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Solomon's sexiest Song

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Ze’ev Raban - Shir haShirim, 1930
Ze’ev Raban - Shir haShirim, 1930
When I was doing college teaching, I found that, periodically, students would begin to faze out, often because they were getting exams in other classes (at least that was what I told myself). But I was able to quickly regain their interest by doing a lecture that covered issues related to sex or drugs. Since there is plenty of sex in the Bible, this was not a problem. You have to work a little harder to drag in drugs, but it can be done.

So we will be looking at what is incontrovertibly the sexiest book in the Bible (Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant), the Song of Songs (also known as The Song of Solomon and Canticles).

Even a cursory glance at the Song will tell you it is about love. In 1.2-3a we read:

Alexandros Alexandrakis - Asma Asmaton
Alexandros Alexandrakis - Asma Asmaton
As it continues, it can get quite explicit (especially in Hebrew). Although it is always poetic, it is also always about romantic love. I remember in high school, having a teacher who thought that having this type of literature “in the Bible” was side-splittingly funny, and it is appropriate to ask why most people who take the Bible seriously aren't laughing with him. It could be because they are taking it a little too seriously. But it may be that they are seeing something in this openly romantic poem that my former teacher could not.

Part of the reason it is in the Bible, of course, could simply be that it is attributed to Solomon. This may be implied by the first verse (“The greatest of songs, which is Solomon's”). But the Hebrew here can be read, “…which is for Solomon,” and Rashi (a medieval Jewish scholar) read it as “…for the one to whom peace belongs,” (i.e. God) seeing “Solomon” not as a name, but as an attribute (from the Hebrew word, shalom=peace). Also, Solomon does appear as a character (8.11), making him less likely to have been the author.

Most modern scholars regard it as composed of several poems, probably with several authors put together into one. Some argue that at least one of these authors was likely a woman.

But authorship was not what lead Rabbi Akiva (ca.50-ca.135 CE[=AD]), a well-known rabbi from the age when the final shape of the Hebrew Bible was still being debated, to say, “All the books of the Bible are holy; but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5). An assertion this strong suggests that not all agreed. Although their opinions have not survived for me to quote, the surface meaning of the poem, and the fact that God is never mentioned by name (only Esther shares this distinction in the Hebrew Bible), make it easy to imagine how some would feel that the Song did not deserve a place in the collection of holy scriptures. Enough people agreed with Akiva, though, that it continues to be a favorite among modern readers of scripture.

The reason for this, and the reason it is in the Bible, is that it is generally seen as a metaphor for God's love for his people, and the reverse. When the girl says wonderful things about her lover, it is the God-lover speaking of the Divine. When the boy replies with his amorous thoughts, it is God speaking to people. If this is not the original meaning, who really cares? If it speaks to our hearts read this way, then that is what it means to us!

As a side note, semiologists [‘semiology’ is the actual name for what Dan Brown and others refer to as ‘symbology’] sometimes will talk about “the tyranny of the author's intention” (I am not sure who first coined that phrase). I do think the author at least deserves a vote, and students who seek to discover that are not waisting their time, but it is still true that once something has gone public, the reader (hearer, etc.) is the final subjective voice.

However, that said, we will be looking in the next article at its closest literary parallels from the ancient world: the love songs of ancient Egypt.

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