A love that transcends the power of kings

The author of a new book on The Song of Songs argues that King Solomon did not write it


H4F75R Song of Songs, Musee Marc Chagall (National Museum Marc Chagall Biblical Message), Nice, Alpes Maritimes departement, France

Seldom can a work of art have had such strange bedfellows praising it to the rafters. Richard Dawkins, the high priest of the new atheism, has expressed his joy at reading it. Rabbi Akiva famously remarked that the Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies.

Different readers will see the book in diverse ways. Part of the difficulty facing any reader is that some of its language is so enigmatic as to have evaded the interpretative abilities of the greatest literary detectives.

We all think we know and understand the Song of Songs. It probably survived antiquity precisely because the rabbis read it allegorically; to them, the earthy language of love between a young man and woman was merely an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel. In the last 250 years the focus has been on the secular nature of the book, stressing its erotic descriptions of the lovers.

We turn to the Song of Songs every Pesach, no doubt partly because of its references to springtime, but is it also not now time to recalibrate how we understand one of the great poems of the Bible?

I would certainly argue so, as I do in my recently published book Love in the Time of Tyranny: A New Perspective on the Song of Songs. I start by asking a deceptively simple question. The Song of Songs describes the love between two people, neither of whom is King Solomon. Solomon’s name appears a mere seven times in the work and he seems to have only a peripheral role. That being the case, why are its opening words “The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s”? What has Solomon got to do with the Song of Songs?

For the rabbis, this title indicated that Solomon wrote it. We know, however, that some of the language of the Song of Songs is late biblical Hebrew, demonstrating that it was written several centuries after Solomon lived. So while it cannot have been written by Solomon, that is only a partial answer to what was intended by the first verse.

Could it perhaps be pseudepigraphic — someone later writing it and claiming that the author was Solomon? Again, that is a deeply problematic explanation. At the end of the poem, the male lover scorns Solomon (“my own vineyard is all mine before me, the thousand is yours, Solomon” 8:12).  Why would anyone write a poem pretending Solomon had written it when it contains such vitriol?

The answer seems to be that the Song of Songs is indeed about Solomon, yet that it contains overt, and sometimes covert, criticism. This is not a key to understanding everything about the Song of Songs — it still retains its mystique — but this approach sheds new light on passages which at first sight appear to bear no connection to Solomon.

Take, by way of example, a passage near the end of Chapter 1. The lovers are enjoying their alfresco idyll together. They look up at the trees surrounding them and he says to her: “The beams of our houses are cedars; our rafters are cypresses” (1:16).

We can imagine the scene as the male lover speaks in the Jerusalem hillside, where all the action takes place, and utters these words. There is, however, one major problem. The cedars to which he refers cannot grow in this area. They can only survive in terrain more than 1,000 metres above sea level; in the Middle East that means they can only thrive in Lebanon.

So how can we understand this passage which in realistic, geographical terms is quite simply impossible? The answer appears to be that it is referring to Solomon bringing cedar wood from Lebanon to build his impressive Temple, and even more impressive palace (which the Book of Kings tells us comprised over four times the area of the Temple).

The text therefore seems to be hinting that, while Solomon could use his power to build an ostentatious palace, the lovers only need each other and their imaginary, outdoor idyll. Constantly, the Song of Songs talks of the need to escape the town and seek a different world in the countryside, away from the prying eyes of those who support the urban ruling elite.

What is even more remarkable about the Song of Songs is the way in which this disparagement of Solomon and his retinue flows right through a work which is clearly originally derived from different texts. It contains lovers’ dialogues, a wedding-cum-coronation, descriptions of the lovers’ bodies and angst-filled soliloquies. Despite those unrelated origins, the criticism comes through. Moreover, the language in the latter parts of the Song of Songs beautifully adopts and adapts terms used earlier in the poem.

There is a genius at work here who is not the person who wrote the original texts (which could well have come from various sources in different parts of the Middle East). Rather it is the person who brought those disparate sources together into a whole and thereby wove in a new message about a love which transcends the powers-that-be at any particular time, and a love which can forge a different world.   

The Song of Songs is an erotic poem, but it is also so much more. It clearly contains religious elements and they are used to set out the radical message that sometimes, even in an oppressive society, love can survive in a time of tyranny.

Andrew Levy’s Love in the Time of Tyranny is available on Amazon,  £5.99 paperback, £1.99 Kindle

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