Friday, May 04, 2007

The Song of Songs Introduction

Bonnard, Flowers on a Red Carpet, 1928

Three things I marvel at,
four I cannot fathom:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship in the heart of the sea,
the way of a man with a woman. —Proverbs 30:18-19

The Song of Songs is one of the most powerful and influential pieces of literature in the world. It seems to tell of the first sexual awakenings of a beautiful young couple who, in a series of scenes, make love and sing one another’s praises in a setting of extraordinary lushness and sensual pleasure.

It is also one of the most heavily interpreted books of the Bible, and the abundance of interpretations - theological, secular, and literary - is both astonishing and, then, quite in keeping with the text as we know it. Since we in fact know very little about its original audience or the conditions of its creation, we can make up a whole lot. J. Paul Tanner has an extensive review of the Song's interpretations.

The Song of Songs - which means “the best of songs,” which it certainly is - is also called the Canticles, another word for “songs,” and the Song of Solomon, because of the first verse, which identifies the work with King Solomon, the son of King David. Many used to believe that King Solomon wrote the work, though most now do not believe that to be the case. In fact, nobody knows who wrote it. It may be an edited collection of songs so ancient that they were passed down orally in performance from generation to generation, perhaps sung by campfires or at wedding banquets, before being written down. The writing or editing may have been done at virtually any time BCE, though the fourth or third century seems a good guess, with some parts likely to be much older.

The Bible, of course, is a collection - I think probably best thought of as an entire library - of books - papyrus scrolls, actually - which were often stored in caves protected by vases - and treated as very special items, both for the words and thoughts expressed and for the scarcity of the scrolls themselves. Writing was not widespread, and copying manuscripts by hand was tedious work. Clearly, given the difficulties of writing texts in the first place and then of preserving them once they were written down on scrolls, the text of the Song was thought important enough to preserve for centuries. I do not know for how long during its immeasurable history it may have existed in its current form, or for how long it might have been interpreted in a religious context. It was not made a part of the Jewish canon of sacred texts until around 70 C.E., thus ensuring its preservation through the centuries. I gather some rabbis objected to it because its subject matter was thought to be unsuitable for a sacred text. It forms part of the Ketuvim (Writings) of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible - specifically one of the Five Scrolls (Hamesh Megillot) along with the Book of Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Esther. What a wonderful anthology that is!

The Song makes no mention of God or of the history of Israel - although figuratively both may be found - but instead frankly and openly celebrates the pleasures of physical love in a somewhat dizzying dance of songs and scenes that play out - must originally have played out - with music, dance, and performance.

The attribution to King Solomon may have played a part in its preservation, though I believe its amazingly appealing and intriguing poetry should be reason enough. Once accepted in the scriptures, of course, both Jewish and Christian commentators found ways to interpret the work in religious terms, finding apparently deeper meanings in these love lyrics. It is recited during the services for Passover.