Bible: The Old Testament

The Song of Solomon

Modern scholars see similarities between The Song of Solomon and other ancient Near-Eastern stories in which the fertility of the earth depends upon the sexual encounter of a male and female deity. Although the biblical maiden and her lover themselves do not affect the fertility of the land, there are numerous parallels between the fertile vegetation of their surroundings and the success of their romance. The lovers recline on a green couch, whose color suggests a connection with nature. The song also explicitly compares the man and woman to vegetation: the woman is a flower and the man is a fruit tree. Images of plants and frolicking animals are symbols of life, and as such they are metaphors for the procreative act of human sexual relations. The song’s references to spring and the budding of plants further emphasize the budding of romantic arousal. The couple always celebrates their love in such verdant environments—in the wilderness, the vineyard, or the garden. It is in the city, where plants do not grow and the city guards are brutal, that the maiden searches for her lover but cannot find him.

The man’s comparison of the maiden to a “garden locked” and “fountain sealed” establishes the relationship between chastity and femininity (4:12). The image of an enclosed garden is a metaphor for female virginity that is frequently repeated in later medieval and Renaissance literature. In the Song of Solomon, the closed garden suggests that the girl is chaste and unsullied. The man’s dining in the garden implies that the two have consummated their relationship, and his invitation to the chorus to celebrate this event with feasting further indicates the completion of this rite of passage. Later, the two walk in a vineyard, and the girl remembers her earlier virginity when she was cursed to labor in the vineyard instead of enjoying it. Her memory while in the vineyard suggests the bittersweet nature of the loss of innocence.

The garden motif is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden in Genesis, where Adam and Eve enjoy God’s creation prior to the emergence of human wickedness. The parallels to Eden in The Song of Solomon suggest that the celebration of human sensuality is, itself, a good and not a wicked thing. The maiden and her lover, however, must enjoy their love within the boundaries and confines of gardens and fields. This limitation on the enjoyment of their sexual behavior is in keeping with the ongoing biblical theme that there are ethical requirements for enjoying God’s promises—for Adam and Eve to remain in the garden of Eden and for the Israelites to dwell in the promised land.