Perhaps one of the last things the person new to the Hebrew Bible might expect to find is a book of erotic poetry. This is, however, exactly what the Song of Songs appears to be at face value—eight chapters of poetic episodes that speak of the intimate sexual relationship between a man and a woman. This erotic poetry has traditionally been seen as the work of King Solomon and the text itself mentions him several times. It is likely, however, that he is the deliberate subject of the book rather than its author. The clearest evidence of this is that once we have appreciated the obvious erotic nature of this book, it becomes clear that there is more going on than just love and sex. In particular it becomes apparent that the sexual relationship between King Solomon and his many wives is contrary to the rich mutuality intended by God for the relationship between a man and a woman.
In this way the broad nature of Song of Songs dismisses any idea that the Bible is prudish or rejects the importance of, and positive aspects of, human sexuality. For here in the Hebrew Bible we see the sexual union of man and woman celebrated joyfully. The more subtle agenda is however a critique of the all too commonplace corrupted sexual relationships in which the relationship is uneven.
A large number of interpreters of the Song of Songs have supressed both of these perspectives by either dismissing or at least subordinating the eroticism of this poetry beneath an allegorical interpretation. To be fair, allegorical interpretations abounded from early on in the history of the interpretation of this book. It is likely that for cultural reasons both within Judaism and early Christianity that the allegorical interpretation eclipsed the literal one because of a wider cultural disdain for sex—gnostic influences sought to separate the supposedly corrupt body from the purity of the spirit. This is not to say that there is no intention of allegory in these poems. It is very much the case that the collectors of the texts that now make up the Hebrew Bible saw not only erotic poetry but also a connection between the love between man and woman with that of the love between Yahweh and Israel. In this way it is vital that an allegorical interpretive dynamic should neither overshadow the literal celebration of the sexual union of man and woman, nor should it become fanciful, as allegory can so easily become. Rather than using the term allegorical, the term parable is probably a more appropriate one. Viewing these poems as parables implies that they have an analogical function in connecting the erotic relationship of love with that of God for his people. Allegory would attempt to interpret every detail in a fashion that is clearly forced and alien to any authorial or editorial intent.
A lot of attention has focused on identifying the narrative of the Song of Songs. Some see a simple story of lover and beloved. Others have seen a more complex narrative in which the shepherd and the king are two separate male characters. In this latter interpretation, followed by Iain Provain  for example, a contrast emerges between the true love between the women and the peasant shepherd with that of a forced relationship between the women and Solomon. I am more persuaded by Tremper Longmann III  who sees the book as an anthology of erotic poems. Free from an imposed storyline these poems speak of the delight of sexual intimacy and carry an analogical insight into the love of God for humanity and the possibility of its reciprocation. There is also within the poem an implied criticism of the still prevalent practice of powerful males purchasing women as commodities. In all of these ways it really is a Song of Songs.
References / Further Reading
- Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs: An NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
- Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs: New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Downers Gove: Eerdmans, 2001.