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216
CANTICLES

have a sufficient motive, and the dénouement is no longer violent and unprepared.

The nodus of the action is fully given in chapter i., the final issue in chapter viii. The solution lies entirely in the character and constancy of the heroine, which prevail, in the simplest possible way, first over the ladies of the court and then over the king.

The attractiveness of the above theory cannot be denied; but it may be asked whether the attraction does not lie in the appeal to modern taste of a story which is largely the product of modern imagination. It supposes a freedom of intercourse between lovers inconceivable for the East. The initial situation of the maiden in the harem of Solomon is left as a problem for the reader to discover, until he comes to its supposed origin in vi. 11; the expedient might be granted in the case of one of Browning’s Men and Women, but seems very improbable in the present case. The more elaborate dramatic theories can find no parallel in Semitic literature to the “drama” of Canticles, the book of Job being no exception to this statement; whilst even the simpler theories ask us to believe that the essential parts of the story—the rape of the Shulamite, the change in Solomon’s disposition, her release from the harem—are to be supplied by the reader from obscure and disputable references. More serious still is the fact that any progress of action from first to last is so difficult to prove. In the first chapter we listen to a woman speaker desiring to be kissed by the man who has brought her into his chambers, and speaking of “our bed”; in the last we leave her “leaning upon her beloved.” The difficulties of detail are equally great. To suppose that all the male love-making, by hypothesis unsuccessful, belongs to Solomon, whilst the heroine addresses her passionate words to the continuously absent shepherd, is obviously unconvincing; yet, if this shepherd speaks in iv. 8-v. 1, how are we to explain his appearance in the royal harem? This and other difficulties were acknowledged by Robertson Smith, notably the presence of vii. 1-9, which he proposed to set aside as an interpolation, because of its sensuality and of the difficulty of working it into the dramatic scheme. The fact that this passage has subsequently become the central element in the new interpretation of the book is, perhaps, a warning against violent measures with difficulties.

Attention has already been drawn to Herder’s proposal, accepted by some later writers, including Diestel and Reuss, to regard the book as a collection of detached songs. This received new and striking confirmation from the anthropological data supplied by J. G. Wetstein (1873), Prussian consul at Damascus. His observations of the wedding customs of Syrian peasants led him to believe that Canticles is substantially a collection of songs originally sung at such festivities. Wetstein’s contribution was republished shortly afterwards by Delitzsch, in an appendix to his Commentary; but it received little attention. The first amongst Old Testament scholars to perceive its importance seems to have been Stade, who accepted Wetstein’s view in a footnote to his History of the Jewish People (ii. p. 197), published in 1888; to Budde, however, belongs the distinction of the systematic and detailed use of Wetstein’s suggestions, especially in his Commentary (1898). This interpretation of the book is accepted by Kautzsch (1896), Siegfried (1898), Cheyne (1899), and other eminent scholars. The last-named states the theory tersely as follows: “The book is an anthology of songs used at marriage festivals in or near Jerusalem, revised and loosely connected by an editor without regard to temporal sequence” (Ency. Bibl. 691). The character of the evidence which has contributed to the acceptance of this view may be indicated in Wetstein’s own statements:—

“The finest time in the life of the Syrian peasant consists of the first seven days after his wedding, in which he and his young wife play the part of king (melik) and queen (melika), both being so treated and served by their village and the invited communities of the neighbourhood. The majority of the greater village weddings fall in the month of March, the finest of the Syrian year. The winter rains being over, and the sun still refreshing, not oppressive as in the following months, the weddings are celebrated in the open air on the village threshing-floor, which at this time of the year is with few exceptions a flowery mead. ... We pass over the wedding-day itself with its displays, the sword-dance of the bride, and the great feast. On the morrow, bridegroom and bride awake as king and queen. Already before sunrise they receive the leader of the bridesmen, as their vizier, and the bridesmen themselves; the latter thereupon fetch the threshing-board and bring it to the threshing-floor, singing a rousing song of battle or love, generally both. There it is erected as a throne, and after the royal couple have taken their seats and the necessary formalities are gone through, a great dance in honour of the young couple begins; the accompanying song is concerned only with themselves, its principal element being the inevitable wasf, i.e. a description of the physical perfections of both and their ornaments. The eulogy of the queen is more moderate, and praises her visible, rather than veiled, charms; this is due to the fact that she is to-day a married woman, and that the wasf sung on the previous day during her sword-dance has left nothing to desire. This wasf is the weak element in Syrian wedding-songs according to our taste; its comparisons are to us frequently too clumsy and reveal the stereotyped pattern. It is the same with the little collection of charming wedding-songs and fragments of them which has been received into the canon of the Old Testament under the name of Canticles; the wasf (iv.—vii.) is considerably below the rest in poetical value. With this dance begin the sports, lasting seven days, begun in the morning on the first, shortly before midday on the other days, and continuing far into the night by the light of the fires that are kindled; on the last day alone all is over by sunset. During the whole week both royalties are in marriage attire, must do no work and have no cares; they have only to look down from the merteba (throne) on the sports carried on before them, in which they themselves take but a moderate part; the queen, however, occasionally gives a short dance to attract attention to her bridal attire.”

[1]

For the general application of these and the related customs to the interpretation of the book, reference should be made to Budde’s Commentary, which recognizes four wasfs, viz. iv. 1-7 (describing the bride from head to breasts), v. 10-16 (the bridegroom), vi. 4-7 (similar to and partly repeating iv. 1-7), and vii. 1-9, belonging to the sword-dance of the bride, her physical charms being sung from feet to head (cf. vii. 1; “Why look ye on the Shulamite as (on) a dance of camps?” i.e. a war-dance). This dance receives its name from the fact that she dances it with a sword in her hand in the firelight on the evening of her wedding-day, and amid a circle of men and women, whilst such a wasf as this is sung by the leader of the choir. The passage relating to the litter of Solomon (iii. 6-11)—an old difficulty with the dramatizers—relates to the erection of the throne on the threshing-floor.[2] The terms “Solomon” and “the Shulamite” are explained as figurative references to the famous king, and to Abishag the Shulamite, “fairest among women,” on the lines of the use of “king” and “queen” noted above. Other songs of Canticles are referred by Budde to the seven days of festivities. It need hardly be said that difficulties still remain in the analysis of this book of wedding-songs; whilst Budde detects 23 songs, besides fragments, Siegfried divides the book into 10.[3] Such differences are to be expected in the case of a collection of songs, some admittedly in dialogue form, all concerned with the common theme of the love of man and woman, and without any external indication of the transition from one song to the next.

Further, we must ask whether the task has been complicated by any editorial rearrangement or interpolation; the collector of these songs has certainly not reproduced them in the order of their use at Syrian weddings. Can we trace any principle, or even any dominant thought in this arrangement? In this connexion we touch the reason for the reluctance of some scholars to accept the above interpretation, viz. the alleged marks of

  1. Wetstein, Zeitschrift f. Ethn., 1873, pp. 270-302; quoted and condensed by Budde as above in Comm. p. xvii.; for a fuller reproduction of Wetstein in English see Harper, The Song of Songs, pp. 74-76.
  2. For the connexion of the threshing-floor with marriage through the idea of sexual fertility, we may compare many primitive ideas and customs, such as those described by Frazer (The Golden Bough, ii. p. 181 f., 186).
  3. Castelli (Il Cantico dei Cantici, 1892) has written a very attractive little book on Canticles (quite apart from the Wetstein development) regarded as “a poem formed by a number of dialogues mutually related by a certain succession”; they require for their understanding nothing but some indication of the speaker at each transition (such as we find in codex A of the Septuagint).