“How Sweet is Your Love”: Finding Meaning in the Song of Solomon

Introductory Note: Some time ago here at FPR TT wrote a post concerning the Song of Solomon in which he asked what hermeneutical methods might be utilized in order to interpret the Song of Solomon so as to discover any potential meaning in the Song that could be of religious or spiritual relevance or significance for modern Mormons. Although I wrote most of the following essay before having really read through TT’s interesting questions and suggestions for the text (or any of the comments and references found or linked to there), nevertheless, in a sense, the following essay can still be viewed as a response, continuation, and expansion of the analysis and questions he originally initiated, howbeit from a somewhat different direction.

Introduction

The “Song of Songs” (1.1), also known as the Song of Solomon or Canticles, is one of the most unique, yet beautiful, parts of the Hebrew Bible. [1] This biblical book describes in lyrical poetry the interactions of two lovers and their professions of devotion for each other. For many ancient (and modern) Jewish interpreters the Song was (or is) to be read as an allegory of the intimate relationship between Israel and its God. In fact, in Jewish tradition this text is one of the five Megillot and is read on Passover. For many Christian readers throughout the ages, on the other hand, the relationship expressed in the book was instead between God and the Church (or the individual believer).

However, as Marc Brettler, a professor of biblical studies at Brandeis University, has stated: “no…statement in the Song suggests that it is allegorical, nor that the male lover is God, and the female lover Israel [or the Church]. In fact, the Song contains no references to God at all.” [2] Historically, in fact, this more literal interpretation of the Song as a celebration of human love and sexuality has elicited, among certain groups and traditions, serious discussion and questioning both as to how love poetry of a potentially erotic nature came to be seen as a religiously authoritative text, and whether the Song should be included within the biblical canon.

How, then, did the Song’s love poetry ever become an authoritative religious text with its associated allegorical meaning(s)? This question, unfortunately, is not easily answered. Was the Song received as authoritative only after its sexual poetry became allegorized, or did it receive this (re)interpretation after it was already accepted as religiously productive (perhaps originally for cultural reasons, such as its recital at weddings?) because the relevant community wanted to controvert the sexual connotations of the more literalistic reading? Moreover, when did the text become attributed to Solomon, and to what extent did this attribution affect the issue of canonicity? Perhaps, however, an even more important question for modern readers whose traditions accept the Bible—including the Song—as foundational for their religious community is, what meaning can be found in its poetry for today?

Historically, some Mormon sources have questioned the religious or spiritual merits of the Song. For instance, the current LDS edition of the Bible Dictionary notes that the “JST [Joseph Smith Translation] manuscript contains the note that ‘the Song of Solomon is not inspired scripture’” and additionally questions whether Solomon is in fact its genuine author. Moreover, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie has been reported to have said at a BYU symposium on the JST that the Song is “biblical trash.”

There are several problems concerning the Song that, at least on one level, may warrant such critiques and conclusions. However, it is unclear whether these positions reflect the position of most modern Mormons, let alone the official position of the LDS Church. The Song yet remains a genuine and official part of modern Mormonism given its placement in the Mormon scriptural canon, as well as the fact that it is specifically quoted in modern Mormon scripture (see, for instance, Doctrine and Covenants 5.14, 105.31, and 109.73 each quoting SoS 6.10). At any rate, the Songs’ canonical status in modern Mormonism may hold some precedence for Mormons in general over the non-canonical statements just previously mentioned. Furthermore, the Song is a relevant part of the broader Judeo-Christian tradition of which Mormonism is a part, and with which it often seeks dialogue. For these reasons, then, it seems appropriate to attempt to find meaning in its message for modern Mormon readers, and to once again (re)consider its value for Mormon religious and spiritual life.

Authorship

Who wrote the Song? The very first verse of chapter one of the Song most likely claims its author to be King Solomon (however, some scholars argue—less likely in my judgment—that it is not necessarily making an authorial claim, but rather suggesting that the text is simply about or for Solomon). However, there are several interconnected reasons that strongly demonstrate that Solomon, to whom the work is likely attributed, did not compose the Song. For instance, in 4.13 the word for “orchard” is a Persian loan word pardes—Persian, however, would not likely have impacted Hebrew until after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C.E. Furthermore, scholars have pointed out that certain linguistic features of the Song’s Hebrew (such as Aramaisms) do not seem to reflect the Hebrew that Solomon would likely have spoken during the 10th century B.C.E. in the southern Kingdom of Judah (as reflected by inscriptional and other relevant evidence). Additionally, why would the Song itself frequently refer to Solomon in the third person (e.g., 1.5; 3.9; 4.6-11; 8.11-12)? Finally, scholars have additionally shown that the first verse of the book is likely a separate addition, since, for instance, it alone uses the relative pronoun asher while the remainder of the book only uses she (a form that is characteristic of Northern or later Biblical Hebrew) some thirty two times. Moreover, this agrees with the common practice in antiquity to attribute texts to important characters from the ancient past. Solomon himself is a good candidate for such an attribution, given, for instance, his reputation for having a large number of wives and concubines (1 Kings 11.3) and for composing songs (1 Kings 4.32). Moreover, the Song refers to an anonymous king several times. (It is for such reasons that the suggestion that the first verse does not refer to a claim of authorship seems less likely in my view.) Finally, the book itself does not appear to be a single work, but rather a collection of poems that have been redacted together (although scholars differ on just how many individual poems there might have originally been). There are several indicators that point to this conclusion. For example, the book uses variant forms and spellings of the same word(s) in different places. Although neither of these two differences in themselves necessarily proves that the Song was compiled and edited by multiple authors, there are other stronger literary indicators that support these observations. One such example is that the Song repeats two lengthy literary units (4.1-7 and 6.4-9) that describe the attributes of the female lover’s physical body, but that have notable variations. The differences suggest that at least two versions of this poetic passage were at one time in circulation and were later redacted together in the same work. Furthermore, most scholars believe that the evidence suggests a period of oral tradition and circulation for the Song (or its constituent poems) before being written down and edited into its final form. For all of these reasons then, the Song is mostly likely a compilation of love poems that have been skillfully redacted together and edited over time, and which were only later attributed to the famous King Solomon. This scenario best explains both the overall unity as well as the discontinuities in the present text.

Historical Context

It is difficult to determine the specific genre of poetry to which the Song belongs, largely because there is so little evidence to define the relevant categories in ancient Israel. Although it is probably safe to say that it is “love poetry,” it is hard to be more specific. For instance, was the text originally erotic in nature, intending to evoke sexual desire or arousal? It is probably impossible to determine the answer to such a question. Nevertheless, the Song may profitably be compared to other ancient Near Eastern literary sources—especially Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources—that share its themes and language. The sources which bear the closest resemblances and parallels to the Song are typically robustly sexual, secular texts that are concerned with actual lovers (i.e., they are not allegorical texts). For instance, like the Song, some ancient Egyptian love poems of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries describe the body and characteristics of the female lover using exotic metaphors (scholars term such a poetic description a wasf, following Arabic terminology). As Marc Brettler notes, in both cultures (Egypt and Israel) these poems “move from describing the body to drawing implications from that description.” [3] These Egyptian poems also often express yearning, admiration, and boasting as often reflected in the Song. Finally, certain genres of Mesopotamian literature (e.g., potency incantations) sometimes contain useful literary or thematic parallels with the Song, such as the theme of competition among rival lovers. Simply, when placed in its ancient Near Eastern context, the Song finds its strongest parallels linguistically, literarily, and thematically with secular sexual love literature.

Other Issues

The Song itself seems to suggest that the lovers involved in these sexual encounters are not married, a situation that many other biblical texts criticize. For instance, Marc Brettler notes that: “Despite some interpreters’ claims to the contrary, it is quite clear that (at least in most passages) the lovers are unmarried, and are not bride and groom. For example, in 1:6 the female speaker is under her brothers’, not her husband’s, control.” [4] At any rate, it seems that in the Song’s current form marriage (or a marriage ceremony) does not play a visibly significant part in establishing the background setting of the Song as a whole, or for contextualizing the relationship(s) of its two lovers and their interactions. (However, I will note that some scholars have suggested that the Song at one time was perhaps [ritually?] recited during the marriage event.)

Finding Meaning

There are thus many problems that initially seem to face the religious interpreter, including the modern Mormon religious interpreter. Solomon did not write the Song, and its author(s) are unknown. It was almost certainly originally intended to be read as sensual love poetry, and not as a religious text allegorically depicting the relationship between God and Israel, or the Church, or anyone else. Moreover, God is not even mentioned in the book at all. Furthermore, it seems to condone premarital sexual relations. Finally, it is unclear how the text actually made it into the biblical canon. For these and other reasons, some have seriously questioned its merit and position in the Bible both inside and outside of the Mormon tradition. For many religious interpreters then, reading this text from a purely historical-grammatical approach makes it difficult to derive a religiously and spiritually meaningful message.

Nevertheless, the Mormon tradition, I believe, provides a meaningful context in which to interpret the Song, and to supply or appropriate any potential religious or spiritual significance from it, while at the same time yet admitting of the difficulties that are found in the text when read from a historical-critical approach. For example, because Mormonism does not accept the positions of biblical inerrancy and sufficiency, the problems surrounding authorship and compositional history are minimally significant, and the fact that the Song conflicts with other biblical passages regarding premarital sexual relations is not necessarily critical either. Mormonism has other (including contemporary) authoritative interpretive channels that are able to make its position on such issues clear and official for the contemporary community in spite of the contradictory positions that would be present if it used the biblical texts alone. Finally, the fact that the Song is quoted in modern Mormon revelation may suggest for Mormon interpreters that, even if the text was not originally written or composed for a spiritual or religious purpose, it can nevertheless be reinterpreted in the Mormon tradition in light of other clearer revelatory texts and outlets. Thus, while still being aware of the issues and problems that are present through a modern historical-critical interpretive methodology, I wish here to suggest from within the Mormon tradition two (general) readings of the Song which I believe may be put forward in an attempt to somewhat revitalize its utility and significance for the broader Mormon community.

My first general suggestion is based on the fact that the Song is quoted and reapplied in modern Mormon revelation. For instance, as mentioned above, verse 6.10 of the Song is quoted in Doctrine and Covenants 5.14, 105.31, and 109.73. Here are the relevant citations:

SofS 6.10 (KJV): Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?

D&C 5.14: And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation, in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness–clear as the moon, and fair as. the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.

D&C 105.31: But first let my army become very great, and let it be sanctified before me, that it may become fair as the sun, and clear as the moon, and that her banners may be terrible unto all nations.

D&C 109.73: That thy church may come forth out of the wilderness of darkness, and shine forth fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.

In the first and third instances from the Doctrine and Covenants, the description of the female lover from the Song of Solomon is applied to the Church. In the second quote, the description is narrowed specifically to Zion’s Camp. Although SoS 6.10 and these passages in the Doctrine and Covenant shall await a more detailed comparison and analysis, for my purposes here at least it seems sufficient to note that in each instance of quotation found in the Doctrine and Covenants the description applied to the female lover of the Song is connected to a collective or corporate body (whether the Church as a whole, or a subset of the Church, in this case Zion’s Camp). On the surface this seems to suggest (at least to a limited extent) the potential appropriateness of the allegorical method of interpretation for Mormons—specifically the analogy between the female lover of the Song and the Church (or possibly some segment of it), and implicitly the analogy between the male lover of the Song and God or Jesus. Such an allegorical approach and its possible readings and implications awaits further care and development. Additionally, there may be other relevant thematic comparisons between the Song and the passages from the Doctrine and Covenants, but I offer no further analysis here.

My second suggestion pertains to the ubiquitous theme(s) of sex and sexuality that is evinced throughout the Song. I believe that the position of the Song among the current, and official, foundational texts of Mormonism and its straightforward acknowledgment(s) of the beauty of human physical intimacy further encourages Mormons to embrace an attitude of openness and respect in regards to discussing important issues that pertain to sex, sexuality, and morality. These issues can and should be openly and candidly discussed in appropriate settings amongst Mormons without feelings of fear, angst, or guilt; they should not be dismissed or obscured when brought up in appropriate contexts on account of competing cultural or social influences which otherwise foster feelings of anxiety and dismissiveness when discussing issues pertaining to sex, sexuality, and morality. Because Mormonism already recognizes and stresses the propriety and importance of sex, procreation, and the human body within certain boundaries (e.g., marriage), it is able to reinforce these attitudes and positions by means the positive, open, and intimate portrayal of sex and sexuality as depicted in the Song, while nevertheless still being able to reject some of the Song’s other social attitudes which are at odds with the tradition (such as premarital sex) on account of other authoritative sources and channels which provide governing ethical norms for the community. Each person of faith is therefore encouraged by the Song to discover, understand, and develop their own sexuality within the proper boundaries and contexts as demarcated by the broader tradition. The Song is able to help foster such awareness and discussion.

Conclusion

The Song is quoted in modern revelation, which analogizes the female lover of the Song with the Church (or some subset thereof) and perhaps implicitly analogizes the male lover of the Song to God or Jesus. This seems to suggest the appropriateness of further developing an allegorical reading of the Song for Mormons that takes into account the symbols proffered by the Doctrine and Covenants.

Moreover, within the context of the broader Mormon tradition and the governing ethical directives regarding issues of sex, sexuality, and morality which it provides, the Song is able to celebrate and underscore several fundamental components of Mormon theology and human experience, including sex, procreation, the human body, and even marriage. Its straightforward presentation of the beauty of sexual intimacy and love is further encouragement for Mormons to embrace an attitude of openness and confidence when discussing issues of sex and sexuality in appropriate settings.

Suggestions for Discussion

Please feel free to contribute comments regarding the history of the Song and its interpreters and interpretations throughout history (of any religious tradition), as well as any potential readings or suggestions that you think may specifically be of benefit or relevance for the Mormon community.

Concluding Note: This is not the place to discuss the LDS Church’s engagement in Proposition 8 or its stance on same sex marriage. Such issues—among others—are not up for debate here. Please keep your comments relevant to the aims of the post and its suggested avenues for discussion. Thank you!

Notes

[1] When dealing with issues pertaining to the historical aspects of the Song I have relied primarily throughout this essay on Marc Z. Brettler’s chapter on the Song of Songs in his book How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007). However, I have also benefited by consulting James M. Reese’s article on the Song on pages 708-710 in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, as well as Roland E. Murphy’s article on the subject on pages 1050-1051 of The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), edited by Paul J. Achtemeier and Roger S. Boraas. I have also utilized the translation of the Song from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), as well as the introduction found therein by F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp.

[2] Marc Z. Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 263.

[3] Marc Z. Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 261.

[4] Marc Z. Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 332, note 13.

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11 Comments

Filed under Bible, Doctrine, Mormon Studies, Scripture, Sexuality, Theology, Uncategorized

11 responses to ““How Sweet is Your Love”: Finding Meaning in the Song of Solomon

  1. I think that Molly Bennion also had an interesting comment on the thread over at BCC which I linked to in the post. I think it goes along well with what I was trying to get at with my second suggestion.

  2. Sorry to respond to such an interesting article (and links) with such a banal question, but: If we view SoS as not-inspired-but-still-worth-spiritual-exegesis, why not read every book that way? My physiology text book, my field guide to birds of North America, my daughter’s Polly and the Makeover Mess….

    (Again, sorry for the question; if you’re sizing me for a dunce-cap, make it an XL)

  3. TT

    TYD,
    Great summary of the main issues and great questions. I like both suggestions and think that there are possibly even more.

    BrianJ,
    I think you put forth an excellent question too, and at the risk of imposing by offering a possible answer, I’d like to suggest that what makes it different from other kinds of literature is that we say it is different. The whole idea of a canon is that a particular community has made the choice to recognize some literature as more important than others. I don’t think that there is something inherent in this literature that makes it more special, except that the community says that it is.

  4. BrianJ,

    I think I partially anticipated your question when I wrote that:

    “There are several problems concerning the Song that, at least on one level, may warrant such critiques and conclusions. However, it is unclear whether these positions reflect the position of most modern Mormons, let alone the official position of the LDS Church. The Song yet remains a genuine and official part of modern Mormonism given its placement in the Mormon scriptural canon, as well as the fact that it is specifically quoted in modern Mormon scripture (see, for instance, Doctrine and Covenants 5.14, 105.31, and 109.73 each quoting SoS 6.10). At any rate, the Songs’ canonical status in modern Mormonism may hold some precedence for Mormons in general over the non-canonical statements just previously mentioned. Furthermore, the Song is a relevant part of the broader Judeo-Christian tradition of which Mormonism is a part, and with which it often seeks dialogue. For these reasons, then, it seems appropriate to attempt to find meaning in its message for modern Mormon readers, and to once again (re)consider its value for Mormon religious and spiritual life.”

    I think it is worth bearing in mind again that Mormonism does not hold a position of biblical inerrancy. The biblical texts can and do have problems to differing degrees; but the Mormon tradition has ways of addressing them, as I discussed above. Nevertheless, members of the Mormon community, I believe, are still obligated to these texts (despite their problems) in a way that they aren’t obligated to other writings by virtue of the fact that the broader community has chosen to accept them as potential sources of religious and spiritual guidance. Just because a text has problems does not necessitate that it is of no religious or spiritual value and significance to the community.

    TYD

  5. BrianJ,

    I think you raise a great question. The way I interpret the issue is: Are some things worth more of our “exegetical efforts” than others?

    I would certainly have to say, yes, some things are worth more of our efforts than others. I tend to see things on more of a continuum with more worth-while things on one side and less worth-while things on the other; rather than two boxes where things are either worth-while or worth-less. What gets positioned where on the spectrum is perhaps somewhat of an individual endeavor as it may depend upon what we are trying to accomplish with a particular text or object of interpretation. That said we are also part of a community, as TT mentioned, which communally values certain things. The SoS, despite being label as salacious trash, is still in our canon and so generally speaking merits more exegetical effort than other texts might.

    That said, within your circumstances why not read your daughter’s Polly and the Makeover Mess that way? I bet she spends much more time with that than any of the “scriptures”. It would seem to me that where ever time is spent, values are inculcated; and those things doing the inculcating are worthy of closer inspection.

  6. Tim,

    I am getting errors trying to open your audio file(s). At any rate, I don’t have the internet at my home, and finding the time and means to listen to them otherwise would be somewhat difficult.

    Could you perhaps describe what reading(s)/interpretation(s) of the Song you as an Evangelical find religiously or spiritually meaningful or significant, as well as how such interpretations interact and deal with some of the historical-critical problems discussed above?

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  7. I’ve seen Protestant books using SoS as a sex manual of sorts. It’s pretty explicit. I’m guessing that’s what the links cover.

  8. TT, TYD, SmallAxe: Thanks all for your responses. You each raise the issue of canon and what the community has chosen to accept as canon. I guess an analogy to your position is that we’re all in one big book club, and SoS is on the book list; the reason I should dedicate more study to SoS than I do to other “good books” is not because SoS is necessarily better, it’s just that SoS is on everyone’s reading list. Polly may in fact be “better” than SoS, but since no one else has read it I’m not going to get much feedback from the community regarding my exegesis.

    Maybe that view is only possible for those (including many Mormons) who view the Bible as a mishmash of imperfect texts written by variously-inspired scribes/prophets/etc.

  9. (oops, saw the Piety of Errancy post just after commenting)

  10. smallaxe

    “…it’s just that SoS is on everyone’s reading list. Polly may in fact be “better” than SoS, but since no one else has read it I’m not going to get much feedback from the community regarding my exegesis.”

    Maybe I can elaborate a little more on my earlier comment. It isn’t simply the fact that the community you choose to belong to assigns value to the text, making it worthy of exegetical effort (although that may be one significant factor). Additionally, it’s the case that for reasons often outside of our control we find ourselves confronted with something worthy of attention and interpretation. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that your child spends time reading a particular book or series of books, perhaps more time than she spends in the scriptures suggests that an investigation into the meanings of “Polly” is probably worth your time. Something similar could be said about your physiology text book should you find yourself in a situation in which interpreting it brings added significance into your life.