Bible Study: July & August The Song of Songs
Bible Study: July & August
The Song of Songs
For the 8 weeks of the summer, we will read the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), an ancient collection of poems celebrating the beauty of creation and the ever-renewing and unending power of love, human and divine.
The title has two meanings: It both celebrates this work as the greatest of all songs and it indicates that it is a collection of songs. Its imagery and structure follow the conventions of ancient Middle Eastern love poetry. There is wide speculation about its date of composition. Many of the passages seem to be ancient, while its many allusions to other passages in Hebrew Scripture suggest that that the poet was familiar with Hebrew Scripture. Scholarly consensus is that it was composed or compiled in the 4th century BCE. Some passages may have been part of a marriage liturgy, and some are recited at weddings today. The opening line is a tribute to Solomon, partly because of his wisdom as a great king, partly because of his love for nature, and partly because according to tradition he loved many women. The Song of Songs is one of the books included in the Wisdom tradition because, even though it offers no explicit ethical advice or theological reflection, it celebrates the values of mutuality and faithfulness that are foundational for meaningful and ordered life.
We hear three counterpointing voices throughout the Song of Songs: a man, a woman, and a chorus described as the Women of Jerusalem. The predominance of the woman’s voice makes this book distinctive. Its sexual imagery, while it follows the conventions in Ancient Middle Eastern love poetry, is also unexpected in Hebrew Scripture and can be understood in a number of ways: It expresses a comfort with the physical body that pre-dates more dualistic worldviews; it expresses an incarnational theology that anticipates a modern Christian worldviews; and it represents a reversal of the Genesis story: The fall of Adam and Eve brought with it sexual shame and estrangements, while each lover here celebrates the beauty of the other, and their longing is an expression of hope and joy, not of loss. Traditionally, the love between the man and woman has been interpreted by Jewish commentators as a figure for the love between God and Israel, by Christian theologians as a figure for the love between Christ and the Church, and by Christian mystics as a figure for the love between the individual soul and God. The Song of Songs is the scroll read on the Sabbath of the Passover festival because of its imagery of the fertility and beauty of spring and its celebration of the relationship between God and Israel.
The Song of Songs is neither a dramatic narrative nor a didactic treatise. I have marked the voices following general scholarly consensus, but what’s most important is the contrast and complementarity of the images and emotions. Both the man and woman love and are beloved; both are active in their giving and their receiving; both are ennobled by the longing they experience and that they inspire. In the words of the mystic Bernard of Clairveaux, whose reflections on this poem as an expression of the soul’s longing for God we will read in the coming weeks:
It is everywhere love that speaks. If anyone hopes to grasp the sense of what he reads, let him love. Whereas someone who does not love will hear or read this song of love in vain. . . .I love because I love; I love in order to love.
1The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
3 your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
therefore the maidens love you.
4 Draw me after you, let us make haste.
The king has brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in you;
we will extol your love more than wine;
rightly do they love you.
5 I am black and beautiful,
O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
like the curtains of Solomon.
6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept!
7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
beside the flocks of your companions?
8 If you do not know,
O fairest among women,
follow the tracks of the flock,
and pasture your kids
beside the shepherds’ tents.
9 I compare you, my love,
to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,
your neck with strings of jewels.
11 We will make you ornaments of gold,
studded with silver.
12 While the king was on his couch,
my nard gave forth its fragrance.
13 My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
that lies between my breasts.
14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
in the vineyards of En-gedi.
15 Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
ah, you are beautiful;
your eyes are doves.
16 Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
Our couch is green;
17 the beams of our house are cedar,
our rafters are pine.
Whether we read this poem as a dialogue between lovers, a covenant between God and God’s people, or a prayer of the soul longing for and trusting in union with God, it’s worth noting that there is no plea for forgiveness, no worry, and no shame. The love that is expressed is a longing born of experience, completely trusting, unmistakably vulnerable. Both speakers use images that don’t at first seem to belong together, but they are designed to represent the way that love recreates the world and a loving relationship encompasses the world: Through love, we discover a new order and harmony that transcends differences of gender, class, and geography. Love is also an act of resistance that, by disrupting structures of authority, makes it possible to see the world, each other, and ourselves, in new ways.
Song of Songs 2
1I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys.
2 As a lily among brambles,
so is my love among maidens.
3 As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4 He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his intention towards me was love.
5 Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;
for I am faint with love.
6 O that his left hand were under my head,
and that his right hand embraced me!
7 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!
8 The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
14 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.
15 Catch us the foxes,
the little foxes,
that ruin the vineyards—
for our vineyards are in blossom.’
16 My beloved is mine and I am his;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.
17 Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
or a young stag on the cleft mountains.
This is an extended meditation on love as being as natural as creation itself, a living force with rhythms like the seasons. Building upon the imagery of the garden in the first chapter, this poem might be called “an ode to spring.” The woman begins by comparing herself to the first flowers of spring; the man responds by comparing her to the first flower blooming among non-flowering plants; then she compares him to a fruit tree bearing fruit and providing shade among “wild trees.” She remembers her lover calling to her with the beautifully familiar words that have become part of our literary vocabulary: “for now the winter is past, / the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come,/ and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land. (2:11-12). She imagines him coming to her like the most graceful of animals, a gazelle or young stag, who emerges from the darkness of winter with gleeful freedom, both strong and vulnerable. Throughout this song is a rhythm of counterpointing images of disruption and comfort, confidence and longing, wildness and protection, elusiveness and union. “I belong to my love, and he belongs to me” (2:16): Repeated later in the Song, this is a statement both of defiance—asserting that the bonds of love are deeper than the bonds of family or clan—and of mutuality—in direct contrast to the estrangement faced by Adam and Eve. Our relationships—with God and with each other—have the same cycles of light and darkness, solitude and union, stillness and movement, silence and song, that we find in the world around us. The Song of Songs calls us to trust in the life that will always emerge as surely as spring follows winter (do not stir up or awaken love
/ until it is ready![ 2:7])
Song of Songs 3
1Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
2 ‘I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’
I sought him, but found him not.
3 The sentinels found me,
as they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’
4 Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I brought him into my mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
5 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!
6 What is that coming up from the wilderness,
like a column of smoke,
perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
with all the fragrant powders of the merchant?
7 Look, it is the litter of Solomon!
Around it are sixty mighty men
of the mighty men of Israel,
8 all equipped with swords
and expert in war,
each with his sword at his thigh
because of alarms by night.
9 King Solomon made himself a palanquin
from the wood of Lebanon.
10 He made its posts of silver,
its back of gold, its seat of purple;
its interior was inlaid with love.
Daughters of Jerusalem,
11 come out.
Look, O daughters of Zion,
at King Solomon,
at the crown with which his mother crowned him
on the day of his wedding,
on the day of the gladness of his heart.
Most scholars read this poem as a dream vision. It is constructed as a series of contrasting scenes: The woman’s sleeplessness, her dangerous wandering through the city until she finds her lover and brings him to her mother’s house, ending with a vision of King Solomon’s wedding. The surreal juxtapositions express a love that is at once vulnerable and empowering, impulsive and selfless. The woman speaks to the Women of Jerusalem and repeats her admonition to them (2:7, 3:5): do not stir up or awaken love / until it is ready! The focus on women is unusual: the woman walks alone through the city, she brings her lover to her mother’s house, and she envisions Solomon’s mother giving him the diadem traditionally worn by a bridegroom. This focus transforms what would otherwise be a bride’s powerlessness as property or as an object of man’s desire into a strength that is made possible by the kinship of women. In this dream, it is women who give each other the support and the agency that makes love possible. Love is grounded in the bonds that have made us who we are, and it comes to fruition only by going beyond them.
Song of Songs 4:1-5:1
1 How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
3 Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
4 Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors.
5 Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies.
6 Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.
7 You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you.
8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride;
come with me from Lebanon.
Depart from the peak of Amana,
from the peak of Senir and Hermon,
from the dens of lions,
from the mountains of leopards.
9 You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart
with a glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
10 How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
11 Your lips distil nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the scent of your garments is like the scent of
12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
13 Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
14 nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all chief spices—
15 a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
16 Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden
that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.
5 I come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.
Chorus: Eat, friends, drink,
and be drunk with love.
This poem is usually attributed to the man, counterpointing the woman’s voice in Chapter 3 and culminating in the choric exhortation in 5:1, which some scholars believe was a conventional feature of ancient wedding poems. The detail with which the man describes the woman’s body follows the conventions of the wasf, a genre of ancient Middle Eastern love poetry. While the images may seem strange to us, they create an intricate pattern that does two things. First, it is a way of expressing a love that encompasses, and indeed recreates, the world. Paradoxically, this private love includes all the world; together, the lovers are not cut off from the world but rather are more deeply connected to it. Second, the images continue the juxtaposition of the pastoral and the urban, interior and exterior, wildness and domesticity. Robert Alter suggests that Lebanon has the connotation of a land that is distant and wild, a place—like their love-- beyond the boundaries of what is familiar and safe.
This poem by Mary Oliver is a modern expression of this chapter’s spiritual meaning :
Mary Oliver, “Mysteries, Yes”
Truly, we live with mysteries
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream
How two hands touch and the
never be broken.
How people come, from
delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always,
from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.