The Song of Songs: Five Relationships, One Love Story?
Is there a single, continuous love story in the Song of Songs? On one hand, it is easy to see the repetitions of language that might indicate a unified composition. On the other, the basic markers of character development and a narrative arc are missing: both the first and last song are in the voice of a woman desiring an absent lover, and sexual intercourse (4:9–5:1) and a wedding (3:6–11) both take place in the middle of the book, not where one would expect to find the climax of a romance.
The scholarly consensus views the Song of Songs as an anthology or collection of different poems or songs—with theories ranging from 6 to 31 songs total—written over hundreds of years (from the 10th to the 5th or 4th centuries B.C.E.) that became canonized only once they were collected into a single work. The songs are similar in genre to Egyptian love songs from 12–13th century B.C.E., which were sung at banquets.
The differences between characters, plot and setting in the different songs are striking. For example:
1. Royal Lovers
The opening poem depicts a female speaking to her beloved:
שׁיר השׁירים א:ב יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ כִּי טוֹבִים דֹּדֶיךָ מִיָּיִן.
Song 1:2 Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth, for your love(making) is more delightful than wine.
The love has already been consummated, as we can see from her confident statements about what it is like for her to be loved by him. The male protagonist is described as a king and as wearing perfume:
שׁיר השׁירים א:ג לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים שֶׁמֶן תּוּרַק שְׁמֶךָ עַל כֵּן עֲלָמוֹת אֲהֵבוּךָ.
1:3 Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance, your name is like finest oil—therefore do maidens love you.
He is loved not only by the female protagonist but by other women. The relationship also seems to have been formalized—the king has brought the woman into his chambers, presumably as a wife but possibly as a concubine. She wants intimacy with him and is confidently demanding and initiating it:
שׁיר השׁירים א:ד מָשְׁכֵנִי אַחֲרֶיךָ נָּרוּצָה הֱבִיאַנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ חֲדָרָיו נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בָּךְ נַזְכִּירָה דֹדֶיךָ מִיַּיִן מֵישָׁרִים אֲהֵבוּךָ.
Song 1:4 Draw me after you, let us run! The king has brought me to his chambers. Let us delight and rejoice in your love, savoring it more than wine—like new wine they love you!
Perhaps the woman is intoxicated with love and wants to be carried away, but the references to other women also suggest that she wants women companions with her. Alternatively, the episode may represent a woman’s fantasy of being part of a king’s harem.
2. A Rendezvous for a Rural Couple
Later in chapter 1 we find a quite different relationship—presented in a dialogue between a female goatherd and male shepherd. The woman calls him the one that she loves, and she only asks of him to know where to find him during the day, perhaps trying to arrange a clandestine noontime meeting:
שׁיר השׁירים א:ז הַגִּידָה לִּי שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי אֵיכָה תִרְעֶה אֵיכָה תַּרְבִּיץ בַּצָּהֳרָיִם שַׁלָּמָה אֶהְיֶה כְּעֹטְיָה עַל עֶדְרֵי חֲבֵרֶיךָ.
Song 1:7 Tell me, you whom I love so well, where do you pasture your sheep? Where do you rest them at noon? Let me not be as one who strays beside the flocks of your fellows.
She is concerned that if she does not know where to find him that other shepherds will find her while she is wandering. It is left unclear why this possibility bothers her, whether she is worried about embarrassment or about danger, but in any case, she feels unsafe and unprotected.
In the response (which may be by the man or by a group) she is given instructions for how to find him:
שׁיר השׁירים א:ח אִם לֹא תֵדְעִי לָךְ הַיָּפָה בַּנָּשִׁים צְאִי לָךְ בְּעִקְבֵי הַצֹּאן וּרְעִי אֶת גְּדִיֹּתַיִךְ עַל מִשְׁכְּנוֹת הָרֹעִים.
Song 1:8 If you do not know, O fairest of women, go follow the tracks of the sheep, and graze your kids by the tents of the shepherds.
Thus, the woman must take an active role in finding her lover.
3. King Solomon and His Bride
Another very different story presents a wedding and, presumably, a relationship that has not yet been consummated:
שׁיר השׁירים ג:ו מִי זֹאת עֹלָה מִן הַמִּדְבָּר כְּתִימֲרוֹת עָשָׁן מְקֻטֶּרֶת מוֹר וּלְבוֹנָה מִכֹּל אַבְקַת רוֹכֵל.
Song 3:6 Who is she that comes up from the desert like columns of smoke, in clouds of myrrh and frankincense, of all the powders of the merchant?
The female protagonist, who either lives in the desert or across it, is wearing expensive perfumes, myrrh and frankincense, which suggests that she is from a wealthy family. The passage then inverts our expectations: instead of answering the question about the woman, it immediately tells us to gaze on the litter of Solomon.
שׁיר השׁירים ג:ז הִנֵּה מִטָּתוֹ שֶׁלִּשְׁלֹמֹה שִׁשִּׁים גִּבֹּרִים סָבִיב לָהּ מִגִּבֹּרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Song 3:7 There is Solomon’s litter, encircled by sixty warriors of the warriors of Israel.
Following a description of this opulent vehicle and the king’s guards (vv. 8–10), the song points the audience to the figure of the king:
שׁיר השׁירים ג:יא צְאֶינָה וּרְאֶינָה בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן בַּמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה בָּעֲטָרָה שֶׁעִטְּרָה לּוֹ אִמּוֹ בְּיוֹם חֲתֻנָּתוֹ וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַת לִבּוֹ.
Song 3:11 O maidens of Zion, go forth and gaze upon King Solomon wearing the crown that his mother gave him on his wedding day, on his day of bliss.
There is no indication that the protagonists love each other, although since they are getting married one hopes that they will eventually. This only increases the mystery about the woman herself who is worthy of an escort party.
4. A Nighttime Rendevous
Later, a scene from a different relationship described in the Song of Songs ends unhappily. The beginning of the episode is ambiguous. Does the sound of her lover knocking awaken the women, or does it begin a dream sequence?
שׁיר השׁירים ה:ב אֲנִי יְשֵׁנָה וְלִבִּי עֵר קוֹל דּוֹדִי דוֹפֵק פִּתְחִי לִי אֲחֹתִי רַעְיָתִי יוֹנָתִי תַמָּתִי שֶׁרֹּאשִׁי נִמְלָא טָל קְוֻּצּוֹתַי רְסִיסֵי לָיְלָה.
Song 5:2 I was asleep, but my heart was wakeful. Hark, my beloved knocks! “Let me in, my own, my darling, my faultless dove! For my head is drenched with dew, my locks with the damp of night.”
That he knocks on her door means the man and the woman are not living together, and the woman has enough autonomy to decide whether or not to let him in. Indeed, she hesitates before answering:
שׁיר השׁירים ה:ג פָּשַׁטְתִּי אֶת כֻּתָּנְתִּי אֵיכָכָה אֶלְבָּשֶׁנָּה רָחַצְתִּי אֶת רַגְלַי אֵיכָכָה אֲטַנְּפֵם.
Song 5:3 I had taken off my robe—was I to don it again? I had bathed my feet—was I to soil them again?
Her delay is apparently long enough that the man turns to leave:
שׁיר השׁירים ה:ד דּוֹדִי שָׁלַח יָדוֹ מִן הַחֹר וּמֵעַי הָמוּ עָלָיו.
Song 5:4 My beloved took his hand off the latch, and my heart was stirred for him.
By the time the woman opens the door, he is gone:
שׁיר השׁירים ה:ה קַמְתִּי אֲנִי לִפְתֹּחַ לְדוֹדִי וְיָדַי נָטְפוּ מוֹר וְאֶצְבְּעֹתַי מוֹר עֹבֵר עַל כַּפּוֹת הַמַּנְעוּל. ה:ו פָּתַחְתִּי אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי חָמַק עָבָר נַפְשִׁי יָצְאָה בְדַבְּרוֹ בִּקַּשְׁתִּיהוּ וְלֹא מְצָאתִיהוּ קְרָאתִיו וְלֹא עָנָנִי.
Song 5:5 I rose to let in my beloved; my hands dripped myrrh, my fingers, flowing myrrh—upon the handles of the bolt. 5:6 I opened the door for my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. I was faint because of what he said. I sought, but found him not; I called, but he did not answer.
The story ends tragically and violently when the woman leaves her home to find her lover and is brutalized by the city guards:
שׁיר השׁירים ה:ז מְצָאֻנִי הַשֹּׁמְרִים הַסֹּבְבִים בָּעִיר הִכּוּנִי פְצָעוּנִי נָשְׂאוּ אֶת רְדִידִי מֵעָלַי שֹׁמְרֵי הַחֹמוֹת.
Song 5:7 I met the watchmen who patrol the town; they struck me, they bruised me. The guards of the walls stripped me of my mantle.
Her vulnerability and violent treatment suggests that the woman is not the king’s wife. Nor is she the shepherdess, as she lives in a walled and guarded city. The story ends with the woman describing herself as sick with love:
שׁיר השׁירים ה:ח הִשְׁבַּעְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם אִם תִּמְצְאוּ אֶת דּוֹדִי מַה תַּגִּידוּ לוֹ שֶׁחוֹלַת אַהֲבָה אָנִי.
Song 5:8 I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem! If you meet my beloved, tell him this: That I am faint with love.
5. A Young Woman and Her Brothers
Finally, a non-romantic episode depicts the relationship between a young woman, barely into adulthood, and her brothers, who are protective of her:
שׁיר השׁירים ח:ח אָחוֹת לָנוּ קְטַנָּה וְשָׁדַיִם אֵין לָהּ מַה נַּעֲשֶׂה לַאֲחֹתֵנוּ בַּיּוֹם שֶׁיְּדֻבַּר בָּהּ. ח:ט אִם חוֹמָה הִיא נִבְנֶה עָלֶיהָ טִירַת כָּסֶף וְאִם דֶּלֶת הִיא נָצוּר עָלֶיהָ לוּחַ אָרֶז.
Song 8:8 “We have a little sister, whose breasts are not yet formed. What shall we do for our sister when she is spoken for? 8:9 If she be a wall, we will build upon it a silver battlement; if she be a door, we will panel it in cedar.”
In response to their plans, she asserts her independence from them and her sexual maturity:
שׁיר השׁירים ח:י אֲנִי חוֹמָה וְשָׁדַי כַּמִּגְדָּלוֹת אָז הָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כְּמוֹצְאֵת שָׁלוֹם.
Song 8:10 I am a wall, my breasts are like towers. So I became in his eyes as one who finds favor.
These five episodes—five among many in the song— describe different characters, different settings, and different stories. The male protagonist is sometimes King Solomon, or a king, and sometimes a shepherd. The female protagonist is sometimes a goatherd, and sometimes wealthy, and sometimes very young. The couple may be already married, or meeting in secret, or getting married.
Spinning the Song into a Unified Story
Even with all of these differences between the characters, it is possible to read Song of Songs as one story. For example:
A dream sequence – The scholar of Hebrew literature scholar Ilana Pardes (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) reads the Song of Songs as a dream about love from the woman’s perspective, in which the frequent shifts in character and setting operate according to dreamlike logic.
A love triangle – Several interpreters resolve some of the shifts in the identity of the male character by reading the Song of Songs as depicting a love triangle between a shepherd girl, a shepherd boy, and King Solomon, in which the King tempts the girl with wealth and power but in the end she runs off with her true love the shepherd.
Same lovers speaking in different styles – Others see the differences not as describing different protagonists or stories, but simply as shifts in the two lovers’ moods as they use different rhetorical devices to communicate the complexity of love. For example, biblical scholar Michael Fishbane (University of Chicago) argues that references to the beloved as a king is a literary trope by which the woman expresses her love for him.
Feminist biblical scholar Cheryl Exum (University of Sheffield) explains why some scholars read the book as a unity, despite the different ways that it depicts the protagonists:
When we read a biblical book like the Song, we typically start at the beginning and read through to the end. We are unlikely to say to ourselves, “I am reading fragments with no connections”; rather we naturalize events in such a way as to fit them into our understanding of the way the world works, either the real world or the fictional world of the text.
We create connections as we read, revising them, abandoning them and adopting others when necessary. When we imagine that the protagonists are the same two people throughout the Song and, consequently, relate the various experiences described therein to them, we have begun to create a “story” for them. We may discover a plot of sorts, revolving around their delight in each other and their efforts to overcome the obstacles that keep them apart. We can even let the Song’s abrupt transitions and sudden shifts of scene, its inchoate stories and hints of drama, tease and tantalize us to find connections where they are lacking.
In other words, even if we recognize the multiplicity in the text, when the Song of Songs is viewed as a book, we make connections between the pieces and create a story from them.
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Dr. Devorah Schoenfeld is Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches Judaism, Bible, and Jewish-Christian Relations. Her PhD is from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley (2007) and she has previously taught at University of California, Davis, at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Her book, Isaac on Jewish and Christian Altars, compares Rashi and the Glossa Ordinaria on the akedah. She has also published on midrash, parshanut and interreligious relations.
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