Song of Songs: A Secular
By YAAKOV MALKIN
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
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
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
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.