Chapter One:

WHAT IS THE SONG OF SONGS?


A. A Mysterious Book

No book of the Hebrew Bible has provoked more controversy than the
Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon or Canticles). The more commentators have analyzed the verbal text, the less consensus there has been on its authorship, meaning and purpose.

Specialists debate the very meaning of the title,
schir haSchirim ascher lischlomo ("The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's" -- RSV). Does this mean it is the greatest of songs, or a collection of songs? Did Solomon write it? Was it written for or about Solomon, or simply ascribed to him? When was it written, and why?

Judeo-Christian tradition insists that
Solomon wrote the Song of Songs. Even so, commentators do not agree on its purpose and meaning. Some say that the Song is an allegory of the relationship between God and His people (whether Israel or the Church). Others claim it only concerns erotic love in marriage. Some even claim the Song is a series of unrelated love poems or wedding songs.

Commentators do not even agree on who is speaking (or singing). Some claim the bride, Shulamith, is the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10); some, the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1). Others claim she is Abishag the Shulamite, David's nurse (1 Kings 1:1-4); still others, an otherwise unknown woman. She wins the love of Solomon (some say) or both Solomon and an unnamed shepherd (say others) -- assuming the Song is a unified work, of course! The other speakers -- the "daughters of Jerusalem", Shulamith's brothers, and others whose identity is less clear -- provoke endless theories as well.

B. An Enigmatic Musical Score

All commentators have been frustrated by an undeniable fact:
the Song of Songs is an "art song" -- one whose original melody has long been unknown. Without that melody, the apparent contradictions in the book and the issues of authorship, meaning and purpose can never be fully resolved through analysis.

But the melody of the Song of Songs has only been lost in
practice, not in fact. In biblical times, all literature (sacred or secular) was in principle sung in public reading; all literary authors were (again in principle) "poet-composers". In most cases, the melodies used were not preserved; but we find tantalizing hints in the art and literature of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and other Mediterranean countries, the Celts, Hindus and many other peoples.

We also know that music was a
precise art in antiquity. Musical notation was known and used, before, during and after the time of Moses. But the ancients also used precise teaching methods, paramount of which was the use of hand-gestures representing musical values (chironomy). Such gestures were used to conduct not only the Psalms, but the melodic rendition of the rest of Hebrew Scripture and many other religious and poetic texts as well.1

In Israel, the melodic reading of Scripture was the charge of the priests and Levites, both in the Tabernacle and in the First and Second Temples. As we will see, the biblical authors (including the prophets, beginning with Moses), likewise poet-composers, "cantillated" their own texts (laws, histories, oracles, psalms, songs, proverbs, laments, epics, etc.).

The Hebrew Bible we use today (the "Masoretic Text") not only has consonants and vowel-points, but a notation of vocal melody: the
te`amim (from ta`am: to taste, discern, appreciate, etc.). These written signs represent gestures of the hands and fingers, similar to those used from high antiquity by musicians all over the biblical world and beyond.2 Every verse of the Masoretic Hebrew Bible (including the Psalm titles) is annotated with te`amim, with some signs placed below, some above the words.

These "musical accents" (contrary to common opinion) are neither a medieval innovation nor a rabbinic tradition. They were (according to the scribes called
Masoretes who preserved them) handed down from a family of Second Temple priests via the medieval Karaites. They represent a musical and exegetical tradition different from the oral and written traditions of "te`amim" used in the early synagogues. Reinterpreted by the Masoretes and their successors (and by the rabbinic cantors), the te`amim (as many musicologists acknowledge) are an ancient, musical notation of lost meaning.

Starting from this premise, Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, a student of music composition and theory at the National Conservatory in Paris, began (during World War II) the arduous task of deciphering the Masoretic notation.
3 She (like the Masoretes before her) used the Hebrew verbal syntax (in her words) as the "Rosetta Stone" necessary to decipher the te`amim. Unlike the Masoretes, she started from the premise that the te`amim are primarily musical, not primarily exegetical (that is, not primarily a system of "disjunctives" and "conjunctives" showing how the words are divided and connected into verses and phrases).

Given Haïk-Vantoura's starting premise, the Hebrew verbal syntax dictates the function (and therefore the musical meaning) of every graphic form.
4 The resulting "deciphering key" shows that the te`amim define a hierarchy of musical tones: a "tonality", based on the harmonic relationships between the degrees of the scales and modes used.

C. An Incomparable Melos

The Song of Songs, like the rest of the Hebrew Bible, is annotated with
te`amim. Like the other biblical books, it was written as "art song", in which the musical and verbal syntaxes are interwoven. This interweaving proves that the melody could not have been added after the words were written. Rather, the Song was created as what the Greeks called melos: a complex of "melody-words". But it also proves that the Song is a unified work: one built on comparable and contrasting musical and verbal "motifs", yet designed by a single poet-composer.

Indeed, the poet-composer of the Song of Songs has no peer in the Bible. Not even the Psalms of David (the most "idiosyncratic" and intimate of the biblical "art songs") have a comparable "classical" lyricism and sensitivity. Only the Book of Esther (which, like the Song, has the luxury of a world-class royal court as its background) can compare with it in charm. Only Ecclesiastes (which is also ascribed to Solomon) and (in its own way) David's Song of the Ark (1 Chronicles 16:7-36) can match the Song's lyrical quality.

Of all the musicians known in Israelite history, only King Solomon had the right combination of gifts, circumstances and motivations to create such a work as the Song of Songs. Moreover, thanks to the interrelationship of text and melody, we can show that the Song must have existed in its final form before the ascension of King Rehoboam, Solomon's successor.
5 Finally, we can now show when the events the Song describes most likely happened: between Solomon's first and second anointing as king, before David's death (when Solomon was still a young man).

Truly, the Song of Songs is "of Solomon". It bears the very stamp of his personality, a stamp found in all the other works ascribed to him and none other (despite the variety of works he created, and despite their different moods, purposes and circumstances). As one might expect, that stamp is Solomon's unique wisdom, based ultimately in the connection between marital and Divine love. When Solomon lost sight of that connection, he lost his intimacy with God and much of his wisdom (1 Kings 11:1-13), regaining them only near the end of his life (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

D. A Description of an Ideal Marriage

Of course, the Song of Songs is first of all a "love song". It describes (in basically chronological order) the courtship, marriage and early married life of Solomon (of royal blood) and Shulamith (a commoner).
6 Using delicate imagery appropriate to its cultural setting, it is not afraid to describe the most earthy details of the sexual relationship in marriage. (Some of these details are phrased so subtly that only the original melos can make them clear.)

Three Hebrew words translated "love" are used in the Song:
dod (the root of dodi, "my Loved One"), ra`a (the root of re`i, "my friend", and ra`yati, "my Dear One"), and 'ahava (the word most often translated "love"). In its emphatic, definite, direct-object form, 'ahava becomes 'et - ha'ahava.

In this book, we translate
'ahava as love; 'et - ha'ahava, as Love; and ba'ahava (Song 8:7) as "for Love". To our knowledge, no commentator before us has distinguished between love and Love in translation. Is there a basis for this distinction?

First, we learn from Scripture that man is a composite of
spirit, soul and body, all of which God created to be sancitifed (1 Thessalonians 5:23). In both Testaments, we learn of the human spirit or mind, which is the rational capacity of man (cf. Psalm 77:6, English versification; Job 32:8; 1 Corinthians 2:11); the human soul, which is the now-mortal life of man with its desires (many verses); and the human body, which is "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:13-16, KJV). What our English Bibles call "love" may involve any or all of these facets of man's being.

In the Hebrew Bible as a whole, each word for "love" has a core meaning which may adapt to different circumstances. Thus
'ahava is not always "altruistic", though it is always idealized.7 Again, ra`a is not always "brotherly", though it is always companionable. Finally, dod is not always "erotic", though it always refers to physical affection (as expressed by touch or caressing). In the Song of Songs, these three words are consistently used in a way that reflects their core meaning, whatever their connotations in context.8

Thus in the Song of Songs,
dod refers to love of the body; ra`a, to love of the spirit or mind; 'ahava, to love of the soul. (Shulamith describes Solomon as the one "whom my soul loves": sche'ahava nafschi, in Song 1:7 and elsewhere.) These usages in the Song have more or less close parallels in Classical Greek:

dod = eros
ra'a = philia
'ahava = agape


Yet just as New Testament Greek may use
agape to describe love of the Divine (the love between God and His people as well as among His people), so the Hebrew Bible may use 'ahava in the same sense. "And you shall love (ve'ahavTa) the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:4, RSV). But also, "But you shall love (ve'ahavTa) your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). These are the two "Great Commandments" on which the rest of God's spiritual law depends (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).

In the Song of Songs, this love of the Divine is typified by the
'ahava that grows between the Lovers. This altruistic sort of "love" finds its highest melodic and verbal expression in Song 2:7, 8:4 and 8:6-7, where it takes on a grammatically definite quality. In 2:7 and 8:4; the melos gives 'et - ha'ahava ("Love") a definite "romantic" quality. By contrast, in 8:6-7 the melos gives a transcendent, awesome quality to 'ahava, 'et - ha'ahava and ba'ahava alike. This is not surprising, for in these verses the context is that of the commitment required in marriage as God ordained it.

So
Love is simply love given a special emphasis (musically and grammatically). Since such Love was within the reach of the Daughters of Jerusalem (who were not offered personal salvation by God at that time), one does not necessarily require the Holy Spirit to experience it. This sheds light on the enigmatic wording of Malachi 3:15, which should be understood to mean that the oneness possible in human marriage "has a remnant of spirit in it". That is, human marriage -- even apart from God's Spirit being present in it -- is above all to be a spiritual relationship. Godly offspring -- children obedient to God's ways -- are to result from that relationship (same verse).

All the same, we make a distinction between
love and Love because 'ahava in the Song does not always refer to the same thing in context. At its lowest (but still idealistic) level, it refers to the romantic feelings Solomon inspires in the maidens who see him (Song 1:2-4). At its highest level, it refers to the feelings between a courting couple (or a husband and wife) fulfilling God's purposes. In all these latter cases, 'et - ha'ahava is used. Thus we believe our distinction is justified.

E. A Type of God and His People

So then, is the Lovers' physical relationship merely a poetic "figure" for a spiritual relationship?
Not at all! The Song of Songs is typological -- not metaphorical, allegorical or even parabolic. It portrays something far more profound than a mere "figure of speech".

Shulamith describes
'ahava in Song 8:6:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For strong as Death is Love,
Cruel as Sheol is passion;
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
The very flame of the Eternal.
9

"The very flame of the Eternal" paraphrases schalhevetyah (spelled as two words in some manuscripts: schalhevet - yaH). The word yaH is merely the short form of yehaVeh (or in the ancient pronunciation, yehaWeh10): according to Rabbinic and New Testament teaching, "He Who Was, Is and Will Be" (cf. Revelation 1:4; 4:8). Contrary to some ancient and modern opinions, God is present in the Song -- but "in Spirit". His presence is conveyed throughout by the melos (especially by its awesome intensification of love and Love in Song 8:6-7).

Solomon and Shulamith, like the other "prophets" of God in both Testaments, partook of the Divine Nature (the Holy Spirit). Their ideal relationship was founded in ideal circumstances (despite the challenges they faced). It thus portrays the relationship between the Eternal (the Royal "Loved One") and His people (the "commoner" chosen by grace, the "Dear One"). The human marital relationship (the
type) sets the pattern for the Divine marital relationship (the antitype).

Who then is the "Dear One", antitypically? Israel's calling in and departure from Egypt is itself a type of the Church's calling in and departure from sin. Thus Israel (like the Church) was offered a
covenant relationship with God, one likened to a human marriage in many passages. As a body of obedient, sanctified believers, Israel was called kehal YehaVeh, "the Assembly of the Eternal" (Deuteronomy 23:1-8, English versification) or kehal ha'Elohim, "the Assembly of God" (Nehemiah 13:1-3). Together, these two expressions (plus Lamentations 1:10, which bridges and alludes to Deuteronomy 23:1-8 and Nehemiah 13:1-3) are used twelve times in the Hebrew Bible.11

The expression
kehal ha'Elohim (as translated into Greek by the Septuagint) is used in the New Testament twelve times in various forms (always in the writings or speech of Paul), all variants of he ekkelsia tou Theou: "the Assembly ['Church'] of God".12 This "assembly" likewise is offered a covenant relationship with God. This is the very same New Covenant that is promised to national Israel in the Messianic Age (Jeremiah 31:31ff, English versification; Hebrews 8:8-13). This covenant shall likewise be a marital relationship (Isaiah 54:1-8; Revelation 19:7-8).

He ekkelsia tou Theou of the Greek Scriptures, then, claims by its very name (as well as its belief and practice) to be the legitimate heir of the kehal ha'Elohim of the Hebrew Scriptures.13 Once again, type and antitype are involved. The "Old Testament Church" is typical of the "New Testament Church". Physical, national Israel under the Old Covenant is typical of the spiritual "Israel of God" under the New Covenant (Galatians 6:16).

Under both Covenants, the "Church of God" is defined by the
spiritual relationship between God and His people. Israel's relationship with God was indeed to be spiritual, not just physical. Yet Israel (which was never offered the Holy Spirit as a whole) proved consistantly disobedient to God (save for a very few). Even many who assembled with the New Testament Church of God were not truly part of the Church (cf. 1 John 2:19).

In that light, let us understand that the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures were written, not for the faithless in Israel or for merely professing Christians, but for the
kehal ha'Elohim: those who truly belong to Him. Thus Shulamith typifies the "Church of God" throughout history; Solomon, the God who redeems His people through His Messiah, Himself being typified by the Passover lamb (Isaiah 53; 1 Corinthians 5:7).

Why then is the Song of Songs never quoted in the New Testament?
14 For the same reason specialists have reached no consensus on the Song's meaning; the message of the Song is not found in its words alone, but only in its melos. One simply cannot use the words of the Song, as taken out of their original melodic context, to illustrate the spiritual significance of marriage. Rabbinic Jews and Gentile Christians who attempted to do so after New Testament times were forced to treat the words allegorically, ultimately in the light of non-biblical ideas.

F. A Mystery Revealed

Yet in the original
melos of the Song, we see Eden restored: Love as God intended Adam and Eve to know it. Such Love illustrates a profound mystery, one described explicitly in the New Testament.

Here then is the mystery of the Song: Just as a happily-married couple become "one flesh", so "he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:17; Ephesians 5:22-33). For that matter, those who are to be one with the Father and Son also are to be one with each other -- a state possible only upon the resurrection of the dead and the Divine marriage to follow (John 17:11, 20-23; Revelation 19:6-8). In the Song of Songs, the melos gives spiritual overtones to the explicitly fleshly union of the Lovers. This is why the Song is typical, not allegorical, of the relationship between God and His people.

There are other types in the Song of Songs as well: matters of detail in the Lovers' relationship. In particular, the "passion" (
kin'a) of love as Shulamith describes it reminds us of the 'El kaNa' of Exodus 20:5: the God Who is by turns zealous for or jealous over His people.15 "For the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God ('El kaNa')" (Deuteronomy 4:24; cf. v. 23).

Such typologies are why we call this book
The Song of Songs Revealed. Thanks to the original melody of the Song (as restituted by Haïk-Vantoura), the "mystery" underlying the types and antitypes may now be solved -- and our understanding of the whole Hebrew-Christian Bible benefits!


FOOTNOTES

1. Transcriptions of chironomy (which include the earliest notations of Gregorian and Byzantine chant) are often called neumes.
2. The written signs are likewise neumes, as are the earliest transcriptions of synagogue chant (see below, main text).
3. Not until Haïk-Vantoura's "retirement" in 1970 did she return to her deciphering efforts. Her first publication of the results was in 1976: La musique de la Bible révélée, 1st edition (Paris: Robert Dumas). The second French edition came in 1978 (Paris: Dessain et Tolra); the English edition (which I edited), The Music of the Bible Revealed, in 1991 (BIBAL Press/King David's Harp, Inc.)
4. In effect, the Hebrew words and the melodic notation form a virtual bilingual. A truly bilingual text has two symbolic notations of the same genre (e.g., verbal language) expressing the same content. A "virtually bilingual" text has two symbolic notations of different genres (e.g., verbal language and music) which share common content.
5. The supporting evidences alleged for a later date for some or all of the Song can be independently shown to be without foundation (cf. Appendix 1).
6. No "shepherd" or "love triangle" is involved; the melos refutes the idea by its very structure, as well as by the nature of the love it describes.
7. The "ideal" nature of 'ahava explains why it may be used to represent infatuation (as in 2 Samuel 13:1, 5, 15), just as "love" may in English.
8. Much misunderstanding by commentators is based on ignorance of these distinctions, which are made clear by the melodic and verbal contexts in which they are used in the Song.
9. All translations not otherwise noted are by the author.
10. The form YehaVeh is that proposed by Abraham S. Halkin, Ph.D., in the out-of-print 201 Hebrew Verbs (Barron's Educational Services, Inc., 1970, p. 66). Dr. Halkin took it to be the Pi`el third person singular imperfect of hayah, "to be", meaning "He will form, constitute". The substitution (in the "reading tradition" and in biblical texts such as Daniel 9 and several Psalms) of 'Adonay or 'Elohim for the Tetragrammaton, the fact that the te`amim treat y-h-v-h as a three-syllable word (with the last syllable stressed and with certain implied vowel patterns), and parallels with certain other verb forms, all commend this form. Thus yahweh (taking the v as w according to ancient norms), proposed largely on the basis of early Greek transliterations and Samaritan usage, can be accounted for as an abbreviation (via elision of yeha- to yah-).
11. It is not for nothing that the Song of Songs has been read at Passover (the memorial of Israel's calling and deliverance from Egypt) from ancient times.
12. The expression "churches of Christ" is also used in the KJV (Romans 16:16); some manuscripts. and versions read "church of the Lord" in Acts 20:28. "Churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:33) is parallel to kehal hasidim in Psalm 149:1.
13. Cf. Revelation 12, esp. v. 17, where the kehal ha'Elohim throughout history is symbolized by a woman. This is not simply national Israel, but "Jerusalem above...which is the mother of us all" (Galatians 4:26). This is the "woman" typified by Eve, whose "seed" would crush the head of the "serpent" (Genesis 3:15).
14. Revelation 3:20 does not refer (as many think) to Song 5:2, but to Luke 12:35-38.
15. Here again, kin'a has an adaptable core meaning; it does not always mean "jealousy" in the negative sense, though it always means "passion".


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Updated June 15, 2014