Wisdom Wednesday: The Song of Solomon in 3 Layers

One of the most confusing books in the Bible is the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs or Canticle of Canticles). People have trouble with it for several reasons:

  1. It doesn’t seem very spiritual with all its talk of breasts, muscly abs, and midnight visits.
  2. It doesn’t seem like an ode to proper courting with all its talk of not being married, yet.
  3. It doesn’t seem very allegorical (if the allegory is of God and Israel) with all of its use of sexually charged analogies.

So, what do we do with this book? When I was about 21, I read through Song of Solomon right after reading the Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. What I noticed was that that in 1-2 Kings there is a real skepticism about the good that was being accomplished through the kings who came after David (troublingly, David is spoken of way more highly in 1 Kings than in 1-2 Samuel, I think the authors are the same so this might be some intentional sour grapes irony…we have a king and look how bad they all are compare to our best, and he was soooo good).

Anyhow, Song of Solomon struck me as having very little to do with what I had heard from evangelical interpreters in my then brief stint as a Bible reader.  I had heard that it was certainly not an allegory, but it was a chaste example of godly romance within the bounds of marriage. But the two lovebirds don’t live together and the persistent refrain for times when they are apart is “do not awaken love before its time” (2:7, 3:5, and 8:4). But, what did strike me was that the female lead in the story was apparently a member of Solomon’s harem and that her lover was an Israelite man who was very dashing and of good repute (in 1 Kings, by the time Solomon has a harem, his reputation has gone to pot). So, I concluded that the point of the book was that Solomon’s kingship had put Israel back in bondage to Egypt and false gods and that Israel needed to repent of Solomon’s legacy and return to the true picture of Israel outlined by David’s rule or idealized in the Torah.

This interpretation has the advantage of not having to force Solomon to be the woman’s lover (she doesn’t speak highly of him, he’s more like a distant force), of making sense of the scene when the city guards beat her up (5:7), and of allowing the song to still be a sexy love poem. As a work of literature it is like the Iliad or the Odyssey. The love story is the driver of the narrative, but it is not the point. This allows for some layers and nuance to reading it:

  1. It really is about God’s relationship to Israel, or rather Israel’s need to relate to God aright by abandoning the culture created by Solomon.
  2. It really is a super sexy love poem right in the middle of the Bible.
  3. It really does contain advice about flirting/romance just like any love poem or work of romance written by a successful flirt (like Ovid’s Art of Love, Shakespeare’s Sonnets or The Book of the Courtier).

Anyway, those were my thoughts. I’ve since found most scholarship on the Song of Solomon to focus on saying something like:

  1. See, the Bible is all for sex.
  2. See, the Bible is pro-gender stereotypes
  3. See, this is so racy, it can only be an allegory.

I recently read Iain Provan’s NIV Application Commentary on the Song of Solomon. He sees the book almost exactly as I do. This verisimilitude made me think, “Oh neat, maybe I’m right.” But I suppose that it could also be the case that we’re both way way off.

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