Ancient love poetry (Song of Solomon 1)

Image result for ishtar and tammuz

Illustration: Ishtar and Tammuz

The ancient Near East produced many examples of what can broadly be called “love poetry”. Some of it is overtly religious in nature, describing the love affairs of gods and goddesses. Other songs provide examples of “secular” love  poems that explore both the excitement and the heartbreak so prevalent among young lovers. Examples of ancient love poetry are as follows:

  • Mesopotamia has produced “religious” love poetry: Nebo and Tashmetu: an Akkadian poem about the love between Nebo, the god of scribes, and his consort (partner), Tashmetu. The Bridal Sheets: a Summerian song featuring a playful dialogue between the god Utu and his sister Inanna, in which he gradually divulges that he has arranged for her to marry Ama-shumgal-anna. Songs of Ishtar ans Tammuz: a compilation of songs dealing with the love affair between the goddess Ishtar and the god Tammuz.
  • Egypt has produced a number of love songs that are more “secular” in outlook in that they concern people rather than gods (ca. 1300-1150 B.C.). They do, however, sometimes have fantastic or mythological motifs. These poems astutely but sometimes comically portray the emotional turmoil of young love, with striking similarities to Song of Songs. Papyrus Harris 500: A young man and woman sing of their passionate love for each other. The dialogue-like parts for the male and female singers are similar to what we see in the Song. In some of these texts the female sings a soliloquy about her love; this too has parallels in the Song. Cairo Love Songs: Recorded on a vase, they include the songs of a young woman, who declares her devotion to her lover, and those of a young man, who yearns to be with her – to be the ring on her finger or her laundryman so he can handle her clothing. The Turin love Song: A fanciful text in which various trees talk to a pair of young lovers. Chester Beatty Papyrus I Love Songs: Again include parts for male and female singers, in which they describe the intensity of their passion and their frustration at being kept apart. One compilation, the Nakhtsobek Songs, explores a man’s becoming enamoured of a prostitute

The Egyptian poetry displays several parallels to the Song of Songs. Structurally they are similar in that both have parts for male and female singers. They also share similar metaphors and imagery. A few examples of common elements include:

  • The beloved is called “brother” or “sister” as a term of endearment (Song of Solomon 4:9).
  • In the Egyptian texts the woman asserts that her man’s love is better than beer (the favourite Egyptian beverage). In the Song, his love is preferable to wine (1:2).
  • In the Egyptian poems the woman calls for her lover to come like a horse dashing to a battlefield-, in the Song she summons him to hasten to her like a young stag (e.g. 8:14).
  • In both cases the woman is said to be a flower (2:1).
  • In each instance either the man or the woman is likened to a tree (2:3).
  • The door image is important to both (5:2-7).

At the same time, Egyptian poetry and the Song have significant differences:

  • Egyptian lovers often invoke Hathor, the goddess of love, in their quest to win over their beloved. The Biblical texts never suggest that God can be persuaded by lovetruck youth to manipulate someone to fall in love with him or her.
  • The Egyptian songs, but not the Song of Songs, often focus on youthful infatuation and thus include some frivolous elements.
  • The Egyptian poems are generally light-hearted, intended as humorous entertainment. Song of Songs takes a much more serious look at the significance of sexual love.

It is impossible an unnecessary to deny that the Egyptian texts influenced the poetry of Song of Songs. In fact, this poetry gives us a strong reason to date Song of Songs to be the age of Solomon, who not only lived near the time the Egyptian songs were being written but also maintained good relations with Egypt. Even so, the content, complexity and theological significance of Song of Song require us to regard it not as an imitation but as an original, canonical text.


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