For centuries, people have been trying to figure out what to do with the Song of Songs from the Bible. It’s a work of sensual lyric poetry that depicts scenes of actual and imagined trysts between the poem’s female protagonist and her lover. It’s also the only book in the Bible that focuses exclusively on human-to-human love, not human-to-divine – at least on the surface level of the poem.
Ancient Jews and Christians were troubled by the inclusion of such a graphic love poem in the biblical canon and came up with their own ways to remedy the dilemma. They interpreted it as a portrayal of divine-to-human love, God’s relationship with a beloved individual or community. In the first few centuries, rabbis began to interpret the Song of Songs as part of their commentaries on the Pentateuch, the first section of the Hebrew Bible. They envisioned that narrative as an extended, intimate story about God’s relationship with the people of Israel.
Christian scholars avoided the carnal dimensions of this poetic work and instead interpreted it as an allegory of Christ’s love for his “bride,” the church. Other allegorical readings have also emerged throughout history, including one that saw it as the soul’s yearning for God and another that described God’s loving relationship with Jesus’ mother, Mary.
In the modern period, even more understandings of the poem have emerged, including some about human-to-human love. These diverse interpretations highlight readers’ creativity – and the evocative power of the Song of Songs’ poetic language. For centuries, people have been captivated by this unique and powerful work from the Bible – and its many interpretations continue to fascinate us today.