The intent of the author of the poem, The Song of Songs was not to express an allegorical representation of the mutual love between God and Israel. As a matter of history, it is much more likely that the idea that this poem was an allegory arose as a response to the prevailing understanding in 1st century Judaism (and earlier) that the poem extolled the eroticism of physical love. By the beginning of the 2nd century CE, both Judaism and Christianity through their rabbis and priests sought to defend the poem against the charge of lasciviousness. For example, its frank representation of erotic desire and fulfillment led the famous rabbi Akiva ben Joseph (aka Rabbi Akiba) to forbid the use of the Song of Songs in popular celebrations. He was reportedly to have said, “He who sings the Song of Songs in wine taverns, treating it as if it were a vulgar song, forfeits his share in the world to come“.
By the end of the 1st century CE, the rabbis and priests had had enough. They mandated the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs to be canonical. From that point forward, its allegorical interpretations have been many and have dominated both Jewish and Christian traditions for over two thousand years. Sadly, it’s as if there were no limits as to the poem’s allegorical meanings. For example, the young man’s sexual desire is thought to be symbolic of Christ’s love for the Church; or this one, that the girl’s two breasts represented … wait for it … Moses and Aaron!
The beauty of the poem has all but vanished as the prudes of the ecclesia were unable to accept that eroticism is a part of the human condition and has a place in Holy Scripture as it does in life. As the translator Stephen Mitchell put it,
The young men who sang it in the first-century taverns of Jerusalem, and the young women who dressed in white and danced in the vineyards on the fifteenth of Av, singing it to attract a husband, were better readers than the allegory-dazed scholars and priests.
Crucial to understanding the erotic nature of this poem is the distinction the Hebrew language makes between אָהֵב (/a⋅hav/) commonly and correctly translated as ‘love’ and דּוֹד (/dod/ rhymes with ‘road’) as physical sex, but also as lover, i.e., someone (usually other than the spouse) with whom one has a sexual relationship. In this poem ahav (occurs 7 times) and always connotes longing or a heart’s desire (vv 1:3, 1:4, 1:7, 3:1, 3:2, 3:3, and 3:4). By contrast, dod in its various forms (used 39 times) always means physical lovemaking or lover. As an aside, the use of dod and its variants to represent physical sex is widely attested in the Bible. For example, in Ezekiel 23:17, the Babylonians are described as having “came in to her on the bed of lovers (/mish⋅kav do⋅dim/)…”. On the other hand, Proverbs 7:16-19 is actually quite explicit:
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. 18 Come, let’s drink deeply of sex (dod) until morning; let’s delight ourselves with caresses. 19 For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a journey of some distance.
The Song of Songs is a poem about a young woman’s nascent sexual desire and its subsequent fulfillment. Marriage is simply not in view. She and her lover meet secretly in the countryside only at night and part by daybreak. It is abundantly clear that they are not married. Whether God frowns on the couple’s behavior is nowhere found in the text. Nor, by the way, is any reference to God. Rather, the poem is about the discovery of erotic sex, quite independent of any moral shadings. Indeed, the overriding sense expressed by both woman and man is one of joy.
The poem is set in a “garden of delights”, a garden characterized by abundance and fertility. Here they engage in sex that is described in rather lurid detail. The main character is a very young woman, probably just having passed through puberty. For example, her brothers still see her as an adolescent saying in verse 8:8,
We have a sister
And she has no breasts
Indeed, when she takes explicit note of her breasts she describes them as newly formed by comparing them to the newborn gazelle twins.
The metaphors of feasting suggest fulfillment, particularly when they are in the perfect tense (in Hebrew the perfect tense applies to a verb whose action has completed or been fulfilled), and the verb “to come into” or “to enter” has an objectively sexual meaning in biblical Hebrew. For example, at one point (v 5:1) her lover says,
I came into my garden…
I ate from my honeycomb…
I drank the milk and the wine…
The metaphorical meaning is pretty clear – this is not a sexual desire that the couple look forward to fulfilling (as has often been interpreted). Rather, their sexual desire has been fulfilled and their experience is intimately and richly described.
Anyway, you can read the whole translation here.
- Loprieno, Antonio (2005). “Searching for a common background: Egyptian love poetry and the Biblical Song of Songs”. In Hagedorn, Anselm C. Perspectives on the Song of Songs. Walter de Gruyter↩
- Norris, Richard Alfred (2003). The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators. Eerdmans↩
- Copied from his forward in The Song of Songs by Chana and Ariel Bloch, p. XI↩