The Song of Songs has long been the focus of various conflicting debates amongst Old Testament scholars. Is it theological allegory, a story, or a compilation of erotic folksongs? There is only one constant throughout the Song, the central female character Shulamit, who appears to embody an ideal ‘norm’ of womanhood. Wilke examines the text in terms of spatial diversity and finds that the Song displays a discontinuous cycle of personal encounters within urban, rural and pastoral scenes. Then he attempts to contextualise the Song by comparing it with the conventions of Hellenistic love poetry and with the ritual symbolism of Dionysian cult, within the historical framework of the multiethnic borderland east of the Jordan.
In Chapter One Wilke examines pre-modern readings of the Song, when it was believed that landscapes were used as metaphors and that the masculine and feminine speech could be attributed to a single couple. During the 18th century, the significance of space as scenery made an appearance and finally in the 20th century the idea of space as a tapestry was propounded. 21st-century scholars have seen space as an agonistic metaphor, and there is a tendency to treat the Song in the context of biblical Wisdom literature and a return to the assumption of a unified narrative. It would appear, therefore, that the pattern of monotheistic tradition where one “feminised humanity craves for one man’s God”1 informs all contemporary interpretations of the text. Apart from Brenner, the only scholar to have challenged this assumption in modern times is Exum, who acknowledges that the lovers in the Song are connected to their social status but pursues this no further.2 In keeping with Brenner’s hypothesis, Wilke suggests that space should also be viewed as a life world and he reviews in the subsequent chapters the text’s structure from a different perspective, one that begins with the poems’ imagined correlations between space, class and gender.
In chapter 2 Wilke examines the real and imagined spaces, i.e. the mimetic/descriptive and metaphorical, while allowing that some spaces may be both. He divides the Song into twenty idylls, a form first used by Theocritus, based on the references to mimetic spatial settings, and finds that the formal means by which these structural units are distinguished from and linked to one another have close parallels in the Theocratean forms that emerged in Greek poetry of Alexandria during the first half of the 3rd century BCE. The historical dating of the Song was first estimated by Heinrich Graetz to be the 2nd half of the 3rd century BCE.3 Wilke divides the Song into four cycles, the Court (idylls 1, 4, 10, 13, 15), the City (idylls 6, 8, 14, 17, 19), Vineyard (idylls 2, 7, 11, 16, 20) and Wilderness (idylls 3, 5, 9, 12, 18). Each of the four environments hosts a specific type of erotic interaction: scenes of longing in the city, searching in the wilderness, seduction in the vineyard, and power play at the King’s court. The physical landscapes and social world are used as metaphors. In this fashion Wilke deconstructs the monolithic dialogue into that of ten lovers and compares the way the Song organises these ten lovers into four cycles, with four landscapes and four erotic constellations.
Chapter 3 examines the poetics of social diversity by looking at Greek literary and visual models as depicted on 5th-4th-century vase painting. Hellenistic poets, especially the Alexandrian circle, sought inspiration in the dramatic characterisation of social types that had become popular through comic drama. The literary modes of Athenian New Comedy (Menander) and Hellenistic mime (Herodas) explore social differences,4 while the Song depicts such an interaction of social classes and professions, from which Wilke concludes that
the reach of spatial movement and representation serves as an additional distinctive feature that is shared in the Song’s figures. The accessibility and significance of spaces are determined not only by gender but also by class…. In short, spatial relations are not blurred. On the contrary in addition to their distinctive consumption patterns, the four sociospatial locations, namely city, vineyard, court and wilderness correspond to a domestic, local, provincial and transregional radius that it assigned to a movement of their respective inhabitants, especially from a female perspective. (p. 53)
Chapter 4 deals with Ptolemy IV Philopater and his religious policy. The prominent figure in the Song mentioned by all the heroines is King Solomon. Graetz hypothesised that the image of Solomon as a womaniser was meant to depict the court in Alexandria under Ptolemy IV Philopater (245-204 BCE).5 In this chapter Wilke details the role of women, banquets, horseraces, Bacchanals, Dionysian politics and tattoos, concluding with a section on negotiating religion. For example, both the dove and the deer frequently appear in the Song but only in metaphorical and mythical contexts. When the city girl urges the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ to awake the power of love, she makes them take a solemn oath by the deer, that is to say, the guardian animal of the virgin goddess Artemis. The borrowing of imagery and ritual from diverse pagan cults is extensive throughout the Song, which echoes the common symbolism of Ptolemaic rule. As T. Rajak says “Greek culture was deeply intertwined with Jewish life from the early Hellenistic period to an extent where contemporaries were themselves not fully aware of the scale”.6 Likewise, the poet uses the motif of royal promiscuity in order to associate the Hellenistic ruler with the biblical King Solomon, the founding figure of the Judaean temple state.
This prompts the question of the penultimate chapter, was the Song written in Amman? The Judaean heartland was relatively unaffected by Hellenism; however the cities of the Decapolis were administered according to the Greek model of the polis inhabited by more or less Greek natives. The Hellenistic influence under the Tobaids and the discovery of the Zenon papyri7 indicate that the centre of Tobaid activity was in Transjordan. It would appear there was an exploitation of Judaean clereuchs within Ptolemaic Syria, especially in the garrisons of the Tobaids in Transjordan. The poet’s perspective evokes the Ptolemaic organisation of the military and urban spaces in the Song. Josephus locates the Tobaid fortress in the region of Hesbon,8 which stands in striking parallel to the Song’s reference to ‘the pools of Hesbon at the gate of Bat-Rabbim’. Amman also served an important economic function: stretched out along the ‘King’s Road’ were many wine producing villages and farmsteads. The mention of the King’s exploitation of the countryside in the last of the Song’s idylls can be viewed in the light of the political and economic history of the Ammanite region. Judaeans were often subject to religious pressure and were often enslaved, but sometimes they were empowered, and they were objects as well as agents of the Hellenisation of the Ammanites.
In conclusion, the author, by using Foucault’s categories of discontinuance and difference, reveals how the Song's idylls have dissected ancient society into a twentyfold human panorama. With the exception of the ‘warriors of Israel’ and the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ who represent the Judaean population, none of the characters are defined by their origins. The non-ethnic juxtaposition of country, urban, rural and pastoral space reflects the multi ethnic Transjordan region. The King is called Solomon, but he is modelled on a pagan ruler. The Jewish characters appear as spectators who occasionally interact on certain levels with other social classes. The overall setting appears to consist of ten Gentile soloists (six women and four men) before a male and female Jewish chorus, and a Jewish audience. As a syncretic text, the Song in its entirety has been successful in the history of Jewish acculturation. The Song has always stood in a Jewish religious context with changing justifications: its topoi of multifarious love were condensed into metaphors of a unified mystic intrigue and finally a moralistic example. Although either reading strategy has enriched both Jewish and Christian culture, Wilkes argues that they have eclipsed the original meaning of the text found in its poetic exploration of human diversity and erotic universality. The conclusion shows that in the Song the spirit and literary pattern of Dionysian celebrations, with some elements filtered out, has been imported into a Jewish context.
Wilke makes a sound and well-structured argument and certainly opens up the Song for further debate. He has appraised the often overlooked anomalies in time and space as well as gender. He has carried forward the work of Exum and Brenner, who encouraged searching for a presence of diversity within the text. Wilke achieves this admirably, and this work will surely form the basis for a renewed appraisal of the Song in a Hellenistic setting.
1. Brenner, A The Song of Songs. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 1989. 37.
2. Exum, C. The Song of Songs: A Commentary. Westminster: John Knox Press 2005.
3. Graetz, H. Schir ha-schirim, oder, Das Salomonische Hohelied. Wien: Wilhelm Braumῠller 1871. Later proponents of this date are Tcherikova, V. Hellenistic Civilisation and the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America 1959) and Hengel, M Judaism and Hellenism I: Studies in their encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic period (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock 1974). ] A scroll discovered in 2001 containing 112 epigrams by Posidippus provides a coherent collection of poetry from the Ptolemaic age and adds weight to the argument. See Posidipo de Pella Epigrammi (P.Mil.Vogl VIII 309) ed. Bastianini, G et al. Milan: Edizioni Universitarii 2001.
5. Graetz 90-1.
6. Rajak, T. The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome: Studies in Social and Cultural Interaction. Leiden: Brill 2001.
7. Xavier Durand (ed) Des Grecs en Palestine au III siecle avant Jesus-Christe dossier syrien des archives de Zenon de Caunos 261-252. Paris: Gabalda 1997.
8. Josephus Jewish Antiquities XII 4-11.