Song of Songs: A Secular Masterpiece


The vast majority of works in the Bible are religious, in the sense that a belief in the god Yahweh is central to them, and that God numbers among the stories’ protagonists, influencing the course of events and historical processes they depict. However, the redactors of the final version of the biblical canon also included secular literature alongside religious literature. In the Bible’s secular stories, God and faith play a minor role, or no role at all. 

The secular works in the Bible include many stories, like those of Esther, Tamar (wife of Er), Ruth, and Nehemiah (to name just a few). The Bible’s inclusion of these works reflects the entire range of the period’s Jewish culture, as well as the presence of literature without any religious significance in the ancient world.

The Bible’s greatest work of secular poetry, Song of Songs, is a magnificent and erotic poem celebrating love between a man and a woman. Precisely because it is a secular work in which God plays no role and is not even mentioned, it has been wrapped in midrashic and Kabbalistic interpretation, to the point of concealing its original (secular) force and literary merit.

Even the name, Song of Songs, reflects the biblical redactor’s awareness of the greatness and importance of this lyrical secular work in world literature. That is perhaps why the redactors of the Bible in the early first millennium CE insisted that the secular Song of Songs be included in the “Book of Books,” despite much criticism and opposition. Many opposed including the Song of Songs in the canon of holy scripture because of its sensuality, its erotic and aesthetic force, and its contribution to understanding the sublime spirituality of physical love.

The redactors attributed the poem to Solomon, whose idealized image was well established by their time. He was reputed to have been a great, successful, rich and wise king, a great lover of the many women in his harem and of the Queen, who had come all the way from Sheba in Africa to seek his company. Attributing the Song of Songs to Solomon added “secular poet” to the many accomplishments of this beloved king.

The greatness of the Song of Songs as a secular love poem is revealed when read by Hebrew-readers, who understand its words and expressions without commentary and translation. The cadence of the poem’s language, the soliloquies of joy, the passage from dialogue to refrain, from monologue to chorus, the variety of images and styles, the natural metaphors, and the landscapes of The Land of Israel used to express the lovers’ feelings are all clear to the reader. These devices combine with the poetic setting and the dramatic events portrayed in the poem: A girl recalls her love for a shepherd; an enamored king offers her all of the palace’s treasures; the girl, feeling captive inside a locked gate, begins to wander and seek her true love, until, finally, love triumphs and she is reunited with her lover.

The roles that the Song of Songs has played within Jewish culture have been many and varied, often worlds apart from one another. Those who experience the work as poetry understand its words and expressions in a “simple” fashion, i.e. in keeping with the meaning ascribed to these words in the everyday language in which they are written. This is the essence of “peshat” (plain meaning)—a literal interpretation of a text. Read in this fashion, the Song of Songs is a sensual poem, celebrating spring and love.

Since the early 20th century, the poem has played many roles in secular Jewish culture in Israel. Its verses have been set to music and have become folk songs; the poem has inspired the songs and music that have accompanied new folk dances; and its characters have been portrayed in works of art. The Song of Songs can fulfill its many functions in the majority culture today because of its peshat reading, which allows readers to relate to the poem’s plot and characters.

In understanding the words’ plain meaning, readers experience the poetic depth in terms of their everyday lives. They relate to the emotions that charge the poem’s lovers, and their memories and longing, with eroticism. Conversely, midrashic interpretation ignores this mode of understanding, clothing the poem in a meaning that is alien to the poem’s content and spirit, changing the poetic experience, turning the poem into a puzzle, and engaging the reader in trying meanings offered by midrashic commentators.

Some scholars suggest that Rabbi Akiva, in the second century CE, may have proposed such a midrashic interpretation in order to save the Song of Songs from being suppressed for its eroticism and secular content, as more stringent sages had demanded. Rabbi Akiva cunningly asserted that the Song of Songs was the “holy of holies,” and not merely “holy” like other writing so the Bible. In order to justify this claim, it was necessary to find commentary that would distance the poem from its original meaning. One such midrash established the Song of Songs as an expression of the love between God and the People of Israel. This interpretation could sanction the poem’s inclusion in the Jewish scriptures, despite its secular nature and explicit eroticism.

The contrast between the plain and allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs is but one example of the gap that exists between the two most influential approaches to Bible studies. There is a fundamental difference between the traditional religious approach to Bible—which views scripture as an integral part of a chain of Talmudic and post-talmudic commentary—and the approach that treats each individual piece of biblical literature as an independent work, unrelated to religious commentary. The latter approach sees religious biblical exegesis as a separate branch of Jewish culture, comprising hundreds of contemporary Haskalah and medieval works, as well as Hellenistic works, all of which is part of our literary culture.

The Song of Songs is an important biblical text as it demonstrates the range of Jewish writings from antiquity. The peshat reading of this ancient poem transcends religious and denominational boundaries. The beauty of the Song of Songs and the manner in which reader’s can relate to its many themes illuminate the literary and secular aspects of the Hebrew Bible.