THE QUESTION: Why did ancient Jewish leaders approve the sensuous Song of Songs (a.k.a. Song of Solomon or Canticles) as a book in the Bible?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER: The biblical Song, a remarkably poetic celebration of sexual and emotional love between a man and a woman, won recent praise in The Wall Street Journal’s “Masterpiece” column, which analyzes history’s major works of art. Writer Aliora Katz commented on its cultural value: “In the time of Tinder and casual hookups, [the Song] reminds us that physical attraction and love ultimately point upward to that which only the poets can imagine or describe.”
Admittedly, some of its metaphors fall oddly on the modern ear, for instance “your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead” (4:1, repeated in 6:5, Jewish Publication Society translation). Readers should realize that the Bible is filled with feelings of protection and warmth toward nature and its creatures, reflecting a pastoral culture. Yet this long-ago poetry is fully contemporary as it floats among desire, yearning, admiration, reminiscence, boastfulness, teasing, and self-reflection -- for the woman character in the drama as well as the man.
Considered as scripture, the Song contrasts with warnings elsewhere in the Bible about sexual sin. Yet the Jewish sages some 19 centuries ago agreed it was among the writings in the “canon” to be recognized as holy writ. Christianity then carried the Jewish books over into its “Old Testament.”
An evangelical expert, Tremper Longman III of Westmont College, wrote that we have no evidence to tell how the Song’s original readers understood it, and Roland E. Murphy said we cannot be sure why or when Jewish authorities made it part of the biblical canon. But historians generally think the Song was accepted because ancient Jews thought King Solomon himself wrote it, and because they believed its true message was not glorification of sexuality but the spiritual love between God and his people. That’s called “allegorical” interpretation, though the poem itself is not an allegory.