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Historical Context of Song of Solomon

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Song of Songs by Egon Tschirch, 1923 (Wikimedia Commons)Song of Songs by Egon Tschirch, 1923 (Wikimedia Commons) "The history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs necessarily begins with its interpretation as an allegory in which the love of God for His people was expressed. By this means a mystical message of comfort and hope could be derived from the text. The lover in the songs, operating under the guise of Solomon and the shepherd youth, was now recognized as the Lord God of Israel, and His beloved was the people Israel. Thus a literary product which seemed devoid of any apparent religious connotations was transformed into a vehicle for expressing the very deepest kind of spiritual relationship existing between God and His people. 

"The popularity in scholarly circles of the allegorical interpretation began to decline during the late 18th century, thereby giving rise to other interpretative views. An early contender was the view that the Song of Songs was best explained as a drama, complete with characters, a plot, and a moral to be drawn. The two-character version identified Solomon and the Shulammite of 7:1 as the leading dramatis personae. The king is attracted to the beautiful country girl, and he takes her from her rustic surroundings to his capital for his bride. Through a series of romantic interludes, however, she enables him to rise above mere sensual infatuation and attain a higher and nobler form of love. …

"The conception of the Song as a drama was not a new invention of 18th-century scholars. As early as the third century C.E. the Christian scholar, Origen, had described the book as a nuptial poem in dramatic form, and two important manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, indicate in their margins the identity and order of speakers. The popularity of the theory could not be sustained, because of its inherent weaknesses. When approached without bias, the Song of Songs obviously lacks the elements of a drama. The identification of the speakers, stage directions, appropriate divisions into acts or scenes, a plot – all these must be imposed upon the text to sustain the dramatic theory. A further drawback to the theory is the figure of Solomon, for while he is made central in the drama he does not appear so in the text itself, and he is actually absent in the supposed climax (8:11). …

"The predominant trend of modern scholarship is to take the Song of Songs literally, as a collection of lyric love songs. The anthology includes songs appropriate for use at wedding feasts and others that simply celebrate the joys of youthful love. The redeeming value of this view, if one is needed, is that love in all its manifestations is the work of the Creator who made all things and pronounced them good.

"Tradition ascribed the Song of Songs to Solomon, but Solomonic authorship has been rejected for the most part by modern scholars. The diverse poems and variety of poetic elements preclude, too, the unity which the traditional view assumes. The language of the book indicates a relatively late date. … There are sufficient archaic elements in the book, however, to suggest that some of the songs are pre-Exilic. … The destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. did not necessarily mean the loss of that literary heritage. Ample opportunity existed for the preservation in Judah of the literary and oral traditions of the north when the Kingdom of Judah stood alone. It may be assumed that older songs, carried into Exile with the people, were brought together with later compositions and were edited, probably during the fifth century B.C.E. 

"Like the Book of Psalms, the Song of Songs has been a major influence in literature, art, and music – largely as a result of its mystical interpretation in Jewish and, even more, in Christian tradition. ..."

 

Excerpted From:

Schoville, Keith N., et al. "Song of Songs." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 19, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 14-20.