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The Canticle of Solomon: An introduction
A Song of Unconditional Love
The question to be asked is whether it is possible to come face to face with Love personified — and to be so deeply moved by the experience that one is totally transformed in the very depths of one's being.
It is conceivable that the impact of such an encounter, comparable to the experience of Moses at the Burning Bush, could transform someone into a new being, totally destroying his former existence, and, by the intensity of the passion thus aroused, bind him so powerfully that no other embrace could ever destract from its ineffable sweetness...
The Canticle of Solomon (commonly called the Canticle of Canticles, translating literally the Hebrew: Shir ha-Shirim) is neither a narrative nor a drama, nor yet an ordinary piece of literature or peotry. Above all else it is concerned with the changes a person undergoes, not with his progress; it aspires to such totally transforming love that it seems on the threshold of redemption, of salvation. To achieve this demands absolute fidelity to an unconditional love...
It is my belief that the world was created and continues to exist through the incarnation of love. We must surrender ourselves unconditionally to this love in order that life may achieve final freedom and victory.
If this belief is correct, one of the finest illustrations of it is here, in the Song of Solomon.
Eight short chapters and one hundred and seventeen verses! One of the shotest books of the Bible, and one of the most essential! Rabbi Akiba was wont to say that the world had neither value nor meaning until the Song of Solomon was given to Israel. In fact we have here the sacred poem par excellence, which sings of unconditional love in such a way that our weakness is totally confused...
A Sacred Text, a Transcendental Song
I was born into a Jewish family which was faithful to tradition. From infancy I heard the Song of Solomon intoned to the ancient rhythms which inspired Gregorian chant. As a child, I was touched each Friday by the fervor which filled our synagogue at Aïn-Temouchent at the time of evening prayer, when we chanted the Song at the beginning of the Sabbath liturgy. Men, women and children sang or listened to the text as if in ecstasy. We certainly saw it as a sacred text, a transcendental song. No-one imagined it was possible to find anything obscene, trivial or even carnal in its words. The faithful were simple souls, workmen, tradespeople, craftsmen, farmers and a few so-called `intellectuals', their wits freshly honed at French universities. All sang this poem lovingly, without seeing any need for censorship or expurgation. For us it was a sacred text, in the light of which we had to enlighten and purify ourselves. In my whole life I have never heard a single complaint about its content from those who live close to the Song... It has always been understood in the biblical sense as the love of the Lord for his creation, for his people, for each individual... This may seem strange but never¬theless it is true: for more than two thousand years Jews have seen the Shulamite only as a symbol of Israel, the King only as referring to God: in the love uniting them they have seen only a revelation of the mystery of divine love.
The Targumim, the Midrashim, both ancient and modern rabbinical texts, have seen the Song as none other than the history of Israel set out in three great acts: the Exodus from Egypt and the biblical period up to the destruction of the Temple; the Exile; and finally, Messianic redemption. It is an amazing paradox, but this is the way Jews have understood it for centuries, as a mystical song of divine love and its successive revelations in Israel's history.
The official exegetes are therefore not embarrassed by the flesh and blood of the Shulamite; for them there is only the mystical union of Israel with her God. The delights of love signify endless contemplation in endless love for the Creator; there is no question of anything else. In this way the rabbis are not put off by the inconsequences and the wild extravagances of the exegetes, nor by the most obvious anachronisms, because in their eyes this book is an Apocalypse, that is to say, a Revelation of the final destiny of Israel and the entire world. Rashi, the universal teacher, sees the Song in exactly this way...
A Wisdom Poem
An open mind is needed to read and study the Song; knowledge of certain facts can help us to go deeper intothe meaning of the poem. The Song of Solomon is not a collection of songs, but a single poem of one hundred and seventeen verses; it is part of the Ketuvim, the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles) which, together with the Torah and the Prophets, make up the Hebrew Bible.
Wisdom does not cancel out the Torah, nor does it contradict the Prophets: it operates at a different level where neither the Torah nor the lessons of history are needed to edify the reader. Wisdom literature is supra-historical in character: reality is reflected in reality, being contemplates being in the context of eternity, and the call to faith is heard beyond the order of created things. The most universal concept in the Torah, that of Covenant, is not mentioned in Wisdom literature. Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes remain silent on the subject of Israel's historic destiny. Almost without exception the writers omit even the name of Israel...
Wisdom writings run parallel in Hebrew literature to those of the Torah and the Prophets, and complete them without contradicting them. The idea central to prophetism, the struggle against idolatry, does not appear (except in Wisdom and Ben Sirach, which are not part of the Hebrew Canon). This is far older teaching, given not only to Israel, the Chosen People, bound by the virtues of faith, submission and hope, but to all those who possess intelligence and understanding.
"...He poured her out upon all his works.
She dwells with all flesh according to his gift."
Wisdom pre-dates even creation:
"The deep says, 'It is not in me,' and the sea says 'It is not with me."'
She originates with God and is fulfilled in the human race... Wisdom literature, far from being a late arrival on the scene, seems rather to represent the oldest current of thought in Hebrew tradition. It wells up from the common source whence flows the wisdom of all ancient peoples, but it is shaped by the genius and light of Israel's monotheism. Tot, Ra, Shemesh, Dagon retreat and the myths become blurred in the supra-historical and supernatural light of the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This universalism is found at the source of reality, and far from being the result of breaking down tribal limits and national frontiers, it is shown to precede them in time.
Wisdom, knowledge and moral obligation make up natural law: it leaves its mark upon man just because he is man. It corresponds to the organic structure of his very being and indeed challenges him with questions of life and death; the obligation born of the Sinai Covenant is as inescapable for him as for Israel. Far from denying the Torah or ceremonial worship, it binds humankind to honor its Creator, offer him sacrifices and fulfil its vows to him. At the same time we recognize the fact that a believer turns to a personal God in prayer, so it is essential to approach these texts in the spirit in which they were written, in Asia, in a semitic language, more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Each verse was written in a context with which we are now almost totally unfamiliar, that of the pagan Ancient East; each thought has been formulated by inspired writers whose vision and language arise from a kind of silent contemplation whose secret our generation seems to have completely lost. We realize that we are plunged into a world of Semitic symbolism where everything has a meaning: it assails us with facts, imposes its imagery on our minds, and arouses in our consciousness the bright flame of the triumphant word...
This is the setting for the Song. It must be read in the context of the Hebrew literature to which it belongs, and in the light of its fundamental ideas on the covenant relationship existing between God and his creation, as also of the mystical theology of marriage which is expressed with such vigor and clarity by the prophets, especially Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. We must understand the midrashic style and the traditions behind it. The key ideas implicit in this poem are marriage, covenant, search and discovery, separation and exile, light and darkness, sleep and awakening, war and peace, anguish and joy, fall and the joy of recovery. The most subtle allusions to harts (tsevaot) and hinds (ayalot) are bound up with the supreme idea of God (Elohim Tsevaot).
A love Story with Cosmic Dimensions
To broaden their horizons, the jealous upholders of the naturalist viewpoint must take into account an obvious and indisputable fact. There are certainly one man and one woman who are described enthusiastically in great detail, both as individuals and at every stage of their relationship. But what is the point of reference? The entire universe, no less! Sun, moon... the earth, the heavens, the mountains... valleys, deserts, the seasons... the sea, rivers, forests, flowers, incense, perfumes... trees.. birds... a city and its walls... the lairs of lions, mountains where panthers prowl... pom¬egranates in flower, milk, honey, dew, and above all, the amazing descriptions of the lover and his beloved in very precise surrealist terms:
"His head is the finest gold, ...
His eyes are like doves...
His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels.
His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires.
His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold..."
The lover is successively likened to Lebanon or to a cedar. The beloved is likened to the cities of Tirzah and Jerusalem, to the moon and the sun, to the dawn, to Mount Carmel, to a wall, a tower.
An attentive reading of the Song shows clearly the two levels at which the mind of the writer is at work: the human level, where he sets the scene with a man and a woman, and the cosmic level which brings into play the whole of creation. Readers who see only a human love story in the poem eliminate, consciously or not, the essence of the Song, in other words, its cosmic dimensions...
A symphony in Three Movements
The Song is undoubedly a symphony in three movements, with three themes.
The first theme is that of the birth of love. The second verse of the poem, after the introductory one which attributes it to King Solomon, should be read not only as a promise but as a fulfilment. The love is a present reality: the beloved is certain her lover will
"kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!"
The final triumph is there from the beginning as an act of faith. The woman expresses her passion in ardent words; her lover is worthy of love, he is universally beloved... She describes both her darkness and her beauty; such as she is, she longs to be initiated into love. The lover sends her back to her flocks and sings of her beauty. The lovers' duet rises in crescendo, verse by verse, until the first appeal to the daughters of Jerusalem (2:7). The lovers' dialogue rises to yet greater heights (2:8,17). The lovers are lost in mutual contemplation and hymn the beauty which their love finds each in the other: there is a progressive unveiling of the faces and the bodies of the lovers which serves to confirm and deepen their love for each other.
The second theme of the symphony is in counterpoint: it is the theme of exile (3:1,5). The beloved seeks her absent lover and endures the trials of exile and loneliness (3:5). After a brief glimpse, the theme of exile disappears and it is question once more of marriage and loving contemplation (3:6 - 4:16). This entire section is devoted to the sacred procession in which the king goes in his palanquin to meet his beloved. Once having found her again, he sings about her and extols her beauty.
This central section of the Song is also the most important one, because it gives meaning to the rest of the poem (5:2 - 6:2). The theme of exile, loneliness and suffering, briefly touched upon in five verses of chapter 3:1-5, is taken up again and explored in depth: the beloved, half asleep, has not responded to the call of her lover. He rejects her and goes off, leaving her to solitude and exile. She faces new and cruel trials, is beaten, wounded, stripped. Her untiring search for her lover is rewarded. Once more the couple rejoice in loving contemplation of each other, each describing the other afresh (5:10-6:3). Triumphant love is on the watch for the new birth of spring (6:11), but already the beloved is transformed through marriage bliss (6: 12).
The third theme, after the birth and exile of love, finally breaks through in the joy of rediscovery: exile is at an end, suffering is redeemed. The lovers contemplate each other in all the beauty of their nudity. They are united in the bliss of everlasting nuptials, in the new spring which will last forever. In a paroxysm of satiated love, they celebrate a transforming relationship which is sealed forever and is stronger than death.
The simple analysis of the three themes fundamental to the Song is enough to show it in its proper relationship to the rest of the Bible, which is also shot through with the three themes of creation, fall or exile and redemption. \Ve can see that these three themes are constantly recurring in the psalms. Thus, in spite of its special character, the Song is placed firstly in line with the other books of the Bible, as the most complete, the most universal and perhaps the most perfect of all.
The enigma of the little sister who has no breasts, the geographical references to Lebanon, Amarna, Sinai, Hermon, the strange imagery which compares the neck of the Shulamite to a fortress or a fortified tower, her identification with the Northern capital Tirzah and with Jerusalem, capital of the Southern kingdom, the constant strangeness of these comparisons, the transparent allusions to waking and sleeping, the evident significance of meeting and estrangement, these are the arguments used by exegetes who are faithful to the traditional interpret¬ation. But to understand its hidden depth of meaning, it is essential to grasp the Song of Solomon as a whole rather than in its metaphorical details. Its beauty is so all-embracing and profound that it explains accurately the different states of a person in love.
The Song of Solomon as Our Own Story
The three key moments of Creation, Exile and Return celebrate the drama of the individual couple just as much as that of Israel or the whole of creation. Everyone will find in this poem an echo of his or her own preoccupations, but Rabbi Akiba has reasons to say that, if all the books of the Bible are holy, then the Song of Solomon is doubly so. Nowhere else does the depth of biblical revelation show itself more clearly: the universe is the stage where the drama of love is played out. For all eternity the Lover and the Beloved desire each other, call upon each other, lose and search for each other, find and embrace each other again. Thus, in a world empty of idols, purged of myths, freed from sorcery, liberated from the power of magic, a man and a woman stand alone in the presence of love. The relationship of each person with God is one of love: each desires the other and calls on the other, loses and searches for the other, finds and embraces the other because their love has no end. "I have loved you with an everlasting love." The Song of Solomon thus calls us to the nuptial joys announced by the prophet. The general nature of the themes which underlie the Song — creation, exile and the triumph of love — permit, or at least support, the many interpretations given to the text by exegetes. It has been read in its obvious meaning as a human love song; it has been interpreted as an allegory of God and creation, or Israel, or the Church; finally it has been understood as a mystical hymn celebrating the marriage of a soul with God. These three different interpretations are still open to us today: it is a foolish person who would seek to outalw any one of them. But it would be equally foolish to read the Song without making one's own, at whatever level of consciousness, the image it gives of a love fulfilled in its cosmic dimensions and in the eternal sweetness of its divine essence.
has lived in Jerusalem for over twenty years. A well-known writer, he works to bring both people and religions closer together, but above all he "lives in the Bible". He has translated both Testa¬ments, giving back to the text its original austere beauty. This new translation, with Jewish, Christian and Moslim commentaries, is now available in a magnificent edition of ten volumes, published by Brépols-Lidis, Belgium, with the title: L'Univers de la Bible. The present article is part of his brilliant introduction to the Song of Solomon, translated and adapted with the author's kind permission.