The Bible Project

Song of Songs: Semi-Erotic Love Poetry - Wisdom E5

Episode Summary

Welcome to episode 5 in our series on How to Read Biblical Wisdom Literature! In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss Song of Songs.

Episode Notes

In part 1(0-15:50), the guys discuss the first major question about this book: Is Song of Songs truly wisdom literature?

Tim notes that there are multiple levels of interpretation. The most obvious one views Song of Songs as semi-erotic love poetry. While this isn’t wrong, Tim notes that a deeper reading can metaphorically map the man and woman’s sexual love for one another onto the human pursuit and quest for wisdom.

Jon says that this view of interpreting Song of Songs is new to him. The reason, Tim notes, is because modern biblical scholarship often tends to see only what it wants to see. Tim adds that multiple historical scholars note the double and triple meanings throughout the book.

In part 2 (15:50-33:30), the guys dive into the book. Tim outlines a few basic facts about the book: 

•	The poems go back and forth between a man and woman: The man is called “king” (1:4, 12) and “shepherd” (1:7).
•	The name “Solomon” is never marked as a speaker, and the main question is whether the lover (“my beloved”), who is called “king” and “shepherd,” is Solomon or a distinct figure. Notice the word “beloved” (dod, דוד), spelled with the same letters as “David” (דוד), who was both a king and shepherd (whereas Solomon was only a king).
•	The woman is called “whom I love” and “the Shulamite” (which is the feminine of Solomon’s name. It would be similar in English to “Daniel” and “Danielle”).

Tim cites Roland Murphy:

“On one level, the [Song of Songs] is a collection of love songs. However, as edited [to be part of the Hebrew Bible], do these poems have a wisdom-character on another level of understanding? First, there is the fact that ancient Jewish tradition...attributed this work to Solomon (Song 1:1)... it was mean to be read as a work in the Solomonic wisdom tradition… [T]here is an affinity between wisdom and eros in the wisdom literature. The quest for wisdom is a quest for the beloved…. The language and imagery used to describe the pursuit of Lady Wisdom [in Proverbs 1-9] are drawn from the experience of love. The Song of Songs speaks of love between a man and a woman...it is by that very fact open to a wisdom interpretation. Wisdom is to be “found” (Prov 3:13; 8:17, 35), just as one “finds” a good wife (Prov 18:22; 31:10).... [Both] Wisdom and a wife are called “favor from the Lord” (Prov 8:35 and 18:22). The sage advises the youth to “obtain Wisdom,” to love and embrace her (Prov 4:6-8). The youth is to say, “Wisdom, you are my sister” (Prov 7:4), just as the beloved in the Song of Songs is called “my sister (Song 4:9-5:1)... It is precisely the link between eros and wisdom that opens the Song of Songs to another level of understanding. While it is not ‘wisdom literature,’ its echoes reach beyond human sexual love to remind one of the love of Lady Wisdom…” (Roland Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, pp. 106-107.)

In part 3 (33:30-47:00), Jon notes with this interpretation that the female character is the “divine” character. In most popular interpretations, Solomon is closer to the Christ figure, and the woman is as the Church—making the male the “divine” character.

Tim then dives into the literary design of the book. The Song is designed as a symmetry (see the work of Cheryl Exum and William Shea).

The Literary Macrostructure of Song of Songs:

1:2-2:7 Mutual Love
B. 2:8-17 Coming and Going
C. 3:1-5 Dream 1: Lost and Found
D. 3:6-11 Praise of Groom 1
E. 4:1-7 Praise of Bride 1
F. 4:8-15 Praise of Bride 2
G. 4:16 Invitation by Bride
G. Acceptance and Invitation by Groom and Divine Approbation
C. 5:2-8 Dream 2: Found and Lost
D. 5:9-6:3 Praise of Groom 2
E. 6:4-12 Praise of Bride 3
F. 7:1 Praise of Bride 4
B. 7:11-8:2 Going and Coming
8:3-14 Mutual Love

(Chart by Richard M. Davidson)

Tim points out that the first half explores the engagement, passion, and constant desire and pursuit of the lovers, though their embrace is cut short multiple times. The second half mirrors the first, but this time it depicts the royal wedding of Solomon and his Solomon-ess bride. The beloved is described in precisely the language of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9, the God-given wife in Proverbs 5, and the woman of valor in Proverbs 31 (see Claudia Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs).

Verses like this can show how the corresponding language maps onto each other.

Lady Wisdom in Proverbs

Proverbs 4:5-9
“Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding!
Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will guard you;
Love her, and she will watch over you.
The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom;
And with all your acquiring, get understanding.
Prize her, and she will exalt you;
She will honor you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a garland of grace;
She will present you with a crown of beauty.”

The Beloved in Song of Songs
Song 2:3-4, 6
“Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
So is my beloved among the young men.
In his shade I took great delight and sat down,
And his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He has brought me to his banquet hall,
And his banner over me is love….
Let his left hand be under my head
And his right hand embrace me.”

Song 3:11
“Go forth, O daughters of Zion,
And gaze on King Solomon with the crown
With which his mother has crowned him
On the day of his wedding,
And on the day of his gladness of heart.”

Tim notes that conversely, the beloved is also described in the language of the wayward woman in Proverbs 1-9.

Wayward woman of Proverbs 1-9

Proverbs 5:3
“For the lips of the strange woman drip with honey (נפת תטפנה שפתי זרה), and her mouth (חך) is smoother than oil.”

Proverbs 7:6, 8
“The strange woman... the foreign woman whose words are smooth… A man passes through the street (שוק), and takes the way (דרך) to her house.

Proverbs 7:13, 15, 17
“She grabs him and kisses him… ‘Therefore I have come out to meet you, to seek your presence earnestly, and I have found you…. I have sprinkled my bed with myrrh, aloe, and cinnamon.’”

Compare those verses with the beloved in Song of Songs.

Song 4:11
“O bride, your lips drip with honey (נפת תטפנה שפתותיך), honey and fat are under your tongue…”

Song 3:2
“I arose and went around in the city, in the streets and squares, I sought the one my being loves…”

Songs 3:1, 4
“On my bed at night, I sought the one my being loves, I sought him but could not find him… No sooner did I pass by them, then I found the one my being loves, and grabbed him and I did not let go….”

Songs 1:16
“Behold, your beauty my companion...behold your beauty my beloved, so lovely, indeed our couch is luxuriant.”

What is the point? It’s as if the beloved represented the healing of the wayward woman into one ultimate lover. The ideal Solomon is converted from a lover of many women into a lover of one, reversing the fall of Adam and Eve, Yahweh and Israel, Solomon and his many wives. Lady Wisdom (who we met in Proverbs) is finally embraced by the son of David. She is constantly searching for her lover (as Lady Wisdom searches in Prov. 1-9).

In part 4 (47:00-52:30), Jon comments that to him, the human sexual drive is confusing, especially when viewed in a Christian lens. How do you map a biological longing for sex onto a book like Song of Songs?

Tim says that the desire is sexual, but it’s also more than sexual. It’s a desire to know and be known., to become one with something and someone. It’s a desire for unity. Humanity’s desire for sex, Tim compares, is analogous to our desire for wisdom and unity.

In part 5 (52:30-end), Tim cites scholar Peter Leithart as a helpful resource to learn more about Song of Songs. Tim closes the episode with a quote from scholar Ellen Davis:

“Loss of intimacy is exactly what happened in Eden. Eden was the place where God was most intimate with humanity. Witness God “taking a walk in the garden in the breezy part of the day” (Gen. 3:8), obviously expecting to have the humans for company, and calling out—“Where are you?”—when they do not appear. There is good reason to imagine that God intended to impart wisdom to humanity on those walks, little by little. But when Eve and Adam disregarded God and tried the direct route to “knowledge of good and evil,” the immediate result was not literal death. Rather, it was distrust breaking into the relationship between God and humanity. It was blame erupting between man and woman (Gen. 3:12) and the onset of a long-term imbalance of power between them (Gen. 3:16). It was a curse on the fertile soil and enmity between the woman’s seed and the snake’s (Gen. 3:15, 17).... The exile from Eden represents the loss of intimacy in three primary spheres of relationship: between God and humanity, between woman and man, and between human and nonhuman creation. Correspondingly, the Song uses language to evoke a vision of healing in all three areas. More accurately, it reuses language from other parts of Scripture; verbal echoes explicitly connect the garden of the lovers with the two earlier gardens, that of Eden and of Israel’s temple.” (Ellen Davis, “Reading the Song of Songs Iconographically,” pg. 179)

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Show Resources: 
• Peter Leithart Podcasts on Song of Songs (https://www.theopolispodcast.com/episodes)
• Ellen Davis, “Reading the Song of Songs Iconographically”
• Claudia Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs
• Cheryl Exum, Song of Songs: A Commentary
• Roland Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature

Show Music: 
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Show Produced by: Dan Gummel, Jon Collins

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