Homiletic interpretation of the Song of Songs (שיר השירים) consists of fanciful allegories invoking God, the nation of Israel, adulterous wives1, pious souls2, and so on, all concocted to obscure the manifest erotic content of the poem. The exegetes do not agree whether Solomon represents God, and Shulamite Israel, for example, or the converse, for nothing in the text supports either proposition. The same can be said of Christian fables concerning Joshua, Miriam, Rome, Magdala, etc.
In his Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153), the French Cistercian abbot, a power broker in papal and imperial politics and a preacher of the Second Crusade (1146), offers these hermeneutic remarks:
So much for the sequence of the letter. And that is the part of the Jews.
But for me, as I have learned from the Lord, I will look for the spirit and life in the deep and mysterious meaning of the holy word, and that is my portion, because I believe in Jesus Christ. Why would I not separate pleasant and salutary nourishment from this sterile and insipid letter, as I separate wheat from chaff, the nut from its shell, marrow from the bone? I do not want to confine myself to this letter that smells but of the flesh, and that gives death, for what it hides is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit speaks a mysterious language, as the Apostle bears witness, but Israel, instead of the mystery that is hidden, takes the veil that covers the mystery. Why is that? if not because there is still a veil over its heart. Thus the sound of the letter is for him, and the spirit of it is for me.
Translation from the French by the author of the present article.
Textual criticism, comparative philology, and modern linguistics serve to elucidate what Bernard calls the sound of the letter. Epistemological considerations preclude the study of the spirit of the letter, whatever that may be.
In his Interpretation of Dreams Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Jewish Austrian psychoanalyst, writes:
To be sure, I know patients who have steadily adhered to an architectural symbolism for the body and the genitals (sexual interest, of course, extends far beyond the region of the external genital organs) – patients for whom posts and pillars signify legs (as in the Song of Songs), to whom every door suggests a bodily aperture (‘hole’), and every water-pipe the urinary system, and so on. But the groups of ideas appertaining to plant-life, or to the kitchen, are just as often chosen to conceal sexual images; in respect of the former everyday language, the sediment of imaginative comparisons dating from the remotest times, has abundantly paved the way (the ‘vineyard’ of the Lord, the ‘seed’ of Abraham, the ‘garden’ of the maiden in the Song of Songs).
Translation by A.A. Brill (1911).
Rhetorical analysis of the poem’s imagery may reveal its structure.
Rabbinical tradition attributes the text to King Solomon (aka Jedidiah3, acceded to the throne of the united kingdom of Judah and Israel c. 970, died c. 930 BCE). Internal evidence makes up in clarity for what it lacks in conclusiveness: the Song of Songs is an epithalamion, a lyrical celebration of the nuptials of דוד “the lover” Solomon [šlo•mo] and 4רעיה “the beloved” Shulamite [šu•la•mit].5 Near-homonyms except for one written vowel6 and the suffix marking gender, the onomastic cognates derive from the noun שלום [ša•lom] “peace”7. Shulamite puns on their common etymology in 8:10,
I [am] a wall, and my breasts like towers: then was I in his eyes as one that found favour.
אני חומה ושדי כמגדלות אז הייתי בעיניו כמוצאת שלום
In one another’s eyes the fiancés find peace, love, and the reflection of themselves.
1. Historical Background
Oriental philology further suggests the identification of the bride with Abishag the Shunammite8, a beautiful young virgin from the town of Shunem in the land of Issachar9 (modern-day Sulam about five kilometers north of Jezreel in the north of Israel). She nursed King David (reigned c. 1010-970 BCE) through his last illness, but the Bible, in specifying that theirs was an unconsummated union10, suggests by litotes that she played more than a merely therapeutic role. Whether or not she was ever lawfully married to the king, it is the maidenhead of Abishag that conferred sovereignty upon his son and successor.11 Moving swiftly after the death of his father to consolidate power, Solomon had his elder, paternal half-brother (rival for Abishag’s heart and the crown) killed12, and dealt similarly with the other two designated potential threats to his authority, having the military captain of the host (his paternal cousin) slain by the same assassin (the new captain of the host), and unseating the dissident high priest (who had also backed the competing claim to the monarchy), whom he banished and replaced with the cleric who had anointed him king.13
Moshe Castel, Shulamit (1940s)
This chronology, if not the tone of courtly intrigue and internecine violence, accords with the youthful ardor of courtship expressed in the poem. An older man, somewhere along the way to seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines14, might cut the figure of a more jaded lover, as might his betrothed. The political context, however, reveals the ambition behind the groom’s desire of conjugal bliss. In inheriting the royal maiden he also lusted for the power that would accrue to him with sexual conquest. This acquired taste for love and hegemony did not serve Solomon well in later life, as too many diplomatic marriages brought chaos to his kingdom. The Bible specifies this causation in singling out the wives (as opposed to the concubines, who presumably arrived without so much political baggage) as the source of discord in the realm, which dissolved into revolt in the latter days of Solomon’s reign15 and broke up soon after his death16. The Bible refers to only three of Solomon’s children17, which cannot be a full reckoning given his prolific polygamy, even if he had been sterile and the children bastards. We can thus infer nothing from the lack of information as to the eventual offspring of his union with Abishag.18
Marc Chagall, Solomon (1956)
C. Judah & Israel
The wedding hymn takes the form of a dialogue between the bride and groom, accompanied by a chorus made up of Daughters of Jerusalem, bridesmaids according to modern ritual. It may have been performed as part of an estival music, song, and dance festival.19
David and Solomon were the poet-philosopher kings of Judah and Israel. Tradition attributes the Psalms to the former20, the Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes to the latter21. Origen (c. 185-254 CE), the Egyptian neo-Platonic theologian, whose autocastration cost him the priesthood in life and sainthood in death, qualifies the three books of Solomon as metaphysics, ethics, and physics respectively. Another view holds that the three works correspond to the passion of youth, the wisdom of maturity, and the spleen of old age.
If there is an allegory to be found in the Song of Songs, it resides in the hopes of the people, represented as in Greek drama by the chorus, for reconciliation in the two-hundred-year civil war that opposed the house of David (to which the southern kingdom of Judah reverted upon the death of Solomon) to the house of Jeroboam (which seized the northern kingdom of Israel), represented by Abishag the Shulamite from Galilee.22 This interpretation, albeit unsupported by the text except circumstantially, would establish the date of the oldest material (possibly gathered and reworked by a later poet) as no later than the reign of Hoshea (c. 730-722 BCE), the last king of sovereign Israel.23 The reference to the northern capital city of Tirzah in 6:4 could further identify the date of composition as c. 925-875 BCE.24
Philological research into the language of the poem has detected the presence of northern Hebrew inflections, particularly in the systematic usage of the relative pronoun ‑שo(32 occurrences25) by all speakers, which might suggest the authorship of Shulamite herself or of one of her fellow dialect speakers. Born of a Judean (Bethlehemite26) father, raised at the royal court in the southern capital of Jerusalem, Solomon was hardly likely to pick up northern regional speech habits, and still less likely to make use of them in a literary composition, if he had. Moreover almost all of the identified place names refer to the north (Bathrabbim, Carmel, Gilead, Hermon, Israel, Sharon, Shenir, Tirzah, as well as Damascus and Lebanon) rather than to the south (Engedi, Jerusalem).
The genre of the pastoral idyll may have been borrowed from such Greek antecedents as Theocritus (born Syracuse, Sicily, flourished Alexandria c. 270 BCE). This influence of Hellenism on Judaism would establish the date of the final redaction of the text c. 250-150 BCE (date of its translation into Greek).
3 2 Samuel 12:24-25, “And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the Lord loved him. / And he sent by the hand of Nathan the prophet; and he called his name Jedidiah, because of the Lord.” For the sake of consistency all biblical citations in the present article refer to Jacobean chapter and verse number. [Back]
5 The Hebrew nouns דוד and רעיה, masculine and feminine respectively, derive from verbs meaning “boil” and “graze”. The Septuagint (αδελφιδος, η πλησιον), the Vulgate (dilectus, amica), Martin Luther (Freund, Freundin), and David Martin (bien-aimé, amie) all agree on gender, which poses a problem in relatively gender-neutral English, as in the King James Version (beloved, love). [Back]
7 Also the etymon of Salem, the ancient name of Jerusalem, Judean capital of the united kingdom of Judah and Israel. Cf. Psalms 76:2, “In Salem also is his tabernacle, and his dwelling place in Zion.” [Back]
8 [su•la•mit] in the translations into Syriac (the Peshitta, c. first to second centuries CE) and Arabic (by Saadia ben Joseph [892-942], aka Gaon, the Jewish Egyptian philosopher and philologist). In written pointed Hebrew the letter ש is marked by the shin dot (a point above the right branch) to distinguish the post-alveolar sibilant [š], by the sin dot (a point above the left branch) to distinguish the alveolar sibilant [s]. [Back]
10 1 Kings 1:2-4, “Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat. / So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. / And the damsel [was] very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.” [Back]
11 1 Kings 2:13-23,
And Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon. And she said, Comest thou peaceably? And he said, Peaceably. / He said moreover, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And she said, Say on. / And he said, Thou knowest that the kingdom was mine, and [that] all Israel set their faces on me, that I should reign: howbeit the kingdom is turned about, and is become my brother’s: for it was his from the Lord. / And now I ask one petition of thee, deny me not. And she said unto him, Say on. / And he said, Speak, I pray thee, unto Solomon the king, (for he will not say thee nay,) that he give me Abishag the Shunammite to wife. / And Bathsheba said, Well; I will speak for thee unto the king. / Bathsheba therefore went unto king Solomon, to speak unto him for Adonijah. And the king rose up to meet her, and bowed himself unto her, and sat down on his throne, and caused a seat to be set for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right hand. / Then she said, I desire one small petition of thee; [I pray thee], say me not nay. And the king said unto her, Ask on, my mother: for I will not say thee nay. / And she said, Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to Adonijah thy brother to wife. / And king Solomon answered and said unto his mother, And why dost thou ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? ask for him the kingdom also; for he [is] mine elder brother; even for him, and for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruiah. / Then king Solomon sware by the Lord, saying, God do so to me, and more also, if Adonijah have not spoken this word against his own life.
Adonijah’s see-through ploy does not dupe Bathsheba (the hardened widow of twenty years marriage to her husband’s murderer, her lover, the polygamous monarch David), who might be expected to back the claim of her own son. On the one hand, the dialogue with her step-son is fraught with rhetorical gibes and quiproquo. Taking the initiative before giving her visitor a chance to speak, she wonders aloud if his intentions are שלום “peaceable”, as if experience led her to believe otherwise. The pun on the name Solomon (שלמה) is lost on her interlocutor, who foolishly answers: שלום “Greetings.” Faced with his oratorical precautions she laconically refuses to commit herself: דבר “Speak.” In reply to his deferred request she demurs: טוב “Well”. A favorable outcome seems unlikely. On the other hand, the dialogue with her son is full of tacit mutual understanding. Receiving her as befits the Queen Mother, Solomon need not ask if she has come in peace. Her qualification of the as yet unspecified favor as קטן “small” is ironical, since the adjective taken at face value hardly fits the moment of the patently impossible request. In contrast to his mother, Solomon assents before asking for details. When she finally makes her vicarious demand, her son does not direct his anger at her. Instead he cuts the audience short with an oath, and she disappears from the text while he exacts bloody revenge on Adonijah and his cohorts.
Bathsheba knows full well that, in seeming to petition Solomon on his behalf, she exposes the plot and signs the death warrant of Adonijah, thus abetting her son’s cause to the detriment of his rival. Cf. Song of Songs 3:11, “Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold king Solomon with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.”
Indeed Bathsheba had already conspired with the prophet Nathan against Adonijah to impose the succession of Solomon on David, by then an old and tired ruler. Cf. 1 Kings 1:5-14,
Then Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, I will be king: and he prepared him chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. / And his father had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so? and he also [was a] very goodly [man]; and [his mother] bare him after Absalom. / And he conferred with Joab the son of Zeruiah, and with Abiathar the priest: and they following Adonijah helped [him]. / But Zadok the priest, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and Nathan the prophet, and Shimei, and Rei, and the mighty men which [belonged] to David, were not with Adonijah. / And Adonijah slew sheep and oxen and fat cattle by the stone of Zoheleth, which [is] by Enrogel, and called all his brethren the king’s sons, and all the men of Judah the king’s servants: / But Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah, and the mighty men, and Solomon his brother, he called not. / Wherefore Nathan spake unto Bathsheba the mother of Solomon, saying, Hast thou not heard that Adonijah the son of Haggith doth reign, and David our lord knoweth [it] not? / Now therefore come, let me, I pray thee, give thee counsel, that thou mayest save thine own life, and the life of thy son Solomon. / Go and get thee in unto king David, and say unto him, Didst not thou, my lord, O king, swear unto thine handmaid, saying, Assuredly Solomon thy son shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon my throne? why then doth Adonijah reign? / Behold, while thou yet talkest there with the king, I also will come in after thee, and confirm thy words.
King David of Judah, father of Adonijah and of Solomon, had previously united the bicameral kingdom by wresting the monarchy of Israel from King Ishbosheth, son of King Saul, based on a similarly disputed matrimonial claim to Michal, who (already wedded to David) had been given in bigamous marriage to Phaltiel by her father Saul before his death by suicide after the battle of Mount Gilboa. Cf. 2 Samuel 3:8-14,
Then was Abner very wroth for the words of Ishbosheth, and said, [Am] I a dog’s head, which against Judah do shew kindness this day unto the house of Saul thy father, to his brethren, and to his friends, and have not delivered thee into the hand of David, that thou chargest me to day with a fault concerning this woman? / So do God to Abner, and more also, except, as the Lord hath sworn to David, even so I do to him; / To translate the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan even to Beersheba. / And he could not answer Abner a word again, because he feared him. / And Abner sent messengers to David on his behalf, saying, Whose [is] the land? saying [also], Make thy league with me, and, behold, my hand [shall be] with thee, to bring about all Israel unto thee. / And he said, Well; I will make a league with thee: but one thing I require of thee, that is, Thou shalt not see my face, except thou first bring Michal Saul’s daughter, when thou comest to see my face. / And David sent messengers to Ishbosheth Saul’s son, saying, Deliver [me] my wife Michal, which I espoused to me for an hundred foreskins of the Philistines. [Back]
12 1 Kings 2:24-25, “Now therefore, [as] the Lord liveth, which hath established me, and set me on the throne of David my father, and who hath made me an house, as he promised, Adonijah shall be put to death this day. / And king Solomon sent by the hand of Benaiah the son of Jehoiada; and he fell upon him that he died.” [Back]
13 1 Kings 2:26-35,
And unto Abiathar the priest said the king, Get thee to Anathoth, unto thine own fields; for thou [art] worthy of death: but I will not at this time put thee to death, because thou barest the ark of the Lord God before David my father, and because thou hast been afflicted in all wherein my father was afflicted. / So Solomon thrust out Abiathar from being priest unto the Lord; that he might fulfil the word of the Lord, which he spake concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh. / Then tidings came to Joab: for Joab had turned after Adonijah, though he turned not after Absalom. And Joab fled unto the tabernacle of the Lord, and caught hold on the horns of the altar. / And it was told king Solomon that Joab was fled unto the tabernacle of the Lord; and, behold, [he is] by the altar. Then Solomon sent Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, saying, Go, fall upon him. / And Benaiah came to the tabernacle of the Lord, and said unto him, Thus saith the king, Come forth. And he said, Nay; but I will die here. And Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me. / And the king said unto him, Do as he hath said, and fall upon him, and bury him; that thou mayest take away the innocent blood, which Joab shed, from me, and from the house of my father. / And the Lord shall return his blood upon his own head, who fell upon two men more righteous and better than he, and slew them with the sword, my father David not knowing [thereof, to wit], Abner the son of Ner, captain of the host of Israel, and Amasa the son of Jether, captain of the host of Judah. / Their blood shall therefore return upon the head of Joab, and upon the head of his seed for ever: but upon David, and upon his seed, and upon his house, and upon his throne, shall there be peace for ever from the Lord. / So Benaiah the son of Jehoiada went up, and fell upon him, and slew him: and he was buried in his own house in the wilderness. / And the king put Benaiah the son of Jehoiada in his room over the host: and Zadok the priest did the king put in the room of Abiathar.
Cf. 1 Kings 1:39, “And Zadok the priest took an horn of oil out of the tabernacle, and anointed Solomon. And they blew the trumpet; and all the people said, God save king Solomon.” [Back]
14 1 Kings 11:3, “And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart.” The Bible says little of King Solomon’s wives, the unnamed daughter of an unnamed Pharaoh, Naamah “beautiful” an Ammonite, mother of Rehoboam, diverse Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. The wives of his father King David are comparatively well known:
Michal “rivulet”, daughter of King Saul of Israel and Ahinoam.
Ahinoam “brother of pleasure”, a Jezreelite.
Abigail “father of joy”, a Carmelite, widow of Nabal “churlish and evil” (1 Samuel 25:3) of the house of Caleb “dog”.
Maachah “oppression”, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur.
Haggith “festive”, of unknown origin.
Abital “father of dew”, of unknown origin.
Eglah “heifer”, of unknown origin.
Bathsheba “daughter of seven”, daughter of Ammiel, widow of Uriah the Hittite. [Back]
15 1 Kings 11:26-27, “And Jeroboam the son of Nebat, an Ephrathite of Zereda, Solomon’s servant, whose mother’s name [was] Zeruah, a widow woman, even he lifted up [his] hand against the king. / And this [was] the cause that he lifted up [his] hand against the king: Solomon built Millo, [and] repaired the breaches of the city of David his father.” [Back]
16 1 Kings 12:12-20,
So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king had appointed, saying, Come to me again the third day. / And the king answered the people roughly, and forsook the old men’s counsel that they gave him; / And spake to them after the counsel of the young men, saying, My father made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke: my father also chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions. / Wherefore the king hearkened not unto the people; for the cause was from the Lord, that he might perform his saying, which the Lord spake by Ahijah the Shilonite unto Jeroboam the son of Nebat. / So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither [have we] inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents. / But [as for] the children of Israel which dwelt in the cities of Judah, Rehoboam reigned over them. / Then king Rehoboam sent Adoram, who [was] over the tribute; and all Israel stoned him with stones, that he died. Therefore king Rehoboam made speed to get him up to his chariot, to flee to Jerusalem. / So Israel rebelled against the house of David unto this day. / And it came to pass, when all Israel heard that Jeroboam was come again, that they sent and called him unto the congregation, and made him king over all Israel: there was none that followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only. [Back]
19 1 Chronicles 13:8, “And David and all Israel played before God with all [their] might, and with singing, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets.” [Back]
20 2 Samuel 23:1-2, “Now these [be] the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, and the man [who was] raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said, / The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word [was] in my tongue.” [Back]
22 Targum Canticles (diversely dated, possibly as late as the eighth century), the Aramaic translation and commentary of the Bible, comments thus 8:11-12,
A people came up by lot of the Lord of the World with whom is peace. She is like to a vineyard. He settled her in Jerusalem and delivered her to the rule of the kings of the House of David that they might guard her as a tenant guards his vineyard. And after the death of Solomon, King of Israel, she was left in the hand of Rehoboam, his son. Jeroboam son of Nebat came and divided the kingdom with him and led ten tribes away from him [Vide 1 Kings 12:16-20], according to the word spoken by Ahijah of Shiloh, who was a great man.
When Solomon, King of Israel, heard the prophecy of Ahijah of Shiloh [Vide 1 Kings 11:29-32], he wished to kill him. But Ahijah fled from Solomon and went to Egypt. At that very moment it was told to Solomon through prophecy that he would rule over the ten tribes all his days, but after his death Jeroboam son of Nebat would rule over them, and Rehoboam son of Solomon would rule over the two tribes, Judah and Benjamin [Vide 1 Kings 11:11-13].
Translation by Jay Treat, undated.
23 2 Kings 18:9-10, “And it came to pass in the fourth year of king Hezekiah, which [was] the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, [that] Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against Samaria, and besieged it. / And at the end of three years they took it: [even] in the sixth year of Hezekiah, that [is] the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken.” [Back]
24 Vide 1 Kings 15:33, “In the third year of Asa king of Judah began Baasha the son of Ahijah to reign over all Israel in Tirzah, twenty and four years.” Cf. 1 Kings 16:23-24, “In the thirty and first year of Asa king of Judah began Omri to reign over Israel, twelve years: six years reigned he in Tirzah. / And he bought the hill Samaria of Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill, Samaria.” [Back]
25 1:6, 1:12, etc. Cf. 1:1, the unique occurrence of the southern form אשר in the title. As ‑ש replaced אשר in Aramaic, the usage might alternatively testify to the late composition of the text. The northern form also occurs elsewhere in the Bible, notably in Ecclesiastes. [Back]
song of songs, shir hashirim, canticle of canticles, bible, solomon, shlomo, shulamite, abishag, judah, israel, vocalization, cantillation, versification, poetry, poem, epithalamion, nuptial, wedding, hymn, prosody, psalmody, meter, verse, stich