they concerned God's love for the Virgin Mary. She figures in Christian thought as the spouse of God. Medieval exegetes went to extraordinary lengths to explain away the obvious sensuality of these verses. Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, argued that "kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" must not mean ordinary physical kisses because it was too indirect an expression. A man might kiss a woman with his mouth, but he would not kiss her with kisses. Something more spiritual is meant. He also recommended that monks and priests not be allowed to study the book while they were still young and prone to inflamed passions. Almost all Christian musical settings of the Songs are hymns to the Virgin. Since the text was sung in Latin, the listeners probably thought very little about the literal meaning of the words.

Allegorical interpretation has fallen out of fashion, and in modern times numerous attempts have been made to explain (or explain away) this book. One group made a valiant effort to compare the poems to Arabic wedding songs, arguing that they might have been recited at ancient Jewish weddings. However, the parallels are quite weak and there is no evidence for such use. Besides, the very subject matter seems to have remarkably little to do with marriage. The same objection undermines the theory that the poems are meant to depict God's ideal for marital relations. Besides, the latter theory is anachronistic, hardly any but the most radical fringe groups in Christianity considered sensuality and desire even within marriage to be a good thing. For centuries Christians and most Jews (Moses Maimonides' influence is important here) had a strongly ascetic bias. The concept of sensuous Christian marriage is only decades old, not traditional at all, as is the modern Jewish attitude toward sexuality. Of course, it is conceivable that at the time of their writing, these verses reflected attitudes more like modern ones that like those prevailing in the intervening centuries: Jacob was certainly passionate about Rachel. But it is still hard to see in them an endorsement of marriage.

The artistic importance of these verses (probably a collection of short, related poems, rather than a single work) lies in their intrinsic beauty and in the enormous influence they have had on later writers, painters, and musicians. They also reveal to us many interesting aspects of ancient Jewish attitudes toward sexuality.

The labels in parentheses have been assigned by the translator in an effort to sort out who is speaking when. It is clear that some lines are uttered by a woman, some by a man, and some by groups of people. The labels vary. Some translations rather misleadingly label the speakers as "bride" and "bridegroom," but in the original there is no indication of who speaks each poem or even where one poem leaves off and another begins.

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Scented oils were frequently used in antiquity as a combination skin lotion and perfume. The king mentioned here was traditionally taken to be Solomon until Christians began to conceive of him as God himself. What evidence is there that the blackness referred to in the second poem has nothing to do with race? In many cultures light skin has been prized as a sign of nobility in women; what in this poem suggests the reason for this association? Some modern translations try to evade the suggestion that darkness might have been considered unattractive by altering the introduction to "I am black and I am beautiful;" but that goes against the poet's clear intent. It is not clear whether the complaint of the woman is an assertion of desire for equal property rights for women or a metaphorical statement about her control over her own body. Note the recurring instances of tension between young women and their brothers in these poems. Note the strong assertiveness of women's desires in these verses, which goes even further than the Egyptian poetry. Note the many instances of references to smells and tastes, also like the Egyptian poetry. Michael Fox suggests that the beloved's eyes are compared with doves because her fluttering eyelashes are reminiscent of a dove's fluttering wings. Fox's translation of the "lily of the valley" passage is most unusual, but interesting. Whereas most translations make the woman's statement out to be a boast, what does his version convey? The "girls of Jerusalem" (usually called "daughters of Jerusalem") The statement "do not bestir love,/before it wishes" has been variously interpreted. The obvious meaning is, don't try to seduce someone who is too young, but that doesn't seem to fit with the surrounding messages. Some have argued that it means that lovemaking should be gradual and gentle. Others take it as a warning that aroused love can be dangerous if not handled carefully.

p. 27

The speech by the "boy" beginning "Arise, my beloved," is perhaps the most famous in the book, frequently set to music in its Latin translation combined with the introduction as "Quam pulchra es." The old King James translation of the bird as a "turtle" has amused and puzzled many modern readers, but in the Renaissance the word meant "turtledove." "The Voice of the Turtle" is the name of a musical group that performs and records Jewish music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. What season is especially associated with love in this poem? How is the setting different from that envisioned in the earlier poems? Note how the girl repeatedly compares her beloved to a gazelle or deer. The poem that begins "On my bed night after night" is one of two about women searching for their beloveds in the city streets. Can you characterize these women? The following section is one of only two portions of the Song of Songs explicitly about Solomon and one of the few to make any reference to marriage. Some scholars have argued this may have been used as a marriage hymn, but we have no evidence for such usage. The cedars of Lebanon were associated with Solomon because he had imported them for use in building the famous First Temple. The final poem on this page uses image that many modern readers have found difficult and strange. We have already explained Fox's theory about the dove metaphor. He also argues that seen from a distance, a dense flock of black goats streaming down a mountainside might well suggest the waving tresses of a dark-haired girl. In an age of minimal oral hygiene a woman who had white teeth and wasn't missing a single one might well exceptional. What lines suggest that the woman has all her teeth? Round red cheeks were much praised in Medieval and Renaissance Europe as well, though the usual comparison there was to apples rather than pomegranates. Lengthy necks have been admired in many ages as well. What might the poet be referring to when he uses the metaphor of the shields which are hung from David's tower?

p. 28

The breast/fawn metaphor seems strange at first, but it is their delicacy and gentle movements and the fact that they are a perfectly matched pair that the poet has in mind. "The mountain of myrrh" and "hill of frankincense" may describe an imaginary land of love, or they may be simple metaphors for the "mound of Venus." What snares does the boy say have "captured his heart"? Lebanon was more fertile and wooded than much of Israel, and often figures here as a garden spot. The "locked garden" (surrounded by a wall with a locked gate) has often been read as a metaphor for the woman's body. If this is the case, then the following speeches take on a strongly sexual meaning. What evidence is there that the subject is lovemaking rather than picnicking? Many ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern love poems use "sister" as a term of affection for a beloved woman. Although the Egyptians did not entirely share the powerful incest taboos of the Jews (the Pharaohs routinely married their sisters), even they do not seem to have intended the term literally. The section "I slumbered, but my heart was alert," begins a sort of little poetic dramatic dialogue. Note the image of the waiting lover drenched with dew, which we encountered earlier in Japanese poetry. This section is often cited in the arguments of those who argue against the idea that the Song of Songs consist entirely of marriage hymns. What about it might be used to support such arguments? Note the "lover outside the door" theme which parallels Egyptian and Roman poems on the same theme. This is the second of the two poems in which the woman goes looking for her beloved, but this time she is assaulted and robbed by the guards. The meaning is obscure, but these lines certainly underline the power of her passion. This poem can also be seen as a variation on the regretful woman theme: "I turned him down, and now I'm sorry." Such poems are often written by men fantasizing about women, but there are also documented examples by real women.

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Note how many of the same images applied earlier to the girl are now applied by her to the boy. Beauty was not a characteristic solely of women in the ancient world. Some of the images do seem to suggest specifically male muscularity, such as thighs like marble pillars. The "ivory bar" suggests white skin adorned with dark hair ("lapis lazuli"). "Belly" is sometimes a euphemism in Hebrew poetry for "sexual organ," and that may well be the case here. The repetition of several lines from earlier suggests folksong traditions in which same formulas are used over and over in various contexts. The reference to threescore (60) queens and fourscore (80) concubines suggests a king like Solomon, though it does not equal the numbers he accumulated at the height of his power. How can we tell that the girl is not to be numbered among the queens and concubines? The "morning star" is the planet Venus, often visible just before dawn, and considered particularly beautiful in both Hebrew and ancient Greek traditions. Note the praise of curves: the admiration of hard-bodied females with flat stomachs à la Janet Jackson is a very recent development.


The poet continues to use place-names which the audience would be familiar with as metaphors for the beloved's beauty. "Thrums" are fringes. "A king is captured by the locks [of hair]" is traditionally taken to concern Solomon, though it can as easily simply mean that the girl is beautiful enough for a king to love. The idea that a man can be metaphorically ensnared by a woman's beautiful hair is one of the oldest and most enduring images of love. The metaphor of the woman's body as a garden is made even clearer when the woman is compared to a palm. Fox assumes this is a date palm, common in ancient Israel. Note the repetition here of the theme "let us go out into the fields to make love." The speech by the girl wishing her lover were like a brother has no perverse intent. What does she say would be the advantages of having his status be the same as that of one of her brothers? Love's power is frequently understood in the ancient world to be both highly desirable and very dangerous: "as strong as death." In Hebrew poetry parallelism is the most common of poetic devices. To say that "love is as strong as death" is parallel to saying that jealousy is "as hard as Sheol." In this period, classical Jewish concepts of the afterlife had probably not yet evolved, and "Sheol" is routinely used as a synonym for "death." It was understood as the land where all dead spirits went, good and bad alike, much like the Greek Hades. Only later did it become a label for Hell, an interpretation that did not prevail among Jews until after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE. This description of the overwhelming power of love is strikingly like Sappho's and Medieval Christian and Arabic views on the subject, and very unlike the playful Hellenistic and Roman attitudes. What is the poet saying about jealousy? The dialogue between the brothers and the girl is one of Fox's most daring pieces of reconstruction, trying to make sense of some of the more obscure passages in the book. His translation suggests a brotherly refusal to recognize that their little sister has grown up and is ready for love. The second of the passages referring explicitly to Solomon uses him as the basis for a comparison: the boy would rather have his beloved than all the riches of Solomon.

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