The Song of Songs and Ancient Near Eastern Literature

It is not clear that a literal reading of the Song, in its ANE context, has any clear benefits over the historical allegorical/symbolic treatment.

As noted, the current view is that of Fox, reflected in a number of commentaries. But Fox’s book was published in 1985, and it is now probably approaching its sell-by date. So the reader begins to wonder where the next set of ANE literary connections with the Song will be found.

 

For historical-grammatical interpretation (HGI) part pf the “historical” aspect is to seek to understand the biblical text in its historical context. That means looking at the biblical material in the larger context of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature. Such an investigation affects most books of the Old Testament, but particularly the Song of Songs. The current consensus about the book, if there is one, is that the Song of Songs has a great deal in common with ancient Egyptian love poetry. Thus a common treatment of the Song today is to deal with it as a collection of Israelite love poetry, similar in vein and in purpose to the love poetry of ancient Egypt. This view is presented, for example, by Michael V. Fox (not to be confused with Michael J. Fox) in his monograph The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs.

But those who have spent some time in the literature about the Song have heard this before. In the 1860s and 1870s, Ernest Renan and J. G. Wetstein, both specialists, in their own way, in Near Eastern literature and culture, proposed (Renan first, in the 1860s, Wetstein a decade or so later) that the Song had a great deal in common with the songs that were used in Syrian culture to celebrate marriage, over the course of a seven-day wedding festival. Thus, in the generation following, many commentators found strong parallels between the Song and these Syrian compositions, attempting to find the seven-day cycle in the arrangement of the Song, for example. But time passed, and the more closely scholars looked at the evidence, the less they were convinced.

In the 1920s, T. J. Meek of the University of Chicago discovered strong similarities between the Song and Akkadian (Akkadian was the language of ancient Assyria and Babylon) hymns composed in praise of the god Tammuz. He proposed that the Song was an adaptation of Akkadian hymnody to Tammuz appropriated for the worship of Yahweh. Again, a number of commentators over the next couple of decades reflect this view. But once again, over time the strength of the evidence waned, and scholars moved away from that view as well.

As noted, the current view is that of Fox, reflected in a number of commentaries. But Fox’s book was published in 1985, and it is now probably approaching its sell-by date. So the reader begins to wonder where the next set of ANE literary connections with the Song will be found.

Meanwhile, some people still hold that the Song is a drama, although there is little agreement on how many characters there are, or how to divide the Song into acts and scenes. In general, there is little agreement as to the outline of the Song. I have before me four current study Bibles. Now the advantage of study Bibles is that they try to present something of a consensus view on all issues. The reader can decide for himself how much agreement there is in these outlines.

NKJV Study Bible

  1. Three reflections on the wedding day (1:2-2:7)
  2. Three reflections during the courtship days (2:8-3:5)
  3. Two reflections on the wedding day (3:6-5:1)
  4. Five reflections on adjustment to marriage (5:2-8:4)
  5. A final reflection: a vacation in the country (8:5-14)

Reformation Study Bible

  1. The woman’s desire for her lover (1:2-2:7)
  2. The approach of her lover (2:8-3:5)
  3. The loss of her lover (3:6-5:8)
  4. The reunion of the lovers (5:9-8:4)
  5. Consummation (8:5-14)

NLT Study Bible

  1. The Woman’s predicament with Solomon (1:2-14)
  2. Their prenuptial relationship (1:15-3:5)
  3. Their wedding and consummation (3:6-5:1)
  4. Her nightmare, separation, and searching (5:2-6:3)
  5. Their stimulating marriage (6:4-8:10)
  6. Free from debt, free to love (8:11-14)

ESV Study Bible

  1. The lovers yearn for each other (1:2-2:17)
  2. The shepherdess dreams (3:1-6:3)
  3. The lovers year for each other again (6:4-8:4)
  4. The lovers join in marriage (8:5-14)

The reader might be forgiven for thinking of the theme verse of the Book of Judges. In any case, it is not clear that a literal reading of the Song, in its ANE context, has any clear benefits over the historical allegorical/symbolic treatment.

Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.