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Song of Songs

song of songs, song of songs bible
The Song of Songs Hebrew: שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים‎, Šīr HašŠīrīm ; Greek: ᾎσμα ᾈσμάτων, Âisma Aismátōn, also known as the Song of Solomon,1 Canticles,23 or the Canticle of Canticles,4 is one of the "scrolls" megillot of the Writings Ketuvim, the last section of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible It is also the fifth book of Wisdom in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible5 The Song of Songs is read on the Sabbath during the Passover, marking the beginning of the grain harvest and commemorating the Exodus from Egypt

Scripturally, the Song of Songs is unique in its celebration of sexual love6 It gives "the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy"7 The two each desire the other and rejoice in their sexual intimacy The "daughters of Jerusalem" form a chorus to the lovers, functioning as an audience whose participation in the lovers' erotic encounters facilitates the participation of the reader8 Jewish tradition reads it as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel9 Christian tradition, in addition to appreciating the literal meaning of a romantic song between man and woman, has read the poem as an allegory of Christ and his "bride", the Christian Church10


  • 1 Structure
  • 2 Summary
  • 3 Composition
  • 4 Later interpretation and influence
    • 41 Judaism
    • 42 Christianity
    • 43 Feminism
  • 5 In popular culture
  • 6 See also
  • 7 References
    • 71 Citations
    • 72 Bibliography
  • 8 External links


Illustration for the first verse, a minstrel playing before Solomon 15th century Rothschild Mahzor

There is widespread consensus that, although the book has no plot, it does have what can be called a framework, as indicated by the links between its beginning and end11 Beyond this, however, there appears to be little agreement: attempts to find a chiastic structure have not been compelling, and attempts to analyse it into units have used differing methods and arrived at differing results12 The following schema from Kugler & al13 must therefore be taken as indicative rather than determinative:

  • Introduction 1:1–6
  • Dialogue between the lovers 1:7–2:7
  • The woman recalls a visit from her lover 2:8–17
  • The woman addresses the daughters of Zion 3:1–5
  • Sighting a royal wedding procession 3:6–11
  • The man describes his lover's beauty 4:1–5:1
  • The woman addresses the daughters of Jerusalem 5:2–6:4
  • The man describes his lover, who visits him 6:5–12
  • Observers describe the woman's beauty 6:13–8:4
  • Appendix 8:5–14


The introduction calls the poem "the song of songs", a superlative construction commonly used in Scriptural Hebrew to show something as the greatest and most beautiful of its class as in Holy of Holies14 It begins with the woman's expression of desire for her lover and her self-description to the "daughters of Jerusalem" She says she is "black" because she had to work in the vineyards and got burned by the sun A dialogue between the lovers follows: the woman asks the man to meet; he replies with a lightly teasing tone The two compete in offering flattering compliments "my beloved is to me as a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En Gedi", "an apple tree among the trees of the wood", "a lily among brambles", while the bed they share is like a forest canopy The section closes with the woman telling the daughters of Jerusalem not to stir up love such as hers until it is ready15

The woman recalls a visit from her lover in the springtime She uses imagery from a shepherd's life, and she says of her lover that "he pastures his flock among the lilies"15

The woman again addresses the daughters of Jerusalem, describing her fervent and ultimately successful search for her lover through the night-time streets of the city When she finds him she takes him almost by force into the chamber in which her mother conceived her She reveals that this is a dream, seen on her "bed at night" and ends by again warning the daughters of Jerusalem "not to stir up love until it is ready"15

The next section reports a royal wedding procession Solomon is mentioned by name, and the daughters of Jerusalem are invited to come out and see the spectacle15

The man describes his beloved: Her hair is like a flock of goats, her teeth like shorn ewes, and so on from face to breasts Place-names feature heavily: her neck is like the Tower of David, her smell like the scent of Lebanon He hastens to summon his beloved, saying that he is ravished by even a single glance The section becomes a "garden poem", in which he describes her as a "locked garden" usually taken to mean that she is chaste The woman invites the man to enter the garden and taste the fruits The man accepts the invitation, and a third party tells them to eat, drink, "and be drunk with love"15

The woman tells the daughters of Jerusalem of another dream She was in her chamber when her lover knocked She was slow to open, and when she did, he was gone She searched through the streets again, but this time she failed to find him and the watchmen, who had helped her before, now beat her She asks the daughters of Jerusalem to help her find him, and describes his physical good looks Eventually, she admits her lover is in his garden, safe from harm, and committed to her as she is to him15

The man describes his beloved; the woman describes a rendezvous they have shared The last part is unclear and possibly corrupted15

The people praise the beauty of the woman The images are the same as those used elsewhere in the poem, but with an unusually dense use of place-names, eg, pools of Hebron, gate of Bath-rabbim, tower of Damascus, etc The man states his intention to enjoy the fruits of the woman's garden The woman invites him to a tryst in the fields She once more warns the daughters of Jerusalem against waking love until it is ready

The woman compares love to death and sheol: love is as relentless and jealous as these two, and cannot be quenched by any force She summons her lover, using the language used before: he should come "like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountain of spices"15


The Song offers no clue to its author or to the date, place, or circumstances of its composition16 The superscription states that it is "Solomon's", but even if this is meant to identify the author, it cannot be read as strictly as a similar modern statement17 The most reliable evidence for its date is its language: Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew after the end of the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century BCE, and the evidence of vocabulary, morphology, idiom and syntax clearly points to a late date, centuries after King Solomon to whom it is traditionally attributed18 It has parallels with Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry from the first half of the 1st millennium BCE, and with the pastoral idylls of Theocritus, a Greek poet who wrote in the first half of the 3rd century BCE;192021 as a result of these conflicting signs, speculation ranges from the 10th to the 2nd centuries BCE,16 with the cumulative evidence supporting a later Hellenistic period date2223

The unity or lack thereof of the Song continues to be debated Those who see it as an anthology or collection point to the abrupt shifts of scene, speaker, subject matter and mood, and the lack of obvious structure or narrative Those who hold it to be a single poem point out that it has no internal signs of composite origins, and view the repetitions and similarities among its parts as evidence of unity Some claim to find a conscious artistic design underlying it, but there is no agreement among them on what this might be The question therefore remains unresolved24

The setting in which the poem arose is also debated25 Some academics posit a ritual origin in the celebration of the sacred marriage of the god Tammuz and the goddess Ishtar26 Whether this is so or not, the poem seems to be rooted in some kind of festive performance25 External evidence supports the idea that the Song was originally recited by different singers representing the different characters, accompanied by mime27

Later interpretation and influenceedit


The Song was accepted into the Jewish canon of scripture in the 2nd century CE, after a period of controversy in the 1st century It was accepted as canonical because of its supposed authorship by Solomon and based on an allegorical reading where the subject-matter was taken to be not sexual desire but God's love for Israel28 For instance, the famed first and second century Rabbi Akiva forbade the use of the Song of Songs in popular celebrations He reportedly 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"29 However, Rabbi Akiva famously defended the canonicity of the Song of Songs, reportedly saying when the question came up of whether it should be considered a defiling work, "God forbid! For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies"30

It is one of the overtly mystical Biblical texts for the Kabbalah, which gave esoteric interpretation on all the Hebrew Bible Following the dissemination of the Zohar in the 13th century, Jewish mysticism took on a metaphorically anthropomorphic erotic element, and Song of Songs is an example of this In Zoharic Kabbalah, God is represented by a system of ten sephirot emanations, each symbolizing a different attribute of God, comprising both male and female The Shechina indwelling Divine presence was identified with the feminine sephira Malchut, the vessel of Kingship This symbolizes the Jewish people, and in the body, the female form, identified with the woman in Song of Songs Her beloved was identified with the male sephira Tiferet, the "Holy One Blessed be He", central principle in the beneficent Heavenly flow of Divine emotion In the body, this represents the male torso, uniting through the sephira Yesod of the male sign of the covenant organ of procreation

Through beneficent deeds and Jewish observance, the Jewish people restore cosmic harmony in the Divine realm, healing the exile of the Shechina with God's transcendence, revealing the essential Unity of God This elevation of the World is aroused from Above on the Sabbath, a foretaste of the redeemed purpose of Creation The text thus became a description, depending on the aspect, of the creation of the world, the passage of Shabbat, the covenant with Israel, and the coming of the Messianic age "Lecha Dodi", a 16th-century liturgical song with strong Kabbalistic symbolism, contains many passages, including its opening two words, taken directly from Song of Songs

In modern Judaism, certain verses from the Song are read on Shabbat eve or at Passover, which marks the beginning of the grain harvest as well as commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, to symbolize the love between the Jewish People and their God Jewish tradition reads it as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel9 Solomon B Freehof writes of the Song:

As revealed in numerous talmudic passages, in the Targum and in the midrash, this biblical book is interpreted as referring to God's love for Israel This interpretation evidently the one ascribed to the Keneset Hagdola in Abot d'R Nathan, Schechter, A #1 soon became official In fact, anyone quoting verses from the Song of Songs giving them the literal meaning was declared a heretic who had forfeited his portion in Paradise Tos Sanh XII, 10 This symbolic interpretation of the book was, with some re-interpretation, carried over into Christianity and there, too, it became official31


Christians admitted the canonicity of the Song of Songs from the beginning, but after Jewish exegetes began to read the Song allegorically, as having to do with God's love for his people, Christian exegetes followed suit, treating the love that it celebrates as an analogy for the love between God and the Church10 Over the centuries the emphasis of interpretation shifted, the 11th century adding a moral element and the 12th century understanding the Bride as the Virgin Mary, each new reading absorbing rather than simply replacing earlier ones, so that the commentary became ever more complex, with multiple layers of meaning32 This approach leads to conclusions not found in the more overtly theological books of the Bible, which consider the relationship between God and man as one of inequality33 In contrast, reading the Song of Songs as an allegory of God's love for his Church suggests that the two partners are equals, bound in a freely consented emotional relationship33


In modern times, the poem has attracted the attention of feminist Biblical critics The Feminist Companion to the Bible series, edited by Athalya Brenner, has two volumes 1993, 2001 devoted to the Song, the first of which was actually the first volume of the whole series Phyllis Trible had earlier published "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation" in 1973, offering a reading of the Song with a positive representation of sexuality and egalitarian gender relations, which was widely discussed, notably and favourably in Marvin Pope's major commentary for the Anchor Bible

In popular cultureedit

  • Marc Chagall's "Song of Songs", a five-painting cycle, is housed in the Marc Chagall Museum in Nice
  • J S Bach's Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, while mainly based on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, also uses words and imagery from the Song of Songs34
  • In the Coen Brothers' 1990 film "Miller's Crossing", the principal character Tom Reagan played by Gabriel Byrne says the line "If I'd known we were gonna cast our feelings into words, I'd've memorized the Song of Solomon"
  • Tristan Murail has written a piece for solo viola called C'est un jardin secret 1976
  • John Zorn's "Shir Ha-Shirim" premiered in February 200835 The piece is inspired by Song of Songs and is performed by an amplified quintet of female singers with female and male narrators performing the "Song of Solomon" A performance at the Guggenheim Museum in November 2008 featured choreography for paired dancers from the Khmer Arts Ensemble by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro36 In 2013 a new version featuring the five singers without the two narrators premièred in NYC at Alice Tully Hall and at the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival and released on the album Shir Hashirim
  • David Lang's "Just after Song of Songs" was premiered in 2014 by Trio Mediaeval and Garth Knox Saltarello Trio The piece is featured in the film "Youth" by Paolo Sorrentino
  • In Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath, a film about sexual repression in a puritanical Protestant family, the first few verses of Song of Songs chapter 2 are read aloud by the daughter Anne, but soon after her father forbids her to continue The chapter's verse paraphrases Anne's own amorous adventures and desires37
  • Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison's 1977 novel is entitled Song of Solomon
  • The chorus of Stephen Duffy's 1985 song "Kiss Me" was based on the comparison of wine to love in Song of Songs
  • In Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel American Gods, the Queen of Sheba, who appears as an ageless but not invincible character, whispers lines from the Song of Songs as she is murdered in Los Angeles
  • "The Song of Solomon" by British singer Kate Bush on her 1993 album, The Red Shoes, is largely based on the Song of Songs
  • Rose of Sharon an epithet in the Song is a major character in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath
  • Lillian Hellman's 1939 play The Little Foxes and the later 1941 film adaptation gets its title from Song 2:15: "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes"38
  • Catherine L Morris' 2009 collection The Song of Songs: A Love Poem Illustrated presents a series of paintings that visualize the book39
  • Post-hardcore band mewithoutYou named their sophomore album Catch for Us the Foxes
  • Madeleine L'Engle's novel Many Waters is named after a phrase in the Song; and two seraphim quote it to soothe the protagonists, at a moment of distress
  • The 2014 film The Song is based on the Song of Songs40
  • In the 2005 film Keeping Mum, Grace Maggie Smith instructs the vicar Rowan Atkinson that the Song of Solomon "is about sex"
  • The song is mentioned repeatedly in Sholem Aleichem's Jewish Children 41
  • In Elizabeth Smart's novel of prose poetry By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, several lines of the Song are spoken by the protagonist while she undergoes police questioning about her relationship with her companion, poet George Barker

See alsoedit

  • Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q106, 4Q107, 4Q108, 6Q6, fragments including portions of the Song of Songs
  • Hortus conclusus



  1. ^ "Song of Solomon", The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New, London: Robert Barker, 1611 
  2. ^ EB 1878, p 32
  3. ^ EB 1911, p 213
  4. ^ CE 1908
  5. ^ Garrett 1993, p 348
  6. ^ Garrett 1993, p 366
  7. ^ Alter 2011, p 232
  8. ^ Exum 2011, p 248
  9. ^ a b Sweeney 2011
  10. ^ a b Norris 2003, p 1
  11. ^ Assis 2009, pp 11, 16
  12. ^ Assis 2009, pp 16–18
  13. ^ Kugler & al 2009, p 220
  14. ^ Keel 1994, p 38
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Kugler & al 2009, pp 220–22
  16. ^ a b Exum 2012, p 247
  17. ^ Keel 1994, p 39
  18. ^ Bloch 1995, p 23
  19. ^ Bloch 1995, p 25
  20. ^ Exum 2012, p 248
  21. ^ Keel 1994, p 5
  22. ^ Hunt 2008, p 5
  23. ^ From Plato to Moses: Genesis-Kings as a Platonic Epic, Philippe Wajdenbaum, University of Brussels, April 2016
  24. ^ Exum 2005, p 3334
  25. ^ a b Loprieno 2005, p 126
  26. ^ Price 2005, p 251
  27. ^ Astell 1995, p 162
  28. ^ Loprieno 2005, p 107
  29. ^ Phipps 1979, p 85
  30. ^ Schiffman 1998, pp 119–20
  31. ^ Freehof 1949, p 397
  32. ^ Matter 2011, p 201
  33. ^ a b Kugler & al 2009, p 223
  34. ^ Herz, Gerhard 1972 Bach: Cantata No 140 WW Norton & Co 
  35. ^ Allan, J February 22, 2008, "Live – John Zorn Abron Arts Centre", Amplifier Magazine review 
  36. ^ Smith, S November 27, 2008, "An Unlikely Pairing on Common Ground", The New York Times 
  37. ^ Bordwell, David July 1992 "The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer" ISBN 978-0-520-04450-0 
  38. ^ ben David, Solomon, "Song", KJV, The Bible, Bible gateway, 2:15 
  39. ^ The Song of Songs: A Love Poem Illustrated, New Classic Books 
  40. ^ http://thesongmoviecom/story Accessed September 7, 2014
  41. ^ Librivox "LibriVox" 


  • "Canticle of Canticles", The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol III, New York: Robert Appleton Co, 1908 
  • "Canticles", Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th ed, Vol V, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1878, pp 32–36 
  • "Canticles", Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed, Vol V, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911, pp 213–217 
  • Alter, Robert 2011 The Art of Biblical Poetry Basic Books ISBN 0465028195 
  • Assis, Elie 2009 Flashes of Fire: A Literary Analysis of the Song of Songs T & T Clark ISBN 9780567027641 
  • Astell, Ann W 1995 The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages Cornell University Press ISBN 0801482674 
  • Barr, James, "Obituary: Harold Henry Rowley", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 33:2 1970, pp 372–373
  • Ausloos, Hans & Lemmelijn, Bénédicte, Praising God or Singing of Love From Theological into Erotic Allegorisation in the Interpretation of Canticles, in Acta Theologica 30 2010 1-18
  • Bloch, Ariel; Bloch, Chana 1995 The Song of Songs: A New Translation, With an Introduction and Commentary Random House ISBN 9780520213302 
  • Burton, Joan B 2005 "Themes of female desire and female self-assertion in the Song of Songs and Hellenistic poetry" In Hagedorn, Anselm C Perspectives on the Song of Songs Walter de Gruyter ISBN 9783110176322 
  • Exum, J Cheryl 2012 "Song of Songs" In Newsom, Carol Ann; Lapsley, Jacqueline E Women's Bible Commentary Westminster John Knox Press ISBN 9780664237073 
  • Freehof, Solomon B, "The Song of Songs: A General Suggestion", The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, 39:4 April 1949, pp 397–402
  • Garrett, Duane 1993 Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs B&H Publishing Group ISBN 9780805401141 
  • Hunt, Patrick 2008 Poetry in the Song of Songs: A Literary Analysis Peter Lang ISBN 9781433104657 
  • Keel, Othmar 1994 The Song of Songs: A Continental Commentary Fortress Press ISBN 9780800695071 
  • Kugler, Robert; et al 2009, The Old Testament between theology and history: a critical survey, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ISBN 9780802846365 
  • 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 
  • Martineau, Russell, "The Song of Songs Again", The American Journal of Philology, 16:4 1895, pp 435–443
  • Matter, E Anne 2011 The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity University of Pennsylvania Press 
  • Norris, Richard Alfred 2003 The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators Eerdmans 
  • Pardes, Ilana, Agnon's Moonstruck Lovers: The Song of Songs in Israeli Culture, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013
  • Phipps, William E 1974, "The Plight of the Song of Songs", Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 42:1 March 1974, pp 82–100
  • Price, Robert M 2005 "A Christian Goddess" The Da Vinci Fraud: Why the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction Prometheus Books ISBN 9781615923878 
  • Rogerson, John W 2003 "Song of Songs" In Dunn, James D G; Rogerson, John William Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible Eerdmans ISBN 9780802837110 
  • Rowley, H H 1939, "The Meaning of 'The Shulamite'", The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 56:1 January 1939, pp 84–91
  • Sáenz-Badillos, Angel 1996 A History of the Hebrew Language Cambridge University Press ISBN 9780521556347 
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H, ed 1998, Texts and Traditions, Ktav, Hoboken
  • Sweeney, Marvin A 2011 Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible Fortress Press ISBN 9781451414356 

External linksedit

Jewish translations and commentary
  • Shir Hashirim – Song of Songs Judaica Press translation with Rashi's commentary at Chabadorg
  • Song of Songs in the Jewish Encyclopedia
  • The original Hebrew version, vowelized, with side-by-side English translation by Mamre Institute Mechon Mamre
  • "The Song of Solomon" designed by Tamar Messer from the World Digital Library
Christian translations and commentary
  • Sermons on the Song of Songs, by St Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Online Bible at GospelHallorg
  • Song of Songs at Bible Gateway various versions
  • Song of Songs in the Catholic Encyclopedia
  • Song of Songs Greek, Latin and English versions the newadventorg
  • Solomon's Song of Songs Bible Study Tools
  • Summary Interpretation of the Song of Solomon by H Speckard
  • Song of Solomon public domain audiobook at LibriVox - Various versions
  • Introduction to the Song of Songs a Forward Movement publication
Song of Songs in Hebrew
  • Song of Songs – YouTube video chanted in a Moroccan Cantillation 20:44
  • Song of Songs – YouTube video of Shir Hashirim read in Hebrew according to a Ashkenazic nigun 32:11
Song of Songs Hebrew poetry
Preceded by
Hebrew Bible Succeeded by
Preceded by
Old Testament
Succeeded by
Roman Catholic
Old Testament
Succeeded by
Book of Wisdom
E Orthodox
Old Testament

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