Interpretive History of the Song of Songs
"I sought him, but could not find him. I called him, but he gave me no answer."


. . . In first-century Palestine the Song of Songs was sung in taverns. Yet in the Middle Ages, the love poetry of the text held a deep fascination for monks and nuns. This erotic masterpiece has always carried with it something more than merely a sensual attraction. Christian mystics used its language to express their longing for God. Monks in the Middle Ages made it the most copied book of the Bible. In fact, even to think of Jewish spirituality without the Song of Songs is not possible. It is deeply embedded in our Judeo-Christian literary tradition. The Song of Songs has inspired more common quotations in English for its length than any other book of the Bible. Today in wedding ceremonies it is often quoted. The character of this short text, however, has been much debated for at least two thousand years. Is it simply an erotic love poem that somehow found its way into the text of the Old Testament? Is it an allegory, to be interpreted by one of various theological approaches? (for an example see Notes on the Song of Solomon from the Geneva Bible of 1599) How has this text been visualized? To understand the richness of the Song of Songs, it is necessary to consider the controversies over the relation between physical and spiritual love, the role of eroticism in the Bible, and the way in which the Song of Songs has been depicted artistically.

The problem of love is as old as humanity. Those who don't have it want it, and those who have it complain about it. Is love just a function of sexual desire? Is it something spiritual that transcends the body? Or is it somehow caught in between body and soul? In modern thought, the philosopher DesCartes often gets the credit (or blame) for separating the human being into a rational soul and a machine-like animal body. But the difficulty goes back to the earliest recorded stories, from the Biblical Garden of Eden to the myths of the Greeks. . . .

. . . the primary goal of this new presentation of the Song of Songs is to provide an interpretation of its eroticism that balances the physical with the spiritual, without indulging in allegory. In order to achieve this, Judith Ernst has adopted two revolutionary strategies; first, she turned to the comparative approach as a key to the meaning of the text, and second, as an artist she recognized the overriding importance of the visual factor in the language of the Song of Songs.

—From "Interpreting the Song of Songs: The Paradox of Spiritual and Sensual Love" by Carl W. Ernst, Zachary Smith Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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