Episode 23: Love. Desire. Exegesis.

The Old Testament, Part 9 of 10. What’s the Song of Songs doing in the Bible? Is it a pious hymn to God, or just a couple of horny lovers talking to each other?

To download the episode, click the three dot icon on the right of the player, and then click Download.

The Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 23: Love. Desire. Exegesis. This is the ninth of ten episodes we’re doing on the Old Testament. This show is mainly going to be about a book in the Tanakh that gets called either the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is one of the Poetic and Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible. And like the Book of Job, and the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs is quite a different text than what we find in the rest of the Old Testament.

The Book of Job asks difficult questions about why bad things happen to good people. The Book of Ecclesiastes repeatedly emphasizes that the best thing you can do in life is to enjoy it, and enjoy everything God has given you until you bite the dust. And the Song of Songs doesn’t mention God at all, actually. The Song of Songs is, in the words of one scholar, “a collection of popular love ditties.”1 A slim book of just eight chapters written in parallel verses, the Song of Songs is a series of impassioned monologues between two lovers, vividly detailing their desire, their anxieties, and thoughts and memories of one another. The Song of Songs, then, is another one of those later, Second Temple period books in the great anthology of the Hebrew Bible that is surprising and remarkable. You don’t expect to find a protracted and erotic love poem in the same book that talks about stoning people to death, fearing God, and following commandments. You don’t expect to, but it’s there.

The Song of Songs is, again, one of the Bible’s later books – a Second Temple period work produced some time after the Babylonian Captivity – perhaps long after. Like the Book of Ecclesiastes that precedes it, the Song of Songs has some Persian loanwords. At one point, it even uses a Greek word to describe a king’s palanquin. It also has many Aramaic words, and Aramaic was the tongue that gradually joined Hebrew as a primary language of Jewish believers in the Ancient Near East.2 So there’s a lot of evidence that the Song of Songs was written well after, say, 500 BCE, and even a bit of evidence that it was composed after 330 BCE.

Solomon and Sheba illustration song of songs

A turn-of-the-century illustration Solomon and Queen Sheba. A man whose wayward passions led both to the largest harem in the Bible and various acts of idolatry, Solomon seemed like a good figure to ascribe the book to, although the poem is probably just a piece of generically standard Iron Age love poetry.

Now, I want to get into this ardent love poem as soon as possible. But first let’s talk about the title of the poem, and the traditional theory of its authorship. The first line of the book is “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.”3 The Song of Songs is also known as the Song of Solomon. But in this show, we’ll call it the Song of Songs. Here’s why. Traditionally, the book has been attributed to the tenth century BCE biblical king, Solomon – just like the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes have been, and just as the Pentateuch was ascribed to Moses, and the Psalms to David. And as is the case with most Biblical authorship attributions, the professed origin of the Song of Songs is, by modern biblical scholars, considered to be unlikely. Even if we were dead sure that Solomon was a real person, and even if the Song of Songs didn’t contain so many Aramaic verbal constructions, and traces of Persian and Greek, there’s a very obvious question to ask. Why would a man who had seven hundred wives and three hundred sex slaves write a desperate, perhaps unrequited love poem? Why would he write the majority of that poem using the voice of a woman? There’s enough evidence, both internally and considering Solomon’s character, to have led Biblical scholars to dismiss the Song of Songs having Solomonic authorship. Though a few lines reference Solomon, and there are a few moments when the male speaker of the poem seems to have ties with Solomon, or at least a great king, the Song of Songs was almost certainly written hundreds of years after the time when Solomon is said to have lived.

So, thus far we’ve established that the Song of Songs is one of the younger books of the Tanakh, and that the notion that King Solomon wrote it is more or less discredited. Now we’re going to spend some time with the book itself. I will read some fairly long sections from it, because first of all, it’s beautiful and worth hearing at length. Additionally, the Song of Songs, being a love poem, doesn’t need an enormous amount of explanation The whole book is only eight or nine pages long, depending on footnotes and pagination. Quotes from the Bible in this program, unless otherwise noted, will come from the NRSV translation in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, published by Oxford University Press in 2010.

The only other thing I’ll say in advance is that there is a female speaker and a male speaker, and they talk about one another, and the female speaker has more lines. So close your eyes – or not – you might be driving or something – but imagine the most in love you’ve ever felt. Imagine that feeling that everything in the world is just a flat gray blur, except for that one radiant person you’re longing for more than anything. If you take a walk, you imagine taking it with this person. When you see the sunset turning the clouds into salmon and tangerine and aquamarine – this is how the person makes you feel. When you close your eyes, you imagine the contours of this person’s face, shoulders, hands, and body. In just this way, each speaker of the Song of Songs is overcome with love, and longing, and passion. [music]

The Opening of the Song of Songs

Here are the opening verses of the Song of Songs, along with some additional lines from the second chapter.
The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
     your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
     therefore the maidens love you.
Draw me after you, let us make haste. . .
I am black and beautiful,
     O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
     like the curtains of Solomon.
Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
     because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
     they made me keeper of the vineyards,      but my own vineyard I have not kept! (1:1-6)
O that his left hand were under my head,
     And that his right hand embraced me! (2:6)
The voice of my beloved!
     Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
     bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
     or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
     behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
     looking through the lattice. (2:8-9)

My beloved is mine and I am his;
     he pastures his flock among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
     and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
     or a young stag on the cleft mountains. (2:16-17)

These verses, again taken from the book’s first two chapters, are a good representation of the Song of Songs. Needless to say, we are hearing the words of a woman who is in love. Occasionally, her descriptions of her beloved sound sensual, as when she says, “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth! / For your love is better than wine, / your anointing oils are fragrant.” Additionally, it’s obvious that she wants to be with him. She says, “Draw me after you, let us make haste,” and she envisions him watching her through her latticed window. It’s possible that they are already lovers. She confirms that “My beloved is mine and I am his,” and earlier, she tells us that her brothers are angry at her because “my own vineyard I have not kept!” And that takes us to the next subject – the poem’s metaphors.

Metaphors and Figurative Language in the Song of Songs

The Anemone coronaria, Israel’s national flower. Photo by Aviad2001.

I performed a little act of interpretation just then. I said that the woman’s line that “my own vineyard I have not kept!” might be a reference to her lack of chastity. It might. It might just be that she didn’t take care of her vineyard. Either interpretation is fair game. Throughout the poem there are dozens and dozens of metaphors like this unkempt vineyard. The Song of Songs is like a still life of fruits, spices, flowers, gardens, and beautiful animals. Each of these may be read fairly literally, as when the woman says “my own vineyard I have not kept.” But beyond literal interpretation, the Song of Songs has offered generations of readers occasion to guess at various opaque descriptions in the poem – and to try and guess whether something else is going on. Let’s look at an example in Chapter 5.

First in Chapter 5, the woman recollects lying at home in her bed, sleeplessly, dreaming of her beloved. She recollects that “I slept, but my heart was awake” (5.2). She hears her lover knocking. He says, “Open to me. . .my love, my love, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night” (5:2). And the woman tells us, “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt” (5:3-6). Now, different readers have found these verses to mean very different things. But in general, with all the anointing oils, dripping myrrh, opening and closing, gushing of fountains, luscious fruits, and handling of door bolts it’s easy to see why the Song of Songs is often called an erotic poem. We don’t need to take every single thing as a euphemism and try to decode it – you know – this blossom is a symbol for this private part, this door bolt for that private part, this flowering a symbol for this sexual act. People have done plenty of that, by the way. But we don’t have to dismantle the poem into a bunch of symbols and meanings to understand that it is fairly obviously filled to the brim with passion.

Itemized Descriptions in the Song of Songs

Now, I could quote almost any verse from the eight chapters of the Song of Songs and you’d see that same passion and eroticism at work. So I want to get a bit more specific about how the lovers talk about each other in the Song of Songs. They do so, a number of times, by what we might call “itemizing” one another. You know how you’ll hear a person physically described. “He has beautiful eyelashes. His eyes are a deep brown color. His nose is very sharp. He has a chiseled jaw, and a cleft chin. His hair is glossy and brown.” So we just heard about eyelashes, eyes, nose, jaw, chin, hair. Item, item, item, item, item. The Song of Songs does this all the time. One lover describes the other lover’s components, often with similes. Her hair is as soft as silk. Her eyes are as gray as the clouds. That kind of thing. Only, we’re reading an Iron Age love poem, and so sometimes, these similes can sound quite odd to our modern ears. Let’s take a look at some of the itemized descriptions of lovers in the Song of Songs, and some of their associated similes.

Here’s how the woman describes the man, midway through Chapter 5. She exclaims,
My beloved is all radiant and ruddy,
     distinguished among ten thousand.
His head is the finest gold;
     his locks are wavy,
     black as a raven.
His eyes are like doves
     beside springs of water,
bathed in milk,
     fitly set.
His cheeks are like beds of spices,
     yielding fragrance.
His lips are lilies,
     distilling liquid myrrh.
His arms are rounded gold,
     set with jewels.
His body is ivory work,
     encrusted with sapphires.
His legs are alabaster columns,
     set upon bases of gold. (5:10-15)

So there you have a classic itemization – we’ve got the head, hair, eyes, cheeks, lips, arms, body, and legs. The similes are gorgeous – as with Homeric similes, lines such as “His eyes are like doves / beside springs of water” not only give us a comparative image, but also add an entire atmosphere. As the woman speaks in the poem, you can both imagine the man, and also imagine her imagining him – lying there and roving her mental eyes and hands over her recollections of his physical form, and tantalizing herself with her vivid remembrances.

The man, predictably, also has plenty to say about the woman’s features. Here’s one of several itemizations of her. This particular passage is directly addressed to the woman from the man. This is the opening of Chapter 4.
How beautiful you are, my love,
     how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
     behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
     moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
     that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
     and not one among them is bereaved.
Your lips are like a crimson thread,
     and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
     behind your veil.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
     built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
     all of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
     twins of a gazelle,
     that feed among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
     and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
     and the hill of frankincense. (4:1-7)

As to what this final line means – I’ll leave that to you to interpret. Clearly these are the words of a thoroughly smitten man. Just as clearly, the livestock similes sound pretty funny to our ears. I don’t think I’d reach for flocks of goats, or freshly shorn sheep if I were looking to bestow a nice compliment on someone’s hair or teeth. I also usually don’t associate breasts with gazelles – in fact, cloven hoofed mammals in general aren’t something that I think about alongside those kinds of things. But as always the case with the Old Testament, we’re dealing with translations of ancient texts, and of course all kinds of cultural associations existed back then that have long since been forgotten. [music]

Walls, Doors, and Consummation

So, you know that the Song of Songs is a series of impassioned monologues between a male and female speaker. You know that these monologues have often been dissected, and scholars have debated the extent to which they are sexually explicit. You also know that these monologues are filled with itemized lists in which each lover catalogues the physical beauties of the other. The two itemized lists that we looked at a minute ago are a pair of many others in the book’s eight chapters. The next thing we need to establish is essentially whether anything else is going on in the Song of Songs. Is this book of the Bible just an exchange of sweet words between lovers? Does anything actually happen in the poem? The answer to these questions is open to interpretation. I don’t have a strong feeling on this either way, so I’ll lay out the details that have generally interested critics.

song of songs imagery

Sunset near the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Song of Songs, from end to end, conjures up lush, vegetal scenery, filled with a sense of longing and anticipation. Photo by גמלאי עיריית טבריה [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.

One question that many readers have asked is whether or not the poem’s two speakers are in a consummated relationship, or whether it’s more of a Pyramus and Thisbe situation, where a pair desires one another but is kept apart by social strictures. The answer to this question lies in a few frustratingly enigmatic lines. We’ve already looked at one of them – the sixth verse of the first chapter, in which the woman says, “My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept” (1:6). Equally suggestive, but inconclusive are some lines in the eighth and final chapter of the Song of Songs. The woman tells the man, “Come, my beloved, let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love” (8:10-12). This doesn’t exactly sound like an invitation to a game of table tennis. But the biggest piece of evidence for the relationship being consummated is, maybe appropriately, at the very end of the poem, in a very opaque, metaphorical series of lines.

I haven’t done much of what we English majors call “close reading” in this podcast. I try to imagine driving, or jogging, or doing chores and all of the other things we do when we listen to podcasts. I think trying to understand some guy from the internet analyzing lines of poetry that you may not have read at a granular level under those circumstances would be challenging at best. So I will only do it – again what English majors call “close reading” – once in a great while. In this case, the lines are an important fulcrum in the Song of Songs, which might impact our understanding of the poem. And conveniently, they’re also, very likely, about sex, which should help hold your attention through this close reading exercise.

So bear with me and listen closely for just a moment. I’m about to read three verses. In these verses, the woman is speaking. She is first speaking about having a little sister, and then she describes herself. There is a sustained metaphor in these three verses. This metaphor involves walls and doors. For the purposes of the interpretation we’re entertaining, imagine “walls” standing for chastity. And imagine “doors” standing for openness to sexual activity. Here are the verses. The female speaker of the Song of Songs states:
We have a little sister,
     and she has no breasts,
What shall we do for our sister,
     on the day when she is spoken for?
If she is a wall,
     we will build upon her a battlement of silver;
but if she is a door,
we will enclose her with boards of cedar.
I was a wall,
     and my breasts were like towers;
then I was in [my beloved’s] eyes
     as one who brings peace. (8:8-9)

Let’s hear that one more time, since it’s so important.
We have a little sister,
     and she has no breasts,
What shall we do for our sister,
     on the day when she is spoken for?
If she is a wall,
     we will build upon her a battlement of silver;
but if she is a door,
we will enclose her with boards of cedar.
I was a wall,
     and my breasts were like towers;
then I was in [my beloved’s] eyes
     as one who brings peace. (8:8-9)

So here is a simple interpretation of these lines. The woman’s little sister is chaste. But the woman imagines a time in the future when her little sister might be “spoken for.” When this time comes, if the little sister is “a wall,” the little sister will have a “battlement of silver” – in other words, maybe, if the little sister has remained chaste, she’ll have all the advantages of wealth and position. On the other hand, if the little sister is a “door,” or if she’s not been chaste, she’ll be “enclose[d]. . .with boards of cedar” (8:9), or face some sort of ostracism and enclosure. Now comes the important part. The woman says “I was a wall,” using past tense, and then reveals “I was in [my beloved’s] eyes as one who brings peace.” In Biblical Hebrew, in the Books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, the phrase “bringing peace” signifies surrender in a siege – the peace comes when this surrender is accepted, when the wall is opened to the besieging army.4 So, put very simply, the little sister will allow her wall to come down in due time, but the woman – the main speaker of the Song of Songs, perhaps already has.

Okay, close reading over. Now, that was an interpretation, obviously – a straightforward one. Literary scholars and theologians have always enjoyed interpretation, or, in the context of interpreting scripture, exegesis. Sometimes we produce strong readings, and other times silly ones, and still others we force texts to fit our specific agendas, and everything in between. I’ve introduced the idea of interpretation somewhat deliberately here not because I think you don’t understand it. Of course you do – I mean we interpret stuff all day long, all the time. I’ve introduced the idea of interpretation with the Song of Songs because it is one of the best books in the entire Bible to use to demonstrate how Biblical interpretation has been carried out over the ages.

The Song of Songs demands interpretation. The poem’s theme might be the first line in Chapter 5: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love” (5:1). This sentiment is not one we expect to find in the Bible. Carefree hedonism is precisely what the church fathers were accusing pagans of over the first few centuries of the Christian period. One scholar writes that “If the Song’s meaning is exhausted as a celebration of human love, it is difficult to attach any theological significance to it, particularly given the absence of God’s name from the composition. To have a book devoted to the joys of physical love in a collection of spiritually oriented and theologically significant writings would appear to make the Song [of Songs] superfluous.”5 So how have Jews and Christians, over the past two thousand years, understood the Song of Songs? How have they read it in detail, as we just did, and found a religious message in it? [music]

Biblical Exegesis and the Song of Songs

The main idea of this episode is in its title: Episode 23: Love. Desire. Exegesis. An exegesis, plural exegeses, is a careful interpretation of a text – most often, a piece of scripture. Interpreting the meaning of things like conch shells, and scarlet letters, and white whales in literature sounds like a fairly esoteric exercise. The fate of the world, after all, does not exactly hang on what Othello’s handkerchief means. Within the world of theology, though, exegesis is very important. If you accept any book as divinely inspired, it follows that this book must be carefully read and painstakingly interpreted. When Christian theologians began essentially claiming the Tanakh as a Christian text during Late Antiquity, they had a lot of work to do, from identifying the wind in Chapter 1 of Genesis as the Holy Spirit, to, all the way at the other end of the Old Testament, interpreting the messenger in Chapter 3 of Malachi as Jesus. Accordingly, today, we have millions of pages of Jewish and Christian exegesis – ranging from Ancient Hebrew midrashim to the commentaries of Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther, to the inquisitive blog posts and forums of contemporary Jews and Christians today. When people do the important work of interpreting the Bible, they partake in a two thousand plus year old group project called Biblical exegesis, or sometimes Biblical hermeneutics.

This may all be old news to you, depending on your background. But I think for our present purposes, a utilitarian way to be introduced to how Biblical exegesis works will be to hear a little bit about how sages, rabbis, priests, and preachers have dealt with the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs, after all, is a slippery poem. To try and make sense of the Song of Songs within the context of the Bible, and some very detailed reading and interpreting needs to be undertaken. And as you can imagine, from ancient times to the present, many enthusiastic exegetes have stepped up to the plate to try and explain what the Song of Songs is doing in the Bible. Let’s hear some of what they’ve come up with.

The God-Groom, Israel-Bride Interpretation

The most influential interpretation of the Song of Songs, both in Judaism and in Christianity, has been that one of the lovers is God, and the other lover is the followers of God. Let’s first consider this reading in the tradition of Judaism. In Jewish tradition, from some of the earliest midrashim onward, the Song of Songs has most often been understood as a poem about the passionate love between Yahweh and Israel, Yahweh being the male speaker and the people Israel being the female speaker. Now, generally speaking, this interpretation solves a major problem. A book of the Bible that says nothing about God is radically transformed, and it’s entirely about God. The woman says, “With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right. . .embraced me!” (2:3-6). In these lines, the passionate male speaker, if we use an old rabbinical interpretation – the male speaker is a beneficent father, a father who sustains his beloved Israel with love and nutriment.

While this interpretation of the Song of Songs, with God as the man and Jewish believers as the woman, solves the basic problem of the Song of Songs not really being a religious poem, the interpretation still has some wrinkles to work out. For instance, at one point, the male speaker, who is God in this customary interpretation, makes quite an ardent speech about the beauties of his beloved. The male speaker says, “How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. Your neck is like an ivory tower. [Y]our flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses” (7:1-5). So, according to a very ancient interpretation, the male speaker here is Yahweh, and the female addressee the nation of Israel. And you have to ask, really? This is Yahweh, admiring the nation of Israel? The nation of Israel has round thighs, a navel, a belly, nice breasts, a pale neck, and long hair? And God is “held captive” by her? Really? At first glance, this is an interpretation that stretches credulity.

But I’m not quite telling the whole story here. Frequently – especially in the Prophetic Books, the nation of Israel is likened to a woman, and God her lover. You don’t need to subject certain passages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or, especially, Ezekiel, to any close reading to see that thinking of Israel as a woman, and God as her lover, does come up quite often throughout these prophetic books. Let’s look at an example. In this example, from Chapter 16 of Ezekiel, the Old Testament God recalls meeting Israel first as a prepubescent woman, and then, later, becoming her lover.
You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with embroidered cloth and with sandals of fine leather; I bound you in fine linen and covered you with rich fabric. (Ez 16:7-10)

So, simply put, the covenant between Yahweh and Israel here in the Book of Ezekiel is like a marriage between a beautiful young woman and a wealthy man who provides for her. It is not, perhaps, a paragraph in line with modern sensibilities – but to its original priestly authors, it was intended to depict a period of courtship followed by love. Just like – perhaps – just like in the Song of Songs. The metaphorical pairing is again here strange to our modern ears. Eroticism between deity and laity is not at all a common thing to encounter in monotheistic religions, even when it’s treated symbolically. But the Israel-Bride and God-Groom pair is actually fairly pervasive throughout the Prophetic Books. Nonetheless, there’s a difference between the Song of Songs and the bridegroom passages in the Prophetic Books.

Each time the bride and groom relationship is mentioned in the Tanakh’s Prophetic Books, it’s mentioned in order to emphasize that Israel was unfaithful. In other words, God trusted his bride Israel and married her, only she became unfaithful, just as the Israelites and Judahites often broke their covenant with God. In one of the darkest passages in the Bible, God calls his bride Israel a whore no less than nineteen times in Chapter 16 of Ezekiel – at the end of that earlier passage I read you. In Ezekiel, God and the metaphorical female Israel may have had a happy union and earlier marriage. But, God says, she then prostituted herself, and now she deserves to be stoned to death and cut to pieces with swords (EZ 16:40). Tirelessly repeating the words whore, and prostitute, and judgment, Ezekiel Chapter 16 imagines God savagely punishing his unfaithful wife, Israel.

So that doesn’t sound very much like the Song of Songs, does it? The Song of Songs has no dismemberment, hatred, broken covenants, nor tacit bloodthirsty misogyny. Nobody is screamed at, or called a whore. Thus, while the Prophetic Books do have some passages likening Israel to a bride and Yahweh to a groom, these passages are cut from a different cloth than the Song of Songs. In the Song of Songs, the lovers are passionately devoted to one another, and that’s it. But still, there is that essential pairing – the God-groom slash Israel-bride pairing in various Prophetic Books which makes the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Song of Songs a lot less strange than it might initially sound. And for contemporary believers who interpret the Song of Songs this way, maybe the fact that the Song of Songs doesn’t include any female infidelity or male chastisement is the very thing that makes it really special. Maybe the Song of Songs is, after all the Historical and Prophetic Books (which come before the Song of Songs in the Tanakh), the final happy moment when God expresses his everlasting fidelity to Israel, and serves as a sunny gateway to more optimistic books like Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Chronicles that end the Hebrew Bible. [music]

Christian Exegeses of the Song of Songs

So, we’ve discussed a traditional Jewish interpretation to the Song of Songs, and how the central metaphor in this interpretation also occurs in other books of the Bible. Now, let’s discuss a standard Christian interpretation. This interpretation, or exegesis, is structurally identical to the Jewish one. The groom is Christ, the bride his followers, and the whole Song of Songs is a record of the passionate devotion between Jesus and his worshippers. This interpretation has the same strengths and quandaries as the Jewish one we just discussed. On one hand, it takes Jesus, who is not on the surface present in the Song of Songs at all, and places him directly in the middle of it. On the other hand, this common interpretation shows Jesus passionately envisioning the breasts, thighs, and midriffs of his worldly congregation. And Jesus, who throughout the Gospels mandates marital fidelity and at one point in Matthew (19:12) even recommends castration for men desirous of pursuing heaven, does not seem like the kind of person who would be passionately picturing bare legs and topless lovers.

The interpretive problem there is obvious, I’m sure. But let’s go a little bit deeper into the Song of Songs, and what Christian interpreters have written about it. We will look at two specific examples of Christian exegesis in the Song of Solomon. One of them will be modern, and the other will be ancient. Let’s start with a modern one – one from a book published in 1999. This modern interpretation deals with two verses from the sixth chapter of the Song of Songs. In these two verses the woman says, “I went down to the nut orchard, to look at the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom. Before I was aware, my fancy set me in a chariot beside my prince.” (6:11-2). At a literal level, in those verses, the woman is going to an orchard, and then she starts fantasizing about the male speaker. Once again, she goes to a nut orchard, to check on blossoms, vines, and pomegranates, and then she starts fantasizing about the man.

cyril of alexandria song of songs interpretation

Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444).

Let’s hear a modern Christian exegesis of this verse. This is from Richard Brooks’ book, Song of Songs. In this book, interpreter Richard Brooks writes, “Why is the church described now as a ‘garden of nuts’ . . .? The garden is already a familiar picture in the Song where the church is concerned. . .The nut in question is probably the walnut, having a hard shell with a sweet kernel. This would be suitable as a figurative expression of the church in its relationship both to Christ and the world, going through many tribulations in entering the kingdom of God.”6 So, what modern interpreter Richard Brooks sees in this description of the woman going to the nut orchard is a metaphor. She’s not just heading out to a flowery orchard. She’s having a spiritual experience, and the walnuts all around her are symbols of the difficult outer shell of earthly existence, and the sweet inner fruits of heaven. Christian exegeses of the Song of Songs tend to do just what Richard Brooks does here – to sort through the sometimes sensual odds and ends of the Song of Songs and decode each one as part of an overall story about Christ and his worshippers. Brooks’ book is a solid example of modern Christian exegesis – its continued relevance and vitality within contemporary theology.

So that’s a modern example of exegesis on the Song of Songs. Let’s look at an ancient one. This ancient one is an interpretation from Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, written during the early 400s CE, when the City of Alexandria was one of the cultural hearts of the Roman Empire, which had accepted Christianity as its official religion back in 380 CE with the passage of the Edict of Thessalonica. Cyril of Alexandria, as he read the Song of Songs, was interested in a very steamy description in the book. This description is in the very first chapter of the Song of Songs, and in it, the woman is going on and on about all the things her beloved is to her. Eventually, she the woman says “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts” (1:13). Again, from the Song of Songs, the woman states “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.” Now, if you’re going for the normal Christian exegesis of the Song of Songs – that God is the guy and the worshippers are the girl, this myrrh bag between the breasts seems like something you might want to just try and ignore – perhaps something too profound for human comprehension. Cleavage and Christian piety are an exceptionally odd combination. But Cyril of Alexandria was an important metropolitan bishop during a doughty time in early Christian history, and so he charged right into it – right in between the breasts.

To Cyril of Alexandria, this was not a passage about a perfumed bosom, or something even racier. To Cyril, it was a description of Jesus. Just as Jesus was, in the Christian imagination, the lynchpin between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the bag of myrrh in the Song of Songs rests between the woman’s breasts, not unlike Jesus, showing up between the two Testaments. It’s an – uh – interesting interpretation. And it likens Jesus to a bag of potpourri, and the Old Testament and New Testament to – well, boobs. [music]

Exegesis as a Mirror of the Exegete

The traditional Jewish and Christian exegeses of the Song of Songs, even to those who believe them to be true, have a few stretches, and a few iffy moments, with nuts becoming churches and breasts becoming great holy books. But for many reasons, these exegeses are a very important part of religious history. Firstly, millions of Jewish and Christian believers today really do interpret the Song of Songs in the way I’ve described here – as a poem about a covenant between God and worshippers. Secondly, Jewish and Christian exegeses of the Song of Songs are also energetic exercises in problem solving – exercises which have a lot of ancient theological inertia behind them. And lastly, if associating the church with a walnut, or Jesus with a bag of myrrh, seems strange, we need to remember that the Song of Songs also compares a lover’s hair to a flock of goats, and a lover’s teeth to freshly shorn sheep. We’re dealing with metaphors that are thousands of years old. If the Jewish or Christian exegeses of the Song of Songs come up with something that sounds odd, a lot about the long-gone world of the Tanakh sounds odd to our modern ears in the first place.

Additionally, many Jews and Christians today don’t require the apparatus of an elaborate exegesis in order to read and appreciate the Song of Songs. To some, a passionate love poem in the middle of the great anthology that is the Bible is not a problem at all. Love and sex are parts of human life, and to many believers, notwithstanding the Abrahamic religions’ often stern attitudes toward sex, it’s quite alright to celebrate them, since they’re just another nice miracle of God’s many creations. This particular take on the Song of Songs is able to appreciate the book without subjecting it to any protracted exegesis or reinterpretation.

So what do we do when we interpret? Can we take a deep breath, read the Song of Songs, and somehow arrive at a correct, impartial interpretation of the book? I know I can’t. Scholar Iain Duguid, in a recent commentary on the Song of Songs, notes that interpretation is inevitably a subjective process. Duguid writes that “Instead of the text controlling the interpretation, the text becomes a flexible vessel in the hands of the interpreter, a container into which meaning may be memorably imported. Positively, of course, this uncontrolled subjectivism – whether of the spiritual or [secular] variety – generally flows from a conviction of the importance. . .of Scripture. As a result, when faced with a text that is hard to understand, the interpreter defaults to making it support doctrines and truths that he or she believes to be true and important. Like a mirror, allegorical exegesis tells us much more about the interpreter than it does about the biblical text.”7 The point is difficult to argue with. Jews, Christians, those of other religions, and those who mark “none of the above” on religious questionnaires, in all their varieties, are likely going to be able to find something in the Song of Songs that harmonizes with their worldview. Any exegesis bears the marks of its author.

If we seem to be at an impasse, I’m glad to say that we’re not. We have some tools that Cyril of Alexandria did not – tools that make even some modern interpreters a bit squeamish. We have access to an archive of ancient literature that has become available over the past two centuries. And while the act of interpreting a text in isolation is unavoidably subjective, when it comes to reading widely, and finding books and poems that have matching lines, or stanzas, or metaphors – this is a reasonably empirical, and objective process – and one I enjoy very much. So now we’ve looked at the contents of the Song of Songs. And we’ve looked at the major interpretations of it that have existed for the past couple of millennia. Let’s do something that Biblical exegetes generally don’t do. Let’s look at some ancient Greek and Egyptian love poetry produced before and around the same time as the Hebrew Bible – love poetry that, from end to end, sounds very similar to the Song of Songs. [music]

Papyrus Harris 500 and Biblical Love Poetry

Some time in the mid-1200s BCE, over 700 years before the Song of Songs was set down, the Pharaoh Ramesses II added some rooms to a temple called Karnak, in the city of Thebes. Within the ruins of these rooms, some 3,100 years later, archaeologists found a large papyrus scroll that we call Papyrus Harris 500 – a scroll that’s now in the British museum. This scroll, covered in hieroglyphics, contained three groups of poems – a total of nineteen love songs exchanged between a male and female speaker. Papyrus Harris 500 is a treasure trove of information about the language of love, sex, and courtship in Ancient Egypt during its prime.

It’s exceedingly farfetched to imagine that whatever Persian-period or Hellenistic-period writers who crafted the Song of Songs somehow traveled 600 miles overland to study a 700-year-old scroll that was very likely already long-buried by the Second Temple period. But it’s not at all farfetched to study the extensive commonalities in form, metaphor and diction between Papyrus Harris 500 and the Song of Songs, and to conclude that the dual speakers, the elaborate itemizations, and figurative language of the Song of Songs are part of a tradition of love poetry that dates at least back to the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. Let’s look at some of these commonalities.

I will read from the fourth poem of this Late Bronze Age Egyptian papyrus. In the lines you’re about to hear, the man in the poem is talking about the woman in the poem.
My lover is a marsh, [he says]
     My lover is lush with growth. . .
Her mouth is a lotus bud,
     Her breasts are mandrake blossoms.
Her arms are vines,
     Her eyes are shaded berries.
Her head is a trap built from branches. . .and I am the goose.
     Her hair is the bait in the trap. . .to ensnare me.8

A blind musician (or harper) plays his instrument, from a Theban tomb dated to the late 1400s BCE.

That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This Ancient Egyptian poem, just like passages of the Song of Songs we’ve heard earlier, repeatedly shows a male speaker itemizing the beauties of his beloved. And just as this Egyptian poem concludes with “Her hair is the bait in the trap. . .to ensnare me,” the male speaker of Song of Songs also pictures the ensnaring ability of his lover’s hair. “[Y]our flowing locks are like purple; / a king is held captive in the tresses” (7:5).

A later poem in Papyrus Harris 500 contains many parallels to the female speaker’s lines in the Song of Songs. The Ancient Egyptian woman says, “[W]e walk into the trees around the chamber of love. . .I gather branches, and weave them into a fan. / We will see. . . / We will see if it fans me on my way to the garden of love.”9 And the female speaker of the Song of Songs also guides her lover into a leafy world where love and sex will likely take place – she says, “[L]et us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love” (8:10-12). The Egyptian woman, once in this garden world, exclaims that “My breasts are smothered with fruit.”10 Similarly, in the Song of Songs, the Biblical woman’s “breasts are like. . .clusters [of a date] palm tree” (7:7), and earlier, her breasts are nearly smothered with the “bag of myrrh / that lies between my breasts” (1:13).

In fact, there are dozens of parallels between Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian love poems of Papyrus Harris 500 – we could keep combing through the specifics, but I imagine that in the form of a podcast the nitty gritty of all that would start to blur together. So let’s zoom out, with the fourteen Egyptian love poems on one side of our desk, and the eight chapters of Song of Songs on the other. Both of these are collections of love poetry, bifurcated into male and female speakers. Both are bursting at the seams with pomegranates, mandrakes, berries, sweet wine, budding flowers, glistening hair, and private unions in lush gardens. Both contain the same itemized descriptions – of a lover’s eyes, her lips, her neck, her breasts, her thighs, and other body parts. Ultimately, they just sound like one another, and the discovery and translation of Papyrus Harris 500 demonstrated that the structure and language of the Song of Songs may have been quite standard within the world of Ancient Mediterranean love poetry from the Late Bronze Age onward.

Theocritus’ Idylls and the Song of Songs

Papyrus Harris 500, however, is only one of two texts with which the Song of Songs is frequently compared. The second text is a thousand years younger than Papyrus Harris 500, and comes from the pen of the Hellenistic Greek writer, Theocritus. Theocritus, who may have lived all over the Ancient Mediterranean during the early 200s BCE – Sicily, Alexandria, Syracuse, and Egypt – Theocritus wrote a collection of poems called the Pastoral Idylls. Largely based on love and courtship, these stories feature various figures of Greek mythology – Hermes, Aphrodite, the Cyclops Polyphemus, Zeus, Muses, and many more. But in addition to these figures, Theocritus adds a large cast of bucolic people – peasants and milkmaids, and young men and women experiencing some of their first romantic relationships. Like Song of Songs, or the Egyptian love poems we just looked at, the love scenes in Theocritus’ poetry are filled with itemized descriptions of lovers.

Theocritus greek poet song of songs

Theocritus, a Greek poet who worked during the 200s BCE, writing about provincial life.

Just as the Song of Songs describes alluring tresses, and parts of lovers likened to milk and honey, a speaker called Eunice, in Theocritus’ 20th Idyll, mentions “my cheeks,” and how “[over] them / Ran the rich growth like ivy round the stem. / Like fern my tresses [over] my temples streamed; / [Over] my dark eyebrows, white my forehead gleamed: / My eyes were of [Athena’s] radiant blue, My mouth was milk, its accents honeydew” (20.21, 23-6).11 In these lines of Ancient Greek poetry, we can’t be too surprised to see the traditions of ancient love poetry – body parts are likened to fruits, delectables, and beautiful plants.

But there may be much more specific links between the Song of Songs and the poetry of Theocritus. Let’s look at two examples. Toward the beginning of Song of Songs, the female speaker describes how “I am black and beautiful, / O daughters of Jerusalem, / like the tents of Kedar, / like the curtains of Solomon. / Do not gaze at me because I am dark, / because the sun has gazed on me” (1:5-6). A common interpretation of these lines is that the female speaker of the Song of Songs has been at work in the vineyard and has a deep suntan. And in Theocritus, we also meet a sun kissed woman who inspires great love. A lusty young man describes his beloved as follows: “Beautiful Bombyca, men call you Syrian, thin / And sunburnt. To me alone your skin is pale honey” (10.26-7).12 In both the Song of Songs, then, as well as the poetry of Theocritus, we find the same very distinct visual characteristic – a sunburned woman, recognized by others for this physical feature, who inspires deep love and affection. It might just be a coincidence. But it’s not the only distinctive parallel between the two texts. The next specific parallel we’ll look at helps explain one of the stranger passages in the Song of Songs.

I quoted the passage earlier, and it seems to me to be one of the more erotic moments in the Song of Songs. In it, the woman remembers a nocturnal scene in which her lover came to her home. The woman in the Song of Songs says, “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt” (5:3-6). So this is obviously one of those passages that invites you to decode what may be euphemisms – bathed feet, a hand thrusting into an opening, a dripping door bolt – again, we’re probably not talking about a game of checkers, here.

In Theocritus’ poetry – specifically, his second Idyll – a woman contrives to gain the affections of her beloved. The lovelorn woman, at one point, says, “with the help of the goddess I melt this wax / melt with sudden love. / As Aphrodite helps me. . .So he may come spinning to the door of my house” (2.38-41).13 It’s not quite as dribbling with eroticism as the comparable passage in the Song of Songs, but the basic metaphors are still there – gooey concoctions, a lot of desire, and men arriving at women’s doors to say hello.14 So there are a lot of parallels between Papyrus Harris 500, the Song of Songs, and Theocritus. And while the Song of Songs certainly has a distinct theological meaning within the context of Judaism and Christianity, it’s also certainly part of a tradition of ancient love poetry that spanned a thousand years, and hundreds of texts that are now lost to us.

The Language of Love

Now, I have a funny confession to make. While researching this show I was reading a scholarly article published all the way back in 1903 on the parallels between the Song of Songs and Theocritus. Close to the end of this article, the author, William Seiple, after much Hebrew and Greek translation and intertextual comparison, concluded that there were definitely many parallels, but that there weren’t actually any directly borrowed or quoted lines. And then, concluding on why so many similarities are evident between the Song of Songs and the poetry of Theocritus, Seiple wrote, in 1903, “And after all, the language of love is the language of the heart the world over. In this way many of these parallel passages may be explained.”15 I looked at that quote and scoffed. “Hah!” I said. “How passé.” I mean all of us who have earned degrees in literature over the past few decades, and been taught cultural relativism and linguistic indeterminacy, and all of the customary truisms of the postmodern humanities department resist these kinds of statements – that there is some core of universal human experiences. “[T]he language of love is the language of the heart the world over,” I read, and I laughed a little.

Only, I kept reading. I kept looking at Song of Songs, and Papyrus Harris 500, and the Idylls of Theocritus. And in my mind, I kept thinking about other epochs of love poetry I’d come across – other pastoral poetry from antiquity, and Augustan Age poetry, and courtly love poetry of the late Middle Ages, and Petrarchan, Spenserian, Shakespearian sonnets, Victorian love poetry, twentieth-century confessional poetry. And I stopped laughing. So I want to close with a final poem. I’m not going to tell you what it is, or when it’s from. Here it is.
Seven days since I saw my [beloved],
And sickness invaded me;
I am heavy in all my limbs,
My body has forsaken me.
When the physicians come to me,
My heart rejects their remedies;
. . .
My sickness is not discerned.
To tell me “She is here” would revive me!
Her name would make me rise;
Her messenger’s coming and going,
That would revive my heart!
My [beloved] is better than all prescriptions,
She does more for me than all medicines;
Her coming to me is my amulet,
The sight of her makes me well!16

So what is this? A lovesick speaker who feels that the only antidote for his pain is the company of his lover. Is it an excerpt from a lovelorn speaker in Chrétien de Troyes? A translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova? Is it a translated Italian sonnetto, of sixteenth century vintage? Is it an early unpublished poem by the volatile Victorian writer Matthew Arnold? The teenage work of Robert Lowell? Is it a Shakespeare sonnet, modernized from Elizabethan English into today’s vernacular? Or a modernized excerpt from Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale? You get the point, don’t you? “And after all,” that hundred plus year old article declared, “the language of love is the language of the heart the world over.” Maybe it’s not such an antiquated statement, after all. [music]

The Oral Torah, Shabbat 31a, and Exegesis

If you want to know what that poem was, just check out this episode’s transcription in the details section of your podcast app. As tempting as it is to do so, I don’t want to end this program on the theme of the universality of human love across the ages. This episode is called “Love. Desire. Exegesis,” and I’d like to return to the more rarefied and technical subject of exegesis one more time before we move on to the Prophetic Books in the next episode.

Exegesis, or hermeneutics, or to use plain English, interpreting stuff, is a core part of what we do when we read. Exegesis is a sacred and dynamic part of Jewish and Christian theology – a part that is as old as the scriptures with which it concerns itself. The first exegetes of the Song of Songs knew this well. During the Second Temple period in ancient Jewish history, alongside the Tanakh, a system of interpretation evolved which, since antiquity, has been called the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah, and after it, the Talmud, have helped the Hebrew Bible continue to flourish over the past two and a half millennia.

If you were a bright young Jewish kid on the streets of Jerusalem in, say, 200 BCE, you would have some questions about the Tanakh. Unless you lived in some sort of enclave, around you in the streets of your city, you would know Greek speakers from the west, Aramaic speakers from the north, Old Persian speakers from the east, and perhaps a smattering of Romans, too. As a curious young Jewish person, assuming that your family was passing on the traditions of the Torah to you, you would likely have some questions about its general applicability. Because even in 200 BCE, Jerusalem didn’t look much like it had during the days of King Hezekiah, and his son Manasseh. Jerusalem, by 200 BCE, having been mainly under the control of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire for over a century, had lyceums in it, and temples to Greek deities, and agoras and stoas that hadn’t been around in the bygone centuries of indigenous Canaanite, or even Achaemenid Persian rule. It probably had gymnasiums, and bathhouses, and as a young Jewish person, if you were a boy, these would be particular sources of concern. Your private parts, after all, would look different than those of the other boys, and besides, the first chapters of your Torah emphasized than men and women, after Eden, at least, needed to wear clothes and not run around in public naked, like the Greeks did in bathhouses and gymnasiums. So if you were a smart young Jewish person in Jerusalem in 200 BCE, having perhaps some gentile friends of various stamps, you would have questions for your temple priest or religious sage.

Does this rule apply on this occasion? You would ask. Or, I know it says this, here, but does that even make sense any more? Or, scripture requires me to do this, but I’ll get in big trouble from the Seleucid authorities if I do that, so what should I do? The Oral Torah evolved, from the beginning, to answer questions like these. It survives today in the Talmud, a living body of commentary and analysis of more than 2.5 million words in six orders and 63 tractates, set down over the first six centuries CE, that is the heartwood of modern rabbinical Judaism. The Oral Torah developed, very roughly between 600 BCE and year zero, because scripture always required interpretation, and qualification, and after the first century CE, when what are called the Tannaitic and then Amoraic phases of rabbinical Jewish history began, the Oral Torah’s development began being standardized in written form. With the Talmud, less guesswork was necessary when it came to interpreting the Torah. A joint enterprise of some of the greatest minds of Late Antique Judaism, the Talmud remains a first stop to solving exegetical puzzles in Judaism today – exegetical puzzles like the Song of Songs.

It also has, among hundreds of wonderful stories, one concerning two rabbis and a gentile – a story that is, appropriately for our purposes today, about exegesis. These rabbis are among the most famous in the Talmud – Rabbi Shammai, and Rabbi Hillel the Elder. They were born a generation or two before Christ, and notwithstanding their differences, they were powerful thinkers among the more progressive faction of Judaism that existed in ancient Israel at the time.17 So let’s hear this story – this is Shabbat 31a in the Bavli, translated by Norman Solomon and published by Penguin in 2009 – a story in the Talmud about exegesis.
A heathen came before [Rabbi] Shammai and asked, How many Torahs do you have?
Two, [Shammai] replied, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.
[The heathen said,] I believe what you say about the Written Torah, but not what you say about the Oral Torah. Convert me on condition that you teach me [only] the Written Torah! Shammai rebuked him and angrily sent him away.
[The heathen] came to [Rabbi] Hillel [with the same request], and [Hillel] accepted him as a convert. The first day Hillel taught him [the Hebrew letters] aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet; the next day [Hillel] changed the order [of the letters]. But that’s not what you taught me yesterday! The man protested. [Hillel] replied, Then you relied on me [for the order of the alphabet]! Rely on me also for the Oral Torah! (b. Shabbat 31a)18

It is, in my opinion, a tremendous and concise story about texts, and the various customs that surround them. If, as Rabbi Hillel points out to his gentile convert, even the very letters of the alphabet depend on custom for the sake of understanding them, then doesn’t it follow that a sacred text that illuminates the covenant between God and God’s people also requires some established rules and procedures for understanding it? This famous little story in the Talmud is, in Judaism, a concise explanation of not only why the Tanakh is important. It’s also a story about the centuries of rabbis who worked together to understand it, and what they left behind – a bright and complex halo surrounding the sometimes-baffling verses set down during the Pre-Exilic and Exilic periods.

But more broadly, this story in the Talmud is a story about exegesis. It is hard work to read the Tanakh. It is hard work to read the longer Catholic Old Testament. And Hillel, two thousand years ago, reminded his intractable student that while newcomers to these texts should by all means read them down to chapter, verse, and letter, newcomers and veterans alike should also make use of other readers, and the many generations of curious interpreters who came along before them. Today, when we read something like the Song of Songs, there are no ironclad, definitive exegeses that explain its meaning in either Judaism or Christianity. As beautiful as the poem is, it is a genuinely puzzling text at times. But part of what makes it sacred is not intrinsic to the words in its verses. Just as traditions and teachings animate the very letters of the alphabet with meaning, as Hillel showed his pupil, customs, some conscious, and some unconscious, govern the ways that we read things. We might turn the pages of the Song of Songs and feel befuddled by its contents. We might look for some means of making sense of it within a sacred tradition. But this looking, and this trying to make sense – this is a sacred tradition, too, in and unto itself. [music]

Moving on to the Prophetic Books

Well, everybody, we have just one more episode on the Old Testament to go. In our final episode on the Old Testament, we’re going to cover the Prophetic Books – the seventeen final books that stretch from Isaiah to Malachi in Christian Old Testaments, a range of writings that span from the 700 all the way down to the 100s BCE. The Prophetic Books contain the darkest and bloodiest lines in the Bible, along with the most sexually explicit; they contain grand holy visions of the future and mysterious references to a time of resurrection and a messiah who will catalyze this resurrection. They are from end to end fascinating, chock full of searing images, written with passion, hope, and fury, and I can’t wait to tell you all about them! Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you stay on for the songs, I’ll play one for you. If not, see you soon.

Still listening? So for this episode’s song, I got to thinking. What if the Song of Songs were, actually, a song? What kind of song would it be? And I got to thinking about soul and R&B and all that, and I wrote this tune. It’s modeled on a song by one of my favorite singers of all time – you’ll likely know who – and it’s called “Your Hair is Like Goats.” I hope you like it, and I’ll see you next time, with the Prophetic Books.

1.^ Seiple, Wm. G. “Theocritean Parallels to the Song of Songs.” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jan 1903), p. 9.

2.^ See Iain M. Duguid. TOTC Song of Songs (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). Inter-Varsity Press. Kindle Edition. Locations 232-6.

3.^ Coogan, Michael, et. al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press, 2010, page 951. Further quotes from the Bible in this transcription will come from this edition and be noted with chapter and verse.

4.^ See Coogan, et. al. (2010), p. 959n. On the metaphor of peace, the editors mention Deuteronomy 20:10-11 and Joshua 11:19 and 9:15.

5.^ Campbell, I. D. “The Song of David’s Son: Interpreting the Song of Solomon in the Light of the Davidic Covenant.” Westminster Theological Journal 62.1, (2000), p. 20.

6.^ Brooks, Richard. Song of Songs. Christian Focus, 1999, p. 161.

7.^ Iain M. Duguid. TOTC Song of Songs. Inter-Varsity Press. Kindle Edition. Locations 372-77. Ironically, following this insightful quote, Duguid then goes on to argue that the Song of Songs is definitively about the necessity of monogamous heterosexual marriage being the law of God, and all other forms of intercourse, including homosexual or premarital intercourse, being corrupt and sinful.

8.^ Printed in Matthews, Victor Harold. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press, 2007. Kindle Edition, Location 2304.

9.^ Ibid, Location 2320.

10.^ Ibid, Location 2320.

11.^ Theocritus. Idylls. Translated by C.S. Calverly. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Theocritus. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 946.

12.^ Theocritus. Idylls. Translated by Anthony Verity and with an Introduction and Notes by Richard Hunter. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, p. 31.

13.^ Theocritus (2008), p. 8.

14.^ The eroticism of Theocritus is complex in 2.40. The poet describes a device called a “bullroarer” – a device that emits a loud thrumming noise as it is rotated faster and faster – being spun by the poem’s speaker, perhaps a metaphor for her mounting desire.

15.^ Seiple, Wm. G. “Theocritean Parallels to the Song of Songs.” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jan 1903), p. 9.

16.^ Anonymous. Printed in Ancient Egyptian Literature — A Book of Readings, Volume II: The New Kingdom. Translated by Miriam Lichtheim. Berkeley, California, 1976, pp. 187-8. Thanks for being curious enough to check the website!

17.^ This faction being the Pharisees, who, notwithstanding their being vilified in the Gospels, believed in the oral interpretation of the Torah.

18.^ Printed in The Talmud: A Selection. Selected, Translated, and Edited by Norman Solomon. Penguin Books, 2009, p. 105.