In the course of the last 2,000 years, a voluminous literature has grown up around the Song of Songs, one of the shortest books of the Hebrew Bible. This may seem strange, for on the surface the Song of Songs is straightforward enough. In eight brief chapters it recounts the story of a pastoral love affair, with speeches by a woman and by a man, and also, apparently, by a chorus.
Yet difficulties arise right away even with this description. The more closely one tries to piece together the details of the story, the more bewildering it becomes. What, for example, is the role of King Solomon in the story? He is mentioned from time to time, in an abrupt fashion (“Behold Solomon’s bed, sixty heroes round it,” or “Solomon had a vineyard, in Baal Hamon”), but his role is so uncertain that some have cast him for the hero, and others for the villain.
And what about the heroine? She is called the “Shulamite” at one point, a mysterious designation. At times she seems to be a humble vineyard attendant, or shepherdess; at other times, she seems a great lady, dressed in expensive robes and ornaments. She is a Dark Lady, like that other enigmatic figure, the Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets; but what does this mean?
The course of the love affair is no easier to discern. After it seems to have been consummated, it dissolves into an anxious search by the woman for her absent love. Then come speeches of adoring praise by both man and woman, and, at the end, what some have taken for a parting. Why are certain phrases repeated at intervals (“I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field, that ye awaken not, nor stir up love, until it please”)? And what is the meaning of the strange sayings that so often intrude, such as “Before I was aware, my soul set me upon the chariots of my princely people”?
The most puzzling and intriguing question of all has to do with the general tone and point of view of the work. Why, in this love poem that is the product of a patriarchal society, does the emphasis fall on female rather than male desire? The woman sets herself to pursue and capture the man: “I will rise and roam the city, in the streets and squares. I will seek him whom I love. . . . I grasped and would not loose him, till I brought him to my mother’s house.” From the very beginning of the Song (“Let him kiss me with his mouth’s kisses”), the expression of female sexual desire is uninhibited: “Stir, O North-wind, come, O South-wind! Breathe on my garden. Let its spices flow. Let my love enter his garden. Let him eat its delectable fruits.” “His mouth is sweet, and all of him desirable. This is my love, this is my mate, O Jerusalem girls.” “Come, my love, let us hie to the field, let us lie in the cypress, let us get to the vineyards. We will see if the vine sprouts, if the blossoms bud, if the pomegranate flowers. There will I give you my love. The mandrakes give scent, at our door is every delicacy; things both new and old, my love, I have stored for you.” Very rarely has female sexuality found such open and articulate literary expression.
The puzzle of the Song of Songs has most recently been addressed in a new book by Marvin Pope in the excellent Anchor Bible series.1 Pope offers his own translation of the Song of Songs together with an admirable conspectus of the entire literature that has grown up around it, from the allegorical interpretations of the synagogue and church to the modern “scientific” approaches. (Pope’s personal contribution is that of an expert in the Canaanite religious poetry in the Ugaritic texts discovered at Ras Shamra, in Syria, in 1929.) Almost every possible question, historical, philological, theological, or anthropological, that has ever been asked about the Song, will be found in this long and learned book, which nevertheless contrives to be readable, and even, at times, humorous.
The central problem, in Pope’s treatment, remains that of the female eroticism of the work. Was the Song written by a woman? The traditional ascription of authorship to King Solomon has, of course, little weight (even the first verse of the poem, which apparently names Solomon as the author, can be translated in various other ways). The theory that the author was a woman is at least as plausible as Samuel Butler’s theory (endorsed by George Bernard Shaw and Robert Graves) that the author of the Odyssey was a woman. Yet the only commentator quoted by Pope to have held this theory is an amateur student of the Song, the psychiatrist Dr. Max Pusin, who commented on “the resemblance to modern-day [real] dreams obtained from my [female] patients.” Some passages found very puzzling by other commentators seem to Dr. Pusin to be clearly dream sequences, in which the sexual yearnings and frustrations of a woman are expressed (the “walls” representing inhibitions, and “keepers of the walls” society in its repressive role).
There is nothing new in the idea that the Song contains dream-sequences; this is one of the commonest resources of commentators. Indeed, one modern critic, Solomon Freehof, though very far from having a psychoanalytical approach, has interpreted the whole Song in terms of a series of dreams, remarking, “Once the book is read thus, its very disorder makes sense.” Dr. Freehof sees here a way of justifying the traditional allegorical method of interpretation; for dreams, long before Freud, were accepted as being symbolic. Other commentators have seen dream sequences as the answer not only to the question of the work’s “disorder,” but also to the main enigma, the immodest behavior of the female lover. As Pope dryly puts it, “Even the most chaste of maidens may have escapades in dreamland.” But this method of interpretation is a little too easy; dreams do occur in the Bible, but they are always clearly indicated as such.
In the traditional mode of interpretation of synagogue and church, dream sequences are unnecessary, since the whole poem is regarded as allegorical; in this reading, the female character represents the House of Israel, or the Church, longing for God. It can easily be seen that the eroticism of the poem in general must have provided a strong motive for an allegorical treatment of it, and that the accent on female eroticism made such a treatment all the more imperative.
The traditional allegorical interpretations solve the difficulty by removing the poem from the sexual realm altogether. Such a treatment is found first in the dicta of Rabbi Akiva (1st century), whose authority overbore those who doubted the sanctity of the Song. The Midrash employs the allegorical method in an unsystematic way, while the most elaborate and unified Jewish attempt to read the Song as allegory is in the Targum, or Aramaic version (dated by Raphael Loewe, on rather speculative grounds, to the 7th century, but possibly earlier). In the Targum, a full historical interpretation is given, according to which all the main events of Israel’s history are found alluded to in the Song in chronological order. (Marvin Pope’s book contains, as a mere incidental feature of his commentary on the Song, a full English version of the Targum, though he wisely stops short of investigating the extraordinary contortions of punning and syntax manipulation by which the Targum very often arrives at its “translation.”)
The Christian allegorical interpretation of the Song found its first substantial expression in the commentary of Origen, who adapted the Jewish method to Christian purposes. (Much of Origen’s commentary has been lost, but the context has been preserved in the commentary of Theodoret in the 5th century.) In the commonest Christian exegesis, the female of the Song represents the Church, or sometimes the individual Christian soul, and the male represents Christ, while the whole range of Christian doctrine and history is ingeniously fitted into the details of the poem’s narrative structure. Another Christian interpretation that gained popularity with the rise of Mariolatry in the 12th century made the two lovers Mary and God.
Nowadays, we are inclined to be impatient with allegorical interpretations: with, for instance, a reading of the verse, “Your breasts are like two fawns” as signifying Moses and Aaron or (in the Christian interpretation) the two Testaments. Yet as modern allegorists, notably André Robert, have pointed out, there is good Scriptural authority for the use of sexual imagery in a theological context. Ezekiel 23 figures the relation of love and unfaithfulness between Israel and God in sexual imagery that is direct to the point of grossness. A more tender kind of sexual imagery, comparable perhaps to that of the Song, is found in Hosea: “I will woo her, I will go with her into the wilderness and comfort her: there I will restore her vineyards . . . on that day she shall call me ‘husband.’ ” Here the genuine warmth of sexual love, jealousy, and reconciliation is utilized to express the reality of the relation between God and Israel, and yet is itself somehow not dissolved entirely into metaphor. It is possible, then, that there is in fact a deliberate religious dimension in the love poetry of the Song, even though the traditional style of detailed theological exegesis and point-for-point historical allegorization may result in a ludicrous frigidity.
It nevertheless remains relevant to ask how, even as a metaphor, a love relationship that gives full equality and activity to the female could have arisen from the supremely patriarchal society out of which the Bible comes. A metaphor is usually taken from realities known and accepted by the writer (the extended similes of Homer, which give a picture in themselves of the society of the heroic age, are a good example). On this point, a significant difference is to be noted between Jewish and Christian allegorical exegeses, as indeed between Judaism and Christianity, in their attitude to sex. In Judaism, human sexual love has never been regarded with the abhorrence common in Christianity; on the contrary, it has been regarded as a holy sphere of life. There is not such a gap, therefore, in Jewish exegesis, between the literal and the metaphorical. Christian exegetes, such as Origen and St. Bernard, laid great stress on the abolition of “carnality” from the poem. There is repeated emphasis on the complete invalidity of a literal approach, human sex being irremediably evil. This emphasis does not exist in Jewish exegesis, which is liable, at times, to fall back into a literal approach (as when the Talmud says that the Song was the product of Solomon’s youth since young men are naturally fond of love songs). Jewish exegetes, that is to say, were working with a text rooted in their own culture, while Christian exegetes were working with a text from an alien culture, a text they had to make the best of since it formed part of a given and unchallengeable canon (though indeed some Christian movements wished to get rid of it, together with the rest of the Old Testament).
This leads to the question of whether the Song is after all unique in Old Testament literature in assigning such importance and equality to the female. Is the Old Testament as uncompromisingly patriarchal as, nowadays, some women’s liberationists often represent it to be? Among his many fair and sympathetic summaries of viewpoints that are not ultimately reconcilable with his own, Pope includes in his book an account of the views of a women’s liberationist, Phyllis Trible, who warmly and expertly defends the Old Testament against the charge of male chauvinism. Professor Trible does not deny that the main framework of the Bible is patriarchal, but she discerns in it the seeds of transcendence. She points out that the God of the Old Testament, though ostensibly male, is often given female characteristics, being described (especially by Isaiah) as a midwife, nurse, and mother. Women played a special part in the liberation from Egypt: the mid-wives, Pharoah’s daughter, Miriam. “A patriarchal religion which creates and preserves such feminist traditions contains resources for overcoming patriarchy,” according to Professor Trible, who thus sees the Song not as a reversal of the patriarchal atmosphere of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, but as the logical outcome of “depatriarchalizing” trends found elsewhere. The poem, in her view, portrays the true unfallen nature of sexual relationships, and is a realistic (not eschatological) picture of possible equality between the sexes.
It might be added to Professor Trible’s case that the capacity for sexual initiative shown by the Shulamite is by no means an isolated instance in the Hebrew Bible. In the story of Tamar and Judah, and also in the story of Ruth and Boaz, the same kind of female initiative is shown, and in each case, the outcome is a child who becomes the ancestor of a royal and messianic line. One is reminded of the saying of the Talmud: “A woman who initiates intercourse with her husband will bear children as great as the generation of the Wilderness”—a saying which is hastily qualified, but which bears witness to the esoteric knowledge within the Jewish patriarchal tradition of a different tradition which had to come into play when it was time for history to assume heroic stature.
The allegorical interpretations of the Midrash and Targum are, at their worst, ridiculous, but at their best they perform the feat of spiritualizing the text without destroying its erotic quality. The supreme example, however, of the kind of interpretation that does not replace the human expression of love but transcends it in such a way that human love itself achieves a new dimension is to be found in the Kabbalah, and particularly in the Zohar. Here we find the “depatriarchalizing trends” of the Bible brought to their ultimate conclusion in a glorification of sexuality and of female sexuality in particular.
The Song is taken by the Zohar to represent not so much the love affair between God and Israel as the love affair between God and His own female aspect, the Shekhinah. This kind of interpretation can retain the whole human aspect of the Song as a passionate exchange between human lovers but at the same time render the work as a mystical poem detailing the union of the male and female aspects of God. For that union is figured, in any case, in the union between man and woman on earth. The analogy between human and divine sexual union is part of the biblical assertion (on which the whole Kabbalah forms a commentary) that man was made in the image of God, “man” being not only the male human being but the whole human reality of male and female and their yearning for oneness.
The Kabbalah’s profound and daring interpretation of the Song is not entirely opposed to the traditional type of allegorical interpretation; for the Shekhinah, the female aspect of God, is identified on one level with Israel, the community of God, or with a kind of heavenly representative of that community. Man is both the image of God, reflecting divine reality, and the love-object of God; even more complicatedly, he promotes the divine union of God with the Shekhinah/Israel by the quality of his own sexual relationships on earth. The effect of this combination of parallel and direct unions is to validate human sex as an act of cosmic importance in itself, and not merely as a convenient metaphor for something supraterrestrial.
The medieval Christian interpretation of the Song in terms of the love between God and the Virgin Mary has something in common with the kabbalistic approach, and yet is also profoundly different, since it does not imply any validation of human sexuality. This is an area of contrast that Pope fails to explore, though he does have much to say about similarities between the Virgin Mary and the Shekhinah. In general, Pope does not sufficiently distinguish between Jewish and Christian exegesis on the question of sexuality, tending to equate too easily things that are only superficially similar.
The case of the Virgin Mary is an example of this. The tremendous emphasis on her virginity serves to mark the gulf between her union with God and all human sexual activity. Against this, Pope points out that such ancient goddesses as Anat, Inanna, and Diana are also occasionally described as virgins, while at the same time engaging in continual sexual activity. Even the Shekhinah, Pope points out, is sometimes called a Virgin in the Zohar. But here he misses an important difference of tone. The virginity of Mary is a denial of sex, while the virginity of the pagan goddesses and of the Shekhinah serves to bring out the continual freshness of their sexual activity—every sexual encounter has a primal quality. Pope himself makes no attempt to explain the mythological combination of sexual activity and virginity, apparently regarding this paradox as an inexplicable feature of the mythopoeic mind. Nor does he heed the axiom that the meaning of a mythological motif lies in its sociological role. In Christianity, the virginity of Mary validates the virtue of celibacy, while in paganism and Judaism, celibacy is not a virtue at all.
The interesting question that now arises is whether the kabbalistic doctrine is in fact a throwback to paganism. Does the discovery of a divine love affair between the male and female aspects of God amount to a resuscitation of pagan mythology, with its sexualization of deity and its stories of the love of gods and goddesses? Raphael Patai, who pioneered the discussion of this issue in The Hebrew Goddess (1967), certainly comes to the conclusion (or rather takes it for granted) that the Kabbalah, and the Zohar in particular, does represent a throwback to pagan mythology, and finds strong similarities between the Shekhinah and such goddesses as Anat, Astarte, and Kali, as well as the Christian goddess, the Virgin Mary. Marvin Pope devotes several pages to a summary of Patai’s book, and finds his insights of great use in developing his own theory of the Song. It is a little disappointing, therefore, that Pope does not follow the matter through by including a treatment of the Zohar‘s interpretation of the Song in his commentary.
Patai’s view of the Shekhinah as a goddess on the pagan model, a return of that goddess after over a thousand years of patriarchal repression, gives the Zohar‘s interpretation of the Song a “cultic” air that is surprisingly up-to-date. For the view of the Song that used to shock religious traditionalists—that it is merely a secular composition which had been wrongly given a religious interpretation and so inadvertently included in the canon of the Bible—is now itself outmoded. This “secular” interpretation has a fairly complicated history. It can be traced as far back as Theodore of Mopsuestia of the 5th century, who suggested that the Song was an epithalamium composed for Solomon’s marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh. In modern times, there have been various “dramatic” interpretations that have tried to fit the scenes of the Song into a scenario. There is a “three-character” (plus chorus) scenario, in which the heroine is wooed by King Solomon but remains faithful to her shepherd lover; and a “two-character” scenario, in which King Solomon is the hero and succeeds in the end in winning the love of his shepherdess. (These secular dramatic interpretations could be given a religious twist, according to taste, by endowing the story with a moral, such as the virtue of monogamy, or of true love.)
The dramatic interpretations of the Song were then by and large cast aside for a kind of sociological model, according to which the Song is a wedding entertainment, arising from the Near Eastern custom of singing songs in praises of the bride and bridegroom. But even this model has had its day. An important factor in its supersession has been the new realization of the great antiquity of the Song. Gone are the views that the poem belongs to a Persian or Hellenistic environment (the linguistic arguments have all fallen away). The discovery of Ugaritic literature has shown that the poetic idioms and rhythms of the Song are very old indeed, and this makes it all the more likely that it has an origin in pagan religion, and that its praise of a majestic female, “terrible as an army with banners,” has to do with the worship of a goddess, and with the mythic and ritual celebration of her love affair with a god.
Yet before we accept the Zohar as a delayed confirmation of the pagan cultic origins of the Song, there are certain important points to be made. It is simplistic to regard the Zohar as a mere recrudescence of pagan mythology. It is as if one were to equate Picasso’s paintings with the primitive works of art which at various times proved an inspiration to him; in a sense, Picasso did experience a “throwback,” but in another sense his paintings are worlds apart from the primitive, being an ultra-sophisticated reaction to the primitive. In the maturation of an individual person, it is necessary at a certain period to repress infantile modes of imagination and desire, and to concentrate on acquiring adult skills and attitudes. When this battle has been won, it may be possible to recoup some of the incidental losses by a willed reversion to the brighter perspectives of childhood. This is the aim of romantic movements in art and literature—though there is always the danger, in such movements of a catastrophic relapse or “regression” into infantilism or psychosis, if the adult control is still insecure.
The mythology of the Zohar is certainly similar, in many respects, to pagan mythologies of heavenly families; but in other respects it is entirely different. Most strikingly, mythology in the Zohar is not the foreground of religion (as it was in genuinely childlike religion) but an inner, esoteric truth imparted only to those who have mastered the rational, adult system of the Talmud, and who will therefore not be thrown off balance by their initiation into mystery. A mythology within a firm context of monotheism and rationalism is a very different thing from primitive paganism.
Recent scholarship has pointed out the error of a previous generation of anthropologists who discovered “parallels” between the myths of one civilization and another without placing these myths within their sociological and structural context. Raphael Patai’s study of the “Hebrew goddess,” valuable as it is in displaying a wealth of mythology in Judaism that most people have never suspected, is old-fashioned in its noting of parallels without regard for the dimension that mythological motifs may acquire within a more mature pattern. In order to account for the supposed recrudescence of primitive mythologizing in Judaism, Patai has to overstress the idea of the Kabbalah as a popular, folkish phenomenon, when in fact it was largely transmitted by the learned.
Marvin Pope accepts Patai’s presentation uncritically. So far is Pope from understanding the maturity of kabbalistic mysticism, and its rootedness in rationality, that he even suggests at one point that the expeditions to the fields made by the Lurianic mystics of Safed on Sabbath eves to greet the Sabbath Bride were in fact sexual orgies. This is to confuse classical Kabbalism with its later degenerate forms in Sabbateanism and Frankism. Classical Kabbalism is an expression of what might be called post-rational mythology, of which there are perhaps few other examples in the history of religion, though there are parallels of a kind in literature and art, in those romantic movements that seek to preserve and deepen, rather than to jettison, the previous gains of classical rationality.
But while the Zohar is certainly not a work of primitive mythology, what about the Song of Songs itself? It is a tenable theory that the Song was originally a pagan religious poem about the love of deities (possibly Baal and Anat), and that it was incorporated into the Bible, in a somewhat altered and disguised form, because it was felt obscurely to have an important esoteric meaning (perhaps connected with the entwined male and female cherubim in the Holy of Holies). What was open in other religions, in Judaism had to be kept hidden and repressed, waiting for the time when it could be revealed without danger to monotheism. On this theory, there must have been a clear identification, in the original pagan version, of the lovers as a god and a goddess. These figures, in the Hebrew version, would then have been reduced to human size, with enough remaining of their numinous presence to give rise to the meditations first of the allegorists, and then of the mystics. The difficulties and abrupt transitions of the poem, on this theory, can often be explained as the result of the adaptation of a pagan work, intended for use in polytheistic rites, for inclusion in a monotheistic Bible.
There is much in the Song for which this “cultic” interpretation gives a plausible explanation. For example, the description of the beloved makes her appear huge: “Your neck like an ivory tower . . . your nose like towering Lebanon, overlooking Damascus.” The description of the male beloved makes him appear to be a statue: “His arms rods of gold, studded with gems; his loins smoothest ivory, encrusted with sapphires. His legs marble pillars, based on sockets of gold.” The encounter of the female with the guards, who ill-use her, is reminiscent of the story of Ishtar, who encounters hostile guards during her descent into the underworld in search of the lost Tammuz. In addition to previously known literary parallels in Sumerian writings, Pope has found many interesting parallels in Ugaritic literature which throw light on the love expressions of the Song; all these parallels relate to love between deities, not humans.
Pope’s own special contribution to the “cultic” theory is startling. He argues that the poem, or collection of poems (as he prefers to regard it), relates not so much to a divine marriage as to the rites performed at funerals. The key verse, in his opinion, is “Love is as strong as death” (8: 6), which marks the theme that death can be counteracted only by the vivifying force of sex. In Near Eastern funeral rites, a sexual orgy had the function of asserting the power of life. The orgy was accompanied by heavy drinking (an element preserved in the Irish wake). All this often took place in specially constructed funeral gardens—which accounts, in Pope’s view, for some of the Song’s references to a garden.
Pope argues his case with force and learning, as one would expect. Personally, however, I do not find it convincing. He seems to attach too much weight to isolated expressions. For example, the phrase, “I am dark but comely,” gives rise to vast erudition on his part concerning black goddesses of mythology, from the Indian Kali to the Black Virgin of certain Christian churches. This is related by him to the description of the female as “terrible with banners” (or “awesome with trophies,” in Pope’s translation), and is explained as describing the goddess in her savage, warlike aspect. It is too much to base on one phrase. Even the allegedly key expression, “Love is as strong as death,” hardly seems appropriate for the task Pope assigns to it. After all, the Hebrew word for “strong” here (‘azah) really means “harsh” rather than “mighty,” so that the expression as a whole seems more suited to valedictory sadness or frustrated desire than to an assertion of the cosmic power of love as a remedy for death. Similarly, Pope builds his whole case for an element of orgiastic drinking in the Song on one word (5: 1), “be drunk” (shikhru). The question is what degree of drunkenness is indicated by this word. By a Ugaritic parallel concerning the god El, Pope endeavors to show that the verb signifies a condition of extreme, helpless inebriation. He discounts a contrary argument based on Haggai 1: 6, and overlooks a very relevant text (Genesis 43: 34), where the verb clearly means “to be merry” rather than “to be helplessly drunk.” The evidence is not strong enough for Pope’s thesis, interesting as it is.
I would not be at all surprised if the next development in the history of exegesis of the Song were a return to naturalism. There is already a sign of this in a recent article by Chaim Rabin (summarized by Pope). Rabin has found a parallel to the unusual female-centeredness of the Song, together with its strong feeling for nature, in the Indian poetry in the Tamil language, known as Sangam poetry. This was written about 1000 B.C.E. and could have become known in Israel through Solomon’s contacts with India. (The Hebrew word for aloes, ahalot, used in the Song, is actually derived from India.) The Sangam poetry of female yearning probably arose because of the long absences of the men engaged in the spice trade, which took Indian merchants to South Arabia and thence to the lands of the Fertile Crescent. Rabin even concludes that the male beloved of the Song is himself a spice trader, his long-awaited homecoming being described in the lines (3: 6): “Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?” (The word “this,” unfortunately, is feminine, but Rabin explains that it refers to the caravan, not the person.)
Rabin’s interpretation of the Song is not, to be sure, entirely naturalistic, for he suggests that the Tamil literary model was used by the Hebrew poet of the Song for a religious purpose: to express the longing of the pious for God, at least as an extra dimension. Yet this religious overtone existed in Tamil poetry too, for the female yearning for the god Krishna acted as counterpoint to the human longing for the absent male.
One wonders whether it is time to revive the old theory (long scorned by scholars) that the Song is in fact an epithalamium of Solomon’s marriage to an Egyptian princess, the daughter of Pharaoh. If the bride were of royal status, this would account for her sense of equality with the bridegroom. It would also account for her dark complexion, and for her addressing the “daughters of Jerusalem” as a group of which she is not a member.
A difficulty with this theory is that there are strong hints in the Song of an illicit or irregular character to the love affair (the disapproval of the “brothers,” the hostility of the “guards,” etc.). Marriage does not appear to be the object of the lovers, nor is there any mention of procreation or the desire to found a dynasty. The love affair, consummated in the fields and with the disapproval of society, appears to defy convention, and to be entirely the outcome of natural passion, rather than the demands of society or diplomacy. I myself would suggest, therefore—very tentatively—that the poem may concern not the daughter of Pharaoh but the Queen of Sheba, with whom, according to legend, Solomon had an unofficial romance. The story of this romance appears in Jewish literature only in a late Midrash; yet the Bible seems to hint at it strongly in the expression, “he gave her all her desire.” The Ethiopian tradition that assigns to the romance of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba the origin of the Ethiopian royal house may well be of great antiquity.
If the female of the Song was an independent queen, many of the features that have led commentators to regard her as a goddess can be understood. For queens were often described in terms appropriate to a goddess. For example, the famous queen of Egypt, Hatshepsut, was described as follows: “The best of myrrh is upon all her limbs, her fragrance is divine dew, her odor is mingled with the Holy Land, her skin is gilded with electrum, shining as do the stars.”2 The parallels between this and the Song are obvious.
The Queen of Sheba would clearly fit the description, “Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness . . . with all the powders of the merchant?”—and without any need to find a forced accommodation for the feminine word, “this.” For the Queen of Sheba was strongly associated with spices. She gave to Solomon “a very great store of spices . . . there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.”
According to the theory of Immanuel Velikovsky (which I find convincing), the Queen of Sheba was in fact identical with Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt (this identification is part of Velikovsky’s far-reaching revision of the accepted chronology of Egyptian history). Josephus calls the Queen of Sheba “the queen of Egypt and Ethiopia,” and Hatshepsut actually did rule Ethiopia as well as Egypt. The similarity of the above-quoted description of Hatshepsut to the expressions of the Song may thus be no coincidence.
However this particular theory may be, the Song does seem to contain a natural human element unaccounted for in the “cultic” theory. We have a picture of a prosperous land, in which the beauty of both nature and art is appreciated, and human potentialities have great scope. If this is not actually the reign of Solomon, the atmosphere of that reign is most imaginatively evoked. Is it not possible that a court poet of Solomon, using poetic skills derived from Tamil, Phoenician, or Egyptian models, wrote a poem of human love, portraying a relationship of equality which, even in that period, could be attained only by royal personages (and by them, only with difficulty and opposition), but which provided a pattern for all time?
The poem avoids all reference to religion, even omitting entirely the name of God (the one apparent exception is a textual corruption). Yet only monotheism could have provided such release from superstitious anxiety and opened up such a vista of fulfilled humanity and nature. The human figures are in the foreground, just as in the Bible as a whole the figures of human beings, engaged in human activities, have taken the place of the gods and demigods that fill pagan literature. Such a picture has deep religious resonances, and these it continued to awaken throughout the ages, culminating in a cosmic validation of human sexual love in the Zohar. But the distinctive note of luminous confident humanism is not found again, except perhaps in the Golden Age of Spain, when it was indeed the Song of Songs that acted as the inspiration for a school of love poetry in which human love attained religious stature without requiring a framework of mysticism, mythology, or magic.3
There is one commentator on the Song whom Marvin Pope, strangely enough, fails to mention. It is Max Brod, the friend and editor of Kafka. In his book, Paganism, Christianity, Judaism, Brod included an analysis of the Song. The analysis is not in itself remarkable, being a variant on the three-character dramatic theory, involving extensive reordering of the material of the Song. But Brod makes one shrewd comment which is worth repeating. He says that the “cultic” theory is in essence (and at times overtly) anti-Semitic, since it is based on the idea that equality of the sexes is an idea impossible in Judaism and more or less invented by Christianity; the apparently equal status of the sexes in the Song, therefore, must arise from a pagan source concerned with a god and a goddess. Now this point obviously does not apply in the least to Marvin Pope; yet it is of importance in assessing the original motivation and sitz im leben of the “cultic” theory.
It is certainly a paradox that Judaism, a patriarchal religion, contains so many anti-patriarchal elements. But this is what makes Judaism such a subtle religion. Judaism is not an uneasy patriarchalism, like Christianity, carrying on a secret war against its own matriarchal aspects. It is a patriarchalism that glories in its achievements, and yet carries at its heart the possibility of its own transcendence. Throughout the ages, one of the crucial texts in this entire process of self-understanding and self-transcendence has been the Song of Songs.
1 The Song of Songs: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor/Doubleday, 743 pp., $12.00.
2 J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol. 2, Sec. 274. An interesting example in Western literature of a queen compared to a goddess is Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra in Shakespeare's play.
3 For a description of the delicate balance between human and divine love in Spanish-Hebrew poetry, in relation to the Song of Songs, see Neal Kozodoy, “Reading Medieval Hebrew Love Poetry,” AJS Review, Vol. 2, 1977, pp. 111-129.