A slightly more condensed version of these articles were originally written for the online mag Examiner.com (now AXS). My links thereto no longer work, so I am guessing they took them down. I moved them here.
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Inanna, Dumuzi, and Solomon

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Amorite couple embracing
Amorite couple embracing; possibly Inanna & Dumuzi
Although the Egyptian love poems mentioned in the last article are probably the closest ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Song of Songs, there are also a number of documents from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) which are worth considering. The big difference lies in the actors. The Egyptian songs are about people, often fictional no doubt, but unambiguously human. In Mesopotamia, the earliest love poetry involved the goddess of fertility ( Inanna/Ishtar) and her mate ( Dumuzi/Tammuz). But the language is close enough to the Song that Assyriologists tend to trace the latter's pedigree from Mesopotamia rather than Egypt. Consider the following fragment from "The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi":

Sumerian or Akkadian couple
Sumerian or Akkadian couple
Much of the rest of the poem is a good deal more explicit, (see Love, Marriage, and Hieros Gamos, for the full text as well as some others) but the big difference is that it is about the gods. In nature religions, such as what we find in Mesopotamia, the sexual activity of the gods is what causes the earth to be fruitful. These sorts of poems would have been performed (perhaps sung) in the temples of Inanna and Dummuzi, and most scholars think that acting them out may have been part of the worship process ensuring that fruitfulness.

The biblical worldview is exclusively monotheistic, but there were people in ancient Israel who were drawn to the nature religion way of seeing things. Sometimes they would supply a wife for God to make it possible; on other occasions they would import the foreign religion unaltered (see Eze. 8:14 ). Even so-called "sacred prostitution" may have been practiced at some shrines to the God of Israel. This is not what lies behind the Song of Songs, but such thinking does set the stage for seeing this genre of literature as fundamentally sacred, rather than just as a form of bawdy or romantic entertainment.

It is possible to imagine sacred love (called hieros gamos) poems being de-paganized by substituting the name of God for those of the foreign gods, thus rendering it useful for use by orthodox Israelites. This suggestion may challenge us, but there are good reasons to think this happened with some wisdom literature and possibly with a few pagan hymns. In spite of this, it is a little more of a stretch to get from the gods loving each other sexually to us loving God mystically. Strange things do happen, though, particularly if it turns out that this is the best way to express those kinds of feelings toward the Eternal lover.

The next installment will finally get to the Song of Songs itself, examining the way it has been interpreted and used devotionally in the Jewish community.

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