Passover's 'The Song of Songs' Is Correct Name, Not 'Solomon's Song'

Philologos Solves Dilemma With a Dose of Solomonic Wisdom

To Play The King: Bible translator John Wycliffe first inserted the name of Solomon (depicted here in an 18th century print) into the title of ‘The Song of Songs.’
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To Play The King: Bible translator John Wycliffe first inserted the name of Solomon (depicted here in an 18th century print) into the title of ‘The Song of Songs.’

By Philologos

Published March 31, 2013, issue of April 05, 2013.
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It was, as far as I can determine, the pioneer English Bible translator John Wycliffe (1320–1384) who first decided to insert Solomon into the title of The Song of Songs. In this he departed from both the Hebrew Bible and the Latin Vulgate, which imitated shir-hashirim with Canticum Canticorum. Wycliffe, on the other hand, called the poem “The Song of Solomon” while reducing its first line to “Here beginneth the song of songs,” and the King James Version retained Wycliffe’s title, as did most of the other English Bibles that followed.

From a Jewish point of view, there is nothing particularly objectionable about this. As a modern reader of the Bible, however, I find “The Songs of Songs” greatly preferable to “The Song of Solomon.” This is not only because the introductory attribution to Solomon was clearly tacked on by a later editor.

It is even more so because the poem is for the most part the dialogue of two nameless lovers, a young man and a young woman, and while King Solomon appears in it several times, he does so as a shadowy potentate threatening their romance, whether because he covets the young woman for himself or because he represents the world of power and authority that looks askance at their youthful sexuality.

Consider the poem’s next-to-last lines: “Solomon had a vineyard at Ba’al-Hamon. He let the vineyard out to keepers — everyone for its fruit was to bring a thousand pieces of silver.

“My vineyard, which is mine, is before me. Thou, O Solomon, take thy thousand.”

It is not clear whether the last line is spoken by the young woman, who is proudly announcing that, unlike all the concubines whom King Solomon commands (“Ba’al Hamon” in Hebrew means “owner of plenty”), she will grant her favors only to her true love, or by the young man, who is boasting that his lover is his alone and will be shared with no one, not even a king.

One thing, however, is clear: This is not the song of Solomon. It is — in its beauty, its tenderness and its exquisite awareness of the excitement and vulnerability of young love — the Bible’s song of songs.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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