jueves, 11 de junio de 2020


                                                                     Francesc Ramis Darder

 “My love is mine and I am his”
 (Song of Songs 2:16)

 by Francesc Ramis Darder

Each time we read the Song of Songs we witness the unfolding of the passion between two lovers in springtime. The rabbis were right when they said: “If God had not given Israel the Law, the Song of Songs would have been enough to rule the Universe”. And this is true, because the real progress of human history lies in our capacity to love. Although the word ‘God’ is not mentioned explicitly in the Song of Songs it is still present on every page, for, as the Scriptures tell us, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

1. Introductory comments

The heading of the Book gives the title, which in Hebrew means “The loveliest song”, and the person who has traditionally been credited with its authorship, “of Solomon”, King of Israel. The Book was written in Hebrew and is one of the five Megillot, which are Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. It soon became part of the proclamations during Passover as people began to recite it joyfully. The ancient versions of the Bible, the Greek Septuagint (2nd century BC), the Latin Vulgate (4th century) and the Syriac Peshitta (3rd century), translated the Hebrew words seeking, wherever possible, the greatest poetic finesse to express the profundity of love.

 Solomon is mentioned in the title (Song of Songs 1:1) and in a number of verses of the poem (3:9, 3:11, 8:11), as well as in references to the king (1:4, 1.12, 7:6). The allusion to Solomon has meant that in both the Hebrew and Christian traditions the poem has been attributed to the wise king. His wisdom, which is celebrated in the Scriptures, meant that the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom and some Psalms (1 Kings 5:12) were also attributed to him. However, modern researchers suggest that ‘of Solomon’ should be understood in the sense of “in Solomon’s honour”. From a literary aspect, the expression “of Solomon” constitutes a pseudonym; that is, the writer who composed the poem was an admirer of King Solomon, which is why he dedicated and attributed the work to the venerated monarch and wrote “of Solomon”, which should be understood as “in Solomon’s honour”, as we have said.
 As modern researchers have established, the Jewish sage who wrote the Song of Songs compiled love poems from various periods that had been transmitted orally. Some were very old, such as the one that names the city of Tirzah (6:4), the ancient capital of the northern kingdom of Israel (10th century BC), while others date from after the return from the period of Babylonian captivity (6th century BC), as is evidenced by the use of Aramaic, Greek and Persian terms (5:13). Since ancient times, the Hebrew community had recited poems that highlighted the passionate aspect of human love. Around the third century BC an anonymous writer, who was a devotee of Solomon, collected the poems, wrote new ones, and composed “the loveliest song” with art and skill in the city of Jerusalem, in honour of the wisest of kings.

 When the Jewish rabbis met at the Council of Jamnia around the year 70 to finalise the books of the Hebrew Bible, they had doubts as to whether to include the Song of Songs because of its sensual nature. Then the solemn voice of Rabbi Akiva was heard. The Jewish sage reminded the hesitant assembly that nobody in Israel had ever disputed that the Song of Songs was a book that “renders one’s hands impure”; the expression “to render the hands impure” in the Hebrew tradition means that the book is holy and therefore inspired by the Lord. The Christian Church, which inherited the decision reached by the Council of Jamnia, did not hesitate to include the book in the Holy Scriptures.

2. The beauty of sensual love

Beneath the depth of the dialogues, monologues and soliloquies, the personalities of the two lovers simmer: that of the beloved, the “Shulamite” (7:1), and her lover, “Solomon” (3:9). Both reveal their passion and desire to consummate their love. A third person also appears in the poem, the chorus of the “daughters of Jerusalem”, who encourage the lovers’ intense passion. The Song of Songs includes 49 words that do not appear in any other part of the Hebrew Old Testament. As well as numerous Aramaisms, there are a surprising number of loan words from Persian, such as “orchard or paradise” (4:13), and words with Sanskrit roots, such as “purple” (3:10). Undoubtedly, the frenzy of love, as the poem’s plurilingualism suggests, encompasses the whole of humanity.

 The amorous vocabulary underscores the poem’s passion and tenderness. The language shows how the lovers’ eyes gaze at the other’s body, contemplating the nose (7:5), navel (7:3), tresses (7:6), feet (7:6), cheeks (1:10), lips (4:11), face (2,14), core (5:14), eyes (1:15), hands (2:6), neck (1:10), breasts (7:8), teeth (4:2), and legs (5:15). The language is not limited to the descriptive plane, but evokes the maximum desire of one lover for the other. Admiring their bodies, the lovers become impassioned, “the king has brought me into his rooms” (1,4), they long for each other, “my love thrust his hand through the hole in the door” (5:4), they embrace, “his right embraces me” (2:6), they love each other, “You ravish my heart” (4:9), they kiss, “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (1:2), they burst “sick with love” (2:5), they admire each other, “How beautiful you are, how charming, my love, my delight” (7:7), and they are consumed by love, “I belong to my love, and his desire is for me” (7:11).

 This framework of love’s passion is filled with abundant flora: wood from Lebanon (3:9), cedar and cypress trees (1:17), an apple tree (2:3), fig tree (2:13), vines (7:13), lilies (4:5 and 2:1), and mandrakes (7:14). The diversity of animals is also surprising; there are gazelles and does (2:7), the turtledove (2:12), a dove (2:14), and lions and leopards (4:8). Undoubtedly, the love scene evokes the “very good” appearance of the earthly paradise (Genesis 1:31), the garden where the first passion of love narrated in the Bible takes place: the story of Adam and Eve. The mention of flora and fauna is not limited to describing the setting in which the celebration of love takes place, but also serves to reinforce the sensual nature of the passion that absorbs the two lovers so powerfully.

 The book highlights the importance of the physical senses. The sense of smell means being able to enjoy scents, for example of “myrrh and frankincense” (3:6) or “saffron and cinnamon” (4:14), that are evoked by the poet in each verse of the Song. Taste emerges through the metaphor of the honey (4:11) and aromatic wine (7:3); the sweetness of the wine and honey tempt the lovers to eat and drink, symbols of love’s embrace. Touch creeps in through the tenderness of their kiss (1:2) and the passionate love in the king’s rooms (3:4). The sense of hearing comes out through the respectful and passionate exchanges between the lovers: “your voice is sweet” (2:14), “open to me […] for my head is wet with dew, my hair with the drops of night” (5:2).

 Sight takes pleasure in the tenderness and passion with which each of the lovers contemplates the other’s body. The beloved is compared to a garden abundant with fruit and scent, “an orchard of pomegranate trees […] with the subtlest odours” (4:13). In the midst of the beloved’s garden there sprouts a “fountain […] of living water” (4:15), while the lover comes into the garden to gather its fruits to “drink deep” with his beloved (5:1).

 As a counterpoint to passion, the poem seems to suggest some precautionary measures against the insanity of love. Thus, the Shulamite appears as a “garden enclosed” (4:12), “a sealed fountain” (4:12), “a rampart” or “a door” (8:9), while the King, an echo of the lover, stands behind “our wall” (2:9). The obstacles are a metaphor for the power that passionate love has to blind human understanding (5:8); but above all and most importantly they are testimony to the fact that no obstacles can impede the “divine flame” of passion because, as the poem says, “love is strong as death” (8:6).

 The Old Testament often depicts women in a submissive role, typical of the tribal and patriarchal society of the ancient East (Proverbs 31). However, the woman represented in the Song of Songs is quite different. The Shulamite beats with passionate love; she says unashamedly that she is “sick with love” (5:8). The poem describes her as free in her choice of lover, free in her decision-making, free to take the initiative to love and free for love’s embrace. The Song of Songs extols the sensuality of the body and the vividness of beauty; the lovers swim uninhibited in the transparent waters of passionate love.

 The profundity of the great works of universal literature does not lie in the precision with which they describe events or comment upon personal psychologies, but rather in their capacity to involve the reader in the story they recount. As an ancient poem, the Song of Songs’ greatness lies not only in the beauty with which it describes the passion of love, but in the invitation it offers to today’s lovers to enjoy a healthy love, full of tenderness, equality, mutual respect and passion.

3. The syntax of love

Unlike Medieval poetry, Hebrew poetry is not based on rhyme but what is known as “parallelism”.  This means that a verse puts forward an idea, for example “his head is golden, purest gold”, and the following verse repeats this idea using other words, “his locks are palm fronds” (5:11); thus both verses express the same concept in parallel, in this case the beauty of the lover’s face. Some verses highlight a particular concept, for example, “Your teeth are like a flock of ewes […] each one has its twin” and the following verse echoes this in opposition, “not one unpaired with another” (6:6); by playing with the terms “its twin” and its opposite “unpaired” in parallel the poem thus highlights the perfection of the beloved’s teeth.
 The richness of Hebrew parallelism is reinforced by the use of alliteration, the repetition of the initial sound of each word in a verse, and by assonance, the repetition of vowels in the words of a verse. Although neither concept is easily perceptible in a translation, we can still sense them. For example, there is an echo of alliteration in “Come from Lebanon, […], come from Lebanon” (4:8), while assonance emerges in the verse in which the repetition of the Hebrew “î” makes it possible to hear the cries of love: “I come into my garden […] bride. I pick my myrrh and balsam, I eat my honey and my honeycomb” (5:1).

 The sensuality with which the poet describes the lovers’ bodies is beautiful. In the case of the lover, the Song of Songs makes use of botanical references, a “sachet of myrrh” (1:13), “cluster of henna flowers” (1:14), “an apple tree among the trees of the wood” (2:3), with locks that are like “palm fronds” (5:11), undoubtedly, the lover is “unrivalled as the cedars”, a metaphor for his gallantry (5:15). The poet also describes the lover’s slenderness using animal analogies such as “young stag” (2:9), or as a shepherd in love, “My love went down to his garden […] to pasture his flock” (6:2).

 The poet is especially expressive when he describes the body of the beloved: her hair is “like a flock of goats” (4:1), her cheeks, “halves of pomegranate” (4:3) and “beds of spices” (5:13), her eyes “are doves” (1:15) and “the pools of Heshbon” (7:5), her lips “lilies” (5:13) and “a scarlet thread” (4:3), her breath “sweet-scented as apples” (7:9), her neck “is an ivory tower” (7:5), her breasts “like two fawns” (7:3), “fruit-clusters” (7:8), and “like towers” (8:10), her stature is like “the palm tree” (7:8), and her navel “is a bowl well rounded” (7:3). In short, the beloved’s silhouette is “like the curve of a necklace, work of a master hand” (7:2), like “the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys” (2:1).

 When the poet describes the lovers’ bodies, he abstracts the most beautiful and noble aspects of nature to make the reader hear the music of passionate love.
 As we have said earlier, a master of Hebrew poetry collected together an anthology of love poetry to compose the Song of Songs. The poet, however, did not simply gather dispersed stories. Rather, he joined popular poems together and composed new verses to forge a poem that proclaimed the passion of love as revealed through the verses of the Song of Songs.

 The poet master created the title of the book: “The loveliest song, of Solomon” (1:1). Then he traced the “Portico” where the beloved longs for her lover (1:2-4). He then composed the “Prologue to love” where the lovers interweave the art of loving (1:5-2:7). This is followed by “The desire” of the lovers who do not stop loving each other (2:8-3:5). With their desire revealed, the poet extols “The pleasure” of the protagonists who await their moment of passion (3:6-5:1). Undoubtedly, the pleasure inspires the lovers’ “Search” for each other (5:2-6:3) until the amorous “Possession” takes place (6:4-8:6). The book ends with an “Appendix” that is full of reflections upon love (8:7-13) and concludes with the beloved’s cry: “Haste away, my love, be like a gazelle, a young stag, on the spice-laden mountains” (8:14).

4. Interpretation of the Song of Songs

Ancient Jewish and Christian tradition interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory. The Hebrew community saw Solomon as a representation of Yahweh, the King of Israel (Isaiah 44:6), and behind the Shulamite’s gaze they saw the face of Israel, the Lord’s beloved community (Isaiah 62:5). The Jewish sage, Isaac Abrabanel (16th century) identified the Shulamite as the figure of “Lady Wisdom”, present in the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 8, 9:1-6), and the king that she seduces as a metaphor for Israel.

 Christian tradition, from Saint Hippolytus of Rome (3rd century) and Saint Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) onwards, saw the figure of the king as a metaphor for God or Christ, while they saw the Church represented through the beloved’s eyes. In the third century, Origen of Alexandria perceived Jesus’s majesty behind the king’s greatness and behind the passion of the beloved he saw the image of the human soul that desires its meeting with the Lord, the true beloved. Exploring this allegory further, Saint Ambrose of Milan (4th century) and Richard of Saint Victor (12th century) saw Mary, a metaphor for the church, behind the words that the Shulamite addresses to the sovereign, who they interpreted as a symbol of the Lord, the husband of the Church (Rev. 21:9). Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs, which he interpreted as a dialogue between Christ and the Christian soul. The mystics, Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint John of the Cross and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, all commented upon the Song of Songs in their spiritual writings.

 Some religious scholars have compared the Song of Songs to the Babylonian tales of the Adonis-Tammuz liturgy. The myth, which typically formed part of New Year celebrations, presents the god Tammuz, a synonym of the Canaanite deity Baal, and the goddess Istar, an echo of the Canaanite goddess Anat, accompanied by the most harmonious choral chants. After Adonis’s death, Istar descends to hell to rescue him. The god’s death and the goddess’s descent to the underground world opens the door to autumn and winter, the period when nature withers. When Istar returns Adonis to the earthly world, both divinities celebrate their betrothal, while nature in springtime contemplates how life flourishes once again in the fields. Other commentators have seen the Song of Songs as a compact and well structured theatrical drama, in which Solomon and the Shulamite share their passion.

 Assessing earlier interpretations, present day scholars have perceived the Song of Songs as a poem that celebrates passionate love between a human couple. The interpretation had been put forward in ancient times. The writings of Rabbi Akiva (1st century) mention the sensual understanding the Hebrew community had of the Song of Songs. The Christian theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia (4th-5th centuries) saw the lovers’ passionate love in the Song of Songs, an interpretation that was adopted by the “anonymous Jew” in his commentary (12th century) and which Fray Luis de León further developed in his writings (14th century). Today, along with the allegorical perspective, it represents the most common and poetic interpretation of the Song of Songs, as only passionate love is capable of transforming and giving life to human existence.  


The first words that the Scriptures record as being spoken by man constitute a declaration of love. When Adam saw Eve for the first time he exclaimed: “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!”; and the Scriptures then add: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:23-24). Almost the very last words of the Bible also constitute a song of love: “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come!’” (Rev. 22:17). If we stretch the metaphor further, the Bible, the book that narrates the story of love between God and humanity, is framed within two love stories, that of Adam and Eve and that of the Holy Spirit and the Church. Within the pages of the Bible, the Song of Songs makes it clear that only passionate love can create new things.

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