The Song of Songs is a surprising book, especially if we bring to it certain expectations about what biblical literature “should” look like. We may be surprised that the Song is a dialogue between two lovers that is dominated by the voice of a woman. That the Song rejoices in erotic love and sex outside of marriage. That it does not mention those hallmarks by which we often know we are reading the Bible: There is no mention of covenant, temple, or religious practice, and, most surprising, perhaps not even a mention of God (depending on how you translate Song 8:6).
All of which gives rise to the question: Is this sacred scripture or a secular love poem?
The answer to this question is, “both.” On the one hand, the Song appears part of a literary tradition that finds its origins, in part, in secular Egyptian love poetry; it borrows from its images, structures, and motifs. The Song is “earthy” in its exultation in the natural world and the delights of physical intimacy. On the other hand, it is a part of the biblical canon and its celebration of the human body and sexuality appears intimately linked with the affirmation in Gen 1:27 where humanity, “male and female,” is said to be “in the image of God.”
Ancient and modern readers alike have wondered what makes the Song “sacred.” In the second century CE, Rabbi Akiva weighed in on a dispute about whether or not the Song was Scripture: “Heaven forbid that anyone in Israel ever dispute that the Song of Songs is holy.… The Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies!” (m. Yad. 3:5). He admonished, “Whoever trills the Song of Songs in the banquet-halls and makes it a secular song has no share in the world to come” (t. Sanh. 12:10). But the force of his assertion suggests that for some—at least his debating partners—the Song was a great drinking song, neither sacred nor holy.
Rabbi Akiva’s confidence in the sacredness of the Song was based, in large part, on his way of reading it. While the Song began as a song composed about human love, some early Jewish interpreters interpreted the Song to be about the love between God and Israel, and for some early Christians interpreters it provided an allegory of, for example, Christ’s love of the church. For Rabbi Akiva’s detractors, as well those who point to its origins as a secular love song, the Song’s power and meaning come instead in its fierce commitment to human love, the natural world, and unambivalent desire.
Is it possible to acknowledge the force of the Song’s earthy sexual language and its intoxicating eroticism and still read it as sacred literature? By identifying with the poem’s lovers, can hearers experience deep passion, desire, and the profusion of natural beauty in the Song’s images—which is related to a deep passion for the divine? We know that it is often oversimplification to say something is sacred or secular: Many readers regard sex as earthly, spiritual—and sacred. And others regard the natural world, this world, as charged with the divine. As such, the book would hold an incomparable place in the Bible for its rare witness to Israel’s unquenchable desire—making the Song a potent comment on love, both human and divine.