Song of Songs in context of ANE literature

Love in the Wisdom Tradition

The Song of Songs is unique in many respects. The poem is essentially a double monologue without any introductions of speakers. The book offers no direct reference to God, the law or religious themes. [1] While the relationship of the lovers is central to the poem, there is no real dialogue between them, only mutual descriptions. [2] What little dialogue that may exist is with the characters outside the couple, and even this is not always clear. The lack of clear character introductions or indications of speaker, make a structural view of the poem difficult in many places. This leads many to declare there is no structure. That Song of Songs is a loose anthology of love poetry or wedding songs. [3]

Interpretation of the Song of Songs in both the Jewish and Christian tradition sees a metaphor for the relationship of the chosen people with God. [4] But the lack of direct internal evidence for this religious characterization of the book provided reason for many to argue excluding Song of Songs from the canon of scripture. While the book was ultimately included, many scholars doubt this poem was written with this metaphorical use in mind.

This paper proposes that the Song of Songs is a redaction of thematic love poetry to vividly demonstrate the ideal woman of wisdom. This woman is the teacher of wisdom in contrast to the foolish adulteress in the contrast of Proverbs chapter 9. The form of the woman in Song of Songs is influenced by the Ancient Near Eastern literature on love and goddess cults. The Song of Songs redaction of this material on love provides a stark contrast to similar cultic poetry that would be recognizable to the original audience. Further, the existence of this contrast would demonstrate the intention of metaphorical use in the composition of Song of Songs. Finally, the interpretive translation of the Targum and the rubrics preserved in LXX manuscripts provide a metaphorical framework for rabbinical and patristic interpretations. These interpretive translation techniques demonstrate an early expansion of the metaphor that is most natural if the Song of Songs is understood as metaphor going into these translations.

Lady Wisdom

There are a number of thematic elements woven into the Song of Songs. Each of these has a parallel in the wisdom personified as a woman. The poetic structure of these elements in Song of Songs parallels Ancient Near East literature of love and goddess cults. I propose that these building blocks of metaphor are a subtle extension of the woman as wisdom theme presented in Proverbs. [5] The poetic structural and thematic parallels to other literature in the region are obvious. This expansion of lady wisdom built on the structure of cultic love poetry form the building blocks of the scriptural metaphor. [6]

Praise of beloved


What a rare find is a capable wife!

Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.

Her husband puts his confidence in her,

And lacks no good thing.

She is good to him, never bad,

All the days of her life. [7]

Song of Songs

Ah, you are fair, my darling,

Ah, you are fair.

Your eyes are like doves

Behind your veil.

Your hair is like a flock of goats

Streaming down Mount Gilead.

Your teeth are like a flock of ewes

Climbing up from the washing pool;

All of them bear twins,

And not one loses her young.

Your lips are like a crimson thread,

Your mouth is lovely. [8]

Akkadian Hymn to Ishtar

In lips she is sweet; life is in her mouth.

At her appearance rejoicing becomes full.

She is glorious; veils are thrown over her head.

Her figure is beautiful; her eyes are brilliant. [9]

The praise of wisdom personified is short and dignified in the context of Proverbs. But the praise is strong as well. In Song of Songs these praises are raised in both length and poetic style. The praise of the beloved expands well beyond the few lines on physical beauty in Proverbs. The style of the praise is consistent with the love poem motif. The concentration on physical beauty matches that of contemporary literature. Some of this contemporary parallel literature is cultic in nature. I believe we are meant to see the woman of Song of Songs in contrast to the cult Goddess. Wisdom personified competes with the harlot in Proverbs. In the same way our beauty in Song of Songs competes with the Goddess.

Garden images

Lady Wisdom in Proverbs provides for the food in the household by tending the vineyard for the family. As the perfect household manager she handles these agrarian tasks with aplomb.

She rises while it is still night

And supplies provisions for her household,

The daily fare of her maids.

She sets her mind on an estate and acquires it;

She plants the vineyard by her own labors. [10]

The Song of Songs weaves images of the vineyard and garden with the happy couple. These agrarian references earn the spring time placement of Song of Songs in the Jewish lectionary. [11] The beloved is described in botanical terms. The poetry in Hebrew full of alliteration in the description, alternating the k and prd cluster. [12]

Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates

And of all luscious fruits,

Of henna and of nard

Nard and saffron,

Fragrant reed and cinnamon [13]

The pomegranate culminates the couple’s attachment before entering the vineyard of Solomon.

I would lead you, I would bring you
To the house of my mother,
of her who taught me
I would let you drink of the spiced wine,
Of my pomegranate juice.
His lef hand was under my head,

His right hand caressed me.

I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem:

Do not wake or rouse

Love until it please! [14]

The Beautiful Woman incantations of Ishtar in Mesopotamian express the potency of apples and pomegranates. These images of garden fertility demonstrate the cultural themes at play here in the Song of Songs.

The beautiful woman has evoked love.
The goddess Ishtar, who loves apples and pomegranates,
Has brought forth potency.
Stand erect! Give way! Love-stone, prove effective for me! Stand erect!
The goddess Ishtar, she has presided over love. [15]

The blossoming of nature in the garden is a common love theme in many cultures. But these exact parallels of particular fruits as aphrodisiacs make the connection of Song of Songs to the larger culture clear. The goddess fertility cult was the direct competition to the Jewish cult. These fruits as a liturgical object in the fertility cult would not be lost on the Hebrew audience. In Song of Songs the fruit is part of the couple’s development, not a ritual action with the temple goddess. The end result is not temporary fertility, but the orderly house of wisdom.

Nobility of lovers

The perfect wife of Proverbs 31 and her husband are noble and prominent in the community. The natural outcome of wisdom is nobility. Lady Wisdom is clothed as the wealthy. She imparts wisdom to her lover. Her husband is a true leader among the people as a result.

She makes covers for herself;

Her clothing is linen and purple.

Her husband is prominent in the gates,

As he sits among the elders of the land. [16]

The nobility of the lovers in Song of Songs is inferred from the references to Solomon’s garden and the Kings couch. But the tradition is strong in making these royal associations. The clear consensus in reading Song of Songs over the centuries is to see this as a royal song. While the text is clearly from a much later period, the book does go by the title Song of Solomon as well as Song of Songs. The connection of Solomon with wisdom is well established. Solomon is characterized as the wisest of the kings of Israel. Here we have a subtle play with his lover in the Song of Songs being Lady Wisdom herself.

While the king was on his couch,

My nard gave forth its fragrance.

My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh

Lodged between my breasts.

My beloved to me is a spray of henna blooms

From the vineyards of Engedi. [17]


Gilgamesh washed his dirty hair, he cleaned his hair bands,

He shook out the hair flowing down his back.

He discarded his dirty clothes and put on clean ones,

He wrapped the garments around him, tying the sash.

Then Gilgamesh donned his crown and Lady Ishtar cast her eye upon the comeliness of Gilgamesh.

Come, Gilgamesh, be my lover,

Favor me with our virility.

You will be my husband and I will be your wife. [18]

The epic poem Gilgamesh is about the hero king. The section here, where the goddess Ishtar seeks Gilgamesh as her consort demonstrates the royal associations of this literature of love. The goddess cultic literature assumes a royal connection with the goddess. This connection plays out in the Song of Songs in the Kingship of Solomon.

Seeking the beloved


It is Wisdom calling,

Understanding raising her voice.

She takes her stand at the topmost heights,

By the wayside, at the crossroads,

Near the gates at the city entrance;

At the entryways, she shouts,

O men, I call to you;

My cry is to all mankind.

O simple ones, learn shrewdness;

O dullards, instruct our minds. [19]

Song of Songs

Upon my couch at night

I sought the one I love

I sought, but found him not.

I must rise and roam the town,

Through the streets and through the squares;

I must seek the one I love.

I sought but found him not.! [20]

Egyptian Papyrus (Chester Beatty I)

Seven days to yesterday I have not seen my sister.

Sickness has entered into me.

I have become heavy of body,

Forgetful of my own self.

If the the greatest physicians come to me,

My heart will not be contented with their remedies.

The lector-prieststhere is no way in them. [21]

In Proverbs, the seeking of pupils by Lady Wisdom involves a patrol of the city. There is a sweep high and low to insure that those who desire instruction in wisdom are found. The search in Song of Songs has the same patrolling character. The lover in Song of Songs is hindered in finding her love by the city guards. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs is hindered by the calls of the adulteress to the same men. In Song of Songs the search focuses on the beloved, rather than the general gathering in Proverbs. The desire for the beloved when absent is a common element in love poetry. The seeking of the beloved is in measure to the depth of affection. These elements are captured in Song of Songs. The seeking here adds this sexual dimension and poetic form. This dimension and form is recognizable in the parallel literature, like the Egyptian Papyrus.


These themes become the building blocks for the redaction of the poem in Song of Songs. The thematic models are indicative of the goal of wisdom described in scripture. At the same time they are written in a popular style that reminds the audience of this parallel literature. The non-biblical literature espouses a religious philosophy at odds with the biblical one. This makes the contrast all the more stark.


There is little agreement over structure for the Song of Songs. The opinions range from the book being a simple anthology of related poetry to alternative structures to the ones proposed here. [22] Murphy’s redaction of the Song of Songs supports the collection of thematic elements mentioned above. The final structure of the Song of Songs plays out in the following pattern. [23]

1:1 Title
1:2-4 Poem of Yearning by woman
1:5-6 Self-description by woman
1:7-8 A tease
1:9-11 Poem of admiration by man
1:12-14 Poem of admiration by woman
1:15-2:3 Poems of admiration, united by dialogue 1:15you are beautiful
2:4-7 Poem of yarning 2:6left hand under my head, right hand [24]

2:7 O daughters of JerusalemÉ

do not arouse love before its time

2:8-17 Description of an experience in reminiscence 2:16I am my lovers and my lover is mine
3:1-5 A dream 3:5 O daughters of JerusalemÉ

do not arouse love before its time

3:6-11 Description and admiration 3:6 who is this coming…
4:1-7 Wasf, charms of a woman 4:1 you are beautiful

4:7 you are beautiful

4:8 [25] Invitation by man to woman
4:9-5:1 Poem of admiration
5:2-8 A dream experience
5:9 A question form the daughters to the woman
5:10-16 Response: wasf, charms of the man
6:1-3 Dialoque with daughters 6:3I am my lovers and my lover is mine
6:4-7 Poem of admiration and wasf by man
6:8-10 Poem of praise 6:10 who is this coming…
6:11-12 Description of an experience
7:1-7 Wasf in praise of woman 7:1you are beautiful

7:7you are beautiful

7:8-11 Poem of admiration
7:12-14 Poem of yearning
8:1-4 Poem of yearning 8:3left hand under my head, right hand

8:4 O daughters of JerusalemÉ

do not arouse love before its time

8:5 Poem of admiration 8:5who is this coming…
8:6-7 Poem in praise of love by woman
8:8-10 Poem of self-description by woman
8:11-12 A boast
8:13-14 Dialogue expressing yearning

The redaction develops as a flow of monologues bringing the couple together at the end of the entire poem. The units have a place in the developing relationship of the couple. This flow tends to contradict the assumption of a simple collection of love poetry or wedding songs.

The use of refrain phrases throughout the poem suggests a unity in the book as it now stands. The refrains punctuate the action as the couple moves toward the final union. The placement of the refrains supports the redaction units outlined as well.

Interpretive Structures

Song of Songs is widely interpreted metaphorically today, at the same time that many deny that the poem was written as a metaphor originally. The handling of the translation of Song of Songs by both the Aramaic and Greek communities support the metaphorical interpretation. These relatively early translations take the story as metaphor and add elements to the text to assist in making the metaphor clear.

Targum LXX
Section 1: The Wilderness

1:2 Solomon the prophet said: “Blessed be the name of YY who gave us the Torah by the hand of Moses the great scribe, inscribed on two tablets of stone, and [gave us] six orders of the Mishnah and the Gemara by oral tradition, and conversed with us face to face (as a man who kisses his companion) out of the great love with which He cherished us, more than the seventy nations.

1:3 “At the sound of your miracle and might which you performed for the people, the House of Israel, all the nations who heard the report of your might and good signs trembled; and your Holy Name was heard in all the earth, and it was more choice than the oil of high office with which the heads of kings and priests were anointed. And therefore the righteous loved to follow the path of your goodness in order that they may possess this world and the world to come.” [26]

1 The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s.

The bride

Let him kiss me from the kisses of his mouth,
because your breasts are better than wine,
and the aroma of your myrrh than all aromatic herbs.
Your name is myrrh poured out.
Because of this, the maidens have loved you.
They have drawn you. We shall run after you to the aroma of your myrrh.

The bride tells the maidens the things about the groom that he gave to her

The king has brought me into his chamber. [27]

The Targum opens with an outline of the ten best songs in scripture and Song of Songs place among them. The poem is then divided into historical sections and the translation expanded to make this schema clear throughout the text.

In the LXX translation, the text is not expanded directly, but explanatory titles are added as dividers to the text. These titles make the flow of monologue in Song of Songs clear and provide an interpretive structure for reading the scenario presented.

Both of these translation techniques demonstrate an early understanding of the poem in a metaphorical sense. Later commentators in both the Jewish and Christian worlds confirm this early understanding. This metaphorical interpretation helped to keep Song of Songs in the canon of scripture.


Song of Songs is a rich love poem expanding on the traditional character of Lady Wisdom. In Song of Songs, the ever-deepening relationship between the lovers culminates in the woman setting up house. This parallels the progress of lady wisdom in Proverbs. In Proverbs we close the book with Lady Wisdom setting up house as the perfect wife. The seeking of the man in Song of Songs is similar to the wanderings of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs. Proverbs is a collection of sayings that bring one to wisdom personified as the perfect spouse. Song of Songs is a collection of love poetry that culminates in the joyous finding of the perfect spouse. The literary pattern is love poetry, but the message is the wisdom of God. The connection with godly wisdom is subtle, almost too subtle, nearly excluding Song of Songs from the canon. But the parallels are present and born out by the interpretive translation tradition.


[1] Buttrick, p 97.

[2] Some would contend there is a lyric dialogue between the lovers throughout the poem, Alter, Art of Biblical Poetry, p 139-40.

[3] Murphy, pp 41-42

[4] Pope, pp 89-210.

[5] There is a clear theme of love of wisdom in Proverbs (4:6; 7:4; 8:17; & 8:34), Wisdom (8:2-16; 6:12-16), and Sirach (6:26-28;14:20-27; 4:15)Rad, p166-73.

[6] Fox, pp 267-295. I am using the categorization of themes presented by Fox here. His survey is focused on Egyptian literature, but these themes play out in other contemporary cultures as well.

[7] Tanakh, Proverbs 31:10-12.

[8] Tanakh, Song of Songs 4:1-3.

[9] Pritchard, p 232. Additional examples can be found in, Robert, p 359-60 (Summerian); Pope, p 56-57 (Arabic Wedding Songs); Fox, p 269-70 (Egyptian), p 277 (Mesopotamia); Thomas, p 188 (Egyptian), Longman, p 53 (Ugaritic); Gordis, p 33 (Assyrian).

[10] Tanakh, Proverbs 31:15-16.

[11] Orthodox Union, Introduction.

[12] Alter/Landy, p 397.

[13] Tanakh, Song of Songs 4:13-14.

[14] Tanakh, Song of Songs 8:2-4.

[15] Grayson, p 151. Additional examples can be found in, Robert, p 341-42 (Egyptian); Pope, p 74 (Turin Papyrus); Longman, p 50-51 (Egyptian).

[16] Tanakh, Proverbs 31:22-23.

[17] Tanakh, Song of Songs 1:12-14.

[18] Grayson, p 143. Additional examples can be found in, Robert, p 367 (Assyro-Babylonian); Pope, p 71 (Ugaritic Mythology); Fox, p 283-84 (Egyptian), p 287 (Mesopotamia); Longman, p 52 (Mesopotamia); Murphy, p 50 & 51 & 52 (Sumerian).

[19] Tanakh, Proverbs 8:1-5.

[20] Tanakh, Song of Songs 3:1-2.

[21] Thomas, p 190. Additional examples can be found in, Thomas, p 189 (Egyptian); Robert, p 344-45 (Egyptian), p 361-62 (Sumerian); The worman seeking for her lover and encountering the city guard instead is a featured in a Sumerian Wedding rite song. Here a positive outcome also follows the negative one. Murphy, p 53 (Sumerian).

[22] Alternative structures are proposed by Cotter, p xi-xiii; Longman, p 54-56; Pope, pp 40-54; Bergant p v-vi; Clifford, p 160-62; Arguing that Song of Songs is simply and anthology of love poems is Gordis, p 16-18.

[23] Murphy, p 60-62

[24] This particular refrain is found in the Sumarian text titled Tavern Sketchy by Jacosen. Murphy, p 53.

[25] In the Dead Sea Scrolls 4Canta omits 4:8-6:10. This deliberately omitted section tends to confirm at least the borders of the redaction units on each side of the omission. However, 4Cantb in the same collection omit two smaller units that would fall within the redaction units proposed above (3:6-8 & 4:4-7). The omission of nearly 30 % of the book in 4Canta is indicative of perhaps an earlier redaction of the book, while the dropping of a few verses in 4Cantb is perhaps later editorial work. This is especially possible since 4Cantb also inserts of a number of Paleo-Hebrew letters throughout the text. These editorial insertions are of unknown purpose and origin. Abeg, p 612.

[26] Treat, Targum Translation 1:2.

[27] Treat, Dissertation Abstract.


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Originally Posted March 21, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010