In Appreciation of the Song of Songs

The foundational books of the Hebrew Bible were originally composed, though not edited, from the 10th or 9th century to the 7th century BC, excluding a few archaic poems. The critical moment in biblical history was the Babylonian exile, which began after the conquest of Judah and Jerusalem in 586 BC.

The Song of Songs, sometimes wrongly called the “Song of Solomon,” is a beautiful anthology of sensual love poems that is curiously devoid of any reference to God, the covenant, or the Torah. In many ways it can stand alone from earlier scripture. It was a common practice for later editors to attribute later Hebrew books to early figures in Hebrew history, as in the case of Solomon.

The poems contained within the scroll are some of the most fresh and beautiful examples of love poetry that have come down to us from the ancient world. Later writers would find problems with their erotic nature and would thus read the poetry allegorically in both the Judaistic and Christian traditions. It has also been suggested that the poems are based on earlier Egyptian and Mesopotamian poems, and some have even tried to reveal a kind of plot that develops through the progression of the poems – a story of love and marriage. The scroll is composed of only 8 chapters and appear to be written from the perspective of a woman or a chorus of women in pursuit of their male lovers. Imagine the beauty of the songs these words once embodied!

Here are some verses from the poems worth celebrating (as translated by Robert Alter):

Chapter 2 is perhaps the most famous. It is a poem of a woman in pursuit of a man whom she eventually ensnares in the end and it is filled with images of spring and vineyards and pastoral romance. Most chapters of the scroll follow this formula, excluding Chapter 3:

“I am the rose of Sharon,
the lily of the valley.
-Like a lily among thorns
so is my friend among the young women
-Like a quince tree among the trees of the forest
so is my lover among the young men.
In its shade I delighted to sit
and its fruit was sweet to my taste”

“My lover is mine and I am his,
who grazes among the lilies.
Until morning’s breeze blows
and the shadows flee,
turn round, be like a deer, my love,
or like a gazelle
on the cloven mountains”

“A garden spring,
a garden of fresh water
and streams from Lebanon.
-Arise, O north, and come, O south,
blow on my garden, let its perfumes flow,
Let my lover come to his garden
and eat its luscious fruit”

“Come my lover,
Let us go out to the field,
spend the night in the henna.
There will I give my love to you.
Let us rise early in the vineyards.
We shall see if the vine is in flower,
if the blossoms have opened,
if the pomegranate buds have opened.”

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.

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